When we last left our heroes: NUTMEG and LUCY were given a new contract – discover the cause of a lighthouse outage off the coast of GATORSBURG. On their way out of TOROLD’S PASS, they were joined by SISTER DONDALLA, a priestess of Palladius, trained in the arts of healing and light. After nearly a month on the road, they approach the outskirts of GATORSBURG…
Table of Contents
- Chapter 1 – In Which Some Heads Are On Some Spikes
- Chapter 2 – In Which the Mayor Expresses Some Opinions
- Chapter 3 – In Which Help is Hired
- Chapter 4 – In Which the Fit Goblin Sets Sail
- Chapter 5 – In Which a Large Snake is Encountered
- Chapter 6 – In Which the Lighthouse is Seen
- Chapter 7 – In Which Nutmeg Gets Hot
- Chapter 8 – In Which They Enter the Lighthouse
Chapter 1 – In Which Some Heads Are On Some Spikes
Gatorsburg sat right at the crotch of the land, down where the long frontier road met the wide blue Bridger Sea. White sails crowded the docks, furled like so many seabirds’ wings. Farms and plantations sprawled around the town, dotted with watchtowers and stately villas.
“So, Sister D,” said Lucy, “better than Torold’s Pass? Yes? No?”
“It is an upgrade,” admitted Sister Dondalla. She too was ahorse now, on a great gray courser that made their ponies look like foals. “Where are we bound?”
Nutmeg scratched thoughtfully at his beard. “Fuck if I know. Let’s see who’s in charge here. Do they have city councils out here in the boonies?”
“I don’t think so,” said Lucy. “A mayor, I believe. Or a duke. Or a baron. Or a lord. Or whatever.”
“Is this the usual amount of information you have?” asked Sister Dondalla. “When you do a job?”
“Yeah, just about,” said Nutmeg. They were making their way into the town proper now, past the taverns and general stores on the outskirts, making for the town hall. It was hard to miss: a tall whitewashed building, practically glowing in the noonday sun. “Not that we’ve done many jobs like this.”
“This is a first for us,” admitted Lucy. “Mostly we just worked out of Lone Tower. You ever been?”
“No,” said Sister Dondalla. “But -“
“Hey, check it out.” Nutmeg pointed. “Heads on spikes.”
Sure enough: six spiked heads decorated the grounds near the town hall. They weren’t human heads, nor dwarven, nor even mammalian. Each was a head like an alligator but meatier, a little broader, a little less pointy, just as scaly. Gore pooled around the base of the spikes, and flies circled the grisly heads.
“Neat,” said Lucy.
“Bodes well,” said Nutmeg. “I like their style.”
“Hello?” A man poked his head out the doorway of the town hall. He was bald as a baby’s ass. “Can I help you?”
“Yeah, probably,” said Lucy. “We’re here to help with the problems you’ve been having.”
“You’ll have to be more specific. Mayor Denzel has more than his fair share of problems these days. I’m sure your help is most welcome, but if you’ve not got an appointment, you’ll have to-“
“Does this change your mind?” Lucy brandished her badge.
The man’s eyes went wide. “A – a Hegemony Agent! By Palladius’ beard, I – well, yes, come in, please! I do apologize. My name is Cubert, personal aide to Mayor Denzel of Gatorsburg. Servants!” He clapped his hands, and a few gangly teens stumbled out into the daylight, offering to take the party’s horses.
Lucy winked at Nutmeg. “I knew we’d get to wave our badges in people’s faces.”
Chapter 2 – In Which The Mayor Expresses Some Opinions
“I,” said the man who was obviously Mayor Denzel, “am Mayor Denzel.”
He had a little pointy goatee, and he sat back in a massive plush chair, his feet up on a writing desk.
“Well met. My name is Nutmeg, and these are my…my coworkers? I suppose? My coworkers, Lucy and Sister D.”
“Sister Dondalla,” clarified Sister Dondalla.
“We’ve been sent by some very important people,” Nutmeg continued, “to help out with your problem. Something about a lighthouse.”
“Yes, of course.” The mayor spoke with a long drawl, his words stretched like honey from a spoon. “Well, I do reckon it’s been our biggest problem these days. ‘Round these parts, our port is known up and down the coast. Why, we’ve even got visitors from the Gnome lands of Folkor, and they’re as foreign as it gets. But as of late, no ships have made it round the Lizard’s Tongue. Now there’s tricky reefs out there and no mistake, I know. But that’s why we’ve got a lighthouse ’round the other side of the Tongue! Seems to me the lighthouse fire must be out.”
“Sure, alright, whatever,” said Nutmeg. “What’s the pay?”
“The pay,” explained Nutmeg. “What is it.”
“Well now see here.” The mayor sat up straight in his chair, which didn’t do much for him. “I was under the impression – the distinct impression – that as Hegemony contractors, your expenses are the matter of the Hegemony itself, not my poor, beleaguered little town.”
