When we last left our heroes…NUTMEG, SISTER D, GEL, and INGA set out into the jungles of the Lizard’s Tongue in search of some troublesome gatorfolk cultists. After ingesting a number of psychotropic substances, Nutmeg experienced a cascade of mental breaks. Now the party returns to GATORSBURG victorious – although Nutmeg still seems a little different…
Table of Contents
- Chapter 1 – In Which Machetes Hover
- Chapter 2 – In Which Some Youths are Lewd
- Chapter 3 – In Which Nutmeg Hurls a Pickled Egg
- Chapter 4 – In Which They Go Help
Chapter 1 – In Which Machetes Hover
Gel had never been so happy to see a stinking little hamlet in his life. The awful slog back through the jungle had been atrocious, made even worse by Nutmeg’s queer mood. The dwarf was in a state. Which was probably justified, given that his brain had come apart at the seams and been stitched back together, but still. Gatorsburg at last. The returning heroes, bringing the spoils of their victory. Some of the obsidian mirrors had been small enough to lug back with them. Nutmeg was sure he could find a buyer. Gel was less sure, but was willing to trust the dwarf’s mercantile instincts. In another life, Nutmeg could’ve been a wily peddler.
“We ought to report back to the Mayor,” said Sister D. Inga snorted.
“Y’all feel free to do that. I’m going down to the Mareillagough. Y’all come find me when you want to party. We oughta celebrate – we done good.”
“Oh, we’ll be there,” said Gel. “But D, I actually agree. Let’s see if we can’t winkle some reward money out of old Denzel.”
“That’s not exactly what I had in mind – but I’m glad you agree. Essentially. Nutmeg, what do you think?”
“Hm?” The dwarf had been staring off at the summer sky, where streaks of cloud striated the heavens. “Yeah, sounds good.”
Troubling. His mind was probably just full of holes at this point. Nothing to be done about it. Gel had been trying to avoid fighting with D, though. That seemed to have been what set Nutmeg off – at least, it was the straw that broke the mule’s back, if not the cause itself.
Temporarily parting ways with Inga, the trio made their way to the town hall. The windows were dark, though, and the door bolted shut. Gel banged the knocker. “Hello? Hello! Anyone there?”
From around the corner, the bald, nervous visage of Cubert swam into view. “Ah!” said the aide. “Well then! Well, well! Hello!”
“Yeah, hi. Where’s the Mayor?”
“As a matter of fact, Mayor Denzel is out at his plantation estate today – but he did say he wanted to see you as soon as you returned. Come, come, it’s a short ride out of town.”
They’d stabled their horses at the town hall. Gel found Bloodhoof just as placid as he remembered. Perhaps it was true, what they said about absence, hearts, fonder, etc. He patted Bloodhoof on the neck and offered the horse a handful of oats from Cubert’s horse’s trough. The stablehands helped them tack up, and they were off. Cubert was right: it was a short ride, no more than an hour. On horseback, he could feel the wind in his hair a little better. It kept the sweat from being quite so awful. Gel kept his eye on Nutmeg as they rode. Muted. Uncharacteristically quiet. Disturbing.
Mayor Denzel’s plantation estate looked not too different from the town hall – big and whitewashed, glowing like a second sun. Where the town hall was sat in the midst of the hustle and bustle – such as it was – of the village, the estate was the only home for acres and acres, there in the open fields and pastures. The Mayor stood on his porch, wearing a smart suit of white and blue. He brandished some cool drink at them.
“Ah! Well, well, well, if it ain’t the returnin’ heroes. Come sit a spell. You’ve found me on my day off. Cubert, be a gem and go fetch the gifts.”
They sat. Gel suspected they were sitting on a veranda, but he wasn’t entirely sure what a veranda was. Out in the fields, a wizard was walking up and down the lines of sugarcane, directing a set of floating machetes and buckets, which collected and harvested at the wizard’s directive.
“Hired him myself – not a cheap service, I tell ya,” explained the Mayor. “Crop wizards. On the whole, far less expensive than trying to hire a whole labor force.”
“Makes sense,” said Gel. “Listen, dude. We fixed the fires thing.”
“Ah, well, that’s a spot of sunshine, ain’t it? Was it – as I suspected – the agents of Sohorrisk?”
“No,” said Gel, leaving the no, you dumbass internal. He relayed some of their tale – not all of it. Not the parts that made Nutmeg look bad, for instance. The dwarf was leaning on the railing, watching the machetes swish.
