Episode 012: The Skill to Catch a Nutmeg (Text)

When we last left our heroes…NUTMEG had fallen. Down a big chasm. When last seen alive, he was carried away into darkness by mysterious scaly creatures. GEL and SISTER D carried on through the goblin lair in Khaddakar, where they learned much about the mission of the RED HAND. Now, they descend into the mountain, in search of their lost friend…

Table of Contents

Chapter 1 – In Which Gel Befriends a Spider

The door was set at a low angle in the wall, like a cellar door of colossal scale. Gel ran his fingers over the many carvings in the heavy stone. At first, the carvings looked abstract, meaningless. It was only on closer inspection that they took familiar forms, albeit fantastic ones. Gigantic mushrooms towering over little dwarven stick figures. Serpents as long as banquet halls coiled around great columns or spires. The unmistakable shape of an anvil, surrounded by tiny figures and what could only be fire. In places, the goblins – or other, long-since-dead inhabitants of Khaddakar – had scraped away the carvings, defaced the edifice. 

Buggnutt had made it clear: this was the way down. The goblin had been more than helpful. He answered every question and then some; he clarified some of the curiosities in Forg’s notes and journals. He made their mission clear. The goblins were here on behalf of some organization called the Red Hand, an enigmatic goblin force based far, far to the west. On the surface, their goals had been straightforward: coordinate with other goblin raiders on the Hegemony’s western border to sow chaos and disrupt trade. But Buggnutt’s Delver Squad had another purpose. They’d come to Khaddakar to find a dragon. A dragon who lived in the depths of the mountain. 

All that was well and good. Gel and Sister D had packed up Forg’s papers – Mister E would probably find those really interesting. And if there was a dragon down there, well, maybe they could keep an eye out for the dragon too. But more importantly: Nutmeg was still down there. Probably. Hopefully. He’d taken that terrific fall from the bridge. The last they’d seen of him, white-scaled lizardpeople were dragging him off into the dark waters under the mountain. 

“Alright. I think I’m ready.” 

Sister Dondalla had taken the time to collect more brands for torches. She’d also refreshed their canteens from the goblin supplies, and prayed over the water to make sure it was pure and sweet. Food, water, light. 

“Great. Give me a hand with the door.” 

It took both of them, straining and heaving, to draw the door open. The goblins had rigged up some sort of rope harness to draw back the doors, but it was still a hell of a job. Puffing and groaning, Gel hauled back one last time. With a tremendous thud, the door crashed open. 

“Gods. I need a nap.” 

“Gel.” 

“Okay, alright.” 

The air that came up from the depths was warm and wet. A pale, nearly translucent millipede crawled up the slick stone steps cut into the raw rock of the mountain. Sister D led the way, bearing a torch before her. 

The path wound down, and down, and down. At a corner not forty feet from the door, a stream issued forth from a seam in the cave wall, cutting a long-eroded path as it trickled down the steps. Whatever masterful handiwork the dwarves had put into this part of Khaddakar, it was gone now, weathered away by the blood of the mountain. 

Gel put a hand on the wall to steady himself. Something tickled his fingers: a white spider, with long, spindly legs. He let it crawl onto his hand. It did so, tentatively, testing his skin. The spider came up his arm, stark against the black leathers. He admired it. The quiet, easy way it moved; the unearthly grace in its many limbs. It was eyeless, of course. Fine hairs lined its legs. It raised a foot when it reached his shoulder, testing the air near his face. With a gentle, easy touch, he plucked the spider from his shoulder and set it back on the cave wall. It skittered away, disappearing into a thin crack.

The water ran ankle-deep in places, burbling down the slope of the steps. Gel was glad he’d sprung for nice boots the last time he came into some money. 

“Gel?” 

“Hm?” 

“Just checking.” The heavy air gave their voices the opposite of an echo, a dampening stillness punctuated by the sussurr of the stream. “I don’t like this place.” 

“Too humid?”

“I don’t mind humid,” said Sister D. “It’s the dark. I don’t like that.” 

“Can’t say I mind it,” said Gel. “The dark is useful. Especially in my line of work.” 

“We’re in the same line of work.” 

“Well, now we are, yeah. I meant before Lucy brought me in.” 

“You were a killer.” It wasn’t a question. 

