Strange Deaths to Follow
by Neil McGill
‘Oh, Marster Dwoirot, there’s to be a murderin’—lots of ’em, the Gods saves us all!’
Inspector Dwoirot of the Lotopian Special Investigative Police lay his day-early, sleuths-only edition of The Predictor to one side.
‘A murder you say, Mrs Voyance?’
‘Aye, Marster! But more than one; a whole rake of ’em.’ Her voice took on sinister, tremulous tones: ‘I have foreseen it.’
Inspector Dwoirot stroked the coarse fibres of his long silver-streaked beard that intermingled with the darker strands of his handlebar moustache. He eyed her beadily.
Mrs Voyance awkwardly shifted her stance, her pinking hands wringing furiously.
Lethargically, Dwoirot leant forward and cut a small shard of Battle Cake upon which he proceeded to chew, thoughtfully. ‘…Murder you say?’
‘Aye Marster, aye. Murder! I saw blood a pourin’ down the city walls, fillin’ the temples it were an floodin’ the city square ’til the whole city were awash with the stench o’ death and misery, Marster! Woe, woe!’
‘There be no hope fer us Marster! The blood of the rich shall run freely with that o’ the poor and all, all shall be… shall be… red! Oh! Woe, woe, Marster! Oh! Wo—’
Dwoirot leapt to his short stumpy feet and clasped her wildly gesticulating arms in his. ‘Mrs Voyance, steady!’
Dwoirot slapped her across the cheek; or at least would have, had he been able to reach. Instead he ended up batting her apron. ‘Calm yourself, woman!’
Eventually: ‘Sorry Marster.’
‘Now, sit yourself down, take some cake—I shall deduct it from your wages, of course—and we can discuss what facts there are in an orderly manner. Still calm? Good. Now, if what you say—’
‘What I’ve foreseen, Marster!’ She held up an empty cup to his narrow eyes and shook it vociferously.
Dwoirot shook his head sadly. ‘Mrs Voyance, I hope you do not seriously expect I, Inspector Dwoirot, to consider the random distributions of boiled plant leaves as…’ he spat the word out, ‘evidence?’
Mrs Voyance shrank away, cowering guiltily beneath his gaze.
The inspector continued, gesticulating wildly now to demonstrate the ridiculous nature of her proposition: ‘If however, what you say is to be given any credence at all, it must first be considered in the light of current knowledge and circumstance. Logic shall be our saviour, Mrs Voyance. That and proven psychic powers. Certainly not plant fibre.’
She nodded meekly, unsure as to what she was agreeing to. Dwoirot sank back into his chair, which protested at the intrusion with a loud wheeze.
Mrs Voyance watched blankly as, with a violent rustle, Inspector Dwoirot immersed himself once more in the broadsheets, and in particular, the crime columns, or pages. Indeed, nearly the entire publication.
After a few tense moments of listening to the grandfather clock mark time’s passage, she broke: ‘Need I be remindin’ the good Marster that there be afoot…’
‘Murder, Mrs Voyance?’
‘Aye, Marster. You read me thoughts. Thar’s why you be the werld’s finest…’
Dwoirot looked to her, forehead wrinkled and eyes pushing towards the ceiling.
‘Finest?’ suggested Dwoirot.
‘Aye Marster, finest. The werld’s finest, finest! Ah, you know it all you do Marster.’
‘Ah good, we have that settled then.’
He returned to his paper with a do-not-disturb rustle.
Tock… Tock… Tock…
The hearth crackled peacefully.
Mrs Voyance began to shake with urgency.
She coughed once.
Dwoirot lowered his paper. ‘Really, Mrs Voyance! You should know better than to doubt my incomparable thought processes!’
‘Indeed! Do you see before me this edition of The Predictor, dated one day from hence?’
‘Aye, thar I do, Marster. Be it the special Axe-mass ’dition?’
‘That it be.’ He coughed, plainly irritated, ‘I mean, yes, that is what it is—the…’ he forced the word out, ‘ “bumper” Axe-mass edition. The finest psychic reporters that low wages can afford compiled its very pages. This,’ he rattled the sheets proudly, ‘is their professional and considered estimations of the consequential eventualities that are most likely to occur in the time period twenty-four hours from hence thence… whence. Tomorrow to you. There is, you see, no prediction of the carnage you refer to. Not even in…’ he shuddered, ‘the “Dowsing & Divining” section.*’
‘Well… there is of course the Green Death and its ever increasing body count and, yes, there is a substantial number of predicted muggings—but all is as appropriate for this season of good will amongst men. Just a pity it doesn’t extend to the other species also. Humans. Pfah—’ He took sudden interest in the Probable Obituaries column. ‘Dawkins, eh? What the Devils will Dawkins be doing at The Pentahedrons?’ He shook his beard. ‘Anyway, where in The Abysmal was I? Ah yes. Humans! Pfah!’
Mrs Voyance looked gloomily to the wrinkled folds of her gingham apron.
‘No offence is intended, Mrs Voyance. For what you are, you are a sterling example… of your kind.’
She grinned inanely. ‘Oh thank-ee, Marster.’
‘Now, as I was saying, The Predictor. Fine paper, most exact in its foretelling of upcoming events and of course completely inaccessible to the general flotsam and jetsam.’
‘The public, Mrs Voyance. The throng to which you belong. Such information of future events must be strongly guarded and known only to an utterly incorruptible few. If it were to fall into the wrong hands, or even as is so often the case in these cosmopolitan days, feathers, paws or mandibles, the results would be… unpredictable.’
‘Now, there is, as I have said, no mention of murder, specifically. You yourself claim otherwise. Evidently, the only logical conclusion is that you, Mrs Voyance, you have read said paper and are now using your supposed fortune telling abilities in a futile deception at convincing the Grrreat Inspector Dwoirot that treachery is afoot in The Predictor. You are attempting to infer that some faction of Psychic Reporting is purposefully lying about future events.’
‘Am I Marster?’
‘Indeed, you most gravely are. And, I believe that it is you who now plan to be “a murderin’ ” as you so eloquently put it!’
‘Me Marster? No, nor I! Surely?’
‘Aye—Indeed, Mrs Voyance, you are the only person, bar myself and a selection of trusted reporters and illiterate printers that has had access to this edition. The psychic reporters do not falsify or make mistakes. The printers do not read. I most certainly do not lie. You, are the only remaining suspect.’
Dwoirot slid from his great armchair and stood to his full three feet of height, barely surpassing Mrs Voyance’s apron in altitude. ‘Mrs Voyance?’
‘But Marster, Marster!’ she sobbed, ‘It weren’t me! I mean, it won’t be me! Oh I’m confused Marster! I tell thee! Not me!’
Dwoirot shook his head sadly. ‘Mrs Voyance it is far too late for simple rhyme now.’ He pointed to the door. ‘Send for a boy. Then send him to send for Dawkins of The Guard. Dawkins will then send for someone else who may send for some manner of heavy manacles whereupon, he will send you…’ Dwoirot chuckled softly. ‘Well, let’s not discuss that just yet. However let me casually mention in an aside manner that there’s always a requirement for good cleaners in the plague districts.’
Mrs Voyance screamed shrilly and collapsed against the arm of the chair, sobbing uncontrollably.
Dwoirot propped her up. ‘Now, now, pop along, there’s a good dear. Oh, and some more black tea before you leave, if you please. Remember, you’re still under my pay until Dawkins comes, so let’s not add household mutiny to your already heinous list of crimes, shall we?’
Mrs Voyance collapsed further still, now prostrate at his feet, a gibbering, quaking wreck, her tears settling on the tail of his beard like little beaded jewels.
‘I could ’ave been wrong, Marster! I mean, it looked like blood n’all.’
Dwoirot shook his head grimly. ‘Poor little Mrs Voyance. Too late have you learned that crime does not pay. At least not consistently. Let it be a lesson you consider during your long years of incarceration: no one, no one can escape the inescapable logic of Inspector Dwoirot.’
‘Hey, babe, jus’ like I said, we ain’t askin’ ya.’
‘And, white-boy, you aren’t getting.’
‘I,’ continued Bacchus, slapping the flat of his blade against his palm, ‘beg to disagree. We’re takin’ ’em, bitch and we can do it either the…’
‘Easy way?’ suggested Flower.
‘Ya familiar with that one, right?’ Bacchus looked to his accomplice-in-evil. ‘Tell ’er ’bout the alternative, Erryl?’
Erryl stared vacantly at him for an uncomfortable number of seconds before whispering hoarsely: ‘Whassat then, Bacchus?’
‘You know! ’ he hissed.
‘Oh yeah.’ Erryl snarled in a disconcertingly animalistic manner. ‘Or the eh… the other way.’ His gold-capped teeth flashed in a caricature of evil. ‘The fugin’ not-so-easy other way. Ya jus’ don’t wanna know ’bout that way. Let’s say, it ain’t no flower…’ He glanced over at the small cue-card Bacchus was attempting to hide: ‘—trimmed path. An’ a babe wit’ a face as—’ he floundered, ‘as yours, ya gonna wanna stay well clear of that path.’
‘No shit, babe, he’s repeatin’ the truth,’ emphasised Bacchus. ‘It’s either the easy way, or we let the heavy merchandise here do any further negotiations.’
‘Yeah,’ grinned Erryl, his eyes bulging psychotically. ‘Ya dig?’
“Ya Dig? ” Bacchus shook his head metaphorically.
Flower folded her arms.
Erryl swaggered nonchalantly around to Flower’s right flank, pulling back his djellaba to reveal the black tapered sheath of his long curved blade—his “piece.”
Erryl was an ugly squat figure, a parody of short, ugly, ignorant things everywhere, but he didn’t know it and his dreadlocks and heavy-metal crowns that he flashed at every opportunity, gave the uneasy feeling that this blasphemy of nature actually believed it was a ladies man. Bacchus was the looker of the two—not a difficult achievement. He was tall and dark-skinned but ultimately flawed by a deep serrated scar that burrowed its way hungrily from his forehead, across his left eyelid and eventually down onto his chin, splitting it into a substantial cleavage. Yes, Bacchus was the looker…
Flower sighed and tugged at the cuff of her blouse until it ripped. She rolled back the sleeve, exposing her dark, near black flesh and then, staring deep into Bacchus’ eyes, curled her arm slowly to reveal a hard vascular bicep that peaked in two straining bulges. A great vein threaded its way across them like a wandering mountain road and it pulsed with the beating power of her twin hearts.
‘Zeubluedaweh! Jus’ look at that! ’
‘Cool it, Erryl! Jus’ fugin’ cool it. Neat trick, babe, but ya don’t impress me. Ya see this?’ He pointed to the dull gleam of his sword. ‘This is what impresses me. An’ you,’ laughing with only a tinge of suppressed nervousness, ‘jus’ ain’t got what it takes.’
‘You sure?’ she asked.
‘Yeah, I’m sure, mutha-fuger.’
‘I’m mutha-fugerin’ sure too,’ added Erryl.
Bacchus groaned quietly.
‘You really sure?’ asked Flower.
Bacchus increased the rate at which he slapped his piece against the palm of his hand. ‘Look, this fugin’ conversation ain’t goin’ nowhere fast and no offence, babe, but we gotta busy schedule of intimidation to keep to. So… if ya don’t mind lowering your head, we can get this matter attended to with the minimum of discomfort…’
‘To whom?’ Flower rolled up her other sleeve with leaden slowness. She flexed her enormous knuckles, cracking them loudly.
‘Look,’ said Bacchus eyeing her formidable semi-bovine form with growing apprehension. ‘We’re men of business. As such we’re willing to consider a compromise.’
