Strange Deaths to Follow
by Neil McGill
‘What is it Renders?’ growled Mayor Opus. ‘What in Lotopia do you want at this ungodly hour? Back for some more perhaps?’
Renders was drunk, that at least was readily apparent, and he held a carafe of wine in his left hand which he swung emphatically to add weight to each slur. It sloshed about noisily, as did his words.
‘I am here…’ he announced with great seriousness, ‘to ap… aplologishe…’
Opus glowered at him. ‘Accepted,’ and proceeded to force the door over Renders’ boot.
‘No, no,’ Renders shoved past Opus and staggered into the echoing hall, shouting loudly. ‘Eroica! Need to aplopogishe to her. Must!’
Opus sighed and closed the door. He had servants to take care of this sort of thing. At least, he had had servants. Perhaps he shouldn’t have killed them all. That Swindler chap though was annoying—he at least deserved it.
Renders was now off shouting and stomping his way up the marble staircase that led to the Mayor and Mayoress’ chambers.
He certainly knows the way, Opus thought sourly.
In truth, Opus had no jealousy for the relationship that Lady Eroica and Renders had pursued. But it was strange as he felt now as if he should care. After all, he was the mayor and it didn’t look good for some commoner with a shiny suit and a big lance to be abusing his wife, be she lying unconscious on the floor upstairs or not.
Renders had reached the top step now and was swaying unsteadily and leaning heavily on the balcony.
Fall, you fool, fall!
Regrettably Renders managed to steady himself, using a tall chair to haul himself up, and it was about this point that Opus remembered that, yes, Lady Eroica was lying unconscious on his bedroom floor and, yes, she was about to be discovered; or tripped over.
‘Renders!’ he sputtered and bounded up the first flight of stairs. ‘Hold on, old chap! Don’t go in there just yet. I need to er… wake her ladyship. Stop!’
Renders was turning the handle.
Opus reached the top step. ‘Stop, you damnable fool. Stop!’
Renders stood in the doorway now, looking around the darkened room. Lady Eroica lay, so far unseen, sprawled by his feet.
Don’t look down!
The last steps Opus leapt in a wild slow-motion dream state, but at last, he was before Renders. With a forceful shove, he managed to topple the big knight back into the landing. ‘Renders, Renders! Come now! Lady Eroica won’t thank you if you wake her…’
Renders swayed dangerously towards him, forcing Opus to support the enormous weight of Renders + armour.
‘Zeubluedaweh!’ he exclaimed with the effort, his knees shaking as he raised Renders back to the near vertical. Something wet plopped onto his forehead and he looked up to watch a long thread of drool woven from Renders gently settle upon him.
Opus shook with disgust and rising anger. Various evil thoughts fought vied for his attention.
Now would be a good time to finish this bugger off… proposed his evil thoughts lobe.
No… no, too obvious. After that fight this evening, you’d be the obvious suspect, responded the much smaller common sense lobe.
Later… suggested the evil thoughts lobe ominously.
Wobbling, but vertical enough now, Opus directed the bulk of Renders back into the hall and away from the bedroom door. ‘Now… there’s a good chap. Now, you sit… there!’ He forced Renders onto a long back-less couch resting against the balustrade.
‘Now I’ll go and wake Lady Eroica. You stay there! ’
Renders grunted and slumped onto the full length of the couch, his head lolling around wildly off its far end. Although, he did manage to raise it enough to announce: ‘I… wait… there.’ His carafe fell to the floor and rolled around, sloshing noisily.
‘Yes, you do that,’ Opus smiled coldly and slammed the door shut.
He looked down at the cold form of Lady Eroica.
The common sense lobe was despairing: Great! Now he expects to see her. Now what do you do?
Lady Eroica would be out for hours after that unfortunate series of bumps she’d received against the wall, and, even if she did come around, all she’d do would be to alert that great ape-in-arms.
No, he thought, this requires subtlety.
Evil thoughts lobe interjected: torch the place! Kill them both! No…kill them both, then torch the place. No… take the woman, kill them both and then torch the place!
Opus smiled—a nice idea set of thoroughly despicable ideas, but… He knelt down and began to scrutinise and learn the features of Lady Eroica’s face.
Many moments passed.
The door opened.
Lady Eroica stood glowing in the yellow light of a gas lamp she cradled in her arms. Her white gown, now drawn up over her shoulders was wrapped about her tightly and supplemented by a thick gaudy dressing gown. Her hair was in pink rollers and she had a mudpack on—or from its earthy look, possibly even a swamp-pack.
Renders started in his seat. ‘Milady,’ he grunted. He attempted to stand, but fell off the chair and onto the floor with a clatter.
Eroica groaned, her eyes pushing towards the ceiling. ‘What do you want at this hour Renders? Or indeed, any hour?’
Renders rolled onto his belly and crawled across the marble floor until he reached her slippered feet, which he proceeded to slobber and mutter incoherently over. Only momentarily did he wonder at the thick black hairs sprouting from the tops of her slippers.
‘Renders, stand up!’ she commanded.
He did so, with effort.
‘Now, what do you want?’
‘Ah, m’love. ’s he gone?’
‘Who?’ she announced loudly. ‘My beloved Opus?’
Renders brought a great clumsy metal digit to his lips. ‘Ssss…sssshhhhhh! Him! Mayor Him! ’
‘He is in bed now, I believe. Awaiting my return.’
‘ ’sh good. W… we won’t be deshtrubbed.’
Lady Eroica took a step backwards. ‘My husband is a light sleeper!’
Renders grunted, almost laughed. ‘Hasn’t shtopped us before, you naughty little hampshter. Closhe the door over and come to Sir Rendersy-wendersy for a big hug!’
He stumbled forward, caught her by the shoulders, and attempted to hoist her up to his towering height. His face reddened, his arms shook and he let loose a guttural groan of effort. ‘Putting on a bit of weight m’love? Still, I likes that on a girl.’
Despite his complaints, Renders managed to keep her above the ground long enough to breath noxiously all over her. Lady Eroica gagged and twisted in his grasp. ‘Put me down, you insufferable, disgusting fool! You reek!’
‘Ah, playing hard to get. You know tha’sh what I like.’
‘Yes, hard to get,’ and she propelled her knee into his lower, lower chest area. There was a metallic ‘KLONG,’ and Renders dropped her sharply.
All traces of grogginess vanished from Renders face with the arrival of overwhelming dull pain. He bent over slightly, his mind analysing the pain in exacting detail. ‘What was that for? Don’t you want to give Sir Renders a little kissy-wissy?’
‘No,’ she pouted, ‘I want you to leave Renders.’
‘Leave? Ah,’ he grinned, knowingly. ‘You want us to run away together?’
‘No, I want you to run away, by yourself.’
Renders stroked his chin.
‘Yes, leave,’ she repeated. ‘I want you to leave… now.’
Renders grinned deviously. ‘You want me to come back in a bit—when he’s asleep?’
‘No, I want you to leave. Permanently.’
This took some comprehension on Renders part. ‘Permanently?’ The stupor had now thoroughly left him. ‘But… why?’
‘Why? Isn’t that obvious?’
‘Yes, of course it is. You’re a washed out has-been never-was. Your crusading days are over Sir Renders. I prefer my Opus. He is the man for the age—and for the future! He’s twice the man you ever were.’
‘But… you hate him!’
‘You did? But… this evening? You danced with me… I held you tight… You said how much you…’ he gulped, ‘cared.’
‘Yes, but not for you Renders. This evening was a slight… misunderstanding. Too much wine in my simple girl’s head. You Renders are simply in the way of our eternal happiness. I no longer need you and I must return to my husband who loves me oh so dearly.’
‘But he loves lots of women like that. Not just you! That was the problem!’
‘Yes! You told me. Remember, Hallowed Weed night? Remember? Just you and I, out by the oil-fired lighthouse; on the beach—and who did we see on the beach? Hmm? And wasn’t that the entire all-female coast-guard he was with?’
Bloody Abysmal! thought Opus, what a dark horse I was.
‘Yes, yes, I remember all that. But I’m… he’s a changed man now.’
‘Oh yes, very. Sometimes I think, “could this be the same man I married.” I’m sorry Renders, there’s no easy way to say it. We’ve patched things up. You were just something to while away the time whilst I waited for my Opus to come back to me.’
‘But… but… that small castle out in the country we’d put a down payment on… Who’ll live there now?’
‘Well, you still can. But it’ll just be you now, Renders—and the sheep.’
‘But… I loved… still love you…’ A single tear rolled down his cheek and dripped onto his chest-plate.
Lady Eroica smiled softly at him. ‘I think I can summarise my feelings for you like this, Renders: Go away—and never come back again.’
He turned slowly, bewildered, and clanked down onto the top step of the staircase; and then the next, all the time checking over his shoulder to see if she would change her mind—all a cruel joke perhaps. As he reached the middle landing he looked up and pleaded, ‘Don’t leave me…’
Lady Eroica gave this an air of consideration. ‘Well… I could…’
Renders’ face lit up.
‘…I suppose… No, it’d never work. The answer is “no” Renders, goodbye.’ She turned to go, but paused, ‘Just to show that there’s no hard feelings between us.’ She tossed down one of her earrings, a small solid Blue stud.
It landed passionlessly by his feet, glistening amongst the tears that rolled freely now off his armour. ‘But… that was my grandmothers… You said you liked it…?’
‘I trust you know the way out?’
She closed the door to her bedroom and turned the lock, leaving Renders to exit the quiet house alone.
Outside, his horse was parked and she snorted happily at his return.
He patted her affectionately and rolled off the thick blanket he’d left on her, shaking it to remove the light dusting of snow that had collected on it. ‘Eroica, you won’t believe this but, she’s left me…’ His foot hit something hard, and he looked down. ‘Oh no!’
He stared, hollow-eyed at Eroica’s hooves. She’d been clamped. There was a scrawl of paper pinned to the saddle: ‘PARKING PROHIBITED OUTSIDE MAYOR’S MANSION. FINE 100 COPPER PIECES. HAPPY AXE-MASS.’
Renders looked to the sky and the falling snow and he shook his fist at whatever God had done this to him.
A strange combination of Opus and Lady Eroica watched Renders as he paid the waiting Weasel-man the requisite sum.
Lady Eroica laughed, but it was Opus’ voice. After a few seconds more, all traces of Eroica had vanished and the doppelganger stood once more in his favoured guise—Mayor Opus.
He watch Renders lead his slightly limping horse off down a snow-heavy street.
‘Ah, just you wait Renders! I’ve barely begun with you yet! Just wait until The Guard tracks you down about that stolen earring…’
And with that, the anti-Opus laughed and laughed.
And then laughed some more…
Bacchus and Erryl stood amidst a forest of slate-black granite columns fashioned like the horns of an Onyx and a bloody great big one at that. They twisted and rose perhaps a hundred Ogre heights before vanishing into the darkness of an immense vaulted ceiling into which a sizeable portion of the heavens could have been placed. It was said that at certain times, mist could be seen forming at the apex and that once, snow had fallen. But, even if it had, it would have been lost amidst the speckled-white marble flooring that ran expensively along the entire length of this dark, silent, and most importantly, closed building.
Burnished hemispherical lamps swung slowly on either side of each column, still smoking with the embers of the night previous, and casting tranquil amber pools beneath them. These illuminated the many glass displays scattered seemingly at random throughout the building. In the daylight hours small children of every species would crowd about them eagerly. Now they simply waited.* It was an utterly silent, suspense-ridden scene and an appropriate one to introduce: The Museum of Dangerous Antiquities.
‘Impressive… Pretty fugin’ impressive,’ whispered Bacchus as he cast awe-struck glances at the towering masonry surrounding him.
Erryl grunted in agreement. ‘My old dad says these Imps do a lot of things like this.’
Bacchus purposefully ignored him and turned to wave something forward from the blackness of their forced entrance.
Behind him and out of the shadows of an unfortunate doorway that had found itself simply “in the way,” crouched a behemoth moulded from the very bile of the universe, with all the appealing bits chipped away. It was a towering monstrosity with a sweat-glistening exoskeleton contrasting starkly with the midnight-blue of its skin. Shimmering black batwings were hunched up tightly behind its shoulders and from these, columns of warm mist could be seen rising. Its eyes burned a brilliant copper and its thunderous steps burned the stonework as it dragged forward an enormous stone vat.
It snarled and hissed something unintelligible at Bacchus. Plumes of acid billowed from its wide snout and Bacchus took care to stand well back.
This was one of Reptila’s hench-things.
’Zxzztvz zzzxvxzck’ck’ck’!’ it repeated
Bacchus consulted his rather signed copy of A Rough Guide to The Abysmal for a translation. ‘ “Zxzztvz zzzxvxzck’ck’ck” was that?’ he asked with an outpouring of spittle.
The creature pointed one of its three bone-white talons at its wrist, entwined by thick black veins that wriggled over its skin.
Bacchus flicked hurriedly through the pages.
‘ “Zxzztvz zzzxvxzck’ck’ck”—“Death to all?” Na… “Now you die?” Na… there’s a theme here. These Death Demons, they’re goddamned evil single-minded mutha-fugers. That’s somat you can really admire in ’em; purity of purpose.’
The sound of Erryl scratching his chin broke the silence. He looked up at the black leathery skin of its face. ‘Does a Death Demon have a mutha? And if they did, would they—’
The Demon picked Erryl up by the scruff of his hair and hoisted him high into the air—high enough so that the two could confer on an equal altitude, man-to-thing. The air filled with an acrid hair-burning, hairdressers odour.
‘I zayz ziz iz zzime for zI to… zeturn!’’ It turned and pointed at a loophole window that was warming itself in the first rays of dawn. The Demon’s eyes flickered with apprehension, ‘Tze Szun! ’
‘Ah,’ said Bacchus, ‘I understand, Erryl. He wants off early, he does; probably got a missus somewhere in the Abysmal. Got the tea on lad, has she?’
With complete disregard, it dropped Erryl onto the hard floor and swung around to bare its yellowing fangs at Bacchus. ’Zeszzzz… Missuzz.’ Its warm breath was rank with the smell of sulphur and Bacchus forced down a primitive bodily instinct.
Erryl slowly sat up, a chilling thought lingering in his mind: it’s got a family!
Bacchus circled around the enormous creature and made a show of inspecting the stone vat. ‘Looks intact. I’ll tell the Lady you did yer bit an’ she can release all those little winged friends of yours. Alright?’ He offered his hand. ‘Been a pleasure. Workin’ with a gods-damned professional…’ He eyed Erryl with contempt, ‘for a change.’
The creature wrapped the talons of one of its four arms about Bacchus’ much smaller appendage. A horrible hissing filled the air followed by the pungency of cooking flesh. Bacchus withered, his knees buckling and he sank to the floor, smoke billowing from their continuing handshake—but he managed to maintain some dignity and not scream out.
The Demon hissed with laughter that evolved into a deep roar that shook the stone columns, shattered some nearby glass cabinets and continued to roam around the dark corridors of the Museum for long, long after its essence had faded away to a smoky nothingness:
Bacchus collapsed onto the floor alongside Erryl, clasping his hand. ‘By the black light of the Abysmal! It’s taken my fugin’ palm off!’
