Episode 004: The Ballad of Gary

When we last left our heroes: joined by the ranger INGA, NUTMEG, LUCY, and SISTER DONDALLA sought out and defeated the band of pirates responsible for the lighthouse outage near GATORSBURG. In the process, they discovered the ill-gotten booty of the pirates, and are returning with CAPTAIN DOG to the little port town…

Table of Contents

Chapter 1 – In Which a Tidy Profit is Made

“Thirty-three hundred gold apiece,” proclaimed Nutmeg, “and not a copper less.”

The port official stood gaping. So did Mayor Denzel. And Cubert, the mayor’s aide. Lucy didn’t bother hiding her glee. Nutmeg had spent the whole boat ride making a frantic inventory of their newfound treasure – salt meat, wine, liquor, cloth, glass, copper, oil, and an assortment of herbs and spices that made Lucy’s nose twitch and Nutmeg’s mouth water.

“That’s thirty-three hundred per person, plus a share for the town,” the dwarf continued. “I think you can agree, Mayor Denzel: it’s a bargain.”

“A – a bargain?” The Mayor’s jaw hadn’t come back up. “You’re talking about thirty-three thousand gold in total, between the crew, your little gang, and the port share! That’s – that’s – “

“Think of it this way, Mayor Denzel,” Nutmeg began. “You’re paying us at cost for these goods. Now that’s flat. The town can then export these at higher rates. You yourself told us you trade with the Gnome lands of Folkor, and that’s to say nothing of overland routes up the highway to Dwarroway. I think you could see a five, even ten percent return on this, easy. Fifteen percent if the gods are good. Of course, we could just move on down the coast and sell it ourselves. I’m sure someone will buy it. Maybe we’ll run back up to Sohorrisk, around the Lizard’s Tongue, and let the city officials know that Gatorsburg just isn’t safe to trade with anymore. Too many pirates.”

“You, you, you -” Mayor Denzel threw up his hands. “Cubert, do we have it in the budget to comply with the unreasonable demands of these brigands?”

“Well, yes,” said Cubert. “We may have to cut back on some of our expenses at the Mayoral Mansion, but I think -“

“We’ve done jabber-jawed enough, then,” the Mayor said hurriedly. “We’ll see to the gold.”

“Does the Second Hegemony Bank have a branch here?” asked Nutmeg. “Lucy and I have accounts.” He patted Sister D’s hand. “And we’ll get our lady here set up, too, if she’s not already.”

“I’ll take cash,” drawled Inga. “But I bet you done guessed that, Mayor.”

“Yes, you usually do take cash,” he replied. “Very well, very well. Cubert, see to it.” He paused. “Thank you, I suppose. I am truly, grievously sorry to hear about the Kujal family at the lighthouse. They were good, salt-of-the-earth people, the kind of folk who keep the world bright.” He frowned. “They had an older son, left home a few years back. Someone should tell him.”

“”allkee’n’ayeou’,” offered Captain Dog. The Mayor nodded gravely.

“Yes, keep an eye out. Thank you, all.”

The crew – now rich – saw to unloading the cargo. The four adventurers stood on the dock, watching the cranes haul the crates ashore.

“It’s been a pleasure,” said Inga, breaking the silence. “Haven’t had this much fun in a while. Look me up next time you’re in town. I’ll be dressed a little fancier, but I ain’t goin’ nowhere.”

“Inga, likewise.” Nutmeg stuck out his hand. “Couldn’t have done it without you.”

“It’s true,” added Lucy. “Besides, like you said, it was fun.”

“Will y’all stick around?” Inga gestured to the town. “Captain Dog’s always got a good trip in him, if you’re lookin’ to get out for a ways.”

“We were here on work,” Lucy answered. “Hegemony work. Gotta make contact with our point man, see what’s next.”

“Government types.” Inga laughed. “I’ll see you again. There’s always more trouble ’round here.”

And then she was off, through the crowd, and gone.

Nutmeg and Sister D headed for the bank branch, leaving Lucy on her own. She took to the streets. Gatorsburg was small, certainly, but there were still shops and artists and smiths and all sorts of things to see. Gnome trinkets, too, in plenty. She stopped outside a gnomish shop and peered through the window. The gnome behind the counter was showing a curious customer how to work a gnextant, a device to see the stars and mark your place on the open sea. From the window over the shop, the smell of spiced cauliflower wafted down – a gnome dish.

Lucy’d been born in the Hegemony lands, born and raised in Lone Tower. She was four generations removed from Folkor. Still, something pulled at her heart, seeing gnome culture on display. When I retire, she thought, I’m going to make sure I take a vacation to Folkor. See the sights. The homeland. Retirement had been on her mind lately. Maybe it had been a mistake to take up this government job. The work she really wanted to do – gazing through the curtain of the planes to see the bones of the stars, and so on – had been financed by her odd-jobbery in Lone Tower. But now her life was all odd jobs and no play. There was a book she’d started writing, years ago, just after she met Nutmeg. Her research. Her masterwork. When was the last time she touched it? Four years ago? Gods.

Nutmeg needed her, though. He needed someone. She was glad in a way that Sister D had joined up. But Sister D was even worse than Nutmeg – younger, less experienced. No, he needed someone quick on their feet, someone who could cover his back in a fight. Someone who could read, at least. She’d offered to teach him so many times, and every time he brushed her off. A whiz at numbers who could not read. No, he needed someone smart. And Lucy was the smartest person Lucy knew.

Still, she had family. Not real family. They were dead, or somewhere else. But there was that nephew she’d adopted, the elf. He’d moved to the capital years ago, but maybe…

Lucy resolved to write him a letter. Just as she came to this decision, though, a voice interrupted her thoughts.

“Hands where I can see them. Lemme at your purse.”

She blinked, turned around. Somehow, she’d wandered down an alley. Was she trying to take a shortcut? Ah, it didn’t matter. Not as much as the scuzzy-looking half-elf crouched behind her, holding out a dagger and motioning for her money.

“Purse!” said the half-elf again.

“Oh, wow,” said Lucy. “You’re pretty fuckin’ dumb.” She reached for her purse. “Still, I’ll give you credit – ambitious. That’s got to be worth something.” She jingled the coins with her fingers, but reached past them for the bottom lining of the purse. “Here, take this.” She drew out a pinch of goat’s hair and flung it at the would-be-mugger, murmuring the command word. There was a flash of light, and then the sound of metal clanging as the dagger fell from the half-elf’s hand. Lucy drew her own dagger and crossbow. She put a bolt in the half-elf’s heel, near that very important tendon which should not be damaged. The half-elf moaned, still dazed by the simple spell. Lucy scooped up the other dagger and stepped back.

