When we last left our heroes…NUTMEG and LUCY received a new quest: discover the location of the mysterious stronghold KHADDAKAR. Before doing their research, they partook of the local drug du jour of Dwarroway: Mister Dusty. With a wild night behind them, they discovered that the map to KHADDAKAR was located in the tomb of an ancient monk. With SISTER DONDALLA, they departed for DERNUM LAKE, in search of the Mad Monk’s Tomb…
Table of Contents
- Chapter 1 – In Which Some Chicken Bones Take a Tumble
- Chapter 2 – In Which Eyes Open
- Chapter 3 – In Which Nutmeg Picks Up a Tooth
- Chapter 4 – In Which There are Books
- Chapter 5 – In Which Nutmeg Makes a Friend
- Chapter 6 – In Which Everyone’s Boots Get Wet
- Chapter 7 – In Which Lucy’s Hopes and Fears are Realized
Chapter 1 – In Which Some Chicken Bones Take a Tumble
Dernum Lake stretched out picturesque and pretty, clear blue water reflecting the pines and elms around the shore. Sunset was soon; the reds and yellows already danced in the rippling lake. Nutmeg eyed the cold water suspiciously. Perfect breeding ground for mosquitos. Maybe a little too cold – but he’d thought that back at Torold’s Pass, and look how that turned out. They’d abandoned their cart back in Dwarroway and took to horesback once more, riding Numble and Digg. Sister D rode Sunchaser. Or so she’d named her sleek courser. It was a handsome name for a handsome horse. Sister D sat silhouetted against the lake as Sunchaser stopped to drink, and Nutmeg, too, paused atop Numble, watching the way the late afternoon sun played through the priestess’ hair.
Maybe it was the still, quiet air around the lake, or maybe looking at Sister D gave him superpowers. Either way: his nose twitched. A smell was on the air. The smell of moss, of rot, of unwashed loins.
Lucy, atop Digg, turned back to look at him. She had one hand on her reins; the other held a hand-traced map of Dernum Lake, the Mad Monk’s Tomb marked with a big red X for clarity.
Sister D heard them.
“What are they even doing out here?” Lucy turned her map this way and that. “We’re far enough out from civilization – it’s slim pickings for them here.”
“Goblins are weird, whatever, that’s old news. Let’s hit it, Lucy, which way now?”
The gnome pointed into the trees. “Up this way. About a half mile.”
They rode for hardly a minute before Nutmeg paused again. “We’re getting closer to the goblins. Enough to reek to high heaven. No offense, Sister D.”
“I’m not sure what I’m taking offense to there.”
Nutmeg shrugged. “Some heaven thing? Eh. Anyway. Point is. We oughta ditch the horses. Go in quiet.”
Lucy and Sister D did as he suggested. They’d come up under the eaves of the forest, scaling a gentle hill. There had once been a path here; the dirt was swept aside in favor of stone in a few places, and when Nutmeg discreetly tasted a bit of loam, he detected more than enough trace elements of leather and brass. And moss. Goblin moss.
“Now, we talked about this,” he hissed, as they climbed. “Let’s execute plan Gamma here.”
“Is Gamma the one where I pretend to be an actual demon?” asked Lucy. “Because I thought we agreed to scrap that.”
“No, no. This is the one with the fire beam.”
“Oh, hell yes.”
Lucy took point, as planned. Nutmeg had drilled them on the way out. A week of riding left them with plenty of time to talk. And plan. And there were only so many times they could go over the basic facts of their quest before Nutmeg wanted to tear his beard out hair by hair. Some shit about an Archive, an ancient crazy monk, maps, whatever. The point was – go to place, get thing. And, apparently, gank goblins.
Lucy had been weird on the ride over. She wasn’t nearly as interested in formations and plans as Nutmeg had expected. Sure, she’d been excited about testing out this new fire beam thing she picked up from a library book, but she also talked a lot about all the other books they might find at this Archive place. It wasn’t that Nutmeg hated books. Not exactly. It was more of a virulent distaste. An all-purpose loathing. Born partially from resentment, yes, he was self-aware enough to admit that. But moreso: people made such a big deal out of learning how to read, and in Nutmeg’s experience, those people were not very good at the things they needed him to do (hit stuff, hunt smells, cook eggs, and so on). Lucy certainly wasn’t. She was more capable than most casters – he’d met a wizard once, on an errand for Lucy, who had an entire staff of servants for the sole purpose of folding his socks. All of them hard at work, folding socks, day in and day out. Nutmeg respected those servants. He respected the wizard too, in a different way – it took some gumption to be that lazy. But if you’re going to be that lazy, he reasoned, why waste your laziness on reading?
They saw the mausoleum. A squat gray stone structure, covered over with so many vines and creepers that it looked like a massive shrub, lumped on a hillock all alone. Yet there was a clear path up the sward, lined as it was by ash and elder. Goblins had been through here. And not long ago.
Lucy crept forward, head down, cloak up. Sister D followed, with Nutmeg trailing just behind. The door to the mausoleum was open. Or rather, it was gone. The goblins, apparently stymied by whatever lock had held it shut, had simply hammered their way through the stone door. It lay in pieces on the ground. Nutmeg touched a shard with something like reverence. That door had been there for what, six hundred years at least? According to what Lucy said, anyway. Fine stonework, too – tasted like craftsmanship, and the detailwork had taken a clever mason’s hand. Goblins. No respect for good taste.
Lucy held up three fingers. Two. One. Then she leapt through the doorway. “Looks like it’s fire o’clock!” She called out a secret word and pointed her finger.
Nutmeg and Sister D came barreling after her, in time to see the aftermath of her fire beam. The room beyond the door was a long hall of stone, lined with three sarcophagi on either side and a central dais at the far end. Goblins had made camp here, in the middle of the room. Their camp was ablaze, as was one goblin, whose mossy armor burned merry and bright.
The other goblins dove for cover behind the sarcophagi. Nutmeg charged right. His new axe was in his hands. The heft of it was perfect. He’d never held a weapon so keen, so well-made, so balanced. His warhammer had fetched a pretty penny when he sold it at Shoulder’s Blades.
He vaulted a sarcophagus. A goblin lurked on the other side, holding a crude shortspear skyward. Nutmeg caught it on his armor. He rolled with the impact. He swung the axe behind him as he passed the goblin. His aim was good. The axe bit deep and clean. Nutmeg popped up and took stock. Battles went fast now, and it was hard to keep track sometimes. Sister D and Lucy had acquitted themselves well, it seemed; more goblins lay dead, and there appeared to be no major injuries for either companion.
A pair of goblins broke from the back of the room and ran for the door. Nutmeg hefted the shortspear from the one he’d killed and threw it as hard as he could. It pinged harmlessly off the stonework around the door, and the two goblins were gone, out into the early evening. There came a sound like a bag of tomatoes trampled by an ox, and then Sister D stood, wiping gore from her mace. The mausoleum fell quiet.