With a groan, Erryl staggered to his feet, pressing a hand into his spine; it cracked loudly as various discs re-aligned themselves. Suddenly, he winced. ‘Zeubluedaweh! My hair’s on fugin’ fire!’
Bacchus, too concerned in his own plight, paid scant attention to Erryl as he hopped around frantically patting the back of his head where the Demon had grasped him. The flames, thankfully, quickly subsided.
At length Erryl stopped, exhausted. ‘My dreadlocks, man! My fugin’ dreads!’ He held them up to Bacchus, a collection of crumbling notch-ridden tentacles. ‘How’m I goin’ to impress the ladies now wit’ these crispy things?’
Bacchus snorted in obvious derision. ‘Your sharp wit?’
Erryl smiled wickedly back. ‘You need a hand there, my man?’
For a long time, longer than is wise when your in the midst of a break-in, Bacchus and Erryl inspected their various afflictions.
Far off, the cry of a cockerel prompted Erryl into action. ‘Come on Bacchus, we’d best get this done ’fore the caretaker arrives. An’ I don’t wanna spend no longer than I fugin’ have to in dis place. Gives me the creeps.’
Bacchus looked to his smouldering palm. ‘I ain’t fugin’ doin’ nuthin’ that involves this ’ere fuging hand. How’m I gonna hold my piece now?’
Erryl looked to the immense stone vat. ‘I can probably turn it on. You just gotta be ready to run, Bacchus.’
Bacchus nodded… ‘Hang on one mutha-fugin’ pickin’ moment… What the fug you plannin’ on doin’ whilst I’m off stretchin’ my legs?’
‘I’ll be behind you, man.’
Bacchus eyed him suspiciously.
‘Bacchus… you know me!’
Bacchus nodded. Indeed, he knew Erryl well.
‘Ready?’ asked Erryl.
Bacchus grunted in grudging acknowledgement and stumbled to his feet.
At the first turn of the handle, neon magma sputtered out to hiss on the marble floor. It pooled under the vat and drooled across to the wheels, where it proceeded to dissolve them amidst a rapidly growing cloud of smoke. Hissing filled the air and the stone vat, slowly, began to topple towards them.
‘Er…?’ asked Erryl, backing away from it. ‘Is it meant to do tha—’
‘Blessed fug man,’ cried Bacchus, ‘run for it!’
As Bacchus spoke those precious words, the vat and the countless gallons of molten lava that it contained, surged in their general direction; which when it’s lava you’re talking about, any direction is pretty much something to be concerned about. And in what was barely an eyeball-widening instant, a tidal wave of red death was bearing down upon them.
Bacchus was off first, his feet slipping on the smooth marble. Erryl lagged somewhat behind initially, but swiftly caught up as the chasing magma made a light snack of his boots and turned them into a sticky gooey mess. They continued like his, in their manic rush, clambering over each other and bumping into the various shelves and cabinets that lined their path. They passed the sickening distortions of the Mirror of Madness and a stuffed display of ultra-deadly Blue Spitting Geckos before tripping and rolling into a heap over a thick amber rug with tassels that writhed like upturned millipedes. They turned, expecting to see the lava rush over them in a smothering tide, but were relieved to see that it had dissipated to a mere ripple over the marble floor.
Bacchus laughed nervously. ‘Zeubluedaweh, Erryl! I thought we was gonnas there!’
It was then that the mighty shadow of the museum guardian appeared above them. It lumbered, loomed and lolled in a malicious manner, its sightless sculpted eyes staring at and some measure through them.
‘Uh-oh,’ said Erryl.
A horrible moan issued from its sagging lips and its arms and legs pumped rhythmically in a clockwork goose-step that swiftly brought its ugly hulk to bear over our witless pair. There it stood, towering, a full ten feet high, its body, colourless and doughy, but sculpted to give the pretence of solid musculature.
Another joined it silently from the shadows…
And then another.
Three was quite enough.
‘FEEF!’ they howled in tortured-soul-like unison.
‘Thieves actually!’ corrected Bacchus. ‘Erryl, get out your piece an’ teach ‘em a lesson in grammar… Erryl?’ He looked down. ‘Erryl? Get the fug out from behind my leg, man!’
‘We’re gonnas, Bacchus. Da Lady said there was only one guardian! We’re more gone than sommat that emigrated hours ago, man!’
‘Cool it Erryl, just fugin’ cool it! Get your piece out… now! All we need to do is keep these mean muthers occupied long enough…’
‘DEAF… DEAF TO FEEF!’ they howled.
Each Golem took a thunderous step forward, their hands outstretched, huge, grasping.
‘Mutha!’ wept Erryl. He closed his eyes and clung tighter to Bacchus’ legs.
‘Ah, shit!’ Bacchus pulled out his sword with his one good hand and waved it hopefully before them. ‘Come on ya big fugers! Three of you ain’t nowhere near enough for the likes of me and my mate.’ He looked down and sighed. ‘Right, Erryl?’
Erryl whimpered an acknowledgement.
Bacchus persevered, his eye on the lava currently just beyond where the Golems stood. ‘Come on! Closer! Ya big lumps of clay!’
In reply, they lumbered forward.
Erryl looked up. ‘STIMP?’
The Golems took another step bringing them to within grasping range. But this one was different, more of a:
There was the sound of stone cracking, wrenching and ultimately falling with a loud splosh:
Each of the Golem’s, in turn, looked ponderously down at their leg, knee, or foot respectively and each found said appendage to not be in the usual place and instead, dissolving in the lava that swilled around them.
‘Ye-es!’ cried Bacchus. ‘What’d the lady tell you Erryl. They’re more mud than clay an’ suckers for any kinda heat.’
The Golems were falling in upon each other now as various supporting and quite essential limbs plopped off, yielding a ridiculous scene of comic carnage. One particular Golem’s torso had shaken itself loose from its head and was now flopping around amidst its own limbs as its head looked on. It was a gruesome sight. Most especially for the Golems.
‘Right Erryl, no more time to waste. Get up off your arse! Let’s get goin’ before that lava gets any closer; it’s fugin’ roastin’ enough already.’ He looked around at the surrounding glass cases. ‘Grab all the magical items ya can carry—but leave the Geckos. Stuffed Geckos ain’t no use to anyone.’
Bacchus looked down at his feet. ‘Actually, we could start with this rug. Let’s pull It away from the lava first though, I’m drippin’ too much sweat on it already.’
They did so and then paused whilst Bacchus analysed its fine patterns and weave density.
‘Reckon it’s magical?’ asked Erryl.
Bacchus looked at the wriggling tassels. ‘Could be. How d’ya think it starts?’
Erryl shook his head emphatically. ‘No way man. I ain’t getting on no fugin’ flying carpet.’
Bacchus knocked him playfully on the shoulder. ‘Oh, come on Err. We’ll jus’ give it a spin around the… museum. Hey, we can use it to pick up any other art’facts. ’sides, it might not even be a flyin’ carpet. Looks too clean to have been sat on much.’
‘C’mon. You stand at one end, I’ll take the other.’
Erryl reluctantly dragged himself to the far end of the rug. ‘So? Now what?’
‘Know any magic words?’
‘Em… Only ones to do wit’ shellin’ seeds.’
‘Sounds safe enough. Give it a try.’
With a “just out of warranty” flash, the rug’s surface promptly vanished to reveal a gaping rectangular pit. In a moment that seemed to stretch out to hours, they gibbered in horror at each other and at the drop suddenly beneath them.
‘Aaargh!’ they cried in unison as gravity remembered its duty and duly took hold of their flailing bodies. They fell a not an inconsiderable number of feet into the screaming blackness.
There was a horrible, horrible pair of gloops.
Luckily, their fall had been softened.
Unluckily, what it had been softened by didn’t want mentioning… or smelling.
Bacchus looked at Erryl in veritable disgust and then at his own soiled clothing in greater disgust. Droplets had splashed onto his face and his hair was dripping… with excrement. Bacchus contemplated his fate for a long moment before muttering: ‘So… I think we can safely say that it is not a flying rug.’
The brown stuff was waist deep and rising slightly as Bacchus sank deeper into the thick sucking mud that lay beneath its surface—and he could feel things swishing around by his nether regions. He repressed the urge to go insane.
Erryl meanwhile was shaking with horror. ‘Fugs sake! This takes the very fuging last plain biscuit! Who’s gonna want to feel my dreads now, man?’
‘Erryl, jus’ shut the fug up! You know what this is?’
‘Deep shit, man! So forget your fugin’ dreadlocks! There’s more important things to consider, like…’ He looked around for something more impending than what he was currently standing in. ‘If there’s one thing worse than cold deep shit, it’s gotta be…’
‘Warm, deep shit?’
‘Yeah. Warm, deep shit! Zeubluedaweh, what have we sunk to—sinking into? The best hit men in the city, knee—waist deep in warm shit. Why the fug is it warm anyhow—don’t answer that.’
‘What we gonna do, Bacchus?’
‘I dunno… One thing’s for sure, we ain’t just leavin’ like… like this! We were sent here to rob this fugin’ place. Not to take a fugin’ tour of the fugin’ sewer system!’ He paused, grasping for a suitable expression: ‘Fugs sake!’
‘Whadd’ya suggest?’ Erryl looked down. ‘We take the lady back a jar of shit? I suppose we could say it’s…’
‘Magical? Magical shit? Are you seriously suggesting,’ he laughed feverishly, ‘that we return to the lady with a jar of magical shit! Are ya out of ya tiny fugin’ mind, Erryl?’
Suddenly, it was becoming dark.
Bacchus looked up to see the rug reforming—as was the floor beneath it. ‘Quick! Get on my shoulders, Erryl. Grab that fugin’ rug! If we’re takin’ anythin’ back, it’s gonna be that!’
The things that landed on Bacchus’ shoulders as Erryl climbed onto him are best left unmentioned.
With an exuberant whoop, Erryl leapt back off his shoulders, hauling the rug down with him. He landed, creating a wave of slurry.
Bacchus tried to shout: ‘Catch it before it lands in the…’ He really did. But by the time his mouth got around to it, the rug already had.
Bacchus wiped his eyes clear and looked to the now soiled rug.
‘Ya think she’ll notice?’ asked Erryl.
‘I think it’d be fugin’ amazin’ if she didn’t. What do we say? “It was in the museum, covered in shit, milady.” On display? Who’d the fug would pay to see a rug covered in shit?’
‘It’s only a few stains, Bacchus…’
‘Oh man, let’s just get outta this joint. I’ve seen more than enough for one night and I ain’t paid enough—at all, for… for… this…’
‘Yeah. Shit. Ya said it, Erryl. Shit.’
And with that, the soiled, sodden pair plodded off through the sucking mud of the sewer labyrinth that riddles most of Lotopia… and weren’t seen, thankfully, for days.
Yeldarb peeped out from his Bag of Eternal Consumption and looked around.
‘Bin’s clear,’ he whispered.
‘Bin?’ Bob was understandably perplexed. ‘What do you mean by “bin?” ’
‘Get down, let me see—sniff.’
Yeldarb looked at him scornfully. ‘ “Lord Yeldarb, get down, let me see—sniff” ’
‘Whatever.’ Bob attempted to push past.
Yeldarb stayed put, blocking the narrow opening, arms folded.
Bob groaned. ‘Lord Yeldarb, may I pleasy-weasy get to see out of the bag?’
Yeldarb smiled amicably. ‘Certainly, Bob.’
Bob clambered out, his perception of the world altering as his head exploded from the dimensions of the bag to that of the real world. It was a strange indescribable experience and accompanied by, well, a… ‘Pop!’
He looked around and then swiftly dropped back into the bag.
He looked at Yeldarb with great seriousness. ‘There’s a rat out there.’
‘Of course. It’s a bin. Maggots too, I’d expect.’
Bob withered visibly. ‘Maggots?’
‘Most likely. Wriggling all over us. The way I see it, the following morning, the cleaner of Peeling’s must have mistaken us for just another piece of rubbish and thrown us in the bin.’
‘But…’ Bob gibbered. ‘We’ve only been in here ten minutes.’
‘Ah, Bob, but time doesn’t flow at the same rate within the confines of this bag. Indeed, whilst in conversation with you it appears to drag out indefinitely.’
‘Eh? But time is time.’
‘Bob, it might not even be the same century out there. Your university could have crumbled into the dust. Civilisations could have come and gone, the firmament fallen from the sky, a new messiah perhaps or giant super-intelligent space-invading lizards may rule the planet. Or it could just be next Tuesday.’
Bob sighed. ‘I can but hope—about my university, I mean.’ He lowered his head in a resigned fashion. ‘I suppose I’d better be getting back off there anyway. I daresay Acolyte Coól’s party will be over by now…’
Bob went pale; that is to say, paler. ‘I’ve probably missed the Axe-mass exam, haven’t I? What am I to do! That was my last chance to be a Cleric!’
Yeldarb patted him on the back. ‘Never mind, old chap. I’ve decided.’
‘You have? On what?’
Bob stepped away and felt the sharp beak of Phoebe in the small of his back. ‘What do you mean?’
‘I mean, Bob, that you won’t ever have to worry about University or studying or getting strapped naked to lightning conductors ever again.’
Bob collapsed to his knees. ‘Please don’t kill me, Lord Yeldarb! Please!’ Then, surprisingly, Bob sprung up, his limbs cast into a strange poised stance. ‘I’ll cast a spell on you!’ he warned.
‘Bob, you and I both know that an onslaught of Purify Underwear isn’t going to harm anyone. Now, calm down and let me explain… I’ve decided that you, Bob, shall accompany I, Yeldarb the Death Bringer, on an adventure. Basically, I’m offering you a job, Bob. As a side-kick, wages one bronze piece per adventure and a battle-sickness insurance policy.’
‘Cool! What about a pension?’
Yeldarb laughed quietly. ‘You’ll be lucky.’ He continued: ‘And your first duty as my official side-kick will be to accompany me on an adventure. An adventure, the likes of which you’ve never seen before, Bob. Which, let’s face it, someone who’s seen as little of the world as you have, popping down to the market for a cabbage is an adventure.’
Bob nodded. ‘Of course. I mean, it could be especially busy, or you might not have enough copper pieces, or… or there could be some large kind of ferocious spiky-haired caterpillar lying in wait within its leaves, or something…’
‘Bob, we’re going to recover my sword, Tantamount the Terrible.’
Bob looked unimpressed. ‘Would that be more or less of an adventure than this cabbage business?’
‘Hopefully more. But first, you’ve got to pass the initiation.’
‘Look,’ Bob pointed forcefully, ‘I’m not riding, strapped naked to the rear end of a sheep through the Wizard’s dining area… again.’
Yeldarb shook his head. ‘Bob, I was a High Elf once. I’m not going to get you to do anything degrading… yet. I just want you to get rid of that rat.’ He pointed up at the opening to the bag.
Bob followed his finger. Sure enough, a monstrous rodent was eagerly inspecting the bag with an aim to getting inside.
‘By buggery! It’s huge!’
‘It won’t be once you get out of this bag. Then you’ll return to normal size.’
