Strange Deaths to Follow
by Neil McGill
Deep beneath the cobbled streets, armies of white-clad Halflings baked, poured, chopped, bludgeoned, sautéed, and even vomited the various courses that were to shock and delight, but mostly shock, the one thousand carefully chosen guests of Mayor Opus. All the Deity Personifications, Guild Lords, Deans, Fellows, Tradesmen (and women), Merchants, Antique Manufacturers, General Executioners, Rodent Retirers, Theoretical Tax Inspectors and just about anyone else of major standing that could afford a suitable bribe were there, together with their slightly less well-chosen minions. Even the minions had a few minions, whom it has to be said, didn’t seem well chosen at all or suited to the finery of the Halls of Decision’s yearly Axe-mass ball.
Two of these minions’ minions, Bacchus and Erryl were prostrating themselves before the ultra-black carriage of one particular minion of the Quantum Magic department, over which the pompous and aged Dangulf sleepily presided. This particular she-minion sat within her carriage like a coiled snake, her eyes cold, reflecting, black pools and analysing the many chandelier-burnished floors of the Halls.
Six levels of gold-burnished grandeur sat beneath an enormous green-copper dome, speckled with tinkling, laughing crowds that clustered, watching for who arrives in what, or even sometimes, what arrives in whom.
Her long lashes glistened in the reflected light that shone in through the frosty carriage windows and she checked, once more, that her appearance was acceptable. She cast a dark smile at herself and then flipped open her compact, revealing the chalky white powder within. She took a small pinch and sniffed at it deeply. Her eyes glazed and she sank back into the weight of the seat with a contented sigh as the effects of the croak washed through her system. The world became soft and pink and yet at the same time, pink and very soft.
There was a cough outside and she turned slowly to see that Bacchus was now waiting to open the door. Offhandedly, she waved it open.
The velvet padded door swung outwards and a wave of chill, crisply green Lotopian air filled the carriage. This was followed by the sweet chanting of the carol singers that lined the red-carpet, leading to the Halls’ grandiose entrance. By the highest step she could see the Mayor, his wife and a small army of fawning sycophants welcoming each guest in turn and handing out party hats. All about them, clouds of tethered balloons swayed in the breeze as streamers flung from the balconies wrought pretty ribbons over the Halls’ shrubbery. The carollers began a new verse.
Festive little cretins, she thought.
A scabby glove that probably concealed an even scabbier hand offered itself, which she promptly ignored.
Slowly, and pulling back her dress more than was required to step out, she emerged from the carriage. From a sparkling black shoe, followed the most graceful of legs that led by a pale and toned calf muscle to a slender thigh that led to…
‘Mistress Reptila!’ hissed Erryl, ‘your leg!’
She glanced down and noticed the patch of scales that had somehow avoided the makeup. Hastily, she lowered her dress and glided onto the cobbles.
Numerous lecherous calls from the heaving balconies above assured her that none had noticed this slightest of slips. Reptila smiled and waved innocently to the watching masses.
‘I told you, not to call me Reptila!’ she hissed, her lips barely moving.
‘Sorry ma’am,’ replied Erryl, downcast, his chin resting on the tight collar of his ill-fitting suit that bulged threateningly about his frame.
‘Tonight, I am Miss Rebecca Tilde. Understand? ’
‘Understood ma’am. Tonight. Tilde.’
With that, she strode off, her black train taken up eagerly by both Bacchus and then Erryl.
‘What was that name again, Bacchus?’ whispered Erryl.
‘Don’t you ever listen, man?’ he replied. ‘It’s Reptilde. Gorrit?’
‘Ah, Lady Eroica, your beauty once more blesses our city and shames our wives. If only they all could be as you—a star in the heavens come down amongst us to shine!’
‘Why thank you Sir Renders.’ She blushed. ‘You are as always most flattering. Husband, doesn’t Sir Renders look in the finest of health after his campaign in the…?’
‘The Blasted Lands beyond the Itching Desert ma’am,’ he finished. ‘Where the beasts are strange and terrible. Where great league-long leviathans of the desert do frequent battle and have been known to swallow entire villages in their cavernous maw. I myself saw one, and barely managed to escape with my life. Truly, it was as large as a city. But not as round.’
‘How terrifying!’ she breathed.
‘And then of course, there were the Clouds of Terror.’
‘Clouds of Terror?’
‘Ah, I fear, I couldn’t say. Such tales would chill the blood.’
‘Oh… go on… old… chap,’ wheezed Dangulf who had crept into their company, along with a handful of other admirers of the Great Knight.’
‘Well, just this once… It be a beast so terrible, so terrifying that it beggars belief. Even the leviathans are in awe of such a terror, even—’
‘Oh, get on with it,’ sighed Opus.
‘Yes, well. Imagine a cloud, black like smoke, tinged with the red of fresh blood and staggeringly huge. It creeps up on its victim, unawares, allowing the breezes to gently propel it into position. And then….’
‘Yes?’ in chorus.
‘Then… it hurls the most enormous daggers of ice in a circle about the unfortunate victim. And these daggers, fully the size of a large man, spike the ground and form ever tighter impenetrable circles until the dread beast has you cornered!’
Gasps of horror.
‘Or circled,’ said Opus dryly.
‘And then, it swoops down, with immense blood-red tendrils that wrap around the body like hungry leeches… The end comes soon after that but not before you’ve felt your very blood being sucked out from a hundred leeching wounds. A terrible beast!’
‘But not if you were there to protect us,’ said Lady Eroica.
‘No ma’am, of course not. I, with a single swing of my mighty sword, would cleave the beast in half. The life of our Lady would be worth a thousand such battles!’
Lady Eroica sighed, her voice heavy with passion. ‘Isn’t Sir Renders simply the most bravest Knight in your command husband?’
Opus, his nose curling ever so slightly, stared at the black-clad knight who had shunned the formal dinner attire and opted for full ceremonial battle costume. He was a glorious sight, if you liked that sort of thing—knights and stuff. The stuff being polished metal, flowers protruding from every gleaming orifice and a complete inability to stand in any normal stance that didn’t resemble some kind of body-building pose. Sir Renders was your typical knight, chivalrous to his brim and generally an all-round great guy. The ex-Opus was/had been a great friend of his. This Opus, the anti-Opus, was determined to set a few things straight.
‘Why don’t you just admit it Sir Renders. You want to bed my wife.’
Renders, a half-eaten vol-au-vent on the verge of escaping from his open visor, choked and staggered backwards, bringing his visor down with a firm clank.
‘Husband!’ cried Lady Eroica in dismay.
Somewhere far off, there was the tinkle of a glass falling. Dangulf coughed discreetly. The party became abruptly quiet, but in a desperately-not-trying-to-seem-too-interested manner.
‘Mayor Opus,’ said Renders, attempting to recover himself and struggling to raise his visor, which had now rather comically sealed itself shut—this led to his voice sounding rather muffled and tinny. ‘The thought of another man’s wife in frilly undergarments of a revealing or otherwise nature never crossed my mind. Particularly, not the beautiful Lady Eroica!’
‘Then you think she is ugly perhaps? One not worthy of a knight of your repute? Like a common street whore? Perhaps I should pack her off to Madam Cadaver’s to earn her keep?’
‘Husband!’ she cried; and fainted.
Renders roared. ‘Never liken the lady Eroica to a whore sir.’ He took two metallic steps forward. ‘Mayor or no I shall strike you down where you stand.’
This was good stuff, or so the crowd believed. Careful mingling that can only be learned through years of such events was forming a generous circle about the threesome. Factions loyal to each party gravitated to where they could be seen to offer the most support.
‘You’ll strike me down, eh Renders? You forget yourself you miserable collection of rusting metal and chicken-feathers.’
‘Rust!’ he screeched. ‘Sir, you forget yourself! This is the invincible and enchanted armour of Silver Beard the Great, forged in the Ultramarine Mines by his long forgotten Dwarvish skills. This rusting metal has seen more action than your sorry politician’s body ever will!’
‘Really? Tell me Renders, your oh-so-successful campaign? All those barbarians you said you fought in the Blasted Lands to bring back that little golden statuette of Zeubluedaweh?’
‘What of them?’
‘Well, they were all girls, weren’t they. Not a warrior among them, was there?’
Opus received a hearty pat on the back for that one. Quiet sniggering broke out behind him.
Even beneath his visor, Opus could see the big barrel-chested man’s face reddening with fury.
‘Girls!’ he roared. ‘Girls! I single-handedly slew the mighty Ogre-Lord K’noth’I’l’oth the Unpronounceable whilst with the other hand, fended off his dreaded pet, the Crystal Spear-Legged Spider. My feet, alas, were occupied, holding down the trapdoor that led to the seven-headed beast of Betelgeuse. Now, don’t you talk to me about girls sir! You know not of what you speak. And even if you did, there isn’t a shred of evidence to support that claim. Unless, you wish me to prove myself against one such as… you?’
Laughter erupted from Renders’ minions.
‘So Renders, you’ll strike me down, eh? With all my guards here to defend me? They’d cut you down in an instant, you dressed up clown!’
‘I don’t see any guards,’ said Renders, quietly.
‘You imbecile, you festering example of your order, you decaying rubic—no guards, you say?’