“Not too bad.” Nutmeg strolled through the charred remains of the goblin camp. “We probably could’ve executed that a little better, though. Those two runners. I mean, that kind of stuff bothers me.”
“Hey, check it out.” Sister D was poking around near the dais. “Two antechambers. This is a big place. I thought there was only one guy buried here.”
“Well,” Lucy began, “I thouOH GODS, Nutmeg, what the fuck!”
Nutmeg had decapitated the roasted goblin and, after mounting its head on a shortspear, propped it up in the ruins of the campsite.
“It’s a warning,” he said. “What?”
“It’s grotesque.” Lucy wrinkled her nose. “What effect could that possibly have?”
“You know, if they come back, round up company, they’ll see this and go ‘oh whoah, I don’t know about this, these guys are pretty rough, ooh.’”
“That’s a little asinine, but I’m glad you had a reason.” Lucy followed Sister D into the left-hand antechamber, and then stumbled out. “Phaw. Midden heap.”
“Nothing useful.” Sister D emerged too, a hand over her mouth and nose. “Let me check the other one.” She pushed the door open. Suddenly, the air was filled with a terrible racket. A metallic clatter and cacophany. Nutmeg’s axe flashed up; Sister D jumped back, mace at the ready. Then, she laughed. “Oh, wow. Check it out. Goblin alarm.”
A little bag of chicken bones had been tipped over by the motion of the door; the chicken bones had tumbled into an empty iron helmet. Nutmeg nodded in approval, and tasted one of the chicken bones. “Mm. Fresh. Well, fresh-ish. Clever, though. Really should’ve done that on the front door.”
“Yeah, they’re not smart.” Sister D cautiously entered the antechamber. “Ah, looks like they hit some merchants. Some good stuff in here. I think this is real leopard fur on these bootcuffs.”
“Hey, I’ll take those.” Nutmeg poked his head around the corner. Sure enough, a little trove of ill-gotten goods, complete with the merchants’ transaction records. Sister D picked up the leatherbound volume.
“We could probably figure out who the next of kin is. Return the items.”
“Eh. I can’t read.” Nutmeg slid the leopard bootcuffs up and over his boots, affixing them to the top. “Not bad, yeah?”
“Okay, yeah, not bad.” Sister D shrugged. “I’d still like to do something with all this.”
“That’s a problem for later.” Nutmeg gestured to the mausoleum. “We’ve got limited saddlebag space. Right, Lucy? Lucy?”
Lucy was still in the main chamber, her maps and books spread across the floor around her. She stood over the sarcophagus on the main dais, scratching her chin. “Go get the horses and hobble them in here, Nutmeg,” she said. “I think we’re going to be here for a while.”
Chapter 2 – In Which Eyes Open
Nutmeg and Sister D made camp. Lucy didn’t have time for that. Pindor, the Mad Monk, had left precious little to guide them to his treasures. Well, not his treasures, necessarily. She’d had the chance to do some reading since Dwarroway. The Archivist of Durnehvaaz had fled here with all the mystic maps and records of the ancient dwarven empire, that much was clear. And this place, this mausoleum, had already existed for some time. But clearly this chamber – this goblin-squatted, vine-infested midden heap – wasn’t the final repose of the Archivist. Or of Pindor, for that matter. His few surviving works conveyed his personality well: a gnome monk, servant of a queer, nameless god, renowned the world over for his miracles and spells which could not be replicated. Eccentric. Prone to fits of madness. The Mad Monk, in other words.
Still, she’d been a little surprised at the inscription on the lid of his sarcophagus. Left in High Elvish, a language that had changed little since the days of Pindor, and worn by time and wind and goblin hands.
Nutmeg strolled over. “How’s it going?”
“I think I’ve just about got it.” Lucy wiped dust from the inscription again. She’d been mixing ink and sand, taking pressings of the runes, again and again, drawing out the old words, and then translating them from the odd meter to something a little more comprehensible. “Here’s what it says so far: ‘I’m not here! I’m one of those guys! Good luck finding out where the real Pindor lies! And if you want the really cool stuff, poke me in the…’” She shrugged. “It’s too busted to read there.”
“Probably ‘eyes,’ though, right?”
Lucy gave the dwarf a withering look. “Nutmeg, it only rhymes because I translated it as a rhyme. You can’t use the rhyme scheme to predict the next line.”
Nutmeg snorted. “Whatever. So, what, this big fancy sarcophagus isn’t Pendle’s?”
“Yes.” Lucy stood and stretched, popping her back. “Ahh. Whoo. Yeah, no, this big one isn’t Pindor’s. I think there’s only one real sarcophagus in this chamber.”
“Well, shit.” Nutmeg turned back to where Sister D was roasting some fresh-caught rabbit for supper. “If I still had my hammer, we could just take these sarcophagi apart one by one, much as it pains me to say it.”
“How do you know that the plural of sarcophagus is ‘sarcophagi’ but you didn’t get the rhyme scheme thing?”
“Okay, no need to be rude.” Nutmeg chomped thoughtfully on a piece of waybread, hard as a cracker but three times as thick. “Mmph. I still think it could be ‘eyes.’ I’m going to poke all these sarcophagi in their eyes.”
Each sarcophagus did have a face carved into the lid – more than a face, a whole person, a likeness wrought with cunning and skill. Each was different. Some laughing, some weeping, one missing because some goblin had carved a big penis on the lid. Lucy fervently hoped it wasn’t that one. Anyway, it couldn’t be ‘eyes’ – she’d just done the “guys/lies” rhyme because it made her laugh, and there was some pride to be taken in a skillful translation like that, since the original High Elvish had rhymed, too, and –
“HA!” Nutmeg shouted. “Got it!”
He stood over a sarcophagus, fingers still v-shaped from jabbing it in the eyes. The eyes on that face – a laughing gnome, with a wild shock of hair – had depressed into the lid, and there was a grinding noise, the sound of stone on stone, as the lid retracted into the wall.
“Fuck me,” said Lucy.
In the space where a body should’ve been, there was a ladder, a metal ladder descending into darkness.
“You guys want dinner first, or…?”
“Dinner first.” Lucy turned in a huff. This shouldn’t bother her this much, but it did. “No point in letting Sister D’s hard work go to waste.”
“I appreciate that.”
They ate soon, and sure enough Sister D had outdone herself again. The rabbit was lean, but well-seasoned, and with a little ale from a cask in Nutmeg’s saddlebag, it all went down rather well. To make herself feel better, Lucy talked.
“Now, we’d best be ready for anything. There’s no telling what’s down there. The ancient dwarves are well-known for their cunning traps and labyrinths. Who knows what those crazy fuckers did here. I think – and this is just a hypothesis – but I think they built a kind of expansion under the mausoleum, but clearly Pindor himself worked on this a little, too. Which means more riddles, I would bet.”
“Hey, we’re one for one on the riddles,” said Nutmeg. “Can’t be too bad.”
“I’m just saying. This is – it’s different from what we’ve dealt with before. We’ve got to be sharp.”