‘Hang on. What if it bites my head off as I’m getting out. I mean, I have to be small enough to get out of the bag—and so there’s got to be a brief period outside where I’ll be as small as that rat!’
Yeldarb stroked his chin. ‘You’ve been studying your quantum magic, I see. Well Bob, I wouldn’t worry too much. I mean, assuming the rat does eat you. Well, it would only take a few seconds for your body to return to its normal size. At which point you’d burst out of the rat’s body.’
‘Details Bob, details.’
The rat squeaked enthusiastically. It had seen Yeldarb and Bob and was now trying to clamber inside.
‘Bob? Do you want to be an adventurer?’
Bob sighed, and rolled up his sleeves. He looked up at the rat. Phoebe flew up towards it, squawking furiously until it backed away.
In a magical blur, Bob was out of the bag and standing in the bin, facing not one, but five large black rats, collected in a huddle around him. Something squished beneath his foot and he looked down to see the largest maggot he would ever see outwith nightmares.
‘Mother!’ he whimpered, but then with the now familiar ‘Pop’ found himself back to normal, or as normal as Bob could ever aspire to be.
He looked down at the rotting meat and vegetable matter that surrounded him, at the small family of rats and at the teeming masses of maggots pouring in torrents over his boots.
He leapt from the bin and found himself in an unfamiliar alleyway—not that any alleyways were familiar to him, thankfully.
A succession of excited squeaks brought his attention back to the bin. He peered in to watch a miniature Yeldarb wrestling with a maggot—and the rats appeared to be watching, egging the maggot on.
Another instant and Yeldarb was back to his normal Elven height. He leapt deftly from the bin, clearly shaken.
‘Bob, that was an experience I never want to relive. Not in this one, or in any other you resurrect me from.’ He staggered to a doorway and sat upon its vomit-stained step. ‘Bob, could you see your way to collecting my bag for me? I don’t want anything unsavoury crawling in and frightening Phoebe.’
Bob gritted his teeth and plucked the bag from the midst of the bin-dwelling menagerie. He closed his eyes and dusted off the remaining maggots.
Yeldarb lay back against the door. ‘Come, let’s find some cheap lodgings and then tomorrow we can skip the bill again.’ He stood up, dusted himself off and strode off towards whatever street lay ahead, calling over his shoulder, ‘I’ve heard there’s somewhere good down by the docks.’
Bob doubted that, but scuttled after him anyway. ‘So what day is it then?’
Yeldarb shook his head. ‘No idea, Bob.’
They wandered on a bit further.
‘I think it must be Tuesday after all.’
‘Why do you say that, Bob?’
‘Things like this always happen to me on Tuesdays.’
This is the sound that a Dwarf makes whilst running—an activity never lightly undertaken and not something that as a race they tend to enjoy*. Dwoirot was certainly no exception and being of a heavier build than your average Dwarf was finding the going, through the bustling Lotopian streets, heavy to say the least. And to watch his metal boots as they slapped down the narrow streets, was to feel pity for the cobblestones.
It had begun high in the Blue Mines at the granite plug of Old Toby’s demise and had led down through the scree covered streets of Rockford to the city gates and was now leading back out through the plague & market districts and onto the city outskirts. It was a march and then run of some twelve leagues and Dwoirot’s lungs felt as though they were being trawled by a garden rake. And his legs didn’t feel much better.
The periodic cries from his diary were also becoming quieter, and harder to identify from the constant background hum of a busy Lotopian market day—or perhaps it was just that the diary was beginning to dissolve into the molten underground river… Dwoirot could only imagine the heat that the poor Mimic was enduring—although not by choice, of course.
A procession of Zeubluedawehian monks suddenly appeared, slinking out of an alleyway and writhing in a long processional chain before him. Market stalls and busy bargain hunters surrounded them on all sides as the monks cheerfully handed out festive axe-shaped candy and leaflets proclaiming the greatness of their idol*—whilst completely blocking the street. Dwoirot had far too much momentum to stop and so, with a warning scream that caused the monks to freeze rather than disperse, he ploughed solidly into and some way through them.
Little tangerine-clad people fell left and right whilst sacks of sweets spilt onto the muddied cobbles only to be greedily snatched up by waiting street urchins. With a muttered apology and a sharp kick to extricate himself from a none-to-happy monk, Dwoirot stumbled on, his arms flailing wildly to build up speed. More than one processional spear found itself launched in his direction but, luckily for Dwoirot, years of simply not practising because of never-ending procession duty meant that the monks’ aims were all wildly askew.
Dwoirot sped on, downhill now and away from the market, narrowly avoiding a pair of men seemingly carrying the entire linen-basket supply for the city and turning a sharp bend only to… find himself facing a puddle of slop so large it could qualify as an inland lake. Too late to paddle around its shores, Dwoirot opted for the direct crossing, flung his arms back and leapt into the air with a hastily uttered prayer.
Fortunately Dwoirot was well “up” on his prayer count to all the major deities and he landed safely and more importantly, dryly upon the distant shore—only to career into an old crone whose face was peppered with pustules typical of the Green Death.
Unfortunately, this elderly-lady-in-need-of-anti-bacterial face-wash mistook Dwoirot’s collision as an over-enthusiastic embrace and clutched at him passionately in return, her tongue forcing its way between his lips. Dwoirot gagged and pushed her away, muttering a barrage of apologies. He turned to run but found the cobblestones slipping beneath his feet, giving the crone chance to shout something incoherent, but certainly non-complimentary, and spit successfully upon him.
Dwoirot wiped the spore-infested saliva from his cheek, apologised again and then carried on, fortunately ducking the thrown bottle of Grok.
Towards the trough of the hill, the shrill cries of the diary took a sharp right turn and headed off down a darkened cul-de-sac, terminating in a blacksmiths: D. Grady & Self—the doors of which were slightly ajar. Dwoirot burst through, causing the smithy to look up rather abruptly, his hammer halted mid-swing. He had a huge round face that shone in torrents of sweat. Giant egg eyes surveyed Dwoirot blankly.
‘Dis a bust?’ he asked with a treacle-slow voice.
Dwoirot skidded to a stop before him, bent over and coughed the remainder of his lungs onto the ash-strewn floor. He waved an apologetic hand. The smithy laid down his hammer, picked up a far-larger mallet, and slowly approached Dwoirot.
‘Dwoirot… Bastard!’ went a shrill voice, apparently from another room.
Dwoirot looked up, his eyes gleaming. ‘Ha—Har!’
‘Ha… Har?’ asked the smithy.
‘Yes sir, Ha—Har! Justice and the limitless resourcefulness of Inspector Dwoirot, has found you.’
‘ ’ave you?’
‘Yes sir, I have, and I think that it might be prudent if you were to come clean right away.’
‘I washed dis-mornin’,’ he protested, wiping the sweat from his forehead with an enormous grimy forearm.
‘Look sir, don’t try any pretence with me. I know all about you.’
‘Do ya now?’
‘Yes sir, I do. Now, come, come. The law looks kindly upon the honest.’
‘Well no, but it’s an idea we’re trying to promote. Although, it does provide three warm meals a day, secure accommodation, and a compact social context. So, I’d own up now, if I were you.’
‘If you were me? Well… fair enough den. S’pose you got da point der.’ He dropped his mallet and it landed with a resounding thump. ‘ ’s a fair cop. I’ll admit to da first six an’ da one found floatin’ in da Sticks last night. But dose other three dozen bodies—I don’t know nuthin’ ’bout dem—’
‘What are you talking about, sir? I’m here about the lava.’
There was a long pause.
The smithy’s egg-eyes blinked slowly. ‘Not da… bodies den? All dose people I strangled with ma bear ’ands?’
‘Sir, what a man does with his hands is his own business.’
‘But… I killed dem? An’ more too. Nine cities o’er a dozen years.’
‘Sir, are you trying to pervert the course of justice?’
‘Eh. Dunno. Am I?’
‘Yes. Now be silent and yield to my searching questions.’
‘Bastard… Dwoirot… Get you!’ insisted the voice from the other room.
‘Yes, yes! I hear you!’ shouted Dwoirot. ‘Now, my good man? Can you tell me anything at all about that lava you have stored in the other room?’
The Smithy looked at him. ‘ ’s hot.’
‘Hot? Hmm.’ Dwoirot reached into his top pocket for his diary before realising the obvious. ‘Ah… I’ll just have to note that one down later. Anything else?’
‘You want me to tell ya ’bout da lava?’
‘Ya some kind’a criminal geol’gis’ or sommat?’
‘Are you trying to insult a member of the law sir?’
‘Look, the other room, sir. What is in it?’
The smithy looked to the huge bolted doors. He smiled a sickly grin: ‘Bodies. Lots of bodies.’
Dwoirot pointed a stubby finger at him. ‘Look you, don’t try and deviate from the subject. Is there or is there not lava in there?’
‘Can ya wait a minute ’fore I answer dat?’
‘I could do. Would it help the answer?’
‘Eh… Yeah. Would ‘elp me not to obstruct da, eh…’
‘Yeah, da course of “Just This.” ’
‘Well, go on then. Make it quick though, there’s a good chap.’
The smithy grinned insanely and lumbered off towards the door, dragging his feet behind him like limp limb-less corpses. The door was an immense affair and had between three and four heavy chain locks and a large metal bar that slotted between the two as a final barricade; though to keep in or out, wasn’t obvious. The smithy turned and smiled. ‘Jus’ be a mo’.’
‘That’s quite alright, sir. You take your time… but, eh…’ Dwoirot laughed nervously, ‘you won’t try to escape whilst you’re in there, will you?’
The smithy feigned horror. ‘Me…? Na!’
He opened one of the great doors a crack—just enough for his heavy-set frame and squeezed through. The door clanked firmly shut behind him. There was the sound of a great lock being turned.
Dwoirot strode over to what the smithy had been working on.
‘A most unusual design!’ He picked it up. ‘Marvellous workmanship for a… ice pick? I say,’ he called, ‘do you have much need for an ice pick around these parts?’ Then to himself: I expect he exports.
Terrible scraping and dragging sounds were emanating from “the other room,” as though heavy furniture was not only being moved but possibly also built. A single blood-curdling shriek rang out but was abruptly cut short.
‘Ah poor chap—must have stubbed his toe.’
More furniture moving, a thunderous booming sound, some hammering and then the door creaked open an inch. The smithy’s swollen eyes bulged eagerly through the gap.
‘ ’m ready!’ he half-giggled.
‘Ah… right your are then, sir.’
Dwoirot marched forwards.
The door closed quietly behind him.
Bob looked at the large rectangular object he’d been led to believe would be supporting him throughout his sleeping hours. He leant forward and prodded it—and then quickly hopped a few steps back. It wobbled.
‘It wobbled!’ proclaimed Bob. ‘I can’t sleep on something that wobbles!’
Yeldarb flung his boots into the corner and eased back into his own bed. He sighed and stretched out, sending ripples the length of the bed. ‘You know, Bob, just the other night, I was going to kill myself.’
‘But it wobbles,’ insisted Bob.
‘And here I am now. Thoroughly alive and checked into one of the best dockside two-bit hovels Lotopia has to offer—and with absolutely no intention to pay. Bob, I thought I’d lost my interest in life. But now, seeing you…’ Yeldarb gave him a look of utter pity. ‘Yes, seeing you, I realise just how pathetic life can be—and my own seems so much better in comparison.’ He closed his eyes and sighed a deep relaxing breath. ‘I mean, what’s the loss of an Elven Lordship, your fortress, your eye, your sexual health and your favourite magical sword? Hmm? What really matters, is…’ He looked to Bob to complete the sentence.
‘Pots of cash?’ Bob suggested.
‘That’s always important. But… next to “pots of cash”—surely “friendship?” ’
Bob gawked at him in surprise and then with the faintest pre-dawn glimmer of hope: Does Yeldarb consider me a friend?
Yeldarb leant off the mattress and picked up his Bag of Eternal Consumption. ‘Yes, good old backslapping friendship. Y’know, if I’d died on Axe-mass Eve—’
‘But you did.’
‘Ah, so I did. We’ll, If I’d not been resurrected, then.’ He paused. ‘Incompetently resurrected. Then, what would poor Phoebe have done? She’d have been left… all alone.’
The bag squawked in reply.
Bob kicked the mattress in frustration. ‘It still wobbles!’
Yeldarb continued, ignoring him: ‘Now, I know it’s bad karma to take solace in the downtrodden state of another—but damn and blast it, Bob, it just feels so good! Anyway, thank you. Thank you for being exactly what you are.’
‘Does this mean you forgive me for losing part of your soul?’
Yeldarb rolled away from him and faced the slightly yellowing lace curtains, through which he could see the bay; and the green slime rolling succession of sludge and debris that approximated the evening tide. Outside seagulls cawed noisily.
‘Well, why not? I’m starting afresh, Bob. I’m going to rebuild my life, piece by piece. And eventually, maybe I’ll even get my castle back. And you can’t build a castle without bricks. And you, Bob, you can be my first brick.’
‘I don’t think I like the idea of being set into a wall.’
‘Nonsense. Being part of something bigger than you is a privilege, Bob. Especially if you can climb high enough in it to accumulate a good quantity of “bricks” of your own.’
‘Do you think I’ll ever accumulate any bricks?’ asked Bob.
‘Honestly Bob? No. You’ll probably be knocked-off long before you get to be of any importance. Some capable, more ambitious thing—and let’s be honest again Bob, that could be almost anyone—’
‘Well alright, anyone. And then you’ll die, probably alone—and in festering plague-ridden pain. Anyway, enough pillow talk… good-night, Bob.’
Bob stared at his bed. Yeldarb had just mapped out his entire life in grisly depressing detail. And he was probably right too.
‘You know… tomorrow,’ said Yeldarb, yawning. ‘I think we’ll find some healthy means of employment—something where we can make a bit of the round stuff. Something with opportunities.’
There was a quiet noise.
Yeldarb rolled over to face him.
‘Sorry Bob. I didn’t mean to upset you so.’
Bob sniffed. ‘ ’s alright.’
‘Is it? Oh, alright then. Goodnight.’
‘And,’ proclaimed the man loudly in a falsetto voice, ‘this is the kitchen!’
He pointed at a hollow in the dirt and a bucket containing three sprouting potatoes.
‘As you can see,’ he continued optimistically, ‘all the modern conveniences that one would expect from such a fine quality work-place.’ He pointed at the hole in the dirt, smiling innocently. ‘The… tumble drier.’
Flower shook her head disdainfully. There probably was a worse equipped kitchen somewhere, but you would have to look hard.
‘And this,’ picking up the bucket and shaking the potatoes around. ‘With the application of a good knife, becomes a…’ He smiled hopefully.
‘Food processor?’ she proffered. ‘And the rocks in the corner?’ She pointed at the previously ignored collection of stones. ‘Obviously, the vegetable juicer?’
‘Of course,’ smiled the man fawningly. ‘And now, to the living quarters. Or eighths as I like to call such bijou dwellings. Compact is all the rage, you know.’
Flower watched him stride off. ‘Are you sure we’ve not met before?’ she inquired. Flower placed a hand on his shoulder and forcefully encouraged him to face her. He squirmed beneath her gaze like a Vampire under a shaft of sunlight. She leant down towards his face. ‘You do look very familiar. Very familiar.’
