When we last left our heroes: NUTMEG, LUCY, and SISTER DONDALLA recruited some hired help, the local ne’er-do-well GARY, to assist with a mission to the dried-up lakes of LAKETOWN. GARY proved to be less helpful than hoped, however, and met a grisly fate at the hands of ALGHOR the BUGBEAR. The gang solved the mystery of the lakes (it was a magic sponge), but appear to have discovered a larger conspiracy. They approach the city of DWARROWAY to meet their enigmatic government handler, MISTER E…
Table of Contents
- Chapter 1 – In Which an Artful Egg is Discussed
- Chapter 2 – In Which Homework is Assigned
- Chapter 3 – In Which a Flyer is Read
- Chapter 4 – In Which Shugg Doggro Returns
- Chapter 5 – In Which Another Flyer is Read
Chapter 1 – In Which an Artful Egg is Discussed
The city gates were guarded by a pair of humans in steel caps and tattered livery, lazily collecting tolls and taxes from all who passed. Nutmeg reined in at their signal. One guard, a woman who couldn’t have been much out of her teens, stepped down from her post and approached, dusting her hands on her breeches.
“Hail’n well-met!” She patted their cart. “What brings you to Dwarroway?”
“Eh, just passing through.” Nutmeg indicated Lucy, who sat in the cart, and Sister D, who rode alongside. “My companions and I are coming to stop for a few nights, but we’ll be gone soon enough.”
“Ten silver,” called the other guard, a man whose armor did not quite fit. “Just charge them the ten silver and get on with it, Fudda.”
“I’m trying to have some sense of customer service,” Fudda argued. “You know, Sergeant Hersk said we oughta find pleasure in the small things.”
“Hey,” Nutmeg interrupted, “listen, there’s no need to assess a toll. Ten silver’s a little steep for temporary lodgers, isn’t it?”
“For shit’s sake.” Lucy counted out ten silver from her bag and hucked it at Fudda’s steel cap. The coins clanged and donged, falling to the ground. “And a little bonus for you,” she said to the still-seated man, tossing another silver at the bridge of his nose. “Can we go now?”
For a moment, Fudda looked as though she wanted to try something. Both guards wore shortswords, and her hand strayed near the hilt. Nutmeg gave her a winning smile. “Please, excuse my companion. She’s just tired from the road. We appreciate your kind manners, and we’ll be going now.” He geeyuped the horses, and they trundled past the guards and into the city of Dwarroway.
The city bustled. Dwarroway, the furthest-west of the nine great cities of the Hegemony, never slept. The few other times Nutmeg had passed through, there had always been some great big thing happening. Last year, on an errand for an upscale smithy in Lone Tower, they’d swung through Dwarroway on Mask Night, when all the citizenry participated in what seemed like an awfully heathen, barbarian tradition: wearing large masks and little else, prancing through the streets like trained apes, cavorting in orgiastic glee. Nutmeg had a grand old time. Dwarroway was a great city, as far as he was concerned. Less stuffy than Lone Tower. You never knew what you were going to see.
They passed the walled-off warehouse district, with its many shanty shacks clustered up around the fortifications. Guards patrolled the warehouses, guards who looked far more alert and better-armed than Fudda and her lackluster compadre. To the east, the south riverfront ran down to the edge of the mighty Lundurr River, which cut through the city like an axe through a leg. On the other side of the river, the hills rose up again, and the wealthy park district loomed over the squalor on the west bank. To the north-west, the great keep stood silhouetted against the distant mountains. Banners streamed from the keep’s towers, buffeted in the breeze.
Soon, around a bend (after passing a fire-eater and no fewer than four competing bards, each louder and less tuneful than the other), they neared the grounds of the High Temple of Palladius. The golden dome gleamed in the sun, and the yard before the temple gates was filled with healers, fortune-tellers, beggars, and urchins. Sister D reined up short.
“Everything ok?” Nutmeg cooed Numble and Digg to a halt.
“I -” The priestess touched the dent in her armor, the place where Alghor’s axe had nearly split her in twain. “Look. I have no regrets about accompanying you. Believe me. I feel as though I am finally walking the sunlit path. But – well, I’ve faced death twice in the last few weeks. That’s a lot to grapple with. If it’s alright with the two of you, I’d like to spend a few days at the temple here. Resting, and meditating. Not that you aren’t good company for meditating, that’s not what -”
“I mean, we’re objectively not,” said Nutmeg. “It’s all good. Don’t worry about it. We’ll catch you before we head out again.” He paused, scratched his beard. “Hey, uh – if you do need to talk to us, you know, I mean -”
“Thank you.” Sister D’s smile was bright and wide. “Nutmeg, I appreciate that. I’ll see you in a few days. Or sooner, if you need me.” So saying, she turned and walked her horse through the temple gates, flashing the sign of Palladius at all who approached.
“Well.” Lucy sighed. “Looks like it’s just you and me again. Just like old times.”
“Just like old times.” Nutmeg flicked the reins, and they started off again. “I like having her around.”
