When we last left our heroes…NUTMEG and LUCY defeated a savage orc shaman in the mines of TOROLD’S PASS. With his defeat, they lifted the accursed plague, and are now returning to town to rest, recuperate, and get NUTMEG’S cough checked out…
Table of Contents
- Chapter 1 – In Which Foam is Sipped
- Chapter 2 – In Which a Job Offer is Made
- Chapter 3 – In Which the Conversation Ends
- Chapter 4 – In Which They Meet Sister Dondalla
- Chapter 5 – In Which Sister Dondalla Pops Up Again
Chapter 1 – In Which Foam Is Sipped
They had to shout to wake the barkeep up.
Nutmeg left the cart parked in the stable, still stacked high with ore and spirits. He wandered in and joined Lucy at the bar. They were the first customers of the day. The barkeep, bleary-eyed and scowling, poured them each a foamy beer.
“Got anything to eat?” asked Lucy. “I’m starving.”
“No,” said the barkeep. She was a stout halfling woman. On even ground, she was a little shorter than Lucy – and Lucy was small, even for a gnome – but there was a high platform behind the bar, and now the red-eyed grouch loomed over them. “I just woke up. I haven’t even got the fire going.”
“Well when you do,” said Nutmeg, putting his boots up on a table, “I’ll take some eggs. You have any bacon? Bread?”
The halfling gave them both a look that could cut diamonds, and disappeared through the back door, into her private quarters.
“No need to be so grumpy.” Nutmeg sipped his beer. The foam spattered in his red-gold beard. “We’re hungry, after all.” He coughed. “And I’ve got plague.”
“We don’t know you have the plague. But you did sniff a lot of foul stuff in there.”
“I do hope you don’t have the accursed plague,” came a soft, polite voice near the back of the room. “I’ve got some more jobs for you, after all.”
A tall, thin figure draped in black emerged from the shadows in the rear of the bar. His face was plain and pale, immediately forgettable.
“Fuck me,” said Nutmeg, “have you been back there the whole time?”
“No.” The man in black took a seat at the bar, reached over the counter with one hand, and drew up a half-full bottle of an unseemly pale fluid. He took a sip, shuddered, and licked his lips. “They make such fascinating moonshine up here in the mountains. I must get some sent back to Lone Tower.”
“I thought we’d meet you back there,” said Lucy. The man in black always made her a little uncomfortable. Something about his easy, careless ways. He’d surprised her in her tower the first time they met. She’d been reading a particularly fascinating work on the anatomy of the azerii race when his voice, quiet and gentle, came wafting around the doorway – you are the wizard Lucy, are you not?
“Plans changed,” said the man in black. “Do tell me, though: what happened in the mines?”
They relayed the whole story, even the bit about letting N’dok and his kobolds go. The man in black raised his eyebrows at that, but didn’t say a word.
When they were done, he nodded and took another swig. “So this mace, and this stone pendant. You have them?”
“I’ve got ’em.” Nutmeg tossed the stone pendant to the man in black, who caught it. With ease.
“Curious,” said the man. “Have either of you seen this symbol before?”
It was a strange little necklace. Crude, but effective. A single eye, surrounded by five sharp points. When they shook their heads, the man in black smiled a small, secret smile.
“It’s decidedly orcish in design, obviously. More specifically: the Tornclaw clan. They were once a powerful force in this area, until we finally wiped them out a decade ago. Pesky. Once the Tornclaws – the Gilhtnakht, in orc tongue – were wiped out, it was safe for little towns like Torold’s Pass to grow and expand, to delve their mines.”
“So this cursemongering orc was, what, from this clan?”
“Seems likely,” said the man in black. “I long suspected there were a few holdouts along the road down to Dwarroway.”
Lucy sipped her beer; the foam had receded somewhat, and the beer, a sour ale, perked up her ears. “So we’ve cleaned out the mine, killed the orc. You promised payment.”
“I did,” said the man in black. “Of course.” From an inner pocket, he pulled out a pair of satchels, each bulging with gold. “One hundred and fifty gold apiece.” He tossed them over. “How’d you like some more?”
“I won’t say no to money,” said Lucy. Nutmeg nodded, sniffing at his newfound gold.
“Not just money,” said the man in black. “I think it’s time for a little truth.”
Chapter 2 – In Which A Job Offer Is Made
“When I first hired you in Lone Tower, I requested discretion. I ask for that same discretion now. I believe I told you I simply represented a client with a vested interest in the economic success of the region.”
“Yeah,” said Lucy, “and I figured that meant the Halfling Mafia or someone similar.”
“Not exactly.” The man in black stood and gave a little bow, with a dramatic flourish of the black cloak. “I represent the High Council of the Hegemony.”
“Oh, you’re a government man,” said Nutmeg. “That makes sense, actually.”
“The drab uniform, the unlimited money, the need for mystery: yeah, it adds up.”
“Ah.” The man seemed disappointed. “So, not surprised, then.”
“No,” said Lucy. “But, what, you gonna arrest us? Since we let N’dok go?”
