For the first time in over two years, the boots of the Opposition walked upon home soil. For all its design brilliance, Goth had never felt like home. Marblehead had its charms, but still his original headquarters held a special place in Lord Fear's heart. If he had one. Which he didn't.
Steadily ascending the path that wound its way up the slopes of Mount Fear, he was accompanied by his erstwhile goblin master, keen to prove he was fit for a return to duty after his period of convalescence. Grippa and Rhark trailed along behind him.
"How was your holiday then, Yer Fearship— er— Lordship?"
"Wonderful, Skarkill. Just what I needed after all the trouble with Maldame, and the blasted dragon..."
"Can't believe you got another dragon. Not after what happened to this place."
"Yes, well, we don't need to go over all that again," Lord Fear cut him off in a louder voice. "Anyway, I've had no disasters or dungeoneers to worry about – just sun, sand, and working on my tan." He turned to face his mini entourage. "How do I look?"
Skarkill doubtfully scrutinised his chalk-white features. "Er... lovely."
Fear's smile curled downward, and he resumed his march up the mountain. "Only trouble is, everything's changed while I've been away. Word in the dungeon is, that decrepit old warlock Mogdred's back, acting like the king of Level Three. I'm half tempted to put me feet up and let him get on with it – I could do with a good laugh."
"Does that mean you won't be needin' me after all?" Skarkill's shoulders slumped; it had been so long since he got to put the irons on anyone...
"Of course I'll need you, Skarkill. What d'you think I intend to rest my feet upon?" He caught his henchman pulling a face. "Oh, lighten up, will you? Where's your sense of humour, man?"
"Oh, right," mumbled Skarkill.
"Don't worry, I'll find plenty of work for your idle hands. You can start by clearing out the debris in here, now I finally have a chance to do some repairs."
They were nearly at the entrance now. "Not sure I wanna go back in there," the goblin master admitted. "Brings back bad memories."
"Don't be such a sensitive snowflake, Skarkill." Lord Fear paused as they reached the great gates, puzzled by the sight of a flower-shaped brass plate and ring. "Since when do we have a door knocker?"
Skarkill shrugged, clueless. Fear tried knocking out of sheer curiosity. After a brief delay, they heard footsteps hurrying within.
The wicket gate opened to reveal a woman with immaculately coiffured hair, resplendent in scarlet robes. "I'm afraid I'm not quite ready," she tittered with mild embarrassment. "I wasn't expecting anyone this early."
"Who the hobgoblins are you?" demanded Fear.
She raised her arms grandly. "Queen Kalina, ruler of all in Level One. And maybe Level Two, if things go well enough," she added with conspiratorial glee. "I'm the new owner."
"New owner? New owner? Madam: there was, is, and always will be ONE owner of Mount Fear, and that owner is LORD Fear, i.e. yours truly. The clue is in the name!"
"It's 'miss'," Kalina corrected him, unperturbed. "And I was led to understand the property was vacant. What's left of it, that is." She struck a thoughtful pose.
"Then your understanding was incorrect," said Fear, in that dangerously sweet tone that implied someone's head would shortly be parting company with their shoulders.
"Well, anyway." She let out a small gasp of excitement. "Wait till you see what I've done with the place!"
"Whaaaaaat?" Fear managed to utter with his teeth firmly clamped together.
"No offence, but it really was desperately in need of a woman's touch." She reached out a white-gloved hand while speaking and playfully walked a pair of fingers up his breastplate, then laughed.
His hands balled into fists at his side. "I can't believe this has happened again. What is it with you sorceresses, thinking you can just waltz into my fortresses and make yourselves at home? D'you think I'm some kind of pushover? You might like to know I have 80 megawatts of firepower in my little finger – not to mention an army of dread warriors."
"Hmmm." Kalina glanced at Skarkill and his pair of nervous goblins, appearing unconvinced. Then she addressed Lord Fear brightly: "Come to dinner tonight, and we'll talk it over then. I'm having a little gathering at six. Wear your finest. Leave the minions. I'm sure we can work something out."
With that, the door was slammed in Fear's enraged, astonished face. The click-clack of her retreating heels could be heard in the silence that followed.
Skarkill was the first to comment. "I reckon you're in there, Yer Fearship."
Still staring at the door, Fear's expression slowly mutated from fury to bafflement. By the time his head turned towards Skarkill, it was something like surprise mixed with cautious pleasure.