Opus looked hastily around. Lady Eroica had been carried off info the crowd and was now being offered an assortment of vile-smelling salts by the champagne fountain. The ex-Opus must have given them Axe-mass Eve off. He turned back to face the glowering, visor obscured face of Renders. Renders the Brave. Renders the Strong. Renders the Very Much Bigger…
‘Well, Renders, as I was saying—’
A huge black gauntlet was on collision course with Opus’ face.
‘Aargh!’ he cried and crumpled to the polished floor in a metallic clatter. ‘My hand! You’ve… smashed my hand!’
Opus felt his nose. It was still there, strangely. He looked to Renders’ hand, bloodied, broken and pretty much smashed. His squires were already attempting to release it from what remained of his gauntlet.
Opus grinned. Dangulf patted him softly on the shoulder.
‘Well… done… Mayor,’ he managed with effort.
Opus turned to face the withered old creature. He whispered. ‘Dangulf? That one of yours then, eh? Bit of a body shield spell or something, eh?’
‘No… not… I… May—’
‘Well bugger off then.’
To Renders: ‘I take it that concludes our discussion?’
Opus grinned and strode off into the rapidly dispersing crowd and in the general direction of the fountain. There he sat, one leg upon the wall, wildly proud of himself and oblivious to the sobs of his nearby wife. Grabbing a tumbler from a passing waiter, he dunked it deep into the frothy sweet-smelling pool.
‘Ah,’ he laughed, ‘This is only the beginning. I’ll screw ’em all over. I’ll take this wretched city for what its worth and—’
‘—And do whatever I tell you to do,’ said a feminine voice the anti-Opus knew only too well.
‘Reptila!’ He recoiled in shock and then tried to disguise his base reaction as pleasure. ‘How nice to see you again. So it was you then?’
‘Yes it was me, you dressed-up fool. Your task is not complete, barely even begun and off you go, insulting one of the toughest knights in the city. What use would you be to me dead? Granted, I could animate your corpse for some cheap amusement, but what then? What were you thinking of?’
‘Fun?’ he suggested.
‘The only fun you’ll get, is a quick hanging if you’re not careful. If I were to, say, dispel the anti-magic dampening field that surrounds you…? Let you return to your natural repulsive doppelganger form…’
‘Yes, you fool. I would. I’d do it in a fuging instant. I hear they don’t take well to doppelgangers around these parts. Especially those that make a habit of murdering Mayors and then impersonating them. I hear they have a new guillotine that needs testing too. So barbaric, don’t you agree?’
Opus nodded and took a long silent sip of his champagne.
Rebecca Tilde leant closer.
‘I want all the magical items this city has to offer. That was your part of the deal. Do it!’
‘I’ll do it,’ he placated. ‘I just need some time to establish myself, that’s all.’
‘You have five days. No more. After that, it will be useless. Timing is very important to what I plan to do. If you fail me…’
‘But if you do…’ She leant right up to his ear now. ‘Here’s a mental image, of what I’ll do… and what you’ll become.’
The barest trace of a magical sparkle floated between the two. Opus’ eyes went vacant, watching some scene that only he bore witness to. His mouth slowly drooped open and his colour drained to a sickly pallor.
‘I’ll… do it.’
‘I’m so glad you agree—’
A cough broke their conversation and Reptila turned to face the figure of Sir Renders, one arm cradled in a makeshift sling.
‘I must congratulate you sir. I never quite thought one such as you, could be so… hard.’ He grinned. ‘Bet you do a lot of sit-ups behind the proverbial desk of decision, what?’
‘Er, yes,’ replied Opus feebly.
‘Still, no hard feelings eh? Geddit, bit of a joke there.’
‘But who is this?’ he beamed, kneeling and taking Reptila’s unwilling hand in his remaining one. ‘Introduce us Opus, you old fighting-buddy, you old dog you.’
‘God’s,’ she hissed beneath her breath. ‘Rebecca Tilde,’ she replied sweetly turning away to one side, the barest of flushes appearing in a coldly calculated manner upon her cheeks.
‘Tilde, eh? Unusual, but I like that in a gal. Though not too unusual. I’ve met a lot of weird gals in my time. Say babe, why don’t we—’
‘No, I couldn’t possibly. Really.’
With that, Reptila stood to her full, imposing height, pouted briefly and then swept off into the now waltzing crowd.
Renders stared longingly after her. ‘What a gal! I like it when they play hard to get.’
Yeldarb came to and didn’t feel particularly well. But that, he reasoned was a good thing. After all, he was supposed to be dead. And for someone who was supposed to be dead, he felt surprisingly cold—another good sign. It was also immensely dark and he appeared to be lying upon a flat stone slab of some kind; the post-mortem kind.
The Moribund Morgue, he sighed with relief.
Definitely dead. I must be in ectoplasmic form, waiting for the transition to spirit. Any second now…Yup, it’ll be any—ee second now.
Yeldarb smiled, and basked in the knowledge that all his current incarnation’s problems were behind him. He only hoped that the powers-that-were would let him off and not force him to carry these very same problems into the next life. Otherwise he might end up reincarnating as some form of low-living belly-slithering thing, or worse, himself. With a contented giggle, he dismissed that possibility.
I’m dead at last!
Gradually, an exit resolved itself from the darkness—a large archway with a small ox-eye window set above it and through which the faintest of glimmers wavered, growing in intensity with the sound of approaching footsteps. He took a sharp chill breath and held it as the steps drew up to the door; and then stopped.
The Grey Judge?
The Grey Judge was the great evaluator of all life forms from the smallest virus to the largest Storm Giant and even, the Gods themselves. The mere thought that such an immortal of undeniably immense power probably would not even bother to endure the encumbrance of walking anywhere didn’t enter Yeldarb’s considerations and so he listened with growing trepidation…. to the silence beyond the door.
Yeldarb’s heart beat wildly, his mind racing, calculating the likely eventualities. Would the Judge be carrying the Tome of Life? Or more specifically, the Tome of Yeldarb’s Life? Perhaps Tome wasn’t the correct word—pamphlet, maybe. More importantly what would be upon those pages and right up until the very last full stop? This he could all to well guess at: his life, his failures, his evil-deeds, accomplishment and triumph—all described in pitiful amounts of detail. It would be to the judicial powers of the Grey Judge itself to decide if Yeldarb was fit to enter through the gates of <insert your idea of somewhere nice to spend the rest of eternity.>
Yeldarb, if offered the choice, would choose The Warriors Sanctum or if really stuck for choice, The Infested Limbo. More likely though, his soul would qualify for recycling and he’d be sent back as some lesser life form, if such a beast existed. This was a fate he wanted to avoid.
Actually, perhaps it’ll just send me straight to The Abysmal instead. After all, I was an utter bastard to more people than I could reasonably be expected to remember, and it’d be a plain old waste of universal resources to put me through another life just to balance out this Karma thing. Probably best to quit now while I’m behind. Yup, The Abysmal it’ll be.
The door opened.
Rubbing his hands with glee, he could almost feel the heat from the sodium pools of The Abysmal and ushered away a thought to do with inquiring about suntan lotion.
Instead, a tsunami of cold air hit him.
He sat up abruptly and peered at the shadow framed in cascading yellow light and standing before him.
One thing was certain—he’d expected the Grey Judge to be a bit taller. Perhaps, even more skeletal. This was a short, stunted and to be blunt, rather unimpressive affair for an immortal.
Typical, he thought, they can’t even be bothered to send the main being itself. Probably off judging some Demon or other. Sent an underling to take care of Yeldarb no doubt. ‘Yeldarb, the who? ’ it probably asked. Still… I suppose this could be ‘it ’ after all. Better not blow the first impression…
Yeldarb attempted a grin. ‘A’right Judge, old matey. I know what’s going to happen. Not really much point in me hoping otherwise. Therefore, if you don’t mind, just pull Ye Olde Lever and I’ll be on my way down to the eternal fires. I hear they’re quite warm this time of eternity.’
He expected a booming reply. Or at the very least one that had some manner of immortal wisdom about it. The sort of thing you’d expect: ‘THOU ARTE DOOMED, MORTAL SCUME!,’ or something impressive.
Instead: ‘I’m terribly sorry, what?’
Yeldarb mused over this. He’d heard that voice before. ‘The Grey Judge?’ he asked.
‘Where?’ shrieked the shadow and crumpled to the floor. There were sounds of it scuttling into the corner. ‘I’m sorry, Grey Judge, don’t send me to The Abysmal! I’m good, really I am! Please!’
Unrestrained sobbing could now be heard.
He was alive.
He was in Lotopia.
He was still… Yeldarb.
‘So… I think that it is safe to assume that you’re not the Grey Judge. And I’m not dead. Oh, joy. What fuging, fuging, fuging, fuging joy. I can’t even fuging kill my fuging myself fuging properly.’
Yeldarb crooned his neck and looked to the black ceiling, imagining it to be the reeling infinity of space. He shook his fist at it and shouted, ‘You utter, utter bastard!’
He turned back to look at the lump of material crouching in the corner. ‘Who in this infested creation are you anyway?’
Yeldarb slid off the table. ‘I jumped off fuging Huge Harry for Zeubluedaweh’s sake! I landed on basaltic rock! In the snow too! I ought to be dead three times over!’
‘Look, stop sobbing you silly bastard. The Grey Judge isn’t here. Chance would be a fine thing.’
‘Really?’ the voice sniffed.
‘Yes. Now, where am I? And how do I know your voice?’
