"Hey, Shaman!" called a voice across the marketplace. "You got any cures for lizardmen?"
"Yeah," said the troll I was traveling with, "beheading, incinerating, pulverizing ... "
"I don't think that's what he meant," I said, trying not to listen to her.
" ... dropping into the ocean, skewering, kicking off cliffs ... "
"What is the malady, O Lizardman?"
The green-scaled creature blinked at me in bewilderment, but then shoved his way through the crowd of shoppers. "Malady? Oh, I'm not a noblewoman. I call myself Izzy."
" ... bashing, locking in closets, manufacturing cowboy boots ... " the troll muttered.
"No, no, what do you need a cure for?" I asked the lizardman.
"Lizardmen," he replied, confusion furrowing his scales between the eyes.
Since this was the first time in weeks anyone had asked me a question that pertained to my line of work, I was patient. A shaman is supposed to offer healing when possible, assistance when it could be given, and cry outrage at injustice. "Heal, help, or holler," is our informal motto. Those three and to tell how things are with the invisible world, a knack we Ur-Jennans have. "Are you talking about sick lizardmen?" I asked.
"No, Shaman, we got this batch of lizardmen we can't get rid of. Can you help us?" The remains of a bag of deep fried moths -- a few legs and wings -- littered the front of his weskit.
" ... hanging, dragging, making dwarvish bologna ... "
"Why do you want to get rid of a batch of lizardmen?" I was perplexed myself. Lizardmen usually live in peaceful clustered colonies, relying on one another for warmth at night and numbers for safety. Well, they're peaceful with one another, anyway.
"Because they're dead, Shaman!"
"Oh," I said, waving my hand in front of me, "I don't do hauling work. Sorry."
"Wait, Shaman!" cried Izzy, grabbing at my sleeve. He quickly put his hands behind his back when Margot the Troll placed a great purply-green iridescent hand with bright red fingernails on the hilt of her shortsword. "You can see and talk to ghosteses, can't you?"
"If they wish to converse," I nodded. "Are you saying that you're having a problem with lizardmen's ghosts?"
"Wow, you're smart," the lizardman said in awe. "How'd you know that they were a problem?"
I looked up at Margot, who returned my look without expression. "Pounding with a mace, poison, dismemberment ... " she began again.
"Listen, Izzy, why don't you show me where the ghosts are causing a problem, and I'll see what I can do." To the troll I said, "I've got to check this out. I've never heard of a lizardman haunt in my entire life. Why don't you hunt us up a good inn for the night? One with some decent beer and bread." Last night's stay had been on the rustic side, with a backyard brew so full of twigs and -- well, I'd rather not speculate -- that we had to drink it with straws.
"Forget it, Aser. You're not walking into a Lizard commune alone," she said in her deep voice.
"Nope, she's got me with her," said Izzy.
"Then knock it off with the execution lists, okay?" I hissed at Margot. "Pissing off lizardmen is not a good way to end the day."
"Don't worry, Shaman, I can't understand Trollvish, anyway," said Izzy cheerfully, setting off towards the east on the main road.
"That's Trollian, not Trollvish," growled Margot like a brick being ground against a castle wall, "and I wasn't speaking it."
"What's she saying?" Izzy asked me.
"She says she hopes we'll have luck on this venture."
"See? I just don't understand their talk. I thought she was telling me I was using the wrong word," Izzy said. "I should of had more schooling, but they had the school during the winter, and I just couldn't stay awake."
"Cold weather bothers you lizardmen a lot," I small-talked to him.
"You're right again, Shaman. The snow makes us get real slow and sleepy."
"Torpid," Margot offered.
"Is that Trollvish for slow and sleepy?" the lizardman asked, looking up at her face.
"Yes," said the troll, showing her fangs.
"I'll try to remember that word," said the lizard, hurrying along the eastern road, his tail wagging from side to side, making a oscillating line in the dust. We came to a branch where the road to the left led off to a stony range of hills, baking in the late summer sun. "That's where we're going," he said, pointing at the rocky face of the ridge.