“Yeah, I bet you do.” Lucy snorted. “‘Hey, uh, if you need to talk to us.’ Come on, buddy. Don’t Radiant Servants swear vows of celibacy?”
“As a matter of fact, they do not.”
“You’re an expert in religious orders now?”
“I happen to have discussed this with Sister D. Purely in hypothetical terms.”
Lucy tittered. “Are you serious? You brought it up to her?”
“Look, we have conversations.” Nutmeg felt his cheeks going red, and was grateful as always for his huge red beard. “So sue me. I can be friendly, you know. Just not to dickasses like Gary.”
“Let’s not talk about Gary.”
They crossed a wide cobble bridge over the river Lundurr, joined by dozens of fellow travelers, merchants, peasants, wizards, and all manner of riffraff. Once over on the north bank, the look of the buildings changed. Gone were the low wooden shops and halls of the south bank. The stonework here was tall and mighty, and their road led them right to the square at the heart of the city.
Here, the great dwarf-road ran east to west, a streak of red-gold masterwork against the dusty stones of the newer tracks. No one knew how exactly the dwarves of the old empire made their roads, and no one had yet replicated their handiwork. The square was huge, dominated in the center by a ring of nine columns of white elfcraft marble. The mark of the Hegemony. On the north side of the square was City Hall, a single central round audience chamber capped with a dome as white as the columns. A semicircle of stone buildings girdled City Hall – the offices, the workspaces, the miscellany of bureaucracy.
“Hey, do you know where we’re going?” Lucy peered out toward the columns. “It’s fucking packed here.”
“Yeah, there’s a good inn on the east side.” Nutmeg clucked to the horses. “It’s got a picture of a single white column on the sign, and a bunch of squiggles under the column. Can’t miss it.”
“You mean that one?” Lucy pointed. “Nutmeg, those aren’t squiggles. They say ‘The Tenth Column.’”
The dwarf harrumphed.
The Tenth Column had two floors and a little stable. It took some hassling, but Nutmeg convinced the stableboys to let him park the cart with the horses at half rate – “only a day or two,” he promised, and let his hand stroke the hilt of his new battleaxe. Inside, the main room was already busy, even early in the day. Scribes and clerks from City Hall sat alongside half-orc goons and halfling mafiosos; two dwarven smiths were engaged in a sweaty, frantic debate with an unkempt-looking elf garbed in blue. A trio of druidic priests in green and brown lounged at the bar, sending up clouds of sweet-smelling smoke from their long glass pipes.
“This place rules,” said Nutmeg. “Hey, R’yta!”
The innkeep was a human woman with dark red hair, dark eyes, and a smile that creased the lines under her eyes. “Nutmeg! Good to see you again!”
“When were you here?” Lucy was staring at a gnome fortune-teller clad in a rainbow robe.
“Last year some time. You were at the library for most of it.” Nutmeg took a seat at the bar and held up two fingers. R’yta winked and nodded. “I mean really. A library.”
“Are – are you kidding?” Lucy accepted the drink R’yta brought – a pale yellowish liquor that smelled like honey. “That was the job we did for Milettios Vespasios. We got paid like five hundred gold to read some books all because he was ‘too gouty’ to make the trip. And I did all the work, and then the day after we got paid, you took four hundred of the gold and bought a large decorative egg!”
“It’s an art piece.” Nutmeg pounded his beebeer. “Made of one hundred percent reclaimed crystal from the halls of the Dwarven empire thank you very much. I would think if anyone would appreciate it, it would have been you.”
“It’s just a big egg,” said Lucy, but she was talking mostly to herself.
Nutmeg turned. “Oh hey, Mister E. What’s up?”
“If you’re quite finished,” said Mister E, soft and easy, “I really think we should talk.”
Chapter 2 – In Which Homework Is Assigned
Mister E had, somehow, appeared at Nutmeg’s elbow.
“You look the same as always,” said Lucy. She sipped the beebeer. It wasn’t bad. This R’yta had good taste. “Been a while, though.”
“Where are your subcontractors?” Mister E, too, raised a finger to R’yta; she popped off and reappeared in a flash with a glass of beebeer for him, too.
“One is having a religious experience, the other got her legs chopped off and died.”
“Yes, well. It happens.” Mister E sipped. “You’re alive, though. Tell me everything.”
They told him everything. At the end, after another glass of beebeer each, Nutmeg produced the mysterious sponge. He set it on the bar; a nearby puddle of unidentifiable booze vanished when the sponge touched it.
“Fascinating.” Mister E produced a slim wand; Lucy read the word “IDENTIFY” printed in block letters along the wood. The man in black tapped the sponge, and, after a moment, a blue mist squirted from the end of the wand. It coalesced in the air and became a block of text. “Fascinating,” he said again. “It operates on simple disintegration – but the disintegration enchantment has been woven into the very fibers of the sponge. Any water it absorbs is utterly destroyed.”
“Yeah, we figured that one out, like, a week ago.” Lucy prodded the sponge. “I figure it’s worth…what did you come up with, Nutmeg?”
“Twenty thousand gold.” The dwarf tipped back a third beebeer. “Easily.”