“Now, let’s re-evaluate this. It should wear off in a few seconds, I didn’t do much. But enough. Listen: if you try to run, I swear I will put a crossbow bolt in the back of your neck and you’ll never even hear it coming.” She paused. “Oh shit, yeah, and check out this, dick.” She pulled out her Hegemony badge. The half-elf’s eyes went wide. “Yeah, that’s right. You picked on a cop. Man, I almost forgot I was a cop.”

She looked the half-elf up and down. She wasn’t too threatening, this one; her leather coat looked old and tatty, and her dagger wasn’t anything to write home about. But maybe…

“What’s your name?”

“Ugh.” The half-elf twitched, clearly starting to feel the pain from the bolt in her heel. “People call me Gary.”

“Gary?” Lucy sighed. “Alright. Gary. Consider this an audition. It’s your lucky day. See, I’m hiring for someone to help out with a little team that I’m on. We do cop stuff, yeah, but we also do it for profit, which seems like something you’d be interested in. We could use someone a little more slippery – and you managed to sneak up on me, so you’ve got that going for you. If you want to meet the rest of the crew, I can fix up that heel of yours. If not, well, I guess I’ll leave you here and, I dunno, sic the town guard on you? Is there even a town guard in this backwater-ass-place?”

“Yeah, but they’re slow,” said Gary. She was dark – dark hair, dark eyes, dark voice.

“Well-acquainted with them?”

“I get around.” Gary grunted, and her leg twitched. “Yeah, sure, whatever, I’ll do your thing, the profit thing, the profit team.”

“The profit team.” Lucy knelt and drew the bolt from Gary’s leg. The thief shrieked. “I like that!”

Chapter 2 – In Which Casserole is Packed

Nutmeg and Sister D were at the Mareillagough, sharing a pitcher of ale. “To bank accounts!” Nutmeg toasted, and they clanked tankards.

“Real money,” mused Sister D. “I’ve never had this much. I hardly know what to do with it.”

“I’d be happy to caretake it for you.” Nutmeg filled his voice with gallantry. “You know, look after it, ensure you’re earning the right interest, uhh, and things like that.”

“That makes sense.” Sister D nodded. “In truth, I’ve considered making a substantial offering to my order. Amend for my long absence.”

“Hmm,” said Nutmeg, who had never donated anything in his life. “It is, technically speaking, your money.”

“You have other ideas?”

“Land. Estate investments are getting hot these days, particularly out here on the frontier.”

“You read that somewhere?”

Nutmeg glowered. “I don’t fucking read.”

“Can’t, or don’t?”

“Shalln’t.”

A soft voice interrupted them. “Mind if I sit here?”

Nutmeg looked up. The man in black stood over their table. He looked exactly the same. Unobtrusive, even dressed in his shapeless black cloak. He was probably very warm.

“Hey! What’s up, man? Take a seat. You been here long?”

“No.” The man in black produced a small silver flask and poured himself some sort of sweet-smelling liquid. Hippocras, maybe. “Where’s your companion?”

“Lucy? Who knows. She’s probably on her way. Had to, uh, well, I don’t remember.”

“Fine.” The man in black sipped his drink. “Did the job go as planned?”

“I guess.” Nutmeg found it hard to meet the man’s eyes, so he stared just past the man’s shoulder at a largeish stain on the wall. “Pirates at the lighthouse. We took care of them.”

“Hi,” said Sister D. “I’m Sister Dondalla.”

“Oh shit, that’s right.” Nutmeg gestured to Sister D. “This is Sister Dondalla.”

“I gathered as much.”

“She joined up in Torold’s Pass – she’s been a big help. Really. We needed a healer along, I think.”

“Charmed,” said the man in black. “I’d give you my full name, but frankly it’s hard to remember and harder for you to pronounce. For now, you can call me ‘E.'”

The door to the club burst open. Lucy stood framed in the doorway, followed by a slim half-elf in black leather. “Oh, shit!” said Lucy. “What’s up, man in black!”

“His name’s Mister E, apparently,” said Nutmeg. He poured a tankard for Lucy. She sat down at the table, new companion in tow. “Who, uh, who’s this?”

“Gary,” announced Lucy. “Picked her up on the street. I think we could use some hired help. Actually, it’s great that you’re here, Mister E – are we allowed to do subcontracting like this?”

“Sure.” The man in black was uninterested. “Fine by me. As long as you’re the only two with badges. Are we all settled, then? Can I speak, or are there more interruptions?”

“I’m hungry,” Gary interrupted.

“Fuck’s sake.” Nutmeg slapped the table. “INNKEEP!”

Jiry’k’t the elf came out from behind the bar, sour-faced. “Can I help you?”

“Got food?”

“Lunch special today is gator casserole.”

“Great, we’ll have a big pan of that. For the table. And uh,” Nutmeg shook the now-empty pitcher of ale. “More of this.”

“Fantastic,” said Mister E, as the barkeep disappeared into the back. “Now that that’s settled: it sounds like the lighthouse problem has been resolved. Much appreciated, you understand. Our contacts in Sohorrisk were getting worried about the coastal trade. The fair season is almost on us, and the winds have been favorable. Payment will hit your accounts tomorrow.”

“Hey, can we get a little extra?” Nutmeg gestured to Sister D and Gary. “We’ve got some subcontractors. Plus we hired a local guide. And a ship. That’s got to be worth something.”

“It is,” said Mister E. “It’s worth the payment that you get. If you want to hire subcontractors, that’s on your dime.”

“Fine, whatever.” Nutmeg held up a hand, signaling everyone to wait while he finished his tankard. “Ahh. Mmm. Cold. Hold on. Ahhh.” He belched. “So what’s next?”

“Are you familiar with the hamlet of Laketown?” asked the man in black.

“Probably not,” said Lucy.

“I thought not. It’s a week or so north, back the way you came and then off the main highway by a half-day. As you might’ve guessed, Laketown has lakes. Three of them. Fed by clear mountain streams, winding down from the distant Wyvernspine range. Last week, the lakes went dry.”

“Went dry as in…”

“As in ‘went dry.’ The water is gone from the lakebeds. The stink of dead fish is incredible.”

“Uh.” Nutmeg cocked his head like a dog. “That seems…above our pay grade. Magic shit. Real hinky stuff.”

“You fixed a plague in Torold’s Pass,” said the man in black. “Head for Laketown. I’ll meet you there when you finish the job. Sound good? Good. I’m out of this bughole.” Mister E stood and was gone. He’d scarcely disappeared when the barkeep returned, balancing a stack of plates on one hand and a steaming pan of gator casserole on the other.

“Hey, champ, can we get that in to-go boxes?” asked Nutmeg. “I think we’re heading out.”

Chapter 3 – In Which Gary Proves Valuable

They bought a cart.