“Sure, naturally,” agreed Nutmeg. “But are we talking a finder’s fee here as well? And in town, do we bill our living expenses to you? I think that’d be easier. Give you a chance to get in touch with the Hegemony bureaucracy without inconveniencing our mission, which is absolutely vital to the survival of your town.”
That was the Nutmeg Lucy knew and loved.
“Certainly, I suppose.” The Mayor sounded anything but certain.
“Great.” Nutmeg stuck out his hand. “We’ll shake on it.”
“Well now wait a measly flea-bitten minute there. Don’t you have, uh, well, a plan? Or something?”
“Eh,” said Lucy. “We’ll figure it out. You think it’s the lighthouse?”
“I reckon it is.”
“Fine, great. We’ll charter a ship and bill you.”
“Oh, I had a question,” added Nutmeg. “What’s up with the spiky heads outside?”
“The gatorfolk,” said the Mayor, gravely. “The plague of our town. They lurk in the swamps and jungles of the peninsula, raiding and looting and causing all manner of mischief.”
“Do you think they did this?” asked Sister Dondalla. Her voice was soft, and for a moment Lucy wasn’t quite sure who was speaking.
“You’re damn right I do.” The mayor glowered. “Gatorfolk are – pardon me, Sister – damnded beasts.”
“We’ll see.” Nutmeg was getting antsy, leaning from foot to foot, tapping his fingers on the hilt of his warhammer. Antsy for Nutmeg was not a good state. “Can we shake hands now, Mayor?”
“I sup-” Nutmeg reached across the desk, grabbed the Mayor’s hand, and shook vigorously.
“Say, mayor,” he said, heading for the door, Lucy and Sister D in tow, “got any good bars in this town?”
Chapter 3 – In Which Help Is Hired
The Mareillagough Club sat down by the waterfront, where the air was thick and rank with the smells of sea and ale. The two-story house had wide windows open to the Bridger Sea, and green ivy grew up the stubbled stucco walls. Lucy and Nutmeg saw little of it. They made a beeline for the bar.
“Do you have,” asked Nutmeg, “some very strong, expensive liquor?”
“‘Course.” The barkeep was an elf, thin and lithe, with earrings in zher pointy ears. “Called Gator’s Blood.” From under the bar, zhe drew out a bulbous bottle of red, thick liquid, and sloshed it around. “My uncle’s family’s been brewin’ it for five hundred years.” The elf paused to spit a bit of nicoleaf into a tin cup. “Sometimes carpenters use it to strip paint.”
“We’ll take four shots,” said Nutmeg. “To begin with.”
Sister Dondalla had departed, making for the local Godshall. Towns like Gatorsburg, on the edge of civilization, rarely had room for dedicated single-god temples. Instead, they had a Godshall, where each god had a prayer nook. Sister Dondalla had stopped by a few wayshrines on the way south, and when they spent the night in the city of Dwarroway she’d gone to sleep at the city cathedral. Her religion, it seemed, ran bone-deep. That worried Lucy. Some of their practices were less-than-holy. Would Sister Dondalla have let N’dok and his kobold tribe escape the mine in Torold’s Pass? A zealot could be a problem down the road.
But for now, Nutmeg and Lucy were drinking alone.
The Gator’s Blood tasted surprisingly sweet. It burned, too. Hard. Lucy pounded the bar. “Gods! Fuck! You weren’t joking!”
Someone down the bar laughed.
The tavern was mostly empty, and she hadn’t bothered to check out the other patrons. But down at the end of the bar was another person, a human, leaning up against the bar. And laughing.
“Something funny?” asked Nutmeg. He tossed back his second shot of Gator’s Blood without blinking. “Trying to start something?”
“Nothin at all.” The stranger – a woman with short hair and arm muscles like hemp cord – had a laconic voice, easy and slow as the still swamp air. “Just laughin.”
“That’ll be two dozen silver,” said the elf barkeep. “Six apiece for a shot.”
“Put it on Mayor Denzel’s tab.” Lucy flashed her badge again. “Government business.”
“We’ll take two more,” added Nutmeg.
“Gub’mint folks,” drawled the stranger. “In town for business? Or pleasure?”
“Does anyone come here for pleasure?” asked Lucy. She sipped the next shot of Gator’s Blood. It went down easier now.
“Ev’ry once in a while.” The word “while” came out like “whaaul.” “I saw y’all comin in to town. Fine horses. Fine weapons, fine enough anyway. And you there, gnome, you’re a ‘caster, ain’tcha?”
“Keen-eyed.” How hard would it be to convince Nutmeg to break this stranger’s kneecaps? She was getting on Lucy’s nerves.
“Don’t get folks like you here often,” continued the stranger. “Pleased to make your acquaintance. Name’s Inga. Inga Lizardbreaker.”
