“You’re late, Lars!” Earnest slams a heavy potato sack into the still waters of the lake. His dry, sunken eyes are red at the edges. “I—I didn’t think—”
“Aye, laddy, you don’t think at all, did’ya?” Lars removes his horned, iron helm and runs his gnomish hands through his mane. He takes a deep breath, scratches his red beard, then makes a short prayer. “The mutts always be the first ta’ go when a Sweet One is near—tsk, tsk—a true loss,” Lars says, crossing his large hairy arms. He picks his bulbous nose with his fat thumb and sighs, then rubs trail of mucus on his tunic. “Do yer kids know, lad?”
“Are ya’ bloody kiddin’ me, Lars? Of course not!” Earnest shouts, trying to keep his rage at a whisper. “Why in blazes would I tell’em there be a sulkin’ vengeful spirit on our lands? Keep ‘em up all hours of the day?” he asks. His hand gestures are intense. Earnest’s bloodied, frayed tunic matches his appearance. “Bloody ‘ell, me li’l one’s still torn about the neighbor’s kids gone missin’. I dinnae ken if I can even break this to me wife, Lars. Might gotta tell ‘er the dog’s run off faster ‘en I can chase ‘em.”
Lars sighs again, gazing over the lake. “That’s not why I asked, boy-o. Bringing the dead back becomes might tricky to explain when there are witnesses. That is why ye summoned me ‘ere, right?” Lars asks, hiding his impatience. “No use in ramblin’ about the trivialities. I’m a busy gnome and do prefer te’ get this outta the way, then,” he says. Lars unsheathes an emerald cornettino strapped to his knickers. “Also, Just ken I dinnae blame ye for not tellin’ the family though, boy-o,” he says, pressing the instrument to his lips. The lake stirs and bubbles. Foam accumulates in the middle of the water’s surface. “Now, in two days’ time, the dog will walk from the water. No different than when you last seen ‘em—er, uh, no real difference, save for the fact that it will acquire a taste for pomegranates. But, he is only to eat one per year, lest a blight befall yer land. Do ye ken?”
Earnest nods. “Now, about the spirit haunting the lake—”
“Go on, laddy. Wha’ about the bloody spirit, ‘en?”
Earnest fumbles with his hands. “The spirit that did this, what do we do next?”
“That be dependent on the coin, boy-o,” Lars smirks, jiggling the coin purse on his waistband.
“Ye thievin’ scoundrel,” Earnest says, laughing. “How much? A quid? Two? What do ya goblins do wiffem’ anyway?”
“Fifteen outta’ do it for this old gnome. No goblin here, laddie.”
“Is there a difference?” Earnest asks, skipping a rock, ignoring Lars’s fee.
“Aye, boy-o. Goblins’ll trouble ye fer free.”
The men laugh. They take in the sight of still water under the serene evening sky. Owl hoots from the surrounding woods echo through the trees and thin mist. “Well, tell me what you’ll do, ‘an I’ll scrounge me change, Lars. Me cousin, Lumierre, be’s a man of the cloth, ye ken. These lands be part’o his clergy’s glebe. Coin is not an issue… Iffin’ ye can wait fer it.”
“Coin, first. Business, second,” Lars declares, pulling at his tunic. “As a favor to the land, I will be here on the next moonless night. Bring the coin, Earnest, and I shall provide remedy iffin’ the coin be up to par.”
Earnest clasps his hands together and shakes them. “Thank ye, Lars. I’ll have yer coin, I promise.”
“Fer the sake of yer first born, I hope you do,” Lars responds. He admires the lake.
“I best be on me way, Lars. Ye dinnae ken how much this means to me. I promise, yer coin will be given, ‘an given handsomely at that! Ye have me word, sir.”
“Words are paper to the air, boy-o. Coin is the language that carries weight. Now, off with ye,” Lars says, smirking and chuckling. After an hour of rock-skipping and star-gazing, Lars walks into the forest. He vanishes in the gentle fog.