It only took a little haggling – Nutmeg insisted on checking all the axles, even though he knew next to nothing about proper axle construction. But they bought a cart from the outfitter’s near the north gate of Gatorsburg, and hitched Numble and Digg to the breeching, and they were off. Lucy and Gary rode in the cart; Nutmeg sat in the box seat, clucking at the horses and flicking the reins. Sister D rode her taller, stouter horse alongside. It was a sizable cart, big enough to hold the barrel of water that Nutmeg had insisted on packing – “to refill the lakes,” he said, and he could not be dissuaded.

Once they were out the north gate, civilization disappeared in a flash. This was a strange part of the world. By map and chart, they were still in the lands of the Hegemony, but only just. The frontier highway was, more or less, the effective border. To the east of the road was Hegemony land; to the west, well, who knows. As it was, the east felt less safe. The jungles and swamps ran thick here, the same swamps that teemed with gatorfolk further down along the peninsula. Most nights, they made camp on the west side, where the trees were less dense and black, and in some places open grassland stretched out as far as the eye could see.

One night, after almost a week of riding, Nutmeg took Lucy aside by a grove of sycamores. Sister D and Gary set about making camp, pitching four tents under the early evening sky.

“Lucy, this Gary chick gives me the heebie-jeebies.”

“What? Why? Come on. Gary’s fun!”

“I found her stuffing casserole into her traveling bag. This morning.”

“It’s probably still good!”

“It most certainly is not. Trust me.”

“Nutmeg, did you eat some casserole this morning?”

“That’s immaterial.” Nutmeg peered over at the campsite. Sister D was lighting the fire; Gary had gotten three of the four tents set up and had taken a break to chew some nicoleaf. “Come on,” Nutmeg said. “Really. What’s up with this Gary thing? Inga made sense, we needed a guide, but Gary? Messing up the vibe.”

Lucy studied the young dwarf’s face. Red, wild beard. Nose veiny and bulbous. His eyes were brown, muddy. How much could she say to him? He was smart, Nutmeg, but sometimes he flew off the handle.

“We’ve been on the road a while,” she began. “Longer than I planned originally, I’ll admit. I just want to make sure we have a good team.” An idea came to her. “I mean, wouldn’t it be cool to eventually kick back and have a bunch of hirelings do the running around for us?”

“Eh.” Nutmeg shrugged. “I don’t mind running around and hitting people. You know that. But I know you’re getting old, and your back hurts, so if you need to keep hiring other individuals to carry your shit and polish your shoes -“

“It’s actually not about my back pain, thank you.” Lucy turned back toward camp. “Just – give the kid a chance. You liked Sister D well enough.”

Nutmeg had no immediate riposte, and so followed Lucy back to the fire. Sister D had appointed herself the team chef after a particularly disastrous stew back on the road from Torold’s Pass. A “Nutmeg Surprise.” Tonight she’d fixed up some waybread and walnuts, with some carrots cooked over the fire and sprinkled with a kind of red, smoky powder purchased in Gatorsburg. It was far from bad.

“So, Gary,” said Nutmeg, after a pointed look from Lucy. “You, uh, you from Gatorsburg originally?”

“Nah.” Gary chewed on her waybread.

“That name,” Nutmeg tried. “Short for anything?”

“Nope.”

“You any good with that bow?” Gary had, indeed, packed a crossbow. Since leaving Gatorsburg, the half-elf had kept it buckled to her back at all hours of the day.

“Yup.”

“Okay.” Nutmeg stood up. “Fine, fuck it, whatever. I tried, Lucy!”

“What’s with you?” asked Gary.

“You have to at least participate!” Nutmeg wasn’t often this mad. At least, not when he wasn’t already planning to crush skulls. “There’s no point in having you along if you’re just going to do this whole sullen, one-word thing!”

“I thought you guys just did profit stuff.” Gary hadn’t said that many words since they left town.

“Well,” Nutmeg stopped. He scratched his beard. “I mean. It’s not just ‘profit stuff.’ Granted, that’s a big part of it. A really big part of it. But there’s a camaraderie thing to it, too! And you’re weird, and quiet, and you don’t hardly participate. It’s like you’re not even there.”

Then the world exploded.

Something came hurtling out of the bushes, a big, hairy, huge thing that reeked of rotten meat and sulfur. Black fur like a bear, but leaner, bonier. It landed on Nutmeg with a snarl, and bared its wolfish teeth.

Thrum.

Gary was on her feet, crossbow drawn. The string was still thrumming when she reloaded and loosed a second bolt into the great beast. Thrum. It howled in pain and rage, and vaulted off Nutmeg in a great leap, bolting for the half-elf. Thrum. Gary knelt and loosed a third bolt. She pinned the beast’s mouth shut. She rolled aside as it crashed, and with a click-CLACK she reloaded and put another bolt in the base of the beast’s skull.

“Mother fuck,” Nutmeg pointed out.

Gary nodded. “Yup.”

Chapter 4 – In Which it Reeks

Gary helped them sling the beast towards the campfire, where they could get a better look. It reminded Nutmeg of nothing less than a big skinny wolf, a wolf skeleton wearing a bearskin cloak. “A warg,” Lucy suggested. “Strange to see it alone, though. They usually have either packs or riders, or both.”

“It might’ve.” Sister D traced her finger along worn lines in the beast’s midsection. “Lines from saddle-straps. And look here, on the hindquarters.” The warg was branded, just above the back leg: a red hand.

“Anyone recognize it?” Lucy touched the brand gently, as if the warg might leap up and come back to life.

“No.”

“Nah.”

“Nope.”

Nutmeg was checking out the wounds that Gary had inflicted. Four shots in ten seconds – that took steady nerves, a keen eye. The first two had only wounded the beast, catching it in the lower part of the neck. Eventually fatal, but not quickly. The third shot was the real gem – through the bottom jaw, into the top of the snout. Nutmeg plucked a bolt out. Blood the color of wet clay oozed out. The bolt was iron-tipped and stout. Nothing unusual there. No, the special talent had all been in Gary’s arm, eye, and finger.

Nutmeg stood and handed the bolt to Gary. “Good shooting.”

“Thanks.” She might have cracked part of a smile. “A pleasure.”

“Do we have more to worry about?” asked Sister D. “I know little of these…things…but could there be others around?”

“It’s worth sitting watch.” Nutmeg gestured to the trees around them. “There could be goblin riders in the woods – but I doubt they’re coming en masse to attack us. And if they do, we can handle them.” He clapped Gary on the back. “We can more than handle them.”

No further attacks came that night. Nutmeg took the first and third watches – Lucy needed as much sleep as she could get. On third watch, under cool starlight, Nutmeg watched his gnome friend sleep. Something was going on with Lucy. It wasn’t like her to trust other people – particularly would-be thieves like Gary. And that talk about being old. Too old to travel like this? But they’d only just begun! For so many years, Nutmeg had been a runner, a guard, a – a manservant. And that was fine. Truly, it was. Lucy kept him fed and housed. Plenty of work in Lone Tower, too, when your boss was a wizard-gnome dabbling in unusual experiments and strange customs. But life on the road carried a new appeal. Nutmeg wasn’t ready to retire. Was Lucy?