When the food was finished, they prepped. Lucy had been making simple torches on the road – at least a dozen, enough to keep them walking in the light for quite a while. Nutmeg sharpened his axe. His new toy. Sister D, too, had been getting ready – someone from the temple had given her a full suite of red draughts, potions to heal and stitch the flesh. She was a useful addition to the team, no doubt about it. Sister D could keep Nutmeg going when Lucy left.
When. It was a strange idea. Her last ride. Hopefully Nutmeg wouldn’t fuck it up too much. But what a way to go out! Hunting down a lost Archive of the dwarven empire, uncovering long-lost maps and secrets…it was hard not to get excited about retirement. Poor Nutmeg. All excited with his plans and attack formations. He’d figure it out. She was confident. Besides, when Gelmahta arrived – well, he could be prickly, but she had a good feeling.
Nutmeg climbed down first, bearing a burning torch into the stygian depths. Ancient wind carried up the smell of dust. The darkness ate him, closing in around them as they followed him into the tomb. Tomb? It was a tomb, or felt like it, full of old air dust and nothing else. No spiders wriggled in nearby webs, no rats scurried. If anything moved down here, it was no true living thing.
“Whee!” Nutmeg leapt from the ladder and landed with a thud. Lucy clambered after him, carefully stepping off to the flagstone floor. Nutmeg lit a second torch and passed it to Sister D. Shadows washed the room. The high ceiling tapered away to a single point of light, where the ladder came up into Pindor’s false coffin. Arrayed around the room were four great statues, positioned in the corners. They were dwarves – ten feet tall, yes, but dwarves, bearing weapons and shields and looking ferocious in the torchlight. The ladder came down between two statues; across the room, a stone door was set in the wall between the other pair.
Nutmeg stood at the foot of one statue, staring up into the eyes of the stone dwarf. Something like awe was writ plain on his face.
“It’s the empire, alright.” Lucy indicated the sigil of the bloody axe carved into each dwarf’s shield. “The mark of the founder.”
“Awesome.” Nutmeg touched the stone, fingertips brushing the ancient craftwork. “This kicks ass.”
“Through this door, then?” asked Sister D. “I don’t see a handle.”
“I’ve read about these.” Many, many times. “There’s a clever track in the ground. You push it, it slides open light as a feather.”
“Like this?” Sister D pushed the door.
Something clicked and buzzed behind the walls. The two statues flanking the door opened their eyes. Darts as long as a man’s arm shot out of each eye, directly for Sister D. She twisted. One caught her cloak, the other clattered to the ground – a misfire. The third dart caught her in the thigh; the fourth, in the arm.
“Shit!” Sister D screamed. Nutmeg had his axe at the ready.
The door slid open. Blackness beyond.
“Did you read about that?” Nutmeg asked. Sister D yanked the dart out of her arm and winced at the blood.
“Frankly, yeah, I did.” Lucy studied the faces of the dwarf statues. Implacable. Empty-eyed. The whole statue must have been a complicated mechanism, lined inside with gears and cogs. And more darts, perhaps. Were they the first to trigger this trap? The first ever? “The ancient dwarves loved their machines. Who knows what else we might find.”
“I mean, don’t get me wrong – it rocks. Traps are cool as hell and I love them.” Nutmeg peered into the darkness beyond the open door. “Sister D, you good?”
The priestess chugged one of her little red bottles. The dart popped out of her leg, and the bloodflow from her arm slowed to beaded droplets. “Now I am. By Palladius. That one stung.”
“I’ll take point,” offered Nutmeg.
“I think that’s wise. And let’s not go touching stuff willy-nilly.”
“That’s literally my favorite thing.”
“I know, Nutmeg.”
Chapter 3 – In Which Nutmeg Picks Up a Tooth
It felt like hours, but it couldn’t have been that long. Nutmeg inched his way along the corridors, guided by Lucy’s constant barrage of instructions and commands. “Watch that flagstone!” “Tug on that sconce, and duck.” “Take really, really big steps. I read about this.” I read about this. Yuck. Man. How many things had Lucy read? He knew the answer (“a shit ton”), but still. She hadn’t always acted this way. Definitely getting on his nerves. He knew how to keep an eye out for traps. Maybe nothing this sophisticated. But growing up in the gutters had brought a kind of knowledge, too; there were always those looking to snare the less-fortunate, or to steal a crust of bread, or even just to fuck with hapless orphans by catching their feet in razor wire. Nutmeg had seen his fair share of traps.
The tunnel stretched on and on – straight, and due north. He could tell. Maybe the others couldn’t, but he could. The stonework was magnificent, too. Untouched by centuries of wind and weather, left exactly as it had been on the day the place was sealed. Lucy had mentioned an Archivist. Could that Archivist be alive down here? Probably not. Felt too much like a grave.
Finally, the tunnel opened. Lucy hissed “Hold on, Nutmeg!” She took out a little ball of clay and rolled it across the threshold from the tunnel to the next room. The little ball of clay rolled a few feet, and then stopped. Nothing happened.
“Neat.” Nutmeg stepped over the little clay ball and into the room beyond. It had a high, vaulted ceiling, carved with care from the living rock. Bare and empty, this room, stone all around, save for a door in the western wall and a little table – a shrine? an altar? – to the north. The torchlight filled the room. Nutmeg could see well enough in dim light, but the others – well, they needed a hand. He found a sconce and set his torch. The little table interested him. There were things on it, and he loved things. Most prominent was a statue of a dwarf – a little statue, but a mighty dwarf. He held an axe above his head, and the stone of the statue was so well-made that each hair in his beard seemed almost to blow in an ancient breeze. So entrance was Nutmeg that when Lucy stepped up next to him and said “Eurgh, teeth,” he blinked, and said only “what?”
“Teeth.” Lucy pointed. “What the fuck.”
Teeth. There were teeth on the altar. Molars and bicuspids. One person’s teeth. Ancient, clearly, as the blood had long flaked off. But there were teeth at the foot of the statue.
“What the fuck indeed.” Nutmeg picked up a tooth, held it up to his mouth. “Hmm. My size.”
“Did you find your teeth on a mysterious underground altar, Nutmeg?” asked Sister D, coming up behind them.
“No. Dwarf teeth, though, definitely.”
Nutmeg dropped the tooth on the altar and turned for the door. “I am not going to investigate this shit. Come on.” He inspected the doorjamb. “No wires here. As far as I can see. Another slider. Ready?”
Lucy and Sister D each stepped back about twenty feet. Nutmeg snorted. “I’m sure it won’t be that bad.” He slid the door open.
There was only stone beyond.
And then, there was more.
Something came out of the stone. Something black. Made of smoke, or gauze, or something not quite real. Something shaped like a – like a dwarf. Almost. The suggestion of a dwarf. Hovering out of the stone. With it came a wailing, a senseless gibbering that came from the depths of the creature and echoed around the cavern.
“BABBLEGAUNT!” cried Lucy. “Get back!”