He managed to break away, feigning bashfulness. ‘Oh, mademoiselle, you embarrass me!’
Flower held her chin thoughtfully. There was a memory of this face—not so much make-up, far plainer clothes, rougher voice, different smell—but… she shook her head; it was gone.
The alleged servant of her future employer continued off down a long vaulted corridor. Light streaked in through arched windows on the North facing side, illuminating tapestries, and occasional suits of armour that lined the opposing wall. Disconcertingly, there was even an iron-maiden, its jaws agape.
‘Perhaps,’ he continued, ‘you know me from my other work? I sing, you know, in La Cage aux Fowl. I’m an Elfis impersonator. And I am led to believe that my rendition of “You aren’t nothing but a Werewolf,” is quite an accurate rendition.’
‘Sorry, never heard of you, and that’s definitely not the sort of place I frequent. Perhaps I’ve seen you elsewhere though?’
‘Oh. Maybe! I am so famous after all! Some people even think that I am the re-incarnation of Elfis* himself.’
‘Hmm… Then, why, may I ask, if you are so famous, do you do this?’
‘Er…’ The voice suddenly gone gruff before returning to its former high tones. ‘Oh… it’s a… hobby!’
‘And this!’ he proclaimed dramatically, ‘shall be your place of work. The castle underground maze!’
Flower admired the heavy-duty gate, with grinning skulls of various species impaled upon its thick wrought-iron bars. ‘A fine entrance, a trifle on the imposing, but adequate.’
‘Of course.’ He stared at the thick iron bars and made a pretence of searching his djellaba’s inside-pocket. ‘Unfortunately, mademoiselle… I seem to have mislaid the… key—and Master Elfindel shan’t return until… later. I don’t suppose you could…’
‘Break the lock? You serious?’
‘Well,’ he laughed nervously, ‘it’s a sort of aptitude test, you see. We need someone really strong to guard the treasure vault—and there is always the possibility you could get… locked out… or in,’ he added doubtfully.
‘So, you want me to break in—to your own vault!?’
‘Oh, don’t worry, we will of course replace the door.’
‘And no-one will mind?’
‘Oh no, you have my personal guarantee.’
‘Hmm.’ Flower flexed her arms and cracked her knuckles. ‘If you say so. Strangest job interview I’ve ever been to.’
She pressed her formidable form against the huge metal frame and gripped the bars solidly. After a few forced breaths, she tensed and heaved.
At first, nothing happened.
Then, eventually nothing happened again.
At last the supporting bolts began to bend and work their way out from the rock as the frame, flexed and buckled. Flower cried out in fury, her great shoulders shaking in a knotted mesh of muscle and pounding veins. There was a terrible squealing scraping sound and then the door was out and above her head. She snarled in uncontrollable aggression, her eyes shrouded in red mist as she held the entire gate above her horns. In disgust, she tossed it to the ground.
Flower turned to face him, panting. ‘That good enough for you?’ she growled, her nostrils flaring.
His mouth hung agape. ‘Ye-es. I think you’ll do.’
‘So when do I start?’
‘Er… Whenever you want,’ he smiled in a placating manner. ‘Now is fine, if… that’s alright with you? One thing, though. If you could guard the far end of the maze? We’re doing a spot of redecorating today—and it would be better to keep out of each other’s way—if that’s alright by you…?’
Flower grunted an acknowledgement, and marched off with purpose into maze of the Elfindel’s vault. She paused. ‘Pay?’
‘How much do you want?’
Flower stroked her chin. Another test? ‘Just the going rate.’
‘Well, I’ll be off then.’ Flower grunted and stomped off.
He waited until she had vanished from view. ‘Going rate? I’m gone all right!’ He began to rip off the gaudy cabaret clothing. ‘I ain’t fugin’ doin’ that again! Next time, you wear the dress.’ He turned to face a shadow skulking behind one of the suits of Elvish armour. ‘Shi-it man! She almost recognised me!’
The shadow gave form and the menacing figure of Bacchus lolled out from the darkness.* ‘Keep yer voice down. An’ let’s get to cleanin’ this joint out. An’ this time Erryl? No magic words.’
The lava bubbled and glooped, reflecting blood-red off the bulbous bug-eyed face of the smithy as sweat trickled down his forehead and his breathing panted with a disconcerting eagerness.
‘About bloody time, you utter bastard!’ squeaked his diary as Dwoirot plucked the smoking book from the lava where it floated, more than a bit blackened at the edges.
‘Ah, good work diary.’ He gave it a quick shake, setting loose a shower of superheated rock droplets. ‘I may have to promote you for this. Make you a filofax perhaps. Possibly even a deputy!’
‘Do you throw all your deputies into lava-flows then, you bastard?’ I’ll get you for this, Dwoirot! Just you wait! I’ve got contacts! There’s more than one page to my book! I’ll take you through every court in the land!’
Dwoirot laughed, embarrassed, and stuffed the diary into his top pocket. ‘No sacrifice is too great for the law.’ he said sternly. ‘Why, I would happily sacrifice your life if it were for the greater good.’ He turned to face the smithy.
The larger man was fidgeting with something heavy behind his back and looking uncomfortably shifty.
‘So, sir, you say you don’t know how this lava got here?’
‘Er… Na. Well, yeah. Through dat pipe, I s’pose.’
‘Ah, so you admit to the pipe then?’
The smithy pointed at it. ‘Yeah, it’s over there.’
Dwoirot ignored him, popped the diary out again and wrote down some notes.
‘Stop that!’ the diary protested. I refuse to take any more notes! Stop violating me!’
‘Subject… admits… to… lava… Now, I’ve nearly got all I want, just a few more questions and I’ll have you safely convicted.’
‘But, I ain’t done nuthin! Least, not wit’ dis lava… yet,’ he added horribly.
Dwoirot rambled on. ‘Sir, I must ask you, why? The murder of Toby Toby and the subsequent theft of this lava—why? I mean, you’re looking at a few years in the local rockery, at least. Why did you do it?’
‘Toby Toby?’ asked the smithy. ‘Would that be Toby Toby Long-Beard?’
‘Toby Toby Doorstop?’
‘No no, Toby Toby—Old Toby.’
‘Ah, that Toby… Na, don’t ’member killin’ ’im.’
‘You don’t?’ asked Dwoirot, taken aback.
‘Na, not that Toby. Now… if you were to ask me ’bout a few dozen other Tobys’…?’
‘Sir, are you trying to pervert the true and rapidly flowing course of the law, again?’
‘Na, wouldn’t dream of it.’
‘Good. Now, constrict your answers to the question. You say you didn’t kill him. This leads my incalculably complex mind to think of an accomplice. So, do you have one?’
‘Ah. Right, where is he then.’
‘Er… There was a bit of a fallin’ out.’
‘Ah, as is so often the case with men of the criminal ilk. What sort of falling out?’
‘Er, an intestinal one. Onto the floor over there, see? Made a good sauce they did. ’e’s dead now.’
Dwoirot crossed out his previous note and sighed. ‘No accomplice. And… the lava?’
‘I didn’t steal it.’
‘Of course you didn’t. And you know, I believe you. For the first time ever I’m going to make an exception and believe this sort of ubiquitous knee jerk criminal denial. But then, If I did that—I’d be mad, wouldn’t I?’
‘Yes. Bah-aa! Sir, you couldn’t look more guilty if you were wearing Old Toby’s boots.’
There was a long pause as they both looked at the smithy’s boots.
‘So, you are wearing old Toby’s boots. And yet, you insist that you didn’t steal the lava.’
‘I found ‘em in da lava! Look, I’ll admit to almost anythin’. But, I didn’t steal dis lava!’
‘Are you trying to make a fool of me, sir?’
‘Yes. Because let me tell you, many have tried and none so far have succeeded. Now, tell me why!’
‘Look,’ he outstretched his hands in a pleading gesture. Something heavy and metal fell to the ground behind him with a clang. ‘All I knows is, is that it was here when I bought the place.’
‘Bought? From whom?’
‘Er… Some Zombie or other. Bit of a flash git; had his own jar. Don’t remember his name.’
Dwoirot stroked his beard. ‘Zombie you say? Any distinguishing features?’
‘He didn’t have a head.’
‘Ah! A headless Zombie. So, anything distinguishing about this headless Zombie?’
‘His lack of head?’ suggested The Smithy.
‘Hmm. No tattoos, birth marks, scars? Unusual hair style perhaps? Thick accent?’
‘None that I noticed. Jus’ this great ‘orrible yellow ’ead starin’ from it’s jar.’
‘Hmm. Smithy? I thank you. You have been most helpful—in your simple way. You may sleep soundly tonight, safe in the knowledge that the world will soon be a little bit safer.’
Dwoirot turned and headed for the door, which he found to be locked.
‘Ah, door appears to be locked. Do you have the….?’
‘Key?’ grinned the smithy. ‘Jus’ you wait there.’ He plodded off to the wall with the hooks in the ceiling, alongside which hung a variety of long glistening instruments. He selected one with a thick leather clad handle and a singular spike that glinted menacingly.
‘Ah, quite all right old chap. I’ll just apply my legendary lock picking skills… be… out… in… a…’
The smithy, with a big twisted grin on his round face, crept up behind Dwoirot. Slobber dripped uncontrollably from his sagging bottom lip. With a giggle, he raised the spike high above his head and aimed at some imaginary point vaguely between Dwoirot’s shoulders.
With a “ptwing” the lock sprung open. Dwoirot heaved back the heavy metal bar and skipped outside—just as the spike slammed into the door-frame, through it, and protruded some way to the other side.
The door slammed shut behind him.
Dwoirot jumped at the noise and looked at the point of the spike sticking through the door. There was a howl of animal rage from the other side. The door rattled wildly and flexed as though some dread beast were trying to get out.
‘Ah, kind chap. Fancy trying to smash a way out for me, simply because he couldn’t find the key! Ah Diary, if only all citizens we met were so law abiding and helpful. Come, let’s find this Zombie.’
‘Bastard!’ muttered the diary.
‘Got any qualifications?’ growled the sweating mound of putridity and pomp that was the Thieves Guild’s Very-Odd Job Manager.’ He held a sagging pigeon-grey quill at the ready.
‘None apart from my fame.’
‘Yer fame?’ He brushed back a long lock of greasy hair and peered, scrutinising the proud face. ‘Who the fug are ya then? Yer not, Richard, the Rodent Rustling Rat-face Bastard of Rinswill Rectory are you?’
‘Well good, cos I hate that bastard. That’s why he be the Rat-face Bastard, see? Before he met me he was just Rat-faced. Anyway, could you be, Fingol, the Flesh-Flailing Finger-Feasting Farmer from o’er the Farthing Forth?’
‘No, I’m afraid not. Actually, I’m—’
‘Well, that’s good too. I hate him n’all. So…?’
‘I could tell you.’
‘Na, na, let me guess. I’m good at faces. Got a memory for ’em—Yer not, Terry, surely?’
‘Aye, Terry the T’rific Travelling Tortoise. He’s very famous he is.’
‘Tortoise! Do I look like a tortoise?’
‘You don’t look very t’rific either, to be honest, which I ain’t very often. Though I s’pose you could be in disguise. That’d be just like ’im, that would. He’s always off travellin’, he is—and being t’rific n’all.’
Yeldarb pulled back his Elven cloak to reveal his soiled armour. ‘No—I am none such other,’ he revealed proudly, ‘than Yeldarb the Deathbringer!TM
—In person, so to speak! Back from the dead too!’
The sly, criminally-alert eyes surveyed him in much the same way would a slavering member of the undead community that has turned up to take out your only daughter to paint the town red*: i.e. doubtfully.
‘Yelled Hard the Deaf Ringer?’
‘Yeldarb the De—’
‘You some kind’a nutter?’
Yeldarb looked genuinely hurt. ‘Of course not.’
‘Pity. We need more nutters, ’ticularly, the psychotic uns.’
Yeldarb leant across the table menacingly. ‘I was an Elven Lord, I’ll have you know!’
‘Yeah, whatever. Look, like I said. Any qualifications.’
Yeldarb sighed and turned to Bob who had managed to wander to the rear of the odd-job queue and was now being thrown between a group of unsavoury looking stereotypical roughs. He waved him forwards. ‘Bob, stop playing around. Now, this… man—you don’t mind If I call you that?—asks if we’ve got any qualifications? ’
‘I’ve got Alchemy I, grade B. That do?’
‘Ah,’ he grinned slyly, taking special note and underlining thrice. ‘Alchemy! ’ He winked at Bob. ‘What sort of Alchemy, lad?’
‘Oh, you know, the usual stuff: turning worthless gold into Blue, finding a cure for the Green Death. That sort of thing.’
‘Yeah, but any Alchemy? ’
‘Perhaps this is what you’re after.’ Yeldarb was rummaging in that bag of his again. At length he pulled out a small, transparent-plastic bag within which was an even smaller amount of white powder.
‘Is that wot I think it is?’ asked the Guild Manager, his eyes bulging with greed.
‘That depends,’ smiled Yeldarb. ‘Do you think you know what you think it is? And do you think that we know that you think it is what you think it is?’
The Guild Manager laughed evilly. ‘I knew it. Mind if I…?’
‘Don’t see why not. Here, take the entire bag.’ Yeldarb tossed it across in a casual tossing-across manner—a sort of, “hey, I do this sort of thing every day.”
The Guild Manager sniffed at it. His eyes widened. ‘High-grade Croak if I’m not mistaken! Which I could be, havin’ never smelled Croak a‘fore. Mind if… I taste it?’
‘Why?’ asked Bob.
‘Well, I dunno. ’s just what you’re s’pose to do ain’t it?’
Yeldarb interrupted. ‘Taste away my good man.’
He did: ‘Zingy!’
‘Fresh from the Minotaur’s horn’s!’ added Yeldarb.
‘A’right. Yer in,’ he wagged his bulbous finger, ‘against my better judgement, mind. Now. We got a small odd-job needin’ doin’. Seems like one of the local landlords been a bit behind in his contributions of late and we been informed that he’s off on an extended Axe-mass break. So…’
‘So—you want us to go and even the contributions.’
‘Do we get tips?’ asked Bob keenly.
‘Only if you think ya deserve one. The take is 80% back to The Guild. The rest, you and yer pet monkey get to split. Of course, you’ll need to pay yer Guild entry-fee—10% and yer Ill Gotten Gains Tax—another 5%. An’ of course my personal bribe for lettin’ you in, in the first place. Now, that would normally be another 5%, but I reckon this ’ere Croak balances the scales. Deal?’
‘You’ll get yer details from the shifty looking fuger at the door. Next!’
Yeldarb looked around. ‘You may have to be more precise than that.’
As they walked out, Bob couldn’t resist asking. ‘So, what was that stuff you gave him? Was it really Croak? That’s worth a fortune, you know! We could have sold it if it wasn’t immoral and not the sort of thing we want to encourage in a family tale with only infrequent use of some fairly atrocious language.’
‘ ’Fraid it wasn’t Croak, Bob old brethren-brother buddy,’ consulting the map, ‘But it is fairly harmless.’
