When we last left our heroes…NUTMEG, LUCY, and SISTER DONDALLA entered the MAD MONK’s TOMB, in search of a mystic map to the lost stronghold of Khaddakar. After braving many dangers – including a ghastly, undead dwarf librarian – they did indeed discover what they sought. Upon emerging from the tomb, they found their horses killed, and had to improvise a little on the way back to Dwarroway…
Table of Contents
- Chapter 1 – In Which Everyone’s Wearing Black
- Chapter 2 – In Which Nutmeg Empties His Bank Account
- Chapter 3 – In Which Introductions are Made
- Chapter 4 – In Which Nutmeg’s Strange Night Continues
- Chapter 5 – In Which a Bargain is Struck
Chapter 1 – In Which Everyone’s Wearing Black
A fly landed on the horse’s head. The horse – Nutmeg hadn’t decided on a name yet, but he was leaning towards “Piggles” – flicked its ears and tossed its head. The fly screwed off. Nutmeg patted her neck. “Good girl,” he said. “Good girl.” From his saddlebags, a little blue lizard head poked out, snuffing at the air. “It’s all good, Pierre,” said Nutmeg. “You can go back to sleep.”
A week had passed since they’d stumbled out into the daylight in Pindor’s mausoleum. It had been Nutmeg’s job to haul ass to the little fishing village on Dernum Lake, where he traded, cajoled, and begged until he was able to procure three rangy, swaybacked mares. He’d been hoping for a cart, but came away disappointed. Not exactly a booming market in the nameless little town. Then they’d loaded up the saddlebags (he had to buy new saddlebags) and headed out for Dwarroway once more. No sign of the goblins who had slain their original horses. Someday, they would avenge Numble, Digg, and Sunchaser. Someday.
They’d reached Dwarroway in the early morning, as the mist tore itself in ragged strips from the mountains and hills. Few folk were out on the streets yet, but a woman dressed in sackcloth and a black veil stood on a corner, wailing and moaning. It was obnoxious.
“Alas! Alas!” cried the lady. “Alas! Alas alas alas!”
“I don’t see any lasses.”
“Nutmeg, hush,” said Lucy.
“Mourning woman,” called Sister D. “Why do you cry so?”
“Yeah, we got that.”
“Alas,” the lady continued. “High Priest Umdalla is dead! Taken in his sleep by a fever! Alas!”
Nutmeg scratched his beard. “Wh o?”
Sister D reined up short. “Umdalla? High Priest at the temple of Palladius?”
“Alas!” It sounded like a confirmation.
“Ah yikes, sorry Sister D.” Nutmeg faced her. “That sucks.”
“It more than sucks,” said Sister D. “Umdalla was a good man. Now the Radiant Council will appoint a new High Priest for the city – it could get political.” She gave them a sideways look. “I want to see this Khaddakar business through, but -”
“Say no more,” declared Lucy. “You’ll be wanted at the temple, then?”
“Get going!” Lucy paused. “Actually. Can you drop off your scrolls at the Tenth Column with us before you go?”
“Absolutely. Of course.”
“Yeah, we got that.” Nutmeg kicked his horse back to a trot, and they continued on to the Tenth Column. Other mourners walked the streets, dressed in black. Or at least wearing black armbands. Or fashionable black scarves. Even the stablehands at the Tenth Column had little black patches. Sister D took her leave then, and Nutmeg and Lucy returned to the inn.
Not many folk were up yet, but R’yta was behind the bar. She pushed a black headband back and gave them a wave. “You’ve got a guest,” she said, by way of greeting. “Gentleman’s been waiting for you.”
Mister E emerged from a back corner of the room, holding an earthen cup filled with some steaming liquid that smelled of spice and leaf. “Not waiting long, I assure you,” he said. He too wore black, but he always did.
Nutmeg picked a table and sat. Lucy and Mister E joined him. “I’ll take some breakfast, R’yta. Eggs, toast, and beer.”
“As if I don’t know that already.” She disappeared back into the kitchen.
By the time the food was done, they’d explained it all to Mister E – the goblins, the tomb, the Archive and the undead Archivist. As they spoke, Mister E’s eyes lit up, particularly at the mention of the extensive library. When Lucy produced the crystal ball they’d found, Mister E actually gasped.
“Gahaladon’s nuts,” he swore. “I – I never thought to see one of these in the flesh.” He held out his hand. “May I?”