“Why?” Nutmeg braced himself. The babblegaunt was an awful thing to see – its toothless, smoky mouth opening and closing and opening as it shrieked. He whirled the axe.
The smoke parted to permit the axe to pass. Then it closed again, and then the thing reached him.
Cold fingers touched his brain. It stuck out a hand and the hand went into his head, and his tongue went numb and his ears rang. “Buhh,” he said, and fell back assfirst.
Lucy shouted a secret word, and held out her hand. Somehow, fire burst forth, and the babblegaunt pitched its cries higher and fiercer and more desperate. Then Sister D waded in, brandishing her new silver Palladian symbol. She chanted, and the light of the sun sprang from the face of the god. Was she doing that? Did she make Lucy’s fire, too? The black mist of the babblegaunt turned pale, like morning fog shredded by dawn. Neat, thought Nutmeg. I wonder why that’s happening.
With a few more pulses of light and fire, the wraith dissipated. Nutmeg scratched his chin. “Where’d it go, Lucy?”
“The babblegaunt. Where’d it go?”
“Ah, shit.” Lucy knelt beside him. “Follow my finger.” She moved her raised finger back and forth in front of his eyes. It disappeared out of sight a few times, but he did pretty well. “That was terrible,” said Lucy, standing. “The babblegaunt touched you, yes?”
“I think so.”
“Right. Classic case of brain worms.”
“Brain…worms?” Nutmeg was fairly sure that sounded like she was saying he had worms in his brain, which was probably bad.
“Not literal brain worms,” explained Sister D. “It’s just the psuedo-medical term for what happens when certain types of undead drain parts of your brain away.”
“I am missing…parts of my brain?”
“As a rule, yes, but now more than ever.” Lucy turned to the priestess. “You got anything for this?”
“Hmm.” Sister D rifled through her pack. “Maybe. Nutmeg, are you allergic to cascara?”
“I don’t know.”
“Thanks, Lucy.” Sister D produced a tiny vial of purply-green swirly water. “Alright, buddy. Hold tight. You’re not going to like the taste of this.”
“Mwah. Mlah.” Nutmeg tasted his tongue. “It’s not great.”
“Gods.” Sister D uncorked the vial and passed it to Nutmeg. He scratched his chin. Drink it? But how would that work? If the liquid went into his mouth, where else would it go?
“Fuck’s sake.” Lucy forced his arm back, and the nasty, nasty potion scorched Nutmeg’s throat on the way down.
“BY THE GODS.” He swallowed, choked, spat. “Why?”
“The babblegaunt.” Sister D took the vial from his hand. “When babblegaunts touch someone, they can – well, they call it brain worms, yes, but it’s more akin to…forgetting how to think. You can’t put things together.”
“That sucks big time.” Nutmeg shivered. “Is this related to the teeth?”
“Probably. Babblegaunts are just the undead shades of someone who went mad. They suck sanity. If I were trapped in an underground tomb and went mad, I might rip my teeth out, too.”
“Grim. Well, thanks for the, uh, nasty draught. Good thing you fixed my brain worms. Because now,” he said, and walked over to the shrine, “my eyes are clear, and I can see the way.” He took hold of the axe on the statue of the dwarf, and twisted it. It turned like a key, and a stone panel slid up in the eastern wall. Lucy whistled.
“You know, I was joking about you already having brain worms, Nutmeg, but I think you really may have been cured.”
Chapter 4 – In Which There Are Books
The next tunnel was mercifully short; Lucy was already breathing hard. The babblegaunt had taken a lot out of her. Granted, most of that was the shock at seeing it emerge from the wall, shrieking and gibbering. Not a sight she was likely to forget. But the boundless energy of Nutmeg and Sister D’s stoic pace were already leaving her in the dust. Sister D said something to Nutmeg, and the dwarf laughed and slapped her on the back. Those two. When Nutmeg gave her that silver holy sign, woof. Man. Sister D’s face had lit up like the god damn sun god itself. There wasn’t anything there in terms of romance, Lucy was sure. Maybe Nutmeg had a sort of puppy love, but Sister D didn’t seem into it. Worked fine for Lucy. Romances ended. Friendships didn’t.
They stumbled out into the next room, and Nutmeg coughed in the dusty gloom. “Ah, crap. Books.”
“Books!” Lucy stopped, partially to catch her breath and partially to take in the scene. It wasn’t a huge room, but the whole middle section was just bookshelves – bookshelves and nothing more. The books were old, mouldering and crumbling. She poked one, and it fell to pieces. “Ah, shit.” What use were ancient tomes if they all fell apart before she got to read them?
“Hey, there’s a door on the other side,” called Nutmeg, who had already brushed past the shelves. “Come on.”
“Check the fucking door,” Lucy called back. “I’m not dealing with another babblegaunt, I swear to Urqhuat.”
“Hng. Unh.” Nutmeg grunted. “It’s locked, buddy.”
“There’s got to be a switch, like the dwarf axe in the last room.” Lucy inspected the spine of a nearby book. Pindor’s Bashful Toes. The book next to it was titled Pindor’s Oblique Musical Stylings. Another: Pindor’s Hasty Tendencies in the Kitchen. “Oh, I hate this guy,” said Lucy. “Listen. It’s a riddle or something. All these books, they’re all about Pindor. All of them.”
“All of them?”
“All of them. Pindor’s Guileless Grin. Pindor’s Extremely Thoughtful Gifts to Acquaintances.”
“Do you think it has to do with eyes again?”
“I wouldn’t put it past him.”
“I’ll be honest, Lucy,” said Nutmeg, “I am really getting a hankering to pee all over these books. Do you think that’s okay? Would anything of value really be lost?”
“Why can’t you go pee somewhere not on the books?”
“It’s a principle thing.”
“Principle does start with ‘p,’” added Sister D.
“Don’t encourage him. Come on, Dondalla, help me look.”
The priestess shrugged. “I can’t read…uh, whatever that is. Ancient Gnomish?”
“Fair enough.” Lucy sighed. Was this all she was good for? Reading the spines of insipid books? By the gods, that was pretty much her entire undergraduate experience as an intern at the Knowledge Institute. She jabbed Pindor’s Unique Yodeling Techniques with her forefinger, and it, too crumbled. Good riddance. This eccentric ancient dumb asshole was messing with her mojo. If this was to be her last ride, she’d rather do cool stuff. Not this.
“Pindor’s Left Eye!” She pulled the book from the shelf. It was, in truth, no book; it only pulled out a little, at an angle, and then clicked, and the door slid open.
Revealing a room identical to this one, dominated by bookshelves.
“Gods damn.” She entered. “Listen, this’ll take a few moments, don’t worry abo-”
WHUMP. Something landed on the floor next to her. Something big. Long. Leggy. A centipede the length of a lance, thick around as a catfish. Venom glistened on a pair of exaggeratedly-large mandibles. Chitin clicked as it moved on her with unnerving grace.
