When we last left our heroes…NUTMEG, SISTER D, and GEL reached the town of GATORSBURG, where they met with paranoid Mayor Denzel and helped their friend INGA LIZARDBREAKER put out a fire. Now on the hunt for the source of Gatorsburg’s mysterious fires, they embark on a dangerous journey into the jungles of the Lizard’s Tongue…
Table of Contents
- Chapter 1 – In Which Nutmeg Licks a Frog
- Chapter 2 – In Which We Meet Allspice
- Chapter 3 – In Which Things Reach a Breaking Point
- Chapter 4 – No Nutmeg! Only Dwarf!
- Chapter 5 – In Which Inga Waxes Philosophical on Frogs
- Chapter 6 – No! Nope! No!
- Chapter 7 – In Which a New Foe Appears
- Chapter 8 – In Which They Gaze Into the Mirrors
Chapter 1 – In Which Nutmeg Licks a Frog
Nutmeg looked down at the water and felt as though he were under it. Their canoes glided merrily along, but the air was so thick and wet that they might as well be swimming. He was soaked through with sweat and general ambient moisture. Yet he dared not remove the many layers he wore. If he did, the bugs would get him.
He thought he’d seen bugs in his life. He was wrong. Mosquitoes the size of his pinky undulated in great clouds from one bank of the river to the other, back and forth, humming and whining, neeEEEEeee, neeeEEEEeeee. Gnats blossomed like smoke from every accursed nook and cranny of the riverbank. Green flies the color of the impenetrable jungle darted this way and that over the water. The river itself was brown and deep, flowing with an unsettling grace ever ownard, further south, deeper into the Lizard’s Tongue.
Inga Lizardbreaker sat at the helm – was it as a helm, on a canoe? – of his craft, attentive, watchful, her bow at the ready. She’d gotten herself a new bow. Made of some sort of bone. Heavy curve, good for her short but powerful frame. In the other canoe, Sister D and Gel made dogged progress, hanging just behind Nutmeg’s craft, in his wake.
They’d camped last night on the banks of the river. Tthe Watchahonee river, Inga called it. The jungle highway. Nutmeg had been wary of camping in such wild territory. It was one thing to camp just off the frontier road; it was another entirely to delve deep into places where no humanoid folk were meant to tread, and then to rest your head beneath the roots of some mutant freak cypress the size of a small mountain. Inga had made it easy. She knew just how to find the right ground to settle on, just how to keep a low fire going, even with the wet brush; just where to secure the canoes for the night. And, most importantly, she’d made them all buy mosquito nets at the general store before leaving town. Nutmeg had been skeptical of their efficacy when he saw them in the store. The proprietor had been trying to sell them some brass spyglasses for a thousand gold apiece, which really put Nutmeg in a sour mood. He would’ve liked a spyglass. But no, they bought the mosquito netting, and lugged it with them down to the river, and he resented every second of it until they hung the nets over their bedrolls and he slept the whole night through without a single itchy bite.
Inga knew what she was doing.
“Rapids ahead,” she called back from the stern – helm? stern? – of the canoe. “Gets a little rocky. Keep to the west bank, it’s easier there.”
“You’ve come down the river before,” said Nutmeg. In the aft(?) of the canoe, he was responsible for steering, and guided them towards the west bank, as directed. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Gel follow suit.
“Only a few times, and not quite as far as we’ll end up goin’.” Inga drew her oars hard, and guided them around a wide hook in the river’s course. “But I know these parts, sure. I’ll know tomorrow’s river, too, most like, but after that we’re in new waters.”
“It’s all new waters,” said Nutmeg, philosophically. “Rivers are like that.”
“You’re right there, Nutmeg.”
They had, indeed, come to the rapids. The banks rose precipitously on either side as the river ducked down. Jagged black rocks jutted from the water. These were bad rapids. Their canoes were tough, but this would be tricky.
“I’ll call ‘em,” said Inga. “West and east. It ain’t as bad as it looks,” she added, grinning. “I done this part on my own in a thunderstorm.”
Nutmeg didn’t waste his precious breath on a reply. The rapids were upon them.
He hauled west.
He yawed east, as hard as he could.
“Too hard! West!”
He leaned west again. The tiller strained against the flow of the water, which had picked up considerably.
“I said wiggle it by gumbo, wiggle it!”
He wiggled the tiller.
A little blue head poked out from Nutmeg’s pack in the footwell of the canoe. Pierre, his electric lizard, was looking a little green around the scales. Nutmeg chuckled. Poor Pierre. Little guy didn’t do too well on the water, apparently.
“I said WEST!” Inga was screaming. “NUTMEG!”
“Oh shit my bad!” He hauled west, but it was too late. The canoe scraped up against a sneaky rock, just below the surface. For a moment they were lifted up as the back of the canoe rode high over the rock. They bucked, they shook, they juddered. Pierre, jostled by the collision, went flying. The little blue lizard arced past Nutmeg’s head and into the river.
“Pierre!” Nutmeg let the tiller go and scrabbled over the side. The water was uncold and thick with silt. Deep, too; he kicked his feet frantically to keep his head above water. Was that Pierre? There? No, no, just a rock – where was his little friend?
“I see him!” shouted Sister D, from the next canoe. She reached out with an oar as Gel, jaw clenched, worked the tiller. Nutmeg clung to a rock as the priestess stretched out as far as she could reach, oar extended like a bonus hand. With a flick, like a chef flipping an omlette, she launched Pierre towards herself. Sparks danced on the lizard’s cheeks as he soared through the air. When he struck Sister D in the chest, she grunted and convulsed as the little lizard continued his electrical spasms.
Nutmeg, feeling supremely ridiculous, swam back to Inga’s canoe. The worst of the rapids were past them now, this little stretch of toothy rocks giving way to a broad, slow bulge in the river’s course. Inga was laughing.
“You alright there?”
“Yes, but – ugh, agh, ooh -” he scrambled back up into the canoe – “more importantly, Pierre is safe. Right, D?”
“Sure!” called Sister D, gritting her teeth as Pierre, sparks still flashing, nuzzled up against his savior’s neck. Gel rolled back in the canoe, doubled over in silent laughter. Nutmeg had never seen the elf so tickled. Of course it was by Sister D’s misfortune.