Mister E spluttered into his beebeer. “Ech,” he said. “Hech. Not sure you understand how this works. That’s Hegemony property now.”
“Half.” Nutmeg was firm.
Nutmeg whipped up his dagger and, before Mister E could begin to stop him, cut the sponge in two pieces.
“Half,” he said again.
“Adanac’s balls,” swore Mister E. “What have you done?”
“Don’t sweat it.” Lucy pulled one half of the sponge closer to her. “I did some identification spells of my own. It should still work, just at half speed and capacity. Also, before you ask, it’s not infinite. I’d estimate capacity around two hundred and fifty thousand cubic feet. Well, one hundred and twenty five thousand cubic feet per piece, now.”
Mister E pocketed his half of the sponge. “Will you sell yours, then?”
“Hell no, this thing’s cool.” Nutmeg took it from Lucy. “I did some, uh, testing of my own. It will not suck the blood out of a living thing. For some reason. Real pain in the ass.”
“I’m sure we can find a use for it.” Mister E gave a long, weary sigh. “Now. The sponge is settled. But there’s still this matter of the letter.”
“Forg of Khaddakar, yes. Nutmeg and I have been racking our brains, but we’ve heard of neither Forg nor Khaddakar.”
“Forg – yes, that’s an odd one.” Mister E stroked his chin. “Could be a goblinoid name; evidence suggests we’re dealing with a goblinoid gang operating out of some stronghold called ‘Khaddakar.’ And that’s an odd word, too. Khaddakar. Clearly dwarven, I would say. Perhaps some name from the old empire. Likely somewhere nearish to Laketown, or at least close enough to be operationally useful. That mention of riders from the west, as well – that implies further coordinated allies even further away from Hegemony lands.”
”Okay, yeah, we also talked about that. Warg riders, too. Not a lot of those inside Hegemony territory.”
“Not anymore,” said Mister E. “Hm. Khaddakar.” He snapped his fingers. “I’ve got it. A task for you.”
“Paid,” he confirmed. “And of course, all funds for this past job – this sponge business – will be transferred to your accounts posthaste. No, but listen. A task. Unlike your previous tasks. In fact, you’re in the perfect city for this.”
“Are we?” said Nutmeg, clearly picturing some exotic and naughty thing.
“Are we?” asked Lucy, entirely different ideas in her head.
”Without a doubt. Perhaps you know of the history of this city? No? Well, I won’t bore you – I know you wouldn’t listen. Let me sum up. Dwarroway was not always Dwarroway. In the days of the ancient dwarven empire, it was a city called Durnehvaaz, crossroads of the east, with an archive older than the empire itself – or so they say.”
“Who’s ‘they’ in this scenario?” asked Nutmeg. “Because ‘they’ could probably think of way more interesting things to say.”
Mister E ignored him. “Look, the city has been destroyed, rebuilt, burned down, rebuilt again, burned again, and so on, more times than can be counted. There’s history here. Particularly in the library.”
“Wait.” Nutmeg shook his head, like a dog with water in his ears. “It sounds like you’re assigning us to reading a bunch of books.”
“I swear to every god in every plane of existence,” said Lucy, “if you buy another large decorative egg, I will learn a spell that makes you allergic to booze.”
“I believe you.” Nutmeg waved for more booze. “Won’t buy an egg. Don’t ask, Mister E.”
“I had no intention to ask.” Mister E polished off his beebeer and stood. “I think it’s a simple enough task, yes? Find out what or where Khaddakar is, using the library as a resource. Get as far as you can. I’ll keep an eye out for you. Rest assured, I’ll get my people on the research team as quickly as I can – but you know bureaucracy is slow. That’s why I hire people like you.”
He looked like he was about to disappear again. Lucy held up a hand.
“Wait. Before you go.”
“Why bother? Why have us running around for this? Surely there’s bandits we could hunt, or whatever. That’s really our specialty.”
Mister E paused. Lucy felt as though he was looking at her with fresh eyes. “Why?” he said, after a moment. “Well, maybe someday you’ll get a better answer than what I can give you. But for now? We need people we can trust. Not just goons with blades, but people who can get things done. People who are unhampered by red tape.”
”Hey, that’s cool, be as vague as you want.” Lucy raised her empty glass to the man in black. “Just curious, is all.”
Something caught her eye at the other end of the bar. When she turned back to bid Mister E farewell, he was already gone, vanished.
“Man, that’s so annoying,” said Nutmeg. “R’yta! You got more booze?”
Chapter 3 – In Which a Flyer is Read
Nutmeg had a good buzz going, and it was only lunchtime, so he wandered off to do some shopping. He loved shopping as a matter of principle. Exchanging currency for goods – oh, hell yes, it was the best. Especially when he had a buzz going. Today, though, he had some goals. He’d laid them out as best he could to R’yta, who was all too happy to point him to the right stores. “Thunder stones,” he’d said. “Gotta have ‘em.”
She’d sent him first to The Open Door, right across the square from the Tenth Column. Some sort of general store. Rope and bags and all sorts of assorted crap. A pair of half-orcs were haggling with the shopkeep, a dumpy-looking dude in overalls. Nutmeg queued patiently behind them. They seemed concerned about the price of a tin flask.
