When we last left our heroes…NUTMEG, GELMAHTA, and SISTER DONDALLA returned to Dwarroway from their long mission to Khaddakar. They received a letter from an old friend, asking for their help down south…but Dwarroway, which they left burning, has changed in their absence, and a mysterious DUCHESS has taken the place of the crime-lord DUKE…
Table of Contents
- Chapter 1 – In Which a Log-Wagon Trundles By
- Chapter 2 – In Which Gel Finds a Grandfather
- Chapter 3 – In Which Nutmeg Makes an Investment
- Chapter 4 – In Which Gel Finds a Job
- Chapter 5 – In which an Old Acquaintance Reappears
- Chapter 6 – In Which Nutmeg Eats a Sausage
- Chapter 7 – In Which the Duchess Awaits
- Chapter 8 – In Which Sister D is Bald
Chapter 1 – In Which a Log-Wagon Trundles By
Mister E’s black-suited g-men boxed up the last of the Red Hand intel. Mister E himself held up one of the journals, examining something on the back pages. Their room at the Tenth Column was an absolute state – the government boys had been rifling through their belongings for what felt like hours. Nutmeg felt that kind of annoyed where the back of his neck felt tense and crickly. It was one of his least favorite kinds of annoyed.
“You done yet?” asked Gel.
“We’ll be out of your hair in a minute.” Mister E closed the journal with a snap and tossed it into the last box. “This – this is a lot to sort through.”
“Yeah, we went mining and brought home the mother lode. What’s next?”
“What’s next?” Mister E snapped his fingers, and the government boys filed out of the room, taking all the notebooks, journals, and assorted knickknacks with them. “Honestly? A lot of reading. Lucy’s going to be a big help there. Other than that?” Their handler shrugged. “Kick back. Relax. Maybe not here, specifically, given, you know, the inferno that destroyed a third of the city. But rest up. I have a feeling I’ll be asking a great deal of you in the near future, and I want you ready for anything.”
“Cool if we go to Gatorsburg and back?”
“Hmm. Long trip. Business out there?”
“Yeah, and it’s not yours.”
“Alright.” Mister E held up his hands. “Gelmahta, I respect your privacy. Fine. Gives us time to write this all up. The end of the quarter is coming up soon and I’ve got to get some reports in.” Mister E turned for the door. “Your time is yours, for now.”
As soon as he was gone, Sister Dondalla stood. She’d spent nearly the whole debrief sitting by the window, saying little. “We’re not going to Gatorsburg.”
“Says who? I thought you wanted to see Inga again.”
“There’s a lot I want. But Dwarroway is injured. The city’s new high priest is at the temple. There’s special elections for the city council soon. You remember what Mister E said on the morning of the arrests? The city rests rests on a knife’s edge.”
“Yeah, and what did Mister E say now? Go on a sweet vacation and put your feet up.”
“Alright, then, Gel, what do you want?”
The elf shrugged. That seemed to be his favorite gesture. “Hey. We’re rolling in cash. I need a new crossbow, some new armor, all that. We’ve got that magic hammer the Pukall gave us.”
“We don’t know it’s magic.”
“It’s totally magic. I say we take a few days, chill here, blow some dough, get some experts to look at our enigmatic swag, and then hit the road to Gatorsburg. I’d like to meet this Inga lady. She sounds spunky.”
“Nutmeg?” Sister D looked to him, eyebrows raised. “What about you?”
He hesitated. There was something about Sister D, her moral clarity, her drive, her nice eyes, her decolletage – whatever it was, he admired her. There was a promise of something powerful there. A different kind of adventure. A different kind of life. But…Gel was right, too. Some shopping, some R&R. Inga was a cool broad. It’d be good to get out of Dwarroway. Why was it up to him, anyway? Couldn’t they all just do their own thing and meet back up in a month? Nah. Even as he thought it, he dismissed it. More than anything, he wanted to spend time with Sister D and Gel.
He paced the room, restless. “Look. You’ve both got points. Gel, we gotta get you a new bow. All that stuff. But D, you’re right. I want to help the city. We owe – well, we just should. It’s a good thing to do. I’ll come with you, okay? You going to the temple? I’ll go too. I’m not, you know, converting to Palladius or whatever, but I’ll help. Gel, you want to take care of the hammer and your shopping and stuff? We can hook back up this evening, see where we’re at.”
“Yeah, sure.” Gel’s boredom stayed steady. “Bye.” He left.
“Sorry about him, D,” said Nutmeg.
“Nothing to be sorry about. I’ve come to appreciate his company. Even if he is – well, like that.”
It was raining in Dwarroway, a soft rain that felt like fog, slowly falling. The people on the street were doing their best to stay under cover, ducking in and out of umbrellas and awnings and overhangs. Nutmeg didn’t mind the rain. It was a little refreshing, actually. He closed his eyes and let the mist tickle his eyelids. And then opened his eyes again, as Sister D pulled him out of the way of an oncoming log-wagon. The trundling behemoth nearly took up the entire street. They pressed themselves back beneath a wooden overhang, shoulder-to-shoulder with a pair of city council clerks.
“Theng’s got no business sticking her nose in the keep fund,” one of the clerks was saying.
“Uh, she absolutely does. Come on. I need to get her the report on the family’s financial support for the rebuilding by…yesterday. Tomorrow at the latest.”
“We’re stretched thin. The Terlethian office isn’t about to just drop everything and record a ledger for you. This Duchess business – the councilor has us running ragged to coordinate.”
“Hey, uh.” Nutmeg tapped the Terlethian clerk on the shoulder. “Hi, how are you doing, what’s up with the Duchess stuff? We’ve been out of town for a bit, but the guard at the gates asked us about some Duchess thing.”
The clerk, a man in his late fifties with pox scars and a cauliflower ear, frowned down at Nutmeg. “We’re in the middle of something here. Buzz off.”
The log-wagon was nearly past, and Sister D looked ready to go. Nutmeg laughed. “Hey, listen, I’m just curious. I’m an enterprising, independently-wealthy businessdwarf with money to spend in Dwarroway, but I’m a little worried about these Duchess rumors.” It was only kind of a bluff.
“You’re right to ask,” said the other clerk, a woman in her early twenties. She shot the older guy a spiteful look. “Lobo’s got his whole office, two-thirds of the city guard, nearly everyone trying to find this so-called ‘Dark Duchess.’ Some sort of crime lord or something. I’m not sure she exists. It’s just a boogeyman. Meanwhile, my councilor, Delvetica Theng, has established a grant system for entrepreneurs looking to buy and establish new enterprises in Dwarroway. You should look into it, sir. I’m sure your custom would be most welcomed.”
“Oh, fuck off.” The older guy rolled his eyes. “Half the council is worried about the Duchess. We can’t have terrorists running around.”
“‘Half the council’ is just two people!” The clerks fell to bickering about specific and esoteric matters of public government. Sister D took Nutmeg’s hand and led him away.
“You okay, Nutmeg?”
“We took down a Duke. Now there’s a Duchess?”
“Okay, yeah, I hear you. But come on. Let’s focus. The city needs healing right now, not more violence.”
“Maybe a little bit of both, though?”
“Maybe. Come on. I think you’ll like the temple.”
Chapter 2 – In Which Gel Finds a Grandfather
Gel found the shop with ease. Nutmeg had described it as “a big building, but not too big, and there’s a sign over the door with a picture of an oak tree and an anvil; the shop is made from local-quarried stone, you can tell from the streaks.” The sign did, indeed, have an oak tree and an anvil. Beneath the pictures were the words “Oak and Iron Outfitters.”
