When we last left our heroes…they met a dragon. Specifically, SAEVERIX, who in turn was an obstacle to the devious gray dwarves. Upon realizing that the gray dwarves possessed his axe and belongings, NUTMEG agreed to help them slay SAEVERIX, down in the bowels of the mountain fortress of Khaddakar. Together with the gray dwarves, our heroes prepare to embark on their most ambitious adventure yet…
Table of Contents
- Chapter 1 – In Which the Plan Changes a Little
- Chapter 2 – In Which They Fight a Dragon
- Chapter 3 – In Which Just Desserts are Served
- Chapter 4 – In Which a Letter Arrives
Chapter 1 – In Which the Plan Changes a Little
Nutmeg jabbed with the spear. The air whistled. He extended his reach as far as he could, then pulled back and ducked. Roonwild’s spear darted out over his head, missing his hair by inches.
“Not bad,” admitted Roonwild. “You fight with a spear before?”
“Nah.” Nutmeg tossed it from hand to hand. It was a shortspear, made more for stabbing than for throwing. The shaft was cold iron; the tip some strange reddish brass. “You all made these?”
“We did, in the forge. It’s not true dwarrowbrass, not like the ancient dwarves could make, but it’s as close as we’ve been able to get. More than enough to pierce dragon-hide.”
Nutmeg took a few more practice jabs. He rather liked the spear, he had to admit. Although it was tempting to just use it like a club. Bludgeon someone upside the head. The precision of stabbing and poking was a new art form. But Alegna, that crusty, unpleasant, rude ass douche, refused to return his axe. He’d tried explaining a hundred times: he was more effective, more dangerous with the axe. More of an asset when going up against a dragon. But the woman was stubborn. Some sort of weird code of honor about exchanges and trades and bargains.
Gel sat nearby, helping one of the Pukall smiths affix dwarrowbrass heads to bolts. The forge had gone silent at last. All work turned now to the sharpening and polishing, preparing their tools for their purpose. Sister D was a little ways off, doing her movement-meditation-thing, worshipping the sun a thousand feet from the light of day.
Nutmeg tried to remember all he knew of dragons. Lucy had done plenty of research, he knew, and even had a black market guy who dealt in dragontooth powder. Their scales were thick as plate, even on one as relatively small as Saeverix. Teeth like needles. Claws like scythes. And he remembered all too well the way Saeverix had spat up a gob of acidic goo. Some dark magic in the blood of a dragon gave them access to those strange powers. And of course, Saeverix could breathe underwater. He hoped Sister D had a plan for that. Otherwise, well, they might be just sitting targets on the shore of the sunken lake.
The north door opened, and a party of gray dwarves entered, armed to the teeth and dressed in thick red-gold armor. Their little gray heads bobbed incongruously atop their flashy suits of plate and mail.
“Hey, hang on a sec,” said Nutmeg. “What the fuck is he doing here?”
Loopis sneered at him. The mutinous gray dwarf was imprisoned no longer, now armed with a spear and dagger, face painted with the war makeup of the Pukall.
“We need our best soldiers,” said Alegna, from higher in the hall. All eyes turned to her. “Loopis is among them. Dumble has assured me that he has been re-acclimated to the mission.”
“Don’t get me wrong,” said Loopis, in a loud voice, directed at everyone in the room. “I’m still ashamed to be fighting alongside these sun-loving surface-dwellers. I don’t see why we need their help, Alegna. But I’ll show them how a true Pukall does battle. I will wear that dragon’s tongue around my neck.”
“Hey, that’s a good idea,” said Gel. “Can I have some of the toes?”
“Uh.” Loopis looked as though the wind had been taken from his sails. “I mean, sure?”
“Let’s not get ahead of ourselves,” said Sister D. She had traded in her wooden shield with the symbol of Pelor, and now carried one of the Pukall-sized dwarrowbrass shields, embossed with strange runes. It matched her war attire. She looked good as hell. “We need to survive this fight first. Do you have a plan, Alegna?”