The next day, they reached Laketown.

Dust blew through the narrow streets. Dust wrapped itself in colorless curtains around colorless houses. Dust stained every hitching-post and horse. The sky was the color of dust. The streets were empty.

“Cheery,” observed Gary.

Nutmeg held a cloth over his nose. “Fuck me,” he said, muffled, “can you not smell that? None of you?”

The others shrugged. Sister D’s horse tossed its head. Lucy sniffed at the air. “What are you picking up?”

Fish.” Nutmeg inhaled and spat. “Fish. Dead fish. Rotten dead ass fish.”

“Oh.” Sister D wrinkled her nose. “Oh, gods. There it is.”

“Alright, so Mister E wasn’t kidding about that.” Lucy pointed to the dustiest building of all, a two-story inn. A sign swung over the door, depicting a pair of unicorns prancing over a lake. Or a blue smear that looked like a lake. “There’s bound to be someone there, come on.”

Gary and Sister D sat with the horses and cart while Nutmeg led Lucy inside. The inn was, of course, dusty. The ground floor had some tables and chairs arranged for hypothetical customers. A tall human woman sat at the bar, her hair long and bedraggled. “Welcome to the Unicorn and Unicorn,” she said. “Sit anywhere.”

“Thanks, we will. Got whiskey?” Nutmeg plopped down at a table and put his feet up. Lucy ignored him.

“Where is everyone?”

“Lotta folk left.” The barkeep ran her fingers through her hair. “Work’s drying up with the lakes.”

“That’s what we’re here about.” Lucy flashed her badge. “Hegemony agents. My name is Lucy, this is Nutmeg; our companions are outside. I’d appreciate any information you have on the lakes.”

“Pleasure. They call me Sybeth.” The woman produced two whiskeys, apparently unfazed by their badges. Nutmeg was disappointed. Not enough people had been adequately intimidated by the Hegemony badges. What was the point of doing dirty work in the government’s name if people didn’t fear the government’s name? “Can’t say I know much more than the average Laketowner, but I’ll help.”

“When did the lakes run dry?”

“They started drying up…ooh, a few weeks back.” Sybeth sketched a map in the dust with her forefinger. “There’s three main lakes that feed the town, although there’s lots of little cricks and pools offshooting from those three. But the three started running dry at the same time. There’s still some trickle from the mountain streams that feed them, but nothing enough to save the fish, or the lakes.”

“Did they dry up all at once?”

“No.” Sybeth shook her head. “First day, Old Dreck came running in, telling everyone how one lake went down halfway. We figured, you know, it’s Old Dreck, he’s crazy.”

“Sure,” Nutmeg agreed, pounding his whiskey.

“But the next day, another lake was half empty. Then the other. Then they dried up.”

“Hmm.” Lucy sipped her drink.

“Gack,” said Nutmeg. “Guhk,” he added. “Augh.”

“You alright there, buddy?”

“Fish.” Nutmeg spat on the floor of the inn, drawing a disappointed look from Sybeth. “Even the booze tastes like fish.” He stood, kicking his chair backwards. “Lucy, I think we’ve heard all we need. Let’s go to these godforsaken lakes and look for, I dunno, tracks, footprints, whatthefuckever.”

“I don’t like not knowing what we’re running towards.” Lucy gestured around them. “Mister E didn’t exactly give us much to go on here.”

“Hey, Sybeth.” Nutmeg turned to the woman. “Is there, like, a big old army of goblins waiting for us at the lakes? And remember, if you lie to us, we will know, because we are cops, and can legally cut your head off if you lie to us.”

Sybeth glared at him. “Now you’re just getting rude. No, there’s no goblin army. Ain’t even seen goblins ’round here lately. Doesn’t mean they’re not out there, mind you – we get a few raids a year, a couple warg riders at most. But I ain’t lying to you, and I don’t appreciate the -“

“Got it.” Nutmeg flipped a gold piece onto the counter. “Keep the change. Lucy, let’s bounce.”

Chapter 5 – In Which it Smells of Lavender

It took the rest of the day to reach the lakes, but Nutmeg pushed the horses hard. Lucy thought he looked like he would lose his mind. They could all smell the fishy smell, but it must have been even worse for Nutmeg. That nose of his. Poor dwarf. A road (predictably dusty) led out west from the edge of town, down a winding track into the copses and groves of the hill country. This was the border of the border, the ultimate frontier of Hegemony lands. From here, the land stretched out in uncharted wood and hill until it reached the Wyvernspines – and beyond the Wyvernspines, few dared travel. It was hard not to feel as though civilization itself had fallen away behind them as they rode into the sun.

Black vultures circled the lakes in droves. They rode the thermals and wheeled and dipped, and the only reason they did not land was because the offerings were too crowded already. The lakebeds – all three of them, each at least a mile across – were empty of water, but thick with scavengers. Coyotes prowled; vultures tore at the fish and frogs. By the edge of the trees, a wolf or two circled.

“Tracks’ll be hard.” Nutmeg’s voice was muffled. He’d tied a bandanna across his nose and mouth.

“Let’s be smart, though.” Lucy pointed to the conclave of scavengers. “Wouldn’t they all steer clear of any place that smelled like folk?”

“Maybe.” Gary had something to say. “But if they’re hungry enough, they won’t care.”

“How could someone drain these lakes?” Sister D marveled. “I don’t know of a prayer that could do that. And so quickly! If what that innkeep told you was true.”

“It probably was.” Lucy stroked her chin. “I’ve been giving it some thought. The lakes were dried incrementally, but in big increments. To me, that suggests someone repeating the same task over and over to empty them – not one big spell to poof the water away, but rather more like taking a very large bucket to the lake over and over again.”

“Do you think the water was collected, then?” Nutmeg tapped his canteen. “I mean, do you think it was scooped up, for lack of a better analogy?”

“Fish would’ve gone with it.” Gary pointed to the nearest lakebed. “Plants are still there too. Algae even. Only the water.”

“Only the water.” Lucy patted Gary’s shoulder. “Well put. Now, if someone came in a cart and took the water away, we’d expect to see a heavy track, right? That much water, so quickly – moving it all is quite a job.”

“What if the water was just, you know, destroyed?” Nutmeg lifted his bandanna and took a sip from his canteen. “Damn, this is making me thirsty.”

“If it was just destroyed,” said Lucy, “then it could just be the work of one individual.” She pointed to the woods. “Let’s circle the lakes. Keep an eye out for paths back into the woods. Not deer tracks, but paths. Sybeth made it clear: the streams would refill the lakes, but someone keeps draining them again.”