Lucy looked to Nutmeg. Nutmeg shrugged. Mister E took the ball gingerly, holding it in his spindly fingers. Light whirled and whorled in the ball. “Have you experimented with it yet?”
“Nah, we totally did all sorts of experiments to it.” Lucy produced a little notebook. “Took notes and everything. Not that we got much out of it. I tried every scrying spell I know, but…”
“It’s not a conventional crystal ball,” said Mister E. The light reflected in his eyes, giving him a cats-eye mask. “It’s a Dwarven seeing-stone. They were…bound to the strongholds. Here, let me try something.” He took a breath; his hand trembled just a little. “Khaddakar,” he intoned.
For a moment, nothing happened. Then the light swirled. And danced. And like fog on a blue-sky morning, the clouds within the ball parted. They revealed a sweeping mountainside, capped by a pointed rock formation. An eagle swooped past the view. Below, on the side of the cliff, was a huge stone door, where brass glittered in the sun.
“Neat,” said Nutmeg.
“This one seems attuned to the gates of the strongholds.” Mister E turned the orb; the view moved slightly. “Legend tells of seeing-stones that bore witness to the throne rooms, or treasure-hoards… ah, but this is a great gift.”
“It’s ours,” said Lucy. “But we can come back to that later. Check out the maps and stuff.”
“Hm. Yes.” Mister E traced his finger over the ancient map. “Incredible. Late period, I’d say from the reign of the Thirteenth Emperor. Quite a find. Khaddakar should be on here – and Durnehvaaz. We may even be able to trace our way to Vahallidar, if -”
“Okay, yes,” said Nutmeg. “We figured the part about Khaddakar out. The rune here matches the one on my axe. But pinning it down has been harder.”
“Nothing to worry about.” Mister E was clearly in his element. “Observe. This rune here, over what ought to be a river. That’s Durnehvaaz. Dwarroway. Where we sit now.”
A chill ran through Nutmeg. How old was this place? What lay under the foundations of the Tenth Column?
“Oh, yeah, okay, I get it,” said Lucy. “Khaddakar is northwest of here. In the mountains. Off the main road – I assume that’s the same road? Yes? Okay, yeah, off the main road by, what, a couple of days?”
“I’d agree with that assessment,” said Mister E. “I tell you what. Take a day or two, rest up in Dwarroway. I’ll have my assistants confirm the exact location of the stronghold. Shouldn’t take long. Once we’ve pinpointed the location, I’d like for you to go and investigate. Find out who this ‘Forg’ individual is. If there’s a broader conspiracy in play, we need to know about it.”
“Yeah, I figured as much.” Nutmeg licked toast crumbs from his fingers and chugged his ale. “Ahhh. Whoof. Guess that takes care of that. Can we keep the crystal ball?”
Mister E hesitated. “The Hegemony has been interested in duplicating this technology for years. Little things like the sponge are easy, but this…”
Lucy held up her hand. “Tell you what. I did some reading on the way. Lot of interesting tech stuff in those scrolls. Let me sit down with you and pick your brain for a bit. Maybe we can come to some arrangement.”
Nutmeg yawned, loudly. “Listen. If you nerds are going to talk about ‘reading,’ I’m going to go find something fun to do. Might go heckle some noblemen. I’ll catch you back here, Lucy?”
“Yes.” Lucy had an odd expression on her face. “I will see you back here.”
Chapter 2 – In Which Nutmeg Empties His Bank Account
The city welcomed Nutmeg back with open arms.
A few days of cold, dreary rain had finally given way to blue sky and ragged clouds; the rain and mist left a sheen on the streets and towers, like the world was inlaid with silver. Pierre perched on Nutmeg’s shoulder, croaking at passersby. The market square was busy now. Nutmeg bought a cherry pastry and fed Pierre crumbs as he walked. More black-garbed mourners had taken to the streets, too. Some held burning brands on high, calling prayers out to the sun. Nutmeg left the square, down the west road, going nowhere in particular. He nodded to a dwarven woman laboring at her smithy; she gave him a salute and a smile. The sound of metal on metal filled the air; the acrid smell of steel mingled with the earthy scent of iron. More smithies lined the street. One big man stood swinging his hammer over a well-worked blade, his muscles bulging, his skin dewed with sweat. There was a sign over his shop with a pair of flexed arms and a couple squiggles that might’ve been words. Nutmeg stopped to watch the blade finished, munching on his cherry pastry.