‘Can it and stick a label on it, Erryl.’ Bacchus continued, his voice practically slithering towards her, ‘Yeah, a mutually beneficial compromise,’ but his sly wink to Erryl was all that Flower needed to know.
‘Alright then, what sort of compromise?’
‘What shit ya pullin’, Bacchus? The Lady ain’t gonna accept no compromise an’ well you know it. She’ll skin your butt! Or worse… mine too.’
Bacchus shot him a high-calibre glance. ‘Can it, Erryl! ’ He offered his outstretched his hands towards her, palms facing skywards. ‘Way I see it we only need a few hundred grams to keep ’er Ladyship happy. An’ I reckon ya gotta couple a K’s stashed up there. What say we jus’ take a bit off the tips?’
‘What sort of ridiculous looking creature would I be then?’ she asked. ‘You’re not seriously suggesting that you file a bit off each of my horns?’
‘Na, we’ll just file… one?’ suggested Bacchus.
‘Ya won’t feel anythang. I’ll see to that,’ added Erryl, grinning.
‘Of course I won’t feel “anythang”. They’re made of bone! But that isn’t the point.*8^) I think Croak is a scourge to society and there’s no way I’m going to permit either of you to remove any part of my horns to make it.’
Bacchus growled. ‘Right, that’s it. No more fugin’ games. Ya jus’ chose the not-so-fugin’-easy-way. Erryl?’
From the corner of her eye, she almost saw it too late. Erryl was already swinging, his arms forming a tight triangle above his head, the black silk of his tunic rustling quietly, the blade ripping through the air—and continuing, unexpectedly, past her ducked head to slice into a supporting strut of the stable. The timber shuddered and the blade flipped out of Erryl’s grasp, oscillating loudly.
‘Zeubluedaweh!’ Erryl hissed, ‘gods-damned silencer! Knew I should have brought it!’
Flower turned slowly to face him.
‘Hey… accident, babe! Sword sort of slip—’
Her fist not so much caught him in the solar plexus, as practically bulldozed through it and then back out the other side, taking his spine with it. Erryl looked to his chest and strangely felt little pain; though this was due to most of his chest no longer being present.
‘Shi-it!’ he whispered and crumpled to the hay-strewn floor where he curled into a tight, rocking ball.
Bacchus stepped forward. ‘Ya gonna wish ya didn’t do that, bitch. Right after I slice’n’dice your sorry butt.’
‘What if I charged at you instead?’
‘Ya ain’t gonna get that chance—’
Bacchus sailed back through the air, his arms clutching vainly at its substance. With a sizeable crack he hit the far wall, sank moderately into the stonework, and then slithered to the hay-strewn floor amidst a cloud of cascading plaster.
Flower bellowed with rage, aggression hormones surging uncontrollably through her system and a thick red haze saturating her vision.
Bacchus attempted to stand, but the sight of Flower clawing at the dirt with her great hooves made him swiftly lie back down again. He moaned and closed his eyes, giving the impression that he really wasn’t wanting any more.
It was then that an imposing female voice spat out from the shadows beyond the stable entrance. ‘Fools! You damnable fools! Do I have to do everything myself!’
Flower turned to the archway and peered at the stark silhouette of a tall woman with flowing dark hair and an olive gown that draped expensively into the glib lantern light of the stable. Little white sparks of magical energy flitted about where her hands probably were.
Erryl saw this also and put some effort into dragging his crumpled body a few yards further away.
Flower snorted loudly, ‘I don’t know who you are lady, but I can’t help myself when I get all worked up like this! You’d best run!’ She lowered her head once more, and drove forward with blurring speed.
The cold flash of energy hit her like nothing else ever had; a chill white that filled her mind until nothing else remained. Which didn’t take long.
Flower barely even felt the floor as she hit it.
The woman breezed into the room and stood above Bacchus, viewing him with impressive levels of disgust.
‘Open your eyes fool! No, close them again. Your very existence disgusts me! Fail me again, and I shall place the other monkey in charge.’
She turned to the other monkey—Erryl, looked at the wide pool of blood around him, and sighed. The smallest wave of her hand halted the flow. The second, with a horrible slurping sound, drove the blood back into his body. Worryingly, a few pieces of Erryl still remained.
‘The injury is severe and will take some minutes to heal. I shall be deducting the sickness time and cost of the healing spells from your wages of course.’ She looked to Bacchus. ‘When the monkey’s organs have crawled back within its body, take one horn only and use it to purchase further magical items, as before.’
‘Yes milady,’ he answered meekly.
‘Be sure to leave her undamaged. Her horns will grow back soon enough and I do not want any future crop ruined. Now, the Unicorn? I trust that even with your demonstrated level of utter incompetence, you can still manage that? Good. Now, clean this mess up!’
She didn’t wait for any confirmation to her commands and strode off to where Flower’s unconscious form lay, knelt by it, and then proceeded to stroke the long ivory horns.
Strangely, her eyes were heavy with sympathy. ‘Minotaurs…’
‘Oh, man, we really screwed up!’ Bacchus paused. ‘Again!’
Erryl looked glumly at the bare table. His stomach growled.
‘I tell ya, Erryl, we gotta pull somethin’ off—proper, or our asses ain’t gonna be worth shit!’
‘They ain’t worth shit already.’
‘Well they worth even less now.’
‘Less than shit?’ Erryl pondered this. ‘Man, that’s pretty worthless.’
‘Yeah. We gotta do sommat.’
‘We did the Unicorn,’ stated Erryl hopefully.
‘Yeah, yeah, we did the Unicorn, big fugin’ deal. The most peaceful animal ya could ever hope to meet. An’ we stole it—real-hard.’
‘Well… not really, Bacchus. Actually it was quite easy—’
‘Shit! That’s what I mean, man. Were incapable! Na, worse than that. We’re not even capable enough to be incapable. An’ we ain’t worth shit to the Lady. Erryl, jus’ look at us.’
Erryl looked. They were bruised, tired and were sitting in one of the lowliest bars that the sprawling urban metropolis of Lotopia had to offer. All they could afford to eat was some pie of dubious nutritional content and which, some thirty minutes after ordering, had still not revealed itself.
‘What we gonna do, Bacchus?’
‘What I say, Erryl, is that we kick our asses into gear. None of your low one’s mind, a good high-speed, take-no-shit one There’s some serious shit goin’ up at the castle, an’ I tell ya, Erryl, we gotta be sharp if we gonna get a piece of the action. The Lady’s up to sommat.’
Erryl looked to his sword. The blade had cost him a month’s wages and was now severely notched at the tip. He even had had to force it back into its sheath.
‘Yeah, I need a new piece, an’ our non-existent wages ain’t gonna buy one any time soon. It’s all that gods-damned Minotaur’s fault. Shit, she was fast!’
‘Yeah, but stoopid, real stoopid. If I had assets like hers that I could grind into high-grade Croak I sure as shit wouldn’t be bangin’ ‘bout in this dump.’
‘How much d’ya reckon we can get from her horn anyway?’
A shadow tripped over the table.
‘Can it, Erryl. Company.’
A lumbering form appeared before them. Specifically, a headless, lumbering form. It slapped two plates down gracelessly. Only one of them had pie on it. The creature pointed forcefully at a scrawl of paper on the bare plate.
‘One pie! Gods-damnit! How much?’ Bacchus read the bill. ‘How much! Three bronze-pieces! For one lousy mutha-fugin’ gods-damned low-down worthless piece of shit pie? Erryl?’
‘I’m temporarily light, Bacchus.’
Bacchus growled and grudgingly flipped the required sum onto the tip plate.
The great hulk lifted the plate, tested the weight in its hand, and then placed it back upon the table.
‘Ya ain’t getting a tip, man…’ He corrected himself: ‘thing.’
‘Yeah,’ growled Erryl, ‘unless it’s to keep outta our way! We’re mean coal-chewin, fire-shittin’ hombres, hungry for our…’ He looked at what was apparently layered cardboard with juice vomiting from its wedge shaped sides. ‘What the fug is this anyhow?’
‘Blueberry pie’ intoned Bacchus flatly. He looked to the bar. ‘Peeling! Get us another lousy mutha-fugin’ gods-damned low-down worthless piece of shit pie, man.’ He pointed, in what was hopefully a threatening manner, at his piece.
There was a deep grating sound like someone turning a heavy jar. Which actually, they were. Something within the jar nodded.
Bacchus turned to Erryl. ‘Hey, things is a lookin’ up already!’
The thing lumbered off, reluctantly followed by its shadow.
‘Still, I say we gotta take the ’nitiative.’
‘The what?’ asked Erryl as he brought a large chunk of steaming cardboard to his lips. He tensed, then swallowed.
‘Well, I dunno really. Nitiative. Some clever shit the Lady keeps mentionin’. Think it means “we gotta look out for things to do.” ’
‘So we can avoid ’em, right?’
‘No, Erryl,’ he sighed, ‘so we can do ’em—get in her good books.’
‘She ain’t got any. I’ve seen ’em. They’re all dusty and full of those squiggly inky things. Not a picture in sight.’
There was a sudden commotion from the centre of the bar.
‘A fight?’ asked Erryl hopefully.
‘Na, just some drunk… Fightin’ the table looks like… Table’s winnin’.’
‘Hold it, Bacchus. That ain’t any old drunk! Look—it’s an Elf.’
Bacchus looked. ‘Elf shmelf. I see ’im. So what? They’re a bronze-piece a dozen these days. Give ’em a drop of Grok and they’re down on the floor gigglin’ like Elven maidens. Elves’ jus’ can’t take their drink—‘s a well known fact.’
‘Look, last full-moon, when was watchin’ the Rockford Road for any folk new to the city. The Elf, remember? We sold him the “you know what.” ’
‘Ah,’ Bacchus smiled, memory dawning on the cold slab of his mind. ‘That Elf. Wonder if it’s hatched yet. Didn’t he have that—’
‘He surely did my man. He surely fugin’ did. What say we go over an’ get re-acquainted wit’ this Elf—an’ get ourselves a piece o’ that piece of his.’
‘He ain’t jus’ gonna give it to us, Erryl. That’s one serious piece of hardware. A three-handed sword, no less. Probably enchanted too. Fugin’ Elves.’
Erryl nodded in agreement. ‘Fugin Elves.’ He leant across the table, conspiratorially. ‘I’m not sayin’ we do it now. Wait a few hours. Sit back, let the liquor take its toll.’
There was a terrible table-crashing sound followed by a very terminal silence.
Erryl pointed slyly, ‘on him.’ He reclined into the shadow of his chair. ‘Now we jus’ sit back an’ wait for closin’ time. An’ that sword’s as good as mine.’
‘Course—goes without sayin’. Partners’ agreement.’
‘No shit?’ asked Bacchus.
‘Definitely, no shit. I tell you, closing time.’
Bacchus grinned. ‘Yer a simple fuger, Erryl. But sometimes, jus’ sometimes yer a sly one too.’
‘Know what you call this, Bacchus?’
‘Nitiative, man. Fugin’ ’nitiative.’
Yeldarb the Deathbringer sat and sobbed into his beer.
It just hadn’t been his day. It usually wasn’t. Indeed if Yeldarb had expended any effort in cataloguing the various misfortunes that had befallen him, he would quickly surmise that not only had it not been his day, but probably not even his life. This begged the immediate question as to whose life he was having, to which the only answer had to be “some really, really unlucky bugger”.
Outside Peeling’s Bar, snow fell in soft clumps. Inside, it was Dwarves and they typically fell with a far louder ‘Klunk,’ often followed by lots of little tinkling clinks as all their hard-gotten nuggets of Blue spilled onto the floor. This was usually followed by a sort of shuffling sound as large boots strategically manoeuvred themselves onto ‘unclaimed’ nuggets.