‘Oh yes, on your feet at least.’
Madam Cadaver’s house of illicit fun sat amidst the serene setting of Hawthorn Park, a sprawling squirrel-squeaking forest that permeated and surrounded the only fashionable suburb Lotopia had to offer. Indeed the only part of Lotopia that could boast greenery, plague districts excepted.
It was a grand, two-storey affair fronted by twisting columns of curvaceous white marble interspersed, on the upper floor, by rose windows and hanging baskets of flowers. These swung lazily in the breeze, dispersing their pungency in a sweet enveloping cloud, only slightly marred by the downwind airs from the meat-canning factory. The side-faces of the building boasted luscious trails of ivy and these roamed near-uncontrollably to the ground in a waterfall, parting only to reveal a small, port-hole window against which rested “the conveniently placed ladder”—to assist hasty exits.
Such grandeur and evident wealth was normally indicative, in Lotopia at least, of a religions building, a temple perhaps. And in some respects, this is exactly what Madam Cadaver’s was: it had a loyal congregation which regularly donated cash-sums to the upkeep of the residency. In return, parishioners would be granted worship-time with the goddesses within. Many of the garments worn by said goddesses were very “holey,” and indeed, some regulars were of the clergy…
By the rear of the establishment there rolled a pristine lawn of manicured perfection, sprinkled with striped deckchairs, discarded tea-trays and pieces of fine-art—admittedly, naked fine-art of the limb-less variety. Surrounding this was a low-walled maze and beyond that a sandy path that snaked its way towards a gurgling jetty. Several boats were moored there and jostled in the swell and sway of the River Sticks which, at this time of the morning, was drenched in ethereal clouds of mist.
A few boats wallowed further out, most having drifted up from the city and were harbouring worse-for-wear sailor-types that lolled sickly over the sides in their rolled-up jumpers and occasionally heaving-ho. Some though were there on that early morning for finer purposes—pontoons with courting gentlemen in striped blazers and fine white hats, engaging in polite conversations with members of mostly the opposite sex; and usually, the same species. A pair of swans wove calmly between the pontoons, sifting the water and shaking their wings and upon the far bank, an early morning mugging was taking place. And then, there was the oil-black rowing boot with the gold emblem painted on the side that cut quietly through the waters…
It had ten rowers, all identically clad in badly-fitting black suits, short black caps and shiny truncheons, although that wouldn’t be visible until they stood up. Each sported a ridiculous handlebar moustache and bore a face of deadly seriousness. A silver whistle and chain shone from each of their top pockets.
Towards Madam Cadaver’s jetty, decorated as it was with further garlands of flowers and fresh smelling herbs,* the boat slithered like an ultra-venomous black mamba. The oars swung up and the two lead rowers braced themselves against the jetty, bringing the boat to a gradual halt. Each of the ten then marched up the provided ladder and assembled in two rows of five.
There they stood, in the crisp early morning, motionless and magnificently erect. The sun crept above the treetops, rendering the river as a shimmering flow of gold and the gentlest of breezes rolled in from the inner city. Upon each of their shoulders glinted a series of gold buttons.
‘We forgot the cap’n again, didn’t we,’ said one.
‘Aye,’ chorused the rest.
‘What do we do then?’
‘Only one thing for it. What we knows best.’
With military precision, each took an identical shiny whistle from their top pocket and placed it between their lips. Someone from the rear returned to the boat and collected a large collection of wide, flat boxes, which he proceeded to distribute. ‘Now lads, remember, only use your weapons as a first resort!’
There was the sound of ten pairs of lungs taking a deep breath…
Pheep! Pheep! Pheep!
En-masse, they surged forward, legs spinning in a manic tumbling sprint, all sense of order gone and whistling for all their might.
Up the path they ran, as a swarming pheeping body and across the impeccable lawn they tramped, churning up the turf, stepping through and tripping over the deckchairs and bumping into and smashing any of the statues even remotely near. They took no notice of Madam Cadaver’s door with its amusingly shaped pink-knocker and burst into the wide hallway, launching custard pies with gay abandon at the voile drapes.
Here they scattered, running in all directions and none at the same time. They checked under the carpet, inside the gas lamps, between the bars of the curving banister and essentially anywhere other than where their intended prey might be. There was a shrill cry of female alarm from above: ‘The Keystone Kops!’
Pheep! Pheep! Was their only answer as they rushed, again en-masse, up the circular stairway. Onto the landing they burst in a heap of interlocked legs and into the very first room they fell.
‘Good Gods, man! What’s the meaning of this!’ cried a deep male voice. ‘I’ll have you know that I’m—’
There was the sound of glass shattering, a woman’s scream and yet more general upheaval as drawers and frilly undergarments were tossed into the hallway; and then they were out—and into the next room.
The last man out went to close the door. ‘Sorry archbishop,’ and launched another pie.
This continued until the hall was knee deep in various skimpy garments and until there wasn’t a room in the house that wasn’t fully awake.
Eventually, they found him…
‘Ye-gads! Is this called for!’
‘Ha-ha!’ they cried in unison and leapt upon Sir Renders and his brunette-haired heavily-bosomed bed companions.
Fists went flying, little stars spun above the bed, truncheons batted, custard pies “Splatted!” and all not without the occasional censored utterance from Sir Renders. Even the sheep under the bed bleated in complaint and scurried off.
At length, they had him, and ten pairs of eager hands dragged the bound, custard-covered knight into the hallway. At least they thought they did.
After a brief confused pause, they burst into the room again—and dragged out another body.
And then another. This time, it was Sir Renders.
‘What is the meaning of this, you—you badly trained primates!’ snarled a half-naked Renders. ‘And at the very least, button up my armour!’
‘You sir,’ said an indeterminate voice, ‘are under a rest for the most very serious and very naughty theft of one earring. Any thing you say may be taken down and… Anyone got a note book?’
Mumbles all round.
‘All right, sir, just keep quiet then and we will not say any thing.’
Renders groaned and felt his head. The memories were arriving, as was his hangover. ‘But… she gave it to me.’
‘That is not what the Lady Erotica thinks, sir.’
‘Eroica,’ he added dryly, but they were already carrying him down the stairs.
‘Are you sure this map’s correct, Yeldarb?’
‘Why’d’you ask that, Bob?’
‘Well, it’s just that… well, we are going to break in to this castle, right?’
‘We aren’t going to do it wrong, Bob.’
‘Right… Well, shouldn’t we be, you know, clambering up some long forgotten path, scaling the sheerest of cliff faces or skulking through an underground tunnel or…’
‘You mean something other than walking up to the front door?’
‘Well, frankly, yes. Something a bit more subtle.’
‘Ye-es—still, I’m not so sure. And another thing that bothers me! This robbing lark? I thought we’d be doing some good old-fashioned down-to-soil manly adventuring. You know, rescuing fair maidens, slaying Dragons, a spot of magic, heaps of cash and more Blue than we can carry all thrown in with a bit of the old story telling in some welcoming tavern whilst a barmaid bounces on my knee. Not breaking and entering! I mean, that’s just plain sneaky. And I am—will be a Cleric y’know, dedicated to goodness and all that other stuff they tried to teach me at the WWW University.’
‘Ah, but that’s the key point, Bob. If you were a Cleric. And, Bob, my witless companion, you are not yet a Cleric. And probably never will be.’
Bob sighed. ‘That’s true I suppose.’
‘So when/if you do become a Cleric, then you can worry about such things, right?’
‘So, in fact, you might as well do all the disgusting things you can think of right now—before you graduate. Because after that, it’ll be zippo for you, boy, and definitely no bouncing barmaids. No, I’m afraid you’ll be consigned to a lonely corner to read your prayer books—or whatever it is that Cleric’s do for a really wild time.’
‘You make it sound so bad. It’s a vocation!’
‘So’s this. The only difference is, this one’s to make some hard cash!’
Bob fell silent. They had reached the enormous arch doorway of the Elfindel’s Fortress. An almost-as-enormous black knocker, shaped into the grotesque face of a Lion, glowered at them.
‘Bugger off!’ it roared. ‘No-one’s in and no-ones getting in!’
‘That’s handy,’ smiled Yeldarb. ‘Thank you for confirming that for us.’
‘Er… no I didn’t,’ it retorted. ‘Perhaps I’m trying to mislead you. There could be hoards of guards inside.’
‘There could be, yes. But there isn’t, is there?’
The door shook with frustration. ‘ROAR! Just bugger off.’
‘Blimey!’ exclaimed Bob. ‘A talking doorknob, how…’
‘Pathetic?’ suggested Yeldarb. ‘I had at least a dozen in my castle, y’know. Talking is nothing. I had one that did a wicked Spruce Bringsteen.’
Bob ignored him: ‘Or should I say, talking Lion?’
The doorknob looked insulted: ‘You could say, “talking Chimaera” if I were wanting to talk to the likes of you, but I ain’t, so bugger off!’
‘A Chimaera?’ said Yeldarb. ‘Now, that’s a bit more stylish. We only had six of those.’
‘You don’t look like a Chimaera?’ said Bob. ‘I mean, where’s your snake’s tail and goat’s body. For all we know, you might have the body of a… well, wood.’
‘I am too!’ protested the doorknob. ‘I’ve got legs a body, tail and lots more besides.’
‘So where are they then?’ asked Yeldarb with a mischievous grin. ‘In the wash?’
The doorknob bounced up and down in fury. ‘Just you wait! I’ll get my legs back one day—then you’ll see!’
‘Yeah, yeah.’ Yeldarb grabbed the knocker on the snout and pulled.
The door rolled open unleashing a wave of musty air.
‘Ow!’ cried the knocker. The door had continued to swing open and had slammed into the porch wall. ‘By dose!’
‘Come on Bob,’ said Yeldarb as he vanished into the darkness.
Bob wandered after him but stopped when he heard the quiet sobbing emanating from the door. He returned. ‘I believe you, really.’
‘You do?’ asked the doorknob. ‘It’s not easy, you know. Being out here in all weather, getting hit by anyone and everyone that wants to come in. And all they say is, ‘Oh look, a little Lion!’ So I says to myself, ‘I need some character.’ And then I thought, ‘I could be a Chimaera.’ I mean it’s not as though it can be proven either way now, is it?’
‘Bob, you bugger. Hurry up!’
‘Sorry, need to go.’
‘That’s alright. Thanks for taking an interest.’
‘Yes, well, I guess I’ll be seeing you around.’
‘That some kind of cruel joke?’
‘Sorry, must go!’
‘You heartless git. “Seeing you around!” Just because I can’t move. Just you wait, I’ll get my legs—and then I’ll get you, you bastard! You and your smarmy mate—oh, he’s gone.’
There was a sudden strong gust of wind, which managed to shut the door to. The doorknob rattled loudly.
The doorknob sighed and looked up at the cold white sky. ‘Hope it doesn’t snow again tonight.’
Dwoirot stood before the identity parade of the only three known headless Zombies on the electoral roll. It hadn’t been a challenging task to find them, even considering the usually low level of skill embodied within The Guard. After all, the lack of a head wasn’t something that could be readily denied. The real problem though, was that one of the heads had, since capture, managed to go… astray. The other problem was that by a strange case of apparent group amnesia, each Zombie had forgotten which of the two remaining heads was their own. This, Dwoirot thought, would cause considerable problems with any further interrogation; not to mention the legal implications of allowing the wrong body to wander free.
He strode up and down before the rotting and occasionally twitching bodies of the Zombies. It was not a pleasant or settling sight—even for those as familiar with the various ins and outs of the undead, as Dwoirot was. And some of their “ins” were very definitely out; one had even managed to detach itself and was now dragging itself towards the door.
‘Sergeant! Apprehend that limb!’
Sergeant Sideways sidled out of the shadows and swaggered over to the limb.
‘Allo, allo, allo. If you’ll just turn around sir and rejoin with your owner. We’ll have no gradual escapes here!’
The hand, resting on its palm and raising itself to allow its upper fingers to point at him like antennae, gave what resembled a small shrug and then scuttled back to rejoin its owner.
‘Now!’ spat Dwoirot. ‘For the very last time. Whose head belongs to whom. And who is missing their head.’
The shoulders of each of the Zombies turned to ‘face’ each other—and each in fashion shrugged their shoulders.
‘No, no, that just won’t do. I want answers, blast it! Think men—things! It’s quite simple. Just ask yourself ‘is that my head!’ It’s not hard!’
‘Er… inspector?’ asked Inspector Dawkins as he fidgeted uneasily within the folds of his overcoat. Dwoirot crooned his neck to look up at the man, whose summit was some three feet higher than that of the Dwarves.
‘Spit it out man!’
‘Well detective inspector sir, not that I’m questioning your direction, mind. But I do think it could be a tad unlikely that the… suspects presented here before us as they mostly are, would be able to er… answer in any capable or indeed audible form.’
‘Ah!’ Inspiration flooded across Dwoirot’s features. ‘You mean because of their lack of vocal chords, eh?’ Dwoirot stroked his beard thoughtfully. ‘Cunning. I was wondering at the lack of response.’
‘I was thinkin’ more of their inability to hear the question actually, sar.’
‘Ah, an even better point, Dawkins. We’ll make an inspector of you yet. Perhaps better to question the heads separately then, hmm?’
‘Right you are then, sar.’
Dwoirot looked at the three unsteady spasming forms.* ‘Still Dawkins, how did they know when to shrug?’
‘No idea, sir. Plot flaw, I’d say.’
‘Ah well, so where are the remaining heads then? Assuming that is that this institution, which every day creates new meanings for the word “incompetence,” hasn’t managed to lose them.’
‘Cell six and seven sar! Thought it best to keep them apart. Though, to be honest, we didn’t feel security would be too much of an issue. I mean, it’s not as if they’re going to sprout legs and wander off eh, sar?’ He chuckled in that restrained polite manner that members of law-enforcing agencies do.
Dwoirot spun on him. ‘Well, Dawkins, I beg to differ. One of them did apparently walk off, and your men are at an apparent loss to tell me when—even how! Where, doesn’t even enter into the matter!’
‘Ah. Yes, I’d…’
‘Forgotten? Indeed, though I, sir had definitely not. You may think the loss of one rotting Zombie head to be of no significance. I on the other hand, believe that head to be crucial to the further investigation into the murder of Toby Toby. Someone or something and lets face it, it’s more likely a something, wants that head kept silent. And that something has managed to infiltrate The Guard to acquire that head. Face it Dawkins, someone in your organisation is corrupt.’
‘Really inspector? Just one then?’
‘With any luck Dawkins. It could even be you. Or I.’
‘Well no, of course not. I am incorruptible. You however…’ He peered suspiciously into Dawkins eyes. The man turned away and coughed.
‘Surely you don’t think I inspector? Wouldn’t I have noticed. I mean, I don’t remember stealing the Zombie’s head and giving it to the shady character that propositioned me last night in Peeling’s bar—but you never know—perhaps I’d been hipnosised—or somethin’.’
Dwoirot laughed. ‘Ah Dawkins, you are but a simple man with simple vices. No, I believe this crime to be beyond you and your honest ilk. And further, I believe this crime may prove to have all the hallmarks of a super-villain.’
