When we last left our heroes…NUTMEG and GEL had stumbled onto a the heart of organized crime in Dwarroway: a mysterious man known only as THE DUKE. A lead from hapless shopkeeper BENNY pointed them to JIM THACKARACK, the DUKE’s nephew, and known frequenter of Skeetwizard’s Shack. Now they prepare for an ambitious ambush…
Chapter 1 – In Which the Street is Swept
The Tenth Column was, technically, on the corner of Underleaf and Dwarrow street. Dwarrow, of course, was the main highway through the city, cutting it east to west. Underleaf split off from the main market square and wound back through some fancy apartments and luxury vendors. There were a few folk employed full-time to sweep Underleaf free of debris; they were armed with clubs, too, to sweep the street free of undesirables. A servant stood on an ivy-trimmed balcony, beating a fancy rug. Clouds of dust drifted out and onto the heads of the street sweepers below.
There was money there. Money being spent, and money to be had. Dwarroway was an old city, and with old cities came old money. Money like water under the ground. Especially here on Underleaf street.
“What are you doing, Gel?”
“Just looking out the window.”
Gel stepped away from the shutters. The sun was just starting to set; a shaft of light washed Nutmeg’s axe in red and orange light. It glowed like molten steel as the dwarf polished and sharpened the blade. A light almost like fire.
“How much did you get for Benny’s tapestry?”
“A hundred. I left your cut on your bed.”
Gel returned to the window. The servant with the rug was gone. Two street sweepers sat chewing nicoleaf, taking a break from their labor.
“Did you get everything you needed?” he asked.
“Oh, definitely. I’m super ready.”
“Why not head out now?”
“I feel like I was pretty clear, but for the sake of clarity, sure. We want Skeetwizard’s to be packed. We’ll need a crowd to keep things clandestine.”
“What if Thackarack doesn’t show?”
“We’ll figure it out.” The dwarf shrugged. “This is all improvisation.”
“Got a problem with that?”
“Honestly, no. Not at all. Most of my work has been improvisational. Sure, there’s elements of planning to a good contract kill, say, or a break-in, or what have you. But what separates the good from the dead is the ability to think on the fly.”
“So what exactly was your job title?”
“Independent Strategic Systems Analyst.”
“Yeah, it looked really good on paper. And the taxes are pretty light on independent operators.”
“Man. Your life is a closed book.”
“And you can’t read.”
“Fuck you, but yeah.”
They were silent for a few more minutes. Outside, the street-sweepers were throwing dice.
“Alright, I gotta ask.”
“How are you Lucy’s nephew?”
Gel did not meet Nutmeg’s eyes. He knew what the dwarf was thinking.
“It’s not biological, if that’s what you’re asking.”
“That was pretty much what I was asking, yeah.”
“My parents passed away. I met Lucy. She offered to adopt me after I did her a favor. I said I didn’t need parents. She suggested I could use an aunt. Simple as that.”
“And yet, so complicated.”
“Why? How’d you fall in with her?”
The dwarf paused in his work. The axe looked no different – the blade had started razor-sharp, and razor-sharp it remained. “She needed an assistant. Someone to carry her stuff, to watch her back. She noticed me when I threw another gutter-rat clean over a carriage. Said I looked strong. She was right.”
“She usually is.”
“I miss her,” said Nutmeg. “Just a little. Not much. But, you know, it’s weird. Not having her around. She’s been the only constant for me for…well, for quite a few years now.”
There was a lot unspoken there, too. Gel had shared little. Nutmeg, apparently, was following suit. It wasn’t that Gel didn’t like the dwarf. He was an amiable sort of fellow. But trust – well, trust took time. Even Lucy didn’t have Gel’s full trust, and she’d done more for him than most people. Gel was an elf. He had a long life behind him, and many more years ahead. There was time to warm up to the dwarf. Was Nutmeg as dangerous as he looked? As he acted? He’d certainly been more than willing to participate in the murder of the shopkeeper. But that was bully-work. This would be something more.
When the sun went down, the street-sweepers abandoned their posts. Candles and torches burned on Underleaf. Shadows grew in the flickering light. Gel stood. “It’s time, Nutmeg.”
“It is.” The dwarf slung his axe on his back and produced a little pouch. “A bump for the road?”
“Why not?” Gel helped himself. It was good dust. He felt ready, now, ready for whatever chaos the night might bring.
Chapter 2 – In Which Lulu Melonjuggler Briefly Performs
Thum. Thum. Thum thum thum thum. Thum. Thum thum thum thum.
The halfling handdrums, magically amplified, thundered out the shuttered windows of Skeetwizard’s Shack. Purple light pulsed behind the shades and around the door, strobing in time with the beat of the drum. The early evening had given way to the sultry haze of night. A crowd was gathered outside the club. Mostly halflings, chatting, smoking, and chewing nicoleaf.
“When’s the next show?” Nutmeg directed his question at a lump of halflings. One answered.
“Five, ten minutes. Youse got time to get a drink.”
“I think I will.”
Gel was following close behind. The bouncer stopped them at the door.
“Weapons. 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.”
“Yeah yeah yeah, I’m familiar.” Nutmeg unslung the axe; Gel chucked his crossbow in the box. “Keep an eye on those, man, they’re worth something.”
“Hnh.” The bouncer’s interest faded.
It was busy tonight. Just like Nutmeg wanted. There was a reek in the air, a reek of cheap perfumes and booze and nicoleaf and sweat. Nutmeg elbowed Gel. “You’re the tallest one here,” he said. “Keep an eye out for Thackarack.”
“Oh, I totally see him,” said Gel. “It’s super easy. Over there.”
Nutmeg stood on tippy-toe. Sure enough: by the back wall, at a roped-off set of couches, sat Jim Thackarack, accompanied by a few other hangers-on in the raiment of the unnaturally wealthy. Thackarack had a halfling girl on each arm. They were laughing at something he’d said.
“Perfect. We talked about this. Plan Lambda, with a double chocolate surprise.”
Gel looked confused for a moment, and Nutmeg’s faith in his new companion wavered. But only for a moment. “Oh yes. I forgot what the chocolate was. Your terminology is new but effective.”