Yeldarb didn’t have any nuggets. Not even little ones. Neither platinum, gold, silver, bronze, or even that stuff the Lotopian Mint uses, graced Yeldarb’s pockets. Indeed, if you took Yeldarb and bodily shook him up and down, about the only thing that would jingle would be his loosely fitting glass eye.
This was another sore point in so much as the ‘surgeon’ that fitted it had taken a number of short-cuts in the matching process. Yeldarb the Deathbringer now found it near impossible to make his opponents quiver before his steady gaze. Marbles don’t look particularly terrifying, especially when all you’ve got for a pupil is a brightly coloured green swirly bit.
Yes, Yeldarb the Death-Bringing High-Elf Lord was half-blind, stony broke and had a worrying rash that begged some form of amputation; and his beer was finished too. He was also, to use the local vernacular for describing those who partake too readily of the indigenous brew, saturated, and on the verge of falling through his table—a table that drifted savagely before his eyes and upon occasion lunged dangerously up towards him.
‘One more drink!’ Yeldarb announced loudly and largely unheard to the thronging tavern. At least thronging as he vaguely saw it. In reality, this social black-hole was a sparsely populated place, being the sort of cheap bar that was often only used early on in the evening to prepare and build sufficient confidence before the ‘sampling’ of the more exotic destinations in Lotopia. As such it was late, the barman’s head was staring blankly and the patrons, a huddle of Dwarves fresh from the Blue Mines in the West were sizing up against a pair of old Trolls with moss creeping down their quartz-speckled shoulders.
No one really paid much attention to Yeldarb’s barely intelligible ramblings. No one that is except for the ubiquitous pair of shady characters that lurked like a murder of crows in the deep shadows of an alcove. And sitting specifically beneath a sign that clearly said, ‘NO LURKING.’ One was slumped on the table, watching in a detached manner and nudging an empty plate around the table. The other had an angular face, revealed in half-shadow and enticed the mind to conjure up all manner of vile hideousness for the hidden portion.
Yeldarb roared. ‘One more drink and that’ll be I!’
A lone dog, its tail waving before the blazing hearth, cocked an ear towards him. A previously unseen Halfling, chin resting upon the bar and straining to drag a tumbler thirstily to his lips, paused and turned to watch him. Peeling gave an eye over to watching him warily.
Yeldarb seethed at the lack of attention.
How dare they ignore the command of an Elven Lord.
He groped clumsily at his waist-belt, eventually managing to retrieve a small fist-sized bag into which he plunged his arm. In went gauntlet, forest-green sleeve, ripped elbow and leaf-brown upper arm until his entire appendage was completely immersed, giving the impression that his arm had been amputated at the shoulder. Thus followed the clanging of pots, a number of clanks, two squelches, a klaxon, and one throng-piercing squawk. At length his arm carefully retracted and with it hauled a long sagging money pouch fully twice the length of its original container. This, he emptied noisily onto the table.
A selection of water-rounded pebbles clattered out.
Yeldarb glared viscously at them and with a growl, swaggered away from the table, overturning his chair in the process.
There he swayed uncertainly. That is uncertain as whether to stay standing or to hit the floor. Instead, he chose to hit the table, which he did with the sort of fall that is usually only achievable by the sleepwalking or solidly dead.
The table’s surface flipped up into the air—and after a brief glory spin, landed in the small of his back.
Yeldarb wheezed, seethed, and with a guttural shudder sank into and, as he felt it, some measure under the floor…
This time, everyone turn his, her or even its head. Even Peeling the barman Zombie who kept his in a jar next to the pickles felt inclined to face it towards the downed figure.
There, in a pool of drool, lay Yeldarb the Death-bringing Elven Lord, occasionally muttering and blowing bubbles in the foul liquids that drifted around the island of his body like putrid coastal waters.
He stayed there for a very long time.
Peeling’s emptied and eventually closed.
Some time later, the Trolls staggered out, linked arm-in-arm and singing merrily to only their own ears. Later, as the big Lotopian bell, Huge Harry, rang III, the Dwarves rolled out, clashing their axes seasonally together.
Then, Peeling’s attempted to close again.
There the bar sat in brooding silence until its great Oaken door creaked open and the headless form of Peeling emerged, accompanied by two others. Together, they dragged Yeldarb out into the street, around the corner and then the next one also. After all, it didn’t look good, so his detached head reasoned to have one’s customers dying outside one’s bar. Someone else’s? Now that was a different matter.
Yeldarb’s sleeping form was then relieved of what items of worth it still had.
This didn’t take very long.
Peeling returned to his glasses, leaving the other pair to dissolve into the shadows of the labyrinth of surrounding alleyways.
Some more snow fell and it became quiet. The sort of muffling quiet where the snow scrunches crisply underfoot and the wind gently wanders down the streets blowing little whirlwinds of loose powder. It was the sort of quiet where it’s nice to be inside, nestling in a deep armchair and next to a blazing fire (a properly contained one of course).
Some more snow fell.
Then some more.
And yes, even more.
Yeldarb stirred, licked his lips, and cried out into the heedless street: ‘One more drink, barman!’
He rolled over, pressed his fists into the snow, and with a grunt forced his body up.
He paused and stared at the snow surrounding his knuckles. There was a thought nagging at him, one which insisted that there had been a bar of some kind. In particular, one that had contained him.
He spun around too swiftly, his eyes lagging sickly behind. Darkened doors crowded menacingly around and frosted windows glared back in an unfriendly fashion. None of them looked in the slightest familiar.
‘You!’ Yeldarb cried, fixing his gaze upon one particularly offensive door boasting a black horseshoe knocker above which two crossed axes hung festively.
‘What?’ he shouted, cupping a hand behind his delicately pointed ear. ‘Jus… just you say that one more—no, no… that’sh it. You’ve… had your lasht warming. You’ve asked for…’ Yeldarb paused at a momentary loss. ‘It!’
With a movement practised a thousand times, Yeldarb scrabbled for his sword, Tantamount the Terrible—the very same that had severed the head of the immortal hound of Al’saesh’own. The same that had diced the Offensive Prunes of Y’haun and the same that was now very, very gone. He groped again about his shoulder area seeking that familiar bulky twisting-serpent handle. With panic he checked his immediate surrounds and then, with growing desperation, his pockets, pants, boots and even sock-type-things with the nice padded bits on the soles. Finally, he checked between his toes. Nowhere could he find his favourite six-foot administer of pain.
He’d been robbed.
Yeldarb stood, his body shaking with anger, his fists clenched, and his knees slowly sinking to the scuffed snow that glittered about him. With an in-elven sob he collapsed onto the thinly veiled cobbles with a solid crack.
Four lonely chimes rang out.
It was then that a window of undetermined origin opened and from which issued a pot’s worth of liquid that landed with a slop upon his shoulders. He stiffened as the warm waters trickled down his back, through to his tunic and then horribly into his ultra-thermal battle-undergarments.
Slowly and cringing with each material-wringing movement, he turned to face the perpetrator, whereupon he received the very last of it.
Square in the face.
Brother Bob sat in the near complete dark that lurked in his cylindrical and excruciatingly small room and thought of further ways to avoid looking at the book. He’d been doing this for hours. The sun had begun, fresh and young at one corner of the thin slit of his window, dawdled across to the other and then vanished. The sky darkened and little pinpricks of solitude twinkled into view. Then the snow began to fall, and with every passing moment tomorrow came inexorably closer. A tomorrow that was horribly punctuated by the presence of an exam. It would be Bob’s first. It would probably also be his last.
The occasional screams, the clashing of swords, the twanging of double-barrelled crossbows and the merry thud of axes that typically defined evening in Lotopia had faded away now and the sparsely gas-lit streets sprawled dark and silent beneath his third storey window. Blindly he felt for the pages, decided that a degree of visibility would be required for the anticipated information download from parchment to retina and so… lit a candle.
This positive action accomplished, Bob felt that he was progressing well in his studies. Certainly enough to warrant a few moments of panic. Bob could turn panicking into an observable Olympic sport with its own skill-set of honed body movements. If you could sweat on demand, butt the wall with frustrated impunity and cry to an extent that you required a change of clothing and an intravenous drip then you’d be in with a chance against Bob.
After a while, he’d slapped himself about enough to realise that only a clear mind would prevail and so with a firm sniff and a final rub at his eyes, he turned the page—though he knew the next, as with every one after the first, would be blank.
Bob stared willingly at the naked age-stained paper, the corners of which curled up, crisp and yellow in an intimidating: “I’m far too clever for you to read ” manner.
And then, he went back a page and after a finger-licking pause, forward again. This went on for some time until the corners were quite moist. Huge Harry chimed I, II, III, and finally IIII[*] and with each passing I, his blinks became more laborious and the bit where they stayed completely shut, longer. The panic attacks he fitted in whenever he could.
The problem was, you see was that Brother Bob was a Cleric[†]—or rather wanted to be one. Unfortunately though, Bob had a bit of a problem. You see, Bob had the memory of a… well, whatever those things are that can’t remember much. Now, Clerics are required to train in a vast number of herbal, homeopathic, morphic and karmic healing practices—basically anything alternative. Except that in Lotopia there isn’t actually anything else to alternate against (proper medicinal techniques depend more upon the skill of the saw than the scalpel). Anyway, above all the ‘techniques’ that Clerics learn, by far the most powerful is their ability to weave[‡] magic.
Now, such is the vast array of spells available to your modern reality technician, that a degree of specialisation is required. Hence Wizards stick to zapping, Witches to diabolic potions and child abduction, and Clerics healing with the odd bit of praying—exciting stuff.
Now, your typical Cleric begins their sad calling with a starter pack of spells like ‘Purify Yon Muddied Water ’ or ‘Tame That Goat ’, the sort of spells that can’t cause too much damage. Only after years of memorising and re-memorising this infernal stuff do they actually get taught any of the useful bits—the dangerous spells. These are the spells that when you eventually find them out, you’re usually too buggery-old to actually want to do anything fun with them. The reasoning though is probably quite sound. Give an undergraduate the ‘Summon Tsunami ’ spell and they’d probably use it for a bit of surfing.
The very first spell though, the ultimate pre-requisite and the bit where Bob was stuck, is the ability to ‘Read Magic .’ Without this, magic either appears as unintelligible squiggles or it just doesn’t. Bob fell into the “it just doesn’t” category and as he also singularly lacked the ability to memorise this very first, most basic of spells, he was also singularly stuck.
‘It’s just no use Xavier, no use at all,’ he consoled to his night-black stuffed raven. He patted its soft feathers affectionately.
Xavier was to be Bob’s familiar—a sort of pet for Witches, Wizards and… to be honest, not usually Clerics. Nevertheless, he liked Xavier and as Bob didn’t really care overly much for tradition so therefore Xavier would be the first Cleric familiar. Of course familiars are often alive—a small problem, so soon as he could read that black-magic-market scroll he’d bought, ‘Resurrect Ye Dead ,’ Xavier would be back in business.
Bob looked pleadingly at the pages before him.
‘I’m going to fail,’ he announced firmly, ‘unless…’
With the inspiration of a desperate man, Bob realised what he had to do. It was all so simple, a mere matter of chance. Random permutations of letters collected into occasional paragraphs. Bob hastily began to calculate the odds: Using lower-case only… just vowels and the most common letters… no punctuation. Now the odds against my placing each letter, in the correct sequence, for an average length of an exam paper would be… more or less, but probably a bit less than… than… Nil!
With a sigh, Bob realised he had more chance of spontaneously evolving into the lesser-spotted sabre-toothed penguin.[§]
Bob slumped back onto the table, his fists clenched and arms trembling with panic.