They descended toward the lakes. The smell was overpowering now. Each of them wrapped a cloth around their face; Lucy whispered a command word to her face-rag, and it took on a pleasant scent not unlike freshly baked bread with little berries baked inside. The scavengers parted before their cart. Coyotes yipped out of the way. Vultures, offended, hop-flew a few yards distant, turning baleful yellow eyes back towards the company. Rats, heretofore unseen, skittered away from the trundling wheels. The clouds of flies, the crawling carrion beetles, and the stinging midges left homeless by the supernatural drought filled the air with a noxious buzzing, a drone unceasing and constant in pitch.

All in all, it was unpleasant.

Lucy watched Nutmeg. He drove the horses with a steady hand, but his eyes were on the mud and dust around the lakes. He was a one-dwarf mercenary band. Keen eyes, keen nose, keen hammer – well, so to speak. Certainly Lucy’s magic was useful to him, but did he really need her? Did he need any of them?

As if in answer to her unspoken questions, Nutmeg reined in hard and stopped the cart. “Hold on. You see that? Anyone else see that?”

Gary leaped from the cart and knelt in the sun-baked mud. Not ten feet away, a coyote sat panting. “I see it.” Gary traced a shape in the hard earth. “Same paws as the warg that attacked us.”

“I’d say that makes them warg tracks.” Nutmeg flicked the reins. “Gary, can you follow them on foot? We’ll stay behind you.”

“Yup.” The half-elf loped on, bent almost double, following the tracks. Or so Lucy assumed. She thought of herself as no mean talent at reading nature’s signs, but her companions were leaving her in the dust on this matter. So to speak. It all looked like one big jumble of print and spoor, all commingled in the drying bullrushes by the edge of the lake. Here the cart track faded and they were left to rumble awkwardly along. Nutmeg had a steady hand and kept the horses from the most treacherous holes, but even still, the way was rough.

“Towards the woods.” Gary pointed. “Past that pine.” The half-elf indicated a wall of pines, not one of which appeared distinct in any way from the others.

“Yeah, I think you’re right.” Any ill will Nutmeg might have borne for Gary seemed to be evaporating like lakewater.

“Is it wise to carry on?” Sister D was worried. “We’ve got less than an hour of light left, I’d say, and if we’re going into woods -“

“It’s less wise to camp here.” Lucy fiddled with her little crossbow, fingers rolling a bolt. “The scavengers will be more numerous and less skittish by night.” Some of the coyotes – fleabitten, mangy things – were looking bolder. “Up to you, Nutmeg.”

The dwarf cracked the reins. “Into the woods. We can at least make camp away from this smell. Upwind.”

His instincts were good. They hit the treeline – following the warg’s tracks, which in turn revealed a narrow path – and the smell of fish faded. Their cart just barely fit on the woodland lane, and Lucy had to duck to avoid the grasping pine boughs overhead. Gary led gamely on, although they hardly needed her woodlore now. The horses and cart followed the path with ease. It could have been a hunter’s trail, if not for the clear-as-day warg prints leading every which way. No mere hunters rode wargs. Goblins did, though.

The light was fading, and just as Lucy feared they’d have to camp after all, Gary held up her hand. “Hold on. See that?”

It was hard to miss. A little ways down the path, the trees started to thin out, then to clear, then disappeared entirely. A hillock rose from the forest floor, tall and rocky. And there in the center of the hillock –

“Ah, tits,” said Nutmeg. “A cave. Of course.”

The cave mouth was nearly twenty feet across and ten feet high, with a rocky roof overcropping the entrance. Moreover, a single green-skinned goblin lay dozing against the rock wall.

“Heavy sleeper.” Gary readied her crossbow.

“Hang on,” Nutmeg hissed. “I have an idea. Can we take that one alive?”

“Easy.” Lucy felt around in one of her pouches until she found what she was looking for. “I’ll get close. Gary: if it wakes up, put a bolt through its neck.”

“Yup.”

Lucy slid from the cart and into the undergrowth. It was past time to get a new cloak. Her boots were holding up well enough, but this damnable cloak was better-suited to a university’s halls than to this mucking about. Still, at least she wasn’t as clanky and clunky as Nutmeg, clad as he was in a chain shirt. Or Sister D, for that matter. Gary might’ve been quieter, but Gary couldn’t do what Lucy could. They need me for this, at least, she thought, but that didn’t lift her spirits.

She crept closer to the sleeping goblin. Obnoxious pointy-eared little bastards. This one, like most, was dressed in moss, or at least in leather and chain overlaid with moss. Their green skin and green garb made them a right pain in the ass in the woods. She’d seen them here and there – some goblins were more civilized than others, and had even traded in the marketplaces of Lone Tower – but by and large they kept to the hills, to the crags, to the deepwoods, emerging to raid and plunder at will. Obnoxious.

Her foot snapped a twig. In the still air, it was like an explosion. She almost cursed out loud. She froze. The goblin twitched. Then snored deeply, and wriggled in its sleep further against the cave wall. Lucy breathed.

A few more steps, and she was near. From out of the cave came an animal smell, a smell of wet hair and hide. Lucy wrinkled her nose, whispered a command word, and tossed a pinch of dried lavender at the goblin’s face.

For a moment, the little green thing stirred. It blinked once, peering at her with dull, sleep-addled eyes. Then its head lolled back, and it snored deeper than before, and all the tension went out of its limbs.

Lucy grabbed it by the leg and hauled it into the forest, where the rest of her companions stood waiting.

“Is it dead?” asked Gary.

“Obviously not.” Nutmeg kicked the goblin. “Classic slumber spell. I thought I caught the smell of lavender.”

“How long’ll it last?”

“Eh, a few minutes. What did you have in mind, Nutmeg?”

The dwarf’s beard split into a grin. “A trap.”

Chapter 6 – In Which Nutmeg Takes a Swig

Nutmeg sat with his feet dangling off the rock outcropping over the mouth of the cave. It would be nice to kick his boots off, let his toes wiggle in the breeze. Ah, well – another day, another time. In the gloaming it was hard to see his comrades, down there below. Sister D and Gary held each end of the rope; Lucy stood in the cart, in the clearing, a knife to the goblin’s throat. Nutmeg rubbed his thumb against the shaft of his warhammer. He loved his hammer. It made sense, as a weapon. None of this stabbing and slashing and piercing. Just wham. Then whatever you hit was broken.

It would have been better if they’d been here in the daylight. They could’ve made camp. But that was a risk – risk losing the trail, risk being beset by beasts or goblins or both. Still, it had surprised him when Lucy said “Up to you, Nutmeg.” Was it up to him? Apparently. But Lucy had been his employer first. She still felt like his employer. Just because he had the good plans and the trap ideas didn’t mean he was some sort of leader. This was all a bit much. Nutmeg took a swig from his flask. The contents of the flask were a mystery now. Strong, at least. Nutmeg belched. 