“I won’t be leading the attack,” said the captain. “I leave that in the capable hands of Roony here. It is regulation,” she explained, turning to the trio, “that the captains of Ar-Kaahaz remain removed from direct conflict, to preserve the sanctity of whatever mission we may be on.”
“I do have a plan,” added Roonwild. She’d donned her gray mask, and signaled for her fellow warriors to do the same. With the dwarrowbrass armor, it was an eerie effect, like ghosts emerging from flames. “We will rappel down the sinkhole as a unit, then approach the shore. Sister Dondalla, you have command of light and darkness, yes?”
“Yes I do.”
“Then when we reach the shore of the lake, you will create a great light, flushing Saeverix from their hiding place. When we see the dragon, we will all throw our spears at once, trying to pin their wings and ground them. Gungle and Bumpus will be in charge of throwing the harpoon-spears, which we will secure to ropes at the sinkhole. Landing those harpoons in Saeverix is paramount – we will be able to haul the dragon back to shore and dispose of it with ease.”
“It is an honor to have such a duty,” said a Pukall who must have been Gungle. Or Bumpus.
“Hang on,” said Gel. “We’re just going to walk in, turn on the lights, and throw all of our weapons in the lake?”
Roonwild scratched her head. “Well, uh, you can reduce any good plan to make it sound stupid.”
“Look, it’s not a bad plan,” said Nutmeg. “But I think Gel is right. There’s room for improvement.”
“Fuck off,” shouted Loopis.
“What would you suggest?” asked Alegna, ignoring Loopis. “Some alternative you have in mind?”
“Just a few modifications,” said Nutmeg. He looked to Gel. “I think we’re on the same page there, yeah?”
“I bet we are. Here’s what I’m thinking…”
All things considered, it didn’t take long to finalize the plan. It couldn’t have been more than a quarter of an hour before they stood around the rim of the sinkhole. Sixteen of them in all, thirteen gray dwarves and the trio. There weren’t enough rope harnesses to bring more. Nutmeg pulled on a pair of hide gloves the Pukall had given him, something to protect his hands from the chafing of the rope and the metal splinters of the spear. Gel to his left. Sister D to his right.
“Are you ready to fight a dragon?” asked Sister D.
“I’m ready to kill a dragon,” said Nutmeg.
“I feel a little bad,” the priestess admitted. “Saeverix, you know, didn’t do anything wrong to us.”
“Yeah, well, whatever.” Nutmeg threaded the spear through a loop in the harness. “I’m just doing this to get my stuff back.”
“That’s the spirit,” said Gel. “Sister D? I’m ready.” She reached past Nutmeg and touched Gel’s brow, murmuring a few words of prayer. Gel’s eyes flashed; his pupils grew to enormous size. The elf kicked off from the edge and plunged down into the sinkhole, disappearing swiftly from view. The time had come. Nutmeg started to count.
Chapter 2 – In Which They Fight a Dragon
Gel dropped to the ground without a noise. The world was lit in shades of gray. D’s spell had done the trick. The sound of the tumbling waterfall was more than enough to drown out his soft, padding steps as he made his way through the tunnel to the shore of the lake. Two minutes. He had two minutes.
The lake was still and glassy, just as he remembered it. He could see better now than when they’d borne the torch. Yes, there, at the middle of the lake, was Saeverix’s island, where mounds of gold and jewels gleamed. He fingered the gemstone in his own pocket, the green malachite from the Ectoplasmic Anchor. A few more like that, and he could get himself a new leather suit. And maybe a good comb. His hair was getting longer than he usually let it grow.
Focus, Gel, focus. He slipped along the shoreline, to the wall of the cave. Half his time was up already. One minute remaining. He found the spot he remembered. A place where the grooves and waves in the rock made something akin to a ramp, no more than an inch wide, leading up the wall to – yes, there it was, to a hole the size of a dwarf. Or an elf, scrooched down. Thank the gods for natural caves. So full of fascinating little nooks and crannies. He flexed his fingers, stretched his toes, and began to climb along the wall. It was slow going. He had to shuffle his feet inch by inch up the long, curved shelf, hands grasping whatever he could reach.