‘A super-villain? Surely not sar?’
‘Aye, probably not—but I can hope. I’ve not had a really news-worthy arrest in ages.’
‘Right you are then, sar. Well, here we are then.’ They stopped alongside an ajar cell door. ‘Cell six! Seven is opposite.’ He pointed across the dark hallway, past the sleeping form of a member of The Guard and at another ajar door. ‘Alright sar? Anyway, I’ll be off now. I’m going to buy the missus a little belated Axe-mass present on account of my suddenly coming into a substantial and honestly acquired amount of additional income.’
‘Hmm.’ Dwoirot grunted, deep in thought.
‘Right you are then, sar. I dare say you’ll be wanting to spend a few hours with the talking heads then? Guess I’ll be leavin’ you to it?’
‘Actually, Dawkins, no. I have an idea, and a cunning one to boot. And for this cunning idea, I’ll need a heavy bat, fifty yards of string and two steel cups…’
The whispering waters of the Sea of Stars sloshed gently against the ironclad hull of a schooner, sleek, elegant, with towering masts and a myriad of silver rigging that glistened in the moonlight like spider-webs. Her delicate white sails were tied up under the fore and main yard and they stretched out over the bulwarks like long slender arms clad in the most delicate of gowns. She was in every respect, a lady of the sea. Unfortunate then, that she was registered as The Mongoose and known throughout the sea-faring community as The Mad Mongoose—and as one to be avoided.
She bobbed low in the dark waters, betraying the weight of her cargo, but mostly the weight of her captain. Ferret by name and the source of The Mongoose’s madness, he stood proudly at the ships bow, leaning out over the water and resting his claw of a hand on The Mongoose’s furry figurehead. Upon his shoulder perched Polly-gone his long-dead, stuffed parrot. Occasionally, he cackled to himself. And sometimes, the parrot did too.
Towards the shore his insane gaze was directed and in particular at the choppier shallows where occasional ragged black triangles could be seen. These, Ferret knew, were the renowned razor-teeth rocks and which had bitten enough ships to make this an uninsurable destination. Only a lunatic would approach this shore…
At a respectful distance behind Ferret, which was generally never enough to escape his fishy odour, there stood two cloaked figures. These eyed the moonlit beach somewhat pensively, the looming cliffs beyond with dread and the snow-capped peaks above with sweat-dripping-down-the-cold-of-your-back terror. Occasionally one would point accusingly at the other and suggest that next time, it might be worth spending a few extra pieces of Blue to charter one of those nice cruise ships with the comfortable deck-chairs.
Beneath decks, The Mongoose’s cargo was acting up. Acting up in this sense meant galloping between starboard and port and doing its best to smash through the hull. The Mongoose was not a large ship and this disturbance was causing her to sway in a unsettling manner. There was a danger that if they didn’t deposit the cargo soon, The Mongoose could be capsized. This seemed to amuse Captain Ferret. Indeed, few things didn’t.
Finally we come to describe the crew—the ship’s skeleton crew. They viewed their island destination in hollow-socket silence, idly tying and re-tying knots, their teeth chattering and bony fingers tapping nervously on the capstan. More than one was wishing that they’d put aside a bit more each month for death assurance.
‘Ha-Har! It be a good night fer a shipwreckin’, it be, me hearties! It be, it be, oh aye it be!’ cackled Ferret.
What colour there had been in Bacchus’ cheeks, drained away a bit more. With the constant rocking of the ship, Bacchus was decidedly not in a good mood—and comments like this from Ferret weren’t helping matters: ‘Ferret, forgive me for questionin’ your very fugin’ obvious insanity, but don’t shipwrecks usually ’appen in storms? Bad weather, an’ all that shit. I mean, I could be arse-barkingly mad here, but it seems fairly calm to me.’
Ferret spun around, his left-eye wide-open, large as an egg and ready to leap from its socket. The other was scrunched up tightly. He smiled an enormous Cheshire Cat crescent at Bacchus. ‘Ha-Har! Even the best Captains ‘ave been known to run aground… an’ their ships n’all—from time to time.’ He leered closer. ‘It be inevitable, me maties, I sense a storm a’comin’. Best to accept what fate deals ye. Besides, The Mongoose needs a good wash.’ He turned around to face the island, but Polly-gone rotated her head 180 degrees so it could still face Bacchus. She squawked mockingly at him.
Bacchus agitatedly fingered his piece. He so very desperately wanted to slit Ferret’s throat and wring the stuffing out of that cocky little parrot. The only problem was, he didn’t know which he wanted to do first, and, as Bacchus knew, the art of prioritisation is essential to any really good hit man. Perhaps later he mused, when the crew’s asleep. But then he remembered, this crew never sleeps…
As if in response to Ferret’s ramblings, the wind decided to lift itself up. The sky darkened accordingly and thick rolling clouds sped from nowhere to litter the sky and blot out the stars. This obscured the moon, scattering the only light and rendered the boat disconcertingly dark. And the waves, to Bacchus’s dismay, were becoming agitated and hungry, sending showers of spray onto the deck. If The Mongoose was rocking before then she was really raving now.
It was then that Erryl remembered his lines: ‘So, what’s this place called then, Bacchus?’
Bacchus grimaced, that feeling was returning. Ignoring Erryl, he covered his mouth and staggered towards the point that best approximated the ships centre of gravity, the galley stove chimney—which was also nice and warm. He settled himself under the curl of its stack, put his head between his knees, his hands over his head and felt decidedly sorry for himself.
Erryl tapped him on the shoulder and repeated his question.
Bacchus looked up with a look that said, “If I didn’t feel so bad, I’d kill you.”
‘Well Bacchus,’ Erryl insisted, ‘what’s it called?’
‘Zeubluedaweh give me patience!’ he muttered. ‘Erryl, it’s called exactly the same as it was ten minutes ago, when ya last asked! An’ it’ll still be the same when we go ashore an’ ya ask me again. An’ ya guessed it—it’ll still be the same when I shove my piece though yer fugin’ chest if ya don’t shut the fug up and leave me be!’
Erryl sniffed and turned away to watch Captain Ferret doing something with one of the skeletons. Apparently, lighting candles inside their skulls…
After a long sulky pause, Erryl spoke again: ‘I don’t like this place, Bacchus. I reckon this is the lady’s way of gettin’ rid of us.’
‘Depth check!’ cried the Captain. An anchor was heaved over the side with the aid of three bony shipmates. It plunged into the dark waters with a too-loud water slap and a high-pitched whine as it dragged yard upon yard of rope after it.
Far too loud, thought Bacchus. ‘Ferret? How long until we hit—reach land?’
Captain Ferret laughed as though Bacchus had just told him an insanely funny joke involving an cross-dressing archbishop, three penguins and an Irishman.
Bacchus shook his head in disbelief: they were doomed.
Still laughing, Ferret staggered towards them. ‘Har! It be a grim night, ladies! An’ I sense watchful eyes, a watchin’ us. Lidless, dead eyes, they be! Lidless, hungry eyes all bloodshot and full o’ madness! Mark my words ladies—madness! An’ here you two be a goin’, off into the midst of all that watchin’. You be goin’ to a mad place, ladies! Mad even for ol’ Cap’n Ferret ’ere, an’ I already be as mad as any mongoose that sailed the seventeen seas—Ha-Har!’
Bacchus looked helplessly towards Erryl and made little anti-clockwise finger pointing motions at the side of his head.
‘D’you think it’s a trap, Cap’n?’ asked Erryl hopefully. ‘I mean, if it’s a trap, it’d be pointless to go, right?’
‘Ha-Har! I’d rather cover me genitalia in fish-paste and leap into mackerel infested waters with a cry of “feeding time flipper” than set foot on that there shore.’
‘Of course,’ remarked Bacchus. ‘You don’t actually have any feet to mention, do you, Ferret?’
Ferret glanced down at his two peg-legs. ‘Aye, that be true. An’ to be honest ladies, I ain’t got no genitalia either on account of a strange harpooning incident that happened many year ago. Left a terrible scar it did. Ye want to see, ladies?’
‘No, no!’ cried Erryl.
Bacchus shielded his mouth and hissed to Erryl: ‘I think we’ll be safer on the Island, Err. This bugger’s lost it.’
‘I heard that me hearties! An’ just let me add, that I’ve plenty o’ fish-paste to go around, if you be a-wantin’ to be a-reconsiderin’ like. I even got a harpoon somewhere if ye want to see a reconstruction?’ He pointed to his groin to emphasise his readiness.
Thankfully there was a sudden distraction in the form of an undead moan of alarm as the anchor rope leapt off the ship and vanished into the water; taking one of the skeletons with it.
Ferret’s eyes lit up. ‘Ha-Har! These be deep waters, ladies. Alive with the darkness! A man might loose himself in waters like these!’ He leant toward them and laid a great meaty hand and claw upon each of Bacchus’ and Erryl’s shoulders respectively. ‘A man might go mad in waters like these!’
Bacchus shrugged him off and crawled out from under the chimneystack. ‘Ye-es. Still, if it’s all the same to you, Ferret,’ sidling over to the life-boat, ‘I think we’ll just get off here and take our chances with the—’
‘—watchin’ eyes? If you be sure, ladies! Just ye remember the fish-paste! An’ the mackerel. Don’t ever underestimate the mackerel. They be a deadly foe when not fed for a while. I tell ye, they’ll nibble your ‘ead off, give ‘em half a chance.’
‘We’ll keep a look out for the mackerel, you can be sure of that,’ said Bacchus nodding eagerly and easing himself into the boat. He signalled to a nearby skeleton to begin lowering it into the water. ‘Erryl, you coming or staying?’
Erryl looked at the island, steeped in ominous blackness, and then at Ferret with his bulging eyes, undead parrot and skeletal candle-lit crew. It didn’t take long for him to decide that it would be far better to face an unknown quantity of unknown madness than a ship-full of quite evident and verifiable insanity. With a hop he leapt over-board and landed in the descending boat. Unfortunately, he landed on a coil of thick rope which unsteadied him, throwing him to the bow of the small boat. One arm flopped over the side and dipped into the approaching water.
Bacchus screamed: ‘Look out!’
Instinctively, Erryl whipped his hand from the water and only narrowly managed to avoid the many white teeth belonging to something smooth and black that surged out of the water towards him. Just as quick, it was gone leaving scarcely a ripple on the surface. Erryl looked to his hand, counting the digits, not noticing that he was now falling backwards. ‘Hey, Bacchus, it missed me—’ With a orchestral sized clash of cymbals, he hit and then vanished into the water.
‘That be the mackerel!’ laughed Captain Ferret who had appeared to watch their descent.
Bacchus crawled to the bow, the boat still rocking violently from Erryl’s landing and impromptu exit. He stared longingly at the water and the foam of bubbles where Erryl had vanished. A multitude of angular black shadows could be seen churning in a writhing consuming mass just beneath the surface.
‘Mackerel? Fug that, they’re sharks! Erryl, I’m coming lad!’
Scrabbling at his belt, Bacchus unhooked his crossbow which by this time, was very cross and took aim at the centre of the writing. ‘You fishy fugers ate my mate! Well eat this ya foul-smellin’ mutha fugers!’
With an unimpressive p’twang the bolt vanished into the water.
‘Ha-Har!’ laughed Ferret and then before Bacchus could reload a second round, dropped his pantaloons. Bacchus froze, expecting some form of crude insult, but instead, watched aghast as the man applied some manner of cream to his unmentionable (& unprintable) regions and leapt from the ship…
Moments later, Erryl burst from the smothering depths, gasping and clawing feverishly at the side of the boat. There was a small piranha like creature nibbling at his ear and a thick purple and white tentacle coiling greedily around his neck.
‘Bacchus!’ he rasped. Bacchus obliged and dragged him on board—not an easy task at the best of times and as Erryl was naturally inclined somewhat towards portliness, him now also being sopping weight didn’t help much.
‘Shit man, you okay?’ Bacchus asked as he hastily applied the business end of an oar to the owner of the tentacle (which had arisen from the depths and was now viewing Bacchus and Erryl on this floating platter as some kind of finger-dip buffet). A singular yellow-slit eye sat amidst its huge pulpy mass of a body and it blinked in surprise with each strike of the oar. Eventually, some part of its mind registered pain and it oozed back into the water, reluctantly taking its tentacle with it. The piranha-thing incidentally, took a mere finger-flick to dislodge and it now flapped helplessly in the bottom of the boat.
Bacchus helped Erryl into a seated position. ‘What happened down there, man? You look pretty chewed up.’
‘Well,’ sputtered Erryl, ‘lucky thing that I was wearin’ some of Cap’n Ferret’s old clothes on account of him rather strangely throwin’ all our clothes overboard that night after we first set sail.’
Bacchus nodded, remembering the strange event well.
‘Yeah, well, seems the clothes smelt so much of fish-paste, all the things in the water decided my clothes were tastier than me.’
‘Zeubluedaweh,’ laughed Bacchus. ‘You lucky bastard. And that wriggly thing?’
‘Just somat I picked up. You got a hankie?’
‘Erryl, do I look like the sort of peach-skinned nancy-boy that’d be carryin’ about a hankie?’
‘It’s just to mop up my blood, man.’
Bacchus looked around, checking—nothing but ocean, watching eyes and the undead. ‘Alright, seeing as it’s you. Just this once mind!’ He fished about in his inside pocket and produced a white hanky with little lacy frills and an ornate ‘B’ woven into one corner.
‘So, where’s Ferret?’ asked Erryl.
‘He sleeps with the fishes tonight, my friend.’ (Calling up to the boat) ‘You wanna lower down the cargo now?’
‘Shame. He was mad, but genuine. What you saw was definitely what you got: A diseased, leg-less transsexual pirate.’
The shadow of the cargo fell over them.
You think she’ll fit, Bacchus?’
‘She’d better—or you might as well just jump back in that water, compared to what the lady’ll do to you—us when I—we tell ’er that you—we screwed up again.’
There was a sudden bubbling some way off from the boat. A hand, broke the surface, followed briefly by a half consumed face. As it rose and fell with the waves it could be seen to resiliently mouth the words ‘Ha-Har!’ When it sank beneath the waves for the last time, a terrible moan, or possible cheer erupted onboard The Mongoose.
One by one the skeletons dematerialised, free now from their immortal bondage. And when the decks were empty, The Mongoose herself began to ripple and fade. With a twinkle of escaping magic, she vanished, allowing the water to rush in and fill the area displaced by her hull. All that was left was a small creature, hovering over the water and circling the area were Ferret was last seen. She persevered for a while, but then with a sad “squawk”, vanished.
‘Ah, come in—and do sit down.’
There was a long pause.
‘Of course, I apologise. I quite forgot about the “you not being able to hear on account of not having any head” part.’
The Zombie sat down anyway and the chair creaked heavily with the weight of its torso. For a zombie, this one was remarkably well built and obviously kept its muscles in good working condition with regular limb replacements.