Gel tried the door handle. Locked. There were lights on in the shop, candles burning or something. He slid a lockpick from the pocket just inside his sleeve, and was bending to the knob when a voice asked “who’s there?”
He looked up. A panel had slid aside, cunningly hidden in the wood, and a pair of dark eyes stared down at him.
“Oh. Hey. I’m Gelmahta. My friend Nutmeg the dwarf told me you had armor.”
The panel slid back into place. The door opened.
“Come in, quickly,” said the woman in the doorway. She was wrapped in a fine lace shawl, and in her hand was a long, thin knife. As soon as Gel stepped through, she slammed the door behind him. Several locks clicked into place.
“Man,” said Gel. “You’ve got better security than some moneylenders.”
“Can’t be too careful these days.” The woman returned the knife to a sheath at her hip. “I am Hekla Stoll. I remember you friend, this Nutmeg. I sold him the breastplate with the glamer upon it.”
“Yeah, it’s a real nice piece,” said Gel. “I’m in the market for a new suit myself.” He walked over to a mannequin sporting a full suit of armor wrought entirely from dark, lacquered wood. “Nice stuff.”
“Does the blackwood interest you?” asked Hekla. “I see from your garb that you favor muted tones. A compliment to your features, certainly.” She snapped her fingers. “Lift up your boot. Bare the sole to me.”
“Uh.” Gel lifted his foot. Hekla knelt and inspected the boot, running a finger along the underside. She nodded.
“Vespetto’s, in the capital. Yes?”
“I know his maker’s mark. Good craftsmanship. And soft. He treats the leather well. I’d wager you can’t hardly hear your own footsteps in these.”
Gel lowered his foot back down. “I’m pretty quiet, yeah. That’s kind of my thing.”
Hekla stood very close to him, squinting at the marks on his leather jerkin. She was murmuring to herself. He tried to remain as still as possible, keeping his eyes on a jeweled helmet on a high shelf. How much was that thing worth? At least ten thousand. This woman must have deep pockets to make such high-quality stuff.
“Yes, I’ve just the thing for you,” she said, after a long, awkward silence. “My latest innovation. Come with me.” She led him through a thicket of mannequins, many of which stood empty, to a staircase leading up.
“Not a lot in stock, huh?” asked Gel, poking the bald head of a wooden mannequin.
“Quite the contrary. I am protecting my stock from would-be-thieves.”
“Is that what’s up with the locks on the door?”
“Yes. Several craftspeople have been struck by a string of break-ins recently. Mostly weapons dealers, you understand, fletchers and the like. But I do not take chances, Gelmahta.” She led him up the stairs as she talked. “Most of my stock has been moved up here, where it’s further from…prying eyes.”
They came to another door at the landing. Hekla drew her long knife, and then, from a compartment in the hilt, produced a thin iron key. She unlocked the door and led Gel in.
It was almost like standing in a crowded ballroom, frozen in time. Dozens of dancers, all wooden, all dressed in fantastic raiment, filled the room. One wore a glittering cloak of many colors; another had armor that looked like a wire cage. And there –
“This, I think, will be to your liking.” She gestured, but he knew which piece she was talking about without her needing to say.
This mannequin was all in black, head to toe, hood up, black cloth across its wooden face. The armor itself was black leather, wrapped over in places by more black cloth. On the breast of the armor was a sickle moon, engraved into the leather and painted over with some sort of oily finish. He felt the cloth between his fingers. Light, airy.
“It’s beautiful,” he said, and meant it.
“Yes, it is. But it’s more than beautiful.” Hekla touched the engraved sickle moon. “Observe.” She went to the windows and pulled down the shutters, casting the room into darkness. The armor seemed to vanish. It was still there; Gel could see it if he squinted just right. But it ate the very shadows around it, melting into the gloom.
“How – how is that possible?”
“Trade secret,” deadpanned Hekla. She opened the shutters. “I’m asking ten thousand for it.”
Gel did some quick mental math. They’d come away with the lion’s share of Saeverix’s hoard. He could drop ten thousand and have enough left over for a decent crossbow to replace his. “A little steep. Can I toss in some gems in lieu of payment?”
“Depends. Let’s see them.”
He produced the garnets from the dragon’s hoard. Hekla held them up to the light. “Not bad. Traces of yellow in them – that’s a good sign. You can draw energy from these.”
“You sound skeptical.”
“I mean, they’re just valuable rocks.”
“Incorrect. Crystals and gemstones are channels for magical energy, if used in the proper way.” She rubbed the two garnets between her fingers. “I will have a use for these, yes. Seven thousand for the suit.”
He changed before he left. It fit like a glove, and breathed a little better than his old garb. He was delighted to find the inner lining of the armor lined with chain. A little extra reinforcement, without sacrificing flexibility. He pulled up his hood, thanked Hekla for the suit, and slipped out into the street.
The rainy gloom was perfect. The folds of his new garb covered his rapier and sword; the mask kept the spray from his face, and the hood hid his long, silver hair. People stepped out of his way as he approached, and Gel smiled beneath the mask. That felt good. He felt extremely cool.
By the time he reached the library, it was raining even harder. The water ran in little rivulets down the cobbly streets, feeding the great Lundurr River. A few scholars sat outside on the veranda near the library; each had enchanted an umbrella to follow them around. Wizards. Gel shook his head.
Once inside, at the main desk, he rang the little bell until an annoyed gnome appeared. “Yes? How can I help you? Yes?”
“Do you have anyone in residence who does identification services?”
“Third floor, the office of Wingis Thurgis. But you need an appointment!”
“Do I?” Gel winked and walked away.
“Yes! You do!”
“Do I, though?” Gel winked again, with the other eye, and kept walking.
The third floor of the library was mostly private offices. Each nameplate was more ridiculous than the last. “Bullyuth Umberlin, Cryptological Enchantments and Animal Brain Studies.” “Imposto Magnifico, Pyrotechnical Theory.” “Luchese Fabblebabble, Creative Uses of Powders and Dusts.” One cryptic sign just read “Kull Mantooth, Blood(s).” But at last he found the office he sought. “Wingis Thurgis, Aura Identification and Dimensional Studies.” He knocked, then opened the door.
Buried somewhere in the piles of parchments, scrolls and papers, just past a teetering stack of invoices and beyond the curious model of the heavenly spheres which rotated on clever gyroscopes, was Wingis Thurgis. An ancient man, his chin jutting out like a comma, his wiry hair white and standing on end. He wore the robes of an academic, gold on blue, but they were so faded and patchy that Gel almost felt a pang of sympathy for the wizard.
“Eh? Eh? Whos there? Is that you, Jorma? I’ve been waiting for nearly two hours for my scones. You did pick out the walnuts, yes?”
“I don’t have the scones,” said Gel, carefully. He entered and stepped to one side. Wingis, a pair of thick spectacles perched on his nose, did not look up from his work.
“Eh! Jorma! Come now! The scones!”
“No, it’s me, grandfather,” said Gel. Wingis cocked his head to the side.
“Gran-wait a moment. Wait, wait – Yandolo? I thought I’d never see you again! Ever since your father won custody of you – and my, how you’ve grown!”
“Yeah, what’s cracking, gramps? Listen, I need your help identifying some stuff.”
“But – Yandolo, I have so many questions for you!” Wingis was struggling to stand, mostly because he was trapped between a pair of staves that had fallen across the back of his chair.
“There’s no time for that.” Gel tried to make his voice as smooth as possible. “I need two things identified, gramps. It’s suuuuper urgent.”
“Yandolo, for the love I bear your father – despite our differences, eh – I will do you this favor. Friends and family discount. One hundred gold per identification.” Wingis held out his hand.