His foot slipped. He scrabbled at the wall. If he fell in the water now – well, Saeverix might not show much mercy. He bit the inside of his cheek to keep from making a noise. His hands found some small purchase on a little spur, and he clung to it, as if by sheer force of will he could become one with the mountain itself.
“Go, go!” said Nutmeg, from farther away. Gel’s two minutes were up. Gods, you could hear everything from the sinkhole. There was no sneaking up on Saeverix. Gel grinned. Except for him, of course. He could sneak up on anyone. He slid up the last few inches and slithered headfirst into the hole in the wall. It didn’t go back very far, but far enough at least for him to draw his crossbow and set a bolt in the firing mechanism. He held his breath, and watched, and waited.
The strike force came in with surprising silence. They weren’t perfect, not by far. Thunderclaps compared to Gel. But they were doing okay. They kicked off the walls, working their way down in the dim unlight filtering down from the forge above. Gel watched the water. Saeverix was not on the island. Must be under the water. He squinted down the sights. Where was the dragon?
The gray dwarves rushed in. Nutmeg was last down the shaft. Gel laughed, silently. Sister D was right beside the dwarf, a hand on his shoulder. There was no light for her to see by – she’d spent her prayer on Gel, and the dwarves all had no qualms about seeing in the dark. Brave lady. He’d been a little wary about traveling with a priestess, but she was alright.
“Saeverix!” called Roonwild. “We need to talk!”
Gel watched the water. The lake was huge. It just kept going. Was that a ripple, there, by the far wall? No, no. There? No.
Then he saw it. A ridge, the spines on Saeverix’s back, breaking the water near the island. The dragon was swimming. Deep. Heading for the shore. Did the dragon know what they were up to? Did it suspect?
Gel tracked the dragon’s progress with his crossbow. He wasn’t going to give up his position until he absolutely had to. Roonwild and the others were arrayed by the shore. There was Saeverix. There it was. The dragon rose up from the water, wings spread wide, green eyes blazing.
“What do you think you’re doing?” asked the dragon.
“NOW!” shouted Nutmeg.
Gel shot his bolt.
Saeverix didn’t see it coming. Right in the back of the neck. The dragon bellowed in rage, twisted in the shallows. Two gray dwarves stepped forward and hurled their harpoons. They were good throws. The harpoons flew true. One caught Saeverix just under the wing; another struck the dragon square in the chest. Both stuck. The ropes pulled taut. Gel grinned. It was going to work. It was really going to work. He shot the bolt. Saeverix bellowed in pain and rage, twisting and thrashing in the shallows.
The dragon spoke. It spoke in a tongue unknown and strange. Darkness grew around it like a black bubble, darkness no mortal light could pierce. Even Gel’s vision faded to darkness. The world suddenly felt very small. Closed in. He pressed a hand to the rock. Cool and wet. Solid. Real. An anchor in this unending sea. Fuck. This was bad. There were screams from the gray dwarves, the crack of a snapping rope, a hiss, a sizzle.
Then, through the cacophony, came the voice of Sister D. A clarion call. Against the cloak of darkness, a golden light blossomed. Gel had only a moment to see, like a flash of lightning, but he saw enough. The dragon, free of the harpoons, rearing high over the gray dwarves. Green acid bubbling and hissing on the shore. Gray dwarves rolling in pain. Nutmeg, spear held high. Another gray dwarf – Loopis? Could it be? – lunging forward, leaping through the air, spear pointed at Saeverix’s chest. And in the middle of it all, the priestess, silhouetted in the golden haze.
The light burned his eyes. He gritted his teeth and reeled back, clutching at his scorched lids. Red spots danced in his vision. He couldn’t see. He couldn’t see. Gods. Gods dammit. He could hear the combatants well enough – Saeverix bellowing, the priestess chanting, the gray dwarves shouting orders and battle cries. But he couldn’t see. He couldn’t see.