Lotopia was Bob’s last and only chance at becoming a Cleric. It was also the only city in this continent that still taught his course; though reluctantly at that. Other more important callings had entire universities with all their associated trappings such as libraries, research facilities, and even toilets. The Clerics had a tower, which was a funny name for it, for tower was precisely what it didn’t. It was a fairly squat, unimposing affair of few levels, and hired from the World-Wide-Wizardry! University (which lay siege to them on all sides) at frankly bugger all expense.
It was leaky, cold, about fifteen feet in diameter and had a worrying tendency to sway in even the lightest of breezes. Its walls were streaked with slime and it crumbled constantly,[**] often to the alarm of those caught unawares within its debris-zone. Other buildings of lesser wear had mighty wooden timbers propping them up. This one, the university wanted rid of, and if any Clerics were lost in the process…
Throughout all this digression, Bob remained, slumped on his scroll-strewn table.
‘Keep the noise down you bar-steward!’ shouted Acolyte Coól from the level above, straining to make himself heard over the general din of his own party.
Acolyte Coól was throwing a pre-post-exam-party, which was, by the ear-stomping sound of things, going riotously well. So well that Bob could barely hear himself slump.
‘Belt-up Bob!’ he hollered through the ceiling.
It was now common fare for Acolyte Coól to ‘ask’ Bob to keep the noise down. He found it amusing. The day would come, Bob vowed, when he’d throw his own party and teach Acolyte Coól the intricacies of the ‘Inflict Pestilence ’ spell.[††]
Bob looked demurely up at his ceiling as it bulged in a ‘ ’tis-a-design-feature-honest-guv’nor’ fashion. Individual feet could almost be made out as they groovied-on-down to the cries of some tortured soul and the a-rhythmic pounding of numerous large ethnic drums. Quite how Coól managed to fit so many people up there Bob didn’t like to think, though there were rumours it involved some manner of lubricant.
Bob stared out through his window, at the contrasting peaceful scene of the blanketed cityscape and at the spiralling snowflakes. The dark silhouette of the Eastern extent of the Manky Mountains was barely visible but many more leagues further on even than that lay his home village of Smallton. There, his parents on this, the eve of Axe-mass would be just opening his mail and would yet again be delighted to discover that their son had completed another level of spell-casting proficiency and was fast on his way to becoming a legend in his own quiet humble way. Some day soon he might have to tell them the truth as with each fresh batch of exaggerations it became increasingly difficult to think what else he could become. God-hood was a mere two letters off.
He squeezed his eyes shut and tried to imagine the axe-throwing contests they’d be having with the local Dwarf-folk. There’d be acres of food of course, barrel loads of Granite Ale, presents and games—oh! The games, he laughed. Bob’s particular favourite was bludgeoning the provincial Vampire Lord with the garlic bread. Always a popular one that.
Boom! Boom! Ta-ta-ta-ta! Boom! Ooo! Boom! Ta-ta-ta went the noises from up-pipe.
He sobbed. I’ve got to get out of here!
And then, the ominous happened. The “it can’t get any worse.” The music, the moaning, the smashing of glasses and the occasional raucous war cries. They all stopped. Bob sat breathing softly, tense upright on his stool, ears straining. The sound he least wanted to hear was that of someone creeping down the pipe.
Nope, he thought, definitely didn’t hear that.
They had a habit of doing this you see. It began when Bob first started his studies last term. It was called “initiation” then. For the next uncountable weeks, it was still “initiation.” After that, it just became plain old “fun” and typically involved dragging Bob to the top of the tower and sort of leaving him there. Usually naked. There he would stay, bound to the lightning rod, praying for clement weather and waiting for the morning where the head Cleric, with a sigh, would untie him.
From outside came the sound of muffled cursing.
Didn’t hear that either. Bob stood up and peered out of his window. Two stories below rustled the foliage of the Ou’cha Tree, a dendroid renowned for its sticky-puff spike-balls that clung practically to anything and would itch and burn like an army of ferrets beneath the skin.
Bob assured himself: Just the wind.
Keep it quiet he’ll hear us, hissed someone.
‘Sorree! ’ said hiss #2.
‘Someone got a rat up here? ’ asked #3.
‘Stop the chatter and make it snappy! ’
‘What, the rat? Look, I just want to say that cruelty to ra—’
‘Shurrit, the lot of you. Now, has someone got the “Gleasons Irremovable Glue™”? ’
‘Me-ee, and the feathers too; but the rope’s so heavy!’ said #3 or possibly #5.
#4 remained ominously silent.
‘What about the rat? ’
With that, Bob calmly collected his scrolls, removed the sheet from his bed, and proceeded to wrap it about himself. He scrambled onto his desk, paused briefly for a panic attack and then wriggled out onto the thin window ledge; and listened. There he sat, hoping against all the improbabilities that something would happen to prove he’d misheard all along.
‘Look, about this rat.’
‘Sod the bloody rat! ’
Bob didn’t really worship any particular deity. That choice was reserved for his graduation. As a precaution, he mouthed silent prayers to the three he thought most relevant to his current situation; Kindler, the God of improbable luck, Posterius, the large-bottomed God of soft landings and Zeubluedaweh, the catch-all God of “Just About Everything.”
‘Ah, so there is a rat then! ’
‘Look, just shurrit about this goddamned mother-fuging rat! ’
The drainpipe was creaking violently now. There was giggling too and a terrible acrid smell of glue. With dread, he watched the gleam as his door handle gently turned.
Bob cursed, Were-Rats! *
He edged forward to get a better view of the drop. Which, he thought, was the branch I landed on last time? It’s bound to have less spike-balls…
Bob’s door burst open and a half-dozen tinsel clad and rubber axe wielding forms fell in and mostly upon each other.
‘Brother Bo-oo-ob, we’ve got a present for yooo-oo-oo!’
Bob gritted his teeth and slid off the ledge. ‘Shii-iit!’
Five achingly lonely clangs rang out across the snow-heavy streets as the world glowed in a soft white duvet of tranquillity and nicety. The wind blew in gentle waves, cresting with fresh flurries of snow and accentuating the crisp silence between each bout and it seemed as if the whole city was at peace. Which it was. Mostly.
Yeldarb wasn’t and he seethed at it all. He seethed at the sagging terraced rows dusted like little iced cakes and at the guildhalls festooned with chains of faerie lights and party balloons. Most especially, he seethed at the Elfindel’s fortress, its sculpted colonnades looming beyond the outermost city walls, tall and majestic. A symbol of power that dominated the vista and Yeldarb’s mind.
He’d had it all, Yeldarb; the power, the fortress, the balloons. Of course, that had been in happier times, in Elizium—the land of the perfect-eared Elven-folk. Even the very mention of its name was enough to make his soul weep. Elizium, the land of the perfect. Elizium, the land that didn’t quite want those who weren’t racially pure Elves.
Poor Yeldarb was brimming to his pointy ears with hate and resentment—almost to overflowing. Almost, in that he still had space for one more drop of hate; for the unknown bugger that was now the master of Tantamount the Terrible—his sword!
A flutter of wings broke his concentration as a pigeon landed with a graceless flop on the ledge beside him, displacing a minuscule mound of snow that slipped off into the blackness. It jerkily twisted its head to face him and began cooing softly.
‘Piss off!’ he growled and batted it the same way as the snow.
He leant forward, his hands gripping the loose slates of the clock steeple. Below, he could see the sweeping hands of Huge Harry as they travelled inexorably under his dangling feet. Beneath this, three hundred feet of smooth stone led in the sheerest of drops to the Rock Fountain. A fountain which at this time of year was devoid of its steady flow of lava and consequently lay steeped in a dark basalt detritus.
Deathly hard, he thought.
Snow sat heaped upon his knees and all about him, more fell like drifting stars. He arched his neck and stared up into the overwhelming blackness. Flakes drifted down from the infinities and spiralled to land in and moisten his eyes.
Yeldarb let go of the slates.
Bob wandered cautiously through the darkened Lotopian streets, something which he would have never considered doing had it not been a public holiday—mugging being one of the guild trades that took the Axe-mass break. His journeys carried him towards the brightly gas-lit centre and in doing so took him past some of the city’s highlights, but never quite as quickly as he would have wished. In particular, the early morning deliveries from the fisheries to Dingus’ Dog-Foods produced one particular range of smells that he could well have done without.
By the time the lumbering shadow of Huge Harry appeared, Bob began to feel rather unusual. For the first time since his arrival in Lotopia, he felt his permanent veil of panic lift as though stepping outwith from the influence of… something. He looked back in the direction of the university and felt apprehension and dread clawing at his face. Turning away again, a wash of peace welcomed him. With a shrug of his shoulders, he wandered on.
A while later he paused beneath the archway of a Zeubluedawehian Temple and gazed up at a statuette of the multi-limbed, multi-headed, multi-sexed God of Gods. Within seconds, a cloaked acolyte, decked in seasonal tinsel, scuttled out towards him. He carried a swinging gas-lamp and a long brush, which he used intermittently to wave aggressively at Bob and then dust his just-trodden steps. With a sigh, Bob sloped dejectedly off into the snow.
Even the Gods hate me, he thought.
The town square was empty as he crossed it and its cobbles resounded with each of his slow lonely steps as he drifted aimlessly towards the rock fountain. Its high lava spouts stood like great black orchids, sadly idle, and gleaming in the moonlight, casting a monstrous spider shadow. The lower pool was heavy with debris and gave off a residual heat that Bob welcomed as he shuffled along its glassy perimeter-wall. Above watched Huge Harry, his mighty hands approaching V.
Bob took a deep breath of the chill air and felt the last muggy thought leave him. He surveyed the deserted square: so peaceful. Much quieter than it will be… tomorrow. Dread began crawling towards him like a hideous limb-less creature that had been chasing him at a relentless slow pace. The exam!
Hurriedly he took out his bound selection of scrolls, laid them upon the fountain wall, and with a crack of his knuckles, prepared to attack. The first page lay before him, taunting and egging him on. He could almost hear its taunt:
Come on. Read me! Just you try it! I’m ready for you! You’ve no chance matey! You might as well just pack up your scrolls and scuttle on back to Smallton. I’m sure they’ve got lots of use for a Cleric with your skills—cleaning out barns, disinfecting sheep…
Bob shook his head. Keep a grip man! Focus.
The light beneath Huge Harry was almost non-existent but as the moonlight wove through breaks in the snow-heavy clouds, it afforded just enough. He peered at the preamble to the ‘Read Ye Olde Magic ’ spell. Confused, he shook his head and looked at it again. This isn’t right, he thought. I can read it!
And here’s what it said:
READ YE OLDE MAGIC™
We at Magesoft™ hope you enjoy the use of this product. However, as with all high-technology products, death and maiming are realistic possibilities. To avoid any unexpected danger, please adhere to the following guidelines:
ü 16-32 prayer sessions.
Clear conscience and no curses outstanding.
Magesoft™ Reality 9.8® installed into spellbook.
WARNING: dire side-effects possible with versions prior to Magesoft™ Reality 9.8®
This presented Bob with an immediate problem. He only had 15 prayer sessions at the Temple of Generic Gods under his belt. Would it be enough?
Sensibly, he decided not to brave the possible reality side effects of spell-casting without the proper religious pre-requisites, and so uttered a quick sincere prayer. Of course, there was always the worry that none of the Gods were listening. This happened sometimes,* and on Axe-mass Eve especially, it was likely they were off partying somewhere in the Abysmal. And so, he uttered another quick one.