“That’s what I’m going for.” Nutmeg gestured to the bouncer. “You’ve got a few minutes. See you on the other side.”
Gel disappeared back into the crowd. As much as he could, anyway, standing nearly twice as tall as the average patron. He stopped at the bar and elbowed his way to a spot near the door.
Nutmeg carried on. He shouldered through the press of people, nearly spilling a towering pitcher of black beer on a boisterous halfling woman. He came to a stop near the roped-off section, at a cocktail table built for halfling height. One other patron had chosen this distant seat, a timid-looking fellow with a few wisps of beard. Nutmeg glared at his companion until the joker got the hint and skedaddled. Then, he just sat, and watched Jim Thackarack.
The halfling was wealthy. Obscenely wealthy. That much was evident. His hangers-on wore gold and silk and bright colors; rings flashed on their fingers, and braids of silver wound through their hair. But Thackarack, well, that guy had some class. Dressed in a black shirt, with a plunging neck that nearly reached his belly-button. The hems were lined with silver trim. His hair was slick. He wore one ring – not an obscene boulder like his buddies, but a band of silver studded with black diamonds. Classy. Classy guy.
Nutmeg searched within himself, and found what he was looking for. Loathing. That fucker over there. With his ring. And his plunging neckline. What a chode. What an absolute turd. Thinking he was so cool. Just because he had those bodacious babes with him, too. That had to be a confidence-booster for this little twerp. They were lookers, those two, and Nutmeg didn’t even have a particular thing for halfling women. He scratched his unruly beard, found a lightning bug in it, and flicked the poor insect away. Punks like Thackarack didn’t know what it meant to be alive. Only what it meant to live in the shell of beauty.
Then, the show began.
The purple lights dimmed. The booming music swelled. The announcer, a halfling with a comically-thin mustache, stepped up to the stage.
“Laaadieeees and gentlemen, thank you, thank you for coming to Skeet…Wizard’s…Shack!” Pause for cheers. “Tonight we have a very, a very special show for you featuring the lovely, the one, the only, the fantastic Miss Lulu Melonjuggler!”
Another time, Nutmeg might’ve liked to stay and watch Lulu Melonjuggler do her thing. He assumed it involved melons. From across the room, in the dim light, he caught Gel’s eye. The elf nodded. Nutmeg nodded. Lulu Melonjuggler stepped out onto the stage, clad only in a strategically-tailored lambskin bikini. The crowd roared. And whooped. And whistled.
Nutmeg threw the first thunderstone.
It struck one of Thackarack’s companions in the teeth. His scream was lost in the atrocious bang. Nutmeg had plugged his ears. He hoped Gel had done the same. He vaulted the rope. One of Thackarack’s other buddies, a guard, made a half-hearted attempt to stop him. Nutmeg punched the halfling in the throat. The guy fell. Thackarack was grabbing at his ears. The ladies on either side of him were screaming in a high, keening pitch. Nutmeg pushed them back over the couch. He grabbed Thackarack. By his fancy, fancy shirt. Jim struggled. Nutmeg thwomped him in the face. The halfling crumpled.
Through the confused screams and shouts, through the music, through the crowd, Nutmeg heard a high-pitched whistle. Gel. He turned, and just in time, there was the axe. Hurtling through the air. Nutmeg jumped. It was a long throw, but he caught it. By the shaft. Now, he was complete. Rage and mister dusty raced in his veins. Dragging Thackarack by the shirtcollar, he charged for the front door.
Many of the patrons were reeling, clutching at their ears, on their knees, or otherwise wracked by the thunderstone’s effects. From the corner of the club, though, armed halflings emerged. Guards. It wasn’t going to be easy. A half dozen of them, shoving their way through the crowd toward Nutmeg.
One of the guards grew a crossbow bolt and fell. Gel was active, then. Nutmeg kicked out at a patron who stumbled into his path. “Get out of my way!” he bellowed, and then belatedly realized the patron couldn’t hear. Right. He was by the stage now, somehow, too close to the stage. Lulu Melonjuggler stood gaping, breasts akimbo.
A guard approached, pointing a shortsword. Glowering from behind a halfhelm. Fuck. The way behind him was closed by the crush of deafened halflings. The way forward was the guard. He let go of the limp Thackarack and brandished his axe. “Last chance, fucko!” he shouted. “Back off!”
In answer, the guard advanced, pushing patrons aside, sword held high. Nutmeg let loose. He whirled the axe around him in a glittering arc. It caught the purple light and reflected it, and then it met some resistance. He swung through. He kept swinging until he’d cleared a circle around himself. Then the smell of blood was in his nose. And a new breed of scream rang out.
“Oops,” said Nutmeg.
There were definitely limbs on the floor. Like, a bunch of them. It all felt like a slow-motion nightmare. Now people were screaming and running. Running from him. That actually kinda worked out. He charged after them, hollering, dragging Thackarack behind him. Gel popped off another few bolts at the guards in the crowd. They dropped like stones. Nutmeg swung again to clear his path. It was effective, he had to admit. His axe scraped the stone floor. Sparks flew. A puddle of booze caught fire. “Oops,” he said again, and hauled Thackarack onward.
Gel had snatched up a machete from the box of bouncer-seized weaponry, and hacked and thwacked at the onrushing crowd, trying his best to carve a path for Nutmeg. Nutmeg slung his axe across his back once more. He gathered Thackarack to him, cradling him like a groom cradling a bride. Then he put his head down, bellowed, and charged for the door.
Halflings flew like tenpins. He leapt over the body of the bouncer and, with Gel leading the way, stumbled out into the night. Gel turned back and pulled the door shut behind him. “Slow down the pursuers,” he said, sounding like a guy who had needed to slow down a lot of pursuers in his life.
Then, they were gone.
Chapter 3 – In Which Things Get Out of Hand
Deep in the squalor of the northwest quarter, Gel stopped to chance a look over his shoulder. The sky behind them was red. Skeetwizard’s was burning. As were a few other houses around it, apparently. And maybe some stores. All that liquor, all those halflings. Fuel. Kindling.