‘Well,’ the shadow staggered to its feet, wiping its nose loudly. ‘I’m the one that carried you from Huge Harry. I didn’t mean to cause any harm, really I didn’t… I’m so sorry… I—’
‘—Look, just put on the light and stop gibbering.’
Further fumbling, the eventual hiss of gas, and then an eruption of blue-tinged flame.
Yeldarb looked at the thin white cloth garment hung loosely to just above his knees. He looked under the table and then quickly at each corner. ‘Where is my armour?’ he asked slowly.
‘Yes, you know, hard stuff, all around my body. Definitely seem to recall it. Where is it?’ He forced an evil smile.
‘Oh, that. I’m afraid I had to, er… sell it.’
‘Sell it? How nice. Any reason in particular or just a bit short of coinage, were we?’
‘Well, I did have to raise the ten gold pieces for the resurrection clean-up fee. Axe-mass prices, y’know.’
‘Ah, I see. Of course. How silly of me not to expect all this to happen. And how kind of you to go out of your way during the holiday season. Remind me to add you to my Axe-mass card list.’ Yeldarb fell back against the table. ‘Resurrection…’ He shook his head slowly with disbelief. ‘Hang on. Ten? Have you any fuging idea how much that armour cost me?’
‘If I said no, would it surprise you.’
‘A lot more than ten! You could have bought half this city with it! If you were mad of course.’ He lay down on the slab-table and took a long shuddering breath. ‘Zeubluedaweh! I wish I was dead.’
‘That’s funny that,’ said Bob. ‘If I’d not resurrected you, that’s what you’d be.’
Yeldarb glared at him with his one working eye. ‘And another fuging thing, where’s my glass fuging eye?’
‘Eye? You didn’t have one when I found you. All that I saw was a—’
‘—Yes, yes, that was it. Let’s just avoid the obvious questions shall we. Where is it?’
‘You mean the—’
‘Ah. Well, your armour didn’t quite cover the cost.’
Peeling’s bar heaved with the thronging Axe-mass Day crowd of four. One was Peeling’s body and another his head which eyed the only other two occupants, as they warmed themselves by the fire, with deep suspicion.
Occasionally, the blazing hearth would erupt in a comforting crackle of amber sparks as the wood settled and in a darkened corner a Great Grandfather clock tocked quietly, clearly punctuating the passing seconds. Even the rats seemed relaxed as they lay curled by the fire’s edge. It was a peaceful scene, albeit one laced with deep murderous blood-lusting suspicion—but for the time being, and the next few paragraphs at least, peaceful.
Yeldarb and Bob sat immersed in the warm flitting shadows cast by the fire and hunched over two small wooden tumblers, the rims of which glowed bright orange. Or rather, Yeldarb hunched over them. Bob merely watched. He didn’t drink; a religious thing and also to some degree a guilt thing as neither had suitable funds to settle the bar tab.
‘When do we tell him we don’t have any money to pay for this Yeldarb?’ asked Bob in an effort to give an impression of not whispering and yet at the same time rendering his words very audible.
‘Look, I’m still trying not to talk to you,’ growled Yeldarb. ‘In fact, I don’t even know why I let you live for what you did. Immortals have died at my hand for deeds far less heinous y’know.’
‘Really, which one?’
‘What do you mean, “which hand?” You sniffing croak?’
‘I mean, which hand killed these immortals?’
Yeldarb sighed and took a deep swig of his drink that made him shudder. ‘Look, this conversation is… was like my life—pointless and dull. Now, go away. I mean it! Just stop following me around.’
Bob looked quietly into the flames. ‘I’ll bet they were powerful immortals to challenge one such as you Lord Yeldarb.’
Yeldarb looked at him suspiciously.
Bob twisted around to face him, his eyes shining eagerly. ‘I mean, I bet you’ve lots of interesting stories to tell about them too.’
Yeldarb opened his mouth as if to speak, but then with a tired look turned to watch the fire instead. He slumped closer to his drink and glared at its approaching emptiness.
‘Have you killed many immortals then Lord Yeldarb?’
‘No, not really,’ he sighed. ‘Truth is… I’m a bit of a failure. Oh, I’ve had a few lucky kills, unusual finds, got the odd magical weapon. Some of them very odd—even had a little castle once, in…’ he shuddered, ‘Elizum, but…’
‘How old are you?’
‘Er… Nineteen. I think. Born in the Year of the Mad One-Eyed Mongoose.’
‘Well, when you’re older I’ll tell you. Not to imply that I intend to still know you then of course.’
‘Tell me what?’
Bob swivelled around on his stool until he was facing the flames again. It was a roaring heat and he could feel his skin cooking whilst his rear portions remained, as the howling storm outside, cold.
‘How old are you then Yeldarb?’ asked Bob.
‘Mind your own bloody business boy. Now go away! I need to plan my next attempted suicide.’
Bob sighed, took a poker, and stirred up the logs in an idle fashion. The flames whooshed in retaliation.
Yeldarb sat and watched his new-found sidekick. He’d given him a hard time since his “resurrection,” what with losing part of his soul and that. At length, after a pause, suitable for a pissed off Half-Elven ex-Lord, Yeldarb answered his question: ‘Very well. I’m about two hundred or so, if you must know. With about fifty or so “or so”s.’
Bob spun around eagerly. ‘You don’t look it Lord Yeldarb.’
‘Why thank you lad. Campaigns keep oneself in shape. For Half-Elves you know, I’m about middle age.’
‘Oh, I know that, I did Advanced Species II at the university, though I’d have thought you closer to three hundred.’
‘Three hundred! Do I look that old?’
‘Ah, good.’ Yeldarb eyed the remaining juices within his tumbler . With a quick kill, he swigged it a single draught.
‘…You look older. I was being kind.’
Yeldarb reached out and grabbed him by the hood of his robe. ‘What did you say?’
‘Well… I only mentioned that you looked older because I thought…’
Yeldarb clutched his neck. ‘Ye-es?’
Bob choked. ‘Because… Thought… You were a… Pure Elf.’
‘Ah!’ Yeldarb sighed and released his grip. ‘You thought I was one of the true Elves. The First Ones that roamed the land when the stars were young and the Gods but children. The Eldar, The Fair Race, The Ever-Grinning, the complete-bunch-of-tossers-that-wouldn’t-spit-on-a-burning-half-breed-if-they-had-a-mouthful-of-diseased-monkey-piss. You mean them?’
‘Er, I suppose so. I mean no. Sort of.’
‘It’s alright lad. I came to terms with being neither Human nor Elven a long time ago. And to be honest, I’m glad to be neither. I think they’re both loser races. The Elves, because they waste the majority of their extended lives composing stupid little songs and gaily leaping around and stuff like that, and the Humans because…’ He looked to the bar, pointed at it. ‘Well, I mean look at it. This is a regular Human cesspool and they just can’t seem to build enough of them. First one crummy cottage, then a hamlet, then a village. And then, straight onto this. A heaving nest of abomination with more Humans than you could spit on with an ocean’s worth of gob. They just don’t know when to stop. Building, pro-creating, building, on and on. Ah, will it ever end?’
Yeldarb looked at his empty glass.
‘Oh, it has. Right, I’m off then. Now, Bob? It is Bob, isn’t it? Anyway, I’d like to say it’s been nice, Bob. I mean, I really would. But to be honest… Where’s the bar gone? I need to take care of that bar tab…’
Ultra-casually, he tossed a glance across at the bar. Mr Peeling looked back from the confines of his thick-walled glass jar, which his body was busy polishing,
‘Bob, old chap?’ Yeldarb smiled innocently. ‘Be a sport and go and stand in front of that jar across there and… order us—me another drink.’
‘Another! ’ cried Bob incredulously.
‘Shh!’ Yeldarb hissed, attempting to force his hand over Bob’s mouth, but he shook free. ‘But we couldn’t even afford these! And I don’t think he believed you when you said you’d settle it later.’
‘Look boy, just do it,’ insisted Yeldarb in a friendly-aggressive-but-keeping-it-quiet tone.
‘No, I won’t. I mean, you’re just going to bugger off as soon as I turn my back. Now… if you agreed to say... take me on your next adventure perhaps, then maybe…’
‘Look lad, like I said. I’m a failure. A washed out old has been. The only adventure I get these days is thinking of ways to end my miserable existence. It’s almost become a hobby.’
‘I could help?’
‘Yes, well you already did.’
‘No, I mean I could help in your adventures. I know spells and… stuff.’
‘Yeah, but to be honest, I’m not that impressed. Resurrected, yeah. But something’s missing from my head. Only problem is… it’s not there, so I can’t remember what it was. In fact, I’m not even sure if it’s missing. I do remember a sword though, or at least that it was pretty terrible… One thing I am certain of though, is that I wouldn’t trust your spelling ability on a short word.’
‘I’m getting better.’
Yeldarb groaned. ‘Well, when you’ve increased your proficiency level to “bloody awful” then get back in touch with me. Then I can tell you “no” all over again and really enjoy it.’
‘—Aargh! Look, if I agree to take you with me on some kind of fool-hardy adventure, then would you go and get some more drinks?’
Bob stroked his naked chin. ‘Alright. I’ll do it. Though it’s bad Karma y’know. And I’m a member of the clergy, sort of. I shouldn’t be doing dishonest things like this… Besides, I don’t even drink.’