He leaned back into the crevice. Shut out the rest of the world. Focused on his breathing. In, out. Deep in, down his chest, then out in a hiss. In through the nose. Out through the mouth. In, out. His crossbow was still at hand, his bolts still in the quiver. He knew his crossbow well. Gel slipped a bolt from the quiver. Slim wooden shaft, with the dwarrowbrass head. He cranked the string back to the catch, slid the bolt into place. And listened. He could just barely see shapes now, but they were still all just spots and colors with no meaning. Nutmeg was making some great racket now, yelling and hooting and hollering and – odd. He was not near the other voices anymore. He was moving very quickly.
Oh, fuck. Was he on the dragon?
Gel squinted. Okay, a few shapes, yes. Sister D was still chanting to Palladius, the light was still pushing back against Saeverix’s cloud. And – ah, fuck. Yup. A big shape flew by, and there was a small lump on its back, a lump with a spear. Nutmeg was on the dragon.
Gel pulled the trigger.
He couldn’t tell if he hit the dragon or not. There was no break in Saeverix’s bellowing. He loaded again, cranked back to the catch, shot. Cranked, loaded, shot. He felt better with each bolt. Surely he was peppering Saeverix.
There came a terrific splash. Unmistakably the sound of a dragon hitting the water. Cold droplets spattered him. The dragon had to be close. But he couldn’t see it now. The gray dwarves were shouting. Gel rubbed his eyes. The spots were fading, the world was resolving once more. He held up his hand before his eyes. His fingers, thin, dark, gloved. He wiggled them. Good. He rubbed his eyes again. Then, sight nearly restored, he leaned out from his niche.
The dragon was underwater. Spears and bolts porcupined from it. And, yup, Nutmeg was riding Saeverix, holding on for dear life to a spear protruding from the dragon’s back. The dwarf’s hair and beard streamed back as the dragon shot through the water, twisting and thrashing. No bolts protruded from Nutmeg, though – that was a plus. Gel followed the dragon’s course with his crossbow. How long could Nutmeg hold his breath? And – could the dwarf even swim?
He waved to Nutmeg as the dwarf passed by. Nutmeg looked up from the cold water, gave Gel a broad, manic grin, and waved back. Gel gestured with the crossbow. To me, he tried to point; to me. Nutmeg disappeared off into the blackness. Gel waited, one, two, three – where had the dragon gone? He looked to the shoreline. Sister D was still glowing, but she and the dwarves were now wading to the water’s edge. A few dwarves lay in green puddles, not moving.
There. Saeverix was back. Cutting straight for Gel’s niche. Nutmeg, blue-faced, was steering the dragon with the spear in its spine. Gel lowered his crossbow. Squinted down the sights. The dragon was just under the surface. Sending up a great wake around it. Gel’s finger hovered on the trigger. Water sprayed up from Saeverix. Nutmeg’s face disappeared in the churning water. Gel breathed in. He breathed out. The dragon’s head jerked to the side. Gel pulled the trigger.
At the moment that his bolt caught Saeverix in the eye, Nutmeg sprang from the dragon’s back, into the air, dagger in his hand. The dwarf stabbed out and drove his dagger into Saeverix’s other eye. The dragon thrashed in the water; it vomited green spew, which sizzled and popped. The hilt of Nutmeg’s dagger poked out of the socket, but Gel’s bolt had disappeared entirely into Saeverix’s skull. The dragon slipped beneath the surface, legs splayed out, tattered wings twitching. Gel let his legs dangle off the edge of his perch and set the crossbow aside.
“Not bad, not bad,” said Gel.
“Glug,” said Nutmeg.
The dwarf was sinking. Eyes closed, beard floating wild and free. Limp and heavy.
“Ah, fuck.” Gel grabbed his crossbow and dove in.
The shock of the water was truly, awfully unpleasant. Like a thousand little needles piercing him, and not in a good, fun, exciting way. He kicked out. The water wasn’t too deep – a few meters at most – but Nutmeg was sinking like a stone. Gel kicked further to reach the dwarf. From behind Nutmeg, he reached out with the crossbow, using it as a brace against Nutmeg’s chest. With his arms under Nutmeg’s pits, he kicked up as hard as he could. The dwarf was heavy. So gods damn heavy. Gel strained, kicking up and up and up.