“Independent Strategic Systems Analyst, actually.” 

“Sure, but what did that mean?” 

Gel sighed. He wasn’t big on talking about his work. Better to just do it. But he heard some desperation in Sister D’s voice. She was talking to talk, to keep her mind off the dark. He understood that. There were things he feared, too. He let her stew in silence for a few moments more, just to amuse himself; at last, he spoke. 

“I was an independent contractor, D. My own boss. I found weaknesses for people. Usually, people with something to hide, and a fear that someone was going to find it. The last job I did – I was in the capital. The best jobs are there, let me tell you. So many people with so many things to hide. The halflings got in touch with me – they run organized crime everywhere, let me tell you. It’s not just an unpleasant stereotype. I did a lot of good work for them. They were losing money somewhere. Had their suspicions it was this accountant in the high council offices. He was on their pay, balancing out some official books in their favor, but percentages were going missing. I tailed him. I got into the high council offices – no easy thing, let me tell you. I found proof. He was getting paranoid, knew someone was watching him. I camped in the high attic of the coliseum across the street from the high council offices for nearly a week. Finally, he showed his face. He was running from the offices to a waiting wagon. I put a crossbow bolt in his knee. The problems stopped. The halflings were happy.” 

Their footsteps squelched in the stream. They’d gone down quite a ways now, winding down a spiral passageway deeper and deeper into the mountain. Sister D was silent for a good while.

“It sounds like you were solving problems for people,” she said, slowly. “Not that I support organized crime. But you punished dishonesty.”

“If that’s how you need to look at it, sure. Like I said. I found weaknesses.” 

“Palladius teaches us to be strong.” The priestess sounded like she was hunting for something, some truth or meaning. “He teaches that violence is just a tool like a plow or a hammer, that it is great service to his light to use violence to set wrongs aright.” 

“I always thought you folks were non-violent.” 

“No, common misconception. You’re probably thinking of Ba’althadists, the druidic sun sect. Totally different from Palladius. Ba’althad is an animistic representation of the feeling of warm sun on green grass. Palladius is the unconquered sun.” 

“Is that part of being a Palladian? Doing the homework on other sun gods?” 

“Yeah, there’s a lot of reading involved.” 

The air was getting lighter, a little less stifling. The passage widened. The light from Sister D’s torch caught little bright flecks in the wall, places where the raw and beautiful fractals of stone pushed through their dull prison. Mushrooms grew here, too, little white mushrooms and some that were speckled with phosphorescence, dots of pale blue-green light in the misty haze. At last, they rounded a corner and came upon a wider cavern. The long spiral staircase had ended. The trickling stream spilled out into a central channel through the floor of the cavern, where other springs met it and formed a babbling creek a few feet deep. The water led out under a low overhang of rock on the other side of the cavern; a passageway was dug into one wall, lined with the same flecks of glittering gemstone they’d seen on the staircase walls. The mushrooms grew thick here, in little patches. 

“Well, this is a welcome change, at least,” said Sister D. She raised her torch. The ceiling was far, far above them, barely illuminated. “Shall we-”

“Wait.” Gel held up a hand. “Shh.” He held still and listened. It sounded like – it sounded like –

“What is it?” asked Sister D.

He gesticulated wildly at her. “Shh!” The stream made it hard to pick out the noise. Distant. But definitely the sound of yelling. Hissing, too, like great lizards. But yelling. Hoarse yelling. A familiar voice. 

“Nutmeg,” he said. 

Chapter 2 – In Which a Jeweled Goblet is Filled

Gel waded down the stream. The sound was definitely coming from past the overhang, where the water disappeared into the rock. They’d have to crawl under. He shivered, and not just because the water was ice-cold. Something about the slick moss, the mushrooms, the unpleasant squishy things underfoot in the stream. 

Nutmeg bellowed again. It was definitely Nutmeg. No mistaking that voice. It sounded like he was – laughing? Was he laughing? What the fuck was the crazy dwarf up to? 