Nutmeg gave Inga a winning smile. “Nutmeg. This is my traveling companion, Lucy. We’re honored to meet you.” The Gator’s Blood was hitting him strong.
“You might’a seen my handiwork, if you stopped by Denzel’s tower.” Inga scooted closer down the bar, into the light. Human, definitely, but maybe with a little dwarf in her bloodline – stout and thick, with a shock of short black hair and the greenest eyes Lucy’d ever seen on a human. “You like it?”
“Are you referring to those lizard heads on spikes?” asked Lucy.
“Because yes, we did like it,” said Nutmeg.
“Inga here’s a bit of a celebrity,” the barkeep butted in. “Ain’t nobody in Gatorsburg knows the jungles and swamps like her. And ain’t nobody can kill a gatorfolk like her.”
“You’re too kind, Jiryk’t,” said Inga.
An idea was brewing in Lucy’s brain, perhaps further fermented by the potent liquor. “What tongue do these gatorfolk speak?”
“Reptoid dialect. Close to the common Reptoid you might find with a kobold, but not close enough to connect the dots. Gatorfolk speak weird.”
“Do you speak it?”
“I do,” said Inga, proudly. “Sure as shit’s brown. You gotta, if’n you’re huntin’ gatorfolk.”
Lucy glanced back at Nutmeg. He was deep in conversation with Jiryk’t the barkeep. Perhaps demanding more Gator’s Blood.
“Do you work on commission?” she asked.
Inga raised an eyebrow. “You hirin’?”
Lucy explained their righteous task. As she spoke, Inga nodded, smiled. The smile grew to a grin.
By the time night fell, the Mareillagough Club bustled with customers. Inga had taken up a position with them at the end of the bar, regaling them with tales of her battles against the ever-growing tide of gatorfolk. Nutmeg, in high spirits, ordered round after round for every patron in the bar. Whenever someone new walked through the door, he ran to them, clapped an arm around their shoulders (or waist, if he couldn’t reach) and escorted them roughly to the bar, offering them “whatever they wanted, on the Mayor’s tab.”
Lucy arranged for their rooms – good ones, upstairs, with an extra bed for Sister Dondalla, should she choose to join them. The night swam together into a haze of Gator’s Blood and sweaty townies. The Club was packed, and most were human. They loomed over Lucy, these tall reeking people. The alcohol had definitely gotten to her. Her vision blurred at the edges if she moved her head too fast. She realized she’d been listening to Inga tell the same story about this one gatorfolk who’d tried to jump her while she was paddling down a river, but she cut his head off or something, what was she saying? What was that?
Chapter 4 – In Which The Fit Goblin Sets Sail
Lucy awoke in her private room at the crack of dawn. Mercifully, her head was not entirely befogged. Something about the sea air, perhaps. She’d been so used to the mountain climes that this low, heavy, wet place was an entirely foreign country. She labored over her spellbook as she ate a cold breakfast from her ration pack, and when she was ready she gathered her gear and went to knock on Nutmeg’s door.
“Unf,” came the muffled reply. It was not Nutmeg’s voice.
“Who’s that?” asked Lucy. “Nutmeg, hurry up. We’ve got to get Sister D on our way out.”
The door opened, and no fewer than four local women in various states of undress stumbled out, bleary-eyed and wild-haired. “Unf,” said one of them, as she narrowly avoided a collision with Lucy.
“Fuck’s sakes.” Lucy barged past the queue into Nutmeg’s room.
The place looked as though a hurricane had ripped through it. In a way, one had. The bed was a disaster. Sheets and clothes littered the floor. The smell – well, it was quite a cocktail. Ale, sweat, more things. Nutmeg stood at the window, fully-dressed in arms and armor, finishing off the few tankards still sloshing with ale.
“Good morning to you, Lucy!”
“Fuck’s sakes,” said Lucy, again. “Did you enjoy yourself?”
“I like Gatorsburg better than Torald’s Pass. I think I will remain here, and rule these barmaids like a heathen king of old.”
“Wonderful,” said Lucy. “Come on. I hired that ranger. I mean tracker. The tracker, Inga.”
Nutmeg frowned. “More company. I thought we were a dynamic duo, Lucy.”
“Yes, well, it’s time to scale up.”
“Hey, nice one. ‘Scale’ up. Because of the gatorfolk.”
“Ooh, I wish I’d meant that.”
Down in main room, the bar was a veritable war zone. Half the townsfolk were slumped over chairs, on tables, in corners, in each others’ arms, or under piles of coats and furs. Smashed crockery littered the floor. Only Inga Lizardbreaker was awake, chewing thoughtfully on some burnt toast by the bar. Sometime in the night, she’d gathered her belongings. An unstrung bow and a quiver of arrows hung from her shoulder.
She led them out into the town, making for the docks. They stopped by the Godshall to collect Sister D; the priestess was waiting on a bench outside, under one of the tall skinny palm trees. Introductions were made.