“Can I help you?” The big human wiped sweat from his brow. “You a customer?”
“You selling?” There were a few racks of swords – falchions, rapiers, even a queer hooked kukri – around the forge.
“Sure am.” The man held out his coal-streaked hand. “Name’s Jonny. Folk call me Jonny Big Shoulders. This is my shop, Shoulder’s Blades.”
“Ha.” Nutmeg shook Jonny’s hand. “I dig that.” He helped himself to a straight broadsword from the rack, squinting to look down the line of the fuller. “This is good work! You must do a booming business.”
“Eh.” Jonny scowled. “Not as much, lately. Lot of cheap stuff on the market. Most people don’t appreciate craft.”
Nutmeg swung the broadsword. It had a good balance to it, although it was better-suited for a human than a dwarf. “Where’s the cheap stuff?”
“Benny’s Discount Hurtmakers.” Jonny shook his head. “I don’t know who makes his shit, but it’s not worth the scrap.”
“Noted.” Nutmeg flipped the sword around and handed it back to Jonny. “Well, listen, man, I’m not really in the market for blades right now, but I’ll keep you in mind. You do armor?”
“Nah. You want armor? Two streets over. The shop is Oak and Iron. Hekla’s a goddess with the hammer. Stay clear of The Barmory. Dorkho Barm runs that. Not bad stuff, mind you, but if you’ve got half an eye for craftsmanship, you won’t want to waste your time.”
“You’re the best, man.” Nutmeg passed Jonny a handful of silver. “You ever need a hand with something, you let me know. Name’s Nutmeg.”
“Pleasure.” Jonny turned back to the forge, and the song of steel started up in earnest.
Two streets over, Nutmeg found Oak and Iron. Or what was probably Oak and Iron. A little two-story stone building, so old and worn it looked more like a hollowed-out boulder than a craft of mortal hand. A sign hung over the door with a picture of an oak tree and an anvil, with some squiggles.
Inside, the sun cast shafts of light through the still, dusty air. Mannequins lined the shop, decked out in fantastic suits of armor. One appeared to be wrought from dark wood, glistening with lacquer. Another, a shirt of leather, was studded with gold in the shape of a Palladian sun. Even a plain burnished breastplate shone like liquid silver. Nutmeg reached out a hand to the breastplate.
He pulled his hand away and turned. From the back, a woman came. She was dressed in a long black tunic and a pair of red breeches; over the tunic, she wore a knit shawl of such fine lacework it looked like fairy gossamer.
“Hey, oops, sorry, my bad.” Nutmeg stepped away from the mannequins. “I’m Nutmeg. Nice to meet you.”
“Hekla Stoll.” The woman gestured to the breastplate. “You can admire it, if you like.”
“It’s extraordinary work.” The breastplate was almost mirror-bright, brighter and lighter than any steel he’d seen before. “You’d almost hate to wear it into battle, though. Shame to damage a work of art.”
Hekla shook her head. “A backhanded compliment. What good is a tool if it cannot be used?”
“You know what? I respect that. Good point. But I mean, come on. I wouldn’t want to spatter, say, goblin brains all over this.”
Hekla sighed. “Still you do not see.” She lay her hand on the breastplate, and spoke a command word. It changed. One moment is a breastplate. The next, it was a dapper shirt, deep forest green trimmed with silver and white. Hekla flicked the shirt; it still rang like steel.
“Oh, that’s extremely neat. Wowza. Still a little too nice for battle, but-”
Hekla spoke the word again. The breastplate was back, but rusted now, shabby; worn and beaten and unremarkable. A peasant farmer might’ve worn it.
Nutmeg began to rifle through his bag. “I’ve got money. Like, a lot. I sold some salvage a while back, and – you know what, you don’t need all the backstory. I’ve got money.” Pierre poked his head out, chirped, and then returned to the recesses of the pack.
“You’re a man who knows what he wants.” It was a statement, not a question. “I am proud of this piece, you understand. I create tools to sell them, but not for a pittance.” She paused. “Five thousand gold pieces.”
“I don’t haggle.”
“Four and a half.”
“I don’t haggle.”
Nutmeg wasn’t wearing his chain shirt. He pulled it from his pack. It had served him well, but now…
“Can I sell this to you? Raw materials?”
“Hm.” She touched the links and made a face. “Did Lunlet Bazwell make this? Lone Tower?”