‘And yet, you’re still this interesting?’
‘Just get the drinks Brother Bob.’
Bob stood and turned to face the bar. Peelings body tensed, his head sensing that his customers may be about to leg it. Nothing dissuades people more than the prospect of being chased through the streets by a headless corpse; unless perhaps two headless corpses are at hand.
Bob wove through the upturned Dwarvish high chairs and overturned tables as he hesitantly approached Peeling’s jar. The yellowed-eyes that lurked within presented a gaze that Bob’s guilty conscience couldn’t meet.
Bob coughed, searching for that deep voice he knew dwelt somewhere inside him. ‘Two more Alligator Cocktails please bar-body, and make ’em snappy.’
Peeling’s head eyed him dubiously. His body meanwhile wandered towards the back of the bar and the stacked array of bottles that composed the available liquor. It held a tumbler beneath a thin black bottle marked with various ‘DANGER!’ signs and numerous pictures of skulls. The bottle itself was deformed, almost melted, and appeared to be about to give up its valiant endeavour of containing its toxins.
‘Can you pay for all this lad?’ asked Peeling, his voice echoing strangely from within his jar.
‘Course I—we can. Just place it on Lord Yeldarb’s tab.’
‘That I would lad, were there any more space to place things on it. ’is tab’s run out,’ he stated flatly. ‘Some hard currency would be appreciated. Coins or nuggets of Blue’ll do.’
‘Even teeth,’ he added ominously.
Bob held up a piece of limp paper. ‘Lotopian Express? He suggested hopefully.
Peeling’s jar shook an emphatic ‘no.’
‘The World-Wide-Wizardry Student Card? Entitles one to ten percent off a wide range of arcane merchandise and…’
The jar ground itself further into the bar.
Bob twisted to implore to Yeldarb.
‘He’s gone!’ cried Peeling. His body spun around, muscles tensed.
True enough, Yeldarb’s seat was now boasting ample amounts of vacancy.
‘Bugger!’ Bob stammered, ‘Oh… I expect he’s off to…’
‘He’s bleedin’ orf!’ cried Peeling. ‘Right, that’s it. Body? Get ’im!’
It was a horrible sight. Peeling’s body clambered blindly over the bar and sized up against Bob’s cloaked and diminutive form. With perspiration, exasperation, and finally, inspiration, Bob produced the holy symbol that he kept on a loose rope chord around his neck.
‘Back undead fiend!’ Bob cried as he waved the Ankh enthusiastically before the lumbering headless hulk which was now rolling back its sleeves, skin and all.
Peeling laughed demonically from the confines of his jar. ‘I’m actually quite religious y’know—for the undead. Yes, as Zombies go, I’m quite partial to the odd Ankh.’
Bob backed away in the direction of their table, and the door.
‘Do you know what my body does to humans that don’t pay?’ asked Peeling rhetorically.
Bob paused, pretending to think hard whilst continuing his steady creeping pace to the door. ‘Actually, no.’
‘Well, let me—’
A loud clink came from the far end of the bar.
‘What was that?’ asked Bob.
‘That old trick, eh!’ laughed Peeling, his eyes fixed on Bob.
Bob stared into the cold dead eyes by the bar. One glance away and Bob could chance a run for it.
Peeling’s eyes were shaking.
Peeling’s eyes darted to look at the corner.
And Bob, quite unexpectedly, was falling.
Peeling’s eyes returned to where Bob once stood.
‘Bugger! They always do that! Bloody magicians! Body?’
His body turned to face the jar.
‘I take it you didn’t see where they went?’
His body shrugged his great shoulders.
The substantial cloaked figure stood taller and wider than the majority of the other similarly clad and not-so-substantial figures that shuffled suspiciously around the various “portraits” hanging in Rogue’s Alleyway and who would probably soon be hanging elsewhere.
It was Monday morning and as with every other Monday morning, the deeds of the past weekend, in particular the dark and nasty one’s, were being recounted and having their impact upon the bounties on offer. Those individuals performing the very darkest of deeds would see their “asking price” rise and accordingly would find it easier to attract suitable investors to further their criminal activities.
Chudder, the cannibalistic Swamp-Orc and his distinctive yellow-speckled Lizaraffe* were one such pair of profitable investments. They’d been on the rampage again and this time, apparently defacing the temple of the faceless God, M’mph. Chudder’s broadsword had introduced a half-dozen acolytes to the pleasures of intestinal air conditioning, the words “M’mph Sh’mph,” scrawled upon the sacred Wall of Plainness (with said entrails) and a nest of holy sparklings had been slightly perturbed. Bounty? 200 nuggets of Blue for his, preferably well-separated, head. Chudder’s Lizaraffe, snowy, weighed in at 10 per head. There was an additional bonus-bounty for any recovered entrails, some of which were still unaccounted for, and the acolytes being kept alive by magical life support, “would like them back quite soon please! ”
There was a murmur of widespread agreement at this substantial bounty. Chudder had been a steady go-er for some time now and looked set to be a good investment for continuing his current trend; of existing, that is.
The audience was composed of a mixture of identically disguised bounty hunters, law enforcers and a sprinkling of criminals though none, for obvious reasons, wished to reveal their raison d’être to their neighbours. Occasionally, an involuntary cough or movement might reveal some personal involvement in a bounty, to which said person would usually attempt to shuffle off in an overly casual manner. Such exits were always watched. Sometimes, they were even followed, by figures with long, poorly-concealed, pointy objects of the non-friendly variety. In an environment such as this, it paid to be inconspicuous.
Flower, by her very size, was already conspicuous and found it difficult to blend in with the other nondescripts. This was not entirely surprising, considering that she towered a half-metre above the next tallest person—without even taking her (now slightly truncated) horns into consideration. As such, she wore a rather ridiculously over-sized turban to hide her ivory and a djellaba that was voluminous enough to permit her to bend her knees slightly and thus diminish her height.
This, she believed, made her blend in. Unfortunately, a flashing red beacon would have done little more to highlight her as the following appeared:
for loss/theft of Unicorn,
Minotaur—goes by the name of “Flower, Bud.”
Exceptionally Tall. Horns recently sawn off.
4000 nuggets of Blue for body or information leading to the body thereof.
Bonus payment of croak-grade ivory for proven painful death.
There were numerous gasps of awe and whisperings, all along similar lines: “4000!”
A few heads turned almost imperceptibly in her direction.
Flower, stood motionless, her face as stone and poker calm like a seasoned bounty watcher. As the next poster was slapped onto the alley-wall she began to ease her way out in a casual, but clumsy manner through the mumbling crowd and off into the bustling market street.
‘4000 nuggets!’ she breathed, ripping off her turban and rolling it up into a tight ball. ‘That lump of lard, Potassia has got it in for me. With a price that high, every bounty hunter in the galax—’ She spun around.
Inexplicably, a number of faces in the crowd suddenly found their shoelaces wanting attention or the wares of a particular stall in need of scrutiny. Flower scanned the street for the quickest avenue of escape.
This was Rancid Row, the best Lotopian estimation of what a market should be—frantic cheery stalls, with waxed and healthy-looking fruit on display up-front and pre-bagged essays in rottenness ready for the unobservant punter.
Pungent fruit smells wallowed through the air, accompanied by the clangs and chanting of a colourful Zeubluedawehian procession, busily proclaiming the joys of Axe-mass. There were a dozen or so acolytes visible, merrily smashing their red-tasselled cymbals. The rest, only visible by their sandals, propped up the canvas of a ceremonial Dragon, the segmented body of which wove and undulated back almost the entire length of the street.
They were a happy, chanting bald bunch and now even more so for the extra pair of horns they’d gained at the head of their Dragon as they swayed off down the street and toward one of the greater temples.
The bounty hunters, their chance for a quick back-stab gone, wandered off, some filling in diaries with future plans and destinies, the others slinking back into Rogues Alleyway for any other juicy, possibly less muscular contracts.
Flower breathed a long sigh of relief and shook her horns about, much to the joy of her little bald-headed, tangerine-clad companions.
One thing’s for sure, she thought. I’ve got to go underground… and quickly.
Inspector Dwoirot stood before the granite plug as it glowed softly in the diffuse lava light. He stroked his beard thoughtfully, and his beard probably appreciated the sentiment. Beneath him stretched the vastness of “The Stoppage” cavern which had by the very action of the “The Stoppage,” been turned into a hissing, bubbling cauldron of neon-orange magma. An ocean of lava stretched before him, peppered with crumbling basalt columns some a hundred feet or more in girth and each as tall as Huge Harry, at least. The far cavern wall was invisible through the rippling smoke and it all made Dwoirot feel very small indeed.
Ash heavy steps carved into the sides of “The Plug” spiralled down and around its circumference, eventually leading to the burning waters. Where this final step and the lava met, plumes of noxious smoke rose in leisurely rolls to the roof skulking in the red darkness.
Everything was just as toxic it should be.
Or was it?
It was a dimly lit scene, even by the Lotopian Council’s lighting standards and little could be seen through the smoky laden air—but not so to the keen, gleaming eyes of Inspector Dwoirot.
As with all Dwarves, he had the innate ability to see clearly in the dark, or at least “see” subtle shifts in temperature. This gave him a rather monochromatic perspective, but an enviable one, of the restrained power contained within the lava and which to him was visible as a pool of shimmering, retina-singeing white.