They were blessedly close to the dragon’s island. Gel found his footing on the rock and, with a final heave, threw himself and Nutmeg up from the water and into a heap. They landed on coins. Jangling and hard. Gel lay back, head resting on something that felt like a bar of gold. Nutmeg lay still beside him.
“You good, Nutmeg?”
“Yeah, okay, that’s what I thought.”
Gel rolled over. He was, in fact, atop a bar of gold. Beside it were more gold bars, perhaps a dozen in all. A few garnets, red as fresh-spilled blood. A black pearl the size of a dinner roll. Silver coins and gold coins and little stacks of copper. Nutmeg’s sword, the sword with Dolgatha’s mark. A matching shield, embossed with dwarrowbrass, wide enough to cover up at least one dwarf.
“Not bad,” he said.
“Ugh.” Nutmeg, too, rolled over. He spat water, hocked up some juicy loogies. “Fuck me. That dragon can go screw.”
“The dragon has gone screw. Gone to screw? Gone scrow?”
“Went screwing. Nice shooting, by the way. Really thought you were going to hit me there.”
“Nah, I would never. What happened on the shore? It seemed like it was going to work.”
“Yeah, at first.” Nutmeg propped himself up on his elbows. “We landed the harpoons, you got the bolt, it was all popping off. But that darkness caught us by surprise. Saeverix used that acid goop to melt the ropes. Should’ve seen it coming. Would’ve iced us all if it wasn’t for Loopis.”
“I know, right? Turns out being a stubborn dickhead makes you, well, a stubborn dickhead to dragons, too. He put one right in Saeverix’s chest, took a full load of acid to the face, but brought that dragon down in the shallows. Then, uh, well -”
“Then you jumped aboard.”
“That tracks. Want to cut up the dragon for some trophies?”
“Absolutely. Hey, hand me that pearl. I’m going to get that fitted for a sweet chain or something.”
Chaper 3 – In Which Just Desserts are Served
The axe felt right. Nutmeg swung it with gusto. It wasn’t even dinged up from its long journey down the underground rivers. How it had reached the forge, he couldn’t begin to guess. The mark of Dolgatha shone like a star in the light from the blue goo on the columns in the audience hall.
“And your pack,” said Alegna. “We touched nothing, I assure you.”
“It’s probably all water-damaged anyway,” said Nutmeg, taking the proffered pack. “Unless…” He rooted around among his jumbled belongings until – “Yes!” He drew out the sponge. It was wet. Everything else was just dewy, not soaked. “Gods, this thing is awesome.”
He sat down and began sorting through his possessions, rearranging the contents to his liking. Sister D tsked. “Oh, man, Nutmeg, I didn’t notice before – your bootcuffs!”
He looked down. “Ah, shit.” His leopard-print bootcuffs had been spattered by Saeverix’s acidic gick. The fur was burned right down to stubble in places; elsewhere, it had been discolored. “Man. I liked that look, too.”
“Yeah. I liked my crossbow,” said Gel. He brandished his weapon. The main shaft of the crossbow had been bent against Nutmeg’s breastplate, and the left lathe was completely splintered.
“Alright. Well. We’re flush with cash. We’ll do a little shopping when we get back to Dwarroway.”
“Before you go,” interrupted Alegna, “there is one final matter to attend to.”
Nutmeg opened one of his little pouches of jerky and nibbled on a corner. Not bad. Still pretty tasty, all things considered. “What’s popping, Alegna?” he asked. “We did everything we agreed on.”
“Yes, well.” The gray dwarf looked almost embarrassed. “I realized that I asked a great deal of you. And I did not take into account the fact that you wiped out the goblins on the surface. Between that and the death of Saeverix, the three of you have accomplished more for our mission in a few days than we have in six months of work. Khaddakar is ours, now, and the work can begin in earnest.”