“Cute little dude,” said Inga. “Where’d you pick him up?”
“Long story,” said Nutmeg. He paused. “Well, I mean, not that long. An underground dwarven ruin. Lucy’s last ride.”
“Yeah, how is she?” asked Inga. They were on their way once more down the river, at a leisurely pace, the rapids chuckling behind them.
“Ain’t you talked to her?”
“Not since we parted ways.”
“She doesn’t write?”
“I don’t read, Inga.”
“Oh, yeah. Well, shit, that’s too bad. I liked Lucy. Was looking forward to talking to her again. And, well, you know, we might could use her on this little jaunt.”
“You think so?” She’d mentioned something similar before, when outlining their plan.
“Eh, we’ll see. But the Khatchies are certainly spooked by these strange gatorfolk, these ones they’ve never laid an eye on before a few months ago. Came up from the sea, they’re sayin’. And the fires – well, like I told you, I think it’s something to do with this old, old temple, or castle, or something of the sort. Some place the gators hold special. Might be nothin’ – might be superstition. But damn if somethin’ ain’t causin’ them fires, and it sure ain’t no flint and steel.”
“Yeah.” Nutmeg felt a little tingle of unease. Maybe they did need Lucy for this one. Maybe they shouldn’t have come, if it was some powerful magic thing. He looked back over his shoulder. Pierre was now riding on the highest point he could find – atop Sister D’s head. To cover her baldness from the glare of the sun, she wore a wide-brimmed floppy straw hat, and Pierre perched on the brim, eyes half-closed, serene in the sun.
“Aw, hell, don’t you fret.” Inga paused in her rowing and sat back. “We’re more’n tough enough.”
“Listen, Inga.” He leaned a little closer. “The Mayor talked to us before we got to you yesterday. Cubert was waiting on the edge of town.” He relayed their conversation, in its entirety.
Inga spat into the water. “Denzel. I tell you what, I never voted for the man. Listen, well, truth is, I’ve talked to the Sohorrisk merchants. Took a little trip there right after the lighthouse thing went down. Tried to find the Kujal boy, the son of the lighthouse family. Didn’t find him, but I did talk to some highfalutin captains. Denzel ain’t half wrong. They don’t like Gatorsburg much, over there. I’d bet silver to snakes that some Sohorrisk snoot was behind the pirates. And they asked me to do a little listenin’ for em. A little watchin’. Keep an eye out. So I do.”
“Wait.” Nutmeg scratched his beard. “So – so Denzel’s right? You are an agent for Sohorrisk?”
“I ain’t shit but a lady who shoots good and talks to lizards, Nutmeg, you know that. But I talk to Sohorrisk too, yup. Keep ‘em abreast of our goin’s-on. But here’s where Denzel’s wrong: it ain’t Sohorrisk settin’ them fires. Not their style. Or not his style, I oughta say. I keep with a gnome merchant workin’ out of the city. Real rich fellow.”
“Well – huh.” Nutmeg blew a frustrated sigh. “I don’t know what to do with that, Inga! Denzel asked us to keep an eye on you, and here you are telling me-”
“Aw, hell.” Inga shook her head and picked up her oars. “Look, I’m only doin’ what keeps Gatorsburg safe and sound. Sohorrisk doesn’t want Gatorsburg gone, they just want us in line. And you know what? That ain’t a half-bad idea. It’s Denzel puttin’ us at risk, tryin’ to compete with the big boys. We don’t need to compete.”
“You can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em,” said Nutmeg.
“That’s damn right. We’ll vote out Denzel in the next election, get someone a little more friendly to the cities, and there we go – future’s safe. In the meanwhile, if Denzel wants to sweat a little, well, let him.”
Nutmeg found that he could not argue with that.
By the time night fell, they’d made good time. They’d also been rained on several times, on and off, by the flashing, sudden, mercurial cloudbursts brought on by the jungle skies. Inga paddled them off to the riverbank. Nutmeg and Sister D hauled the canoes to shore while Gel and Inga made camp. Nutmeg felt a little tetchy, a little twitchy. The great clouds of bugs on the bank didn’t help.
“How was life in the other canoe?” he asked. Dondalla groaned.
“Interminable, Nutmeg, interminable. Gel – “ she chanced a look over her shoulder. “Gel’s just awful, sometimes. Not all the time. But the jokes he’d make, about Inga…”
“That’s just his style.” Nutmeg slapped at a mosquito, which had found a little gap between his glove and his cuff. “He’s not that bad.”
“No, no, and I’ve grown to appreciate his company for the most part – you know that. But I would ask a favor of you.”
He looked over at her. Gods, she was such a lovely person. Maybe not the most beautiful woman he’d ever seen, but hey, she was alright. An image sprang unbidden to his mind of him and Sister D rowing down a peaceful little creek in a beautiful mountain glen, Nutmeg reclining in the helm(?), stern(?), D pulling at the oars with a sweet kindness in her eyes.
“It’d be a treat to ride with you,” he said, and meant it.
“Oh, yes!” Dondalla nodded. “Sure! We can do that. I meant you ride with Gel, but -”
“No, no, I-”
“No, that’s a good idea! Good call!” Nutmeg slapped at another mosquito. “Ugh. Come on. These fucking bugs are going to kill me.”
By the time dinner was ready – roasted roots à la Inga – the bugs had, indeed, made a meal of Nutmeg. It was partially his fault. He’d loosened his coverings just a little – just a little! – just enough to get some breathing room and relieve himself in the bushes. But now he was itching all over, and breaking out in little red bumps, and by the gods he was itchy, so itchy.
“Huh,” said Gel, watching Nutmeg scratch furiously at his neck. “I don’t think I’ve been bit once.”
“They do prefer some folks to others,” said Inga. “I don’t know what you’ve got in your veins, but it must be mighty tasty.”
“This sucks. This fucking sucks. Don’t you have anything to help with this? Some, I don’t know, local – ahh, ahhh – remedy?”
Inga looked him up and down with something approaching pity. “Yeah, yeah, alright, I’ll rustle somethin’ up.” She stood and, drawing a long knife, disappeared into the weeds. She was hardly gone a few minutes – a few unceasing, itchy, horrible minutes – when she returned, carrying a large dead frog.
“Whatcha got there?”