The air too could be seen, lingering like layered mist above the molten lake and spinning in heated vortices high amidst the stalactites where it would cool and eventually drift down again in an endless cycle. The surrounding rocks glowed with the absorbed heat and the tunnel from where the magma came was awash with brilliance. A mesmerising scene.
The steps though…
Dwoirot trod carefully down the spiralling stairway and with the experience of a long life of encountering the wrong sort of people, checked continually over his shoulder. After all, it paid to be careful in the detecting business as his “customers” had a habit of suddenly appearing at such delicate moments to lend a helping shove, a tripping foot or even once, a strangling tail.
He reached the second-last step and knelt by it, his ruddy skin toasting in the ferocious heat as he compared the heat signatures that the steps were emitting—though not before wrapping his drooping beard about his neck like a scarf. He wouldn’t have been the first Dwarf to fall prey to a flaming beard.
Dwoirot stood, straightened his back with a pleasing disc-shifting crack, and fished in his top pocket, from which he produced a small black booklet. He flipped it open.
‘Oh no… What do you want?’ it grumbled. ‘I was asleep.’
‘Yes, were asleep,’ Dwoirot agreed. ‘Now… job to do diary.’ Dwoirot put on his commanding voice. ‘Take a note.’
The front and back covers bent further apart and the pages fluttered in what was at best estimation, a yawn. ‘Aa-ah! Nothing like a good stretch. I do hate being cooped up in that pocket of yours.’
‘Take a note.’ Dwoirot insisted. ‘There’s murder afoot, or afeet if I’m not very mistaken. Now pay attention.’
‘Oo-oo. Sounding all butch and masterful today, aren’t we? What’re you up to anyway? It looks like a film-set in here! Sounds like your trying to impress someone too. And whose that, writing down everything I’m saying—and what’s all that paper doing behind him?’
Dwoirot turned the booklet around so it couldn’t face the author. ‘Look,’ he hissed. ‘You’re only a set piece. Now do your job!’
‘Why can’t I have a more interesting role anyway? I mean no-one asked me at the audition if I wanted to be a bloomin’ diary! What I’d really like to be is a… seven headed fire-breathing Hydra! Ye-es! I like the sound of that! Can I mimic one of those? I cold do that. Listen!’ It’s pages fluttered pathetically. ‘That was a roar! Good, eh?’
Dwoirot slapped its cover twice. ‘Get a grip diary! Now pay attention!’
‘Mimic! Call me by my proper name. I’m a Mimic.’
Dwoirot sighed. ‘Alright then, Mimic take a note…?’
‘—Nope, won’t do it. I’ve said more lines than I’ll been paid for already.’
‘Take a note.’ Dwoirot flexed its spine threateningly.
‘Please take a note?’ it suggested. ‘A little politeness never hurt anyone y’know.’
Dwoirot growled: ‘It’ll hurt you soon if you don’t take down this note.’
With a flutter of pages that sounded distinctly like a blown raspberry, the Mimic/diary snapped shut.
Dwoirot howled in exasperation.
Taking hold of the front and back covers, he levered the diary back open—to an onslaught of protest:
‘Look! It’s not as though I enjoy this line of work! I didn’t plan to be a diary! It’s not as though they asked me at Mimic school what I wanted to be—and I said “A trumped-up memory aid for a third-rate detective.” But no, no and here I am. Wasted bloomin’ potential. Don’t know why I bother.’
‘Didn’t know you did,’ Dwoirot muttered and then loudly, ‘Please take a note, Mimic?’
‘Oh… blast my flexible spine and good nature. Alright. But keep it short this time. No more than two pages. My memory isn’t eternal y’know.’
Dwoirot breathed a sigh of relief. ‘At last. Now, case “Toby, Toby:” entry under “physical evidence.” ’ He sat upon one of the upper steps and trawled his gnarled fingers across its surface, collecting five little piles of black grime and leaving a shiny trail behind. ‘Ash present on upper steps strangely absent from lower ones… Additionally, lower steps much warmer and cleaner than they ought to be. Almost looks as if they’ve recently had some form of hot acidic substance scrub them clean. Most perplexing. Conclusion…?’
He stroked the coarse fibres of his moustache or perhaps even his beard. ‘Conclusion…?’ he repeated, sighing out the pungent smoky air.
‘They’ve been submerged in the lava?’
‘What?’ asked Dwoirot, stupefied. ‘Submerged? What a preposterous idea. How could the steps sink beneath the lava?’
The diary ruffled its pages in a sigh. ‘The lava level would have risen after The Stoppage. Sinking steps indeed! Detective? I wouldn’t trust you to detect darkness during an eclipse. Blimey, wasted potential by half, I tell you!’
‘Oh. Well of course I suppose that could have been. That might just account for the lack of ash on these lower steps and the greater surface temperature… But, the real question is…’
‘Why are they no longer submerged?’
‘Well of course that’s what the question is!’
‘Well sor-ree! Pardon me for trying to be of help to the Grrreat Inspector Dwoirot.’
Dwoirot growled at the little book. ‘If I’m ever in the sorry situation of needing your help, I’ll kill myself rather than ask you first.’
Dwoirot stared at the hissing pool of seething molten rock and at the steady flow churning in from the tributary tunnels beyond.
‘Rock that was submerged is no longer… and the lava level is low despite more flowing into a dead-end cavern all the time… Why? ’
‘Hah! You asked. Well, someone must be siphoning it off.’
‘Well of course someone is!’ Dwoirot retorted. ‘I knew that. It’s being stolen. The question is…’
‘Why is it being stol—’
Dwoirot snapped the diary shut.
It was then that he noticed the almost unnoticeable grains of dust lying along the groove where the steps met the plug. Gingerly he reached out and ran his hand along its surface. ‘Smooth at the top and then coarse the further down it gets… Hmm…’
‘Ish meen gwound do weediweck d’ lava fwow!’ muffled the Mimic.
‘I didn’t ask that time!’
Dwoirot shoved the booklet back into his heavy overcoat.
‘I think,’ he announced proudly, ‘that this rock has been ground to redirect the lava flow! Genius! Done it again Dwoirot, old chap. T’would be remarkable if you didn’t do it so often.’
Gripping onto the plug surface as much as possible, he leant around and over the lava. The heat, even for a Dwarf, was intolerable but he managed to see what he wanted; a small tunnel bored into the rock just beyond normal vision.
‘Yefh,’ it managed, barely heard.
‘Your cover is fire-retardant isn’t it?’
‘Feeling up to a little boat ride then?’
There followed much protesting and quoting of contractual agreements but eventually…
‘I’ll get you for this Dwoir-ooooooh!’
Inside it smelt of socks—socks that had endured an Iron-Man Gigathalon, possibly and then been forgotten about and left somewhere damp to fester for a month. Possibly they’d been briefly rediscovered, doused in parmesan, penicillin and dead dog sauce and then forgotten about again until the smell began to seep through the floorboards. This was a smell to be reckoned with, and had not only a punch, but also a flying roundhouse death-kick to the groin.
This was the smell that dwelt within Yeldarb’s bag of inter-dimensional holding.
Bob gagged and clutched reflexively at his orifices, folding his fingers over again and again, desperately trying to prevent any of the vile airs from entering his body.
‘Gack!’ he croaked as the need for oxygen took him. With a wave of nausea, he toppled backwards and onto the soft accommodating lining of the bag interior; an interior composed of magical cross-sections of interwoven non-reality but which to all purposes exactly resembled the inside of a straw-sack.
Yeldarb lay slumped in the hammock-like comfort. He was grinning inanely.
‘I see you’ve found my abode, Bob. Good, isn’t it? I keep everything in here.’
Bob rolled around the slippery interior of the bag, bruising, stabbing and grating himself against the wide variety of trinkets and general rubbish that lived there. Namely:
Empty bottled potions,
Scribbled collections of random notions,
A family of stuffed stoats,
A fishing net for poachers,
Short stabbing swords,
A novel on distant fjords,
Maps curled, yellowed and littered with X’s,
Battle equipment suitable for both the sexes,
Tomes of diabolic hexes,
And a book on Archaeopteryxes.
There were scrying spheres,
Rusting garden shears,
Clothing soiled and rotten,
Pygmy tribes long, long forgotten,
Thick woollen underwear (often much underrated),
Occasional squeaking mice,
Seven species of unknown lice,
A pair of purple fluffy dice,
A clock set to early morning alarm,
And… something crawling up Bob’s arm…
‘Aargh!’ he cried and scrabbled to his feet, attempting to throw it off, ‘What the… the… fug is that? ’
‘Ah,’ smiled Yeldarb. He laughed a too-easy, slightly inebriated laugh. ‘Cool isn’t she?’
‘Cool? Looks a bit bloomin’ dangerous to me! It’s got talons, a nasty sharp beak and… and… stuff.’
‘She’s called Phoebe.’
‘How interesting. Any chance of removing it from my arm.’
‘It’s a she. Phoebe? Here.’ Yeldarb held out his arm and the small creature unfurled her wings, released the grip on Bob’s flesh and glided across.
Bob stared at her. ‘You keep it—’
‘You keep her in here?’
‘Yes, she likes it. At least I think she does. So hard to tell what she’s thinking. I don’t think she likes you though, Bob. Perhaps in a few weeks, when she’s a bit bigger…’
Bob eyed the diminutive creature, its wings a flurry of ambers and chestnut-reds curled back and folded neatly behind. Its chest had a golden, scaly plated appearance that led via a short ruffled neck to a pair of beady little orange eyes that watched him beadily.