“Eight coppers,” the shopkeep said, in a voice that sounded as though he’d said “eight coppers” many times already.
“Four!” growled the half-orc. “Crappy tin flask. Highway robbery.”
The half-orc pounded the counter, knocking some knickknacks floorwards. “Four!”
“Gentlemen!” Nutmeg stepped to the counter. “If I may.” He snatched the tin flask from the half-orc’s hands and gave it a sniff, then a lick.
“What the fuck are you doing,” said the second half-orc. It was not a question, somehow.
“I’m a dwarf,” Nutmeg explained, as if that wasn’t obvious. “I can give you a fair estimate on the cost.” He smacked his lips. “Mm. Not a particularly good tin alloy. Smacks of antimony. But eight coppers is more than fair. Particularly given what tin prices have been doing over the past few years. You’d be lucky to find a tin flask for ten coppers by the end of this fiscal year.” He handed it back to the half-orc. “Yeah, eight coppers. Come on, dude.”
The half-orc had prominent yellowish tusks and muscles like a gladiator. He towered over Nutmeg. “You can’t boss me around.”
“Ah, Palladius’ pits, just hurry up.”
“Seven coppers is fine,” the shopkeep interjected, clearly just as done with this conversation as Nutmeg. “I promise.”
“Deal.” The half-orc pulled a handful of coppers from his belt-purse and dropped them on the counter. “Another deal negotiated by Shugg Doggro.”
Nutmeg counted backwards from fifteen to keep from saying something snide. The half-orcs meandered out of the shop, throwing dirty looks to Nutmeg as they went.
“Look, I appreciate the help,” said the shopkeep. “Or at least, the attempt. Name’s Norm. What can I do for you?”
Norm’s plain face widened with a grin. “You’ve come to the right place. Hang on a tic.”
He rummaged behind the counter; there was the sound of several locks clicking. He poked his head up. “Say, you’re not with the city guard, are you?”
“Pfft. No. Why?”
“Eh.” Norm stood and placed three rune-carved rocks on the counter, each the size of a child’s fist. “Technically not supposed to sell these willy-nilly.”
Nutmeg reached into his shirt and pulled out his Hegemony badge. Norm’s eyes went wide; he looked like was going to run. Nutmeg laughed.
“Hey, don’t sweat it. I’m not reporting you. Just lettnig you know – these are going to a good cause.”
“Fantastic.” Norm swallowed. “Usually they go for thirty gold apiece. I can do, eh, eighty for the set.”
“Seventy-five.” Nutmeg prodded one of the rocks. “I guarantee I’ll be back; you’ve got a repeat customer. As long as these work.”
“Seventy-five.” Norm nodded. “Deal. Want me to wrap those up for you?”
The rest of the day passed in much the same way. By day’s end, Nutmeg’s (new) pack was full, and his purse was nigh-empty. They’d have to do more jobs for Mister E, and soon. Maybe find a buyer for their half of the sponge. Although, all things considered, the sponge was a pretty good asset. Could come in handy.
On his way back to the Tenth Column, Nutmeg paused outside a silversmith’s shop. There, in the window, on a bust, hung a silver holy symbol of the sun, the icon of Palladius. It was inscribed with some squiggles, and the face of Palladius wasn’t as goofy as some of the less-well-made iconography sometimes looked. Sometimes the sun god looked like a clown god. But this was, well, pretty. And the silver looked pure, at least through the glass window.
When he finally returned to the Tenth Column, the sun had set. The inn was packed now, but he found Lucy easily enough, sitting in the corner, reading some sort of scroll.
“Nutmeg!” She waved him over. “I got you some dinner. Bread bowl.”
“Fuck yes. What’s the action?”
“Visited a wizard’s shop.” Nutmeg tucked in to the bread bowl; it was filled with a hearty chowder, well-seasoned and thick. “Bought some spells, thought I’d take them for a test run on our next jaunt.”
“Hrm.” Nutmeg slurped and chomped. “I suppose we’ll do the library thing tomorrow.”
“Yeah.” Lucy gestured to the notice board, which was hung by the door and thick with papers and broadsheets. “Did you see the posters for Skeetwizard’s?”
“Splut.” Nutmeg choked on a bit of gray meat. “First off, I can’t read, what a rude question. Secondly off, no, what?”
“Skeetwizard’s Shack.” Lucy pulled another scroll out of her pocket. This one had no arcane marks, only a picture of a lascivious-looking wizard in a pointy hat and star-and-moon robes ogling a well-endowed lady. There were squiggles all over the paper. “Some new club that opened up along the north riverfront. I asked around a little. It’s a halfling joint for the most part, but it sounds like a good time.”
“Hmm.” Nutmeg had annihilated his stew, and set to work on the bread bowl. “You up for that?”
“Totally.” Lucy leaned back. “I feel like we could use a vacation.”
“You keep talking about taking breaks, vacations, all that shit.” Nutmeg tore off a hunk of bread. “You okay, Lucy?”