“Come on!” Sister D pushed past him and got down on all fours in the stream. She gritted her teeth and crawled forward, squeezing under the rocky shelf. She disappeared bit by bit. Gel took a deep breath and followed her. The water soaked right through his leathers; his chin touched the water, and it was like a thousand icy daggers. He forced himself forward. The rock got lower and the floor of the stream stayed the same. It was dark ahead. Black water rushed around him. He had to duck deeper. The water covered his mouth. He breathed in through his nose, hard. He tried not to breathe too fast. He sucked air bit by bit. The water got higher. It covered his nose and tickled his lower eyelids. It seeped in through the seams in his shirt. 

He closed his eyes and pushed on, sloshing through the water. He was moving desperately, crawling, dragging himself forward inch by inch, half-swimming now as the passage narrowed. He banged his knee on the streambed. A wave of fear ran through him, up from his guts. What if he got stuck? What if his pack got wedged against the roof of the passage and he was trapped here, eyes closed, water rushing into his nose and mouth –

A red light burned ahead of him. He opened his eyes underwater and saw flickering torchlight against an open room. He kicked forward, banging his knee again, and then lunged from the icy water, gasping for air. Sister D grabbed his hand and braced him, pulling him up. He leaned on her sturdy frame. She had a lit torch in her other hand, and the wet wood burned smoky and low. 

“Oh gods,” gasped Gel. “Gods. I hated that.”

“Gel,” said Sister D, “what is this place?”

He found his footing and climbed out of the stream. They were in a wide, natural chamber, worn from the living rock. Stalactites, long and jagged, hung perilously from the ceiling. The whole cavern was daubed in phosphorescent goo, whirls and whorls on every wall, clearly painted by an intentional – if not intelligent – hand. The stream carried on through another hole in the wall, though this passage was wider and doubtless easier to navigate. The mesmerizing goop shone with a faint and bluish light. A stench filled the air, a stale and moldy smell. There were clawprints in the mud along the banks of the stream. 

“Lizardpeople, probably,” said Gel. 

“Okay, yes, well, I assumed it was lizardpeople.” Sister D held her torch higher, grimacing. “But what does it mean? All this…artwork?”

“Who gives a shit?” Gel drew his shortsword. Better in close quarters than the rapier. He heard Nutmeg’s voice even more clearly – hollering and hooting. He plunged through the passageway and on and on. Sister D’s torchlight followed him, casting his long shadow down the hall ahead. The walls were slimy. More mushrooms grew. There were even nooks in the wall, little carved shelves where many mushrooms grew in neat clusters. Clever lizards. 

So focused was he on charging forward that the tripwire caught him by complete surprise. He stumbled, boots still wet. He slipped. He fell facefirst and landed on the cave floor. A thud and sudden darkness told him Sister D had fallen too. 

“More flesh-skins!” Something jabbed Gel in the neck. He rolled away, raised his sword, and found himself face-to-face with a gang of white-scaled lizards. Their eyes were small and shrunken; their mouths bulged with jutting, asymmetrical teeth. Lit only by the glow of the mushrooms, they were eerie, pale ghosts, each bearing a spear of bone. The one who had spoken was different: black warpaint decorated its snout, and little painted eyepatches covered its vestigal eyes. The patches – leather circles bound to its head by a hemp cord – were painted with crude imitations of human eyes. Off-center, cockeyed, they gave the lizard a clownish cast. 

“You speak the common tongue?” asked Sister Dondalla. 

“This individual does,” replied the clown-lizard. “This individual is called in the flesh-skin tongue Koul Hat Katat.” 

“That rocks,” said Gel.

“Silence!” Koul Hat Katat jabbed Gel again. “This individual will butcher you!” 

The lizards gabbled at Koul Hat Katat, hissing and chattering. Somewhere, not far away, Nutmeg’s laugh echoed through the cave. Koul Hat Katat sighed and rubbed his chinfolds with one scaly hand. 

“Egg-fellows have reminded this individual that the Bearded One, Master of the Deep Crawler, will wish to inspect all fresh captures.” 

“I really don’t like the sound of that.”

“Silence!” 

“Alright.” Gel stood up and batted Koul Hat Katat’s spear aside with his shortsword. “I’m sick of this. We’ve been through a bunch of shit. I’m cold, I’m wet, this smells bad, and clearly Nutmeg is yukkin it up as the hairy little king of you scaly fuckers. So take me to the Bearded One, Master of the Whatever, and let him inspect my nuts.” 