Ah, but then, what if the God that listened to the first prayer was different from the one that heard the second? Generally speaking, about the only thing each of the Gods had in common, was an intense hatred for each other. As such, prayers not directed at any one specific God often had the chance of creating a conflict, resulting in a possible curse. Polytheism can be a dangerous business for the modern Cleric.
Bob watched the sky for a few tense moments, aware that at any instant a rain of frogs or ball-lightning might be hurled down upon him (but hopefully not both at the same time, electrified frogs not being much good to anyone). Thankfully, nothing untoward happened and so, clearing his throat and crossing all fingers and toes, he initiated the spell-proper by mumbling its first words…
Little dazzling flecks of neon-green and red anti-magic exploded from the age-yellowed page, drifted around for a bit and then puffed out of existence. Static congregated and crackled in the air around him and slowly, his hair rose.
This is more like it!
Each successive word brought forth fresh sparks that danced around his tracing hand until he was awash in brilliance.
The last word beckoned, wriggling beneath his gaze, its lettering sparking in eager anticipation.
‘Jsr! ’ he proudly proclaimed. The scroll fizzled briefly, the letters colour-shifted through the visible and then-some spectrum and then… then… futzz.
‘Futzz? Does that mean you worked?’ he asked. The scroll looked back at him impassively.
‘Gods,’ he sighed, ‘might have known it wouldn’t work. Goddamned second-rate magic-ware.’
With a stunning lack of faith akin to one who has worked in the magical field for many years and long ago realised that “nothing ever works,” Bob picked up one of his other scrolls fully expecting it to be blank.
‘Crikey!’ was about all he could think to say.
The scroll was covered in a mosaic of arcane lettering and symbols. Most were idle but some of the more powerful symbols danced beneath his gaze, trying to entice him into uttering them. However, there were also the occasional blank patches, scattered in the midst of the more complex sections. These glared at him sulkily, not wishing to reveal themselves until they had full respect for the scroll-owner—which, as they were familiar with Bob, could be a while.
With trepidation, he unfurled some of the other scrolls. Each one, to a varying degree, had text—and he could read it too! His long spindly fingers danced in excitement over the flowing magical ink. Which to try first?
Some, he reasoned weren’t much use. To be more honest, they all weren’t much use, but one or two were slightly less useless than the others. He picked one of the simpler, least useless spells and cleared his throat, ready to boom the unnatural words.
‘Noegip Hteyffulf li’l a Htetaerc…’
The scroll rattled in his hands, anti-magic spilling off and onto the smooth cobbles where it mixed with the snow, causing it to crackle and boil off into the air. With a ‘pop!’ a little spherical universe came into being. It drifted, detached from this reality by its own magic-anti-magic shell, which moments later caught itself existing and decided it probably shouldn’t—and to cut a long technical story short, disappeared to reveal:
‘Coo?’ went the pigeon.
With a soft thump, it landed on the cobblestones and began to peck hungrily at the snow in an attempt to discover its edibility factor.
‘Way to go!’ cried Bob and lunged, hands grasping, towards his creation which wisely took to its wings and fluttered off into the sky.
Bob watched its desperate flapping struggle against the weight of its own little fat body as it crept into the air; and became eventually just another speck in the snow strewn sky somewhere beneath the XII in Huge Harry’s face.
‘Wow!’ he spoke softly—and the clock rang V.
What’ll I try next? he thought. Slowly, his eyes turned to that black-magic-market acquisition that had cost him over half his grant: ‘Resurrect Ye Dead ’
He breathed with awe.
Only half the letters were visible, but he decided to try it anyway and so he fished Xavier from the folds of his robe. Carefully, he placed the stuffed bird upon the fountain wall and took one step backwards, unfurling the scroll he went.
Bob coughed and cleared his throat.
Xavier didn’t quite know what hit him. Well he was dead anyway, which was small mercy for his frail small desiccated body was practically atomised by the heavy body that landed upon him with a sound resembling, at best approximation:
Lava-glow gleamed in the narrow suspicious eyes of Old Toby, overseer of the Axe-mass Stoppage. Before him hulked a thick tapered column of coarse granite with an inset lock and which, at the insertion of his key, would slide deep into the bubbling magma and, with any luck, block and redirect its flow. It was a process that resulted in the churning lava fissures being channelled off to the city where they’d be used to generate free hot-water throughout the holidays. In some cases, very hot.
This act of uncommon generosity as enforced by the Dwarf elders was understandably popular with the Lotopians but bitterly resented by the ‘ordinary-Dwarves-in-the-mine’ that no longer had their much beloved lava-jets to gnaw away at the rock. As such, the mines were effectively closed with the exception of a determined few that persevered and resorted to picks or other means of rock-abuse.
Closing the mines was akin to asking the average (of which there were many) Dwarf to do without breathing (which given the choice and a few rusty coins, they’d probably do). However, the closure was almost a necessity. You see, Dwarves work so furiously and are in such dire competition to find profitable veins that they rarely, if ever, rest and certainly never take holidays. Thus if it weren’t for the occasionally enforced stoppage, the Dwarvish race would steadily wear their grubby, grimy, swollen little currency-greedy mitts to the bone; bones, which they’d then try to sell.
Toby, Old Toby, or “That old bugger still alive? Toby” was no longer able to eke out a living in such a manner. His years in the mines were long over and his lungs, lined with decades of rock dust, meant that even simple existence was a chore. In lesser-civilised races, Toby would have been left outside the proverbial cave to be “taken care of ” in the night by a passing leopard. The Dwarves though, with their immense respect for their elders, found him a regular duty in keeping with his meagre abilities. It kept everyone happy and besides, leopard’s were hard to come by in these parts.
Toby had performed The Stoppage religiously and with the minimum of pomp and ceremony for the past sixty-ish years and intended to continue doing so until his expected life span of four hundred and fifty was fully reached. He was a plodding careful figure whose natural suspicions of almost everyone and everything had helped him through the war years—all two hundred of them*—and resulted in Toby being rendered the eldest of his kind for a good number of mountain ranges. This was a claim he tenaciously intended to keep.
Toby fumbled around in his tool bag and produced The Stoppage Stopper. It glinted cobalt blue in the smoke-heavy air and he sighed with contentment as he surveyed the high quality workmanship of yesteryear. Aye, he thought, those were the days.
He squinted at the cavern around him. Molten lava surged through it in swelling waves, cresting crimson and casting fiery shadows about the looming ash-swollen rocks. Noxious fumes billowed in misty columns and the parching heat made breathing painful—and Toby was in paradise. Here, he was literally at home, as it was in places such as these, deep in the private parts of mountains, that Toby had spent the majority of his youth. Those forty or so years he spent chinking away at hunks of super-hard-granite searching for the odd fleck of Blue—and occasionally, earning a piece of gold or very rarely platinum. Of course, metal was real metal in those days too and not the watered down stuff they used now.
It was these many years of chinking that now, at this unlikely moment, was going to play a crucial role. For Toby you see, was quite, quite deaf and quite, quite unaware of the two figures that had loped down the corridor noisily behind him and were now standing but a breath away. Fortunately for them, Toby’s sense of smell was also somewhat diminished.
Something, Old Toby reasoned, wasn’t quite right…
He leant forward, running his small stumpy fingers across the grain of the granite plug, his eyes ground shut with concentration. With a start they flicked open, a keen fury shining within. Down the steps carved into the naked rock he hopped and at each landing, knelt to scrutinise the surface.
‘Sabotage!’ he hissed as he glared at a collection of unsanctioned chisellings that had reformed the massive stone wedge. They were small, almost unnoticeable at the summit but here, down close to the churning lava as it rolled off into the mines, they were… just as unnoticeable. To a Dwarf though, and especially one as pedantic and keen eyed as Toby, the smallest imperfections shone out clearly.
With a long whistle he assessed the damage and then flopped onto his belly to watch the lava as it rolled off into the tunnel beyond. Almost out of vision and just above the surface he saw: A hole, by Diggitup!
Very briefly, Old Toby could see it all. The granite plug when sunk would act like a dam and gradually, as the level rose, lava would flow off into that hole.
He jumped to his feet.
But who would want to steal all that lava? And Why?
Old Toby staggered forward, his head resounding within his helmet like the clapper of a great bell. In a daze, he turned around to face his attacker.
‘By the Gods! My head! Why…? Who are you young fella!?’
‘Father fugin’ Axe-Mass granddaddy mutha-fuger.’
Toby stumbled backwards, his feet perilously close to the lava that ate at the basaltic shore. He didn’t need a third “Bonk” The ashen soil crumbled and Toby tumbled backwards into the steaming acrid and very molten rock. He thrashed about for a bit, but ultimately sank beneath the surface in a loud “glurp.”
‘Granddaddy mutha-fuger? What sorta dumb-ass evil-shit thing was that to say?’
‘I thought it sounded mean, man!’
‘Come on, I’ll buy you a pint of Grok.’
The two figures looked at the steaming broil.
‘Merry Axe-mass old timer.’
‘You sick shit, Erryl!’
Young Toby stared willingly at the little, rounded stone slab that was the means of entrance to the Toby cave-hold.
Really Young Toby was snoozing softly, his head resting on the dinner table, short beard rustling with each breath.
Mrs Young Toby sat at the far end of the table, glaring at the long-cold broth. With irritation, she tugged at the soft hairs of her beard.
Toby Toby, or Double Toby, who had yet to acquire a proper prefix of his own, thumped a wooden teething-axe idly off his stone-hewn high-chair.
The fire roared and crackled and Singular Toby, the family mutt, whined softly at the great empty rocking chair of Old Toby.
‘ ‘E’s never been this late before Young Toby,’ stated Mrs Young Toby who had an acquired gift for observing the readily apparent.
‘Aye,’ agreed Young Toby. Youngest Toby slept on. (Singular) Toby whined and took to idly gnawing on an Orc bone.
‘An’ this the eve of Axe-mass too,’ she continued.
‘An’ it bein’ late ’n’ all.’
‘An’ him bein’ a Dwarf ’n’ all.’
‘A’right wife,’ he said with exasperation, ‘I’ll go an’ look.’
‘You’re a goin’ to look then?’
‘Aye wife, to look.’
‘For Old Toby then?’
‘Aye wife, now, by the good God Diggitup!’
‘Ah, yer a good Dwarf Young Toby Toby.’
Young Toby walked to the axe stand by the door, took his big double-headed three footer and slung it across his shoulder (flat edge on of course). He turned and looked at the sorry sight of their Axe-mass feast. It was a meagre display of food if ever there was one, but it had all the essentials for a good Dwarven celebration. There were rock cakes a-plenty for the young ‘uns, Black Ale for Mrs Toby, and some good old extra tough battle-bread (so tough indeed that you’d need a chisel to carve a slice). There was even some of that sulphurous old cheese that Old Toby was so partial to.
‘Good luck dad!’ squeaked Double Toby, and promptly fell asleep.
With a sigh, he opened the door and stomped off into the torch-lit tunnel beyond.
Mayor Opus, stared at the replica of himself.
It stared back.
It was not a reflection for it had dimensions.
It was not a picture, for that would flatter and smooth his wrinkles.
It was though, complete in every imperfection. The layering of his coat, his buttons shining black, shaped like little hot-cross-buns. His boots, polished, gleaming and scuffed, all, all in exactly the same manner.
Slowly, Opus raised his sleeve, cardinal-red, and sagging with the wealth of its material.
Likewise, did his other self, the cufflinks glinting in the gaslight that crept from the balcony behind. The engraved ‘O’ of his links, one with the gold slightly worn, allowing the black to glare through: Identical.
Opus pointed, his finger trembling.
His other self, with the same intonations and pauses, repeated his words. It even managed his unique seesaw accent, with that same suppressed touch of rurality.