“Quite reassurin,’ in some sense,” mused Denzel. “I say, I’m glad to hear that Inga’s no snoot. Perhaps Sohorrisk isn’t as much a threat as I feared.”
“I wouldn’t say that,” said Nutmeg, not turning from the rail. Gel tensed up. What was the dwarf’s game here?
“What’s that now?” asked Denzel, his voice low. “Were my suspicions correct, then?”
“Not quite.” Now Nutmeg turned, and he was holding his Hegemony badge. “You are aware that we are agents of the Hegemony, yes?”
“Well, sure, most certainly, but y’all made it clear to me that you weren’t here on official -”
“Come on now.” Nutmeg tucked the badge away again. “You think we’d come out to this little buttfuck of a town just out of kindness? Let me be straight with you, Mayor Denzel. Sohorrisk doesn’t like you. You, personally. Gatorsburg they don’t care much about, but they don’t appreciate your hostile attitude. If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em, and there’s no way you can beat these folks. We’ve determined, after lengthy analysis, that it is in the best interests of the Hegemony to give you advance warning. There is still time to correct course. Send well-wishes to the merchant. You know the one I mean. The gnome.”
“Oh, gods.” Denzel sat down heavily. “It’s serious, then.”
“Very. If you want to stay in office – if you want to survive the next election – make nice with Sohorrisk. Or they will replace you.”
Gel and Sister D exchanged the same look: total confusion. What was Nutmeg talking about? Inga had mentioned some things about the bigwigs out east, but this seemed like a lot of guesswork. And yet here was Nutmeg, coolly commanding the Mayor with an authority they did not recognize.
“I have the gifts, lord Mayor!” announced Cubert, returning through the main door.
The gifts, it turned out, were three brass spyglasses. They were fancy – telescoping, collapsible, with real polished glass lenses. Gel held it up and looked through at the crop wizard. He could count every flea on the wizard’s coat.
“Ah yes, yes,” said Denzel, lamely. “I was dinin’ with my friend from the general store, and he mentioned to me that y’all were interested in his spyglasses. I thought I’d demonstrate my appreciation for your services to Gatorsburg with a little gift.” He raised his eyebrows at Nutmeg. “If I’d known the extent of your services, I-”
“No worries,” said Nutmeg. He pocketed the spyglass. “Mr. Mayor, we’d best be going. Good luck to you.”
The dwarf left the veranda(?). Gel and Sister D followed. Gel felt worse than he had when they’d arrived. What was going on with Nutmeg?
Chapter 2 – In Which Some Youths Are Lewd
What was going on?
Nutmeg sat at the bar. They were around him now, these people, these friends. Dondalla touched his arm, and he smiled at her. That seemed like the right thing to do. He gulped the red liquor and felt very little of it. Gelmahta and Inga were conferring quietly; there were others there, too, townies, people of Gatorsburg. Why were they less important? Why did he not know their names? What series of choices had brought him to this place, where he knew the names of a few people and nothing about many? He remembered everything. No memories had gone missing in the great brain upheavals. What was missing was…harder to place. The person he was. Like he was a stranger riding around in this other guy’s life.
The drink loosened him up a little, at least. He wasn’t having a bad time. Inga had put the word out around town, it seemed, that there was going to be a rager at the Mareillagough. And the people came ready to rage. A pair of bodacious, top-heavy halflings were dancing on the bar. A boatload of randy, omnisexual sailors were chasing one another around the club, roaring with laughter and pleasure no matter who did what to whom. Several musicians had showed up and then been driven out in a prank gone awry, but there was still music, generated now by a quartet of very drunk townies wielding homemade instruments and singing songs spontaneously created, the products of addled brains. Nutmeg just didn’t feel like he was really in the room with them, though. Not with any of them. He was floating there, observing.
“Did you hear me?” said Sister D.
“Would you mind grabbing some fresh air with me?”
He stood and followed the priestess out into the night. More revelers lounged outside. He and D picked their way to a quieter part of the street, in full view of the Bridger Sea.
“You’re not yourself.”
“What’s going on?”
“I don’t know. I don’t. I – I feel like I don’t exist, D.”
“Does this have anything to do with what you said to the Mayor?”