“Aw, gramps,” said Gel. “Come on. For old times’ sake.”
“Yandolo, you do know how to wheedle me down. Very well. Very well.” Wingis sighed. “Two items?”
“Here’s one,” said Gel. He set the gem from the ectoplasmic anchor on the desk in front of Wingis, and guided the old man’s hand to it. Wingis clutched the tiny, glittering green crystal, and held it up centimeters from his eyes.
“Mm. Hmm. Yes, there is magic in this. One moment.” Wingis took several moments to find a thin black wand. With the wand, he tapped the gem. A blue mist enveloped it, then changed form to a long column of text in the inscrutable runes of magic. The text danced for a moment in the air, and then shrunk, appearing in the lenses of Wingis’ glasses. The old man hummed and hawed, rheumy eyes flickering as he read. “Curious!” he declared. “It is attuned to the Ghost Dimension. A sort of…tethering device. If provided a focus, it could restrain ghosts before they pass to the next dimension.”
“Could it keep someone’s ghost in their body?” asked Gel. Wingis wasn’t saying anything he didn’t know already. Good thing this was a freebie.
“Could it…hmm, eh, hmm, eh…well, I suppose it’s possible – again, given a good material focus. The gem itself merely provides the ectoplasmic fuel. It’s a quite technical little creation – where on earth did y-”
“Number two,” said Gel, plucking the gem back from Wingis and setting the hammer in the old man’s hand. The dwarrowbrass hammer shone in the light from Wingis’ candles. “Check it.”
Once more, the wizard did his business with the wand and the spectacles. He made a noise like a plucked chicken, then did the business again. “Eh. Eh. What? Eh.”
“Gramps, you sound ruffled.”
“Well, it’s – it’s curious, it’s strange. Odd. Curious, strange, and odd.”
“Yandolo, what you have here – well, I’ve never seen its like. Read about it, certainly, but, ah, reading is, eh, not the same. This carries the energies of the Cog Dimension.”
“The Cog Dimension.” This was not a term Gel was familiar with.
“Yes, yes – not one of the most well-studied Dimensions, I must say. Strange. Strange. Often associated with the Empire of Kalakoz, of course; their high priests were said to have, eh, hm, dabbled in the Cog Dimension. Not much use for it since, as I understand. Few bother. Magic from there is – well, this is hard to explain to a layman. If only your father had let you go to the knowledge institute, as I requested – Yandolo, we have so much to discuss -”
“You were saying. Something about the magic of the Cog Dimension.”
“Ah. Eh. Yes. It is – rigid. Brittle, some might say. Whatever deity is the Odarch of the Cog Dimension must be quite a boring individual. Why, High Mage Yurianna’s treatise on the subject posited that all denizens of that Dimension must be as senseless as cogs in some great machine – can you imagine such an existence?”
Gel could, and did not like it. Unsettled, he took his leave of his newfound grandfather. On the way out, he passed a harried-looking stuffed shirt carrying a basket full of scones, leaving a trail of hand-removed walnuts behind him.
Chapter 3 – In Which Nutmeg Makes an Investment
The golden dome of the temple was far, far away from the open courtyards and terraces where the destitute, desperate, and sick crowded together. There was more to the temple, past the great big doors – cells and worship halls and shrines and fonts – but Nutmeg did not enter the temple. Instead, he stood outside in the rain, waiting for Sister D to return with the next cauldron of soup.
“Mister dwarf?” asked a little halfling urchin, a short, wide child. “Can I have a ride on your shoulders?”
“Uh, no thanks,” said Nutmeg.
He knelt and put a hand on the child’s shoulder. “Listen. I find that very demeaning. I am not merely a beast of burden. I am a powerful warrior. I killed a dragon.”
“Nutmeg!” called Sister D, who had just returned from the temple kitchens. “I need you to carry the cauldron!”
The halfling child stuck out his tongue at Nutmeg and ran away.
The high priest had tasked them with “walking amid the shadowy,” as he put it. He’d been so genuine, so earnest, that Nutmeg truly believed they would be doing some great deed. Instead, he and Dondalla were walking amid the crowded refugees, identifying any who looked particularly sick or injured, feeding all and sundry from the cauldrons of not-that-bad-but-not-remarkable stew.
Nutmeg pushed the cauldron-cart. It was heavy as a mountainside. Because of the rain, the priests had fixed up a little roof for the cart, to keep the weather from watering down lunch. The refugees mostly had their own bowls, but those who didn’t were given crude clay cups. Everyone got the same thing: a cup of soup, a thin crust of bread.
The best part, truly, was watching Dondalla. She had such a way with people. Or at least, it felt that way to Nutmeg. They rolled up to a hungry mother with two little ones at her side; at the trundling approach of the cart, one child burst into tears. Sister D motioned for Nutmeg to park it, and knelt.
“Shh. It’s okay. We’re bringing the food.”
“I’m sorry, madam,” said the mother. “He’s been a right terror since the fire.”
“Of course,” soothed Sister D. Nutmeg thought the child had probably been a terror plenty of times before the fire, but he kept that to himself. “You used to live in the north quarter?”
“That’s right.” The mother handed up her bowl; Nutmeg filled it and set the bread across the top. Today’s stew was fennel, celery, and hazelnut dumpling – it smelled good, frankly, and Nutmeg hoped he could save himself a bowl. He passed the mother her bowl, and she smiled. “Thank you, sir dwarf. Yes, we used to live in the tenements near the rivergate. Not a bad place to be, although the gods know it wasn’t very well-kept.”
“How much you pay in rent up there?”
“Quite alright. Twenty silver a month. Remarkably fair, for a one-room.”
He ladled out the soup for the kids. Sister D made more normal conversation with the woman. Twenty silver a month? A great rate, especially inside the city walls. Must have been a hell of a slum. Shit, the Tenth Column was ten silver a night. You figure each family had a one-room, six rooms to a tenement – hundred and twenty silver a month. That was only ten gold and change, but, hey, money was money. If twenty silver was the absolute floor of what you could charge, man, the sky was the limit.
Something broke his rent-related reverie. A noise. A familiar noise. The sound of fighting. Two halflings, rough-and-tumble girls little older than six, were scrapping hard over by a lovely bust of high priest so-and-so. They had rolled into an azalea bush, crushing the lovely blooms. “Be right back,” said Nutmeg.
“Nutmeg, good god, please be gentle.”
“Yeah, no, I don’t punch toddlers,” he replied. He vaulted a garden bench and grabbed the two halflinglings by the collar, hauling them up in the air. One was blond and bleeding from the nose; the other was swarthy, and had a split lip. “Hey, you little goblins. This is a sacred temple. Take your scrapping out somewhere else.”
The blond one, voice somewhat choked by the nosebleed, pointed a little sausage finger at her opponent. “Booch started it!”
“I did not!” hollered Booch, at an earsplitting pitch that made Nutmeg clench his jaw and count backwards from eight. “Mazzle said the Duchess in’t real!”
“SHE I’NT!” replied Mazzle.
“Now hold on just a gods dang minute here. This Duchess. Who is the Duchess?” Both kids made to speak at the same time, and at a volume which Nutmeg had been hoping to avoid. “Wait. Wait. Mazzle, you go first. And if you holler in my ear, I will throw you over the temple.”
“Can you really do that?” asked Mazzle, wide-eyed.
“Absolutely. I killed a dragon, you know. Go ahead, Mazzle. The Duchess.”
“Well. My mom says. She says my dad told her the Duchess i’nt real. Duchess is a story. Like the boggity man, or the face-stealing-nightcrawler, or the goat with tentacles, or”
“Uh huh. Love those. Classics. Booch, take a swing. Whatcha got?”