“Y-yes. What the fuck. How can you tell?”
“Lunlet has a weak wrist. Their links are uneven in a peculiar way. It’s quite the effect, but not particularly well-made.” She shrugged. “Four and three quarters. I’ll fix this up into something nicer. Something with a little slink to it.”
“Done.” Nutmeg counted out the gold. “Do you take bank credit?”
When the transaction was complete, Hekla removed the breastplate from the mannequin. Nutmeg held out his arms, and she wound the leather straps over his shoulders and around his midriff. Then she touched his head with one thin finger. She spoke the command word, and then the command word was in his head, as if he’d always known it.
“It can change your clothes, in case you couldn’t guess,” she said. “It will still feel like armor, of course, so I wouldn’t recommend sleeping in it. But you could make it look like pyjamas if you so desired. Tell me: will you put it to good use?”
“Hell yeah, dude.” Nutmeg slapped the steel. He spoke the command word, and his clothes – breastplate, breeches, shirt, shoes – became that of a city guard, emblazoned with the symbols of the city. He chuckled. “That rules. Yeah, this’ll protect me. I do a lot of, you know, tough adventuring. Mercenary work. Profit stuff. Lot of wear and tear. Does this have a warranty?”
“No. But if it becomes damaged beyond repair, you know where to find me.”
Nutmeg spoke the command word again. It was armor now, head-to-toe, black and bronze and lined with half-inch spikes.
“This whips. Thank you, Hekla. Seriously thank you.”
The artist stared back at him, unblinking. Her knit shawl was like something living, like a part of her, the way it folded and hung draped from her shoulders. “You were quick to love this art of mine,” she said. “The art that hides you. Disguises you. Is there something in yourself you wish to hide, Nutmeg?”
“Nope!” Nutmeg headed for the door. “Peace out, Stoll!”
Chapter 3 – In Which Introductions are Made
Nutmeg strutted his stuff. He spoke the word, and he was a wealthy merchant, dressed in finery befitting a noble elf. His mind danced. So many choices! So many possibilities! So many new ways to fuck with people! He half-considered disguising himself as a Palladian paladin and infiltrating the temple to go hang out with Sister D. But she probably wouldn’t approve of that sort of tomfoolery. He had to imagine that there were rules against impersonating a paladin. Those guys were nothing to fuck with.
So overjoyed was Nutmeg with his purchase that it was late in the afternoon by the time he wandered back to the Tenth Column. Lucy was nowhere to be seen, nor Mister E, so he headed up for a quick power nap. He spoke the word, and his armor was now pajamas. It felt like armor, but he’d slept in armor plenty of times. It wasn’t too horribly uncomfortable. You got used to it. He slept soundly for an hour or two, and awoke only when some lout outside started shouting – drunkenly – about horse-racing bets.
Nutmeg was on his way outside to find out how he could get in on this horse-race betting when he spied Lucy at the bar, sitting beside an unfamiliar elf.
“Nutmeg!” Lucy turned. She looked almost – guilty? Nah, impossible. Lucy had literally never been guilty about anything in her life.
“Check out this sick armor.”
“Ah, shit, hold on.” He spoke the word, and it became the cool spiky black-and-bronze armor he’d decided would be his go-to look.
“Okay.” Lucy held up one finger. “That is, frankly, very dope. But we’ve got something more important to talk about.”
“More important than my sick threads?”
“I need you to meet someone.” Lucy gestured to the elf at her side. “Nutmeg, meet Gelmahta. My nephew.”
The elf turned to face Nutmeg. Tall, thin, and pale, with silvery-white hair and dark, unsettling eyes. Gelmahta dressed all in black; a hood hung limp behind his head, and he sat easy on the barstool, nursing a tall glass of whiskey.
“What’s popping, Gelmahta?”
“Hey.” The elf stuck out his hand. “You can call me Gel.”
“Gel? Like gel?”
“No. With a hard G.”
“I don’t know what a G is.”
“Gel here is my nephew,” Lucy interrupted. “Adopted nephew. I asked him to come to Dwarroway from the capital. He’s – well, I -” She let out a long, shuddering breath, and took a swig of her drink. “Take a seat, Nutmeg.”
“Negative. Working on my leg muscles. I will squat slightly.”
“Fine. I had a long talk with Mister E earlier. He’s going to let me keep the crystal ball. And the books. And everything in the Archive, in fact.”