“Me? Pshaw. Yeah. Just think we deserve a little fun.” Lucy waved to a serving wench and ordered drinks. “What about you? Buy anything neat?”
“Thunder stones.” Nutmeg patted his backpack. Gently. “Gonna fuck up someone’s ears.”
They worked back up to another good buzz before depositing their bags and heading out for the evening. It was a bit of a trek to Skeetwizard’s. From the center of town, they continued north, and north, and north again, along the riverfront. Past the area of City Hall, the buildings turned back to wooden shacks and longhalls. New and worrying smells filled the air, and there was little light to guide their path. They passed the Sacred Grove, a thick stand of trees where the druidic orders worshipped and held service; they passed skeevy-looking shops and shadowy figures. Rats scurried into alleyways. Just when Nutmeg began to suspect that they’d made a terrible mistake, they caught wind of thumping music, something heavy on the drums and light on tune.
It wasn’t hard from there.
Skeetwizard’s Shack was a two-story wreck with a fresh coat of paint. It sat in the middle of a busy-looking neighborhood, ringed by tenements and apartments. Halflings sat smoking nicoleaf outside, and a halfling bouncer greeted them at the door.
“Come on, man.”
“Rules are rules.” The bouncer indicated a box of swords, bows, daggers, shivs, machetes, falchions, and a single halberd. “No blades, clubs, or bows; no spellcasting, no holy prayers, no enchantments or other forms of sorcery. If you start a fight, you finish it in the river.”
“Fine, whatever, weirdo.” Nutmeg had left his new axe – fancy as it was – back at the room, but he dropped his dagger into the box. Lucy did the same – and, when the bouncer harrumphed, she reluctantly parted with her hand crossbow, too.
And then, they entered.
The place was a sea of halflings. Most were seated at tables near the stage, but many more were standing, shoulder-to-shoulder, lit only by flashing multicolored lights, enchanted no doubt by some middling halfling hedge wizard. There was a sign on the stage – “Show starting soon,” Lucy read out loud.
“Great, we’ve got time to get a drink.” Nutmeg muscled his way to the bar and slapped the counter. He and Lucy were short, but these halflings were shorter. And there were only a few non-halflings in the whole place.
A barkeep appeared. “What can I get you?”
“Tonight we’ve got the Skeetwizard’s Surprise.”
“What’s in it?”
“It’s a surprise.”
“We’ll take two.” Nutmeg tossed a gold on the counter, and in a moment the barkeep was back with two foaming white cocktails. Nutmeg gulped his. It was sweet, very sweet, but even all that sweetness couldn’t mask its potency. Even he coughed. Lucy’s face turned red with a single sip.
“Hey.” Nutmeg tapped the shoulder of the halfling next to him at the bar, a red-headed, stout fellow. “What’s up with all the halflings?”
He regarded Nutmeg with a suspicious eye. “What the fuck is it to you, dwarrow?”
“Whoa.” Nutmeg set his glass carefully on the bar. “No need for hostilities, buttdick.”
“My name’s not buttdick.” The halfling turned away. “And if you know what’s good, you’ll stop asking stupid questions.”
Nutmeg counted backwards from seven. “Listen. Hey. No hard feelings. We’re new in town, just wanted to know what the action was.”
The halfling turned back to face him, and looked him up and down with a critical eye. “Hurm. Alright. You get one stupid question for free.” He leaned in close. “You wanna know why there’s so many of my folk?” He tapped the side of his nose. “The Halfling Mafia.”
Lucy grabbed Nutmeg’s arm. “Hey, not to interrupt, but did you say the Halfling Mafia runs this place?”
The halfling snorted. “Runs Dwarroway. I said one stupid question.”
Nutmeg slapped the halfling on the back. “Hey, much appreciated – what was your name?”
“Roscoe, man, much appreciated. We’re just here to have a good time.”
The magic lights flashed, and the music kicked into high gear. Stagehands removed the sign from the stage. Roscoe gave Nutmeg a toothy grin. “Well, here comes the good time.”
Chapter 4 – In Which Shugg Doggro Returns
When the show ended, Nutmeg sat gaping. Roscoe took one look at his face and laughed.
“Never seen anything like that, I’d bet, huh?”
“My gods.” Nutmeg shook his head in wonder. “I – so many bananas. How did she even -”
“Look, they don’t call it Skeetwizard’s for nothing,” said Roscoe.
Lucy was munching on some peanuts from the communal bowl on the bar. “I thought it was pretty tasteful, all things considered.”
Roscoe barked a laugh. “Youse are nuts.” He looked from side to side. “Hey. Listen. You seem like you’re into fun stuff. Can I interest you in, uh, well -” he opened his brass-buttoned jacket, revealing a few small leather pouches sewn into the lining. “Some Mister Dusty?”
Nutmeg scratched his beard. “Explain.”
“Explain?” Roscoe shook his head. “Come on. It’s Mister Dusty. You snort it up your nosal cavities and it makes you feel good. You interested?”
“Sample,” said Lucy. She was on her third Skeetwizard’s Surprise, having commented that they “went down easier” after the first one and a half.