“The Duchess is real!” Booch shouted the last word, verging on another scream. Nutmeg lifted the girl higher in the air.
“Careful. One more like that, and voomp, it’s over the temple you go.”
Both girls shrieked with laughter. Nutmeg’s tried-and-true interrogation techniques were useless against such sheer chaotic energy. After some coaxing, Booch began.
“Duchess is real cause I saw her. Dark Duchess is her name. She lives in a cave under the city and she has magic powers and she’s going to put all the houses back and take all the money from the bad men who set the fire that took all our houses and she has little rats that listen under windows so she knows what’s going on all over the city and she has fifteen thousand million crossbows and”
“Okay. Okay. I think I can suss out what’s real, there.” Nutmeg set the girls down. “This Dark Duchess – she’s just a folk hero, huh? An urban legend? Makes sense. Especially the expropriation angle.”
“You talk funny old man,” said Booch.
“Old?” Nutmeg felt a vein in his brow starting to bulge. “I’m in the prime of my life! How old do you think I am?”
“Seventy!” shouted Mazzle.
“Seventy-two!” shouted Booch. They both shrieked with laughter again. Nutmeg sighed.
“Look, thank you, I appreciate it, stop fighting on the temple grounds. Now buzz off.”
Booch and Mazzle followed him back to the cauldron, each one raising his age by an arbitrary – and sometimes imaginary – number. “Seventy-seventy!” “Eighty-four!” “One hundred two thousand butt!” Children.
And yet. There was, deep within him, a child about their size and age, laughing his hairy little head off with them. Hadn’t he been a child of the streets? A parentless wayfarer on life’s road? He’d believed in all manner of things as a boy, things that made the Dark Duchess seem downright realistic. Koby the Hunting Parrot, for instance, who came in the night and squawked the name of your murderer at you.
He looked north. There was, despite the rain and fog and cloud, a red glow still visible to the north, where some fire had broken out once more. Big city fire like this – it would be months before all the damage was done. First the fire, then more fires spreading and spreading, then the cellars burning up slow and hot, then the arsonists looking for more fire, and on, and on, and on. He ought to make it right, somehow. He needed to do right by Dwarroway. Was this really it, though? Serving soup and breaking up fights between guttersnipes?
An idea struck him. By the time they finished their rounds, the idea was a fully-fledged brainwave. “Listen. D. I gotta head out, take care of some stuff. Catch you later?”
She sighed. “I was hoping to spend some more time with you today, Nutmeg. You did good work. Thank you.”
“Yeah, thank you too, I’ll see you tonight.”
He took off for the bank. The Second Hegemony had actually been in the firezone, but that place was spell-warded up to its tits in fireproofing, lightningproofing, iceproofing, acidproofing, and mosquitoproofing just for good measure. He stopped to talk with his favorite teller, got some papers with squiggles, got some directions, and headed out once more. The rain was letting up. His stomach grumbled, and he made a small detour to try Tomato Joe’s Big Noodles, a halfling place that had relocated to the keep’s shadow. It was real good stuff. Rich, thick red sauce. Then he was off again, papers in hand, counting the blocks until he found what he sought.
The office was in a basement. The sign outside had no pictures, so he had to take it on faith that this was the right spot. He knocked and entered.
“Huh? Huh? Who’s there?”
Inside was a dwarf. A wide dwarf, a man comfortable in life, if not particularly wealthy. He wore a black jacket with faded brass buttons, and a shirt that looked as though it would never fully button around his neck again. He stood in what could only be a waiting room, dusting some tchotchke on a display shelf with the business end of a dirty rag. The dwarf eyed Nutmeg suspiciously.
“I’m looking for a land barrister. Is that you?”
“Depends. Did Yuktusk send you?”
Nutmeg noticed the dwarf’s hand straying for the inside of his jacket. He chuckled. “No, no, I don’t even know who that is. I’m a businessman. A financier. I think we ought to talk.”
“Well, alright.” The dwarf brought his empty hand out from his jacket and extended it to Nutmeg. “Name’s Brotto. Brotto Balderk, Land Barrister.”
“Before we begin anything, I should warn you, I have a ten gold minimum consultancy fee.”
“Whatever.” Nutmeg waved his hand.
Brotto led him from the waiting room down a cramped, dark hallway to a cramped, dark office. One high window let in a little pale light from the road; it was enough to see by. Enough to see that Brotto was not a well-organized man. Papers were strewn everywhere, many with red stamps on them. Nutmeg ignored the mess and sat down in a chair atop several volumes of what could only be extremely boring law literature.
“So. Mister Nutmeg. How can-”
“I’ve got a pitch, Brotto, baby, just sit tight. Land’s cheap right now, yeah? At least, the land that got burnt to shit. And city council’s doing some sort of development grant program, yeah? I wanna invest. I wanna build. I wanna own and rent. And I want you to handle the logistics.”
“I’m listening,” said Brotto, leaning back in his chair. He almost tipped over backwards, and flailed for a moment before righting himself.
“I buy a couple acres, through you. On the riverfront, I’m thinking. Then a couple of multi-family condominiums on that acreage. Something to give back to the community. You know? Get the folks without houses back on their feet.”
“I don’t like it,” said Brotto, clearly doing some sort of bit. He paused, frowned, then met Nutmeg’s eye. “I love it!”
“My man! Alright, talk to me. What kinda costs am I looking at?”
“Well, let’s see. How many units of housing? Units is the technical term.”
“Uhhh. Four buildings, maybe? With…three families in each building?”
“Alright, twelve units. I think we can do it on two acres – give a little space between the home and river, you know, flood reasons. Normally buying land from the city, even just one acre, you’re looking at upwards of six hundred fifty. But you know, they’re basically giving that land away. Even riverfront, we’re looking at…two fifty per acre. And let me tell ya – labor’s cheap, too. Material costs might be a little steeper, but we’ll split the difference on the land and work. I think – hang on -” Brotto produced an abacus, and flicked the beads back and forth, while also counting on his fingers – “Alright. Let’s call it an even five hundred per unit.”
“Six thousand gold stars.” Nutmeg leaned back. It wasn’t cheap. But that meant it was magnanimous. “Alright. Now. Return on investment. What are we talking?”
“Sky’s the limit.” Brotto shrugged. “Riverfront, that means you can ask some. How many people you want to fit in each unit? I knew a guy who built on the northside years ago, built to get twelve people per room.”
“Nah, nah, I want a little space.” A vision danced in Nutmeg’s head, a vision of open, sunny rooms with gossamer curtains and sleek, polished stone furniture. “You have a family, Brotto?”
“Five daughters. And my wife, gods bless her.”
“Alright. You’d want each of them to have a bedroom, right?”
“Are you saying six-bedroom units?” Brotto, taken aback, turned back to the abacus. “I might have to change some numbers.”
“Nah, nah, make it four bedroom. Most people aren’t as prolific as you. Rents, man. What are we talking? Twenty gold a month?”
“Twenty gold a month for a four-bedroom unit on the riverfront? Gods, you’d be giving them away. And you know, between management and taxes, you’ll be losing ten percent off the top, at least.”
“Oh, shit, taxes. Forty gold a month?”
“You want my opinion?”
“That is literally why I came to you, an expert.”
Brotto’s eyes glittered. “Double it. Eighty. Look – not a lot of folk can afford that, I know. But you gotta think big. Everyone else is going to come in and develop here, too. You make your mark, you set the tone – it’ll bring the right clientele to the city. We bring more affluent citizens here, they spend more money, we all get richer and fatter and happier.”