Opus, his mouth hanging open, staggered back towards the shield of his desk. He clutched its metal rim and crept around it, at all times maintaining his wide gaze upon… himself.
It remained standing, stock-still, the cruellest of smiles slithering across its face. Its eyes were fixed, unchanging, and malevolent.
Opus sank slowly into his chair, his hands hidden from view and drifting with painful slowness to that small drawer only he knew of. A short stabbing blade was in there, hidden inside a Zeubluedawehian Bible and he needed it now, in his hand, ready for a move that he probably wouldn’t be brave enough to do.
His other self’s malicious smile was unwavering.
With matched slowness it produced a single item an inch long, metal, and delicate. It waved the object mockingly before him. ‘This what you’re after?’
Opus coughed violently, a sudden dizziness taking him. ‘How did you know about…? What are you?’
The figure stood silent, grinning. It took a step closer.
‘Stay back!’ threatened Opus half-heartedly. His bronze hand-bell lay within easy grasp. A single ring would summon Mr Swindler, his manservant. This demonic blasphemy of his existence would not, could not, reach the bell before him. However, its merciless eyes followed his, watching… knowing.
Sweat trickled down Opus’ brow, his neck collar tight around his damned thick neck. His heart pounded, ringing in his ears, forcing absolute stillness, choosing his moment.
With a spring he flung himself across the desk, grasped the bell by its thick stubby handle and rung for all his might; but there was no sound.
The bell dropped pathetically onto his desk—its tongue clearly removed.
It took another step closer. ‘I believe I have you Mayor Opus.’
‘I have men you know,’ said Opus with a trembling voice. ‘At the door. Guards. Lots of them. The slightest rise of my voice—’
‘—will bring them running? I think not.’
‘I do not joke sir,’ insisted Opus.
‘Indeed. However, you lie with impunity; such is your profession. There is, as there always is, no one outside. You believe in the inherent loyalty of your people and that they love you. To have guards would place a barrier between yourself and them. As such, you have no guards—no one, to save you.’
It smiled cruelly at him.
‘Oh, and I gave Mr Swindler the evening off. He was most grateful. I just thought you’d like to know that.’
Opus glanced with exceeding casualness at the door. He would not be able to reach them in time—this thing would only require a few steps to intercept. And then, he thought, what would it do?
Softly and with a calm stride it took the chair Opus kept by the balcony and dragged it towards the table. With a blur, his other self spun it around so the back faced him and then sat astride it, forearms hanging over its rim, chin resting upon them, viewing him with unreserved and callous humour.
‘It is a funny thing,’ it said, ‘that in the planning of a murder one must first devise a necessary means of disposal of the body. In this particular case, your body.’
Opus gasped and clutched at his shirt collar.
His other self continued. ‘Thankfully, due to the peculiar situation, you need only be… replaced. No one will look for you—your body, I should say. You shall simply be, not missing.’
Opus coughed and stammered. ‘My body? Then you intend to murder me?’
Opus sighed with relief and sank into the olive-green leather of his chair; it creaked luxuriously.
‘I have already murdered you.’
Opus coughed violently. ‘What!… H…How?’
‘A simple poison. In your drink. Your very consumed drink. You took it some minutes ago and it is now quite enmeshed with your essence.’ It laughed. ‘Listen. I can almost here it sloshing about in your veins! Just another minute now, seconds really and…’
‘But… why? Why me? What have I done to you… whatever you are? I’m a good man, believe me.’
The cough now became rasping, his face reddening. Opus staggered to his feet, clasping at his collar, tearing the button off, and casting it aside.
‘Oh I know you are, which is precisely why I chose you to… replace. Your very likeability will allow me to carry out many heinous crimes before I am discovered. I could tell you it all, you know. The whole plan, well, at least the bits I’m aware of. After all, who really cares? Here you are, and there you go. You simply won’t have the time to tell anyone. However, I shan’t tell you anyway. Simple as that. You see, I am evil to the core. Incurable, utter evil. But always polite, as I hope you observe in these, your final moments.’
Opus fell to his knees now, his eyes wide and bulging. With a cry he rolled over and collapsed onto his back, his chest shuddering with approaching finality.
‘One last thing though, to allow your spirit to rest in peace, so to speak. The lady Eroica? The beautiful, sweet, unfaithful Lady Eroica, your wife…?’
‘Unfaithful…? No!’ he croaked.
It stood now, towering above Opus as the very last breath seeped from his body and a desperate willing took him for one more, no matter how small, intake of air….
As the void engulfed him, a few last words persisted.
‘I shall… take care of her.’
Yeldarb twitched once and then was absolutely still amidst a rapidly spreading puddle of red ooze that soaked and stained the snow about him. The snow, regardless, continued to fall in soft drifts and did its best to contrast with the sudden violence of his impact.
‘You flattened Xavier! You utter bastard!’ screamed Bob.
Bob pointed his finger accusingly at him. ‘Couldn’t you have chosen somewhere else for an Axe-mass suicide dive? Hmm? I mean, look!’
Bob spun around, gesticulating at the emptiness of the square. ‘I mean look! Nothing everywhere. Deserted! Moreover, the one place you choose to land is… is… on my bloody pet raven! What’ve you got to say for yourself? Eh? Speak up?’
Yeldarb’s corpse, thankfully, remained unresponsive.
‘Bloody selfish that’s what you are. So typical. Speak up man! Anyone would think you were dead or something…’
Bob fell silent.
‘I suppose that landing did look rather sore.’
He looked around the deserted city square that sat about him in its muffled stillness. ‘Dead huh?’
No-one around. No one to call for help. It’s all down to you Bob.
With a resigned sigh, Bob climbed over the thick glassy lava fountain wall and stepped into the still warm basin, loose stones of which scrunched beneath his sinking steps. He sat next to Yeldarb’s flattened form, lying face down in the snow. With a grunt of effort, Bob grabbed his shoulder and turned him, leaving behind a perfect indentation of his body and a small marble, which glinted.
‘How pretty,’ said Bob and picked it up. ‘Bit sticky though.’
He plopped it into his pocket.
He returned to Yeldarb and peered at his angular face.
‘An Elf!’ he gasped. ‘Cool! Pity your, like, dead. I always wanted to meet an Elf… An alive one of course. Wanting to meet a dead one would be a bit… well, sick.’
He leant down, close to Yeldarb’s face and scrutinised it. Bob didn’t really know the proper method of determining death. He’d heard it involved taking a pulse of some kind, but Bob didn’t trust all that medical stuff. Instead, he decided to use his nose; after all, he reasoned, they dead should smell, shouldn’t they?
Bob sniffed. ‘Yup, you’re dead alright.’
Snow fell in heavy clumps now and Yeldarb was being slowly re-buried. Something, somewhere was nagging at Bob’s mind. It went along the lines of: For pants sake, do something, now!
Although he wasn’t sure why, Bob decided that it might just be an idea to try out his black-market-magic spell. After all, he reasoned, can’t do any more harm, can it?
Hurriedly, he unfurled the scroll. The wording was complex and long. Large chunks of it were completely hidden.
‘Oh well,’ he sighed, ‘I did plan to use this on Xavier. Not much point resurrecting some feathers, so… for what it’s worth…’
The now familiar star-flecks of magic erupted from the paper with the very first words. By the end of the next paragraph, the scroll was ablaze with rainbow-light. As he approached the end, the ground began to shake with a deep ominous throoommm.
‘Zeubluedaweh!’ he muttered.
The Last Word watched him menacingly.
The ground was quaking and a gale swirled around but not actually touching him. Further off, he could see windows smashing themselves to bits as their shutters opened and closed violently.
He took a deep breath and uttered The Last Word.
The scroll exploded, flinging Bob clear out of the fountain as a sphere of swirling light expanded above the orchid shaped fountain spouts. It hovered, arcs of electric white-blue plasma leaping to the ground, and then with a whoosh, plunged into the still form of Yeldarb with a final afterthought flash that lit the square in a sizzling white.
The cave was cold, dark, and filled with the fading smell of torch-smoke. Young Toby lay curled up outside the slab entrance to his dwelling, too ashamed to enter and deliver the bad news—that Old Toby was nowhere to be found and, he feared, nowhere to be found on this level of existence. His stopper and the marks of a scuffle had been located on the lowest step… next to the lava.
Old Father Axe-mass towered above him.
He floated within the shimmering bubble of his own universe and in this, pulled by twelve pit-ponies that hauled his mining cart laden with presents, Father Axe-mass would visit the deserving (and not-so-deserving) and administer good-will throughout eternity.
Those who had too much, he took from.
Those who had too little, he gave to.
Those who had just the right amount, he left alone. These were generally the non-believers.
In his bubble-universe, Father Axe-mass transcended space-time and all the awkward practicalities of visiting every home throughout eternity in his various guises—in one evening. For him, time passed at a normal rate. For the mortals whose lives he touched, it passed at a near standstill.
He would see little children, perched motionless on the edge of their beds. They’d set traps for him of course, swinging axes, spike-pits or tarantula-filled Axe-mass stockings—the usual innocent fair; and Father Axe-mass would deliberately set them off as he passed in his quantum-blur. After all, it was in the spirit of things. How he would have loved to return to see their faces on Axe-mass morn, wondering how their traps had been sprung without catching a glimpse of his long dust-grey beard or Blue coat.
Sometimes they left little gifts for him. A small unusually shaped pebble perhaps, milk and cookies or some sugar cubes for the ponies. Black Ale was his favourite tipple and thanks to the unreal composition of his body, allowed Father Axe-Mass to consume endlessly and with impunity—which was fortunate, for he had many homes and many worlds to see.
In this world he was the Axe-father, but in others he took different forms and names. He was Kindu the Grower, who delivered fruit-pieces wrapped in scented leaves to the small tree-dwelling natives. He was also Rabaan the Happiness Bringer who returned lost-ones to their families on the perpetually dark world of Dimm. He was even Iranguk the All-Seeing Twenty-six Headed who would scatter spices on the worthy as they floated through the turquoise skies of the Nignaut tri-moon system.
The Axe-father took many forms, but this was one of his smallest roles.
For here he was a Dwarf.
A large bag of toy weapons lay by his feet. It was the custom, as this people chose, to have a selection of such weapons lain at the ends of their beds. On Axe-mass morning, the little Dwarvlets would hop around, enacting past victories and playing pretend battle-games. Later, all the clan-families would meet in the largest caves and feast until the sun sank—which, as they were underground, was a vague delimiter at best.
Old Toby, the Axe-father knew, wasn’t going to be around for all that.
He looked at the slumped form of Young Toby, caught mid-breath in the frozen lattices of time.
‘My son, what will we do with you, hmm?’
There was a soft clop as one of the ponies made itself heard.
‘Ah, Pinkie, what do you think we should do?’
The pony shook its graceful little head, about which long ashen hair fell, obscuring its soft brown eyes.
‘Shall we give him a toy axe then?’
‘Hmm. What then? He has lost what was dear to him. What can we give him?’
Pinkie remained silent. The other ponies, further back in the pack, were consulting in their simple tongue.
There was a neigh from the back. It was Clomper. She swung her head emphatically.
‘Ah! Of course.’
A small white card materialised in his chunky hands. The double-headed axe, which Young Toby still clasped loosely, he gently put to one side and in its place left the card.
‘There you go my son and a merry Axe-mass to you.’
With a folding of space-time and a clatter of accompanying hooves, he was gone.
‘Ah, my love, there you are.’
Lady Eroica stood framed in the shadows of the hall chandelier, a gown of diaphanous beauty clinging to her and being outshone by the pure green of her eyes. Upon her brow rested a slim tiara and about her neck hung a single pearl, delicate as her skin.