“Jallawakka Toad,” said Inga. “They’ve got a, a, slick on ‘em. A goop.”
“Do I put the goop on my bites?”
“Nope. Ya lick the toad.”
“Hey, I thought the same thing.” She shrugged. “I was in the jungle huntin’ gators with my uncle Reg, and I got bit maybe eighty times, head to toe, all over me. Uncle Reg done stabbed a toad and made me lick it, and I’ll be dogged if that thing didn’t soothe my aches and itches right away. Made my tongue numb, too, but that’s not that bad.”
“I’ll take it.” Nutmeg took the toad from the ranger. He held it up to the light of the campfire. Warty and bulbous and, yes, very slick with some sort of goop. He sniffed it. Then he wished he hadn’t sniffed it. He gulped. He set it down.
“You gonna lick it?”
“Yeah, let me just get my courage up.” He fished out a little dusty and snorted it. Sister D shook her head, Inga frowned. Gel had fallen asleep.
“I don’t know about mixin’ them things,” said Inga. “You never kno-”
But it was too late. Nutmeg was licking the toad. It tasted, at first, like a toad. Then it tasted like nothing at all. He kept licking. It was almost sensual. Mmm. Toad goop. He felt a little light-headed, but the itching was already fading. He tossed the spittle-flecked toad into the undergrowth. Without knowing why, he stood. “Thash that good shit,” he sputtered to Inga, by way of appreciation.
Then, he toppled over, and was asleep before he hit the jungle floor.
Chapter 2 – In Which We Meet Allspice
Gel poked Nutmeg’s still, lumpy form. “How long is he going to be like this?”
Inga, for the nth time, sighed. “Your guess’s good as mine. I tried to warn him.”
The sun had been up for a few hours. Gel had watched it rise through the mist, stealing across the leaves, golden interloper. Sister D had tried – without success – to rouse the dwarf, but he’d only grumbled something incoherent and twitched.
“He can’t travel in this state.”
“Well you’re right about that, darn sure. We’ve got another full day of rowin’ ahead, plus at least a half day of gettin’ to the temple. We gotta make good time.”
“I’ve been thinking about it,” said Sister D. “Let me see if I can cast a healing prayer on him. Perhaps it will purge some of the toxins from his body.”
“Hey, why not?” Gel shrugged. “Just don’t let him purge his toxins on me.”
He and Inga let Sister D do her thing while they finished packing up the campsite. Gel watched as Inga strung her bow. She’d strung it every morning; she hadn’t had to use it, but he appreciated the preparation. It was quite a nice toy, that bow of hers, almost like a horseman’s bow; short, with almost right-angle turns that made the unstrung bow look like the letter C. The handle was some pale wood, polished to a shine; it transitioned seamlessly to white bamboo with sinew backing and tips of sharpened bone.
“Nice bow,” he said.
“I took you for a crossbow man, given, well, your big stinkin’ crossbow.”
“Hey, I appreciate craftsmanship. Where’d you get that?”
“Take a guess.”
“I’m going to assume it had something to do with gators.”
“Right on the money.” Inga pulled the string experimentally and nodded, pleased with her work. “Khatchies use these a lot. Mine got blessed by their scale-talker – he’s kind of a priest.”
“For someone with the name Lizardbreaker, you sure do like these gatorfolk a lot.”
“That’s a recent development. And I don’t care for most of ‘em. I just know there’s a difference between good gatorfolk and bad gatorfolk, same as there’s a difference between good us and bad us.”
“It’s a fine line,” said Gel.
“Hello!” exclaimed Nutmeg, from the ground. They turned back and stood over him. Sister D knelt beside Nutmeg, one hand to his forehead. “Hello!” he said again, pleasantly.
“Finally.” Gel kicked Nutmeg’s thigh. “Come on. Get up.”
“Oh, excuse me,” said Nutmeg. “I don’t believe we’ve met.”
“Fuck,” said Gel.
The dwarf sat up, a bemused expression on his face. He extended his hand to all three of them in general. “Nice to meet you all. My name’s Allspice Hooper.”
“Ah, shoot, buddy.” Inga knelt and looked into Nutmeg’s eyes. “You ain’t just ribbin’ us, are you Nutmeg? You’re really feelin’ not yourself?”
“I’m sorry,” said Sister D. “I did what I could, but I think he’s having some sort of episode. The toad-goo and the dusty – it wasn’t a good idea.”
“Listen.” Gel helped Nutmeg – Allspice? – to his feet. “My name’s Gel, this is Sister D, that’s Inga. We’re in the jungle on a pleasant canoe trip. Okay? Come on and hop in the canoe.” He turned to the others. “I’ll ride with him. Keep an eye on him. Think it’ll wear off?”
“Yeah,” said Inga. “The toad-goo doesn’t last more’n…a day at most. Assumin’ there’s no long-term damage, he oughta be back to Nutmeg before too long.”
“A canoe trip!” Allspice smiled beatifically. “How thrilling.”
They bundled Allspice into the canoe. He was more than happy to take up the oars and row, once they explained to him how to do that.
All in all, Allspice was, in some ways, an improvement. He chuckled politely at everything Gel said – even the stuff that wasn’t a joke, but hey, that was okay. He marveled at the world around them, delighted by the humming of a dragonfly, gasping at the splish of a meaty river-fish, completely tickled by the chattering of some unknown creature in the distant, unseen canopy. Perhaps it was alright if Allspice stuck around and Nutmeg took a hike. Until now, the dwarf had been a real complainer about the conditions of the jungle. He was the one who wanted to go in the first place! If Gel had had his druthers, he’d still be in Dwarroway, feet on a table, beer in his hand. But no. First they had to do all that do-goodery for Sister D on the road trip down south, and now they were stuck in a sweaty, armpitty jungle to help this kooky gator-obsessed lady hunt down some weird gators on behalf of some supposedly-less-weird gators. The least he could ask for was a complete and radical personality shift, which may or may not be permanent.
It spooked him a little, though. He caught a good look at Allspice’s eyes as the dwarf gazed wonderingly at a cloud of gnats. There was something glassy there, something unnatural. Was Nutmeg still in there? Or had this being, this other thing, this Allspice, taken him over completely? And had this Allspice always been in there? Lurking under the surface? A takeover, or an uncovering?