“You mentioned a boat last night, Inga,” said Lucy, as the ranger led them off again. “At least I think you did.”
“No, I sure did, you’re right. Not many captains willing to set off with all the disappearances lately. But I’ve got a guy. Owes me a favor or two. Captain Dog can take us around the point.”
“I’m sorry,” said Nutmeg. “Captain Dog?”
“Look, I don’t know his given name, and I ain’t gon’ ask.”
“Captain Dog.” Lucy marveled. “I definitely thought I was mishearing you last night.”
The docks were crowded. Boats of all shapes, sizes, and colors were moored here, boats with Gnome clockwork wheels and boats with the nine stars of the Hegemony. Sailors sat on pilings and posts, tossing dice and swapping stories. Beyond the boats, the open sea stretched away, clear and free to the distant horizon. Lucy paused to look. The only sea she’d ever seen was the cold north sea, and that was a rocky, unpleasant place. This was altogether different. The Bridger Sea looked almost inviting.
Inga ignored Lucy’s reverie and led them on down the docks, past the larger cogs and freighters to a sleek two-masted ship at anchor in the seedier part of the quay. The sailors aboard this ship were, unlike all other sailors, making preparations: tightening ropes, straightening sails, and doing other things that Lucy assumed were part of getting a boat ready to go. At the prow of the ship, overlooking the dock, stood a stocky man in a fur-collared cloak, which blew dramatically in the sea breeze. He waved down to them.
“Fuck me.” Nutmeg shook his head like a wet dog. “Did you catch any of that, Lucy? What dialect is that?”
“Ain’t no dialect,” said Inga. “Just how some of us talk. He said ‘well hey there, Inga, got your message last night and I’m about ready to sail.'”
“Asri’!” grinned Captain Dog.
“He said ‘that’s right,'” added Inga.
“Intending no offense,” said Sister D, “if we need to communicate with him in a dire situation, how are we supposed to make that work?”
“Oh, I’ll be there,” said Inga. “And the crew speak ’bout as good as me. It’s just old Dog up there; when a local gets old enough, they can’t speak so good no more.”
A plank led from the dock to the ship. Nutmeg bounded up it and shook Captain Dog’s hand.
“It’s a pleasure to meet you, Captain Dog,” he said. “I do hope our mutual friend Inga briefed you on the payment situation.”
“O assalou’ly,” said Captain Dog. “Biluhmayr.”
“He said ‘Oh absolutely,'” said Inga, coming up the ramp. “‘Bill the mayor.'”
“That’s the idea,” agreed Lucy. “This ship have a name?”
“The Fit Goblin,” said Captain Dog, articulating very carefully. As if on cue, one of the crew unfurled a banner flying from the foremast. It depicted a goblin, squat and green, rippling with muscle.
“This ship is absurd,” said Lucy.
“What is life if not absurd?” asked Nutmeg.
Chapter 5 – In Which A Large Snake Is Encountered
The Fit Goblin was a fast clipper, and the wind carried them down the coast of the bejungled peninsula. Nutmeg discovered seasickness.
He leaned over the rail, about an hour out of port, stomach heaving, beard fouled. Perhaps last night had finally caught up to him. The taste of bile was in his mouth. He had always liked the sea, from a distance. The few times he’d gone to visit the cold north sea, the whipping wind and the black sand stirred his soul in a way he did not often feel. But he had never been sailing, and perhaps that was for the best.
“Are you alright?” asked Sister Dondalla. She approached the rail and leaned beside Nutmeg, watching the shoreline.
“Heurgh,” said Nutmeg, all over the side of the boat. He wiped his mouth. “I don’t suppose you have any holy prayers to make me stop doing this?”
“Not exactly. But I’ve got something a little more mundane.” She took Nutmeg’s hand in hers and began to massage the area just under his thumb. Her fingers kneaded the flesh of his palm.
“Oh shit,” said Nutmeg, after a moment. “Wow. Yeah.”
“It’s an old trick,” she said. “Not everything is channeled through the holy power of Palladius. Some things just work.”
They stood there for a few more minutes, Nutmeg groaning softly as the seasickness slipped from his guts. He studied Sister D out of the corner of his eye. A plain lady, certainly, and young. He was bad at aging humans, but he’d put her at no more than three decades. A babe in arms, practically.
“How old are you?” he asked.
“Sorry, is that rude?” He shrugged. “For what it’s worth, Lucy’s pretty sure that I’m about fifty.”
“I’m twenty-three. Sorry, did you say Lucy was pretty sure? You mean – well, now I’m being rude.”
“No offense taken. Look, we’re not exactly sure how old I am. By the time Lucy hired me to polish her shoes and carry her shit, I’d been living on the street for, hmm,” Nutmeg counted on his fingers. “Twenty ish years. Ish.” He belched, and was glad that Sister D was upwind of him, not down. “You have family?”