“Nothing of the sort.” He smiled. “No, it’s my job to make sure the Hegemony is safe and secure. Not unlike the Hegemoniac Army. But while they are restricted by the Chivalric Codes, well, I am not. I hire reliable contractors who can see to it that our interests are maintained without worrying about bureaucracy and politics. And I’d like to deputize you.”
“Deputize?” Nutmeg snorted into his second flagon of beer, having filled himself a new one behind the bar. The halfling barkeep was, apparently, back in bed.
“Deputize,” confirmed the man in black. “You’ve already got a good reputation in Lone Tower as people who can get things done. You did a good job here. And to be frank, good help is hard to find these days.”
“And now what does this entail?” asked Nutmeg. He was leaning forward now. Lucy smiled. The dwarf was a bit of a savant at times. He might not be able to read, but he could add, and think, and argue. It always helped disarm negotiators. One huffy high elf had tried to hoodwink them with some sort of delayed-payment scheme in return for some serious bodyguard work. Nutmeg had shocked the high elf by laying out, in no uncertain terms, exactly how the elf would rip them off.
“Badges, for one,” said the man in black. “Higher pay per job, as well. And a monthly payment into an account with the Hegemony High Bank.”
“How much?” asked the dwarf.
“Rate per job is flexible,” said the man in black. “But one hundred gold a month per person, guaranteed, to cover expenses.”
“Not bad,” said Nutmeg. “I assume this involves some travel.”
“Do we get to wave our badges around in people’s faces?” asked Lucy.
“If you need to, sure.”
“It’s a deal,” said Nutmeg.
“Glad to hear it,” said the man in black. “Because I have another job for you.”
Lucy slapped the table. “Right. We’re going to need some food. Barkeep!”
Chapter 3 – In Which The Conversation Ends
At long last, the halfling brought them food, enough for all three. Eggs, bacon, and bread, as Nutmeg requested; the eggs were delightfully runny and the bacon was burnt to an absolute char. The man in black picked at the food, birdlike, a bit of bacon here, half a slice of toast there, dunked in a bit of egg.
“So this job,” said the man in black, at last. “You heard of the town of Gatorsburg?”
“No,” said Nutmeg and Lucy, in unison.
“Not many have,” admitted the man in black. “It sits on the coast of the Bridger Sea, in the distant south. It’s a crucial port – Sohorrisk may be the largest city on the coast, but -“
“What’s the job?” asked Nutmeg.
The man in black pursed his lips. “Ships are disappearing trying to round the Lizard’s Tongue, a tricky peninsula. It’s wreaking havoc on sea trade, but the Hegemony doesn’t want to admit it’s a problem. We need someone to figure out what’s happening and solve the problem.”
“That’s it?” Lucy slurped a bit of runny egg. “You could’ve said that, like, an hour ago.”
“I can tell you’ve got a busy day,” said the man in black, standing. “So here’s your badges.” He tossed them a pair of tin badges, each a shield inscribed with a circle of nine elaborate stars. “Use them with discretion. I’ll be keeping an eye on you.” Nutmeg spluttered a cough into his beer. “And get yourself checked out at the shrine,” the man said, heading for the door. “I’d hate to lose my newest employee to the plague.”
And that was that.
Chapter 4 – In Which They Meet Sister Dondalla
“We’ve still got that ugly mace,” said Nutmeg, on the way to the town shrine. “What do you want to do with it?”
“Let’s see if it’s cursed. Unless you want to keep it?”
“Not really. Not my style.”
“I didn’t think so.”
They’d talked to the local smith and sold off most of the silver ore. Nutmeg handled that one. The town was still sleepy, even now that the sun was up. It would take a few weeks for them to return to normal. And to clear out the bodies from the mines. There was certainly still a good amount of clean-up work to do, but as Lucy saw it, that wasn’t their job. They’d done the stuff the yokels couldn’t.
The town shrine was a joke. Even the mighty Church of Palladius could barely take root in Torold’s Pass. The building was tucked away at the rear end of town, far from the road, as if the rest of the town were a little embarrassed to have what might be the shabbiest temple in the entire Hegemony. No surprises awaited inside; only dusty sunlight, a paltry altar and a pair of Radiant Servants, the priests of the god of the sun.
“How may I aid you, my children?” asked the elder of the Radiant Servants, a wide, elderly woman. Her holy robes were dirty at the hem, and her hair was flyaway and wild.
Nutmeg eyed the other Radiant Servant. She was tall, broad-shouldered, and plain, and stood back, as if unsure what to do.
“My friend here picked up the sniffles,” said Lucy. “Can you throw some cure our way before we hit the road?”
“This wouldn’t be that awful plague?” asked the elder Radiant Servant. “We’ve been doing our best, you know, but the High Church just hasn’t sent us the -“
“Don’t care,” said Nutmeg. “Cure me.” He opened his mouth.
“Why…why are you opening your mouth?” asked the older woman. The younger one stifled a grin.
“I assume I drink something, or eat a sun biscuit, or whatever it is you do.”
“Not at all.” The older woman turned to her assistant. “Sister Dondalla, would you be so kind as to bring me a scroll?”
The younger woman bowed her head and disappeared behind the altar.