‘Was that a threat? “In a few weeks” ’ asked Bob dryly.
‘Not at all. Just a statement of biological certainty. Phoebe here is a bit of a carnivore. Soon she’ll be a much bigger carnivore. You’ll get on better then You’d be amazed just how fast she’s growing.’
‘Ye-es. Look about this… this! Look, I’m not handling all this too well and I’m not really that interested in your pretty pet pigeon. What I want to know is: “Where the pants am I?” ’
‘She’s not a pigeon. She’s a Phoenix.’
‘Oh. Well. I’m glad I know that now Yeldarb. Thank you.’
‘That’s alright. Phoebe doesn’t like being called a pigeon.’
Phoebe squawked in agreement.
‘Now, would it be too much trouble to tell me where I am, what happened to the bar and… a Phoenix? I thought they were X-stinked, or something? Where’d you find her?’
‘ ‘Twas a sailor sold her to me… Sinnaughty or some exotic name like that. Anyway, it was a few weeks ago when I’d just entered this Gods forsaken cesspool of iniquity. He conned me. Said it was a solid golden egg of the golden-egg-laying-duck. Should have known. Anyway, I tried to melt it down.’
‘Ye-es, that’s right Phoebe. I did, didn’t I?’ Yeldarb stroked the long soft feathers, paying special attention to the white fluffy bit under her beak. Phoebe turned her neck jerkily and nuzzled into the warmth of his hand.
‘I had a bird once y’know, if you remember?’ said Bob icily.
‘Really?’ said Yeldarb with poorly veiled disinterest. ‘What was it?’
The world was in turmoil, swinging around and throwing the contents of this small universe up and painfully, down. Yeldarb landed on Bob. Bob landed on an ornamental pygmy. The pygmy in turn landed on Yeldarb. On and on this went. Phoebe squawked and hovered above the majority of flying objects.
At length, and after a brief free-fall, they came to a bottom-flattening halt with a single blow that brought everything down in one almighty heap.
Silence reigned for a while. Eventually Yeldarb groaned.
‘The answer to your original question Bob, is that I now believe we are now outside.’
The bruised sky crackled and split as lightning tore between the spider-leg spires of a gothic castle, black, foreboding and perched somewhat precariously upon the summit of The Overlook. Yellow light glared through arched windows that patrolled its highest turrets and flickered as successive lightning bolts drove into the conductor atop the central octahedral spire. White plasma rippled down the spire, flying down buttresses and eventually being consumed by the profound darkness of the castle courtyard. And amidst this spectacular, the silhouette of a lone figure, twisted and crazed, could be seen in one of the highest turrets, watching.
‘Sacred shit!’ rasped Bacchus as he pointed his “piece” at the storm. ‘You sure is one big mutha.’
The window rattled in response and alarmingly, he felt the turret sway.
Right, that’s it! I’m not paid enough to take this kinda shit.
He turned to leave.
The sky roared as the wind pummelled into the latticed pane with a flurry of fists that wrenched the lock from its masonry, hurling the window spinning into the void. Bacchus too was sucked forwards in the brief instant before the storm noticed the opening now offered to it—and leapt through. Now he was casually tossed backwards, experiencing a moment of weightlessness before being flung bodily to the floor.
Slightly dazed, he looked up in time to watch the over-hanging light* swing up towards the barrel-vaulted ceiling, and explode.
I’m really outta here!
The tower shuddered again, followed by the rustling sound of crumbling and falling stonework. The view from the window shifted a few degrees.
A more eloquent man may have thought more eloquent things. Bacchus opted for: Oh shit!
Keeping close to the cold stone floor, he crawled towards the spiral staircase, his armour crunching upon broken glass. Something forced him to pause, turning his head to look out through the broken glass:
Beyond and below, but mostly below and indeed a great deal below, sat the slightly-better-to-do suburbs of Lotopia, skulking in the shadows of The Overlook. Further out and into the valley lurked the diseased city-heart and about this sprawled the Dickensian squalor that typified so much of Lotopia. Occasional oases of pink identified those places of ill-repute and, even more occasional, patches of torch-lit yellow pinpointed the temples. And right in the midst of all the grime and putridity watched a stern pinnacle of stone, Huge Harry. Normally, Harry was the largest landmark around. Tonight he was but a matchstick compared to the cloud-thing that loomed above him…
A pair of yellowed eyes shone full of malevolence as hands, huge, white and with knuckles the size of houses clutched at the extremes of a Cumulus Nimbus that would dwarf a small planet. Its black shadow poured across the city in a smothering tide, pausing briefly above the Elfindel’s fortress before turning to point squarely at Lady Reptila’s castle.
And the eyes within blazed straight at Bacchus.
He gave a strangled cry, broke from the gaze and managed to slithered off slightly to one side and into the darker shadows afforded by a mullion.
The sky roared, the whole castle shook, and the cloud was on the move…
‘Mistress Reptila!’ shrieked Bacchus as he rolled down the stairs, futilely attempting to make himself heard. ‘It’s coming!’ And then to himself, ‘How I got stuck on dis fuging suicide watch, I’ll never know.’
Bacchus’ turret overlooked a large courtyard with such numerous extensions such that its original pentagonal shape had long since vanished leaving it now vaguely circular. In the centre where once there had been a large flagstone, there was now an opening and through that protruded a long metallic pillar with a sphere at its tip. Five equidistant columns surrounded this, with bundles of vine-like wires snaking between them and forming, in essence, a pentacle. It was a veritable jungle of occult technology and emitted a worryingly restrained throb.
Through the opening about this central pillar, light cascaded from a variety of barely visible equipment. What could be seen looked very out of place with the gothic surrounds as banks of small lights flashed meaningfully and the air permeated with the band-saw whine of spinning disks.
The air was thick with the pungent odour of magic.
Bacchus reached the ground level and turned briefly to look back through a loophole window that faced in the direction of Lotopia. And what he saw filled him to overflowing with horror:*
The cloud’s shadow was no longer above the city. It was now scaling the castle walls and clawing its way up the north wall.
A loud banging brought his attentions to the courtyard door as it proceeded to merrily smashed itself to bits in the wind. He booted it open, ripping the hinges from the wall and ran outside and into the midst of a banshee tornado. He staggered backwards, clawing desperately towards the archway as the ethereal banshees spun around him, their wild hair a blaze of white, their claws trying to pull him up into the air.
Bursting into the comparable silence of the beleaguered turret, he afforded a quick glance back at the courtyard; Reptila was nowhere to be seen.
I need to warn her or she’ll be killed!
A richly woven tapestry caught his eye. As did a statue with a fine Blue patina.
Perhaps, her death wouldn’t be such a bad thing after all…
‘Screw the bitch!’
With an impolite gesture to the banshees, he turned and ran along the Western corridor to where he had prepared a means of escape in the likelihood of such an event (it pays, though not well, to think ahead in the sleazy minion business).
It was a device that he and Erryl had “appropriated” from some Tinker Golem in the city called Leonardi for two coins of dubious metallic content. They’d been promised a full refund if it didn’t work. Of course, if it didn’t work, it’d be his ghost collecting…
One by one, the windows along the corridor blew in, creeping towards him menacingly. The cry of the banshees grew nearer.
Hastily, he strapped himself in, which was fortunate, for at that moment the large balcony window facing him blew out with a roar and Bacchus found himself, sucked out and into the blackness. He screamed, his colourful language lost in the wind as the device bore him away in a dive, not vertical, but as close to as to not make much difference.
Above was the sound of crumbling rock and then an explosion that lit the valley below. He didn’t turn around. After all, he now had much more pressing issues before him and under him. Six hundred feet of “under him” to be vaguely precise.*
The twinkling lights of Lotopia churned beneath and in panic he experimented with the straps that hung from the sail like wings.
Now he was in a vertical dive and spinning to boot.
The sharp lower rocks whistled past. An occasional unseen mountain creature bleated at him from the darkness and then, with the sort of luck that only fictional characters seem blessed with, the contraption began to rise upwards in a stomach-easing arc as it surfed on the warmth of a rising air current.*
It was then that he saw the God.
He was out of his cloud now, to coin a phrase, and for a deity, looking extremely pissed. His trident, fully twice the height of the castle sparked and crackled as further lightning spat in random contortions and snaked around his towering luminous body. He had a translucency about him and a white-blue tinge to his naked torso, but he was certainly “here” enough to warrant some serious worry.
‘Mortal,’ he boomed, ‘Thou dare imitate my powers?’
A diminutive figure stood on the far parapet, shrouded in a thin veil of lights. Her arms were raised and about each hovered a trail of small red spheres as though she were juggling them.
Bacchus shook his head and strained to bring the contraption about for a better view. His eyes were watering with the chill air hitting them and the wind rushing past his ears meant he had less than no chance of hearing Reptila’s reply. The God though obviously did.
‘Wha-at! Thou dare insult me with your crude tongue. Little rogue, I shall cut it from thy screaming mouth and roast it with my—’
The God shook in increased fury.
‘How dare thou! That’s not true. I do not “buy it in.” I generate it all myself. What? Oh, you do, do you? I mean, thy does, does thy. Well… Let me show you—yes, I will, don’t worry!’