“In here,” hissed Nutmeg. They ducked into an abandoned house down a narrow alley, the exact kind of place Gel loved. Nutmeg had already shot up in Gel’s estimations tonight. The dwarf was a can-do kind of guy.
They strung Thackarack up. Nutmeg helped himself to a little more mister dusty as Gel secured the ropes. The goal was to hold the councilor in place, stretch him a little, make him uncomfortable. Then, they could get him to talk.
“Want any?” asked Nutmeg, offering Gel the pouch.
“Yeah, why not.” Just a smidge. No need to go hog-wild.
“Hey.” Gel slapped the councilor when he’d done his dust. “Hey, Thackarack, wake your ass up. Hey. Hey.”
“Unh.” Jim Thackarack blinked his eyes open. It took only a moment for his bleariness to turn to fear. “Wait, what the fuck is going on?”
“We could ask you the same thing, man.” Nutmeg sat in the corner, sharpening a dagger. In the dark shack, the dwarf looked grotesque. More than usual. “We’re looking for information.”
“Do you have any idea who I am?” Thackarack sounded genuinely offended. “Seriously. This is a massive mistake. A huge one.”
“We’re looking for the Duke of Dwarroway,” said Gel.
Gel punched Thackarack right in the stomach. He knew how to punch. Thackarack wheezed, doubling over as best he could while trussed up. “Your uncle, guy. We know.”
“Youse guys don’t know shit. He owns this city.”
“And we’re going to take him down. No more organized crime in Dwarroway.” Nutmeg stood, twirling the dagger. “We can make this hard or easy. Your choice.”
“Just because.” Nutmeg did yet another bump of mister dusty. That was a little worrying. The dwarf was unstable to begin with. He snorted like a bull and stripped off his armor and shirt. Barechested, he looked like a carpet after a wine and cheese tasting. “Hard or easy.”
“You weird fuck.”
Nutmeg slashed out. Thackarack screamed.
“Hard or easy.”
“The Duke,” added Gel. “Tell us how to find him.”
“He finds you,” gasped Thackarack. “You don’t go looking for him. He finds you.”
“Boring!” Nutmeg sliced again. “Come on,” he shouted, over Thackarack’s howl, “this could be super easy, dude.”
“Let’s try this,” Gel interjected. “How do you make your money?”
“I’m a legitimate -”
“Yeah, no, that won’t fly. How do you make money in the Halfling Mafia?”
Thackarack paused. Blood was soaking his fine clothes. “Vice,” he finally said. “Drugs, booty, gambling – you name it.”
“Some of my absolute favorite things, I gotta admit,” said Nutmeg.
“You organize these things on your uncle’s behalf?”
“I – it’s a family business.”
“That’s right. And you’ve probably been to visit your uncle, right? Barbeques in his backyard? Hegemony Day parties in the parlor?”
Thackarack’s face twisted. He was handsome, for a halfling. A real playboy. But now he was contorted with revulsion, fear, all the good stuff. “He’s my uncle,” he pleaded. “Family is everything. I can’t just – he got me on city council. He’s done so much for me.”
“Family’s not everything,” Nutmeg clarified.
“Where is he?” asked Gel, in a gentle voice. “Your uncle. Where’s his house? Picture it. Picture the shutters, the door, the paint.”
“I’ll stab you in the kidney, bitch,” added Nutmeg.
“The house.” Thackarack hardly seemed to notice the threat. “The house. In the park district. On Darkhollow Lane. Number eleven.” Gel knew the look in Thackarack’s eyes. He was elsewhere now, retreating to a safe place, away from the dwarf’s dagger.
“Your uncle lives there?”
“Great. Nutmeg, do your worst.”
The dwarf did some pretty bad things.
When he was done, he pulled his shirt back on. Gel helped him fasten the breastplate. The shack stank of blood. Thackarack was a mess. The dusty high seemed to be fading a little for Nutmeg, but there was still a murderous gleam in his eye.
“You alright there?”
“Woof. Yeah. Had to get some real aggression out, I guess.”
“Seems like you’ve got a lot going on in your head, buddy.”
“Eh.” Nutmeg shook himself all over. “Whaddya say – want to burn this place down, too?”
“Might as well.”
Gel built the fire and lit Thackarack’s body. Fire licked the wooden walls. They left the burning shack and found a burning city. Smoke like a monstrous beast rose from Skeetwizard’s in the distance. The red glow was everywhere.
“Yeah, that’s not good.”
“To the Duke?”
“Absolutely. No time to waste.”
Gel had taken many strange walks in his life. Once, on a job, he’d followed a man through the streets of the capital for a week straight, tailing him as he obsessively avoided every fourth paving stone and stopped to spit in every sewer grate. He had walked dark paths, far from the light of the sun; he’d walked the deck of ships on the distant Bridger Sea. But nothing compared to the red hell Dwarroway had become.
The smoke blew thick and hot through the streets of the northeast districts, stinging his eyes and charring his lungs. The night was quiet, eerily so; when noise broke through, it was the sound of screaming, or the sound of an explosion as another bar caught fire. Under it all was the barely-audible roar of the flames, eating away at the seediest parts of the city. The firewall burned hot and fast. They raced toward the city-center, toward the marketplace, toward the safety of the river. At one street, though, they were turned back when they rounded a corner and faced a corridor of burning houses. Here the screaming was loud. Here the fire was bright. The heat spun from it. They had to turn, and run, ahead of the crowd of survivors, back the way they came until they found a new street, a south-facing street, and they ran again for the river.
When they reached the river, Gel stopped and turned back. All of it was burning. The whole northeast quarter of the city was on fire. Druids raced past them, coming up across the bridge, ready to cast their watery spells. Palladian priests, too, were hustling on, ready to assist the burned and the burning. Their red-gold raiments made them look like living flames themselves, candles against the inferno.
“I think we fucked up,” said Nutmeg.
“Maybe,” agreed Gel.
“Didn’t really mean for that to be a whole thing.”
“Same. But you know – this might work out for the best. Distraction. We can move on the Duke right now. Before he puts two and two together. There won’t be a better shot than this.”
“Yeah, you’re probably right.”
Backs to the blaze, they carried on, up the hill to the park district, where the windows of the wealthy reflected red hell.