“That makes a lot of sense.” Nutmeg nodded. He had a sudden image of Booch and Mazzle tearing their way through one of his beautifu luxury condos, throwing expensive stoneware to the ground. “Yeah. No. Right. This is meant to be a nice place.”
“Eighty gold a month per unit – even with the three percent city tax and, let’s say, seven percent for me and other contractors – at full capacity you’re looking at-”
“Eight sixty-four a month,” said Nutmeg. “That doubles the investment in a little over a year. Gods above, Brotto. That’s sick as hell.”
Brotto drew up the papers after Nutmeg handed over the necessary bank credit statements and personal documentation. He pretended to read one of Brotto’s books until Brotto finally finished, and presented him with the contract.
“Do you have a full name, Mister Nutmeg?”
“Technically, yeah. Do I need to use it?”
“It’s best to use one’s full legal name, just in case.”
“Sanchez? Not a surname I know. Is it a dwarf family?”
“Who knows. I’m not that attached to it. But that’s technically my name.” He didn’t feel like explaining the whole boring affair to Brotto.
“Well. Very well.” The barrister added some squiggles to the papers, and then said “Here you are, Nutmeg Sanchez. For your review.”
Nutmeg held the papers out at arm’s length and squinted at them. So many little squiggles! So many “words!” He nodded, said “hmm” a few times, asked Brotto to tighten up one section of squiggles selected at random, and then, with a flourish, signed his mark – the jagged up and down squiggle – and shook Brotto’s hand. His new business partner fiddled around under the desk until he produced a dusty, mostly-empty bottle of very old whiskey and a pair of stained glasses. He poured; they drank. It felt good to do good.
Chapter 4 – In Which Gel Finds a Job
Gel raised the crossbow, squinted down the sights. He pivoted on his back foot, scoping out the whole shop. The proprietor, Yanna Goldtress, a lissome elf with long, blond hair, ducked as he panned past her. “Please!” she shouted. “Be careful!”
“I know what I’m doing.” He lowered it, checked the tension. The lathes were exquisitely carved; there were even little decorative leaves and vines etched into the lacquered wood. But the real treasure here was the strip of cold iron that ran along the shaft. “Tell me again.”
“Enchanted. Top of the line.” Yanna came out from behind her counter and touched the cold iron on the shaft. “This here – I got it done in the capital last year, cost a pretty penny – it’s imbued with a spell that sends any bolt flying twice, even thrice as far as a comparable crossbow.”
“How far are we talking?”
“I got it up to half a mile when I tested it.”
“Half a mile!” Gel was practically drooling. “How much?”
“Can you throw in some bolts for free?”
“Ah, sure.” While Gel counted out his money, Yanna dipped behind the counter and retrieved a thick iron key. From a lockbox mounted on the wall, she pulled a few bundles of bolts.
“High security on the ammo,” Gel observed.
Yanna sighed heavily. “Gods. Don’t I know it. But four break-ins in the last few days – it’s too much. They’re going to bleed me dry.”
“Four break-ins?” Gel frowned. “What’s going on here?”
“Hells if I know.” Yanna tied up the bolts in a neat package. “Ever since the fire, things have gone to shit. Burglaries all over town. Mostly they steal bolts, arrows – that sort of thing. Ammunition.”
“Huh. Weird.” Gel finished counting out his money and handed it over to Yanna. “Hey, quick question. You wouldn’t happen to know where a guy might find some poison?”
“Poison?” Yanna stopped short. “I – what?”
“I’m just saying, I would pay real well. I need it, in my line of work. I’m new in town, don’t know who the hookup is.”
“Well.” Yanna Goldtress looked him up and down with a critical eye. “Well. I certainly wouldn’t know where to find controlled substances like that.”
“Are you sure?” Gel produced his Hegemony badge. “It’s for official business.”
He expected Yanna to buckle. Instead, like a sapling in a storm, she bent. “If you’re an agent, I want to ask for your help. Stopping these burglaries. The city guard’s stretched thin, but I’m sure it would be no trouble at all for – and I’m making an assumption here – a government assassin like yourself.”
“You’re not far off, sister. But what’s in it for me?”
“Blunt.” She snorted. Her whole demeanor had changed, quick and reactive as a leaf on the wind. “I might know where to find some controlled substances at a reasonable price. Burglars haven’t touched those, as far as I’ve heard.”
Gel barked a laugh and slung his new crossbow across his back. “Yanna, I like your style. Alright. Sure. I’ll be back tonight. With a colleague.”
He posted up at the Tenth Column and waited for his friends. He made sure to keep his hood up and sit in the darkest corner. Regulars gave him nervous looks. He sipped his beebeer and smirked. The smirk was an important part of his image.
It wasn’t long before Nutmeg entered, a broad grin on his face. He immediately spotted Gel and sidled over. There was a spring in the dwarf’s step.
“Nice duds, man – you stop by Hekla’s?”
“You know it. D coming?”
“Nah. I stopped by the temple. She’s spending the night.”
They ordered food – carrot and riverperch chowder, served in R’yta’s signature bread bowl – and compared notes.
“So you’re a landowner now?”
“Well, we gotta wait for the paperwork to clear, but yeah, basically.”
“It feels good to give back to the community,” said the dwarf, airily, waving a hunk of bread to emphasize his point. “We can do right by this city.” He lowered his voice. “You know, I feel like we owe it.”
“Huh. I did not feel that way. Although I do need your help, Nutmeg. It’s a good deed.” He explained the situation with Yanna Goldtress.
“Hmph.” Nutmeg chewed thoughtfully on a bit of carrot that had gone uncooked. “Well. This is perfect. We can do more good deeds tonight! Help out a poor shopkeep.”
“And get me some poisons,” added Gel. “Do not forget that.”
“Man, I don’t know. Poison’s kind of a dirty trick.”
“All’s fair, Nutmeg. Besides, a good dose of shattan leaf or barrowelf’s whisper can knock a bugbear out in ten seconds flat.”
“As long as they work on gatorfolk. I have a feeling we’ll need some of that help when we go see Inga.”
“You bet.” Nutmeg raised his glass as if toasting the whole bar. “To us! The saviors of the city!”
Chapter 5 – In Which an Old Acquaintance Reappears
Yanna Goldtress lived above her store, in a little apartment. The decor was sparse and spare, but there was a nice knitted shawl displayed on one wall, hung by copper nails. Gel stood at the window, looking down on the dark street below. Nutmeg was already out at his post, in position, waiting. Yanna stood behind Gel, in the darkness, arms folded across her chest. The rainy day had given way to a misty, eerie night. The few lights burning on porches and stoops diffused through the fog like blood in water.
“It’s around this time?”
“I’m going down, then.” He set his pack and his swords on the floor by Yanna’s bed, and slipped away down the stairs.
Hood up. Mask up. Down the stairs. Behind the counter, back against the wooden shelves. All was silent. All was still. There was a cashbox to his left, locked up tight. The burglars hadn’t touched the cash thus far. Yanna made that clear. Best if he double-check. He produced the lockpick from a little pocket up his sleeve – Hekla had thought of everything – and pressed his ear to the cashbox. Click. Click-click. Clack. Clonk. Chick. It opened, revealing several neat bags marked “gold,” “silver,” and “gems.” He checked the gems bag. Ooh, a nice topaz. Not bad. He pocketed it.
Something clicked at the doorknob. Gel shut the cashbox and loaded his crossbow. It was time. Almost time. He couldn’t see, but he’d done enough breaking and entering to know what to picture. A single thief, bent double at the door, sweat beading on their brow, jabbing the lockpick in and out, in and out, finding the catch – there it was. He heard the click from the door as the lock opened, and felt the same satisfaction as he’d felt when he opened the cashbox. The door swung open, and soft footsteps sounded on the floorboards.