‘Ah, truly you are a marvel my dear,’ said the anti-Opus, grinning.
‘Thank you husband.’ She curtsied. ‘You are not usually so complimentary.’
‘Well, my dear, I feel particularly festive today.’ He rolled over to the mantle and flipped open his ornate and burnished gold turtle-shaped cigar-box. ‘Ah, Axe-mass Eve—a magical time. A time for new beginnings.’ He surveyed the cigars on offer. ‘Murkwood Blue-Leaf, how refined!’
‘I thought you had given up?’ she asked dryly.
Opus grinned, lighted the plump cigar. ‘As I said, new beginnings. Life’s too short and all that.’ He drew deeply. ‘Damnably fine brand. What good taste I had. Now, if only I could find my brandy.’
Lady Eroica sighed and took to waving her fan in a plainly irritated fashion, a distant look in her eye.
There they stood in the silence of the hallway until the dim clatter of hooves intruded. The cobbles clacked noisily and mixed with the coarse cries of the coachman as he struggled to bring his steeds to bear.
‘Come my dear, the Axe-mass ball beckons.’
With a disinterested sigh she raised her slim wrist to his, which he took and planted a kiss upon. She turned her head in mild repulsion. Opus persisted: ‘Ah my dear, such jewels as you wear are but pale imitations of your own beauty.’
‘Why, thank you, husband.’ She sounded utterly disinterested by the complement.
Opus scrutinised her face. Did she know? He relaxed. Who could know—my disguise is perfect. He tried a different tact: ‘Is there something wrong my dear. You seem… cold.’
‘Should anything be wrong husband? You are so generous with giving complements, what else could I want?’
Opus searched her eyes—something he had forgotten perhaps? ‘Axe-mass present!’ he cried with relief. ‘Of course my dear, I’ve been teasing you. How cruel of me. I haven’t forgotten!’
‘Really?’ she sniffed.
‘Of course! It is Axe-mass Eve after all. How could I forget. Now… I was going to wait until the ball, at midnight…’
She glared at him.
‘But, I suppose I could just give it to you now… Wait one moment.’
He meandered back towards the great oval mirror that dominated his study and couldn’t resist a glance at it, behind which lay his now redundant observation room. By a porcelain urn painted with swirling threads of blue ink, he stooped and retrieved a small glittering parcel.
‘To my love, with my love.’
‘For me?’ she giggled, looking coyly at the yellow-ribboned parcel. ‘You shouldn’t have. You usually don’t.’
Daintily, she took one end of the ribbon, and pulled. Inside was a sapphire-blue box, which she flipped open. ‘Wha…? What a lovely… gift.’
‘You like it of course?’
The was an easily noticeable, but not too long as to be offensive, pause. ‘Of course.’
Gently she placed the box and accompanying chain to one side. ‘How could I not like a gift from my loved one… of my loved one, hmm? Come, we will be late.’
‘And the likeness?’
‘Likeness? Why, I like it a great deal husband.’
‘No, I mean the portrait. Does it resemble—Ah, I see, your little joke?’
Three sturdy knocks echoed throughout the great old oak timbers of Mayor Opus’ residence.
‘The carriage awaits… my wife.’
‘Yes… yes, it probably does.’
‘Hmm? Oh. Of course.’
And with that, Lady Eroica removed her pearl necklace and replaced it with the heavy dark leaden links of his gift. Its pendant, ripe and vulgar hung between her cleavage, depicting her lover in all of his grinning glory.
‘I want you to wear it my dear. I want you to wear it, always. It will remind you of me.’
She sighed. ‘Yes, it will.’
Young Toby checked the address on the card and looked, again, at the prim terraced three-storey house with ivy sprawling about its narrow slit windows and the little Gargoyles guarding the entrance.
He tugged nervously at his beard. ‘The question must surely be,’ he asked himself: ‘Do I go in?’
‘Oh go on,’ said the Gargoyle to his left. It was a little crouched Dragon, with its wings neatly folded back and a delicate forked tongue that slithered about as it spoke.
‘Ah, a talking Gargoyle. Evidently a man of wealth then.’ Toby analysed the rock from which it was carved. ‘Khadqua mine-works if I’m not mistaken. Fine rock.’
‘You betcha guv,’ said the other, an equally little Gargoyle, a Griffin. Its feathered wings sagged, slightly parted, and were carved with meticulous detail.
‘Who is he then? This owner?’ asked Young Toby.
‘You mean you don’t know?’ asked the Dragon incredulously. ‘You don’t get about much do you?’
‘That a sort of Gargoyle in-joke?’
‘Sorry,’ said the Dragon. ‘ ’Fraid we get like that sometimes. I guess we’re a bit… set in our ways! ’
They broke into raucous laughter.
Young Toby sighed. ‘So who is he then?’
‘ ‘Fraid we can’t impart information of that sort,’ replied the Griffin.
‘Well, no doubt you’re some kind of convict back for revenge,’ said the Dragon. ‘We gets a lot of them.’
‘Or a disgruntled customer back for a refund,’ added the Griffin. ‘A lot of them too.’
‘But why would he be askin’ us who he is’ then Griff?’
‘Beats me Draggy. Best not to say anythin’ I reckon.’
‘You two are useless!’ said Young Toby and stomped off down the heavily scented path, bordered by marigolds, pansies, and infra-roses.*
The Dragon looked to the Griffin. ‘But we’re Gargoyles, we’re supposed to be useless!’
Manic laughter. The Griffin nearly fell from his perch.
‘Mobiles, eh Draggy? Better off without them. I think I’ll not move for a few years now. I’ve had enough of talkin’ to ’em.’
‘Yeah, let’s do that Griff. A sort of protest, a not-moving strike. We’ll show ’em.’
And with that, Dragon and Griffin stayed not moving for a very long time.
Flower didn’t so much as meet Axe-mass morning, it with two sharp prongs directed in her general direction and powered by the fleshy and dangerously quivering arm of Lady Potassia, met her.
‘You!’ she rasped.
‘Happy… Axe-mass?’ ventured Flower in the moments before the pain hit her in a “that’s right, remember me?” fashion. ‘Oh, my head… what happened?’
‘You!’ Lady Potassia repeated, indicating that Flower’s existentiallity was to be the crux point of any further discussion. She edged forward, the pitchfork now inches away from the main artery of Flower’s thickly muscled neck.
‘Yes, hello,’ said Flower. She gulped involuntarily. ‘I seem to have a bit of a sore head. Any idea what happened… ma’am?’
‘Any idea?’ her employer laughed viciously, before falling back on the now standard fare, ‘You!’
Gradually, the memories dripped back to the dry-reservoir of her mind: those two idiots, that woman’s voice… the ground.
‘Oh. Are the eh… horses fine ma’am?’
‘Oh, the horses are fine dear. It’s one particular horse that I’m concerned about—the Unicorn.’
‘She okay then?’
‘Oh I expect so. But then, I can’t really say can I?’
‘Why’s that then ma’am?’
‘Because…’ She leant closer, her face swollen and red with frustration and eyes bulging like hard boiled eggs in her thick mascara-lined sockets. The sagging flesh beneath her chin quivered aggressively. ‘Because… she’s fuging gone that’s why! Gone, blast you! Gone!’
‘As in, not occupying our reasonably expected domain of habitation?’
‘She’s not gone then is she?’
‘Mr Toms!’ Lady Potassia screeched into the courtyard. ‘You’ll pay for this now dear! We were going to race her you know—and, she was Mr Toms’ favourite too. Mr Toms!’
‘Now, let’s not be hasty,’ said Flower, scrabbling to her feet and attempting to sweep the prongs away. ‘Mr Toms is bound to be busy, breaking things or something. Someone, more likely, but let’s not get into little details.’
‘I think, my dear that you are one particular ‘little detail’ that he will be most keen on getting onto.’
Each step that Flower took, Lady Potassia forced back with forceful prods. A great wallowing shadow introduced itself to the courtyard. It was getting bigger and closer.
‘WHERE’S BESSIE!’ bellowed a mighty voice. The walls shook with fear and the air reverberated with its timbre. All round, a pretty serious voice.
‘As you can hear, Mr Toms is most upset at the loss of Uridia—Bessie to him of course. He was the first to notice her field being empty this morning. I expect he’s been off searching the valleys and he is most displeased!’
‘Look,’ Flower pleaded, ‘I was taken by surprise! I didn’t mean to let your goddamned Unicorn get stolen!’
‘BESSIE!’ howled the voice, towering high above them and probably most other buildings in the vicinity.
Two mighty legs, swathed in a murky green material, appeared before the archway—or at least one of them did. The other could be seen through a circular barred porthole. A single boot was visible. A boot that was as high as Flowers knee; and Flower was tall.
A lumbering curled knuckle appeared, blocking the last of the skulking light. There was the sound of bones cracking, like a rope suspension bridge creaking in the wind. Slowly, as the giant crouched by the doorway, an ugly deformed mop of dishevelled hair appeared. Beneath it hung a face that could have been melted and not seen any appreciable improvement. Warts the size of a man’s fist erupted like a plague of barnacles about its nose and great heaving pustules sagged, swollen and red. Although it was the breath that was most memorable. It was a stench rotten beyond nasal limits and mucus membranes’ membridity and blew from between a handful of craggy yellowed teeth that sat juxtaposed at various visually appealing angles. This, was the face of a Hill Giant, a bloody ugly one and one with more of the hill about him than most.
‘YOU LOST BESSIE!’ he roared. Great gobs of spittle the size of tennis-balls shot out like rapid machine gun fire and landed on the far walls with a stomach disorientating gloops. The hay churned high with each gust of rancid breath and Lady Potassia stumbled and fell back onto her reserves.
Seeing her chance, or at least deceiving herself enough to think she had one, Flower sprinted towards the leering malformed face and pulled back her arm to form a fist with definite non-friendly intent. A single blow cracked between the Giant’s eyes, landing as it did on a particularly painful looking pustule. He roared and staggered to his gargantuan feet, his swollen hands covering the obscenity of his face.
The path through the courtyard was now free and with the wind whistling past her horns Flower pounded out of the Pottasian’s ranch, leapt across a small gurgling stream and didn’t stop until the cries of Mr Toms were long gone.
She followed that stream until it became wide and rapid, a brief phase before it met a number of other tributaries in a churning misty confluence that led off to form that wandering trail of carnage known as the River Sticks. From pristine whites and blues, it sank into a dearth of sludge browns as the sky sickened towards green and the air thickened with a heavy pungency which smelt even more of… well, the country. Black smokers appeared on the horizon, assaulting the sky with their vastness whilst, in ever increasing numbers, the corpses of rats and ‘things-best-not-looked-at-too-closely’ did their best to give the landscape a semblance of the natural order of things with heavy emphasis on death.
This continued for some miles until there were bodies, rubbish, and possible combinations of the two, strewn almost everywhere. Regrettably though, it became apparent, as she approached a long dark line that was resolving itself into the city wall, that the almost was no longer needed—and that what went before was really but a trail of breadcrumbs compared to this incalculable carnage. And it was here, as she at the foot of The Black Wall, that she discovered exactly what to expect when plough meets graveyard meets landfill site. This was the first impression that everyone gets of Lotopia—and it doesn’t really get much better.
There she stood, small and unnoticed against that monstrous hulk of wall. It was sleek, ultra-black, and covered in a heavy sheen of oil, mainly to prevent those thrown out from clambering back in. Dark menacing forms carrying spears wandered high above and between the parapets, their red eyes glowing balefully in the smoke-heavy air.
‘Excuse me sir?’ she shouted up at one. ‘Is this Lotopia, the city where dreams come true?’
It truly is amazing just how far laughter can be heard.