Chapter 4 – In Which They Meet a Large Fellow
Up the road they went, up and up. The lane switchbacked up the park hill, past gabled cottages and iron fences. No one was out. Here the streets went empty early, and only a few streetlights shone. That, in and of itself, was the greatest indicator of wealth and power. Only the powerless lived in fear. Those who lived in the park district had no such anxieties. Their security was guaranteed in subtler ways. Gel had seen these sorts of places many, many times. In the city of Elfstone Rush, he’d once done a job in an upscale part of town, where no city guards patrolled. His target lived in a a fancy house the size of a small castle. When Gel had tried to bust a window, he’d found to his dismay that the windows were made of some fantastic crystal, which rang like a gong at the slightest touch. He’d had to use plan B for that one.
He followed signs for Darkhollow Lane. All the streets here had snooty names. Felldale. Goldenbrush. King’s Walk. There weren’t even in kings in Dwarroway! Why would you call something King’s Walk? The rich and powerful had such strange tastes. Monarchy in particular. Bunch of goobers.
Darkhollow Lane was true to its name. The land ducked a little, and the trees rose, high ancient oaks and elders, interspersed with the silver columns of beech. The moon and stars disappeared behind the trees. Even here, the smell of smoke wafted from the luckless lower quarters.
“Are we close?”
“Definitely.” Gel kept count. “There’s number seven. We’re a block away.”
“Hang tight.” Nutmeg tugged on Gel’s arm. “Check it out. Goons.”
Goons indeed. Two halflings leaned up against an iron fence at a house a block away.
“That’s number eleven. The Duke’s place.”
“So we gotta ice those freaks.”
“Let’s play it cool,” suggested Nutmeg. “Follow my lead.”
The dwarf whispered his command word, and his garb became that of a man-about-town, dressed for a good time. He strolled forward, purpose in his step, whistling. Gel followed, aping nonchalance as best he could. Nutmeg nodded to the goons as he approached.
The guys nodded. They were armed, but their swords were sheathed.
“Say, I think we’re lost. Could you point us in the right direction?”
“Keep movin’.” One guard jerked his head. “Ask at a damn inn.”
“Oh my gods,” said Nutmeg. He suddenly doubled over. “Oh my gods. That fig pie. Oh my gods. It’s really coming back on me now.”
The guards gave each other a look. “Uhh.”
“I told you you shouldn’t have eaten all that pie,” said Gel, helpfully. “You know what those do you to your digestive tract.”
“I’m going to be sick,” gagged Nutmeg. “Hwoooargh.” He staggered toward the guards. They stumbled back. Nutmeg fired off a jet of bile at their shoes.
“Ah, you nasty godsdamn dwarf,” one of them started to say. Then Nutmeg made his move.
He was up with his dagger drawn, and took the guard through the throat with alarming speed. Gel didn’t need instructions. He drew his shortsword and, with a reverse grip, slashed across the neck of the second guard. They fell in silence.
“Did you actually have to throw up?” asked Gel. “Couldn’t you have just made your move before that?”
“You have to commit.” Nutmeg spat. “Ugh. Phew. Alright. Let’s see what we’re working with.”
Beyond the iron fence was a manicured yard, nearly a hundred feet of lawn. Trees grew right up around the house – oaks, all of them, tall and austere. The house itself was surprisingly modest. Four floors, with a pretty little gabled roof and ivy up the trellised walls. Merry light washed from every window. Picturesque and lovely.
“Think it’s booby-trapped?”
“I doubt it. You gotta get booby-traps installed. Might draw too much attention.”
“I think we ought to go up the trees.” Gel stretched his arms, cracked his knuckles. “Hit the third floor. Looks like that’s a good height.”
“Listen. No disrespect. But I’m going in the front door.”
“The front door?”
“Nobody ever expects it. They plan for traps and stuff with back doors and windows. But the front door? It’s probably not even locked.”
“We should really use the same approach.”
“Nutmeg, I don’t-”
“Front door!” The dwarf loosed his axe from his back, and charged for the door.
“Well.” Gel stood for a moment, watching the dwarf sprint across the lawn. “Fine, then.” He broke for the trees. With a bound he was up in the boughs and branches. Old trees were the best for climbing. Long, strong limbs, perfect for perching. He went up hand over hand. He had to leap once, from one tree to the next. He landed perfectly, balanced on the balls of his feet. In line with the third floor window.
From inside came the sound of crashing. Someone screamed. Nutmeg bellowed. Gel sighed. No subtlety to this guy. One fatal flaw. Gel could’ve been in and out, quiet as a demon’s whisper, but no. Nutmeg had to go in hot.
Gel tested the window. Ordinary, breakable glass. He kicked it in and jumped through.
He landed in some sort of study, just above a staircase leading down. Someone was on the staircase. A halfling, heading down. Fast. Gel drew his crossbow as he landed, flipped a bolt into it. Shot.
The bolt flew true and thrummed into the halfling’s shoulder. But the man didn’t fall. He turned. And Gel’s stomach sank. From behind, the fellow hadn’t looked remarkable. But now – he might’ve been a halfling, but he looked more like a fullling. Six feet tall, easily, and bulging with muscle. He carried a scimitar the length of his arm. And with a growl, he charged back up the stairs.
“Ah, shit,” said Gel.
He dropped the crossbow. There was barely time to raise his rapier and shortsword. He caught the huge halfling’s first blow, and staggered back into a little credenza near the window. The halfling switched grip with a vicious speed and cut out again. Pain lanced up Gel’s right arm; blood welled from a cut in his leathers. He parried the next blow and managed to jab the halfling in the bicep with his rapier, but the halfling shrugged it off and pressed on.
Gel dropped the rapier. Ineffective in these close quarters. The shortsword was a little too short for a good two-handed grip, but he could make do. The big halfling was bleeding from half a dozen cuts, but he grinned a big ugly grin and slashed out again. Gel grimaced. The scimitar caught him in the side. He tripped backwards into the windowsill. The night air tickled his neck. The big halfling raised his scimitar. Death was in his eyes, a gleeful sort of rage.