The goblin started to wake up. Lucy did something with her knife, and the goblin let out a high-pitched keening sound, eeeeeEEEEEE. Then she did something else, and the whine turned into a bonafide scream, echoing around the woods. That was probably a finger. Don’t go too fast, Lucy, he thought. We want him screaming “HELP!”, not just “aughhh.”

The goblin gibbered in gobloid. It was a peculiar dialect, but it sounded rather like “please, save me from this batshit gnome.” Nothing about a dwarf, or the human and the half-elf crouching in the bushes. Good. 

A rumble came from within the cave. The sound of something big. Moving fast. Nutmeg stood. Braced himself for a leap. The goblin continued to holler and shriek. Lucy bent down and snicked the knife, and held up a goblin toe, laughing. The goblin did not laugh. The rumble got louder, and louder. 

Then, the ogre burst out of the cave mouth. 

It was at least ten feet tall, its bald, bemottled pate brushing through the space where Nutmeg’s toes had been minutes before. Huge and pink and brown. A bearskin loincloth was draped over its pelvic region. It brandished a club the length of a tree trunk and charged for Lucy with a bellow. 

“NOW!” shouted Nutmeg.

Gary and Sister D heaved.

The rope pulled taut across the cave mouth. The ogre hit the rope fast enough to send Sister D sprawling, but it wobbled, and stumbled, and fell face-first not a few feet from Lucy’s cart. Nutmeg took one step back, then ran. And jumped. And flew. Flew through the air, the wind whistled in his ears, his beard went wild, his hammer was high. He landed. Hammer-first. 

The ogre was trying to get up when he landed. The impact jarred his bones. He swung as hard as he could. Anger guided his strike. Anger, and whatever was in his flask. He swung hard enough to topple off the ogre, overbalancing from the force of the swing. The feel of the hammer on the ogre’s skull was not a far cry from the sensation of hammering an anvil. Nutmeg rolled off into the grass and sprang back as the ogre rose to its feet. 

“I really thought that would do it,” Lucy commented. The goblin wriggled away from her grasp and made a dash for the cave entrance. Gary whipped her crossbow up; with a thrum, the goblin fell dead. 

“Aouuuugh,” bellowed the ogre. It swung for the cart. Nutmeg was suddenly very glad they had left the horses tethered in the woods. Lucy sprang back just in time, toppling from the cart as the club whistled overhead. 

“HEY! BUTT DICK! OVER HERE!” Nutmeg brandished his hammer. “Fight me, you turd!” 

The ogre rotated with an awful deliberateness. Nutmeg swung for a kneecap, and was rewarded with a sickening crunch. Then the tree trunk club hit him square in the chest. All the wind came out of him, and a little pee. He flew headfirst for a few yards, and landed badly at the base of a tree. There was a ringing in his ears, and it was hard to see. Was that Sister D sprinting out from the cave, mace high? Oh yes, yes it was, and oh wow she really landed a shiner on that already-obliterated kneecap, and oh man check out those crossbow bolts growing out of the ogre’s neck like spines from a hedgehog. 

Absurdly, Nutmeg reached for his flask. Ahh, hell yes. It tasted like rotten fire. The ogre took a swing at – ah, shit, at Lucy. The gnome ducked, but she was screaming something. Couldn’t hear it with all the ringing in his ears. He could guess. “Nutmeg, go hit the ogre. Really hard. Just pulp that shit. Also, I will always be here to support you.” Nutmeg listened. With a wordless bellow, he booked it at the beast. It swung the club. He was ready, and met the club with his hammer. The shock ran through his arms, but ogre’s club splintered. He dropped the warhammer, which was vibrating like a tuning fork, and kept running and tackled the ogre’s bad leg. It groaned and fell. Nutmeg’s face was entirely too close to the ogre’s grundle. He pulled his little craft hammer from his belt and scrambled up the creature’s body. A great hand swatted at him; he bulled through. The other hand came up to grab him, but then it grew a crossbow bolt in a very important tendon, and the ogre let out a cry. Then he was at the ogre’s head, and he set to work. 

In the end, Sister D did as much work as Nutmeg, if not more. They pummeled the beast’s melon with mace and hammer. It was full dark by the time they stopped. 

“How are your ribs, Nutmeg?” Sister D wiped her mace against the grass. “Need a prayer?”

Nutmeg jabbed a finger into his chest. “Ow. Yes. Please.”

The priestess laid her hand on his chain-clad breast and murmured a prayer to Palladius. Something clicked back together near Nutmeg’s lungs, and his shocked arms even felt a little less bonejarred. Thank the gods for Sister D. Life would not have been the same without her. Or Gary, for that matter; the half-elf had managed to stitch a nasty iron tatoo in the ogre’s neck and chest. As for Lucy: the gnome was back on her own two feet, dusting off her cloak and boots, and adjusting the many pouches on her belt. 

“Are we ready to go in, then?” she asked. 

“I guess.” Nutmeg wiped a bit of ogre gristle from his hammer. “You think there’s more? What if it was just this ogre?”

“Ogres can’t do magic.” Lucy’s voice carried no small trace of disdain. “This is a commonly-known thing, buddy. Besides, even if it was just the ogre, who knows what could be in the cave. Maybe he was holding some gold from recent banditry.”

“Warg,” offered Gary. “The warg prints led here.”

“Okay, yeah.” Nutmeg unstoppered his flask and tipped it back again. “Fine. Let’s do it. Don’t bother with a camp. Strike while the iron is hot, and so on. In we go! Sister D, you up for it?”

“I suppose.” She was stretching her arms. “I’m a little sore, but I think I can keep going.”

“Fantastic. We’ll be in and out before sunup.”

Chapter 7 – In Which Things Take Longer Than Anticipated

Lucy was glad that Nutmeg led the way. That ogre’s club – well, if she’d been a little slower, it might have been gnome brains spattered across the clearing, not ogre. Besides, the young dwarf took to mission-leading like a duck to water. He guided them into the cave, Sister D behind him, followed by Gary, with Lucy bringing up the rear. She readied her pouches. Only a few more spells for today – she’d anticipated another day at least to commune with the arcane spirits and draw the necessary energies. But she could make do. It was just goblins. Goblins were no great threat. An ogre? Yes. An ogre was a threat. Wargs? Perhaps, if they were numerous and had surprise on their side. But in truth, Lucy felt confident. Gary had turned out to be a crack shot; Sister D a tougher broad than she looked. Not a bad little team. 

Nutmeg held up a hand as they came toward a bend in the path. “Goblins ahead,” he hissed. “I hear them talking.”