“You are familiar, then with the Bearded One.” A statement. “You come seeking that one?” 

“No shit!” 

“And you have come to pay homage to that one?” 

“He can pay homage to my wiener,” said Gel. “We’re here to collect him. Get him back on his feet.” 

“This is a fortuitous chance under which you have arrived.” Koul Hat Katat smiled broadly. “This individual will lead you.” 

“Well-negotiated,” hissed Sister D in Gel’s ear. 

“Hey, whatever.”

“You are familiar with the Bearded One,” said Koul Hat Katat again. He was leading them now, with the other lizards bringing up the rear. It was hard to see in the dim phosphorescence. “This individual has certain questions regarding the nature of the Bearded One.” 

“Shoot,” said Gel. 

“In the short time that individual has been with us, he has mastered the Deep Crawler, a great threat to our safety. This collection of individuals captured the Deep Crawler with much difficulty and rending, yet the Bearded One was able to tame the Deep Crawler in a way heretofore previously unseen. Using the Deep Crawler, an escape was mounted by the Bearded One; when our Sorcerer, Jal Ahhtt Nuuck, challenged the Bearded One’s ability to survive in this manner, the Bearded One convinced the Deep Crawler to commence eating Jal Ahhtt Nuuck. By our ancient codes, the deposition of the Sorcerer is the installment of the subsequent Sorcerer, who creates decisions for the many egg-fellows.” 

Koul Hat Katat had guided them easily through the twisting tunnels. More lizards sat here and there, squatting in the shadows, tasting the air with their forked tongues. All the while they were following the stream, which had grown to an underground river some twenty feet across. Along the opposite bank, a group of withered-looking old lizards were tending to clusters of pale eggs partially buried in the mud. Lizards tasted the air and hissed greetings to Koul Hat Katat.

“So, Nutmeg convinced a big lizard to eat your chief, and that made him the chief?” 

“Nut Mag.” Koul Hat Katat jabbed the ground with his spear, using it like a cane. “Hm.” 

“I’ll take that as a ‘yes.’” 

The underground river disappeared into a crack in the wall. Koul Hat Katat led them down a long, slick ramp parallel to the stream’s path. Nutmeg’s laugh echoed up the ramp, and before long they saw why. 

The river poured out in a great waterfall down, down into a glassy pool. The water flowed on, further into the depths of the mountain. But around the pool, a crowd of lizards had gathered. They formed a ring, and were hissing and chattering as one lizard stood alone in the center of the ring, facing down a colossal creature, a slick white beast like a flayed dragon. Seated on a chair of bone, shirtless and hairy, drinking something from a jeweled chalice, was Nutmeg, presiding over the scene. 

The lizard in the middle of the ring poked out curiously with its spear, prodding the air near the horrid creature. “Go on!” shouted Nutmeg. “Eat him, big guy!” 

The creature – unmistakably the Deep Crawler – needed no further encouragement. It darted forward, faster than seemed possible, and, with a single chomp, took the lizard’s head off. The crowd hissed and shrieked; Nutmeg laughed, and laughed, and laughed. 

“Hey, buddy!” shouted Sister D. 

The whole cavern went silent. The priestess’ voice echoed off the glowing walls. Nutmeg looked up, and his face broke into a wide smile. 

“Sister D! Gel! Come on down, enjoy the show!” 

“Please remove him from this place,” said Koul Hat Katat, quietly. “The individuals here do not want the Bearded One any longer. That one uses the deaths of us to amuse himself, and at the claws of the Deep Crawler.” 

Gel ignored Koul Hat Katat, and descended into the cavern. He passed around the ring of lizardpeople, doing his best to not look at the Deep Crawler chewing on the corpse of the lizardperson. “Hey, Nutmeg, how you doing?” 

The dwarf took another swig from his goblet. “Ah, you know. I’m alive. Hanging out with my giant lizard buddy. And my little lizard buddy, too.” Pierre, the little blue electric lizard, poked his head out from behind Nutmeg and chirped. “I’m their king now!” 

“Yeah, gathered as much.” Sister D cast a critical eye over the crowd. “Were you planning on trying to come find us?” 

“I mean, eventually.” Nutmeg looked a little embarrassed. “Once I was done here.” He grimaced at the lizardpeople. “Hey, Cool Hat, tell them to clear out. I need to talk to my pals in private.” 