Then there was a sound of wet splintering, and the scimitar fell from the halfling’s hands. He fell to the ground, and Nutmeg stood over him, breathing hard, his axe buried in the halfling’s spine.
“Big fucker,” said Nutmeg. He was spattered with blood, and something that might’ve been jelly. “You alright?”
“Thanks to you,” admitted Gel. “Appreciate the assist. Is that jelly?”
“Jam, actually.” Nutmeg licked a little off his arm. “Ran through the kitchens on the way up here.”
“Anything important down there?”
“Not really. Nothing I noticed, anyway. I think the Duke’s bedroom is on the top floor.”
“Any cool candlesticks or silverware?”
“I mean, yeah.”
“Okay, noted, I’ll get some goodies on the way out. Let’s pay the Duke a visit.”
Chapter 5 – In Which Gel Grabs a Cool Candlestick
Nutmeg helped Gel up the stairs. The elf was limping a little. Poor guy. Big ass halfling had him on his back. It would’ve been a shame to lose Gel. Any doubts in Nutmeg’s mind had been entirely eliminated now. Lucy had good taste. They had to get Gel some better armor, though. Nutmeg made a mental note to hook the elf up with Hekla Stoll’s gear.
The top floor was an easy one. A single door at the top of the stairs. Nutmeg hefted his axe. “I’d get your bow ready. No telling what we’ll find.”
“Ready?” Nutmeg held up three fingers. Two. One.
He kicked in the door.
A crossbow bolt whizzed through the air, just past his head, embedding itself in the doorframe. The bolt had been shot by an elderly halfling, who was lying back in a four-post bed, propped up by gold-fringed pillows. As soon as the bolt missed, the halfling dropped his little hand crossbow and held up both arms.
“I surrender,” he said, in an old man’s voice. “I surrender.”
The room was huge and opulent. Through a side door, Nutmeg could see another room, one with a desk and too many god damn books. But this bedroom – it was very nice. Very classy. A brass washtub. A pair of silver candlesticks, wrought with little images of goats and cows and stuff like that. The Duke himself was silver-haired and stout, although not as corpulent as some kingpins Nutmeg had known. Not that he’d known many kingpins.
“You’re the Duke?”
“Sharp boys.” The Duke rearranged himself to a more comfortable position in the bed. “You’ve done a hell of an audition, though. You want jobs? Clearly, you’re more talented than anyone else in my employ, to my great shame.”
“Nah.” Nutmeg leaned up against the wall. “First things first, we want to talk. Who are you, really?”
“The Duke of Dwarroway, of course. Who else would I be?”
“Fair.” Gel still had his crossbow raised, and he took a few steps forward. “Listen. We need to know everything about your organization. Now.”
“Everything?” The Duke laughed. “Boys. My goodness. That would take a lifetime.”
“How about the brief version, then?”
Nutmeg sighed. “You don’t understand. We’ll kill you if you don’t participate. The thing is, we really don’t care much about you and your bullshit. And I assume there’s enough in those journals and books over there to bury you in the tightest lockup in the Hegemony. But this is personal curiosity. Humor us, man. And we’ll go easy if you do.” He looked to Gel. Yeah, it was time to play the trump card. He pulled out his badge. “See, this is just the beginning.”
“Ahh.” The Duke laughed. “Well, then. Well. Enterprising little guys, huh? Alright, federales. Buckle up.
“Where do I start? City council? I own most of them. Most anyone who matters in this city, frankly. They’ve done me favors, and I do them favors, and now they owe me. Every city needs someone to do the dirty work. Someone to run the drugs, to own the brothels, to get things past the guards, and past the government. For years now, that’s been us halflings. My organiztion. My people.”
“That’s the headlines. Give us the details. Benny’s, for instance. How did he fit in?”
“Ah, Benny. Low-level stuff, then. Benny was a clearinghouse. A good place to send dust through, but also a good place to send crates of anything through. And shoot, a good place to just clean dirty money. Every organization needs some brick-and-mortar presence.”
“We saw a bunch of weapons coming in from some kobolds. What’s up with that?”
“Good business partners, those kobolds. Don’t ask where they get the weapons. I don’t work with them personally. Only through my friends. But the weapons? Hah. Well. Whoever wants them, buys them. Easy as that. Sometimes I keep some and arm my boys. Some on city council do the same – better to have your own private guards than rely on the city guard. I don’t ask what they do with them. Not unless they need a favor from me.”
“You’re being frustratingly non-specific,” said Nutmeg. “Tell you what. Gel, tie this guy to the bed. Clear him of weapons. Then, let’s check out the books. Not my favorite thing in the world, but desperate times, et cetera.”
The Duke put up no fight – he even helped get himself in an easier position for being bound. Nutmeg had the upsetting thought that the Duke had been tied to these bedposts before. They recovered his hand crossbow – a nice little pocket-shooter, well-made – as well as a jeweled dagger from his nighttable. Gel helped himself to one of the candlesticks. “What’s with the animal print on here?” he asked.
“We’re rural folk deep down,” said the Duke. “What can I say? Papa’s stories of herding goats in the hills of Folkor relaly left a mark on me.”
“Alright, you hang tight there. We’re going to look through your papers and shit.”
“Help yourselves, fellas.”
They slipped into the next room. “He’s weirdly cooperative, isn’t he?” asked Gel. “I expected…more criminality.”
“Yeah.” Nutmeg shrugged. “Whatever. I think it’s a bluff. He knows we’ve got the upper hand. Alright. Let’s get to reading.”
“You can’t read.”
“Yeah, I meant, please start reading, dude.”
The journals and notebooks were all sorted carefully, according to some system that eluded them both. Gel picked up a book at random and flipped through it. “Alright, here’s some details. Some councilor. Henlet Corridge. Hell of a name. She’s some bigwig in the local druidic grove, looks like. Oh man. She’s nasty. Wow. Druids aren’t even supposed to own this much money, let alone owe it.”
“Great, dirt, this is good. Anything organizational?”
“Eh?” Gel thumbed through a few more titles. “Maybe, yeah. Ledger type things…yeah, we’ve got a few. Huh. This is different.”
Gel pulled down a thick journal, bound in brown leather, stamped with some sort of symbol on the spine.