The God’s arms raised high and disappeared into white clouds that swirled around his clenched fists; clouds that flashed and pulsed worryingly. He brought his arms down, fingers now outstretched, lightning twisting about and spinning into a vortex which he directed to where Reptila… no longer stood. The tower exploded into a shower of masonry and slate.
With a thunderous slap that shook the entire mountain, the God stepped into the castle grounds.
Reptila had reappeared now, hovering above the archway that led by the Road of Asses to the city below. Bacchus shook his head with disbelief.
Surely, she isn’t…?
Reptila’s hand gestures incensed the God. He roared, raised his trident high above the castle, poised with a great smile across his face.
‘Now, mortal… Now, you di—Stay still goddamnit—I damn it! Stay still, I say. In the name of me!’
With a whoosh, she sped forward, between and under his legs and stopped above the large unusually shaped metal column.
‘Stay still. Oh, you are. Right, well then. Prepare to meet your maker. Actually, that could be me. Anyway—’
With that the God brought his trident down, skewering the metal column and…
Small One and Tall With Moon Eyes squatted on the canvas-like skin of the floating leaf that was their home and sucked at the pink shoots sprouting from its surface. All about them floated further leaves, some occupied, and as was the evening tradition, each of their kind (for their race had no name yet) howled a variety of complex and enchanting tunes at the dual-moon sky. It was an idyllic scene and the tranquil heavens with its few stars shone down gently upon them.
Then there was a flash in the sky.
A chorus of alarm calls broke out, spreading like fire across the yawning gaps between each leaf until the whole of the pink sky was awash with their voices. Small One turned to Tall With Moon Eyes and screeched a variety of high frequency warbles from its long cylindrical mouth that ended in a little flower shaped snout.
Here is what was said: ‘Tall With Moon Eyes, did you see that? ’
Tall With Moon Eyes’ neck extended like a stretched accordion, her secondary eyes swivelling up to the overwhelming darkness. In the midst of it all, shone the lowest star of the Large Leaf constellation.
‘What has happened Small One? The light in the sky, is it on fire?’
Small One shrugged its hermaphroditic waist extensions.
The two sat there, long into the interstellar night and watched the glow slowly fade, though for a long time it was a very impressive sight indeed. Somewhere, they knew, something big had happened.
The light from the castle was visible from Opus’ balcony window and he was standing admiring it when the door to his chambers opened and the soft rustle that could only be Lady Eroica returning, could be heard.
He remained watching the city—not a scene that gave him much pleasure, admittedly. However, the idea that it was now all “his” added a certain appeal. Power coursed through his veins and his mind raced with anticipation as to what devious thing it would do next. It was not to be disappointed:
She’s obviously not noticed me yet.
With slyness, he oozed through the silk veil that partitioned the balcony from the bedroom, and paused, watching her silently.
Lady Eroica sat upon the bed, still wearing her evening gown and was removing her earrings. Her glittering silver shoes lay discarded by the door.
She’s probably relieved I’m not here. Thinks I’m off getting drunk, no doubt. Celebrating my victory over that fool Renders. I’ll teach her to side with that tin-clad moron…
Softly, he padded across the deep carpet until he reached the ornate brass bedpost. There he stood behind her, motionless, simply watching, listening to her breathing and watching her movements.
She is so beautiful. So mine…
He drew a slow deep breath: ‘Good evening my love!’ he boomed.
Lady Eroica leapt to her feet with a small shriek. She spun around, wielding her hairbrush defensively. Upon seeing his horrible familiar grimace she staggered backwards and fell against her dresser, clutching at the pendant around her neck. ‘You! You’re back.’
‘What’s wrong with it?’ he laughed, impishly attempting to look over his shoulder. ‘Oh, you mean I’m back. How silly of me. Yes, I’m back. I do live here, you know. Didn’t you expect me?’ He sat at the edge of the bed, leant onto the bedpost and grinned inanely at her. ‘Anyone would think you didn’t want to see me.’
She shook her head slowly and whispered, ‘No, of course not… my love.’
‘Love?’ He laughed. ‘Anyway, did you have a nice time then dear? Dance with Sir Renders, did you?’
‘Only once,’ she spoke, her voice now a pathetic murmur. She was edging around the dresser now, having swapped the hairbrush for a hefty hand-mirror. She looked accusingly at him. ‘It’s a free city! I’m entitled to dance with whomever I choose.’
‘I wasn’t questioning that, dear.’
‘Sir Renders and I are just good friends. Nothing more. Friends!’
‘There was absolutely no reason for your behaviour towards him. None at all! Anyway,’ she sniffed, ‘his hand was sore. I danced to cheer him up. Any woman would have done the same.’
‘And would any woman have rubbed his hand better for so many hours after the dance?’ He placed special emphasis on “rubbed.” ‘And until this small hour of the morning too? Such dedication.’
She glared viciously at him. ‘Don’t you dare start that again! I’m sick of your accusations.’
‘I apologise, my dear.’ The anti-Opus held out his hand to placate her. The bed springs creaked as he stood. ‘Come, my love. Come to me. I’ve something to give you. A present…’
She pressed back against the dresser. ‘Liar. You’re going to do away with me, just like you did to all your other wives!’
‘Don’t act the fool with me. You’d have to be pretty unlucky to have one wife die from piano trauma to the head. But three…?’
Opus, you dark horse you…the anti-Opus thought.
He tried again: ‘It’s just a little present. Such a trifle.’
‘Supposing I believe you, what would this present be.’
He placed his hand on where his heart might be. ‘My love.’
‘Uurgh. That’s it. You’re not my Opus, so who are you!’
The false smile fell from his face. ‘Who am I? Why, I’m your husband. Your love. Your little soft-nosed possum,’
Lady Eroica laughed. ‘Oh no you’re not. You’re different.’
‘Apart from all the “presents” ? I don’t know…’
‘I wouldn’t have thought it possible, but you’re worse.’
Opus took a step closer, his hand outstretched. ‘Worse? Surely not.’
‘Don’t come any closer—I’ll scream. Mr Swindler is just upstairs. He’ll come—and I’ve not paid him for weeks, so he’ll be in a really foul mood.’
Opus shook his head, a great venomous smile snaking across it. ‘I’m sorry my love, but I gave the Swindlers Axe-mass off.’
With a sudden burst of speed, she bolted for the doors, hauled them open and very nearly made it into the hall…
Opus’ foot slammed against the frame and brought it to a shuddering close. Lady Eroica, he grabbed by her bare shoulders and thrust against the wall.
She didn’t scream, but eyed him maliciously.
‘How did you know, bitch?’ Opus hissed at her. ‘Tell me!’ he insisted. ‘How did you know?’
She strained to turn her head away as he leered towards her. Opus was well aware of her efforts to reach down towards the iron poker his old-self kept by the door. He shook her again for effect.
‘Alright! Three things.’
‘Three…? I’m getting careless in my old age. And…?’
‘First, you were too nice—all this “present” rubbish. Then, you were too nasty, fighting with Renders. You’ve never fought with anyone before!’
Opus smiled. ‘A man of contrasts. That’s called depth of character. The third?’
‘You don’t smell.’
Opus was incredulous. ‘I don’t smell?’
‘My husband was rancid. You don’t smell! ’
Opus stroked his chin. ‘Hmm. I’m afraid smell is a bit outwith my repertoire of mimicry, although my anal scent glands can produce a variety of pungent odours, if need be.’
‘What in the name of the gods are you?’
A horrible dead smile, that is a smile somehow more horrid than the norm, introduced itself to her. Opus breathed out slowly, relaxing his musculature and, as he did so, allowed his disguise to fade. His skin sagged and began to decolourise, evolving into the albino mountain of flesh that was the “natural” form of his kind.
Lady Eroica emitted a short strangling croak. ‘Holy Mother of Zeubluedaweh, you’re a…’
‘Doppelganger. You like what you see, my love?’
‘Uurgh,’ she cried and turned her face away. His inner organs were fully visible through the colourless skin—the pulsating heart muscles, dinner remains decomposing in the glass bowl of his stomach. What was happening in the intestines doesn’t bear writing about. ‘You were grotesque enough as my husband. At least his skin was opaque.’
‘Aren’t I attractive to you anymore, my love? Can’t you see my inner beauty? Won’t you still be my soft-nosed possum?’
‘Not if you were the last soft-nosed possum in the forest. Now at least I can see why you changed your looks. You’re gross! How ever do your kind manage to convince each other to reproduce.’ She held back the desire to retch and, pushing her head back against the door, struggled to break free from the steely grip of her assailant.
‘So nice of you my dear, after all these years of marriage,’ he snarled. ‘So I’m a doppelganger, and I murdered your real husband. Does that mean I’m a bad person? Besides, I’ve done you a favour—you hated him.’
She fell silent.
‘And you were having an affair with that metal fuger, Sir Renders.’
‘I think you were.’
‘This room. I’ve watched you. Both of you. At it.’
Her cheeks flushed bright red. ‘It? ’
Avoiding his gaze, she looked about the room, scanning the walls. ‘H… how?’ she stammered.
Opus pointed at the mirror. ‘Magical one-way glass. Rather effective, don’t you think?’
Her mouth hung agape. ‘One… way glass… Then you’ve seen… every—?’