“What’s that?” asked Allspice, gesturing ahead down the river.
“It’s the river.”
“No, I mean the weird skinny plant growing across the river. Is it a plant?”
Gel leaned forward, peering past the dwarf’s huge head. He saw it. Twenty yards and closing. A rope, from bank to bank, just above the river’s surface. A trap.
He turned to shout back to Inga and D. The words were hardly leaving his mouth when something whizzed from the undergrowth on the west bank and splashed a foot from his canoe. A shortspear. It bobbed to the surface and floated past.
“GATORS!” called Inga.
More spears whizzed out. Gel could see them in the green shadows, those hulking fuckers. He’d never seen a gatorfolk before, and so far didn’t particularly care for them. The river’s current bore them ceaselessly on toward the finality of the rope trap. They’d be caught, forced to pause in their passage, and the gators would have them.
He brought up his crossbow and loaded. The gators were staying in the shadows. Inga, too, had drawn up her bow. Sister D even had her little sling out. He looked to Nutmeg. Allspice. The dwarf was bemused. Still. Somehow.
“Allspice, do something!”
A shortspear buried itself in the wood of the canoe. An inch higher and it would’ve taken Allspice in the thigh. “Huh,” said the dwarf again.
Gel ignored him. No time for that. Time to kill, or be killed. He could just make out the shadows of the gators. He let fly his first bolt, and was rewarded by a shriek and a gurgle. The wounded gator lunged from the undergrowth – huge, beefy, a dozen shortspears strapped to its back, long toothy snout opened in a pained, grotesque snarl. Twang. Inga’s very nice bow let off a very nice arrow; the very nice shot caught the wounded gator center mass. The beast fell face-first into the river.
They maintained the barrage. Most shots vanished into the greenery. Allspice watched the missiles fly back and forth, smiling.
“Ghallakkatt horunnichachli machlakaka!” called Inga. There was silence.
“Uh.” Gel turned to the ranger. “You need something to drink?”
“I’m asking them who they are and why they’re tryin’ to fuckin’ kill us.”
“Ga yagghakka difakkhyinahk!” came the ragged reply. Then, a barrage of shortspears, just shy of the canoes.
“And?” asked Gel.
“They come in the name of the sun.”
“Well what the fuck does that mean?”
A shortspear was lodged in Allspice’s thigh. The dwarf looked down at it. He looked up at Gel, a question in his eyes. He looked back down at the spear.
The dwarf, in one smooth motion, grabbed hold of his axe and dove into the river. With a few mighty strokes he was at the bank. When he surfaced, another shortspear had pierced his back. He hardly seemed to notice. With a bellow, the dwarf crashed into the bushes. There came the sound of screaming, of guttural cries from cold throats. Gel sat back in the canoe. It bobbed and jostled. Was this Nutmeg? Or had some heretofore-yet-unseen monster emerged from the toad-addled recesses of Nutmeg’s subconscious mind?
From the jungle came the first coherent words: “Fuck you, you fucking dumb ass lizard fuck scale fucking assholes!”
It seemed likely that Nutmeg was back.
“I hope he ain’t gonna let ‘em go,” said Inga, laconic.
“I very much doubt it,” said Sister D.
“Good. Cause I don’t love the idea of them gettin’ back to wherever it was they came from. The temple, no doubt. Wonder if we can get Nutmeg to take one of ‘em alive.”
“That seems unlikely,” said Gel.
The canoes had bumped up against the rope trap now. Gel had been ready for some sort of triggered mechanism, hurled rocks or shortspears or pointy bits of bone, but nothing happened. They were just stuck, dead in the water. Those gatorfolk were confident, then. Confident that all they needed to properly waylay their quarry was to make that quarry a sitting duck.
The last of Nutmeg’s yells had faded. No further gatory growls echoed from the jungle. When the sound of crashing came again, it was followed by the dwarf himself, bursting from the brush, covered head-to-toe in blood of many colors.
“Hey, Nutmeg,” said Gel.
“Hey, guys.” The dwarf lowered the head of his axe into the river, washing an incredible amount of gator-blood from the blade. A few more shortspears had sprouted from his shoulders, but the dwarf still seemed unfazed. Sister D and Inga rowed to the shore, Gel following; the priestess laid her hands on Nutmeg, and the spears squelched out one by one as his flesh reconstituted itself.
“You need to rest?” asked Inga. “You’ve been through some shit.”
Nutmeg scratched at his neck. “Nah. I’m good. Feel like I slept for hours, though. Good thing those gators woke me up.”
Chapter 3 – In Which Things Reach a Breaking Point
The last coals of the campfire dwindled. The others had all fallen asleep, exhausted from the day’s rowing. Thanks to some green shoots and wet wood, the fire was ferociously smoky. The bugs preferred clearer air; despite the stinging in his eyes and black feeling in his lungs, Nutmeg was grateful for the thick, pungent smoke. It meant he didn’t have to get bitten. Which meant he didn’t have to lick a toad. Which meant he stayed himself.
He had been someone else, they said. Someone else. A different dwarf. A wuss, it sounded like. Allspice Hooper. He’d been Allspice Hooper to the people of Truman’s Dell. It hadn’t been his first nom de plume, and he figured it wouldn’t be the last. But that was different. He remembered Truman’s Dell. Remembered his time as Allspice Hooper. He had no memory of this Allspice, though. The last thing he remembered was the taste of the toad, and then – out. Gone. A spear in his leg pulling him from black sleep into a red, uncontrollable rage.
And that was troubling, too. Allspice was a wuss, apparently, but Nutmeg – Nutmeg wasn’t himself unless he was enraged. Right? Was that was he was supposed to take away here? Or was the rageful Nutmeg a different person, too? How many multitudes lived in him? No, he felt certain that the spear in his leg had brought him back to his true self. Whatever that meant. So Nutmeg’s true self was little better than a catastrophic, bloody reaver.
He wished someone were awake. He wanted to talk to Sister D about this. She seemed philosophical. She’d get it. Or Inga. Inga might be able to offer some advice about the nature of the toad-goo. Even Gel. Gel was weird. He had impulses and personality quirks deep under the surface. Maybe he would understand Allspice and Nutmeg.