“What is that?” Nutmeg tried to peer over Gel’s shoulder, but the elf was a little too tall. When he saw the cover, he grabbed Gel’s arm. “Wait. What the fuck. What the fuck.”
A red hand, a red claw, was cut into the leather on the cover. A red claw just like Alghor’s mark, just like the brand on the wargs from Laketown.
“What’s wrong?” Gel flipped open the book. “Huh. Weird stuff in here. Some sort of cipher. I can’t make heads or tails of it. Oh but hey, look, a little diagram. Books with pictures are good.”
“It’s a map,” said Nutmeg. “I can’t much, but I can read that.” There was no mistaking it. The map to Khaddakar from Dwarroway, reproduced perfectly in the Duke’s private journal.
“You like like you’ve seen a ghost,” said Gel. “Also you look like you fell through a pile of jam jars.”
“Yeah, uh, listen. This is – ok. Uh. Listen. Hold on.” Nutmeg grabbed the book from Gel and marched back to the Duke’s bedside. “What’s this?”
The Duke gave him a kind smile. “Oh, you poor kid. You’re way over your head now. There’s things in motion that you might never see the whole of. Ever hear the parable about the blind man and the elephant? That’s you, I’m afraid. Grasping at the ears. Or trunk.”
Nutmeg slapped the Duke hard. “Nope. We’re not doing the vague shit. What’s going on here? What do you know about Khaddakar?”
“Only what Lobo tells me,” said the Duke, with infuriating ease. “That’s his business. I just help with some of the…logistics.”
“Hey, Nutmeg, I’ve got an idea,” said Gel, entering the room. “How to sting all the corrupt councilors at once.”
Nutmeg hardly heard him. Khaddakar. That was just some random lead, some stupid thing they were chasing for Mister E. Why would it show up here, in the house of the most powerful man in organized crime? What was going on with this red hand bullshit?
He had to talk to Mister E.
“I support your plan, Gel,” he said. “Whatever it is. You wanna lure the councilors here and arrest them?”
“I was thinking kill, but okay, yeah, we’re government boys. I keep forgetting.”
“You’re new, it’s okay. Listen. Sure. That sounds good. Get the Duke to send out the messages. Do what you gotta do. Duke, fella, cooperate. Honestly, just cooperate. This could go easy or it could go hard, and I’ve had it up to here with people picking ‘hard.’” He pocketed the red hand notebook. “Gel, I’m going to try to get in touch with Mister E. Right now. Maybe we can get him to handle the arrests. You’ve got this on your own?”
“Good deal. See you back here in…two hours sound okay?”
“Plenty of time for me to grab candlesticks.”
“Good.” Candlesticks were far from Nutmeg’s mind as he raced down the stairs and out the iron gate.
Chapter 6 – In Which Nutmeg Stands Among Potatoes
Nutmeg ordered moonshine.
The Tenth Column had become a kind of waystation. Folk from the south of the city came in looking for news about the fires. Folk from the north side came in to escape the blaze. It was out of control now, and R’yta had a few extra hands behind the bar, helping her serve the many, many people who needed to drown themselves in something, anything other than smoke.
When R’yta brought him his drink, he grabbed her hand. “R’yta. Have you seen that guy? You know, the guy who meets us here sometimes? Dresses all in black?”
“No,” she said, and pulled her hand away. “Nutmeg, not now. Haven’t you seen the fire?”
“Yeah, I saw it.” He pounded his moonshine and wiped his mouth. “That’s why I need to talk to my man.”
“I’ll say you do,” came a familiar voice. Mister E was there, behind him, pressing through the crowd. “Not here,” he said, when Nutmeg opened his mouth to speak. “Somewhere away from prying eyes.”
Nutmeg nodded. “The roof?”
“I’m more of a root cellar man.”
With a little bit of silver in her palm, R’yta opened up a trap door behind the bar and ushered Nutmeg and Mister E down the creaky steps. The cold damp cellar was a welcome change from the broiling city above. Piles of potatoes up against one wall; racks of wine and bottles down another corridor. The Tenth Column had a veritable cave under it. It smelled just on the safe side of mold.
“Did you do this?” asked Mister E, when they were alone. A single candle lit the cellar, and Mister E’s shadow enveloped a stack of yams.
“Nope, not me.”
Mister E cocked an eyebrow. “I find that surprising.”
“Well, I mean, it wasn’t me specifically. Gel and I did some uh, some intel work, but they tried to smoke us out. So we didn’t actually start the fire. The Halfling Mafia did.”
Mister E sighed. “Well, I’m glad to hear it. An emergency call went up, and my team and I had to port in an hour ago. There’s an emergency convening of the High Council – Venn Madrigon is apoplectic, calling it an act of sabotage by rival figures on the High Council. It’s a big deal.”
“Huh. Yeah, that’s too bad. But listen, Mister E, I need to talk to you about something. Something big.”
“Bigger than this fire?”
Nutmeg explained as best he could with a dearth of details. Skeetwizard’s? A blur. Thackarack? Went a little differently. When he described Gel’s plan to arrest the councilors, Mister E sat heavily on a barrel marked “salt pork.”
“So.” Mister E drummed his fingers on the barrel. “Where to begin.”
“Yeah, we’ve been busy.”
“Mass arrests.” Mister E shook his head. “Taking down half – no, probably more than half – of the city council. Effectively cutting off organized crime in the city. A large industry in Dwarroway, mind you. Organized crime is a job creator.”
“Yeah, I mean, we were mostly just doing this for fun.”
“I’ve noticed that’s your modus operandi. Ah, but very well. We’ve had our eyes on the Duke for some time now. Building a dossier on each of his council connections. We like to know the whole picture before we go toppling dominos. Pardon the mixed metaphor. We don’t exist to stamp out all crime forever, Nutmeg. That’s a job too big for any bureaucracy, even one as powerful as mine. Control circumstances. Monitor and influence. That’s our typical practice. You’ve jumped into the middle of something far bigger than yourself. Good agents have spent years tracking the Duke’s operations, and here you are undoing all that work in a single night.” He stood from his barrel. “Be that as it may. Yes, I will handle the arrests. My agents will be at the Duke’s place in two hours. On one condition: Lobo walks.”