“Lucy, you’re not really thinking -”
“Why the fuck not.” Lucy patted the counter. “Come on, Roscoe, old buddy. Sample.”
“Fair.” Roscoe pulled out a little round piece of glass, detatched a bag of Mister Dusty, and poured two lines out onto the glass, cutting them with the edge of a coin. It was a grayish-white powder, fine as flour. Lucy pulled the glass to her and sniffed one line in a single go.
“WHOO.” She shook her head. Then shook her head again. “WHOO. YEAH.”
“Alright, you’ve convinced me,” said Nutmeg. He took the glass, leaned down, and inhaled. It rushed up his nose faster than expected, and he coughed and spluttered. A flood hit his veins. Gold signs lit up in his brain.
“OH MAN,” he said, in what felt like a totally normal voice that wasn’t at all loud or weird. “GOOD SHIT ROSCOE GOOD SHIT.”
“Thirty gold for the bag.” Roscoe set it on the bar. “Normally forty-five, but I like youse guys.”
“Hey, hey, hey, hey, I’ve got a different idea.” Lucy grabbed the bag and sprinted for the door. “COME ON, NUTMEG!”
“Ha ha damn.” Nutmeg shoved Roscoe, hard. The red-haired halfling tumbled back off his barstool, screeching a curse. He fell into the halflings nearby, who turned and tried to put Roscoe in a headlock. Nutmeg shoved them, too, and ran after Lucy.
“You fucking idiots!” Roscoe screeched from the floor, far away. “Big mistake! Big!”
“Ha ha no it isn’t.” Nutmeg grabbed their weapons from the bouncer’s box and plunged out into the street after Lucy.
“WOOO,” Lucy trumpeted, and tore off down the road.
The dark streets passed by in a blur. Nutmeg easily outpaced Lucy. He followed his nose. He followed his nose down to the waterfront, where all the smells were stronger. Whoooo-eeeeeee. He followed his nose. His nose which now stung and felt numb and really, really good. Super great. When he saw the tavern, with its honey-colored light spilling from the windows, he thought or maybe said “Lucy! Here!”
Lucy had apparently gained the ability to read thoughts, because she skidded to a halt at his heels and said “Here? Us? Go in? You think we oughta? Go in? Here?”
“Wait.” Nutmeg stuck a finger into Roscoe’s bag, then stuffed the finger up his nose. Lucy did much the same. “NOW WE GO IN,” said Nutmeg.
They went in. Hard.
As far as dingy waterfront taverns go, it was the archetypical ideal. An elderly bard twunked a lute in the corner. Dusty bottles lined the shelf behind the counter. There were patrons, but Nutmeg did not give two shits. He beelined for the bar.
“HEY!” he said, at a completely normal volume. “CAN WE GET A DRINK? TWO DRINKS? FOR US TWO?”
“Fuckin duster.” The barkeep shook his head, but produced two glasses of whiskey. “Here. This’ll calm you down.”
“I DOUBT IT” said Nutmeg, and he pounded both glasses before Lucy could get her hands on them.
“Hey hey hey Nutmeg Nutmeg there’s an individual coming at you.” Lucy was too busy pointing at someone to go for her drink. Nutmeg turned.
“You,” growled Shugg Doggro. “You fuckin idiot. Cost me some coppers today. Cost me pride, too, dwarf. Honor.”
“Ugly fuck.” Nutmeg waved for more whiskey.
“I’m gonna break you in half.” Shugg was unarmed, but his muscles looked like well-plumped pillows and his fists were the size of dinner plates.
“Fellas, take it outside,” said the barkeep, hopelessly.
“TOO LATE!” screamed Lucy. “EMBIGGEN!” She flung a handful of iron filings at Nutmeg’s face. He couldn’t help but snort some, which was intensely unpleasant.
Then he grew. And grew. And grew.
Shugg Doggro was probably about seven feet tall. Nutmeg looked down at him, his head brushing the ceiling, and grinned. “Oh hell yes,” he rumbled. This would feel good.
When he punched Shugg, it made a sound like two big sides of beef whacking together. The half-orc staggered back into his buddies – wait, where did they come from? Six more half-orcs? – who pushed him forward again, shouting for blood. Nutmeg grabbed a barstool and threw it near the half-orc gang, obliterating some guy’s nose.
“GWOAR,” bellowed Nutmeg, mostly just because he could.
“WOLF!” Lucy screamed, waving one of her new papers with all the squiggles. The sheet burst into blue flame and vanished. Then, in the bar, a wolf appeared. A gray wolf, tall, Lucy’s height at the shoulder, fur streaked with dark and light, teeth bared, eyes flashing. Nutmeg yawped with joy and bullrushed for the door. Lucy climbed on the wolf’s back and shrieked a wordless command, and they too went running, running behind Nutmeg as he bowled over the half-orcs and toppled back out into the street. He stopped only to take another bump and then was gone, hooting and hollering into the dark.