Come morning, he had no answers. Once again, he and Gel paired up. The landscape changed around them. The absolute miasma of greenery was shifting to something a little more open, a little more breathable. Rock spires jutted up from the jungle floor here and there, like the claws of some creature buried beneath the smothering verdure. Emerging.
Rock walls rose on either side. The river narrowed, and hurried. They were rowing into a canyon, it seemed, or at least some great gully. The rock walls showed ancient striations of multicolored stone, layer upon layer of windworn, watercarved earth. Inga paused in her rowing and stared up around them. Even Gel had little to say.
“You been here before?” asked Nutmeg.
Inga shook her head. “Nope. Ain’t been this far south ever. Bet no humans have, not recently anyways. We’re gettin’ close, I think. Ain’t long now.”
Nutmeg wondered how they would know when close was close enough. Where was this temple she’d told them of? Dug into the rock walls? A deep cave? He wouldn’t mind that, actually. A cave could be kinda cool.
But when Inga signaled to stop, it wasn’t because of a cave. It was a bridge. High above them, maybe a hundred feet up, a span of rope and plank stretched from east to west. It swayed in the breeze. On the east bank, a narrow, unpleasant-looking switchback led up and up and up to the foot of the bridge.
They banked the canoes against the gravelly shore, hauling them up onto the rocks. Inga stretched, popping her back.
“So we gotta go up?” asked Nutmeg.
“Yeah. I didn’t want to let on too much about this step of the process, but, well, we gotta go up and over. Up the wall, across the bridge. Temple oughta be right there.”
“Aw, fuck.” Gel looked up the long, perilous switchback. “I’m not carrying all my shit up there.”
“Let’s dump it,” said Nutmeg. “Leave bedrolls and packs with the canoes. We’ll come back for them.”
“I reckon,” agreed Inga. “Y’all take what y’all need and nothin’ more.”
Nutmeg ensured he had his daggers, his axe, his dusty, his flask, and a fist of cheese – all the essentials. He began to climb.
There had been worse climbs. There’d been better ones, too. The switchback was clearly not well-traveled, and there were places where the stone had fallen away, leaving awkward gaps. It was also cut for someone much taller – perhaps someone gator-height – and Nutmeg quickly grew tired of doing the splits just to reach the next crag. Inga and Gel led the way; Sister D trailed below Nutmeg. He felt a little bad for her. She could probably climb a lot faster than this, but he’d wanted someone under him. Just in case. Someone who could catch him.
They reached the top with the sun low on the horizon. The four of them collapsed in the grass, panting and sweaty. At least the air was more pleasant up here. Far from the river, the mosquitoes and gnats were a little less abundant. The jungle, too, was thinner. Hell, there was grass for them to collapse onto – grass and nothing else. That alone was an upgrade.
Nutmeg sat up, and saw the temple.
It rose on the opposite bank, across the bridge, like the ridges on an alligator’s back. It wasn’t just one building, or one tower, or even one anything. It was a compound, this place. Little pyramids rose and fell like stone waves. Pyramids of black stone, dark against the sky, a small city here in the dark heart of the jungle. If a path had once led from the rickety wooden bridge to the temple beyond, the jungle had long since reclaimed its turf.
“By the heart of Saint Lassellyen,” murmured Sister D. “I can’t believe it – the size of this place. The scale. Did gators build this? What dread god do they worship here?”
“Who fuckin’ knows,” said Inga. “Hmm. It is a might sight bigger than what I expected.”
“So what do we do?” Gel was fiddling with his crossbow. “Just go in shooting?”
“Look!” said D. She pointed to the peak of one of the pyramids. The pyramids were far from uniform, but shared a few characteristics – they were blocky, steppy, each capped by a little flat-roofed house of stone. Save for two, including the one D indicated. This one had a little tumor. Wooden scaffolding, makeshift stairs leading up to – what was that? It glinted and twinkled. A disc – no, two discs – no, hang on, at least three or four, turning in the breeze, discs of glittering silver or glass or something. Mirrors. Mirrors in the sky.
“The fires,” said Sister D.
“Hey, that’s pretty fuckin’ smart,” said Nutmeg. “Mirrors to create a fire from a great distance away? Not bad.” Something about the mirrors was bumping around in his memory. “Dwarves did things like that.” He was pretty sure. “Lucy told me about something like this. Mirrors to set fires.”
“How many years of bad luck is it?” asked Gel. “Seven?”
“Yeah, is that per mirror?”
“Nah, I think it scales logarithmically.”
“Nutmeg, how’n blazes do ya know words like ‘logarithmically’ butcha ain’t know how to read?”
Sister D held up her hand. “Let’s not get ahead of ourselves. We ought to wait until after the sun sets. Gators are cold-blooded, aren’t they, Inga?”
“Yup, nope, they’re slow as tar when the sun’s gone down.”
“Good, then. I will take the remainder of the day to meditate on the might of the sun. Come nightfall, we will strike with an indefatigable inner radiance.”
“Geez, D.” Gel rolled his eyes. “Take it down a notch. We’re just gonna go shoot a bunch of lizards.”
“Ow!” Nutmeg slapped his forearm. A black mosquito was smeared like soot across his palm. “Ah, fuck, I thought we’d be away from the bugs up here.”
“You ain’t never far from the bugs here.” Inga eyed the bridge. “I’d say we best get across before dark, though, Dondalla. That bridge has seen better days.”
As if it heard her, the bridge swayed perilously. Splinters shivered into the gorge.
“Alright, yeah. Let’s do it. Lightest first, right?”
“No, heaviest first.”
“Pretty sure it’s supposed to be lightest first,” said Gel. “And, I mean, that’s probably me.”
“Heaviest,” declared Sister D.
“FUCK!” Nutmeg slapped at yet another gods damned mosquito. “Both of you! Shut! The fuck! Up! By the gods!” The welts on his arms were itching ferociously. He wanted to peel off his skin, and a red rage was coming over him. “I’m crossing now!”
“Nutmeg, they’ll hear you if you keep -”
“LET ‘EM!” he roared. “Let ‘em come! I’ll rip every lizard head to toe-claw and wear their jaws for shoes!” He drew his axe and ran to the bridge. “I’ll carve ‘em into fishbait and go fishing and eat the fish and shit the fish down their gods damn ribcages!” Axe held high, he set his foot on the bridge.