“Lobo Terlethian? High councilor’s brother-in-law? Powerful city councilor in Dwarroway?”
“Sounds familiar, I guess.”
“He walks. My agents have been paying special attention to Lobo. He and his brother-in-law Venn are into something large. Something larger than the Duke, than Dwarroway. We can’t touch them yet. Not until we know more about what’s going on. We’re going to tip off Lobo that this meeting is a sting. If we try to take him in this morning, the rest of Dwarroway would be burned by lunchtime.”
“I mean, sounds like we should definitely take him in, then, right?”
“No.” Mister E’s voice was firm. “No. We can’t touch him. Not yet.”
“Okay, well, the Duke did mention that Lobo was connected to Khaddakar.”
Nutmeg showed Mister E the red hand notebook and explained his brief conversation with the Duke. Mister E flipped through the book, pausing on the hand-drawn map to Khaddakar.
“This…” he pockted the notebook. “This is a good find, Nutmeg. Thank you. All the more reason not to touch Lobo yet. Like I said: there’s something large going on here. A vast and insidious conspiracy. We’ll talk more about this later. For now: get back to the Duke’s place. My agents and I will be there shortly. You said there’s more of these notebooks?”
“Oh yeah, whole library of them.”
“Excellent. If there’s one thing my agents are good at, it’s reading.”
“Weird thing to brag about, but okay.”
Mister E gestured to the stairs. “Get moving. We have more to discuss, but we’ll finish this conversation in the Duke’s study.” Nutmeg hustled up the creaky stairs; he was nearly to the trapdoor when Mister E called out again. Nutmeg turned. “Good work,” said Mister E. “All things considered.”
As he headed south again, Nutmeg’s mind raced. What exactrly had they stumbled into here? Mister E made it sound like he and his goons already knew all about the Duke and his organization. What were they waiting for? It was pretty easy for him and Gel to take down the organization overnight. Why couldn’t Mister E have done that? Building dossiers, whatever. You didn’t need a whole dossier to do what he and Gel had done. It all left him feeling a little uneasy. So uneasy, in fact, that he almost ran straight over a red-robed priestess of Palladius rushing to fight the fires.
“Oops,” said Nutmeg. “Sorry.”
He blinked. It was D. Sister D, out of her armor, unarmed, but clearly ready to fight fire with prayer. She grabbed his arm.
“Do you know anything about the fires?” she asked.
“Totally. Short version: accidentally happened when Lucy’s nephew and I tried to take down organized crime.”
“Oh, shit, yeah, I gotta catch you up. Come with me. Big things going down southside.”
It took him until the park district to finish the catch-up. He and D jogged side-by-side, breathing heavily through the thin layers of smoke.
“So, Lucy’s gone?”
“How are you holding up?”
“Hey, thanks for asking. You know, I’m going on a rage-fueled rampage against organized crime. So I think I’m at least channeling my stress into productive enterprises.”
“So important.” He paused. Her silver holy symbol had fallen out of her robes and swung like a pendulum back and forth as she jogged. “Hey, uh, how’s things at the temple?”
“Strange.” She shook her head. “Lots of politics. Lots of maneuvering. Everyone wants to be the new high priest. I really miss the moral clarity of hitting goblins in the head.”
“D, you’re alright,” said Nutmeg. They’d reached the Duke’s place. Gel waited at the front door, arms folded across his chest. There was an odd expression on his face.
“Gel, this is Sister Dondalla. D, this is Gel.”
“Likewise.” The elf shuffled from foot to foot. “Listen, Nutmeg, we’ve got a problem.”
“I kinda accidentally killed the Duke.”
“Oh, a problem.”
Chapter 7 – In Which the Plan Goes Off Without a Hitch
Gel had arranged the Duke nicely, after he stabbed him through the throat. Propped his head up on the embroidered pillows, closed his eyes, mopped up most of the blood. Gel watched as Sister Dondalla inspected the wound, the room, everything. He didn’t trust her.
“It’s a clean hole,” she said. “Rapier stab?”
“What happened?” asked Nutmeg. He hadn’t said much since he saw the Duke. Just stood at the foot of the bed, hands on his belt, frowning.
Gel sighed. “I got him to call the councilors. He has a chordstone – it was easy to get in touch.”
“A what?” asked Sister D.
“Chordstone.” Gel pushed aside some books on the Duke’s shelf, revealing an orangeish lump of crystal. “It’s attuned to a matching set. You strike the chordstone, all the other ones ring, too. Fancy rich people stuff.”
“Yeah. Anyway. I untied him so he could ring the chordstone. Seems like he had a stiletto hidden next to it, though. He rang it, turned around, tried to stab me. I went on instinct. Happened before I even knew it did.” Gel produced thet stiletto. Some sort of black oil was smeared near the tip.
“Yeah, poison of some sort. Not sure what, exactly; I’d have to get a testing kit. But I’m guessing it would’ve fucked me up.”
Nutmeg tickled the Duke’s feet. The dead man didn’t move. The dwarf blew a long breath.
“Fuck. Well. Alright. The councilors are coming?”
“Should be here an hour before dawn.”
“Good. Mister E’s on his way with some federales.”
“Well, shit, you want to crack into the Duke’s wine cellar?”
“Hold on.” Sister D held up a hand. “I don’t want to sound suspicious. But Nutmeg – you said Mister E is letting one of the councilors walk? That he’s not a fan of you taking down organized crime without his say-so?”
“I have to say, that raises some red flags for me,” said the red-robed priestess. “Why are we on this path if not to see justice done?”
“The money?” Gel offered.
“For fun?” suggested Nutmeg.
“Alright, well, we all have different perspectives. But doesn’t it seem suspicious to you guys, too?”
“No, it does,” said Nutmeg. “We’ve done some stuff well above our pay grade.”
“What are you suggesting we do about it?” asked Gel. This woman’s moralizing didn’t impress him very much.
“Read,” she said. “As much as we can, Gel. You and I can go through these notebooks before Mister E gets here. Make our own notes. Nutmeg, you want to look through the house for anything else interesting?”
“Yeah, I think I saw more jam jars in the kitchen,” said Nutmeg.