Koul Hat Katat sighed. They croaked a command, and the lizardpeople scattered out the rampway to the higher caves. The trio were left alone with the Deep Crawler, which seemed to be enjoying its meal.  

“Are you alright?” asked Sister D. “That fall – I’m amazed you survived.” 

“Yeah, that sucked, I’ll be honest.” Nutmeg patted his chest. “Got a few broken ribs in here. I think I broke my leg, too.” 

“Uh.” Gel looked the dwarf up and down. “So…did you fix those things?” 

“Nope.” Nutmeg refilled his goblet from an engraved ewer. The liquid was white and thick, and smelled like something used to dissolve bodies. “I’ve been toughing it out. The booze has helped. Here, hang on.” He spoke the command word. His shirtless body became the breastplate they knew all too well. Sister D helped him out of the armor, and they saw his actual chest. Bruised all over, black and bue. 

“That’s a good trick,” said Gel. “So the lizards don’t know how injured you are?” 

“Nope. Not at all. The big guy did all the work.” Pierre chirped. “And Pierre, yes, you did great, pal. He really helped convince the big guy to help us out.” 

“Where’s your stuff?”

“Gone.” Nutmeg scowled. “I tried asking that asshole Cool Hat about it, but they said they found nothing but me in the chasm.” 

“Ah, shit.” 

“Yeah.” 

“What’s Cool Hat’s deal, anyway?” 

“They’re an emissary or something. They have an exit tunnel here somewhere – won’t tell me where, which really pisses me off. But yeah, an emissary. Trades with the surface dwellers.”

“Like Truman’s Dell?” 

“Man, I don’t know. That’d be weird, right?” 

“Yeah.” 

“Alright.” Sister D rested her hand on Nutmeg’s chest. She chanted a prayer, and the bruises faded. Nutmeg let out a long, shivering groan. “You good?”

“Much better.”

“We need to get out of this place,” said Sister D. “How do we get deeper into the mountain?”

“Deeper?” Nutmeg stretched his back, wiggled his toes. “Uhhh. Why? I assume you guys dealt with the goblins?”

“There’s – there’s a lot going on.” 

“Neat, I can’t wait for the recap. Help me with my armor?” Once he was garbed, he cupped his hands to his mouth and bellowed. “Cool Hat! Come here!” 

The clownish lizard reappeared at the entrance, painted eyes akimbo. “Yes, Bearded One?”

“How do I retire?” 

“Hm?” 

“I’m quitting.” Nutmeg hopped off the throne and strode past the Deep Crawler. The great beast let out a low, bassy growl, but Nutmeg just rubbed it under the chin. “This is Deep Crawler’s home now, this cavern. You guys keep him fed, okay? Take care of him. He’s a special fellow.” 

Koul Hat Katat gave a toothy smile, an upsetting sight. “Of course. However, the removal and disappearance of the Sorcerer requires of the nomination of a successor, of a Sorcerer to replace the standing Sorcerer.” 

“You can have the job,” said Nutmeg. “Take it.” 

“This individual cannot,” said Koul Hat Katat, gravely. “For this individual is a Suncursed One, who is sworn to make ventures to the surface. No Sorcerer can be a Suncursed One.” 

“Fuck it. The next lizardperson I see is the new Sorcerer, then.” 

They ascended from the Deep Crawler’s cavern, but were nearly knocked off their feet when a gang of little adolescent lizards came running through the tunnel, chasing each other, hissing and chatterin. Nutmeg grabbed the slowest one. “This is your new Sorcerer, Cool Hat.” 

“This individual would negate this decision if possible.” Koul Hat Katat looked as perturbed as a lizard could. 

“No take-backsies. What’s the kid’s name?” 

Koul Hat Katat chattered at the young lizard. The young one’s nostrils flared with excitement, and they tongued the air eagerly as it replied. “This one is called Ruh Sik Maht. And…that egg-fellow is young. Very young.” 

“Listen, Cool Hat, I’m doing you a favor. You’re the smartest scaly fellow here by a country mile. Why don’t you use this little squirt as a puppet Sorcerer and control the tribe through him? Hm? Throw the dissenters to the Deep Crawler. I just set you up as a proto-tyrant with a veneer of respectability for life, my man. The least you could do is show me to the exit.” 