"Looks like prime real estate for lizardmen," I commented. "Southern exposure, lots of rock to hold the heat. Nice landscaping."
"You like it? Once we put in the flower bushes, we had enough butterflies and beetles and slugs to feed two tribes," Izzy said proudly. "We got enough caves to make a double tribe, too, except for these ghosteses."
"So you don't use this cave because of the ghosts?" I asked as we paused in front of a black entry into the rocks. "You lizardmen can see ghosts?"
"Well, the femmes can. And they won't go in there if there are ghosteses."
"Is this a tomb of some sort?"
"No!" the lizard exclaimed, using his forearms to brush at his face in disgust, like a chameleon who has accidentally strolled through a spiderweb. "We don't keep our dead to use later!"
"Okay, okay," I said. "Just asking." I knew most lizardmen just take bodies and pile them in a heap downwind of a settlement and let the buzzards and four-footed scavengers clean the bones. If you're journeying through the wilderness, and see a pile of lizard bones, all you have to do is head windward and you'll find a colony of lizardmen. Good luck with them if you do. I ducked into the cave and let my eyes adjust to the darkness before I pushed the end of my staff into the soft, powdery earth.
A dozen lizard-like spectres rushed at me. "Sssshaman!" They hissed. "Where is our tribute to the Gods?"
"Hail, O Unforgotten Dead! What is this tribute of which you speak?"
"You don't know where it is, either?" gasped a lizardghost in a long robe.
"Holy crap," said one in the usual weskit and shorts that even ghostly lizardmen prefer. "Now what are we going to do, Mister Reverend-Let's-Form-a-New-Religion?" His spectral forked tongue lashed around his ghostly lizard lips in anger.
"Hey, Shaman, do you see ghosteses in there?" called Izzy from the doorway.
"Yes, Izzy, I do. They're asking what happened to the tribute to the Gods."
"The what?" said the lizard, puzzled.
"The what?" I asked the robed spirit.
"Tribute! To the Gods for safe passage into the next world!" the ghost wailed. "Where is our tribute to the Gods that we may safely journey on?"
I ducked back out of the cave and sat down on a rock. "Izzy. Tell me what happened."
He looked around the rocky cliffs and the thin forest. "I got up this morning and kept thinking of deep-fried cattypillars, and so I went to the marketplace, and after I found some cattypillars-on-a-stick, I had some mead at the inn, and won about forty gold pieces at dice, and -- "
"No, Izzy, not this morning. What happened to the people who used this cave?" I gestured toward the opening.
"Oh, them," said the lizard. "They said they learned something new from this dude who was passing through, and they started having meetings in this cave -- it was a lot smaller then, so we didn't use it much. They said we all had to bring some gold treasure if we wanted to join their new club, so most of us just told them to get stuffed, you know? So they kept to theirselves, mostly, except to brag about how they were going to be rulers someday. Then one day we heard this big ka-boom! and when we ran over here, there was smoke coming out of the cave and it was a lot bigger when the heat died down. Then there was just the ghosteses in there."
"What about the dude with the new idea for their club?"
"Never seen him again, either."
"Or the gold they collected."
I looked up at Margot, lounging at the cave's mouth. Both of us said together, "Rogue."
Back in the cave, I addressed the robed ghost, who seemed to want to be in charge. "Tell me, O Restless One, who told you to gather tribute to the Gods?"
"The High Priest of the Pantheon," intoned the revenant, steepling his hands on his head.
"Don't give me these short answers," I told the ghost. "Tell me all of it or I'll walk and you can sit here and worry about tribute until the land is zoned commercial and you find yourself haunting a chainmail sweatshop. What was his name?"