Dwoirot examined the Zombie’s file. The list of past occupations was quite impressive—for an immortal. Zombies like this, hard, physical Zombies were often hired for work in areas where the living can’t quite take it; or wouldn’t want to take it. Sewer work was one of them. Headless Zombies or those with detachable heads were particularly treasured as they had the advantage of being able to squeeze into awkward places or wade deeper than the others. They could often seen holding their heads aloft above a river of sewage whilst there bodies rummaged around beneath the surface.
Dwoirot stroked his beard. ‘Dawkins?’
‘Right you are there, sir?’ answered Dawkins, popping his head in from the corridor beyond. A thick pungent smell wafted in with him.
‘That wouldn’t be tobacco, I’d be smelling would it, Dawkins? You know I don’t approve of such things.’
Vigorous shaking of Dawkin’s head. ‘Oh no, sar. <cough> I’m not smoking tobacco.’
‘Well then, what are you smoking?’
‘Eh… it’s er… To be honest sar, it’s high grade Croak, sar.’
‘Croak? The highly illegal contraband ground from the horns of virginal Minotaurs and known to induce states of supreme silliness? You are aware that I’d have to make a citizens arrest, if that were the case, aren’t you Dawkins?’
‘Er… yes, sar, that I am an’ me being the head of The Guard, n’all. The scandal would be… unprecedented, for me at any rate. So in that case… it’s just tobacco.’
‘Just tobacco, Dawkins! With these fumes lingering around I think there’s a case for passive manslaughter here.’
‘Oh, well in that case, it’s just… garlic, sar. Been rumours of a Vampire hit man whose apparently doin’ a contract on one of The Guard. Thought it would be wise to arm—mouth myself.’
‘Garlic, eh? Hmm… Vampire hit man? Hmm, that’ll be that diabolic fiend, Pipistrello. Anyway, enough of such criminal trivia and back to the matter in hand. “The Case Of The Missing Head.” Now, Dawkins, the apparatus?’
‘On it’s way, sar. But sar, another trivial point. My missus. She’ll be out to murder me if I ain’t home soon.’
‘Pfah! Marriage! That’s the worst thing about women.’
‘Is it, sir?’
‘Actually, no, but it’s one of them. It’s the damned interference that I can’t stand.’
‘You mean as in those new-fangled Tell-Your-Mission sets that the Knights Temporary use?’
‘No, no, I mean as in they prevent you from doing what man is destined to do—detect! All that women are good for, is household chores and menial tasks beneath that of servants or small boys. And I, Dawkins, have found a maid to more than fill my requirements!’
‘Right you are then, sar. Still, if you don’t mind, I should be off soon. She really does get vic—’
‘Pfah! Ignore her, Dawkins. We could be on the verge of a criminal breakthrough here. This is justice in the making! Now, the steel cup?’
With a sigh: ‘Right you are then, sar.’
Dawkins wandered off leaving Dwoirot in the comparative calm of the interrogation cell. The room was in essence, bullet shaped with a ring of small dust-caked portals lining its circumference some way towards the point of the roof—and far to high to provide any semblance of lighting. Trails of aged green and blue-grey slime ran the length of the walls and water trickled in persistent drops to the gutters where the flashing eyes of members of the rodentia family could be seen.
Dwoirot looked at the Zombie and realised that the figure was blessed by not being able to see the state of its surrounds.
The creak of the nail-scored cell door announced Dawkins return. He walked in backwards, hunched over and unwinding string as he went. To the interrogation table he continued, and there laid a single metal cup, from which the string trailed through a hole at one end.
‘And it is attached via this string to the other tin?’ asked Dwoirot.
He dangled the string. ‘It is, sar.’
‘And is the other end—and steel cup—placed next to the head situated in cell six?’
‘It is, sar.’
‘Here you are then, sar.’
Dwoirot stood and tested its weight. ‘Good work, Dawkins. This is good wood. Of course, I’m more of an axe-man myself, but still, a good bat is as good a way of getting your point across as any other.’
‘But it’s blunt sir. It hasn’t got a point.’
Dwoirot waved him back.
‘You know, my old great grand-Dwarf, “Dwoiroticus the Digger” once fought in the Dwarvish Dales.’
‘Did he, sar?’
‘Yes, but only once. Right after that, his wife decided that what remained of the family line should pursue less deadly interests. Still…’ swinging the bat, ‘I can feel the appeal of a good dose of violence, justly applied… I tell you Dawkins, they should bring back capital punishment.’
He waited and watched as that familiar confused look introduced itself to Dawkin’s face. ‘No, Dawkins, that’s not where the convict is forced to write out endless lists of upper-case letters.’
‘Ah. Right you are then, sar.’
Dwoirot hefted the club onto his shoulder and swaggered across to the Zombie torso. It turned imperceptibly towards him.
‘Now, Mr unknown Zombie, last chance. Which head is yours?’
Dwoirot stood, tapping his foot. He looked pleadingly at Dawkins, shaking his head. ‘See Dawkins, violence is the only language that these people understand.’
Dawkins attempted to interrupt. ‘But… he can’t…’
Dwoirot raised the club. ‘Now, Mr non-co-operative Zombie, I can almost guarantee that this is going to hurt you a lot more than it will I, believe, hurt me. Although, you will notice that I have taken the precaution of gloves to avoid any blistering.’
The club fell, or rather was propelled with finger crushing intent. There was the sound of breaking bones, followed momentarily later by the faintest of cries coming from the steel cup. The Zombie fell to the floor, writhing around in agony and clutching its hand.
‘You hear that, Dawkins?’
‘Hear what, sar? That faint cry of pain from the tin-cup? No, don’t think I did.’
‘Ah. Well, just once more then. To make sure…’
A further cry of pain.
‘Ah… sounds like this Zombie could be innocent, Dawkins. Plainly, the head in cell six belongs to it. Otherwise, we wouldn’t have heard the proverbial peep.’
Dwoirot helped the Zombie back onto its chair.
‘Now, Dawkins, if you’ll be so good as to fetch the head and return it to our friend here—and make the usual remuneration’s for brutality when applied to an innocent member of the public.’
‘Ah, that’ll be nothing at all then, sar, and a quick kicking by the lads to make sure they keep quiet. Right you are then.’
Dawkins turned and walked to the door. ‘Sar?’
‘One thing puzzles me. The way the pain managed to transfer itself from the Zombie’s body here to his head through there. Isn’t that some kind of proof of extra sensory perception… or something?’
‘Don’t be silly man. Such thing’s are for fairy tales. Besides, any such speculation should be left to the greatness of Inspector Dwoirot. Now, get the head—and bring in the next Zombie.’
‘Right you are then, sar.’
Dwoirot smiled to himself, and stroked his beard.
‘One down, two to go.’
Dwoirot stood in the damp, dismal and dripping interrogation room before the last of the Zombies. This one had shown no sign of pain, even when the bat had been replaced with a mace. The only conclusion to draw, was that a head, somewhere in the city, was screaming out in agony. It was this head that they had to find.
‘Well, Dawkins. Only one thing for it, I fear.’
‘Is that so, sar?’
‘Indeed. I need your most violently unhinged and mentally disturbed officer. I need a real sicko. Someone who can dish out the violence, hour upon hour without remorse. I need a twisted sadistic psychopath who’d as soon flay his children as eat a currant bun. I need the very worst you have to offer, Dawkins.’
‘Really, sar? The sickest? That could take some time. I mean, I’m not sure who best fits the bill.’
‘Look, just anyone will do then.’
‘Right you are then, sar.’
Dawkins left the room and could be heard mumbling with someone in the corridor.
Moments later, he returned. Behind him stood the ugliest man Dwoirot had ever almost seen—his mind skilfully stepping in and blanking out the most offensive portions.
‘So this is the… man for the job then, Dawkins?’
‘I think so, sar. This is Thrudd.’
‘Thrudd? Unusual name.’
‘Oh, that’s only his first name sir. Thrudd the Toe-twisting Tarantula Tattooed Terror is what the lads call him. He’s quite the evilest man I’ve met… in that corridor.’
‘I want you to take this mace, and hit that Zombie, every ten seconds until I return.’
‘Dawkins, let’s go.’
‘Dawkins, I need all the men you can muster. We are to search the city until we hear a regular ten-second separated scream. And then Dawkins, we’ll have our Zombie.’
‘Right you are then, sar. But sar?’
‘Isn’t this a bit… sick?’
Dwoirot walked out of the interrogation cell, his voice carrying back into the room as Dawkins followed him out. ‘Never question my ways, Dawkins.’
The cell door closed to.
Thrudd looked at the Zombie and the collection of assorted limbs that had already been knocked off. Three fingers, a foot and something unmentionable, all wriggled around independently upon the floor.
With a sigh, he picked up the mace, dragged a chair over alongside the Zombie, sat down and prepared himself for a long evening’s beating…
Mayor Opus stepped from the jewel encrusted splendour of his carriage to a small and rather pathetic cheer; or possibly cough. He tugged at his coattails, straightening his fine ceremonial garb and offered a demeaning smile to the crowd. “Crowd” in this particular sense meant one old crone and something that may have once described itself as human.
This, Opus knew, was a sad reflection of the turnouts that the ex-Opus had commanded in the exuberant days following his inauguration. Then, hundreds of plague-marked peasants would line his weekly walk to the Halls of Decision. They’d be begging of course, in that desperate way that peasants always do, and the ex-Opus, would throw coins and gifts over them; sometimes even at them.
Pathetic, thought Opus sourly. To bow to the whims of peasants! People whose lives revolve around the barter price of a sack of potatoes. This ideology called “Cray Sea” that the anti-Opus had begun, where each entity within the city is entitled to a vote? Well, it’s going to stop. Its “demo” period is well over now. Time for a change. Time for Opism. One man, one vote. The man being me, of course.
It was natural for the crowds to dwindle over time, of that, Opus had convinced himself. But, in the past few days, there had been a marked decline. It was almost as though the candle of his popularity had been snuffed out, melted back into its constituents and then reformed into some manner of grotesque novelty wax phallus that was offending the populous. Then again, perhaps his newly installed Children Tax was not proving too popular.
‘Good-day to you old crone and your… companion. I trust you are here to show support for my recent tax measures? It’s all to do with global stability and exchange rate balance with our neighbours, you know. All very complex stuff. Nothing at all to do with my new palace, of course.’
‘Actuall-ee sar, ’ere I be. I mean, I be ’ere since Axe-mass Eve, on account o’ me poor naked feet bein’ unaccountably frozen to the cobbles through this pile of horse manure I be unexpectedly stood in.’
‘Ah, I see—suitably revolting. Not protesting about anything then, that’s good to hear. And your… companion?’
‘He be silently protestin’ ’bout our overseas policy with Eyerack, sar. At least he was. See, he died two night ago; been frozen-solid ever since. Still, it’s company of a sort. Mustn’t grumble.’
‘I see. So what your saying is that you are here simply by no choice of your own and that, if you could, you would be gone.’
‘Aye, sar. That I be.’
‘Then you be—are unaware of my recent proposal for a daytime curfew on peasants?’
‘No… I be not of that, sar. But then, I ain’t been able to get around much of late.’
‘Hmm. So… you are also blissfully unaware that peasants such as yourself may now be legally hunted in the Lotopian streets?’
She shifted uneasily. The frozen manure about her feet made cracking, protesting sounds. ‘No, I be not a ware of that neither, sar.’
‘Well, I’m sorry, but I have no sympathy for you people. If you can’t even be bothered to keep abreast of current affairs…’ He turned to his carriage-man and gave him an evil wink.
The old crone bent her head in an apologetic manner. ‘But I can’t ’ford the papers, sar. An’ I can’t read nether, sar. Or see. Or hold things stead-ee on account o’ me spasming.’
Opus sighed and idly tossed her a copper piece—which over the past few days had become practically worthless.
Her face lit up. ‘Thank-ee kind, sar,’ she drooled, rocking back and forth with muted excitement as she attempted to reach the coin, which Opus had cruelly thrown just out of reach.
Opus, feeling generous, gave her an icy grin and strode away and up the plush ultra-red carpet that led to the Halls. By the entrance stood Perry and Mippin, the two foulest, most corrupt, most pockmarked guards that the city had to offer—and as we’ve already established, this is no easy feat to achieve. Indeed, Perry and Mippin were quite proud of their… presentation.
‘Mornin’, Mayor Opus!’
They saluted sloppily whilst with the other hand, deftly returning their poker cards to their tunics. Perry clumsily attempted to slide his large slab of a foot over the kitty. In doing so, he knocked the small silver pyramid into a drain.
Opus suppressed a grin as he watched them both desperately trying not to notice their coins roll away.
‘And a good morning to you too, lads. And what a good morning it is, is it not…?’
The clatter of hooves and the squeal of wheels drowned his words, the last of which was horribly punctuated by a terrible cronish scream…
Opus didn’t need to turn, he knew that the peasants were no longer stuck to the cobbles.
Mippin leered towards him, his breath a noxious wave of barely consumed alcohol. ‘It is now sar, now that you’ve very legally removed those loiterers—we tried hackin’ em out ourselves earlier on, but they was so frozen solid, me axe jus’ kept bouncin’ orf their legs.’
‘Yes, well, I think I took the more humanitarian approach. The quick kill. It’s tax-deductible, you know.’
‘Your kindness knows no bounds, sar,’ said Mippin.
‘Loiterin’ bastards, death’s far too good for ’em,’ said Perry.
‘Aye, far, far too good for ’em,’ agreed Mippin, salivating.
‘You outta string em up and flay em alive.’
‘An’ douse ’em in pepper.’
‘An’ dunk ’em upside down in a vat o’ hot yeast extract.’
‘An’ rip out their intestines.’
‘An’ make ’em into a sauce.’
‘An’ feed it back to ’em.’
‘But wi’out salt.’
‘Nor herbs neither.’
‘But we had pepper?’
‘Well, we’d scrape it all orf again then!’
‘—Quite, quite.’ Opus coughed politely. ‘Now, I would love to stay and listen to your ideas on cannibalistic cuisine, but I’m in a bit of a hurry lads. So, the doors?’
‘They’re a crap band, sar,’ said Mippin.
‘Would you open the doors!’ insisted Opus.
‘Oh. Aye. Right, sar,’ they chorused and the pair leant heavily against the sturdy frame, managing to ease the timbers apart with a long slow creak.
Opus stepped onto the vast stretch of polished opal that was merely the cloakroom, but then halted and turned.
‘Should either of you two be needing employment in the near future, I could do with men of your considerable… imagination.’
‘Very kind, sar. As long as we get to flay lots of peasants.’