Anything that the others were saying was utterly lost in the sound of blood roaring in his ears. He ran with great strides. He pounded across the slats.
When the first dart struck him, he thought it was another bug. Two-thirds of the way across the bridge, the second dart hit him. He recognized them now. Coming from the trees on the other side of the gorge. Darts. He plucked them from his armor. Darts of white bone. A thin clear slime trailed from their tips. He set those facts aside for future analysis and kept running and shouting very loudly.
The third dart caught him in the leg, where he wore no armor. He stumbled. So close to the other side. Nutmeg gritted his teeth and flexed every muscle he had, including some he was pretty sure he’d invented. The dart popped out of his leg. Blood mixed with the clear slime and made a pinkish froth. That probably wasn’t good.
He was on the other side, then. He chanced a look back. The other three were picking their way carefully across the bridge, one by one. He bellowed a laugh. Another dart hit him in the leg. These lizards, man – they weren’t dumb. He stuck a finger into the bag of dusty at his waist and rubbed the good stuff on his gums. Time to kill. Time to make sport of these fucks. Time to
N O P E
Chapter 4 – No Nutmeg! Only Dwarf Now!
Someone shouted spices at him and he did not know who they were or what they were talking about or why they were talking about spices in the jungle – why would they? – and why, too, were they in the jungle? Dwarf tossed his axe in the air and caught it, which was funny. A bug of slime and bone mozzed out of the shifting greenery and spoinked him in the leg. No! Nope! No nope and no! Dwarf held axe with both hands and went in he went in to the dancing shifting greenery and fell head over toe over head toppling – rope? Rope on his legs? No! Dwarf dropped axe, tore the rope with both hands, picked up axe, saw the goons! The lizard-goons, these freaks painted by unhappy gods head to toe with scales of green and black the texture of fingernails, wearing symbols that meant something to someone but nothing to Dwarf. Their eyes lolled, their tongues lolled, their blowguns were made of hollowed lolling marrowless bone. Whole hands of them, the goons, a few hands at least, gaping redjawed at him with their crooked teeth poised to ask unintelligible questions. Dwarf hated their heads, hated their faces, hated their eyes teeth earholes(?) snouts, horrible green jowls, devils from the muck, these goons, he wanted no more lizard-goon-heads forever. KILL THE BODY AND THE HEAD WILL DIE. Kill the body and the head will die! An idea like a bug bite itching at him and Dwarf was ready to scratch! He dove! He sprang! He sprang and dove, communicating anger through words and steel. The floor of the jungle became a sponge of blood. More pinpricks all over him, other bugs of slime and bone, but there was no concern for that to be spared because Dwarf was too busy killing the bodies to kill the heads. Axe buried in the scales, axe rooting at the bones, axe splitting viscera into smaller viscera.
Someone shouted spices at him again from closer by and when he turned his great, powerful, muscly head he saw three figures shining like glass in the sun. Shining at him. Dwarf spoke in the ancient tongue and commanded them to halt, to tell him who they were. A lizard-goon distracted him though and he paused to cut the goon in half, quarters, eights, sixteenths, residue. When he rotated back to the glass people they’d come closer and he felt the Fear in him the Fear that only comes from being severely fucked in the head.
Chapter 5 – In Which Inga Waxes Philosophical on Frogs
Gel had loaded the bolt to take out a gator. Now, he was pretty sure he’d have to shoot Nutmeg. “Greep hak!” the dwarf screamed again. “Greep hak bim gubblebag! Joopa coocoochoochoo!”
“He’s fucked,” said Gel, to the other two.
“Nutmeg!” shouted Sister D, again. She paused. “Allspice?”
“That ain’t nothin’ we’ve seen before, I think,” said Inga. “Still, he done a damn good job carvin’ them gators.”
Gel picked up a stray dart, careful to not touch it with his bare flesh. He sniffed the slime. No real odor, other than a faint musk that might’ve just been general gator-smell. “Seen these before?” he asked Inga.
She, too, inspected it. “Ain’t no way to be sure,” she said, “but I’d bet my two front teeth that’s venom from one of them frogs. Not the lickin’ kind of frog, some other kind. There ain’t no limit to the kinds’a frogs we got down here.”
“Nutmeg!” Sister D had her hands raised, a tamer approaching a wild beast. “It’s me. Dondalla. Your friend. I’m here with Gelmahta and Inga. Can you hear me?”
The dwarf stood and looked off into space and said “we ivfot nio pym!” several times, axe held high –
Chapter 6 – No! Nope! No!
Those fuckers were coming at him now, the glass people with the sun in them. No! Nope! No! Nope no nope! He brandished the axe and in the ancient language bellowed “You cheap freaks! You copper penny villains! Who wants to get cut?” One of the glass people had the aspect of an angel and she spoke spices still. Dwarf did not want to harm to shatter this glass angel. Behind him in the jungle he smelled the stones that had been there longer than the bones of the gods and he wanted nothing more than to climb the stones lie atop the stones. A dim memory of distant mirrors, dark. What would he see in the mirrors atop the stones? Was he, too, a goon? A freak like the glass angels? What was he? A dwarf. A dwarf, a dwarf. And that was all. A dwarf.
He turned and ran. Ran for the stones because that was where he wanted to be. The glass angels provided their opinions but he spoke to them, reassuring them in the words of the ancient tongue – “It is alright. Rest now. I am only going to the stones. You can take me to the floating city when this is done.” From the trees he burst after running, and he burst before a plaza, a circle of stone at the foot of the great stacks of stones, two hundred feet high around him, tipped with mirrors like abominable nipples. On the plaza were more goons. Dwarf did not have much to say to them, but they started saying things at him as soon as he appeared. He saw the workings of their jaws, chewing words like raw beef, digesting meaning as the flies came to pick at the grammatical offal. One goon dressed in fire raised its hands on high and the clawed hands started to glow and Dwarf found the Fear again. He sank to his knees and wailed for what the goons were doing to him. Far worse than the glass angels, far far far worse, and they had such faces, faces like eels, dumb rolling eyes and clackity clack opening jaws. What would they do to him now that he had stumbled into the heart of their twisted dark rituals? – for that was the only explanation for what they were doing, rituals to turn him into something else. Lights swam. He buried his head in his hands and let the spots dance before his eyes.