“Well, I meant more like secret passages or strange artifacts.”
“Oh, yeah, sure, no problem.”
Gel took the back half of the office; Sister D took the front. The Duke was a meticulous man. Recorded everything, apparently. Some of the details were fascinating. He had his fingers in a little bit of everything. Yes, city council was in his pocket, but so were a number of high-ranking city guard officers – a man named Hersk in particular. And here was mention of regular meetings at “Horne’s Hunting Lodge.” That seemed worth following up on. He was mostly skimming for names and numbers. A few inventory records pointed to weapons entering the city via the kobolds in the north, then dispersing out the city gates to the west and east. The east made sense. The rest of the Hegemony was that way. Anyone who wanted some bulk daggers in Clearspring could connect to this shipping network. But to the west? There was nothing out there for miles. Just the long dwarven road, stretching out to the ruins of the old empire. Little cities, distant cities, maybe, but nothing major. Nothing worth Gel’s time. The Duke had friends all over. It was almost enough to make Gel regret killing him. Almost.
He’d told the truth: the old fuck had tried to shiv him with that pigsticker. Maybe he had embellished a little on the specifics. Maybe he’d disarmed the Duke, looked him in the eyes, and asked him to say a final prayer to whatever god he believed in. Maybe he’d knocked the Duke down and stood over him when he stabbed, leaning down with the rapier to drive through the man’s neck and into the floorboards. But so what? He had it coming. Besides, the guy had apparently written down every thought in his tomato-sauce-addled brain. Who needed him?
Behind him, Sister D was making “hmm” noises, poring over a collection of maps and diagrams. “Gelmahta,” she said, “have you ever heard of the Hestor Vale?”
“Hestor Vale. Out west.” She held up a map. “I’d never heard of it either. But lo and behold, here’s a map of it.” Cities, rivers, mountains. On the right side of the map – the east side – someone had written “To the Hegemony.”
“Must be out west.” He snapped his fingers. “I’ve been finding lots of mentions of westward movement. Weapons, drugs, that sort of thing.”
“The Hestor Vale.” Sister D rolled up the map and stuffed it into her robes. “That’s one to take note of.”
“Hey!” called Nutmeg, from downstairs. “The badge-boys are here!”
Gel stuffed as many notebooks as he could back onto the shelves. Sister D did the same. By the time they were done, Mister E was in the Duke’s quarters, frowning down at the body.
“Ah. Yeah. Sorry about that, my guy.”
“Nutmeg told me what happened. Shame. I had questions for him. Still, I’ll check with our planar contact division to see if we can get him on the other side. And I assume those notebooks in there have a good deal of information?”
“Fantastic. Well.” Mister E peered out the window at the smoky sky. “We should be right on time. Any minute now.”
In fact, it was another half-hour or so before the councilors rolled up. Nutmeg, Sister D, and Gel watched from the fourth-floor windows as the councilors came up the walk. Mister E’s black-suited agents were waiting in the foyer. First, a halfling man, middle-aged, stout and proud. Arrested. Then the large man who had been at Benny’s – Dalacious. Arrested. A councilor dressed in scholar’s robes, with a pair of moony glasses. Arrested. A representative from the local druidic circle, in green and brown. Arrested. A young halfling woman. Arrested.
Five councilors were led away from the Duke’s house in chains, heads bowed, flanked by a dozen of Mister E’s agents. More agents came up the stairs and started combing through the books, the notes, the desk drawers, the Duke’s pockets, all of it. They paid little heed to Gel, Nutmeg, and Sister D.
“You guys need a hand?” asked Gel.
“Official eyes only, citizen,” replied one agent, clad head-to-toe in black.
“Hey, we’re official,” said Nutmeg, producing his badge. The agent snorted.
“Deputies. Good to meet you. Thanks for rendering the last eighteen months of my work pointless.”
“Hey, let’s get some fresh air,” said Mister E, coming up the stairs. “Come on now. On the balcony.”
The trio followed him out to a porch looking down on the city. The sun was just starting to rise, although it was hard to tell through the haze of woodsmoke. The fires were starting to go out – the biggest blazes, anyway, the ones that burned the hardest and fastest. But little columns of smoke rose all over the north side of Dwarroway. Some fires, once lit, never burned out.
“We arrested five of them,” said Mister E. “We have two more under house arrest on suspicion – they didn’t show for the meeting, but we think there’s a connection there. Jim Thackarack is dead, of course – Nutmeg, you made that clear, in your account of what happened at Skeetwizard’s.”
Gel shot Nutmeg a look. The dwarf very intentionally did not meet his eyes.
“Eight of the twelve city councilors have either been arrested or killed. The high priest at the temple of Palladius is still a vacant position. The city is burning, devastatingly so.” Mister E frowned, narrowing his eyes against a sudden gust of smoky wind. “Dwarroway is on a knife’s edge. It will take very careful maneuvering to keep it from collapsing. And yet. In my profession, I work very much within the world. I push, I jostle, I rearrange – but I do not change the playing field. You have reminded me of a valuable lesson, one I hope not to rely on too often. You have reminded me that sometimes it is best to simply start from scratch. There is chaos here in Dwarroway, dreadful chaos – but there is opportunity, too. I would prefer that we create those opportunities intentionally, but your work is not unappreciated.
“With that being said. We have determined the location of Khaddakar. Just north of a little frontier town, Truman’s Dell, a week’s ride from Dwarroway. Go there. Clearly, there are things in this land beyond our reckoning, plans within plans, wheels within wheels. Find out what’s happening at Khaddakar.” He held up the notebook that Nutmeg had given him. “Find out what this red hand means.”
“Understood.” Nutmeg looked serious, more serious than Gel had seen him yet. “Do we get to wave our badges in people’s faces?”
“Definitely not. Truman’s Dell is outside Hegemony lands. You will travel there without my authority. Do you understand? Keep your connection to the Hegemony bureaucracy a carefully-guarded secret.”
“Fair enough,” said Gel.
Mister E turned for the balcony doors. “Keep your blades sharp and your wits about you. I’ll see you at the Tenth Column when you return.” Then he was gone, and the trio stood alone, watching the city burn.