Lars struts into the ominous Oxmark Cave, deep within a thicket shrouded by the woods. Blue flames ignite inside stone lanterns lining the cavern walls. A large bear with moss for fur walks out of a large passage, a main network of the Forthie Tunnels. The Ursine fellow stands upright. The bear presses his bifocals up to his face. “Ah, Lars, how delightful to see you this evening,” he declares, like a grandfather casually running into an old friend. “Been a while since we’ve crossed paths outside Teppin’s pub. At the pub, they were talking of the human lass you were courting. The one wi—”
“-Aye, ‘ello, Leld. The one with the massive haunches. She was a fiend for the romp,” Lars interrupts. He grins and clears his throat. “Anyway, is the lift up, or will I ‘ave to travel the tunnels?” Lars asks.
Leld smiles. “That lass—she made the dryads look as though they’ve yet to blossom. Mm-mmm-mm,” Leld declares. He laughs, shoving his hands into the pockets of his purple denim pants. “Afraid so. They’ve been down for a while, haven’t they? Unfortunately, the divine courier working on it is out on a mission, but rumor has it that the boy’s actually in France, head over heels with another of his kind.”
Lars shrugs. “S’pose it’s like that from time to time with the youngins. The tunnels keep the ale from burstin’ me knickers, anyway,” he admits.
“No kidding. Well, I’ve got a shop to run,” Leld remarks. He inhales and transforms into a feeble, gray-bearded human with a bulbous nose and squinty eyes. “Human literature is a good way to make a living, if you decide to give up the odd jobs. If nothing else, you’ll be able to keep up with their speech and maybe serve wealthier patrons in distress,” he says to Lars. Unbeknownst to Leld, the centuries had made Lars indignant to most reasonable advice. Leld flicks his wrist and a hat appears in his hand. He tips it after placing it on his head. “Just a thought, old chum.”
“Aye, noted, laddie,” Lars says, continuing in the opposite direction. He waves at Leld with his back turned. “I can’t say I’m interested much in gold, but it keeps me people living well and it speaks the barkeeps tongue,” Lars mutters to himself.
Lars traverses the Forthie Tunnels connected to Oxforth Cave. He makes his way under the Earth’s crust and into the first layer of the Mantle, then continues his descent into the capital. Once in the capital city, surrounding the Earth’s core, Lars heads to his second home, the bar. “Aye, laddie, you’re look’n scalier ‘en me toes after bootwalkin’ through the marshes,” Lars yells, walking through the entrance to Teppin’s ornate bar. The grand saloon serves all of the Mantleans with entrances near every major earth-connected cavern. Bejewelled walls, adorned with millenniums of tapestry, crests, magicked images and memories span as far as the eye can see, surrounding tables made of stone, jade and other precious gems.
Teppin, one of the largest remaining dragons, smiles at Lars, or something close to it, as his massive, scaled hands rub an iron pitcher dry. “A. wingless. Dragon. Has. To. Do. Some. Thing. To. Attract. Mates,” he roars in a series of belches. “What. Can. I. Get. You. Lars?”
“D’pen’s. Wha’s on draught, laddie?” Lars asks, removing his helm and running his fingers through his thick red mane. “Please end yer belchin’ too, lad. It’s repulsive.”
“Eh? repulsive? Have the humans stopped doing it as a greeting?” Teppin inquires, scratching at his rough chin.
“Aye, laddie. Long ago. Even much before my time. We have this exchange every time I see ye, lad.”
Teppin shrugs and shakes his head. “I haven’t left the Mantle since the mages drowned that beautiful city we made them. Felt like yesterday, but I suppose times change rapidly in the human world.”
“Aye, too bad yer memory changes often too, even though ye wingless dragons live longer than most. I wouldn’t trade centuries for millenniums, that’s fer certain, no sir,” Lars admits, admiring the bar as usual. “Anyway, Teppin, the draught. What’s on draught?”
“-Chamomile? Valerian?” Lars inquires, shouting while waving his arms. “If’n you’re tryina’ put me in a slumber, at’ll do, Teppin, but I want a stiff punch, boyo. No mead. Gimme’ the corn or the rye,” he says, leaning back on the barstool, hands clasped behind his head. Lars lets out an anxious groan. “That man wif’ the mutt says he’d pay handsomely to stop a spirit that’s been trompin’ ‘round their lake. I need to get good and drunk before the next full moon. I don’t plan on takin’ his gold. I don’t plan on him survivn’ the evening, truth be told. I s’pose it’s still better ‘en the children of the land gettin’ eaten soul first.”