Chapter 3 – In Which Nutmeg Makes a Discovery

Nutmeg’s leg itched. It itched where it had been broken and repaired. Sister D’s healing prayers always left a little tingling sensation where the fingers of her god had threaded the flesh or whatever. He stopped by the streambed and scratched. 

“Can’t believe there was a secret door,” groused Gel. “I almost drowned getting down there.” 

“Hey, Gel, can I have one of your swords?” 

“Uh, no.” 

“Well, how am I supposed to help you guys in a fight? I’m not busting my knucks every time we need to crack skulls.” 

“Yeah, but I need both swords.” 

“For what?” 

“It totally throws me off balance if I don’t have both swords. You train this way, you get used to it, it’s important.” 

“Whatever. What’s popping with the goblin stuff?” 

Gel explained as they walked. They’d come up along the river as it turned back into a stream, a trickle from the higher tunnels. The air was lighter here. The stone was different. Nutmeg could taste it on the air – the lizard caves had been roughcut, weathered, worn by lizard claws. But here? The dwarven taste was back. The brassiness, the metallic tang. Sister D led them, torch held high, out through an even-cut passageway. 

“…so there’s a gang of goblins looking for dragons.” 

“That’s right.”

“Why?” 

“That remains to be seen. But we did find a clue.”

“I fucking love clues, dude.” 

“I know, buddy. We looked through Forg’s papers. They knew this dragon was here because another dragon told them. Gave them a name and everything. This isn’t a random chance.” 

“A name?”

“Saeverix.” 

They turned a corner, and the walls opened around them. These were long rooms, split by dividers down the middle, where trees of twisted metal were planted in the rock. Gel knelt by a shattered bit of stonework and traced his finger over the runes thereon. 

“Can you read Ancient Dwarfese, Gel?” 

“A little. I recognize some runes. I think this says ‘Garden’ something.” 

They wandered on. The metal trees might once have borne jeweled fruits; there were little metal fittings along the twigs and branches. More of the phosphorescent mushrooms grew here and there, casting shadows on the ceiling. There were places in the walls where skillful hands had carved niches, revealing shining quartz and polished hematite. Dwarven artwork, revealing the natural art of the earth. 

The gardens lasted for a good long while. Near the far end, they stopped at a ring of stone sarcophagi, eight in all, each engraved with the image of a ferocious dwarf. Nutmeg walked between the sarcophagi, running his hands over the faces of the dead. One of the coffins had been smashed in, doubtless by goblin hands. Inside, the brassy dwarf bones grinned up at Nutmeg. The bony hands gripped the hilt of an ancient sword. They would want Nutmeg to have it, right? Those old dwarves? He was here to clean out the filth from their old home. He’d carried their axe. Why not the sword? 

He drew it from the coffin. A stout dwarven sword, more ceremonial than practical, with a heavy iron hilt and runes on the blade. 

“Hey uh you might not want to disturb ancient graves.” Sister D touched the stone. “We apologize, long-dead dwarves.” 

“It’s probably cool.” Nutmeg ran his finger over the blade. “Hey. Check it out. Dolgatha’s mark.” 

“It’s like you never lost the axe,” said Gel. 

“I wish. Swords eat shit. Lame ass weapon compared to a big axe.” 

“Hey, guys, check this out.” 

Sister D had gone over to the far wall. The wall there opened up, and beyond – 

“Holy shit!” Nutmeg exclaimed. 

Beyond the gardens, beyond the tomb, the cavern opened wide. The few glitters and glimmers in the garden walls gave way to colossal juts of gemstone and crystal, manycolored fractals of quartz. Mushrooms the size of oak trees dotted the cavern. 

“Gods,” said Gel. “It – I – it’s -”

“Beautiful,” said Nutmeg. “Astounding.” 

All the wonders of the once-mighty Khaddakar were laid out before them. The light from the mushrooms was refracted through the gemstones, painting rainbow patterns across the cavern. Sister D led the way down a set of clean-cut stairs. Nutmeg marveled. Never in his life had he seen such splendor. And a part of him felt as though he would never see its equal again. The wonders of the ancient world were buried and lost, and it was only through rare circumstance that Khaddakar was revealed here. Few living folk could claim to have seen the same sights. He walked beneath the colossal pillars of living crystal, rune-marked dwarven blade in hand. He had never felt taller. 