“Hwuargh!” Nutmeg didn’t even bother with his axe. He landed on the thing with both boots, and stamped and stomped. It flailed, bits of plate and bluish goo spattering the books and Lucy. She drew her dagger and waited for the mandibles to clack once, twice, now! She plunged the dagger down. The bug’s head split satisfyingly under the blade, and its queer brain pulsed and shivered, exposed to to the air. The mandibles caught the sleeve of her robe, and she pulled back sharply. The robe tore, a long strip rent free.
“Come on, we’ll buy you a new robe, Lucy.”
“That’s not the point!” She stomped on the monstrous centipede’s head.
“What is the point, then, Lucy?” Sister D gave the centipede a wide berth. “Something seems to be bothering you.”
Lucy thought for half a moment. Tell them? She could, at this point. Tell them hey, friends, after this one, I’m retiring, I’m hanging it up, I’m trading in my dagger for more books, and I know you won’t understand that, you might even hate me for it – yeah, no, she wouldn’t tell them. Not yet. “It’s this gnome asshole,” she explained. “Pindor. I really thought we’d see more cool Dwarven stuff, but so far it’s been ninety percent dumb ass riddles that aren’t even effortful or rigorous!”
“Fair.” Nutmeg punched a book (Pindor’s Little Beauties). “This shit does suck. I bet it gets better, though. What are we looking for here?”
“This one.” Lucy found Pindor’s Right Eye and yanked it hard enough to shake the rest of the books. The next door slid open. “Come on.” She stepped over the butchered bug and led the way, on into the darkness.
Chapter 5 – In Which Nutmeg Makes a Friend
Lucy’s weirdness notwithstanding, Nutmeg was having a grand old time. Sure, there were the books, but the next couple chambers kicked ass. They did battle with a supernatural ghost dog, glowing red and orange with the lights of hell; they shuffled down a corridor enchanted with uncanny darkness, careful to avoid the razor-lined tripwires; they even found a washbasin with still-running water, although when Nutmeg bent to drink from the fountain, a terrible acid gurgled forth from the pipes and burned a hole through the stone basin. Overall, though: a blast. Exactly what he’d been hoping for. And Sister D was loving it, clearly. She’d even done some fantastic chanting at the weird glowing ghost dog, and that silver symbol was clearly coming in handy. She said as much.
And the craftsmanship! Once past Pindor’s little libraries, the halls grew more dwarven. Large large stones, all joined together with the cunning skill no other race could replicate. The seam between the stones – gravity aside – was impossible to imitate. Dwarven to the bone. Even this bunker, this underground refuge, was a place of Dwarven beauty. And life. Nutmeg was sure of it. In the room with the ghost dog, they’d discovered a workbench – little better than a slab mounted on the wall, but it was strewn with pouches, cogs, little hand tools, and several weathered whetstones. And where the basin was, they’d found some shelves where the impression of bottles still darkened the wood. Besides, someone had to have summoned the weird ghost dog.
“Do you think that was the dog of, like, the guy who lived here?” asked Nutmeg.
“Are you still on about that dog?” Lucy tapped the wall, knocking with her knuckle. They’d come to a dead end, but Lucy was doggedly certain that the path continued somewhere.
“Look, I don’t like dogs. But I understand and respect the idea of pets.”
“I’m aware. You didn’t take care of Jitterbug so well, though, did you?”
“That’s not fair.”
“Who was Jitterbug?” asked Sister D.
“Stray cat.” Lucy pressed her ear to the wall, frowned, and traced her finger along the stone. “You did a pretty good job to begin with, I’ll be fair. But then we went out of town.”
“That really wasn’t my fault. I thought Jitterbug would do well on the streets. A real survivor, like me.”
“Jitterbug did not do well on the streets, then?”
“What was left of Jitterbug fit into a ringbox.” Lucy poked a loose stone; it clicked, whirred, and a pair of doors opened – one behind them, and one at the dead end of the hall.
Nutmeg was closer to the door opposite the switch, and he poked his head in. It was a little room, a cell, with a tattered, faded tapestry hanging on one wall over a threadbare bed, and – “ah, shit,” said Nutmeg, “a skeleton!”
A skeleton was curled up on the bed. A dwarf. The flesh had long since faded from his brassy bones. The last son of the empire, perhaps? The last remnant of the long-lost glory of the dwarves? Rotting alone under the earth. On the other side of the room, opposite the bed, there was a little cage of iron bars. A crumpled cloth bag lay within; a lock had rusted from the cage long ago.
“Yikes,” said Lucy. “I bet it was his dog.”
Sister D made the sign of Palladius over the dwarf. “Father sun,” she intoned, “we ask your blessing on these long-buried bones; grant their once-fleshy owner, now but a soul in the heavens, a ray of reprieve, and bathe him in your light.”
“That’s lovely,” said Lucy.
“Hrng,” said Nutmeg, who was shifting the bed aside to see if there was anything under it. Sure enough: a loose place, a stone removed, and a bag that jingled with the promise of coin. He opened the sack. “Pennies!”
“Copper?” Lucy peered down, picked one up, inspected it. “Hmm. Amazing. Authentic old imperial coinage. From the reign of…yes, that makes sense, from the reign of the Fifteenth Emperor, Hokaddaz the Bald.” She indicated the little bald head on the coin. “Remarkable find. How many in the bag, would you say?”
Nutmeg hefted it. It was a good-sized purse. “Six thousand, give or take a few.”
“That should be worth a-”
“Don’t say it.”
“What’s this in the corner?” Sister D peered down at the cage. “Is this normal, Lucy?”
“Nothing’s normal.” The gnome pulled out a scroll and murmured a few secret words. “There’s magic in there, whatever it is. Nothing too strong, you understand, but magic without a doubt. Be careful – Nutmeg, I said be careful!”
Nutmeg kicked the cage door open and stuck his hand into the bundle. There was a rustle, a jolt, and then he was knocked flat on his hindquarters, and smoke rose from his hand, and his heart felt weird and butterflyish. Before he could speak, the bundle shook and rustled again. A little head popped out, blue and scaly, followed by a lizard-body. No bigger than a chipmunk, it sat atop the pile and regarded the company with baleful, beady eyes.
“Awww,” said Nutmeg. “It’s adorable!”
“It just flattened your ass.” Lucy squinted, took a step back. “By the gods. It’s a lightning lizard. I’ve read about these. Little magical creatures, can shock you if you get too close or look at it askance.”
“Clearly.” Nutmeg looked into the eyes of the lightning lizard. “Pass me some jerky.” Sister D handed him her rations, and he took out a little piece. Squatting down, he held the jerky out to the lizard. “Here, buddy. You want some food? Hmm? Here, buddy. Pspspsps. Here, buddy.”
This always worked with strays. They loved food. And maybe this one was the pet of the guy who lived here. The actual pet, not like that inexplicable ghost dog. Maybe it kept living after that guy died, because it was a magical little creature and didn’t need food like an ordinary pet. And maybe it had been sleeping in that bundle for…hundreds of years. Thousands? Hundreds. Who knew. In its eyes he saw fear, but also sadness. Recognition? Was that recognition? Did it think of him as the dwarf who once lived here, come back from beyond the grave?