“Yeah, I’d be surprised if they didn’t hear that fracas with the ogre.” Lucy plucked at a pouch on the inner lining of her cloak. “Going in hot?”

“DEAAAATHHH,” Nutmeg bellowed, sprinting into the next room. 

“For fuck’s sake.” Lucy hustled after the other three.

A sextet of goblins awaited, baring teeth and weaponry alike. Lucy shouted “Everyone, shut your eyes for a sec!” None of the goblins appeared to speak Common well enough to get that, but her companions did. She flung a pinch of painted sand and cried aloud the secret word. Then shut her eyes, as a rainbow burst throughout the room, searing the eyeballs of any luckless goblin in sight. 

From there, it was meatwork. Nutmeg and the others made short order of the little green bastards. Lucy stayed Gary’s hand as the half-elf made to assassinate the last goblin – “Questions,” she said, and Gary nodded. They trussed up the last goblin and, when satisfied that all entrances were blocked and guarded, Lucy sat down on the cave floor cross-legged across from the prisoner. 

“Nutmeg, be a dear and translate,” she said. The dwarf stood beside her, hands on hips, glaring in a particularly menacing fashion at the goblin. “How many of you are there?”

The goblin chattered, and Nutmeg answered. “Eight, plus the ogre, plus three wargs, but one went missing.”

Lucy did some mental math. “Well, we’ve killed five in here, plus one outside, plus the ogre, plus a warg. So that leaves…ha. That leaves you, two wargs, and someone else. Who’s the someone else?”

“Do you want me to translate all that, or just the question?”

“Just the question is fine.”

“Gorbagga jupnit gorlin f’lhaaann?” asked Nutmeg. When the goblin answered, the dwarf cocked his head to the side like a curious dog. 

“Says his boss’s name is Alghor. He’s a – gorbaggu minn? – ah, yeah. A super-goblin.”

“A super-goblin.” Sister D said it in the same way someone might say “a bridge to sell, you say?”

“Yeah.” Lucy counted on her fingers. “You’ve got your regular goblins, your hobgoblins, your super-goblins, and your ogres. In that order. You might’ve heard super-gobs called bugbears. Total misnomer. They are neither bug nor bear.”

Sister D frowned. “I thought a bugbear was something annoying, a real cause for obsessive loathing.” 

“Now hang on,” said Gary. “I thought a bugaboo was some kind of evil fairy.”

“You’re both wrong,” said Nutmeg. “Very wrong. They’re super-goblins. And it’s not ‘bugaboo,’ Gary, it’s a bugbear.”

“Hey.” Lucy snapped her fingers. “Shape up. Nutmeg, ask the goblin if this Alghor is in the back of the cave with the two wargs.” The little goblin answered in the affirmative, and Lucy stood from the floor. “Fantastic. Nutmeg, I think we’re done.”

Gary stepped forward and, with a single flick of her wrist, cut the goblin’s throat. 

“Whoa!” 

“Fucking shit, Gary!”

“By Palladius!”

“What?” Gary wiped her dagger on her leather bracer. “We were done with him.”

“Yeah, but come on.” Lucy gestured to the now-very-dead goblin. “I feel like getting answers is usually worth letting them go.” 

“We killed that other goblin outside!”

“That’s different,” explained Nutmeg. “That was part of a plan.”

“Oh, so it’s only okay to cut goblin throats when Nutmeg says it is.” Gary rolled her eyes. “That’s definitely not what I signed up for.” 

“Hey, don’t give me that shit.” Nutmeg had put his hammer away, but he stepped within inches of Gary and looked into the half-elf’s eyes. He had to look up just a bit. “We’re not effective when we don’t coordinate. And when we’re not effective, we don’t get money.”

“But who gives a shit about these goblins?”

“It’s not about the goblins.” Nutmeg’s voice had taken on a dangerous edge. “It’s about teamwork. Being a team player. You’re not a good team player.”

“Okay, hey, ha ha, we’re all saying some things,” said Lucy. “Tell you what. Let’s figure this out some other time. Like not in the middle of a dark goblin cave where there’s a super-goblin with his pet monster dogs hanging out somewhere just around the corner.”

Gary held up her hands. “Whatever.” Nutmeg took a few paces back, red-faced but bottling it up. Sister D was inspecting her hands very carefully. 

By the gods. Lucy busied herself, gathering moss from the goblin armor. Goblin moss was a primary ingredient for no fewer than fourteen separate spells and incantations, including a very efficacious brew for curing both warts and hangnails. “Lead on, Nutmeg,” she said. “We’ll all follow you.” 

“Nope.” Gary bounded past Nutmeg, toward the tunnel leading onward, deeper into the cave. Nutmeg huffed and ran after the half-elf. Sister D followed. Lucy stood for a moment, alone in the chamber of the slaughtered. Dysfunctional. Nutmeg and Gary couldn’t go two hours without butting heads. Maybe they needed her after all – needed her to hold them together. Sister D was sweet and all, but she wasn’t stern enough to keep the cohesion strong. Not enough to whip that shitass Gary into shape. 

She trailed after them. Maybe twenty feet behind, down the long and winding corridors, watching Gary and Nutmeg bicker and jostle. Perhaps in the long term it was a good thing. Someone to challenge Nutmeg in a different way. He could grow as a person, and –

“AUGHHHHH,” screamed Gary, from around the next bend. 

Lucy hustled. When she rounded the bend, she pulled up short. She’d seen a lot of shit in her life. A lot. But her jaw still dropped, and her  first instinct was to run very, very far away. 

A huge, hairy, hulking goblinoid held Gary up by the throat with a single meaty claw. It looked like a bear with great bat ears, clad in crude metal and leather straps. In the beast’s other hand was a queer battleaxe, a little too small for the super-goblin’s generous frame. As Lucy skidded around the corner, the super-goblin was in the middle of hacking Gary’s legs off, one by one, with two quick strokes. 

“AUGH,” screamed Gary, again, for good measure. 

Nutmeg charged. From the back of the room behind the super-goblin, two yellow-eyed wargs came barreling out, chains around their necks, teeth flashing. Sister D clubbed one with her shield, grappling it away from the dwarf. Lucy pulled a rosethorn from a pouch and hissed a command word; it became a flaming dart, which she hucked at the other warg. And Nutmeg reached the super-goblin. 

The big bastard flung Gary against the cave wall. Gary hit with a wet cracking sound and did not rise. With a deep, savage laugh, Alghor parried Nutmeg’s swing and returned full force the blow. The axe bit into Nutmeg’s thigh, and the dwarf howled. And that was all Lucy could see, because now the warg was diving for her legs. 