“Four siblings, in fact.” Sister D frowned, maybe without realizing she was frowning. “All older than me, before you ask. Well older.”
“All holy like you? Priests? Priestesses? Et cetera?”
“No, no.” Sister D laughed. “Gods, no.”
“Hey, I was thinking of something the other day. Uh, again, hope it’s not rude. Are you in trouble for leaving Torold’s Pass? You know, are we going to get an angel coming down from Palladius saying ‘hey, I gotta zap this wayward broad?'”
Sister D shrugged. “I doubt it. The Radiant Servant in Torold’s Pass told me that my predecessor lasted a week before he ran off with a miner’s daughter. It happens a lot in the frontier towns. I didn’t think I’d only last a day or two, but…” She turned to the rail and leaned out, letting the wind take her hair. “I just felt like I was meant for bigger things than curing miners’ nodes, you know?”
“For what it’s worth,” said Nutmeg, “I’m glad you’re here to cure our nodes.”
The Fit Goblin was passing close to the coast now; the sun had begun to set over the jungles. Mist rose; the evening brought fog and steam from the humid wildlands of the interior. Nutmeg peered out. The beach was white and crisp, but lasted no further than thirty feet inland before the totality of the jungle swallowed it whole. It was already night under that dark canopy. He shivered.
“I’ve never seen anything like it,” said Sister D. “Forest, sure, but this -“
“Yeah, totally. Is this what you wanted? Adventure and thrills?”
“I don’t know,” she replied. “Is it what you wanted?”
“Aha, touche!” Nutmeg pretended to toast her.
“No, I was really asking, Nutmeg. What do you want?”
Nutmeg turned and looked again out over the jungle. Tall trees, greener than emeralds, limned with red light in the dying of day. “Holy shit,” he said, “look at that snake!”
A huge snake hung from the branches of a tree near the beach, thick as an ogre’s baguette.
“Wow.” Sister D was sufficiently distracted. “Glad we didn’t run into that.”
“Same,” said Nutmeg. “I don’t tangle with motherfuckers like that.”
Chapter 6 – In Which the Lighthouse is Seen
It took another three days of sailing to fully round the Lizard’s Tongue. The unceasing green hell of the jungle stretched on and on and on; when they rounded the point, they were forced to come within a ship’s length of shore to avoid some churning shoals further out. Lucy, watching from the rail, was sure she saw a gatorfolk among the trees, but Inga made no moves to strike. And Lucy felt safe assuming that Inga would immediately execute any gatorfolk in sight.
The ranger had been a good choice. She and Captain Dog provided more than enough entertainment with their queer backwoods banter, but more critically Inga was able to provide a wealth of information about the gatorfolk of the Tongue. They struck during the day, not at night; they hunted far afield in small packs, but had dense villages and even stone cities deep in the jungle, where no warmblood had ever trod. They were not all united or homogenous, either; there was plenty of infighting, outcasts, exiles, and brigands even among the gatorfolk. “But they’re all bastards,” Inga clarified. “Monsters and fuckers. No regard for human life. Or gnome. Or dwarf, or elf, or whatever.”
On the fourth day of the journey, early in the morning, Captain Dog cried “Lo’o’erther – ly’how!”
“Yes,” agreed Inga. “See?”
Sure enough: there was the ly’how. The lighthouse stood stark against the northern horizon, tall and straight. No lamp glowed from its peak.
“We’ettapu’nher,” Captain Dog declared.
“Good thinking.” Lucy patted her crossbow. “If we put in here, we can do the rest of the trip over land. Nutmeg! Come on!”
The Fit Goblin dropped anchor not a hundred yards from shore. They each shook hands with Captain Dog; he and his crew helped them into a rowboat and sent them off toward the beach. Once landed, Inga took the lead. The ranger had sounded impressive on the boat, but on land she was a marvel. They stayed close to the eaves of the jungle, just under the green shadow, away from the beach such that they could stay out of sight of any approaching foes. The sun was sweltering, but Inga let them roam enough under the shade of the trees to keep from falling dead in the sand. Still, Lucy found herself panting for breath by lunchtime, and was wildly grateful when Inga called for a halt.
They paused for a few hours to wait out the heat of the day. Lucy slept first, then took watch. Even with a little sleep, water, and food, she was still befogged by the heat and humidity. The jungle drained her. The bugs alone: they came in clouds, and wafted like malodorous, diseased balloons. Some were spectacular, exotic specimens – a jeweled wyvernfly the size of a ham hock lit on a branch by Lucy’s head, gentle as a baby’s breath, magnificent with its eighteen legs and three rotating eyes. But most were gnats, or whatever. Awful little biting things. So entranced with the gnat-clouds was Lucy that she almost didn’t see the hulking shape in the underbrush, a few yards away. Something big, and green, and shining where the sun caught it. Something scaly.
“GATORFOLK!” she shouted, and drew her crossbow.