Chapter 7 – In Which a New Foe Appears
A dozen gatorfolk stood in the stone circle around the central altar. Gel had slipped up a tree, crossbow still loaded, to watch Nutmeg’s progress. That poor bastard. They had him on the altar now, stripped of his armor, and he was shaking and crying. The circle of gatorfolk parted to allow a new figure to enter the tableau – a taller gatorfolk, with pure black scales and a glitter in its eye that belied some hateful inner purpose. This gator raised its hands to the sky as the attendants turned the great mirrors on the pyramids, adjusting them with complicated little mechanisms until the light of the sun bathed this tall gator in radiance.
“Can you see them, D?” asked Gel.
“Yeah, just barely.” She was below him, watching with Inga from the bushes. “Something with the sun. Heretical.”
It’s only heretical from your point-of-view, thought Gel, but for once he decided not to pick the fight with the priestess. She had enough on her plate.
Then the tall gatorfolk brought its claws down and buried them in Nutmeg’s bared shoulders. The dwarf screamed – even in his addled state, he knew what pain was, clearly. The tall gatorfolk raised his claws once more, dripping with the dwarf’s blood, as the circle of gators chanted in their hissy, chittery tongue. The blood smoked in the light from the mirrors. The tall gator drove those same bloody claws into its own shoulders, then, ripping the scales and snarling in pain. What was it -?
Then, as the chanting reached a fever pitch, the gator began to change. Muscles bulged beneath the scales; it thickened out, its neck broadened, its eyes bulged, the claws grew longer, it stood taller and taller. In the awful symphony of sound and light, the gator grew. On its forehead the scales pulled back, revealing red, angry flesh beneath; the flesh whitened like a flame growing hotter, until a smoking white hole glowed in the gator’s brow. It stooped and picked up Nutmeg’s great axe. The transformation had bloated its jaw and unstraightened its teeth, freezing its face in the rictus of a false smile.
“Well butter my butt and call me a biscuit,” said Inga, softly, from the bushes.
Any other time, Gel might’ve made a crack about that idiom. Any other time. But he felt as if he were struggling to keep a wild horse in check, or to ride a rapid, or to steady a boat in a storm. What was going on here? The mirrors and the poisons and these unholy rituals – what had they stumbled onto? What awful dark heart of the jungle had they come to at the dying of the day? He felt wild, unhinged, as if reality itself were no longer what he thought it was. Gel almost felt jealous of Nutmeg – at least the dwarf had just totally lost it. Madness was easier when it happened all at once, and with the help of some mind-altering substances.
He ran his hand across the stock of the crossbow. That helped, somewhat. Nothing like oak and iron to bring him back to the world. That was what mattered, wasn’t it? They could chant and hoot and holler all they wanted – he still had a crossbow, and his swords, and could still plant a bolt in a gator at three hundred yards. He counted the gatorfolk. A dozen or so. Not bad. Do-able. Keep focused on the task at hand. Do not lose sight of the material.
“Let’s do it,” he said. “Inga, you ready?”
“I ain’t sure about it,” she replied. “Who knows what them gators can do?”
“They don’t know we’re here,” he reasoned. “You and me. We’ll pick ‘em off with our nice bows. D, maybe try and get to Nutmeg, lay some hands on the guy, heal him. If that jumbo-sized gator comes at us, I’ll draw him off. Ready?”
“For Nutmeg,” said Sister D.
“Sure,” said Gel. “Whatever works.” He popped off the first bolt.
One of the ritual-gators fell back, noiseless. Inga, too, claimed one. The gators turned and, with a great and unsettling cry, drew bone spears and charged. Led by the big guy. The gator that had stolen Nutmeg’s blood and used it with the power of the sun to transform itself into – no, nope, you know what, that’s not a productive line of thought, Gel, focus on the material. The big guy has a bull’s-eye right in the middle of his dome, focus on that, put a bolt in it. Thrum. He did. The bolt burst into flame and the jumbo gator roared a roar that shook the trees. Aw, fuck. Okay. Minor setback. He reloaded and put another bolt into one of the smaller gators.
Sister D had run parallel to the fringe of the plaza, and was circling around the flank of the gators. Trying to get to Nutmeg. Good on her. One of the gators noticed her and raised a claw, pointing. Inga and Gel both put holes in the gator’s head.
But the time for peppering the gators with distant death was over. The jumbo-sized guy, the big one, the one with Nutmeg’s axe, had reached the treeline. Gel strapped his crossbow to his back. The monster swung at Gel. Gel sprang back out of the tree, head over heels, flipping through the air. By the time he landed, his swords were in his hands. “Come on, then!” he shouted, channeling his inner Nutmeg. “Come on, you big ugly…guy!” Okay, he needed to work on his Nutmeg impression a little.
The monster moved with incredible speed. The axe, preternaturally sharp as always, splintered the tree in which Gel had been perched. The great glassy eyes of the monster rolled. Unlike the other gators, it wore nothing, not even a belt for weapons and tools. Au naturel. Raw. It spun at him again, and he tripped back over a root, catching himself by planting his shortsword beneath him.
“Gel!” called Inga. “To D! To the pyramids!”
He looked, and saw what she meant. A new party of gators were descending from the bemirrored heights, bearing down on Sister D as she prayed over the quivering hairy form of Nutmeg. He sprang away from another terrible axeblow, and ran, as fast as he could, to the altar. The jumbogator was behind him, bellowing with something that might have been laughter.
A pair of gators were leaping at Sister D. There was no time to warn her. Gel intercepted the first one with his rapier. The second was just out of reach. He tossed his shortsword up, caught it by the tip, and threw it like a dagger. A little big, a little awkward, but it did the job. He turned and swung the rapier-pierced lizard into the path of another devastating axeblow. The big guy cleaved Gel’s dance partner in twain. That freed up the rapier nicely. Gel kicked his shortsword back into his hand, and faced the big fella with steel in both fists.
Parrying was pointless. There was enough muscle behind each blow to snap the rapier in half, or break Gel’s arm with the sheer shock. It was duck and roll, run and dodge, dance away. Bait him away from Sister D. That was what mattered. Inga could take care of herself – there weren’t that many gators, and she’d apparently earned her Lizardbreaker appellation the good ol’ fashioned way.