“She’s not a talkative one, is she?” asked Lucy. The old woman chuckled.
“Oh, no, not our Dondalla. She just arrived in town yesterday – her first assignment as a Radiant Servant. With any luck, she’ll be here in a little town all her life, as I’ve been. Mark my words, that’s safer than serving in a big city, or even – Palladius forbid it – in a mercenary company. Safety over all, my dears, safety over all.” Sister Dondalla had returned with a scroll and a sour expression. The older woman unfurled the scroll, chanted a few words, and laid a hand on Nutmeg’s brow. The scroll burst into golden flame without heat; a glow trickled down the woman’s arm, through her fingers, and across Nutmeg’s face. When she was done, the dwarf stepped back, massaging his neck.
“My nodes are back to normal,” he said. “Thank goodness for that. I hate swollen nodes.”
“Oh, hey,” said Lucy. “While we’ve got you. Check out this mace.” At a gesture, Nutmeg drew out the strange orcish mace, twisted and leering. The older woman stepped back; Sister Dondalla’s eyes went wide.
“Where – where did you find such a thing?” The old woman made the sign of Palladius on her forehead.
“In the mine,” said Lucy. “We killed the bogies in there. It’s safe now. Also we fixed the plague. Anyway, you want to hang on to this? We don’t really have a use for it.”
“I…” The old Radiant Servant gingerly took the mace from Nutmeg’s fingers, and laid it on the altar of Palladius, which was decorated with a pair of painted wooden suns. “I will pray for the strength to remove the evil from this…thing.”
“So, cursed, then?”
“I am not certain,” said the old woman. “But it feels wrong. An orc wielded this? Brr. I can tell.”
“Great,” said Nutmeg. “You can keep it. Thanks for fixing my nodes. Have a, uh, a blessed day.”
They were gone before the Radiant Servant could say a thing.
Chapter 5 – In Which Sister Dondalla Pops Up Again
Animals loved Nutmeg. They always had. Even on the streets of Lone Tower, before Lucy brought him in, he’d been a friend to rats and cats, picking up stray dogs the way the stray dogs picked up fleas. Their horses were no exception. Numble and Digg, Nutmeg had named them. He rode Numble, and scratched the horse behind the ears on a fairly regular basis. Lucy’s pony, Digg, was quiet and docile, which was all that really mattered. Lucy didn’t relish being that high up, but Gatorsburg was months away on foot. The road led them through the winding passes of the Serpent range; tall cliffs loomed around them, and eagles cried in the breeze.
When they made camp, they picked a spot just off the road, tucked under the shelter of a little rock. Nutmeg was in charge of the fire. And the cooking. Lucy sat back against a boulder and quietly studied her spellbook. She did it every night. It was a good way to relax – reading the arcane words. Took her back to the good old days, back when Durple The Blue was still alive, and still taught magic at the library of Lone Tower. She’d loved the books, the smell of them, and her spellbook still smelled that way.
“I’d like to try another experiment tomorrow,” she said, as Nutmeg heated their supper over the campfire. “I know we’ve mostly worried about making you bigger, but I think I could actually shrink one of us if I get the words right. Could probably use the same material focus, I think. Want to test it out?”
“We’re a dwarf and a gnome. Why would you shrink us more than the gods already have?”
“Well, it could be useful, I don’t -“
“Hold on.” Nutmeg stood, hefting his warhammer. “I smell someone.”
“I smell you burning a perfectly good omelette,” said Lucy, but she closed her spellbook and readied her little crossbow. Better safe than sorry.
“Who’s out there?” called Nutmeg. “We’ll cut you into small bits if you try any funny stuff!”
“Please don’t do that,” came a strange voice from the shadows. “It’s me. Sister Dondalla. From the temple.”
And so it was.
Sister Dondalla emerged into the light of the campfire. In the flickering dusk, she was transformed. She’d changed from her temple robes into a chain shirt and halfhelm. She wore a shield on her arm, and a mace was buckled at her waist. Her hair, which had hung free in the temple, was tied up behind her head, and her broad shoulders now carried a hefty pack.
“Hey,” said Nutmeg. “What’s up?”
“I want to come with you.” She looked from one to the other and back again. “I don’t particularly want to stay in Torold’s Pass all my life. You’re going across the world to fight evil, and I want to do that. Simple as that.”
Lucy looked at Nutmeg. Nutmeg looked at Lucy.
“You didn’t really think this through, did you?” asked Lucy.
“I have prayed to Palladius, and -“
“Sure, but you didn’t really think this through.”
“Do you have a horse?” asked Nutmeg.
“No I do not.”
“Did you know we’re government contractors?” asked Lucy.
“I did not know that.”
“Nutmeg, a word,” said Lucy. They conferred, while Sister Dondalla waited at the edge of the firelight.
“She seems nice,” said Nutmeg.
“She’s got to carry her weight,” said Lucy.
“She’s got a mace. And armor. That’s pretty good.”
“And she can heal your nodes.”
“What about the horse thing?”
Nutmeg turned back to Sister Dondalla. “Are you alright to ride double with Lucy until we get to the next town?”
“You’re in,” said Nutmeg. “Welcome to the team.”