“Holy shit!” Nutmeg whistled through his teeth. “That’s got to be worth, what, infinite money?”
“Well…it’s not that straightforward. I’m going to spend my days full-time doing research on the Archive and the materials we found, reporting what I discover back to Mister E and the Hegemony.”
“Ah. That sounds super boring. I mean, what am I supposed to do all day? Sit around?”
“No.” Lucy spread her arms. “I’m retiring. From traveling. Adventuring. Whatever.”
“We’re retiring?” Nutmeg tapped his breastplate. “I literally just bought some sweet armor! Come on!”
“No, you’re not following. I am retiring. You will keep adventuring. For Mister E.”
“No. I am retiring. You will keep adventuring. That’s why I called Gelmahta up. He’s a crack shot with a crossbow, he’s good with his hands, and he’s pretty quiet. He’ll be a real asset to you and Sister D.”
“It’s true,” said Gelmahta. “I am extremely good at killing people.”
Many thoughts entered Nutmeg’s brain, like too many commuters trying to crowd onto the same transit wagon. Nothing wrong with this Gel fella. A little derivative of Gary, but hey, at least Lucy already knew Gel, and he didn’t seem like a total asshole. But Lucy. Lucy! She was – she was the driving force! The employer! The one who made decisions about stuff! Wasn’t she? How could she just retire? Also, what was R’yta making for dinner? How could Lucy do this?
Nutmeg had never known his parents. He had few mentor figures on the streets of Lone Tower. Maybe Luckus the Crab, an underground street fight champion and former professional omlette-maker, who had taught Nutmeg everything there was to know about underground street fights and very little about omlette-making. But other than that? It was Lucy. Lucy all the way. Lucy who taught him to think. To value himself. To be…Nutmeg.
“This is fucked,” said Nutmeg, and threw up.
“Ah, geeze, Nutmeg, come on.” Lucy wrinkled her nose. “Don’t be like that, buddy. Gel here’s a good guy.”
“This is a lot for me to handle!” Nutmeg spat the last of the bile. “How – when – when are you leaving?”
“Literally now,” said Lucy. “See ya.” She hopped down from the barstool and, without paying her tab, sauntered out the door, into the night.
“This is extremely awkward,” said Gelmahta.
“Aughhh,” said Nutmeg, something that wasn’t quite a sob but also definitely wasn’t not a sob. He pulled out his pouch of Mister Dusty and cut a rail on the bar.
“Nutmeg, come on, don’t do that stuff in here,” said R’yta.
Too late. He snorted. Hard. Came up laughing. Maybe if he ran after Lucy into the night. Maybe he could convince her to stay. Gel could come too, on their adventures, whatever, but Lucy should be there. All the time. All the way. See this through. Khaddakar, baby! Weird stuff to discover! With her help! It wasn’t right! It was not right!
He had to punch something.
He ran out into the street, panting. Sweat beaded on his forehead. There were people around, but no one who looked particularly punchable. Had to be someone big. Someone who had it coming. Gotta punch someone. Gotta punch someone. Punching was extremely good.
“YOU!” someone shouted. Nutmeg turned.
Shugg Doggro was coming down the street, flanked by a pair of fellow half-orc bruisers. He pointed a finger at Nutmeg.
“Third time’s the charm,” the half-orc said, laughing. “You’re dead, dwarf.”
“HUAAAGH,” Nutmeg replied. He sprinted at Shugg. The orc was ready. He drew a dagger. He held the dagger in his fist. He swung. Nutmeg slapped it aside. Grabbed the dagger in midair. Kicked Shugg in the shin; something snapped. Then Nutmeg stabbed the absolute living shit out of Shugg Doggro’s head, neck, and chest.
One of the bruisers lunged for Nutmeg. He got a knife to the eye. Blood spurted from Doggro’s neck. The other bruiser struck Nutmeg with a meaty fist, right square between the shoulderblades. Nutmeg kicked out behind himself and connected. The half-orc fell forward onto him. Nutmeg twisted, caught the falling half-orc. Then punched him in the throat. Then a palm to the nose. Small bones popped and snapped. Then, and only then, all was quiet once more.
“Oh my gods,” cried a passerby, a woman on her way out of the Tenth Column. “There’s been a murder!”
“No there hasn’t!” Nutmeg turned and sprinted away down the dark streets.