The lightning lizard darted forward, suddenly, and took a piece of jerky. It tore into it with gusto, and fried it with sparks. Nutmeg held out a finger and stroked its back, gently, so gently. It had a little frill atop its head; its scales were iridescent, and it shone with gentle light.
“Pierre,” said Nutmeg.
“That’s its name.” Nutmeg held out his hand, and the little guy scampered up his arm with glee, perching on his shoulder. Pierre dug in his claws for purchase. “He’s a friendly guy! See?”
“Wow.” Lucy whistled. “I knew you were good with weird little creatures, but damn.”
“He is cute.” Sister D reached out a hand to pet Pierre; Pierre hissed and raised his frill. Sparks danced on his cheeks.
“No. Bad Pierre. No shock Sister D. No.” Nutmeg clucked at his new friend. “Our numbers are growing, Lucy!”
“Yeah, here’s hoping Pierre lasts longer than Gary,” she replied.
Chapter 6 – In Which Everyone’s Boots Get Wet
The next door led to another ladder-room, which took them down, down, deeper into the bowels of the Archive. Here, the dampness of the underground was more palpable. “Are we under the lake?” asked Lucy.
“Yeah, totally.” Nutmeg jabbed a loose stone with the shaft of his axe, and jumped back when a gout of flame shot out of the wall. “Knew it was trapped.”
“You’re getting better at this,” admitted Lucy. He really was. “Any sense for how much deeper we need to go?”
Nutmeg tapped the wall, pressed his ear to it. “Hmm. We’ve gotta be close. But there’s caverns all around here, it sounds like.”
Gloom settled in like a wet blanket. On the higher floor, Nutmeg’s torch seemed to shed more light; here, the dank, still air stifled the glow and coaxed smoke from the brand. The stones were older. Even Lucy could tell. When they reached the next door, it was stained with black moss and slime, and stuck in its track as Nutmeg groaned and heaved it open.
Shadows swallowed the light in the next room. But the torch did enough. Three tall glass vats stood against one wall, filled with murky liquid. The next door, on the opposite wall, was just as befouled as the one through which they’d entered. Lucy took the torch from Nutmeg and stepped closer to the vats. She stepped over a little brass-grated drain in the floor. The torchlight dimmed in the vats, refracted and diminished, unable to penetrate the strange waters. She held the torch higher. She leaned in, her nose almost touching the glass.
She jumped back, cursing. A face had appeared in the vat, drifting aimless and rubbery. A sneering face, with tusky teeth and mottled skin, rotten with age and corruption. An orc. From the orc’s forehead, an amethyst winked and flashed with some unearthly light. Embedded in the flesh.
The orc’s mouth moved as if it were speaking. A pair of clawed hands reached up from the dark water, scraping at the glass. Nutmeg gasped.
“It’s alive, Lucy.”
“I think you’re right.” Now that the initial shock had faded, Lucy found herself capitavated by the undead beast. “Or at least, it’s not technically dead.”
“Dark magic.” Sister D touched the glass, her finger pressed up to meet the orc’s claw. “Necromancy. An abominable thing.”
“One hundred percent.” Lucy couldn’t stop looking at the amethyst. “I think it’s the gem that’s keeping it alive. Is that crazy? It feels crazy.”
“It’s possible, I think,” agreed Sister D. “I was not taught as a Corpse Hunter, but all Radiant Servants receive some basic training in the undead. To bind life energy to a focus…well, that’s an unnatural experiment, to put it mildly. The sort of thing practiced by golemancers. Or liches.”
“Yeah, that sounds pretty sucky.” Nutmeg tapped one of the other vats; another bejeweled orc floated out of the brackish liquid. “Tell you what. Let’s move on. I don’t feel like dealing with this.”
Nutmeg shoved the next door open, his hands slipping on the black moss and mold. The path beyond was black, and the torch did little to help. Nutmeg took a step forward.
“Nutmeg!” screamed Lucy.
“Yup!” Nutmeg replied.
Lucy hustled to the doorway and peered through. It took a second to resolve the image. A cunning stone carving made the floor appear solid, right on the other side of the door. But when Lucy poked her foot out to it, she found only empty air. Nutmeg was ten feet down, bracing himself against the walls, trying desperately not to slide down a long ramp to further darkness below.
“Get me out!”
“Well hang on.” Lucy looked past Nutmeg, craning her neck. “Is there another chamber beyond? Maybe this is the way forward?”
“Eh.” Nutmeg adjusted his weight a little. “Let’s get me out of here first, and then tackle that one.”
Sister D had a length of rope, and tossed one end down to Nutmeg. She wound it around her arms, and braced herself against the doorway.
“Ok, I’m going to pull myself up now,” said Nutmeg.
“No – hang on.” Sister D shifted. “We’ll pull you.”
The rope snapped taut as Nutmeg started to pull. Sister D’s feet slipped on the slick stone. “Lucy! Help!” Lucy jumped forward and grabbed on, straining vainly against Nutmeg’s strength.
“Nutmeg, STOP!” she shouted. “We’ll pull you!”
“I know!” he replied. “That’s what I’m doing!”
But it was too late.
Nutmeg gave a mighty heave. Sister D stumbled forward. She tripped over Lucy; Lucy toppled. The two fell through the open doorway and landed on Nutmeg. This dislodged Nutmeg from his precarious position in the slanted corridor. Lucy thought it felt greasy, intentionally lubricated. They slid down the greased ramp in a jumble, into darkness.
“Gods dammit, Nutmeg,” said Lucy, extracting herself from the pile. “We were pulling.”
“Wait.” Nutmeg sat up, barely visible in the dark. He checked his pack, and breathed a long, relieved sigh. “Pierre’s okay, guys. Pierre is doing fine.”
“Great,” said Sister D. She raised her hand above her head and spoke a prayer to Palladius. Light blossomed forth, illuminating the chamber. All three stopped and gaped. It was the biggest room yet, easily fifty feet square on each wall. And tall. Forty feet to the ceiling. About fifteen feet above their heads, an iron grate spanned the room from wall to wall. In effect, it divided the room into a top half and a bottom half. In the center of the room was a column of stone and brass, rising up through the grate to the ceiling above.
A click-clack, click-clack noise drew their attention to the column. Three bony figures emerged from the shadows, skeletons with purple amethysts in their eyes. They clacked laughter, pointing down at Lucy, Nutmeg, and Sister D.
“Yeah, fuck you too,” said Nutmeg. “We gotta get up there. There’s a walkway, see? From the column to the wall. Gotta be a door there.”
Before anyone could answer, a great groaning rumble echoed through the very stone of the chamber. The way behind them, the greased tunnel, sealed with an ominous thud. The skeletons were doing something, turning some great crank-shaft on the column.
The floor, Lucy realized, was wet. Not flooded, but wet. Damp. And then – drip. Drip. Drip.