The others fell to. Inga had scarcely opened her eyes, but she was already nocking an arrow to her strung bow. Nutmeg brandished his hammer. Even Sister D readied her mace and shield.
“Nalkhact,” said the Gatorfolk, who emerged from the undergrowth, hands raised in a clear gesture of surrender.
The Gatorfolk was a good seven feet tall, long and lean and covered in scales. It was dressed in a simple bandolier of brown leather, with something like breeches on its tree-branch legs. A glass-headed handaxe was slung at its belt, and it carried a shield of hide and wood on its back.
“I think it’s coming in peace,” Nutmeg observed. “Inga, what do you think?”
Inga spoke to the gatorfolk in the guttural Reptoid dialect. Human throats couldn’t quite match the rasp and rattle of the lizards, but Inga was remarkably talented.
“He’s…yep, he’s surrenderin’.” Inga sighed and lowered her bow, but only a bit. “I don’t think it’s a trap, either. See the carvings on his bandolier?” She asked something in Reptoid, and then spat out a gob of phlegm as the gatorfolk replied. “Yup, that’s what I thought. He’s a solo scout from one of the northern jungle tribes. You c’n tell by the markings.”
“You must know a lot about them,” observed Sister D.
“What does he want?” Lucy felt ill at ease. The jungle was so dense – there could be more gatorfolk in there now, circling them, preparing to strike…
Inga asked a few more questions. Lucy watched the ranger’s face change as the gatorfolk spoke – first from skepticism, to concern, to something like wonder. Some of the hate faded from Inga’s eyes. Green eyes, too, and not too different from those of the gatorfolk.
“He says he’s been sent by his tribe to see about a – well, a hrukkut is his word, but it’s like a, a, fight, disturbance -“
“Kerfuffle,” offered Nutmeg.
“Sure. A kerfuffle down here, round-abouts the lighthouse. Said he’s scouting out to see if his tribe might could keep tradin’ with the lighthouse owners. I didn’t know, well, I didn’t know they were tradin’ with the lighthouse folks. But fine. Said a new ship, a ship with black sails, landed at the lighthouse. Camped on the beach. They’ve been attackin’ ships what get too close to the coast and founder on the shoals.”
“So, the gatorfolk aren’t the ones who fucked up the lighthouse?” Lucy eyed Inga, who seemed supremely uncomfortable.
“No. They ain’t.”
“Human pirates, huh?”
“Bet you feel like an asshole,” said Nutmeg.
“Alright, now,” Inga said, turning red. “Look, I-“
“Doesn’t matter, water under the bridge,” said Lucy. “Listen – can you ask this big fellow if he and his compatriots could, say, bum-rush the pirates for us?”
Inga asked, and the gatorfolk replied. The ranger shook her head.
“Nah, doesn’t seem like he’s got buddies around. Lone scout. Would take a week or two to rally a warband.”
“Fine, fine. How many pirates are we talking, then?”
Inga asked, and the gatorfolk scout held up six claw-fingers. Nutmeg chuckled. “That’s it? Palladius’ tits! What are we standing around for?”
Lucy held up a hand. “Let’s be smart about this. They’ve got to be watching the jungle – I assumed they’d at least know they gatorfolk are out here, even if they haven’t clashed yet. And they’ve been here long enough that they must know trouble is coming their way. They’re going to be keeping an eye out.”
“You have a suggestion?” Inga asked. The gatorfolk raised his hand and said something quiet to Inga. The ranger nodded. “Hey, J’kt’k’kk’t wants to know if he can hit the road. Y’all alright with that?”
“Yeah, no problem.”
“Farewell, friendly gatorman.”
The gatorfolk saluted them with a flourish, then turned and, with a shocking suddenness, launched himself into the dark jungle.
“As to your question, Inga – I do have a suggestion, actually. Listen up.”
Chapter 7- In Which Nutmeg Gets Hot
Night fell, and Nutmeg couldn’t stop thinking about that snake. There were probably similar snakes in the trees behind them. Over their heads. About to drop on them and squeeze their necks. Snakes didn’t really bother him all that much – dogs were his weakness – but he didn’t relish the hours spent waiting in the murk and muck of the jungle, watching the pirate camp, waiting for the moment to strike.
The pirates weren’t hard to find. Another half-mile up the coast from where they’d met the gatorfolk, the pirates had camped under the shelter of a few dunes. Their boat was cunningly hidden in a little cove. The sea around the lighthouse was scattered with masts and planks and scraps of sail, testament to the dozens of vessels wrecked by the pirates. And in truth, the pirates seemed to be doing pretty well for themselves. Crates and boxes and barrels and bags lined the camp, and two of the pirates sat at the fire, counting out gold coins and gemstones.