Chapter 4 – In Which Nutmeg’s Strange Night Continues
Nutmeg ran. And ran and ran and ran. He ran hither and thither. He ran north and south and east and west. He ran panting through Dwarroway, taking the darkest alleys and skeeviest sidestreets. He didn’t feel particularly bad about killing Shugg Doggro. That guy was an asshole. But it really did put a damper on his evening plans. He couldn’t very well go back to the Tenth Column now, covered in blood. Lucy was gone, somewhere in the city. That poor sap Gel was probably just sitting by the bar, waiting patiently.
It was just like Lucy to leave like this. She was never one for sentiment. The more he thought about it, the more he respected it. Real power move. Love em and leave em. Et cetera. The only thing that bothered him now was the premeditation. She must have planned ahead. Sent for Gelmahta. From the capital? Not a quick journey. That meant she’d sent for him before the Archive. How long had she been thinking about this? Damn. She was good at keeping secrets. He hoped she’d stay in touch. Send postcards. Sister D could read them to him. He wouldn’t mind learning a little more about the ancient Dwarves, frankly. Somehting about the statues in the Archive had really touched him in an unexpected way.
Had to get back to the Tenth Column eventually. But first – blood. Too much blood. He could head down to the river and wash it off. That seemed like a smart move. Where was he? He finally stopped running. He’d gone north in his hurry, a long way. A long way, good gods. His feet had carried him vaguely in the direction of Skeetwizard’s Shack, toward the north riverfront, where the little wooden houses crowded together to blot out the stars. It wasn’t a familiar part of town. You didn’t come here unless you were running from the scene of a murder.
It wasn’t hard to find the river – the sound of it, the smell of it, all carried up through the streets, which in turn bent down, sloping gently to the riverbank. He’d come almost all the way to the north rivergate. The Lundurr River came chuckling down from the foothills of the Serpent Mountains and through a great portcullis in the north wall of Dwarroway. During the daylight hours, the portcullis remained raised, permitting traffic from the mines and shantytowns high in the hills. At night, the gate was shut, permitting naught but water.
Or at least, that was how it was supposed to be.
Nutmeg whispered the command word, and his armor became a gillysuit, black and brown, mottled as the dirty streets. He crouched behind a little retaining wall and watched a curious sight.
A barge had come down through the open rivergate and stopped at the watchtower just inside the walls. Torches lit the scene. Several humans were unloading crates and boxes from the barge. The humans were most definitely dressed in the garb of the city guard – iron caps, and livery marked with the twin stars of the city. Smaller figures moved on the barge, directing the humans. Figures dressed in cloaks and hoods. Hard to see who they were. Nutmeg crept closer. There was also a human bossing the guards around; a tough-looking city guard with a handlebar mustache. But who were the little guys?
Then, one of them turned, and squinted into the darkness towards Nutmeg. A kobold. Definitely a kobold. Little lizard face, stupid little lizard eyes. Nutmeg ducked behind the retaining wall. What the fuck was going on out there? City guards smuggling something with the help of a gang of kobolds? What were they smuggling? And why? For whom? Where from? Whither? Whence?
He decided to get a little closer.
He slipped along the wall, as quietly as he could. From his vantage point, he was peering down on the barge and the guards. The guards were loading the crates, he could tell now, into wagons waiting on the riverbank. Some guards were also pulling crates towards an open grate in the river-wall, a grate that must have been for drainage or sewage or some other really fun thing. The crates clattered and clanked, but the guards didn’t show any particular care or grace in hucking the things around.
“Here now, what’re you doing?”
Nutmeg whirled. A guard had approached from behind, and held out a torch, squinting down.
“I’m…very drunk,” said Nutmeg. “Huaarrrgh.”
“Right, you’ve got thirty seconds to fuck off before I throw you in a cell for a week. Beat dirt!”
Nutmeg fucked off, and considered himself fortunate.
He had to figure out what was going on with that kobold stuff. For one thing, it was interesting. For another, if there was smuggling, there was probably money to be made. And for a third thing, he needed to kill some time to take his mind off the Lucy thing. Usually he could take his mind off things by visiting brothels or whatever. But this seemed like a good change of pace. Besides – and now his brain was really kicking into high gear – this Gelmahta guy needed an audition. Something to prove his value. What better than this sort of clandestine investigation that may or may not involve making money illegally?
Hell yes, thought Nutmeg. Hell yes. And here he was afraid things would be boring without Lucy around.