She made a gesture with her fingers and spoke another word. Bolts of black lightning danced around her hand, and when the warg’s jaws snapped at her she slapped it across the snout. It whimpered away, cringing, fur scorched. A weaker beast might’ve suffered from a heart attack – Lucy had seen it happen. As it was, the warg bowed and sprang. Gods be damned, she had no spells worth casting. If they’d waited – if they’d waited! – but no, fuck, here it was. Lucy had her dagger ready, and ducked below the beast, but it still pinned her to the ground. The jaws flashed down, and pain like a wildfire ripped through her shoulder. Missed her neck, thank Palladius. She stabbed again and again, weaving and bobbing as the warg snapped again and again at her neck. Somewhere, Sister D was half-crying, half-screaming; somewhere, Nutmeg was bellowing again in pain and rage, and Alghor was laughing, laughing, and laughing. 

The warg’s breath smelled rank. Lean and bony under her fingers. The fur greasy and slick. And on its flank, she felt the bald patch, the five-fingered claw from the warg they’d killed before. Eons ago. She stabbed. Again. And again. Then it lashed out at her wrist, and she screamed a scream she’d never heard from herself. The dagger flew from her hand and clattered across the stone. In her sleeve was the crossbow. The warg lifted its head, and she swore it was smiling. If she could just get to the crossbow – but no, no, no – !

Thrum.

The warg crumpled. The full weight of it knocked the breath from her lungs and sent stars across her vision. She had just enough sense to see Sister D, ragged and bloody, holding Gary’s crossbow. Then all sensation faded, and darkness ate the world. 

Chapter 8 – In Which a Common Kitchen Cleaning Tool Is Not What It Seems

“Hey. Hey Lucy. Wake up, buddy.”

Lucy blinked. Everything hurt. Nutmeg’s face swam before her eyes, his beard wild and fractalish. 

“What the, and I cannot emphasize this enough, fuck, happened?”

“Shh. Hang on.” Sister D was there now, and she lay one bloody hand against Lucy’s chest and murmured a few words of prayer. The pain eased somewhat, although her shoulder ached where the warg had bit her. 

“Do you remember waking up?” asked the priestess. 

“No. What? No.”

“Yeah, we had to knock you out again.” Nutmeg upended his flask; nothing dripped out. “And now I’m dry.”

“I had to pray to Palladius to heal myself,” explained Sister D. She was pale, her red-gold raiments torn and tattered, her armor dented. “And then I had to meditate, to regain his favor. To heal you.”

“Gary?” Lucy sat up, regretted it, and kept sitting up anyway.

“Nope,” said Nutmeg. “Dead. Really dead. Pretty grisly.”

“Alghor?”

“Also dead!” Nutmeg’s voice sounded cheerier. “And check out his axe, Lucy. I think it’s dwarven make. From the old empire. Sister D says these little marks here are maker’s marks – I bet we could get it checked out. Maybe sell it.”

“Neat.” Lucy’s head throbbed. Whatever had been in Nutmeg’s flask was clearly too strong for her. “But what the fuck happened?”

“I slew my warg.” Sister D took up the tale. “I slew your warg, too, barely. Alghor would’ve killed me if not for Nutmeg.”

“Ah, it’s not that serious.” Nutmeg looked almost bashful. 

“It absolutely is.” Sister D traced a hand across the dent in her armor. “I would’ve died. Palladius be blessed, I did not.”

Now that all the big hairy beasts were dead, Lucy had a moment to look around Alghor’s chamber. Surprisingly civilized. A bed – not a pallet, or a cot, but a real bed – was over in one corner, a candleabra burning on a little bedside table. Another, larger table sat up against another wall – no, not a table, a desk. A writing-desk. A few sheafs of paper were scattered on its surface; an inkwell and quill on the left-hand side. There, on another wall, were the rings where the wargs had been chained up, with a bucket of water for the monsters to drink. And there, on the wall near the entrance, were most of Gary’s splattered insides. 

“Have you looked through his papers?” asked Lucy. “We can’t exactly ask him what was going on here.” 

“We did.” Sister D led her to the desk. Most of the papers were blank, but one letter was pinned to the table with a rusty iron dagger. “Couldn’t read this, though. It’s written in some sort of cipher.”

“That’s not a cipher.” Lucy leaned in to confirm her suspicions. “That’s – that’s a form of Old Reptoid. A very particular form.” Suddenly, all her other cares seemed small as bugs. “The tongue of Dragonsprakk.” 

“Dragonsprakk?”

“The speech of dragons. I thought that’d be obvious.” Lucy looked from one face to the other. “Didn’t you two ever learn your history? It’s an ancient language, a runic one created in the dawn of days, when dragons ruled all the world, millenia before even the old Dwarven Empire was even a gleam in the eyes of Kalakoz. Now, it’s used only by particularly obnoxious scholars…or cults.”

“Most cults are obnoxious,” Nutmeg admitted. “Present company excluded.”

Sister D frowned. “The high church of Palladius is the largest organized religion in the Hegemony, and I hardly think -”

“Shut up, shut up.” Lucy held up a hand. “Give me a half-second. It’s been a while since I was at the Knowledge Institute.” She was being modest. “Okay. Okay. Here’s the gist of it. 

“‘Alghor, you old bugbear -’”

“I knew it!” said Sister D.

“You’re so smart. ‘Alghor, you old bugbear, I trust you like a brother. I have sent the sponge with my courier, as well as three warg riders from the west. Drain the lakes. You have your orders. Looking forward to seeing you again. Much love, Forg of Khaddakar.”

“Much love?”

“Look, that’s what it says.” Lucy ran her finger over the long-dry ink. “Much love. What’s Khaddakar, I wonder?”

“Who’s Forg?” asked Sister D. 

“I think I found the sponge,” Nutmeg called. He’d wandered over to Alghor’s body, and was rifling through the super-goblin’s pockets. He stuffed what appeared to be a fistful of gold coins into his pocket; with the other hand, he held up a plain yellow sponge. 

“Nutmeg, I have an idea.” Lucy held out her hand. “Sponge.” The dwarf tossed it to her, and Lucy took it to the wargs’ drinking bucket. She plopped the sponge into the bucket. For a moment, nothing happened. Then, all at once, the water level dropped. Rapidly. The sponge shivered a bit, swaying in the dwindling water. Before they could say another word, the bucket was empty. 

Lucy drew the damp sponge out from the bucket. Gingerly, she wrung it out. A few drops of water spattered back into the bucket, no more than might have come from an ordinary sponge. 

“Well I’ll be damned,” she said. “This whole lake thing – it was a magic sponge?”

“How is that possible?” asked Sister D. “The water has to go somewhere – it can’t just -”

“It’s quite literally magic,” said Lucy. “Duh.” 

“No need to be unpleasant.” Nutmeg had begun rifling through Gary’s pockets, too. “Ah, gods, she’s still got some casserole in there.” 

“No more hired help,” said Sister D.

“Yup.” 

THE END OF EPISODE FOUR

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