"Zolon," said the robed ghost. "Zolon the Most High. He revealed to us the wonders of the world beyond, and told us how to build an altar to the Gods and secure our place among the rulers of the next world with offerings of purest gold. He told us we chosen could not advance to the next world without the Golden Tribute. Where is our tribute, Shaman?"
"What is the last thing you remember while you still had your physical bodies?" I asked the ghosts.
"We processed into the cave, to light the ceremonial candles that Zolon gave us to attract the attention of the Gods. He lit one," said one of the ghosts wearing everyday spectral clothes, pointing at the robed one, "and here we are. I always thought maybe he was too stupid to be our chosen leader."
"Well, that's because we didn't choose him," argued another ghost.
"Ceremonial candles. And after that, you were all dead, and the cave was much bigger, and the tribute was gone." I got up and went to the mouth of the cave. To Margot, I said, "Dynamite. The rogue stole their gold and gave them dynamite to light like candles."
"That's a cure I hadn't thought of," said the troll in admiration.
I hate rip-off artists. They make their livelihood preying upon people who just don't know any better. I mean, villains can match villains and whichever one wins, the other probably deserved to lose his castle, or hoard, or weapons, or what have you. But when everyday people who are just trying to be good get ripped off, it makes my blood pressure skyrocket.
There was this blacksmith I ran across in the hill country, who used to use a rose thorn and press it into the tendon of the hind leg of a horse, and then, when the horse would repeatedly raise the leg to try to relieve the irritation, tell the owner that the horse was going lame. He'd then charge extra for a "special" shoeing, pull the thorn when he was done, and walk away with an undeserved profit. The farmer, the taxi driver, the cartman -- they didn't know shoeing, they just knew that they needed a sound horse for their work.
Or the crooks who try to get old folks to transfer all their credit and coin to a "maintenance account" so that they never have to worry again about paying bills and taxes. Sure they don't. That much is true, because in the morning all the cash is gone, and they'll never have to pay bills or taxes again while they're in the poorhouse or out on the street.
Usually lizardmen just hope for fecundity and survival and leave that in the hands of the Life that guides the world. These poor lizardfolk had been flim-flammed into gathering a treasure of gold, assured that when they died, they'd be given benefits surpassing anything they'd imagined -- if they could come up with the funds. They died believing that. The best I could hope for was damage control -- what changes in belief they had to accommodate would occur in the next world.
"The tribute has gone on before you," I said to the ghosts. "It is gone, and the Life that guides the world wonders what is keeping you."
The phantoms muttered among themselves. "But Zolon told us we had to have the tribute at hand, or we couldn't find the way."
"Look over there," I said, pointing to a spot beyond the wall of the cave. "Past the cave wall. That's the way."
"It's beee-oo-ti-full!!" said one of the spooks, and rushing away, disappeared from view. Six others laughed and followed. Soon the only one left was the lizardman ghost who wore the robe.
"You think that's the right way?" the creature asked.
"Yep," I said.
"How do you know?" he asked suspiciously, his eyes narrowing.
"Did they come back to complain?"
He peered forward, towards where his companions had disappeared, then suddenly tore his ghostly robes off and bounded into the unknown with a whoop of joy. The cave was empty, and I returned to the outside to warm up in the setting sun.
"The ghosts are gone," I told Izzy. "Tell the femmes to come check it out."
"Thanks, Shaman! Oh boy oh boy oh boy, femmes in a big new cave!" He stopped and rummaged in his belt-pouch. "What do I owe you, Shaman?"
"Two silver," I said.
"That's it, Shaman? That's not enough to buy a basket of snails."
"Enough for me," I said.
Margot and I left the environs of the lizardmen and headed west. We walked quietly for a while. "What are you thinking?" asked Margot.
"This Zolon needs a lesson taught to him."
"Yeah, I can agree with that. How are we going to teach him?"
I looked up at my scaly friend shimmering iridescent purples and greens in the sunset. "Beating the crap out of him, robbing him blind, getting a wizard to place a curse on him, framing him with the duke's daughter ... "