“Hey, it’s our pleasure,” said Nutmeg. “Really. It was fun.”
“Nonetheless, Dumble and I agreed that a reward was in order. Dumble?”
The aged Pukall tottered out from behind the throne of iron. In his hands was a little bundle, wrapped in delicate gossamer silk.
“We found this in the Hammermaster’s quarters,” explained Dumble. “An artifact of the old empire. We know little of its nature – it may simply be a ceremonial symbol, or it may even have been a practical tool. Either way, we understand it to be an important relic. And as such, we present it to you.”
Nutmeg took the bundle gingerly and unwrapped the cloth. It was a hammer. A hammer, the length of his forearm; a smith’s hammer, flat on both ends. It was made of dwarrowbrass, though, through and through, one solid unbroken cast of the pure, ancient alloy. All over, it was embossed with little cogs and gears; on the head of the hammer, a cunning pair of interlocked gears formed a crest or insignia of some sort.
“Neat,” said Gel.
“Yeah, uh, thank you.” Nutmeg held it up to the light. It was a beautiful bit of craftwork, no doubt about it. And it felt…warm. Energetic. It felt right. Much like the axe. “Thank you,” he said again, and this time, he meant it.
“Khaddakar is ours,” declared Alegna. Roonwild and the other surviving dwarves had gathered around the columns. “The people of Ar-Kaahaz owe the three of you a great debt. We shall see to it that Aukellian the Longtooth hears your names, and that your deeds here will live on in our history until the great time-worms chew through the last foundations of reality.”
“The what?” asked Gel, under his breath.
“Beats me,” said Nutmeg.
“Nutmeg the dwarf! We name you Battle-Axe! Gelmahta the elf! We name you Long-Sight! Dondalla the priestess! We name you Flame-In-The-Dark! Always will you be welcome in the halls of the Pukall!”
A cheer went up from the Pukall, a high-pitched wailing that sounded more than a little goofy. Nutmeg hid his laughter, and the trio took their leave.
Up and up they went. Roonwild and a company of gray dwarves escorted them past the caverns of the lizardpeople, but no scaly freaks showed their faces. They passed unmolested through the glittering caverns which the Pukall called the Starfield. An apt name. The glittering crystal protruberances, the luminescence of the mushrooms. Unforgettable beauty, which not even the magnificent architecture of the forge could hope to match. At the stream they parted ways with Roonwild and her company, and carried on up the winding spiral to the goblin door.
With Forg’s journals and notes in hand, they left the mountain. It was afternoon. The sun hung over the western sky, casting a dramatic orange-yellow glow on the clouds. It looked to Nutmeg as if the forge-fires of the deep were glowing up here still. He breathed the sweet, fresh air of the mountainside. Sister D, he thought, looked more relieved than he’d ever seen her before.
Without the horses, it was a long walk back to Truman’s Dell. They camped that night in the piny woods, lying beneath the cover of stars. The real stars were kinda lame compared to the subterranean Starfield. Being aboveground now was a balm for Sister D and Gel, but to Nutmeg it all felt a little too open. Like the whole world was a chasm now, stretching out in all directions. He hung his tent low over his head and burrowed beneath a blanket.
Early next morning, they returned to Truman’s Dell. Through the misty woods they came, trudging along over stream and through the brush, and then out on a hillock, overlooking the Dell. Two riders on shaggy ponies ambled along the dirt track; when they saw the trio on the hill, they waved and came riding pell-mell across the field. Edwyrd and Jym pulled up short, grinning like madmen.
“Allspice! Gaston! Miss priestess!” called Edwyrd. “Awfully glad to see ya. Samsyn and Margyret told us whatcha did for em. Golly howdy, that was nice.”
Jym pointed at Gel. “Is – is that a dragon claw?”
Gel looked down at his toe necklace. The dragon’s claw was a little outsized compared to the rest of the toes, but it was a good look nonetheless. “That’s right.”
“Ah jeeze, wow.”
“Hey, can we see Samsyn and Margyret? They around?”
“Oh yeah, you betcha. Jack and them wanted to throw you folks a little get-together, a thank you.”