He made a game of it. For every whistling axeblow the monster gave, Gel tried to return two rapier-pricks. Nothing big enough to disable his foe, but just something to paint the black scales red. Every time he struck the beast, the white burning sun on its forehead glowed and flashed as if in anger. He couldn’t do this forever. If anything, every little cut was only making the beast madder, and madder meant stronger. Was that the essence of Nutmeg in there? If so, bravo to the gators. They’d really distilled him down to his purest.
“HUAAGH!” Nutmeg sat up on the altar, Sister D’s hands raised over him. The wounds on his shoulders, his legs, all over, were stitching back together. There was a wildness and a fear in his eyes.
“Is he good to go?” asked Gel. He gasped with effort as, for the thousandth time, he leapt backwards to avoid a mighty axeblow.
“I don’t -” Sister D was interrupted by the rising of the dwarf. Nutmeg – or whoever he was now – stood and stepped from the altar. He looked up at the monstrous gator, and his face went white.
“Oh heavens!” cried the dwarf. He ran pell-mell past the baffled beast, scrambling up the steps of the pyramid.
“Ah fuck, we got Coward Mode,” said Gel. The axe-wielding monster turned to follow Nutmeg up the pyramid.
“Help!” called Inga, frantic. More gatorfolk – how many were there? – had come streaming up from some hidden lair. A dozen at least. Gel felt despair bubbling in his throat. He pointed at the onrushing villainry.
“Sister D! You help Inga. I’ll get Nutmeg.”
“You can handle that thing?”
He followed the beast up the pyramid. Nutmeg – or Allspice, whatever – was doing a valiant job of running away. Gel called out to the dwarf.
“Nutmeg! Hey! That big guy stole your axe! He took your shit!”
The dwarf looked back over his shoulder. For a moment something like anger flashed in his eyes, but then he saw the lizard, and scrambled away.
“He took your blood!” Gel shouted in desperation. “He took your uh, your, uh, your essence! He stole your blood, dude!”
Now the dwarf turned again. And a fire was in his eyes. “My…axe. My blood.”
“Yeah!” The monster turned, irritated by Gel’s shouting. “Ah, shit,” said Gel,” swiftly trying to back his way down the slick stones of the pyramid.
“GEL!” shouted Nutmeg. “THROW ME YOUR SWORD!”
In midair, the dwarf caught the shortsword. The gatorbeast was turning, halfway around, axe unready, when Nutmeg struck him like a meteor. He buried the sword in the gatorbeast’s chest, and the beast toppled back, flailing. The shirtless hairy dwarf surfed on the body of the great lizard all the way down the steps of the pyramid, stabbing again and again, up and down and up and down, bellowing, riding the body like it was a gods damned cabbage cart until at last they reached the foot of the pyramid. Gel grabbed a bone spear from one of the other fallen gators and drove it like a tentpeg through the burning third eye of the monster. Nutmeg retrieved his axe and, with a single, easy swipe, beheaded the creature.
The other gators had stopped what they were doing. When Nutmeg rose, gatorhead in hand, they fell to their knees. They threw their weapons down and moaned and groaned. “They’re surrendering,” Inga translated.
“Yeah, I figured,” said Gel. He clapped Nutmeg on the shoulder. “You good, buddy?”
“I don’t know,” said the dwarf. “Still feelin’ weird.”
“You will for a while, I’m sure,” said Sister D. “You’ve gone through several radical personality shifts in the past few days. Remember what we said about brain worms, back in the archive with Lucy?”
“Oh yeah. I’ve got em.”
“Yeah. Maybe a little. We’ll keep an eye on it, Nutmeg. It’s good to have you back.”
“Guy stole my blood,” muttered the dwarf, eyeing the headless corpse.
Chapter 8 – In Which They Gaze Into the Mirrors
Nutmeg and Sister D stood at the summit of the southern pyramid. Gel and Inga had gone to the northern one. There were other pyramids, even possibly other gators, but these were the two capped by the curious mirrors. The dwarf inspected the mirror contraptions. The craftsmanship was unremarkable up close. Polished obsidian glass set into brass frameworks, all controlled by a combination of foraged gears and cogs and sinew-bound improvisations provided by the lizards. He gazed into the dark mirror. A dwarf looked back. A dwarf dressed in armor that changed when he but spoke a word; a dwarf whose eyes would not stay still. A dwarf who wielded ancient dwarven weapons but just kept losing them. A dwarf with no dwarves beside him. A dwarf whose only essence was anger and rage.
“What am I?” he asked the mirror.
“You’re Nutmeg,” said Sister D.
“Yeah, but, you know. First I was that guy, Allspice, and it took bloodshed to get me back. Then I got to be too much of me, so much that a big lizard was able to steal some of me and become a little bit of me. And that’s all I am! Right? Anger! Yelling at stuff! For all the things I’ve done, I’m just a bicep, flexing forever.”
“I don’t think so,” said Sister D. She sat beside him, looking into the dark surface of the mirror. She looked different without her hair – he still wasn’t used to this shaved-head priestess. The last time they’d come to Gatorsburg, she’d had some baby fat around her cheeks, and an innocence in her eyes. Now she was different. Chiseled down to something closer to the bone. “I thought I knew who I was,” she said. “Years ago. When I joined the church. I thought I was a good, quiet girl who would serve at the altars and make people calm and happy. Then I thought I was a hero, when I found you, when I saw a life of traveling around and solving people’s problems. Now…I don’t know. I’m a ray, maybe. Like something cast by these mirrors. I’ll burn some things; some things I’ll make stronger. We are but a moment’s sunlight, Nutmeg. But you know, the thing about sunlight – it’s got a lot of colors in it. You’ve seen it cast through a crystal, yeah? It makes a rainbow. All the strange little pieces of sunlight. We may just be flashes in the mirror, Nutmeg, but those flashes are bright, brilliant, and strange. You’re more than one thing.”
“Yeah,” said Nutmeg. “That’s a good way to put it.”
He didn’t want to confess to her the truth. To say it out loud would be to give it life. How could he tell her that when he looked in the mirror, he didn’t recognize himself anymore? How could he tell her he didn’t know who Nutmeg was?