She looked straight up, and realization hit her like a bucket of ice.
There were four brass seals in the ceiling, great heart valves. As the skeletons cranked the shaft, the doors were croaking, groaning open. And from them –
The water started to rush. Lucy was sat right under one of the valves, and the frigid water rushed down her back and soaked her right through to her undergarments. “Oh god damn,” she said, hustling out of the way. “Of course. Of course. They’re going to flood us in.”
“We are right under the lake.” Nutmeg tasted the water. “Mm. Yup. That’s lakewater. I bet those valves go straight to the bottom. We might even get some fish soon.”
“Fish!” Sister D held her holy symbol aloft. “We’re going to drown, and you’re thinking about fish?”
“I mean, yeah.” Nutmeg plopped his bag into the water. Pierre’s head poked out from the side pocket, looking concerned. The dwarf began rummaging. “When am I not thinking about fish, on some level?”
Lucy eyed the grate over their heads. It looked weak in spots, particularly below the water-valves. Rust had eaten away at the bars. One good shove could do it. There was hope. If, of course, they could survive the torrent. The water was icy, and when it was ten feet deep it would be no easy feat to stay afloat.
“A-HA!” Nutmeg stopped rummaging in the bag. “Got it! This oughta help.”
The water was already at their ankles. Nutmeg dropped the sponge into the lakewater; it landed with a plop. The water stopped rising.
“Oh, yeah.” Sister D prodded the sponge. It floated. “Right.”
“Knew it would come in handy. We’ve got about one hundred and twenty-five thousand gallons worth before we need to squeeze it out. We could just wait out the lake, but that might take, at this rate…” Nutmeg counted on his fingers. “Eh, call it fourteen hours. Maybe longer. Dernum lake was pretty big.”
“Yeah, I don’t feel like dealing with that.” Lucy pointed to the rusty grate. “How about we OWCH FUCK”
Two of the skeletons were still operating the crankshaft. The third had produced an ancient shortbow, and, through the iron grate, had planted an arrow in Lucy’s shoulder. Sister D moved between Lucy and the skeletons. Another arrow pinged off her shield.
“Don’t move, Lucy,” she said. “That looks nasty.”
“Feels worse.” It really did. Those arrows were not well-made. The tip felt jagged. Probably rusty, too. And right through her good cloak! Which was already soaking! Sister D passed Lucy a red potion from the temple; she chugged it, and the arrow squelched out of her shoulder. The skeletons laughed their bony, chattering laughs, and pranced while they laughed.
Nutmeg must have seen the rusty bit of grate. He tossed one end of the rope up and over a more solid piece and, when he’d secured his ascent, he began to climb. The skeleton with the bow shook its fist at Nutmeg and took aim. Sister D fumbled for her belt.
“Whatcha got there, D?”
“A sling.” Sister D produced a length of cloth with a leather patch, and handful of little lead balls. “Thought it might come in handy.” She whirled the sling around her head. The first stone pinged off the iron grate. The second slipped out of her fingers. The third, though, struck the skeletal archer in the leg, knocking off a relatively inconsequential bit of bone.
Lucy watched as Nutmeg ascended. He was climbing hand-over-hand, axe strapped to his back, battered by the torrent from the ever-widening lake valve. The water on the floor was vanishing faster than it could rise, though. The sponge was doing its work quite well.
Nutmeg had reached the grate. He hung by one hand from the rope. With his free hand, he wrestled with the rusty bars. The metal protested as he worked, grinding and screaming. The skeletons chittered. The lake fell in sheets upon them. Sister D sent another lead ball whizzing through the iron grate; she punched a hole in a skeleton’s cheek, knocking teeth to the water. An arrow hissed down, and Nutmeg howled in pain. Lucy gritted her teeth. They weren’t dead yet, but…
Nutmeg gave a final bellow and hauled at the rusty grate. It popped. The bars tore free. A hole was bared. A slim hole, but Nutmeg threw himself up, scratching the shit out of his arms in the process, his blood trickling down to the water below. The arrow had pierced his leg, but he hardly seemed to notice. He unslung the axe, and danced across the iron bars. With three swift strokes, the skeletons shattered. The amethysts fell from their eyes, plunking in the water.
It was only a matter of minutes for the dwarf to seal the valves. The flow slowed to a drizzle, then a trickle, then a drip, then nothing at all. The sponge pulsed a little, soaking up the water until the floor was nearly dry.
“So, necromancy.” Sister D tucked her lead balls away.
“Boy, this place would have sucked ass if we didn’t have a magic sponge.” Nutmeg had slid back down the rope to retrieve his pack.
“Whatever dumb asshole designed this room probably didn’t count on that, yeah.”
“Hey, watch what you say. That dumb asshole might still be around.”
“Fair.” Lucy stretched, reaching her arms as far forward as they could go. Her arrow-wound was healed, but the place still throbbed with a phantom ache. “Yeah, we should talk about that, actually. My guess is we’re close to the end. Whatever that means. Hopefully, it means the map to Khaddakar, and the other lost works from the Dwarven empire. But that might also mean whoever animated these, uh, spooky guys.”
“And the orcs.”
“And the orcs. We gotta be on guard, is what I’m saying.”
Nutmeg chuckled, and slapped Lucy on the back. Right in the arrow-wound. “Man, Lucy, I feel like you’ve been saying that since we started this. Lighten up! We’ve got an electric lizard and a magic sponge, and the power of friendship. What more could you ask for?”
Chapter 7 – In Which Lucy’s Hopes and Fears are Realized
Together, they ascended to the control column; an access door stood open in the back wall, and another ladder awaited therein. Lucy checked her belt-pouches for the umpteenth time. She’d burned through a good number of spells today. If this place went on much longer, she’d need to meditate again, reaccess the energies in her spellbook. Thank the gods she’d sprung for the watertight case for the spellbook. Fifteen extra silver, but so worth it.
Nutmeg led the way down the ladder, followed by Sister D. Lucy came last. She was moving slowly. Tired, wet, and bloody. Ragged. But resolved. She would see this through to the end. No matter what.
The landing at the bottom was flanked, as always, by statues of well-armed dwarves. Sister D’s torch cast unnatural light on the stony faces. There was a haze in the air, like silt churned up from a riverbed. Long-settled dust had been disturbed. A wide, gentle staircase sloped down from the landing to an ornate archway. Blackness beyond. Nutmeg sniffed. “I smell books,” he announced. He paused. “And…phew. I don’t know. Rot?”
“Could be leakage from upstairs.” Sister D ran her finger along the stony wall; it came away slick. “Might not be much left in here, Lucy.”
“We’ll see.” Couldn’t think about that. “Come on.”
Sister D led the way, torch held high. They passed under the archway, and light spilled out. And Lucy gasped.
It wasn’t the library of Dwarroway, but it was a library. Dwarven runestones, scrolls, and books – books! – lined rows of low shelves. There were even little study-cells along the back wall, chambers for isolated reading and transcription. Books. The smell of old paper, of leather and metal and stone. The smell of knowledge, long-lost, now found.