He didn’t like the look of the pirates. At least, not the captains. He assumed they were captains. A woman wearing a wolfskin cloak with a great curved falchion at her waist, and a bald-pated dwarf with a crossbow the size of his chest and a suit of black leather. The others were nothing to worry about – gutterscum with cutlasses and cloth. But those two – the ones counting the coin – they had a hungry look to them. Or maybe that was Nutmeg. He was pretty hungry. Four days on the open sea had not helped his appetite.
Sister D crouched at his side. He kept quiet – Lucy’s orders – but he wanted to ask her if she’d ever hit anyone with that mace. He doubted it. Kid had probably never seen action before. Or maybe she had. Maybe she grew up in a mercenary company, or among the northern barbarians, or –
“You ready?” hissed Lucy.
“You fuckin’ bet,” said Nutmeg. “Cast it.”
Lucy reached into her pouch and pulled out a pinch of powdered iron. She spoke the command word and blew it into Nutmeg’s beard. He coughed, but his arms and legs quivered, and stretched, and grew, grew until he was a good nine feet tall.
“Now you, Sister D.” Lucy drew her crossbow. “Good luck.” She turned and ran to meet Inga at the treeline, where the ranger was waiting with her bow.
Sister D lay her hands on Nutmeg’s back and murmured a prayer. Strength filled his limbs. A heat crept through him. Palladius was a pretty okay god, he supposed.
Then he got angry. Very angry.
The anger was good. It always felt good. It chased away the fear, the other thoughts, the bad thoughts – all that was left was Swing That Big Ass Hammer, Nutmeg. He broke from the tree cover and raced to the crest of the dune overlooking the camp. Sister D was behind him, but he hardly noticed. Instead, he slapped his armor and bellowed “HEY, YOU PIRATE GREASEBALLS, EAT MY BIG ASS!”
It had the intended effect. The pirates lept up, brandishing weapons, fitting bolts to crossbows. Nutmeg howled and charged. He pounded sand. The beach flashed by him. Oh damn it was good to run! The wind wiped the sweat away. He charged down the dune. A pirate ran to meet him, one of the fools with a cutlass. Nutmeg lowered his shoulder and tackled the man into the sand. They landed in a tangle. He sat astride the pirate’s chest and brought the hammer down until the sand was a red mush under his fingers.
Sister D raced past him and met another of the pirates, catching a cutlass on her shield, then sending him spinning with a blow. Arrows whizzed from the treeline – Inga and Lucy providing covering fire. The pirate dwarf with the huge crossbow finished winding it back, and took aim at Nutmeg. Nutmeg gritted his teeth and took the first bolt in the arm. It stung. It would sting more later.
Then Sister D screamed, and Nutmeg’s head snapped up like a dog hearing a whistle.
The pirate with the wolfskin had raised her hands and shouted some word. Green acid spattered Sister D’s armor and face, steaming, sizzling. Nutmeg had seen Lucy do that. He knew it hurt. Fucking shit that one’s a caster he thought, and then the dwarf pirate lodged a crossbow bolt in Sister D’s leg, and the priestess hit the sand, and one of the other pirates ran at her, blade raised.
Nutmeg dropped his warhammer and charged. He swept the pirate off his feet, and with one punch scattered teeth like seeds. The dwarf with the huge crossbow had reloaded again. Nutmeg stood astride Sister D’s fallen body, blocking her from the crossbow’s aim. “Go on, you pirate shit ass butt, take your shot!”
Then the dwarf pirate’s head grew horns. An arrow in one ear and out the other. He slumped over his crossbow, and the bolt juddered harmless into the sand. Nutmeg made a note to thank Inga profusely, and ran to face the wolfskin woman.
She had drawn her falchion, and grinned at Nutmeg like a wild animal. “Big as you are ugly!” she called. “Gonna fight me bare-handed?”
She’d maneuvered such that Nutmeg’s back was to the treeline. The campfire was between them, and it cast weird light on the wolfskin cloak and the woman’s weathered face. Nutmeg took a step forward. Then another one.
Then he reached into the fire, pulled out a burning brand, and jumped.
It was easy to clear the firepit. The harder part was holding on to the torch. He battered the falchion aside as the wolfskin woman tried a clever cut. Her guard was open. He whipped the torch hard enough to leave a trail of fire in the air, and clubbed her in the side of her head. The wolfskin caught fire. To her credit, the woman tried one last time, striking out with the point of the falchion. Nutmeg stepped aside and pushed her to the ground. He kicked the falchion into the air and caught it. Then he ran her through the throat, and left her burning.
“Sister D!” came Lucy’s voice, and he looked up to see Inga and Lucy running down the dunes, out of the jungle. Nutmeg groaned and sat down.
“I’ll see to the poor kid,” Inga offered, brushing past Nutmeg. “Looked nasty.”
“Acid,” Nutmeg wheezed. Smoke had gotten in his beard and nose. “Lucy, there’s one more – one more pirate -” He pointed. A barechested human was fleeing across the sand, making his way north up the coast.