Chapter 5 – In Which Another Flyer is Read
Lucy throbbed. Her head throbbed, her legs throbbed, her arms throbbed; all her muscles felt as though she’d run a footrace with sacks of potatoes on her back. She sat across from Nutmeg at the table furthest from the window in the Tenth Column’s common room, chewing the probably-delicious eggs and toast. Her taste buds felt distant and woolly, like she’d eaten a bag of cotton. Nutmeg looked remarkably hale, but he always did.
“I don’t know,” she said, again. “I can’t do this, Nutmeg. That was too much.”
“Aw, it was a blast.” The dwarf’s chewing was like thunder. “The wolf was hilarious.”
“Total waste of gold,” Lucy muttered. “That could’ve come in handy. But nooooOOOooo.”
“Mmm, eh.” Nutmeg shrugged. “Live for the moment, I say. We had a good time.”
The door opened, and a city guard strolled in, a stack of broadsheets under one arm. He set the stack down on a table and, producing a nail and hammer, affixed one sheet to the notice board by the door. Lucy winced at each hammerblow. “Mornin’, R’yta!” called the guard, on his way out the door. R’yta returned his wave.
“Hey, would you look at that.” Nutmeg pointed. “What’s it say?”
Lucy squinted. “Oh, gods. Wow. ‘Fifty gold reward for information leading to the arrest of a WEREWOLF and GIANT seen rampaging through the north quarters on the Evening of the Twenty-Seventh Day of the Second Month of the Year.’ And there’s even a picture!” Her headache temporarily forgotten, Lucy stood and tore the broadsheet from the board. Sure enough: a terrifying cartoon of a werewolf with a star-and-moon cloak accompanied by a crazed giant with a bushy beard.
“I wonder -”
“No.” Lucy cut him off. “There is no way to collect the reward by somehow turning ourselves in. Not without a whole Thing, anyway. And I definitely don’t feel up to that.”
“Aw.” Nutmeg admired his likeness on the poster. “Think anyone will recognize us?”
“Yeah, no. You’re not a real giant, remember?”
Nutmeg was drinking a mug of beer; Lucy fixed herself a cup of mint tea, which improved her disposition considerably. Something to purge the toxins. She was much too young to feel this damn old. This dwarf would be the death of her, at this rate. Last night had been fun, she could admit that. But they had jobs to do, things to get done, and anyway, she wouldn’t be able to get around to her research if she wound up dead in a midden heap, nose frosted with Mister Dusty and tufts of wolf hair under her nails. Perhaps…perhaps it was time to write to her nephew. The elf.
Following breakfast, she led Nutmeg to the library. She knew Dwarroway’s library well. It was in a wealthier district, of course, just north of the green hills of the park district. Built in a classical barbarian style, it was a longhall writ large. Very large. The great wood-and-stone frame loomed over all the buildings beside it, like a rival to the castle on the western hill. Queer carvings in the lacquered wood leered out. There were annexes here where wizards-in-residence studied and worked; there was a basement, where courses were taught to snot-nosed upstart enchanters and would-be conjurers; there was even a mail desk at the front, separate from the postal office of the city, for the convenience of the researchers and archivists at work.
And there were the books.
Lucy stepped in and breathed deep. The cathedral-vaulted ceilings rose high overhead, and the towering bookcases marched in an interminable line to the far side of the library. Stacks and shelves and carts and tables and desks covered in books, books, books of all shapes and sizes and subjects, some bound, some unbound, some little better than dusty scrolls, some wrapped cover-to-cover in sheepskin, some interwoven with real basilisk scales, some engraved on plates of metal: books.
“Ech.” Nutmeg spat on the floor. “Tastes like dust. How long are we gonna be here?”
“Calm down.” Lucy strolled forward. “This is my time to shine.”
She left Nutmeg to his own devices, and began her search.
It made sense to start with books on the empire. The old dwarven empire was the subject of many a work; it hadn’t been Lucy’s favorite subject at the Knowledge Institute, but she’d had the intro-level classes, and did alright (except under Professor Gigba, a harsh grader with little tolerance for fun). The issue was, of course, that this library, this wonderful castle of books, was wildly disorganized. Wildly. She started at random, in a section that looked like history books. One cover caught her eye – “A Traveler’s Guide To The Manye Dwarrow Strongholdes.” But when she opened the book, she found that the inside pages had been entirely replaced with the contents of a different work (“Tax Records of the Hegemony, Year 154 [Annotated]”). Very well. Another, with the word “DWARVES” printed large on the spine. Ah, no. The full title, revealed inside, was “Dwarves: Are They Real? An Investigation.”
An hour or two passed. Finally, thirteen stacks in, beside a book labeled “The Manee Folkes Hoo Caim Befour Us,” she espied a slim, dusty, unmarked sheaf of loose paper. It gave her a good feeling. It was hard to explain that feeling – she supposed it must be the way Nutmeg felt when he caught wind of a particularly promising scent. She flipped through the old pages, sneezing every few seconds. It was written in Ancient Dwarfese – promising – and did, in fact, chroncile a number of the Hammerholds of the old empire. Several pages appeared to be missing, and several more were stained by some bluish-gray liquid, but – there. On the bottom of page forty-two (which came directly after page thirty-seven), a reference to “the Forge of Dolgatha, at Khaddakar.”