“Oh, that.” He shrugged. “I don’t know. Seemed pragmatic. He’s an isolationist with a chip on his shoulder – he’s practically inviting the powers that be to stomp on his head. Someone should tell him to wise up. I just extrapolated a little from what Inga told me. Just a little.”
“Okay, fine, sure. Do you -” she paused. “But why?”
“I don’t know,” he said, and kept walking. He walked in silence with D for a time, down the docks to a place where the sand rose up and became a little beach. He walked to the sand, then, and sat down in it. The stars were reflected coldly in the sea. Pepper spots of light. Little fires far away. Fire from the sky. Fire.
“Gel and I burned Dwarroway,” he said.
“We did it. It was us. I’m sure you guessed, but I thought you should know. We didn’t mean to burn it down that badly. We were just trying – well, it doesn’t matter. We did it.”
“You.” D rested her chin in her hands. “You.”
“You caused a lot of suffering, Nutmeg.”
“No, like, a lot.”
“No, I know! I know. I do. I mean, I try not to think about it. I didn’t have to. Until the thing with the Dark Duchess.”
“Oh, shit, yeah – one of – she – okay, listen. It’s not important. The important part is that I couldn’t deal with facing what we did, I think. I know. The dusty helped me not think about it quite that way.”
“Is that why you’ve been doing so much of it?”
“Yeah, it’s a lot, I know. I don’t know, D. Just been feeling weird for a while. Then the stuff with Allspice, with – with – with whatever the rage thing was about.”
“Nutmeg,” she said, but had nothing else to say.
“Look, I don’t know why I’m saying all this. Maybe I had to lose my mind a little. Get some distance from Nutmeg the dwarf. He’s not a great dude, D. I don’t know if I want to be Nutmeg. Maybe I want to be Allspice. Or just nothing at all. Just – just – I mean, Nutmeg – it’s not even my name. I mean, it is, but who gave it to me? I got it on the streets. What if I have a real name, deep down, and I’ll never know what it is?”
“Nutmeg,” she said again. “Nutmeg. I want to tell you something. Some wisdom that was imparted to me.”
“Some temple shit?”
“No, although, come on, no need to be rude.”
“No, it’s something someone else told me. It’s not enough to live between, wondering and wondering and never moving forward. Sometimes, all you can do is move forward.”
“Well…” Nutmeg sighed. “Move forward. But as whom?”
“Look. All we are is what we do, Nutmeg. It doesn’t matter how we feel inside – the only thing that matters is the things that we do. If you don’t like the things you’ve done, you just have to do other things now. There’s no shortcut there, I think, no way around it. Why do you think I shaved my head and became a Sunlit Crusader?”
“Your impeccable sense of style?”
“Hah. No. It’s because I’m not much more than what I do. It doesn’t matter if I think I’m the holiest priestess to ever murmur a quiet prayer – if I’m not really helping people, if I’m not doing the things I believe are good, then what’s the point?” She shrugged. “That’s all I can offer, Nutmeg. At least, that’s all I think you’ll hear. I assume you’re not ready to convert to the lifestyle of a Palladian ascetic.”
“No.” He chuckled. It was nice to chuckle. “Well, if all I am is the things I do, then I guess right now I’m a sad sack with a sandy ass.”
“I’m just saying,” she said. “You can be whatever you want. I like Nutmeg. At least, I like the Nutmeg I’ve known. The Nutmeg who gave me this.” She drew out the silver sun he’d bought her, way back in Dwarroway. She still wore it around her neck. “That’s a good Nutmeg. Keep him around.”
The stillness of the night was broken by the sound of ragged panting. Nutmeg reached for his dagger. Someone was exercising hard just down the beach from them, under the shadow of the pilings. Perhaps a few someones, by the sound of it. He thought he knew that sound. Effortful. Ecstatic.
Yes, by the dim light of the moon his suspicions were confirmed. A gaggle of horned up, drunken lewd youths experiencing some truly savage frivolity together in the sand. He looked back to Sister D. She blushed.
“Yeah, let’s get back to the bar,” said Nutmeg. “Didn’t realize this seat was taken.”
Chapter 3 – In Which Nutmeg Hurls a Pickled Egg
What would Nutmeg do? asked Nutmeg. He searched within himself. And found a desire for some pickled eggs.