They explored the great chamber for what felt like hours. It just kept going. A huge hollow in the earth. There were ruins here: the remains of stone houses, crumbling and broken; a shattered anvil; a stone table, carved from the floor of the cavern, ringed by the remnants of chairs. To live and feast in a place like this. What an honor it must have been. What glory, to live here in the glittering fastness of the earth. 

On and on they walked, until at last they came in sight of a colossal door set in the distant wall. “What more could there be?” asked Gel. Even the surly elf had been uncharacteristically cowed by the magnificent subterranean hall. 

“I don’t know,” said Nutmeg. “But there’s clearly more.” 

“I hope it’s unlocked,” said Sister D. 

“Ah, even if it’s not, we ca-” 

Nutmeg stopped. He grabbed the priestess and threw her to the ground. “Nutmeg!” she cried. “What are you doing?” 

He pointed at the bone spear that clattered off the ground, centimeters from where Sister D had been standing. From a high ledge on a nearby wall came a great hissing shriek. An all-too-familiar sound. 

The lizardpeople had come. 

Koul Hat Katat led the way as dozens of lizardpeople poured out of a hidden crevice. He held a pair of spears on high, and was barking commands in the obscure Reptoid dialect. Too many to fight. What Nutmeg would’ve given for a handful of thunderstones. Instead, he shouted: 

“RUN!” 

They ran. 

The trio were fast, but the lizardpeople were faster. The distance shrank. Spears clattered off the crystals and the stones, impaling great mushrooms, spattering the floor with phosphorescent gick. The door, that huge door, was so far away. They weren’t going to make it. Nutmeg’s formerly-broken leg twitched. No chance they’d make it. He pointed with the sword at a ruined house not far away. The second story of the house was still intact, at least in places. They could try to get a height advantage on the lizards. Last them a little longer. 

Gel made it first. He scrambled up to the high ground, turned, and began rattling off crossbow bolts at their pursuers. Sister D was behind him; she, too, unslung her sling and whirled lead bullets. Nutmeg reached the ruins. It would be hard to climb. He looked back. They were too close. He couldn’t turn his back and go up; he’d have to face them here and now. Cowards. Ungrateful little shits. He’d been a good ruler, in his own way. 

Koul Hat Katat advanced on him, gesturing for the other lizards to leave a ring around them. “Not so ferocious, Bearded One, without the great slithering friend to assist in your actions?” 

“Shut the fuck up dude.” 

“It is you who will be made to have shut the fuck up by this individual!” Koul Hat Katat lunged forward, tongue flying, spears poised to impale. Nutmeg swung the sword. He broke a spear; bone splinters flew every which way. The other spear, though, caught him in the arm. Just a scratch. He held the swordhilt in both hands. It was small, awkward; it felt too light, after the weight of a hammer or an axe. 

“Down!” shouted Gel. Nutmeg ducked. 

A crossbow bolt struck Koul Hat Katat in the left eyepatch, impaling the clownish, painted eye. The lizardperson howled and clutched at the wound, but remained on his feet, tongue furiously flicking. 

“Yeah they don’t really have eyes, Gel,” called Nutmeg. “It was a good shot though.” 

“Fuck,” said Gel. 

Then another crossbow bolt appeared in Koul Hat Katat. Right at the base of their neck, flying in from – not from Gel, from somewhere else. Where? Another bolt struck another lizard. Then another, and another, and another. Koul Hat Katat turned tail and ran, shrieking wordless curses. The lizardpeople followed him, off back the way they’d come. 

“Who are you?” came a strange voice. “What are you doing in Khaddakar?” 

From out of thin air stepped a half-dozen figures, all dressed in gray armor and wearing gray masks. They were short of stature, dwarf-sized, though slighter and slimmer than most dwarves Nutmeg had ever known. Each carried a curious crossbow, and each wore a matching curved dagger. 

“We’re looking for a dragon,” said Nutmeg. “Who are you?” 

“We are the Púkall,” replied one of the gray dwarves. She raised her mask, revealing colorless skin and sunken, red eyes. “And you’re intruding in our domain.” 

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