Gel rose, completely silent, crossbow held steady. The thief was padding across the room, looking this way and that, a large empty sack in his right hand. Gel lowered the crossbow, aiming at the thief’s knee.
Among thieves, burglars, assassins, and bastards, there is a common sense of self-preservation. It had saved Gel’s life many times. Now, it saved the thief’s knee. The man turned his head and, as Gel squeezed the trigger, the burglar jerked back, stumbling as he turned, and ran for the open door.
Nutmeg hit him like a freight wagon. It was a good tackle. He wrapped the thief’s waist and brought him to the ground. For some reason, the dwarf was yelling. Gel sighed. No subtlety.
“Yeah, motherfucker! Yeah!” Nutmeg sat astride the burglar’s chest. The small man – halfling, definitely halfling – was wearing a black cloth mask. Nutmeg tore it off, and then stopped short. “Roscoe?”
“Holy shit. You? What the fuck. You?”
Gel came around the counter, crossbow still trained on the would-be-burglar. “You know this guy?”
“Ha ha, oh man, yeah.” Nutmeg patted Roscoe on the cheek. “Lucy and I stole some mister dusty off this guy.”
“Ha.” Gel pressed the crossbow to Roscoe’s leg. “Well, Roscoe. We’ve got you dead to rights. And I would really, really like to try out my new toy. So why don’t we have a little chat? What are you doing here?”
“Naw, uh uh, I ain’t saying jack shit.” Roscoe shook his head. “Not worth my-”
Gel twitched and shot. Rescoe yelped, and then looked sheepish when he saw the bolt jutting from the floor, a few inches from his knee.
“The next one goes in your leg. No fucking around. What are you doing here?”
“Look, we need some bolts, some arrows. It’s not a big deal.”
“Who’s ‘we?’” asked Nutmeg.
“Roscoe, good buddy, come on. Tell you what. I owe you for the mister dusty. I’ll give you the going rate for the full bag. Thirty gold, right?”
Despite it all, the halfling seemed like a good businessman. He nodded, slowly. “Yeah. Yeah. Alright. Thirty gold. And give me a hit, too. I could use some.”
“Not until you talk,” said Gel. The carrot was okay, but he really preferred stick.
“Alright, sneaky pete. Keep your shirt on. There’s about a dozen of us. Most of us used to work the streets for the Duke’s organization.”
“The Halfling Mafia.”
“Yeah. Rest in fuckin peace, you know? Well, we got contacted just after the fire. There’s a lady calling herself the Dark Duchess. She’s trying to pick up where the Duke left off. Now, I know the Duke had pals, he worked with other cities; everyone knew on some level – and we never heard of this broad. But she’s got money, and she’s got drive, and she’s got a couple good enforcers, and you know, right now, that’s pretty much all it takes.”
“The Duchess!” Nutmeg rolled off his prisoner and pulled out his purse. “Alright, here’s the cut.”
“You’re going to take us to her,” said Gel. He looked to Nutmeg; the dwarf nodded.
“I don’t know where she is.” Roscoe sat up. “But, but, hey, before you get upset, I was supposed to rendezvous with her head enforcer at the meetup tonight. Thanks,” he said, grabbing the gold from Nutmeg.
“Alright, well, let’s go.” Gel stood. He was a little disappointed. He’d prefer to take a harsher tack with this guy, but clearly Nutmeg liked him.
“Everything okay?” asked Yanna, who was just coming down the stairs.
“Yeah, we got him.” Gel poked Roscoe with his boot; the halfling glared at him. “Hey, asshole: never come back here. Ever. Even for totally legitimate business.”
“Thank you,” said Yanna. She put a hand on Gel’s shoulder. “Here. Your pack, your swords.” There was a little something else, a brown paper package wedged into the top part of the pack. “You’ll like what I packed.”
Gel took the time to investigate the little vials. He sniffed at one. “Oh, absolutely. Barrowelf’s whisper! You’ve got the good stuff.”
“Hey, wait, you have poison?” asked Roscoe.
“Roscoe, shut the fuck up or I will put a bolt in your head.” Gel turned back to Yanna. “Thank you.”
“Thank you,” she replied. “You’re welcome here anytime.”
“Nutmeg, you ready?” Gel turned to see Nutmeg and Roscoe cutting a rail of mister dusty on Yanna’s counter. They both snorted, then straightened up, whooping.
“YEAH!” said Nutmeg.
“Heynow hey, whoo, man, the good stuff’s hard to come by these days, whoo,” said Roscoe. “I forgive you for stealing from me.”
“And we forgive you,” said Nutmeg, magnanimously. “Right?”
“Uh,” said Yanna. “No? He stole stuff from me?”
“Oh sorry sorry,” said Roscoe. “I’ll make it up to you. Do you like drugs?”
“I would like money. Gold stars.”
“What about interesting halfling recipes?”
“Let’s sort this out later,” said Gel. “Come on, Roscoe. Take us to the Duchess.”
Chapter 6 – In Which Nutmeg Eats a Sausage
Nutmeg tried to scrooch down to Roscoe’s height. The halfling was a foot or so shorter than him, although they were about the same around the middle. He spoke the command word, and his armor became a nondescript set of cotton laborer’s clothes, much like Roscoe wore. The beard was wilder than any halfling would wear – he’d only ever seen them with mustaches or unfortunate chinstraps – but there was nothing for that. Gel frowned down at him. “You could just be yourself.”
“Aw, Gel, that’s sweet.”
“No, I mean, who cares if you’re not a halfling? You could just be a dwarf who wants to join the burglars.”
“You do not have an actor’s spirit.”
“How dare you. I absolutely do.”
“Then why won’t you dress up as a halfling? Hm?”
“I spent all my money on a suit of magical hidey-armor and a crossbow that shoots just as well at half a mile away. Why on earth would I go close quarters on this one? I’ll watch. From the shadows.”
Roscoe pointed down to the riverfront. They were heading due west now, straight for the Lundurr River, right on the edge of the burned-out ruins of the northside. There was a shack down by the water – or rather, what remained of a shack. A skeleton frame and half the roof; two complete walls, one semiwall, and one side open to the elements. A couple of halflings were gathered around a campfire in the ruined shack. In the mist off the river, the fire and its caretakers looked unreal.
“This is where I leave you, then,” said Gel, and he vanished into the foggy dark.
“He’s a weird one,” said Roscoe, in a low voice. “Whatever happened to that gnome you were with?”
“She retired. Can you believe it?”
They were almost to the shack when one of the halflings waved. “Ey, Roscoe, that you? You got company?”
“Yeah, take it easy, Wally. Buddy of mine from out of town. Named, uh,”
“Allspice,” said Nutmeg.
“You get the stuff?” asked Wally. They went and sat by the fire. There were five other halflings there, each just as ratty and tattered as Roscoe. A few skewers leaned over the fire, each with a sausage crackling and spitting as it cooked over the flames. Nutmeg’s mouth watered.
“Nah, she got a new lock,” said Roscoe, easily. “But I did run into my buddy here. He’s got a hookup on a wagon coming in next week – should be able to pick up what we need.”
“Man, you know she wanted more arrows tonight. Tomorrow at the latest.”
“Yeah well, them’s the breaks. How’d you make out?”
Wally and the others arrayed a curious collection – a few thunderstones, a few daggers, some lengths of rope, and two winecasks.
“Not bad,” said Roscoe. “I know she’s been wanting some wine lately.”