When Lucy found a complete set of appendices at the back of the pile, she nearly cheered. Appendices were so under-appreciated and yet so useful. Nutmeg would never understand. At last, she found a reference that looked promising: “An Account of the Fall of Khaddakar and Durnehvaaz.”
“Gotcha, bitch,” said Lucy, and she was off again.
The reference wizard was of marginal help. The library was armed with a scrying ball for attempting to find any extant books, but results were spotty unless you had an actual piece of the book in hand. Lucy tapped her foot as the reference wizard, an elderly gnome with an ear-trumpet, tried several variations on the title in the scrying ball. Where had Nutmeg gotten to? It wasn’t like him to be so quiet while unsupervised in a library for this long. Perhaps he’d gone shopping elsewhere in the city. That would be more like him.
“I’m sorry, but my scrying reveals little of this work. Are you sure you have the title correct?”
“Yeah, I’m sure.”
“Eat a wiener.”
“Hmm? Still didn’t catch you.”
“I said, thank you for your help, I’ll find it on my own, you old coot.”
A single book in a disorganized library was a tall order. And Lucy wasn’t tall. Still, she felt optimistic. It was good to be on the hunt. An account of the fall of Khaddakar and Durnehvaaz would likely be bound in sheepskin or similar, recorded by one of the barbarian tribes from the north who were responsible for so much of the initial research on the empire after its collapse. Inscribed in Old Common. Thus categorized with works in Old Common. There wasn’t true organization in the library, but it had a minimum level. As if someone like Nutmeg had wandered through and shoved like-looking things together at random.
Unless – she paused on her way to a rack of sheepskins. The account referred to Durnehvaaz, not Dwarroway. The old name. The Dwarven name. It could be an account by a Dwarf, then, in which case –
She turned, and there, on the shelf behind her, stacked with the metal plates of Ancient Dwarfese runes, was a book neither bound in sheepskin nor in metal. A plain binding, unadorned, save for a single rune on the spine. A rune that matched the rune on Alghor’s axe, now wielded by Nutmeg.
“Hells yes.” Lucy plucked the book from the shelf. There, in Ancient Dwarfese: “An Account of the Fall of Khaddakar and Durnehvaaz.”
From there, it was child’s play. The rune was the maker’s mark of Dolgatha, an ancient Hammermaster of Khaddakar. The book itself was written by the great-niece-in-law of the last Archivist of Durnehvaaz, who apparently fled the city before its fall, bringing with him all the secret maps to the forges, strongholds, and mountain holdfasts near Durnehvaaz. Including – yes, there it was, explicitly in the text (she loved it when stuff was explicitly in the text): the mystic map to Khaddakar itself.
And where had this Archivist fled? Someplace called the “Mad Monk’s Tomb.” Further reading revealed it was the mausoleum of an eccentric, fabulously wealthy recluse named Pindor. Easy peasy. She’d heard Pindor’s name before – some kooky gnome sorcerer who wrote treatises on Nature and Being and all sorts of crap like that. It was the work of minutes to find a biography of Pindor, and lo and behold it mentioned the location of his mausoleum: alongside Dernum Lake. A week’s ride out from Dwarroway.
A week’s ride.
Lucy sighed, and sat at the reading-table next to the shelf. Her stack of books had grown. A week’s ride out. Then some killing, probably, knowing their luck. Then, if they survived, a week’s ride back, through hill and forest. Then…then what? If they found the map to Khaddakar, they’d be off again, to wherever-the-fuck Khaddakar was, and then probably more killing and fighting this Forg fellow, and then…
She had her satchel with her, and had been taking notes on parchment as she went (a good researcher always took notes). She pulled out a fresh sheaf and wrote something new. “Dear Gelmahta,” she began, and took it from there.
When she was done, she headed to the mail desk at the front and dropped the letter off with the bright-eyed clerk behind the desk. Then she went to find Nutmeg.
As if on cue, the reference wizard screamed from somewhere near the back of the library.
Lucy left her stack and hustled as fast as she could. Her leg was still sore from that crossbow wound a few months ago, and damn if her feet weren’t killing her from last night. But she hustled, and oh gods there he was.
“STOP!” shouted the reference wizard. “STOP! PEEING!”
Nutmeg stood on a table, back to the wizard, a stack of books on the floor below him. Sure enough, his pee splattered off the covers of the books, drenching the pages and turning old scrolls to mush.
“Nutmeg, for fuck’s sake.” Lucy took a few gold out and gave them to the reference wizard. “Here, I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have left him unsupervised.”
“He’s ruined it! Our copy of ‘The Cows of Cottingpike’ is ruined!”
“Ah, who gives a shit. Go look at a real cow, nerd.” Nutmeg buttoned his trousers and hopped off the table. “Lucy, you good?”
“Yeah. I found where we’re heading.”
“You’re the best! Let’s go pick up Sister D and hit the road!”
“Why not!” Nutmeg indicated the reference wizard, who was turning redder by the second. “I get the feeling we’re not welcome here much longer. Where are we going, anyway?”
“The Tomb of the Mad Monk Pindor!”