The thought of brothels, though, was still on his mind. He headed for a joint he knew, The Happy Trail, and the rest of his night was pretty good.
Chapter 5 – In Which a Bargain is Struck
Lucy left him a room at the Tenth Column. Not a bad little place. Fairly secure. Brass locks on the windows, from the inside. Loud to break in. He’d tested some of the floorboards in the barroom last night, and felt certain that there was a tunnel leading southwest out of the inn. He dressed in the gray light before dawn, pulling on his ankle-strapped dagger, his back-dagger, his wrist-dagger, and his form-fitting leather-and-chain jerkin, over which he wore a loose black shirt and cloak.
He ate sparingly. No telling how safe the food was here. Not that he was worried about poisons. More about food poisoning. He’d seen the telltale scuffs on the base of the wainscotting in the barroom: rats. Every city had them. Gel had a healthy respect for rats. Survivors.
He oiled his crossbow, whistling while he worked. A fine oak bow, well-used and well-loved. Lucy had mentioned this job might bring in some good money for a new bow. Maybe even new gear, new leathers and chain. New blades, too. His shortsword and rapier were familiar, but growing old.
Someone knocked on the door, and Gel slid off the bed and to the floor, resting on one knee while he loaded the crossbow. “Who is it?” he called, and squinted down the sights.
“Nutmeg,” came a hoarse and ragged voice. “The uh, the dwarf. From yesterday? With Lucy?”
“Oh.” Gel disarmed the crossbow. “Yeah. Enter.”
Nutmeg looked a little worse for wear. Red eyes, wild hair. Only his clothes looked good.
“Buddy, you don’t know the half of it.” The dwarf sat in the wooden chair, the only chair in the room. “You got any ale? I could go for some ale. Or dark beer. A stout would be good, actually. Stouts are like breakfast food. Which I could also go for.”
“No,” said Gel. “I’ve got some wine in my flask, but -”
“That’ll do.” Nutmeg helped himself. “Ahhh. Mmm. Good stuff. I always did love a good Beech-Hill red.”
“It’s the sixty-eight,” said Gel.
“A good vintage.”
Nutmeg took another swig. “Thanks. I needed that. Listen, so, I think we got off on the wrong foot.”
“You did flee into the night and murder some half-orcs.”
“I mean, you actually did tha-”
“Fine. Allegedly. Let’s try it again, then, Nutmeg the dwarf. I’m Gel. Lucy’s nephew. She asked me to come to town and join up with you, help you on your quests or whatever. I heard you get paid.”
“Yeah, the pay’s pretty good. Plus we find cool stuff. I have a magic sponge.”
“Do you, now.”
“And a pet lizard.”
“Ok, that’s pretty cool, actually. Can I meet him?”
“He’s sleeping. I think. Ah shit, I left him in my room last night. Well, that’s alright. I think he slept for like, a bajillion years, so he should be okay.”
“Good to hear.”
Nutmeg gestured to the crossbow. “So what’s your deal, man? You a sharpshooter? Big-game hunter?”
“Contract killer,” said Gelmahta.
“Ah, neat. I guess that’s kind of what I am too. Except we have a contract with the government.”
“Yeah, Lucy mentioned that. Not a fan of working for the man.”
“Whatever, dude. The man pays. Consistently. And there’s still plenty of contract killing to do. You seem like a guy who moves quietly, yeah? Breaking and entering, maybe?”
“If I have to.”
“Cool.” Nutmeg stood. “Because I’m more than happy to have some company. Can you read?”
“Perect. You’ll fit right in. I’m sure I’ll need some assistance. A good team. And Sister D – did Lucy tell you about her?”
“The priest with the stick up her butt?”
“No, she’s super chill, man. But okay, yeah, Sister D – she’s not as good at, uhh, the unscrupulous stuff that Lucy and I excelled at. Dig?”
“So listen. I’m willing to take you on. I am. But I want you to help me with something first. Call it a trial run. A probation period. I want to make sure we gel.”
“Gel. With a hard G.”
“I can’t read, bub, your mind games won’t work on me.” Nutmeg stood and held out his hand. “Do we have a deal? Probation period thing?”
“Fine, whatever. I think we’ll get along.” Gel took the dwarf’s sweaty, sticky hand and shook it.
“Great.” There was a dangerous twinkle in Nutmeg’s eyes. “Now let me tell you about last night.”