“Can I get one of those sausages?” asked Nutmeg.
Roscoe gave him a look, but Wally said “Ey, yeah, sure, help yourself. Any friend of Roscoe is a friend of mine.” The halfling, who had a well-coiffed head of silvery hair, extended a thick hand to shake. “Name’s Walnut. Friends call me Wally.”
Nutmeg shook. Roscoe said “Wally here used to run some B and E for the Duke’s organization. His chief got toasted in the fire, though, just like most of the leadership. We’d all be rudderless, if not for the Duchess.”
“Huh.” Wally snorted, then spat into the fire. Nutmeg had plucked a sausage from a skewer; he tried biting into it, but only managed to scorch the end of his tongue. “You ask me,” continued Wally, “it shoulda be one of the Dukes old boys come in and take charge. We ain’t never heard of this Duchess until after the fire.”
“Hey, can it,” said another halfling. “She’s coming.”
“The Duchess?” asked Nutmeg. He’d managed to overcome his burnt tongue; the sausage – pork with some kind of grassy, earthy spice to it – was the perfect second supper.
“Nah, Allspice. We don’t meet with her direct. This is her enforcer. Her lieutenant. Her number two. Anemone.”
“No, Anemone. Like the flower.”
“That’s right,” came a harsh voice, cutting through the fog like a butcher knife. “Just like a damn flower, Walnut. On your damn feet, jump to it.”
A halfling emerged from the mist. She was dressed head-to-toe in armor, clearly cobbled together from whatever she could find, borrow, or steal. Half her head was shaved; from the other half rolled an impressive waterfall of blond curls. The left side of her face was marred by red, blotchy burns, but she made it work. She was a bombshell broad with a broadsword to boot.
“All of you!” she barked again. “On your feet!” The halflings jump up to a man.
“Who’s this?” asked Anemone. She drew her sword and pointed it at Nutmeg. “A dwarf?”
“Naw, he’s just my really hairy friend from out of town,” said Roscoe. “It’s okay, Anemone, he’s here to help.”
“Are you, now?” Anemone frowned. She approached Nutmeg, leveling the sword at his chin. “You look familiar to me.”
“I wish I could say the same,” said Nutmeg. He shouted: “Now, Gel!”
No crossbow bolt came hurtling out of the fog. Anemone gasped nonetheless.
“Wait. I do know you. From Skeetwizard’s, the night-”
Gel dropped from the half-burnt roof and landed on Anemone. She sprawled to the ground. Nutmeg drew his axe and held it over Anemone’s neck; Gel had both swords at the base of her spine, where the armor plate rode up a little high.
“Too foggy. Didn’t want to risk it.”
“Aw, sorry, buddy. I know you wanted to try out the new bow.”
Wally grabbed a skewer from the fire. “I’ll save you, Anemone!” Roscoe slapped him on the back of the head.
“What, are you nuts? You want to get us all killed?”
“It’s true,” said Nutmeg. “We could kill each one of you and not break a sweat.”
“But that’s not what we want,” said Gel. “Anemone, you’re going to take us to the Duchess. I’d like to talk to her.”
“Fuck you,” spat the armored halfling. “I know you. I-aiiiiiiiii!” Gel sliced with the shortsword and cut off the tip of her boot, taking the big toe along with it.
“Come on. Don’t be stupid. Take us to the Duchess.”
“Fine. Fine. Can I stand up?” Nutmeg raised his axe, kicking Anemone’s sword away into the ruins. He turned to Roscoe.
“You’re alright, for a halfling.”
“Yeah, whatever. I’ve got very neutral feelings towards youse guys at this point. Don’t blow it.”
Chapter 7 – In Which the Duchess Awaits
At swordpoint, Anemone led them deeper into the burned-out city. From a distance, it had all appeared to be one uniform wasteland; now that they were in it, Nutmeg marveled at the structure visible beneath the desolation. Stone columns and walls stood out like broken teeth from piles of blackened lumber. In the fog, animals were prowling, scavenger dogs and flapping things that stayed just out of sight. His foot crunched on something; when he looked down, he saw a broken clay plate. It had been painted with the image of a smiling sun, daubed with crude, childlike brushstrokes. Now the sun was shattered.
There were scavengers on two legs here, too. He could see them in the fog. The few buildings that still stood in some form were like nests now, thick with those who chose to eke out existence in the ruins of yesterday. They had to scale a mound of debris nearly thirty feet high, where two buildings had collapsed into each other. The blackened timbers and sundered stone were treacherous, ever-shifting. Anemone, at one point, made to scramble away, but Gel was quicker, and caught her by the arm.
“Where are we going?” asked Nutmeg. It felt familiar. He’d run through these streets before.
“To the Duchess,” said Anemone. She would say no more.
They were just off the riverfront now, nearing the north wall, when Anemone stopped at last. She’d brought them to an open, flat stretch, where the ground looked as if it had been scorched by dragonfire. Nothing remained here. Whatever great inferno had leveled the city, it must have burned hottest here. A thought occurred to Nutmeg. The fire had started in Skeetwizard’s Shack. When his axe struck a spark and the booze began to burn. Was this…?
“Over here,” said Anemone. “The Duchess’ bunker.”
Sure enough, in the open, blasted space, there was an iron hatch. It must have been hidden, once, but now it was laid bare.
“Open it,” said Gel. “And no funny business.”
Anemone heaved at the handle; it stuck, then chunked open. The hatch swung free. Cheery light blossomed forth.
Gel kept his rapier at Anemone’s throat. “Take us down.”
“I’ll go first,” said Nutmeg. “You bring her in after, Gel.”
“Anemone?” came a woman’s voice. “Is that you?”
Nutmeg dropped through, axe in hand.
The bunker was small. Twenty by twenty. Someone – the Duchess – had clearly converted it from a cellar into something a little more livable. Wooden timbers braced the ceiling; the shelves where kegs and casks might once have been stored were now lined with bows, arrows, and clever little improvised weapons. There were two cots in the back, by a homey fire; the smoke from the fire streamed up through a hidden chimney in the ceiling. By the fire stood a woman, a halfling woman like Anemone, dressed in a tattered robe that must have once been very, very expensive. Burns, harsh and red, streaked up and down her face and neck, and must have continued beneath the robe.
“You,” she said. “How dare you show your face in this city.”
“Amaryllis!” called Anemone, who had just fallen through the hatch. “It’s them!”
Gel jumped down and landed on Anemone again. “That’s enough outta you.”
A pit grew in Nutmeg’s stomach. Why was this all so familiar? “Are you the Duchess?”
Amaryllis, her hands hidden in the sleeves of her robe, gave him a tight smile. “Yes. Don’t you recognize me? You should. You should recognize the both of us.”
He squinted. He scratched his beard. Then it hit him like a collapsing ceiling. “Thackarack.”
“There it is,” she said. “The night you took Jimmy. The night you burned down our homes. We were right there, dwarf. I’ll never forget it. As long as I live. The stone you threw – a thunderstone, right? We’ve learned a lot about those, and other things. And then you grabbed Jimmy, and you took him away, and you left us all to burn.”
Nutmeg turned back to look at Gel. The elf had a queer expression, like he’d just seen a particularly interesting bug flying too close to his face. The air was stuffy down here. Nutmeg felt pressure building in his chest. The fire. Every blackened timber. Sparks from his axe.
“We survived,” continued the Duchess. “We were deafened, but we made it out the back door. We made a mistake. We ran north. When the fire spread, we were trapped behind it, up against the wall. We ran to river. The hot air was at our backs. Then it outpaced us. We couldn’t hear, we couldn’t see, we were burning alive. When we fell into the river, I thought we were dead.