They spent the night in the longhall of Head Jack Frost, after spending the better part of the day drinking the locals under the table. The whole town turned out, and by the time the moon was high, Nutmeg wasn’t sure exactly how they were going to get all the proffered gifts back to Dwarroway. Once old gent insisted on giving each of them an owl carved from cedar, although the owls looked a little more like pigs than any owl Nutmeg had ever seen.
Late in the evening, after the farmers had fallen asleep, Nutmeg wandered out from the longhall to take a piss beneath the stars. The Truman’s Dell ale was good, but not too strong, and it had taken a few pitchers for him to even get a little buzz. He leaned up against the wall, breeches around his ankles.
He scrambled to yank his pantaloons up. “Hey. Uh. Sister D? That you?”
“Ye- oh, gods, sorry.”
“No no, it’s fine. Everything okay?”
“Yeah, just – getting loud in there. Wanted some fresh air.”
She was just standing there, not going away, a few feet from Nutmeg. The night smelled of pine and clean stone.
“You okay, D?”
“Just a lot to think about.”
“Yeah, has that guy ever seen an actual owl? They don’t have little upturned noses like that.”
D smiled. “Okay, yes, but not that. I just – it seems like this just keeps getting deeper and deeper. First Laketown, now Khaddakar, now…what?”
“Hey, work is work.”
“Is this what you want to be doing, though? Do you want something else from life?”
Nutmeg scratched his beard. “Right now? Do I want something else? I dunno, D. Some more cashola. But I gotta be honest, I’m feeling good. I mean, we did some nice stuff here. We helped some ordinary folks, we found some cool treasure, we uncovered military intelligence – we killed a fuckin’ dragon. I feel more useful here than I ever did before.”
“And that’s what you want? To feel useful?”
“I mean, I guess. No. Well, yes and no. I want to be…someone. In Khaddakar, I felt like someone.”
“Because you became the heathen king of the lizardpeople?”
“Not even that. I felt like you guys cared about me, for one thing, which, hey, I appreciated. But in the down-under – man, my dwarfiness has never meant so much to me. And anyway, this is all one-sided. What do you want, D? Is this what you wanted?”
“I don’t know,” she said. “I went with you and Lucy because I wanted adventure. I wanted to help people all over. I can’t help but feel, though, that we’re just turning into errand-runners for the government.”
“You’re not a fan of the government?”
“No state is as legitimate as the sunlit realms of Palladius, but no, it’s not that. I wanted to go with you guys. Not with Mister E or whatever.”
“It’s worth thinking about, D. Maybe when we get back to Dwarroway, we can take a vacation.”
“A vacation sounds nice. Someplace not underground would be my preference.”
Chapter 4 – In Which a Letter Arrives
Gel had decided on a name for his horse. Bloodhoof. He patted Bloodhoof’s neck and said “good horse. Good horse.” Nutmeg had encouraged him to appreciate his steed. Bloodhoof was a pony, he was pretty sure. Or a stallion or something. Something majestic and powerful, despite its slight frame. He eyed Nutmeg, who looked all too comfortable atop Piggles, and Sister D, riding easy on Daybreak. Man. He really wished they had a wagon. A carriage would be nice. A cart would do.
“Ah, shit,” said Nutmeg, up ahead. He reined in. “You guys see that?”
Gel rode up beside him. He whistled.
Dwarroway was before them. A week of riding from Truman’s Dell brought them to the plains outside the city. Over a rise, what was left of the city became visible. It was jarring. The fires had gone out, it seemed, but the city had been obliterated. The northern third or so had been reduced to sticks and rubble, a wasteland of ash and dust and burned-out husks of buildings. Shanties and lean-tos spread out like weeds around the roads into the city. As they rode closer, in muted silence, Gel spotted extra city guards along the walltops, and there were barricades at the gates. Even the Terlethian castle looked soot-stained and blackened.
“This poor city.” Sister D sounded mournful. “It’ll take years to recover.”