Young Toby sat in the deep comfort of the chair offered to him.
Before him sat a figure of some renown, though one that until just now he had only read the exploits of in the tablet-oids.
‘So…’ said Inspector Dwoirot as the on-bail Mrs Voyance entered from the adjoining room, carrying a tray of piping hot lemon tea and a small shields worth of battle-bread and cake. ‘This letter you were speaking of?’
‘Aye. The letter,’ said Toby. ‘Well, there I was, Axe-mass Eve and a sleepin’ outside my cave an’ too ashamed to go in to give the young ’uns the bad news, that I’d been unable to find—’
‘These “young ’uns”,’ interrupted Dwoirot. ‘How many of them are there?’
‘Does it matter?’ asked Toby. ‘I mean—’
‘Never question the unquestionable ways of a detective Mr Toby. The smallest details can prove pivotal.’
‘I still don’t see—’
‘How many sir?’
‘Well, there’s Youngest Toby, just born last dig, and of course Toby Toby, me eldest. Quite a strong lad. Good beard on ’im already.’
‘And the dog?’
‘Na, no beard on him yet. Hold on… Dog?’ Young Toby leant forward with a level of suspicion above his norm. ‘How do you knows we got a dog?’
‘As I said Mr Toby, details. Your boots are covered with a thick layer of heat resistant rubber indicating you to be involved in deep mining; possibly magma fissure work. The toes of your boots are well polished indicating the dedication of a wife who takes care in her husband’s appearance. Your aglets—those little bits on the ends of your laces—are slightly chewed, possibly from either an over-enthusiastic youngster or a family mutt. Youngest Toby is quite clearly not yet capable of such deeds and hence I deduce the presence of the mutt. Am I not correct?’
‘Well, dig me up! I suppose so… Wouldn’t call ’im a mutt though, at least not to his muzzle. He’s half-werewolf y’know. Least that’s what I was told when I bought him. Still not sure which half.’
‘Hmm,’ said Dwoirot reaching for a long clay pipe and stuffing it with a pinch of tobacco. ‘Is he attentive, this mutt. Were-mutt?’
‘Oh aye, uncanny at that he is sir. The slightest sound an’ he’s a up an’ a barkin’, an’ barkin’, an’ a barkin’.’ I tell you,’ Toby shuffled forward to the edge of his seat in a conspiratorial manner, ‘its bloomin’ hard havin’ an active marriage an’ keepin’ the kids asleep. If you knows what I means?’
Toby leant across to the tray, hacked off a slice of cake and began crunching loudly upon it.
‘Quite, Mr Toby. Now, back to this letter.’
‘Aye,’ he said, swallowing with effort. ‘Fine cake. Sharp as flint, jus’ the way I likes it. Anywise, when I awoke on Axe-mass mornin,’ what should be on me chest but…’
‘Aye. The letter. All it had was an address of sorts, quite plainly this one when you find it. Though to be honest, it did take some findin’. Don’t even really know why I bothered, it was just as though some little voice inside was saying…’
‘Quite,’ interrupted Dwoirot. ‘The letter? May I see it?’
‘Aye,’ said Toby.
There was a long pause.
‘May I read it also?’ asked Dwoirot.
‘Aye,’ agreed Toby.
‘Are you going to give it to me then Mr Toby?’
‘Oh, aye. Sorry.’ Toby fished beneath his dark overalls and produced a little crumpled card.
Dwoirot, using a plastic glove that he worryingly carried in his top pocket, held the card at arm’s length and proceeded to read it with the aid of a small round eyeglass.
‘ “Go a hundred paces past the old Halfling Refuge, travelling North-North-West. Nice terraced place with two little Gargoyles and three chimneys. Narrow fit. Go in there. He can help.” ’
‘Odd, ain’t it?’
‘Indeed,’ agreed Dwoirot with a deep frown forming on his brow. ‘This is most interesting.’
‘So, what do you make of it sir.’
‘Hmm? Well, my friend. It is quite obviously a calling… possibly an immortal calling.’
‘Immortal! But how?’ cried Toby.
‘You mentioned the mutt that always barks? Evidently not so. On Axe-mass Eve, it did not bark which would have alerted you to any nearby intruder. This leads one to suggest the presence of a character of exceptional stealth or perhaps one that walks “out of our time.” A clue? Perhaps. The card itself though, is a give-away. It is evidently written with the perspective of an air-borne traveller. One with particular interest in… chimneys! ’
‘No!’ cried Young Toby in disbelief. ‘Surely not?’
‘Aye, surely.’ Dwoirot coughed. ‘Yes. This letter, hard though it may seem to believe, was written by none other than… the Incisor Imp or possibly even the Gob Goblin.’
‘Not Father Axe-Mass then? Seenin’ as it was Axe-mass Eve ’n all.’
‘Father Axe-Mass—pfah! Such tosh. I prefer my immortals to have a shred of realism about them. Gives to the needy indeed!’
‘What about his pit ponies then?’
‘Ah, I see you’ve noticed the jolly little pony stamp then. Sheer coincidence. Stranger things have been known to happen. ‘
‘Well… probably not. A writing pony is pretty weird by anyone’s standards. Nope, this has all the hallmarks of that incurable tooth merchant, the Incisor Imp.’
‘But… but I’m not missing any teeth!’
Dwoirot waved away his comment, stood and walked to the dark granite hearth, within which roared a healthy fire inches below the fibres of his beard. He turned to face Young Toby.
‘Have no fear my friend. A calling like this cannot be ignored. I, Inspector Dwoirot, possibly the greatest detective that has ever existed, in any city, continent, time, dimension or parallel universe, shall…’ A blank look crossed his face. ‘Ah, you haven’t actually mentioned what you’ve come here for yet have you?’
Young Toby smiled and held out a little chiselled figurine of Old Toby.
‘Ah, the family mutt.’
Voices swirled and light erupted.
A shadow loomed…
‘I don’t think I can do it, I’m afraid. Half job…’ said a thick, treacly voice.
‘I am only a beginner,’ squeaked a far different one.
‘Ye-es. Evidently. Tricky. Possibly too tricky. You got his soul container?’
Sounds of rummaging. ‘Here.’
‘That it? Surely not?’
‘But it’s a… what’s that stuff inside it? That swirly stuff.’
‘It’s a marble.’
‘A marble? As in rock?’
‘No, as in kids. For marbling, you know.’
‘And his soul is all in there.’
‘All of it?’
‘He must have been a real git. Did you know him well.’
‘No not really. Just met him in fact. He sort of… landed in my care.’
‘I take it he was alive when you met him?’
‘No, as it happens. Which it did. Though I feel sure he was alive once.’
The owner of the first voice sighed and loomed closer until there was no more of Yeldarb’s vision for it to loom into. ‘Have to be careful you know. Anyone whose soul can fit into a marble… Well… I mean, do we want to resurrect someone like that? Best leave them as a Zombie, I’d say.’
‘A soul is a soul. It’s not the size that counts,’ stated Bob flatly. ‘Besides, it’s not my fault it didn’t fit.’
‘What?’ the voice said coldly, the ‘t’ of which tinkled like crashing icicles.
‘Like I said, it’s not—’
‘You mean, you left some out?’
‘Quite a lot actually’
‘Well, I didn’t have anything bigger to hand.’
‘Let me get this straight. This person, you just met. You’ve semi-resurrected him, but neglected to find anything big enough to shove his soul into. So you… just threw the rest away!’
A long pause.
‘That’s about it the gist of it, yes.’
‘You ought to have your bloomin’ licence revoked.’
‘Haven’t got one yet.’
Long groan. ‘I’m missing my Axe-mass pudding for this y’know. Right… I can do a patch job, perhaps. Enough to keep him out of the grips of the Python God at least. It’ll cost you though. Axe-mass rates too. Can he pay?’
‘Oh, I think he’s got something or other.’
Sounds of someone scratching their chin.
‘Is it any cheaper if you do the bare minimum of soul-repair?’
© 2003-2004 by Neil McGill. I live in Scotland with my wife and cute kids, trying always to push the hobbit as suitable bedtime story material. I dream of having time to write again.
* Often a hard-to-find section.
*8^) Prepare thyself for worse to come.
[*] ’Tis a little known fact that IIII is typically used on clocks instead of IV for aesthetic reasons.
[†] What’s a Cleric? Well, they’re like a Priest who couldn’t quite pray convincingly enough and a Wizard who couldn’t cut the complex theoretical stuff. Basically put, a bit of an all-round failure that gets the spells nobody else wants.
[‡] Bob was still trying to thread the bobbin.
[§] Actually, he did; the students of the Advanced Psychic Research tower across the courtyard had a habit of picking up such errant thoughts and proving you right.
! Commonly known as the WWW University.
[**] About the only thing that did bind the tower’s chalky walls together was a lone and rickety drainpipe that slithered sickly between levels. Stuff clung to it in putrid mounds. This pipe, or The Pipe, provided egress and ingress, either by sliding down in a manner akin to a fireman’s pole or with a well-applied grip, shimmying up. Amazingly though, even more demands were placed upon its being, leading to it providing both sewage outlet and water intake, dependant upon the device in use at the time. There were of course occasional mishaps… It was therefore expected that one of the first spells that young Clerics should endeavour to master should be that of ‘Remove Serious Disease ’ or purify muddied water.
[††] Unfortunately, Coól already had one up on Bob through a selection of cursed artefacts that he’d generously given to Bob, and his daily recasting, through the floor, of ‘Enfeeble Memory.’ This left Bob, in the self-evident state of being unable to memorise barely even his own name and hence very unlikely to learn any spells for revenge purposes.
* You’ve heard of were-wolves haven’t you?
* Algonzo the renowned Third-Epoch Dwarf-Cleric in an inspired attempt to supplant his Lord’s flagging army, attempted to ‘Reanimate Ye Dead, En Masse’ during their battle on the now named Dead Dwarvish Dales. Unfortunately, the Elven God Pointiyrs listened to his prayer (primarily to annoy the Dwarvish God Diggitup). In his fury, and quite forgetting whose side he should be on, Diggitup reanimated only half the bodies required—in this case, the bottom half. Widespread hilarity ensued amongst the Troll clans as hundreds of flopping-torso Dwarves scuttled around the battlefield. After this, things quickly deteriorated…
* Big long, irrelevant but historically interesting bit: The Bicentennial War between the Trolls and Dwarves was believed to have planted its roots in one of the deep Northern mines beyond the Dune-lands. Here, there, or somewhere thereabout the then-thought-extinct Troll race was rather suddenly and bluntly re-discovered, or rather uncovered. The Trolls didn’t take too kindly to this wake-up call of precisely applied hammers and pick-axes, and so, combined with the genetic stubbornness of the Dwarves to relinquish their claims upon the Blue-rich rock, a nice little war set itself in. As with all really good wars, after a few generations had passed, no one could remember the real reason why it began in the first place. This naturally infuriated those still involved and so each side sought ever more cunning ways to ‘deal the final decisive blow.’ The very last blow, as it happened, was dealt by the Trolls who decided to do a spot of their own mining and (having a natural inclination to the activity) promptly uncovered acres of previously undiscovered Blue. With this, they intended to flood the market and thus render the Dwarves sToby broke (pardon the pun). The Dwarves immediately surrendered with the sole condition that the Trolls put all that nice Blue back in the ground where it belonged; so they could find it again. Everyone was happy. Except they weren’t and the Trolls and Dwarves still hate each other just as much as before but in the interests of business, hostilities are now restricted to social gatherings of which Lotopia, thankfully has many.
* Infra-roses belong to the extended family of plants only visible to creatures that can see in the infrared. Dwarves in particular favour them. Humans and other lesser creatures see them as weeds.