“What the fuck is that?” Nutmeg drew his axe and pointed. They looked.
From around a shelf, a figure came shambling. A dwarf, or what had once been a dwarf. Hair long and matted, black and gray. Dressed in runic vestments, tattered and torn. But it was the dwarf’s face that drew Lucy’s attention. She couldn’t look away. No fewer than eight amethysts were studded into a leather mask that might’ve once been a face. The gems winked and glowed and pulsed, studded scattershot and haphazard. An opening that could’ve been a mouth, long ago, split ever-so-slightly. A groan issued forth from a throat long unused. A warning or a curse – either way, it was one spooky character.
The dwarf raised its hands. Purple gems winked from its palms, embedded in the necrotic flesh. Lightning arced forth. Nutmeg jumped for cover behind a shelf. Paper exploded and burnt as purple bolts fried the air.
“BE CAREFUL!” Lucy’s heart ached as some ancient scroll burst into flame.
“Fuck that,” called Nutmeg. “I’m going to kill this boogeyman, and I don’t care how many books I take with me!”
Sister D set the torch down and raised her silver holy sign on high. “Palladius!” she called. “Hear me now, your loyal servant! Send down your holy light and burn this servant of undeath!”
The holy medallion glowed. The bedazzled undead dwarf crouched and sprang, vaulting over a bookshelf. It landed on Nutmeg. Nutmeg’s axe fell to the floor. The two dwarves rolled in the dust, kicking books this way and that, sending clouds of dust into the air. Nutmeg grabbed for the gems on the dwarf’s face. It let out a rattling scream and tried to do much the same with Nutmeg’s actual eyeballs.
“LUCY! HELP ME!” There was fear in Nutmeg’s voice. The ghoulish claws tore at his face and cheeks, and he let out a high scream, a sound she’d never heard from him before.
Lucy pulled a rosethorn from her pouch and barked the command word. With a cry of “hey, asshole!” she threw the thorn; it became a dart of fire in midair, and caught the librarian in the side. The awful thing burst into flame, taking a pile of scrolls and two ancient leatherbound books with it. Nutmeg kicked it away. It reared up, the eight gems on its face flashing; purple lightning danced around its body as it keened and reeled.
A bolt of golden light spat from Sister D’s hands. It struck the librarian in the back, and emerged from the other side. The lightning faded. The gems grew black. And at last, the thing toppled.
Lucy whipped off her cloak. She jumped on the flames, patting out the blaze as best she could. A number of scrolls had been rendered to ash; the books had fared better, although the ancient pages crumbled to the touch regardless. A whole bookcase was burning now, perhaps from the accursed lightning. It was too much for one gnome to stop. Too much to save.
Nutmeg was beside her then. He removed his chain shirt, then his cotton shirt, and began to pat out the sparks. He could only do so much. A noble effort, but still. The heat blistered Lucy’s skin; the smell of burning books made her stomach churn. Sister D joined in; she raised her hands and prayed for water. Water came. As from an invisible urn, water poured out in the air over the flames. The heat disappeared with the flames. Steam gouted up; the blaze was gone. The books were mostly gone, too, at least on this shelf.
“Sorry, Lucy,” said Nutmeg. He sounded like he meant it, even as blood ran like tears down into his beard. “You seem pretty bummed.”
She sighed. “No. It’s alright. Thank you, Sister D. You’re a lifesaver. In more ways than one.”
“What are all these books?” Sister D picked up a scroll and blew ash from the title sheaf. “I can’t read Ancient Dwarfese.”
“Pricless.” Lucy took the scroll from Sister D. “It’s hard to tell, but it looks like ‘Rituals of Jothoggos the Consumer.’ Fascinating.”
“Yeah, I mean, I like consuming stuff too, but what about the things we came here for?” Nutmeg took Pierre out of his pack and stroked the little lizard’s head. “It’s all good, little buddy. We’re safe now.”
“The maps to Khaddakar.” Lucy sighed. “It’ll take weeks to sort through all of this. Longer. It’s a scholar’s dream. A life’s work, cataloging, reading, decoding…”
“Snoozefest.” Nutmeg started for the study-cell doors. “I’m gonna see if that guy had any snacks.”
A life’s work. A scholar’s dream. It really was, wasn’t it? To sort through the ancient works of the long-lost empire. She could definitely get permanent residency at a Knowledge Institute or library with that kind of thesis. Her name would be in textbooks. Forever. She could be remembered as Lucy, Discoverer of the Dwarven Archive. There were worse things to be. Like dead. Dead would be worse.
“Hey, Lucy, I need you to read some shit,” called Nutmeg, from the third study-cell. “No snacks yet.”
Lucy stopped short when she entered the cell. Someone – the Archivist? – had used this as a storage closet for extra papers and books. And maps. A map sat plain as day atop the stack, held down by two stones.
“It looks like a map,” Nutmeg said, helpfully. Pierre cooed.
“Thanks.” Lucy ran her finger over the contours of the map. It was made of skin – hopefully sheepskin, but you never know. Ancient, and labeled only with runes. But there were the Serpent Mountains, or whatever the dwarves called them; there was the north coast, beyond the mountains. Some of the lands looked familiar, the lands of the Hegemony. But they were just the fringe of the great empire. The size of it took her breath away. It had been enormous, this empire. Powerful and strange.
She found the rune she was looking for. The same one from Nutmeg’s axe. Tucked into what could only be the Serpent Mountains.
“This is it,” she said. “It’s…Khaddakar. We found it.”
“Neat!” Nutmeg had left the room. “Hey,” he shouted, from the next door over, “I found a crystal ball in this one. Think we can keep it?”
“Yeah, I’ll take that,” said Lucy. “Let’s make a bundle. I want to take as much with us as we can. Load up the saddlebags. But the maps and guides have to come now. I’ll come back to work with the rest.”
“Once we’re done with our job for Mister E, right?” Nutmeg returned holding a golden crystal ball, no more than six inches in diameter.
They loaded their arms with ancient tomes and began the long, slow journey back to the surface. Lucy’s heart soared. The aches and pains were forgotten. So much work to do! And…work for her and her alone. Retiring from adventuring, from traveling, from wandering, wouldn’t mean boredom or regret. It would mean work. Scholarly work. Work for a powerful brain like hers. Work of ink and dust.
The other two were panting like dogs when they reached the surface, but Lucy felt no such exhaustion. Until, that is, she saw what the goblins had done in Pindor’s tomb.
“Ah, balls,” she said.
Nutmeg had left a goblin’s head on a spear in the mausoleum. That head was gone…but had been replaced with the heads of their horses, Numble, Digg, and Sunchaser.
“Fuck.” Nutmeg had emerged now, and dropped his pile of books. “Fuck.”
“Sunchaser!” Sister D sounded distraught. “By Palladius, I will avenge you.”
“Fucking goblins.” Lucy spat. “Alright. Let’s make camp. We’ve got a long walk ahead.”