“That’s the government’s fault,” said Gel. “They totally have enough powerful wizards on deck to fix this place up. It’s the paperwork that’ll take them a long time.”
“You know a lot about paperwork, huh?” asked Nutmeg.
“I mean, I can read.”
“This doesn’t feel good,” said Sister D. “I – I need to go to the temple. I need to do what I can to help.”
They rode in to a chorus of pleas from the indigents lining the road. Nutmeg tossed a few coins down. So did Sister D. Gel narrowed his eyes at a pickpocket-looking little urchin, and put his hand to the hilt of his rapier. The youth scampered away.
At the gate, they had to wait for a line of people to pass through the now-severe checkpoint. The guards were looking to a handful of well-dressed folk carrying scrolls of parchment and making marks as the have-nots were admitted, piecemeal, into the city.
“What’s up with this?” asked Nutmeg, when they finally got to the guards.
“Workers,” grunted the guard, a man with a week’s worth of unshaved stubble. “Rebuilding jobs, all that stuff. Haven’t you folks heard?”
“Let’s say we haven’t,” said Nutmeg. “What’s going on?”
“Big fire. Probably related to mafia stuff.” The guard leaned in. “Some folks think the government did it, but hey, you didn’t hear that from me.”
“Yeah, all those arrests they did. Must’ve been related. My cousin, he used to work in a bakery on the north side, he told me the Halfling Mafia was trying to hide some evidence or something.”
“Shit, that’s crazy, wow, yowza.”
“Yeah, them’s the breaks.” The guard looked them up and down. “You folks look okay. Got business in the city?”
“At the temple,” declared Sister D.
“Oh, sure. Go on in, that’s fine. Wait!” He interrupted himself as they made to ride past. “I almost forgot. Do you know, or are you associated with, the woman calling herself the Dark Duchess?”
The trio exchanged a look. Gel shrugged. “What’s that?”
“Alright, yeah, I figured. Just supposed to ask. Go ahead, folks, have a good day, be safe.”
It was hard to keep light and breezy conversation going once they entered the gates. Workers were everywhere, hauling stone and lumber in and out of the burned-out district. Halflings aplenty among the workers; dwarves and humans. Few elves out here. More halflings lined the streets, chatting, shooting dice, or just watching the passersby. Gel thought he heard a few of them talking quietly about the Duchess, but when he slowed Bloodhoof so he could hear, the halflings clammed up. What was going on here? Dwarroway had transformed over these past few weeks. It was almost unrecognizable.
At least the Tenth Column was the same. Thank the gods for small favors. They stabled their horses and, after hauling their many, many new belongings up to their room, the trio sat at a table on the main floor. As always, there was a good mix of well-to-do bureaucrats and alcohol-soaked regulars, the perfect ambience for a cold pitcher and some salted nuts.
“I’ve got to get to the temple,” Sister D said, for what felt like the thousandth time.
“What are you going to do there? You know how to build houses?”
“I can heal,” she said, giving Gel a cold look. “You should know that by now.”
“Yeah, no, sure.” Nutmeg waved his hand. “You mind sticking around to debrief with Mister E, though?”
“Long time no see!” R’yta came over, pitcher of ale in one hand, a bowl of salted peanuts in the other. “Hey, lad you’re here. I got a letter for you a few days ago.”
“Yeah, hang on.” She fished around in her apron pocket and retrieved a water-stained, yellowed scrap of parchment. Nutmeg took it from her, unfolded it, and then handed it to Gel.
“Thanks,” said Gel. He scanned it, then raised an eyebrow. “Hey. Who’s this Lizardbreaker lady? You know her?”
“Inga?” Sister D grabbed the letter from him. “Nutmeg, here’s what it says:
“‘To Nutmeg (dwarf), Lucy (gnome) and Sister D (human) – Hows it going with you. Im doing good here. Got a new bow. Gotta show you. But also theres trouble. Serious trouble. Maybe magic. I could use some help, guys. Gatorsburg needs your help again. Much love, Inga Lizardbreaker.’”
“Weren’t we just talking about a vacation?” asked Nutmeg.