Inga knew a guy who knew a guy. Seated back at the bar now, jar of pickled eggs in hand, Nutmeg found that the night was improving. He chewed the briny egg and washed it down with powerful alcohol. Sister D was dancing. He couldn’t believe his eyes: she was dancing! Out there on the floor of the club, having a grand old time. Dancing to the music. What a lady. What luck to have her around.
“Hey, can I get an egg?” asked Gel.
“Mmph.” Gel chewed thoughtfully. “Not bad.”
“Yeah. The acid helps with the alcohol processing, I think.”
“Hey, you wanna fuck with the townies?”
“I mean, sure, within reason.”
“Ah, reason, whatever.” Gel scanned the room. “I want to play the knife game. The one where you stab between your fingers. What’s it called?”
“Pretty sure it’s the knife game.”
“Fair enough. See any marks?”
Nutmeg, too, scanned the room. Should probably be a sailor. Some pig with a fragile sense of self, easily disrupted by the challenge of a twinkish elf like Gel. Then, he saw him, and a little thrill of humor tickled his spine. Mollo. The halfling card shark. He was sharking off in the corner here, playing some even-more-complicated version of high card bust.
“That guy. Just don’t let him see me. I beat his ass in a card game. Won two bags of dusty off him.”
Gel sauntered over and made some small talk. Nutmeg, clutching his jar of pickled eggs, circled the edge of the room, getting close enough to listen.
“…I mean, I understand,” Gel was saying, as Nutmeg found a seat behind a large half-orc. “I understand if you’re too scared of your pretty little fingies getting all cut up.”
“Alright, ya pissant.” Mollo was drunk already. Probably still riding his fury from the trouncing he’d gotten at Nutmeg’s hands a week prior. “Gimme the knife.”
The rules of the game were simple: splay out your fingers on the table and stab the space beside each finger in turn. Start slow, get faster, first one to draw blood or cry off lost. Nutmeg scooted out from behind the half-orc, starting in on a fresh egg as he came in view of the table.
“Hey, can I have an egg?” asked the half-orc.
Mollo went first and set an easy pace. They were using one of Gel’s daggers – no, wait, not just any dagger. Gel’s toe-dagger. The one he used to take his trophies. He’d taken a toeclaw from the jumbo gator and added it to his necklace, although the toe necklace was currently tucked away beneath his robes. That had been at Sister D’s insistence. No need to upset the civilized townies.
Gel took the dagger. They were doing a straightforward pattern – one two one three one four one five one six. It was that last big crossover that mattered. That was the one where you were liable to stab your hand off. Nutmeg dreaded to think what diseases might’ve been encrusted into the steel of Gel’s toe-dagger. Unpleasant. Every time they made a successful pass, the wager doubled – there was always a wager. They’d landed on a silver a pass. The totals got up to seven silver apiece before the trouble started.
“You didn’t hit the last one!” Mollo yelled. “You skipped it!”
“I don’t cheat,” said Gel. “Are you chickening out? That’s alright if you are. I’ll take the silver.”
“Do it again!” Mollo demanded. The crowd was skeptical of his perspective, and communicated this with a variety of slurs, some of which didn’t really apply.
“Hey, can I have another egg?” asked the half-orc.
“Yeah, ok, last one.”
“Fine, I’ll do it again,” said Gel. “With my eyes closed, too.” He did so. Easily. And tossed another silver on the table. Mollo groaned and matched the silver.
“He should do it with his eyes closed, too,” Nutmeg whispered to the half-orc.
“That’s a good point,” the half-orc agreed. “HEY! MOLLO! You gotta do it with your eyes closed too!”
“Aw, fuck off, Karrl,” said Mollo. The crowd hissed. There were more cries of “do it, asshole!” and “shut your eyes, halfsie!” “Fine!” shouted Mollo. The crowd roared with approval. Gel met Nutmeg’s eyes and winked.
Mollo took the toe-dagger in his hand. He breathed in and out a few times. The crowd, respecting the theatrics of the moment, went quiet. All was still. Someone hit the aspiring musicians until they stopped playing.
As soon as Mollo went for it, Nutmeg chucked a pickled egg at the halfling.
Mollo stabbed straight through his own hand.
Gel was scooping the silver off the table before the crowd even had a second to react. Nutmeg handed off the jar of pickled eggs to the half-orc, pressing it into the big guy’s hands and running for the door, whooping and laughing. Mollo was screeching in pain. Gel retrieved his toe-dagger, which prompted a new round of screeching from Mollo. Gel and Nutmeg staggered out the door and down the street. Nutmeg hadn’t laughed so hard in a long time. His sides ached. He collapsed against a warehouse just down the road, and Gel sat beside him.