“But we weren’t dead. We knew Jimmy’s friends. We sought them out. We heard the Duke was gone, and we knew what that meant. That the city needed a Duchess. A dark Duchess. Born of shadow and fire.”
“How did you find us?” asked Anemone, a little muffled from her position on the floor. “Were you hunting us?”
“Honestly, no,” said Nutmeg. “No, I didn’t – I thought – we didn’t know about you.”
“You thought we were dead?” asked Amaryllis.
“I didn’t think about you at all,” said Nutmeg.
The Duchess spat at his feet. “I was hoping this day would come. Didn’t know we’d get it so soon. You’re dead. You’ll die hard. Burning.”
Nutmeg still felt light-headed. He raised his axe. Tight quarters down here. Too close for Gel’s new bow. Almost too close for the axe. “No one has to die here tonight. We can walk away.”
“No,” said Amaryllis. “You can’t.” She drew her hands from her sleeves and threw a pair of somethings, two little bundles. One landed at Nutmeg’s feet. Another struck Gel in the ankle. They burst, and a pink, sticky goo enveloped them from the shins down. Nutmeg tried to lift his foot. It wouldn’t budge.
“It’s not easy to equip a new organization,” said Amaryllis. She gestured to the shelves. “Acid. Tinkerer’s Fire. Thunderstones. Gumfoot bags. We’ve got an arsenal now. Our street soldiers are armed well. The guards can’t stop us. You can’t stop us.”
“Wanna bet?” asked Gel. He pressed the point of his rapier into Anemone’s neck. She, too, had been pinned to the floor by the gumfoot bag. “You take another step, you try any more bullshit, and she dies.”
“Don’t listen!” cried Anemone. “Don’t listen! Do what you must, Ammy!”
The Duchess hesitated. Then she took another step.
True to his word, Gel ran Anemone through. It was quick, all things considered. The elf knew what he was doing. Amaryllis didn’t even flinch. She walked to one of the shelves and drew out a glass bottle of red, thick liquid.
“Tinkerer’s Fire,” she said, as if they were standing in a parlor somewhere, discussing the weather. “It burns hot. Hotter than the blaze you started, that’s for damn sure. Once you start some fires, they never go out.” She cocked her arm back. “Elf. Tell me your name.”
She threw the bottle.
Nutmeg caught it.
With a flick of his wrist, he returned the throw. Amaryllis was unready. It struck her, square in the chest, and burst with a melodic tinkling sound. As the liquid met the air, it blossomed into white-hot fire. Every inch of the Duchess was burning. Her screams were terrible. She stumbled this way and that, lurching into the shelves, which caught fire in turn. Nutmeg dropped his axe and pulled a dagger from his belt. He began sawing frantically at the hardening goo on his feet. Amaryllis tottered closer, still screaming that awful, keening wail.
“Try this!” called Gel. His feet were free; he had grabbed a stoppered bottle of acid from the shelf closest to him, and tossed another to Nutmeg. Nutmeg emptied the contents on his gooey prison; it sizzled. Amaryllis was almost at him now, extending hands wreathed in flame as if to drag him to the nine hells with her.
His left foot was free. He spun and pulled as hard as he could. Something in his right ankle popped and came loose, but he was free. Gel was at the ladder. Amaryllis, in her thrashing, had sent fire up the timbers of the bunker. You didn’t need to be a dwarf to see that the place was going to come down around them.
Nutmeg dragged himself, axe in hand, to the ladder. He pulled himself up. Amaryllis had fallen at last, her screams fading to a terrible rattling wheeze. She lay across Anemone’s body, arms wrapped tight around her. The last thing Nutmeg saw of the Duchess was the fire, the fire melting the two women together into one infernal blur.
Then he was up, and out, and Gel was pulling him clear. The other bottles of Tinkerer’s Fire were bursting underground. Gouts of flame followed them out. The hot wind whirled the fog around them, stirring up the mist until they could see no more than a foot before them. Lost in a red haze, Nutmeg stumbled away from the charnel-cellar, dragging his axe behind him.
Chapter 8 – In Which Sister D is Bald
Gel was kneeling, bracing his arm against his knee, holding the crossbow steady. The fencepost was a hundred yards away, but he’d hit all four buckets balanced atop it. Nutmeg lay nearby in the grass, staring up at the blue blue sky.
Gel rather liked the new bow. It loaded a little smoother than his last one, and the catch wasn’t quite as worn. More importantly, though, it did just as Yanna claimed. He’d gotten up to two hundred yards already without too much wobble and yaw. The danger with most crossbows was that the tiniest imperfection in the firing mechanism would add a fraction of a degree of pitch to the bolt; at closer range, this meant a few inches off the target, not a major adjustment. But at longer range, you were suddenly trying to compensate for a few feet of pitch, not to mention the vertical drop-off. This one was the smoothest he’d ever shot.
“Is she coming?” he called over to Nutmeg.
They were south of the city, out near a little farmstead, letting the horses graze. Sister D had agreed to meet them there. Normally, Gel might’ve felt impatient, but he appreciated the chance to try out the new bow. Besides, it was a lovely day. Early in the fourth month of the year, after the gloomy weather of the colder months. Yesterday’s rain had given way to sparkling green grass and vibrant skies; the very air around them seemed green with the promise of summer. A few cottonball clouds drifted by. In the distance, cattle lowed.
Gel set the crossbow down and drew his shortsword. It needed a little sharpening. He sat down beside Nutmeg in the grass and pulled out his whetstone.
“Are we evil?” asked Nutmeg.
“Are we evil. I mean. I mean. I don’t know.” The dwarf looked tormented. “We did burn down the city. And we did some awful stuff to Jim Thackarack. And then those two ladies – they didn’t do anything wrong, really, relative to us. But we killed them.”
“They could’ve ID’d us to the guards, to city council – we couldn’t let them live.”
“I mean, we’re guilty, though. We did the things they accused us of.”
“Sure, but we took down organized crime in the process. Then they tried doing more crimes. So we stopped them again. I think the morality balances out.”
“I don’t see how it can.” Nutmeg’s voice was anguished. “We caused a lot of suffering in the city. Those orphans, the families we hurt -”
“Hey. Look. You can’t dwell on that stuff. You gotta find something to take your mind off it. You still got some dusty?”
“Take a bump. It’ll make you feel better.”
It was another hour or two before Sister D rolled in, riding Daybreak. There was something different about her, too. Her armor was just as shiny, her cloak just as red-gold.
“Hey!” said Nutmeg, as she got closer. “Hey Sister D you shaved your head!”
“Yup,” she said, with a rueful smile. “Well, technically, High Priest Kolyatsin shaved my head. I’ve been named a Sunlit Crusader. It’s a great honor.”
“That’s super fuckin cool,” said Nutmeg, loudly. “Is it like a title? Do you get land? A castle? A fortress? Servants?”
“Uh, no,” she laughed. “Just a mission from Palladius to right all the wrongs in the world.”
“Oh, so no big deal,” said Gel.
“Nothing out of the ordinary for us.” She frowned. “You alright, Nutmeg?”
The dwarf was hopping from foot to foot. He grinned. “Yeah! Yeah totally just doing some exercises, staying limber, ready to ride. Here we go. Let’s go! Gatorsburg awaits!”
Nutmeg ran to his horse, Piggles, and vaulted up with such alacrity that Piggles nearly bucked him off. Sister D laughed. The sun was shining, the day was bright. The long road ahead didn’t look so dreary. Gel turned his back on the burning city and set off south. He was looking forward to this. A vacation, of sorts. Gods knew they needed it.