“I see him.” Lucy murmured a command word and flicked a bolt into her crossbow. She knelt and braced it on her wrist, squinted. Shot. The bow clacked and twanged; the bolt hissed off, and a moment later the pirate fell in the sand.
“Overall, not bad,” said Nutmeg. “I think we have room for improvement.”
Chapter 8 – In Which They Enter the Lighthouse
Morning brought a clear sky and a sweet, easy breeze off the sea. Inga left at sunup to bring Captain Dog and the Fit Goblin up the coast. Nutmeg had piled up the bodies of the pirates off by the jungle, insisting that the gatorfolk would probably appreciate a snack. Lucy wasn’t sure if the gatorfolk ate manflesh like that, but hey, who knows. Sister D leaned up against a crate of salt pork, nursing her wounds.
“How you holding up?” Lucy asked her. Nutmeg was off in the surf now, trying to figure a good way to get to the lighthouse.
“I’ll be fine.” Sister D touched the burns on her face gingerly. “A day or two, some prayers to Palladius, I’ll be right as rain.”
Lucy watched as Nutmeg stripped off most of his clothes and dove into the water, swimming for the pirate ship. “Listen: I’m sorry. And I don’t say that often, and you probably won’t hear it again, but for what it’s worth, I am sorry. I think we threw you in too deep. Not everyone is cut out for this.” She patted Sister D’s leg. “No one would blame you if you want to take your share and quit here.”
Sister D looked out over the sea. “Nice of you to say, Lucy. Thank you. I’ll admit, I thought – well, I thought that was the end. Last night. I’ve never felt that way before.” A note of steel entered her voice. “But if anything, I feel…more confident. This is what I’m meant to do. If I were on the wrong track, Palladius would tell me. But all I hear from my god is that I am fighting evil in the world, and that’s what I’m meant to do.”
“So do you not want your share?”
Sister D squinted down at Lucy. “What’s this ‘share’ you keep talking about?”
Lucy gestured to the crates, boxes, barrels, chests. “Finder’s fee! Someone was going to buy these goods anyway, we might as well sell them.”
“That could be a lot of money!”
“Good! Lot of risk, lot of reward! It’s like, rule one of our line of work.”
“I’ve got a lot to learn.”
“HEY!” shouted Nutmeg. “YOU GUYS WANT TO RIDE A BOAT?”
He had returned from the pirate ship with a rowboat, a dinghy built for six. Lucy stood up and dusted the sand from her fine cloak. That poor cloak. First city they hit, she was finding a tailor. A good one. “As long as you row,” she called back.
Nutmeg rowed. The sea was choppy – it was easy to see how the ships would founder and wreck here along the shore. They bobbed across the two hundred yards to the lighthouse island. The door to the lighthouse hung open like a gaping idiot mouth, and weeds had already grown up around the stones of the path from the mooring.
Despite the weeds and wind, the entry hall looked nearly untouched. Four pairs of boots – two big and two small – were lined up by the door. The doors had all been wrenched from their hinges, and Nutmeg led them into a pantry, a kitchen, a dining room. Cabinets had been ransacked. Hardly a crumb remained. Five chairs stood around the dining table, and Lucy felt for a moment that she could see a family sitting there, eating, having their last meal together and never knowing.
They continued up the stairs in silence. There was a workroom, with tools to blow glass and work metal, though most had been stripped of brass joiners and steel teeth. They passed from the workroom to a sitting room, where a scarf lay half-knit in an easy chair, needles poking up like broken bones. The smell of death and decay grew stronger in the big bedroom on the second level, and sure enough –
“Heurgh,” said Lucy.
A woman’s mangled body had been stuffed cruelly against the wall. She’d been there for weeks.
“We can go back,” offered Nutmeg. “We don’t have to see this.”
“No.” Sister D’s voice was firm. “We should give her a good burial, at least.”
“There might be more.”
On the third floor there were two bedrooms with child-sized beds. Lucy didn’t go in. Nutmeg and Sister D entered both, and came out pale. Even Nutmeg’s voice shook. “Kids,” he said. “That’s pretty fucked up.”
“He had a telescope,” said Sister D. “He might have been looking out the telescope when he died.”
“Let’s finish this.” Lucy had been looking forward to the lighthouse, but now – it was so cramped, and death was everywhere, decay and death.
On the top floor, in the light-room, they found the last body. A man – the father? – slumped over the shattered light-enclosure. The gulls had been at him.
“Nutmeg,” said Lucy, “make sure the gatorfolk don’t eat these people. Bury them well. Sister D, you should say a few words.”
“I wish we could’ve saved them.” Sister D’s jaw was set. “Why couldn’t we have been here to save them? To keep the pirates from killing them? Why didn’t the pirates take them prisoner?”
“Sometimes things don’t work out,” said Nutmeg. “Sometimes things go badly, and all we can do is clean up.”