‘Everything. I tell you my dear, it was most entertaining—and made for most pleasant interludes between watching and learning the behaviour patterns of your tiresome husband. But enough of this and to the matter in and. What are we going to do with you?’
What colour there had been drained slowly from her face. She looked at him questioningly, with pathetic hopefulness.
‘I could kill you.’
She gasped and withered further beneath his grip.
‘No,’ he laughed soothingly, ‘I’m not going to kill you.’
‘No, I’ll probably get someone else to do it for me.’
And with that she fainted.
Opus smiled leeringly at her, her peach shoulders soft, perfumed and so desirable in the dim ambience. ‘Ah, my dear, I shan’t kill you,’ he whispered. ‘A dark cell for you I think, until you are useful. Or until I need for you…’
A sharp rat-tat-tat echoed throughout the house. There was the clank of distant metal.
‘Who the buggery’s that?’ he asked himself, although he should have known better.
Bacchus glided in to land in what remained of the castle courtyard and did so with the grace of a sofa, bouncing off the flagstones and ultimately smashing painfully into the thick iron gate that led to the Castle’s intestinal areas. He’d felt greater pain, but not in this lifetime.
When he’d recovered enough and realised that, no, he probably wasn’t going to die, he decided to do the decent thing and look around for survivors—or rather, make sure that there weren’t any.
The central courtyard was a mess and resembled more of a quarry now more than anything else. The surrounding walls had collapsed in upon themselves leaving gaping holes through which the wind howled restlessly. There was also a tremendous view of the Sea of Stars, twinkling in the distance. This came of a surprise to Bacchus who had become quite accustomed to the southern wing of the castle occupying that position. Further inspection revealed the wing to have sidled off down the mountain, probably to the great surprise of the mountain goats.
Fallen slates slid underfoot and glass scrunched noisily as he made his way into the central courtyard, or plateau as it now was—and all the time learning new levels of respect for the wrath of a God.
The five metallic pillars which had been arranged into the points of a pentacle, were absent, sizzling stumps being their only persistence into this reality. And the central pylon which he had seen briefly was also gone, as were the surrounding flagstones. This left a gaping tear in the ground from the midst of which rose a steady plume of acrid black smoke.
Towards this gaping void Bacchus staggered, against his better nature—which was so small he easily overcame it. His only real thoughts of concern were for Erryl whom he knew had been inside helping arrange some manner of diabolic apparatus (and who had a nice gold ring that he probably wouldn’t be needing any more).
He hovered before the gaping smoker and looked down at the rubble-strewn steps which he knew led into… *her laboratory.
‘Lady Reptila?’ he called half-heartedly, and then listened as his voice distorted into a cacophony of lonely echoes.
Reptila had been busy with a team of undead Dwarves for some months now and had (for reasons unknown) constructed a tunnel that ran in an enormous circle throughout the heart of The Overlook. And it was through this tunnel that he could now imagine his cry bouncing along. He wondered perhaps if the Dwarves were still there? Chinking away ceaselessly, their sightless eyes bulging from rotten sockets, small things burrowing through their decomposing flesh… Bacchus shivered and shook his head.
Shit man, get a grip!…
He called again, even quieter this time… and was relieved at the lack of reply.
Erryl’s in there.
‘Gods-damnit!’ He took a deep breath and then flung it out forcefully. ‘I’m coming down! You hear that Dwarves?’ he whispered. ‘I don’t want no undead little fuger drivin’ no double-headed axe into my back if come down there!’
Undead little fugers…
The steps led into a nothingness that hid in the dark like a great carnivorous beast waiting for the unwary to fall into it.
Bacchus, though, was wary and prepared for this (and the other dozen traps that waited any foolish intruders). He eased himself down each of the slippery steps with exceeding care. At the eighth step, he stopped.
He looked at the overly clean ninth step.
This he knew in reality was a trap door and which at the slightest pressure, would fold inwards dropping its victim through fifty feet of screaming blackness to a pit arrayed with blunt* spikes. This ninth step was also the last step, apparently leading nowhere.
Bacchus knew different.
With his leading foot searching into the darkness, he found one rung of the ladder attached to the far wall. With a moment of faith, and it really was a moment, he fell forwards into the blackness and… caught the top rung with his now sweating hands. After a few recovering breaths he was off, lumbering down each step with the steadiness of a learner tightrope artist on a greased rope during a force ten earthquake.
It was still the very depths of the night with the pale moonlight now visible through a pinhole of vision above him, but he soon found there to be adequate light and warmth to allow him to relax a bit. Another few hundred rungs down, and the light was as day and the air suffocatingly warm—with a tinge of sulphur. The rungs had gone steadily from ice-cold to warm and now scorching, forcing Bacchus to retract his fists into the comfort of his djellaba.
The lower he went, the worse it got until he began to wonder if indeed his mistress had found some secret path into The Abysmal. At length, a gravel floor came into view, glowing softly in occasional patches almost like, no, he reasoned, exactly like impact zones.
Treading carefully between them he wandered into the tunnel, calling the name of his mistress and really not wanting to hear a reply from some band of neglected undead Dwarves muttering about union rights.
It was then that he saw her—a smouldering form sprawled behind a large semi-molten boulder that had seemingly dropped from the tunnel roof. He also saw Erryl, or at least his feet, sticking out as they were from under a different boulder.
‘Erryl!’ he cried and ran forward to his old time killing buddy. ‘Speak to me, Erryl!’
Erryl groaned weakly. Thankfully, the boulder had missed his vital organs and had instead landed upon his groin. As such, he looked to be alive but in considerable pain.
‘Hey… Baccy!’ he wheezed. ‘Fancy gettin’ this big… fuger off me?’
‘Sure thing, evil-buddy of mine.’
Bacchus heaved, grunted, cried out in effort, and eventually raised the boulder—but only slightly. Then, he slipped and dropped it back down with an accompanying crunch. Erryl opened his mouth at though to scream, but nothing came out.
‘Sorry, man. Hang on.’ He heaved again, and raised it enough to allow him to kick Erryl’s legs out from under. He surveyed the strangely twisted and juxtaposed limbs. ‘Ah, jus’ bruises. You’ll be alright, Erryl… Erryl?’
Erryl had passed out.
‘Lazy bastard. She’ll deduct your pay for this, y’know.’
Bacchus, reluctantly, turned his attentions to Reptila.
She was wearing that strange other worldly cloak he’d seen her wear occasionally; her mad scientist white lab-cloak with a pair of magnifying devices poking from her top pocket—and they looked melted.
‘Lady Reptila?’ he whispered as he sank to his knees. The smell of burnt hair permeated the air and with her skin blackened and charred, Bacchus didn’t know whether to shake, slap or lay cold towels upon her. So he tried some prodding instead.
‘Lady Reptila, you’re alive…’ Bacchus hid his joy well.
‘Of course, fool, assist me!’
He did so and dragged her over to the tunnel wall where Bacchus could prop her up. ‘What happened, my Lady? The God, is he…? Eh… where is he?’
‘God! Pfah! He is no longer a God…’ she laughed hoarsely and pointed to a small room off the main tunnel—her control room.
‘That… cylinder,’ she pointed at what seemed to be the source of all the light, ‘he’s… inside it!’
Bacchus looked at it again. ‘Inside? The God? What, all of him? But…’
‘How?’ she asked.
She laughed again. ‘I don’t expect an ape like you to even begin to comprehend—but as I have no one else to tell of my great accomplishment… The God, his energies, all of them he expended into trying to destroy me. But all along, he was powering my quasi-magical quantum singularity. And the more he put in, the more it could suck in. Such a fool, he didn’t even realise as it became too late that perhaps he should stop before…’ She paused and gave a manic laugh. ‘In his arrogance he expended all his powers and was absorbed by my device. That’ll teach those aged cretin Gods not to disturb my work. And now…’
‘Now, I have his power!’
Bacchus nodded, not entirely sure if this was a good thing. ‘But whaddaya intend to do with it, milady? Destroy Lotopia?’
She smiled softly at him. ‘An appealing idea, I must admit. No, I intend something… else. At least at first.’
Bacchus looked at her, questioningly.
* Chudder’s Lizaraffe was only slightly less infamous than its swamp-dwelling owner and could be described as a rather disturbing creature at best. At worst it was a perception-twisting nightmare contortion of disjoint limbs and putridity. The demon offspring of a King Commodo lizard and a giraffe, the Lizaraffe had managed to capture the utterly worst characteristics of both species. The reptilian skin, slick and cold, forked tongue, bulging double lidded and yellow slit eyes welded to a thick slimy torso suspended on stilt-like limbs, looked about as appealing as a mobile vomit sculpture and often less so. As if this weren’t bad enough, the swamp Orcs rear these wretched creatures from birth, bound together with others of their kind. Over time, the unfortunates grow together and become literally inseparable, eventually producing about the most bad-tempered thing you could ever hope not to meet.
* Such lights were a rarity being the result of The Lady’s experimentation with mysterious unseen forces (and which, according to Erryl, had something to do with a bloke called Alec Tricity).
* This is not unusual. Horror is generally the emotion that everyone feels when looking upon Lotopia. Indeed the renowned Ghoul author, Vincent Lugosi, once filled an entire book with a detailed description of Lotopia and its denizens.
* Mostly the sweat and exhaust of Lotopia.
* Cue organ.
* After fifty feet even a pit full of meringues would cause some degree of harm.