“Worth it,” said Gel.
“Easily,” said Nutmeg.
Inga and Sister D found them not long after. Sister D was shaking her head; Inga was laughing. “Mollo’s a cock’n one ball, and he had it comin’. They’ll be talkin’ about this one for a long time.”
“Good,” said Nutmeg. “Glad to leave a good impression.” He leaned back. It was good to laugh. He looked up at the moon in the northern sky, wide and full tonight, except for the very fast thing which had just temporarily blotted it out. He sat up. Wait, what the fuck? He squinted. Something was moving through the night sky quickly and erratically, a dark shape tossing this way and that. Descending. He pulled out his new spyglass and set it to his eye.
A big bird. A huge bird, in fact. No, not a bird, an owl. Trailing feathers as it half-fell, half-flew. Someone was clinging to the bird’s back. Falling like a meteor towards the outskirts of Gatorsburg.
“Shit,” he said, sobriety rearing its ugly head. “I think someone’s in trouble.”
“Yeah, Mollo!” guffawed Inga. “He’s got a hole in his hand the size of-”
“No, really,” said Nutmeg. He turned to D and Gel. “The owl riders. Remember them? I think one of em is about to hit the ground. We gotta go help.”
Chapter 4 – In Which They Go Help
Pretty much the perfect day, in Gel’s opinion. Free telescope, sucker a guy into stabbing his own hand, and now a midnight ride to check out some cool owl rider guy who fell out of the sky. He wondered if owls had toes worth collecting. Might be a little big. But it was the principle of the thing. The principle of collecting toes from every species to wear around his neck.
Bloodhoof seemed to be having a grand old time. The horse was pretty even-tempered, all things considered, but the night breezes off the sea had that wonderful invigorating effect on man and beast alike. Following the light of Sister D’s torch, he and Nutmeg rode hard out through the fields north of town. Nutmeg kept checking the position of the stars and counting on his fingers; Gel assumed that was some crude form of navigation.
“There!” It was Sister D who saw it first. The furrow in the grass, where the falling owl had crushed its way, rolling and tossing in a violent landing that could leave no creature alive. Feathers were scattered here and there. And at the end of the furrow, in a heap –
“Holy shit,” said Gel, reining in hard. “Is he – alive?”
Silhouetted in the silvery light of the moon, an elf stood, swaying, clutching his side. He stood beside the ruined body of the great owl. His steed’s wings were crumpled and crushed. But the elf stood. Long golden hair wild and matted. The discs of copper on his breeches and belts glowed in the light from the priestess’ torch.
They all dismounted as a unit. Gel kept his hand close to his sword. The summer wind lifted the hair at the back of his neck, and he shivered. Eerie. Lit only by the moon and stars, this bold and terrible elf, broken by the fall but standing nonetheless.
The elf groaned something and fumbled at his belt for the long, curved knife still slung there. Nutmeg grabbed the elf’s hand. Gel was pretty sure he could see bone jutting out of the elf’s other arm, which hung limp and jelly-like at his side.
“You,” croaked the elf.
“What happened to you?” Nutmeg helped Sister D ease the elf down into the grass. Gel inspected the owl, or what was left of it. Its back was broken, yes, but that wasn’t all. Long arrows had pierced it all over, pincushioning it. How long had it flown with those barbs in its belly? The arrows were of good stock. Perhaps mass-made – the lengths were the same, the cut. From one great batch of shafts, perhaps. And the feathers – vulture feather, he would swear it. Not a common fletching out here. Not in civilized lands.
The elf was moaning some word over and over. Gel stood over Nutmeg and the priestess. “What’s he saying, can you tell?”
“It sounds like he’s asking for a doctor.”
“Yeah – no, hang on -”
“Daghda,” said the elf, through cracked and bloodied lips. “Daghda. Servants of Daghda. Servants of the Red Hand. Daghda. Daghda, the Red Hand. Daghda.”
“I know not this name,” confessed Sister D. “You guys?”
“Help.” The elf’s eyes flashed open wide, bright and unfocused. “Help. They’re all dead. All. But for me. The servants of Daghda. The Red Hand. Help me. They’re here. They’re here. The Red Hand is here.”