‘An’ then take their stringy bits an—’
‘Quite, quite.’ Opus sped off into the greater hallway which echoed crisply with his advancing steps. He paused and surveyed the magnificent scene. Even after almost a week in the job, this still managed to impress him:
The opal flooring had given way to an enormous Smalti mosaic of Zeubluedaweh him/her/itself. Blue, yellow and red tiles depicted the background—an underwater scene with anemones, coral, and starfish. Zeubluedaweh was rendered mainly in gold with Blue for the eyes and was standing proudly atop the dismembered corpse of a Sea God (and thus reasserting Zeubluedaweh’s authority as God of Gods). The starfish looked on in horror. Surrounding this grisly scene was a foot-wide circlet of green vitreous glass. It shone with inlaid gold leaf, like a halo and gleamed as bright as the day it was fashioned. At least it did now.* Beyond the mosaic, the carpet began in earnest with a pile so deep it was rumoured that once a buffalo had been discovered grazing on its fibres. The surrounding walls were equally impressive with enormous tapestries, one in particular a hundred feet in length, bloodied and soiled and depicting the Battle of the Dwarfish Dales. So lifelike was this particular tapestry it was a widely held belief that the entrails displayed were indeed real Dwarve entrails. Intermingling the tapestries were portraits of mayors of past note, some flat some sharp. Opus was not yet up there of course, his term of office was as yet a short one. But, Opus had plans; dark plans… Future generations would know him as Opus the Benevolent, Opus the Unaccountably Wise. Maybe even Opus the Looker.
He sighed, a deep relaxed sigh and sucked in a great draught of the air, heavy with the scrubbed-clean aroma of wealth. This was what he had worked for—all those years of perfecting his shape-shifting abilities. Or rather, it was what the other Opus had worked for. Well, perhaps it was a joint effort.
Only one thing spoiled his immediate enjoyment of his surrounds and that was the intermittent clack of a walking stick. He listened to it approach, knowing well who that stick was supporting.
He cried out loudly. ‘Dangulf! Good morning. How nice to see your aged features again. You old cretin.’
‘What’s for certain?’ he asked, cupping a gnarled hand behind his even more gnarled ear, from which sprouted tufts of white hair. ‘I’m afraid you’ll have to speak up Mayor Gumby, I’m not as young as I was once, you know. At least I think I was young once, but it was oh such a very long time ago… Hmm. Who are you anyway, young fellow-me-lad?’
‘Dangulf, you’re a fool and a cretin, and I’m thinking of replacing you. No, swap “thinking of” for “going to”. What do you have to say about that, eh?’
Dangulf peered at him with a blank “was I asleep?” expression.
‘Not much, I see.’ continued Opus hatefully. ‘Well, I’ll have you know that I plan to recommend the Lady Reptila to the Magician’s Guild board—as your replacement!’
Dangulf gasped, fell heavily onto his stick.
‘I see you’ve heard of her. Well you’re not even qualified to sniff at her softly perfumed feet. She’s twice the magician you ever were and half the man. So—my advice to you: is retire before you’re sacked. i.e. just bugger off.’
‘You know, I was once in a tight spot in the fortress of Theohen… I think that was its name. Well, anyway, The Dark Lord had fashioned this enormous battering ram. Gourd… I think his minions called it—anyway… where was I? Ah yes, Gourd. So useful for holding spirits. Spirits, that reminds me—The Dark Lord. Well, as I was saying—’
‘Look Dangulf, I don’t give a jot about your old stories from a thousand years ago. It’s all myth and legend to me. Dark Lord indeed! If he was so “Dark” then why did you beat him so easily? If you ask me, I think he was just a great pink softie! And he only had nine fingers! How can you weave magic with a missing finger!? I think you just make it all up.’
‘Make-up? Not for me, Mayor. Personally, I just use a bit of moisturiser every now and then—avoiding the eye area of course. I even know this good potion although I think it needs squirrel juice for best effect. Ah, squirrels, that reminds me—’
‘Dangulf, you are a poor example of the cumulative effects of a billion years of evolution. Now, regrettably, in the interim before I can convince Lady Reptila to take your place, I still need to co-operate with you. So, let’s get onto business, shall we? Lead the way.’
Opus pointed helpfully towards the Eastern wing, the one lined with various misshapen suits of armour—one for each species that dwelt within the city walls.
‘Ah… yes. If you’ll just walk this way then, Mayor er… Mayor.’
Opus waited for Dangulf to hobble past and then continued after him, imitating his disability to the best of his own.
‘It’s a regular maze entrance, Yeldarb! Wow, I didn’t think they made thing’s like this anymore. Look—look at the inscription on the lock! It says… ”YE WARNING:: THIS BE’ETH A MAZEE.” ’
Yeldarb hissed. ‘Be silent! I can hear something.’
Yeldarb pressed his ear against the grill-like entrance they’d discovered in the pantry (amongst many wines and fine cheeses, of course, most of which had required sampling). He watched the points of Yeldarb’s ears slowly rotate, his eyes ground shut in deep concentration.
At length, Yeldarb spoke. ‘It’s gone.’
‘Well, I don’t know that, do I? It’s gone!’
‘How did you know it was there in the first place then?’
‘Look Bob, I refuse to be drawn into another one of your pointless pseudo-psychological existentialism debates. Let’s just get down there and do the job we were sent for—and stop munching on that pastie. Now,’ heaving open the grill and looking at the square of nothingness below, ‘you first…’
‘Oh, no, no,’ laughed Bob, ‘You first.’
Yeldarb sighed. ‘Look, Bob. Who’s running this adventure?’
‘I don’t call this much of an adventure.’
‘Regardless, who arranged it?’
‘Me—and who found the grill first?’
‘Me—therefore who should go down into the maze first?’
‘Me—No, you! ’
Bob strummed thoughtfully on his lower lop. ‘Alright… Let’s bet on who goes first.’
Yeldarb looked at him suspiciously. ‘I thought betting was against your clerical whatever… Alright, I’ll humour you—what do you have in mind?’
Bob looked around. ‘Hah. This…’ hefting it up, ‘block of cheese. I bet if I throw it into the air, it’ll land this side up—the side with most holes. If it doesn’t, then you win. Agreed?’
Yeldarb nodded slowly, convinced that he was about to be tricked.
Bob dropped the cheese. It landed with a solid flump.
Yeldarb jumped to his feet. ‘That’s not fair! You just dropped it. You didn’t even spin it or anything!’
‘A bet’s a bet.’
Yeldarb froze. ‘Ah, so you hear it too this time.’
‘Ye-es, some far of voice, moaning—like the cries of a forgotten corpse, walled away for years.’
‘Really? Did it say anything?’
‘Just one phrase—over and over.’
‘Something like. ‘YELDARB’S A COWARD, YELDARB’S A COWARD!’ Bob danced around shouting at the top of his voice.
‘Sit down you fool and shut up! Sit… Will you… SIT!’ Yeldarb slapped him across the face.
‘There was no need for that!’
‘Bob,’ trying to sound calm. ‘I’ll go first, alright? I merely wanted to offer you the opportunity because it’s your first big adventure and you might not want to miss out on… anything.’
‘And not because you’re a pointy-eared yellow-bellied coward.’
‘Certainly not. I resent the accusation.’
‘Actually, I feel better now.’
‘Well… because I sort of cheated.’
‘You bugger—I knew it! Never trust a cleric! How?’
‘Well, it was obvious the side with the most holes would land face up because that’s the one with the least mass density. I learned that at the WWW. Of course, I had to take into account the drag coefficient of the various holes—which could have played an important role—but still, worked out well in the end. For me, at least.’
‘Bob, I’ll never trust you again. You’re learning too. Now, follow me…’
With a quiet rustle of his Elven cloak, Yeldarb slipped into the darkness.
Bob waited; and waited. Eventually, he reluctantly called down. ‘You alright?’
The faint reply took a while in coming. ‘So far.’
‘Shall I jump in now then?’
‘Actually no, Bob. I’d possibly leave it.’
‘Well, you see, I’ve not actually landed yet…’
Erryl hopped from the rowing boat and wished that waterproof pants had been invented as he plunged waist-deep into the icy blackness. Sand sucked at his boots and the water surged around his thighs as the returning tide slapped refreshingly against his groin. It took some moments for Bacchus mind to switch between frozen-mind-boggling-pain and screaming-expletive mode: ‘Oh, sweet Zeubluedaweh! It’s c-c-c-old!’ With each surge of the tide, Erryl’s voice rose an octave.
Bacchus tossed him a rope. ‘Stop standing around ya lazy bugger! Get pullin’ this rope and get us ashore.’
With slow juddering movements, Erryl bent over and fished about for the rope.
‘Bacchus, there’s things swishing around down here.’
‘It’s seaweed. Now stop whinging and get the rope.’
‘I ain’t paid enough for this shit,’ he muttered. With a sigh and a shiver, Erryl lifted the sodden towrope and wrapped it around his chest. Then, turning towards the shore, he leant forward and wallowed up the shallow incline and onto the pale shore.
Behind him, the “cargo” whinnied nervously and stamped its feet.
Bacchus’ excuse for keeping out of the water was allegedly to keep the cargo calm. Now, with the scent of land so near, this was beginning to prove impossible. Although perhaps it wasn’t the smell of the land that was causing concern.
‘Shh,’ enthused Bacchus. ‘Please!’
Erryl staggered onto the drier sands of the shore where he collapsed onto to an age-weathered rock. Barnacles clustered uncomfortably around its sides, lurking beneath shaggy mounds of seaweed that cascaded from the upper surfaces in slippery layers of yellow and brown. A moon-crab, perched on its summit reared up on its hind legs and snapped its pincers defensively. Regrettably though, the defences of one small albino-shelled crab were quite inadequate against the momentum of the human fist that sent it spinning into the air and then rolling up beach.
Cursing, Erryl tied the rope about the rock, and looked around the disconcertingly peaceful beach. His gaze alone was enough to send the remaining moon-crabs into panic and, in a flurry, they swarmed up the incline of the beach, beyond the waterline and vanished into their myriad of sand burrows.
Following the rustle of the breaking waves, he followed the long crescent of the shoreline, scrutinising every shadow. Of most concern were the thick patches of tall needle grasses that occasioned the bone-white sands. These clumped in self-contained islands, resilient to the tide and capable, Erryl feared, of harbouring any manner of skulking monster. Between these and where the moonlight persisted, was spun silver trails of shells. These glistened softly, twinkling like stars as the sea gurgled over them, whispering as they caught the wind. Grudgingly, Erryl had to admit it: this was the quintessential unspoilt, beach and for a first impression of “The Island of Damned Souls”, this one was fairly promising.
Erryl tugged at the rope. ‘It’s secure.’
Bacchus nodded in reply. ‘Erryl, be ready. I’m going to take it’s mask off… there… Now, isn’t that better?’
With a neigh of terror that surely would have sent even the bravest moon-crab hurtling into its burrow, the silver-skinned Unicorn leapt from the boat. Her flying hooves missed Erryl’s forehead by a hairs-width, and ploughed solidly into the soft sand. She whinnied again and then, in a blur of glowing white mane and churning sand, powered along the shore. After a few moments, the only way to see her was to look for the enormous spray of water that her galloping hooves kicked up.
It was only when Erryl looked to the boat that he realised Bacchus was nowhere to be seen.
‘Bugger!’ said the voice behind him.
‘All rise for His Eminence, Guardian of the City, Custodian of the Key of Justice, Lawman of Lotopia, wise beyond quibbling and above all, the humblest man within… the confines of his clothing.’
Opus grinned and bowed, fawning before the Minister of the Halls.
Muted applause, a handful of jeers and a single piercing cat-call came from the steaming ranks of the public stalls. ‘Minister, you are as always, most accurate. Except,’ he whispered, ‘you missed out the part about me being a bit of a ladies man—remember we discussed adding that?’
‘Er… yes. And,’ announcing loudly, ‘His Eminence wishes to make it known that he is also… a bit of a person’s man.’
‘Ladies! ’ hissed Opus.
Aside, the Minister’s hand guarding his mouth: ‘But Your Eminence—in these days of racial, spiritual, and most definitely, sexual equivalence, we do not want to alienate any party, sub-species or sexual deviant. In fact, these are the sort of people we want to encourage—these are the backbone of our modern Lotopia.’
Opus shook his head and climbed the two steps that led to the “Chair of Decision Making”—carved from a single hunk of coal-black jet and adorned with studs of turquoise. The only admission to comfort was a sad and frumpy cushion that had seen far too many buttocks in its time and was long due retirement.
Opus eased himself onto the cushion and surveyed the token jury, an ensemble of those individuals which had, so far, not managed to acquire a criminal record. As was often the case, he recognised a fair percentage of the faces—honest citizens being in short supply, jury duty tended to recycle them frequently.
He rapped his hammer three times on the veined forearm of his chair, the arms of which stretched out into enormous curled paws. The claws though were not retracted, but rendered instead in that same, starkly contrasting, turquoise.
‘All rise!’ cried the Hall Minister.
Three people stood. One of them was a goat and was already standing, tethered by her owner. Of the others, one was Opus and the other, the Hall Minister.
Disrespectful vermin, thought Opus. He turned to the Minister. ‘What or whom is first on today’s lustrous agenda?’
‘I think you’ll find that to be illustrious, Your Eminence.’
‘Are you correcting me, Minister?’
‘Ah, probably not, Eminence,’ laughing nervously and consulting the gold-lined foot-thick tome “The Book Of The As-Good-As-Dead.” ‘Now, agenda… well, that would be… Tectonic the Troll versus Diamond-Dave, needless to say—a Dwarf. The dispute appears to be over ownership rights to Mr Tectonic’s body, or to be more specific… drilling rights to his body. Both are representing themselves… unsurprisingly.’
‘Drilling rights?’ asked Opus incredulously. He looked at the sad hulk of pigeon-defected stone that was Tectonic, seated as he was upon a specially reinforced bench—and which still managed to sag. This was an old moss-covered Troll, with numerous scars (or faults) running the length of one arm and an entire fist-sized chunk missing from his shoulder.
The Minister turned the page. ‘Ah yes, and we have a counter-claim also requested by Mr Tectonic of the right of Mr Tectonic to Mr Diamond-Dave’s, ah, body. It is alleged that Mr Diamond-Dave inflicted grievous bodily harm whilst waking Mr Tectonic from his slumber in the Old Hills and that, put simply, Mr Tectonic wishes to inflict some damage of his own.’
‘Hmm,’ nodded Opus. ‘A revenge case.’
He turned to face Diamond-Dave. ‘Now, Mr Diamond—is that really your name?’
Diamond-Dave grinned in reply and Opus saw exactly why as the entire court lit up in the reflected glare of his teeth.
‘Impressive. But why Dave?’
Diamond Dave proceeded to unbuckle his grubby mining breeches.
‘No, no—that will be quite adequate. Now, tell me why you feel such a right to Mr Tectonic’s body.’
‘Well, Your Eminence,’ he swaggered towards the chair. ‘It’s sort of like… this.’
There was a substantial jingling thump as Diamond Dave dropped a large sack by the lowest step of Opus’ chair.
‘Diamond Dave, I’m shocked!’ feigned Opus. ‘You wouldn’t be attempting to bribe the court would you?’
‘Na, jus’ you. But, what I really meant to say, was… this.’
Thump. Jingle, jingle. Another bag joined it. Some coins spilt out and onto the floor.
‘Hmm. Now were judging.’
Opus rose, hammer in hand.
‘I hereby grant Diamond Dave, exploratory drilling rights on the body of Tectonic the Troll for the period of one month hence. If drilling should reveal a viable seam of Blue, the mining rights will be extended for a period of…’
Another bag joined the fray.
‘Six months. Case dismissed. Who’s next, Hall Master?’
Tectonic rose to his feet as the crowd broke out into loud jeers of derision. Tectonic’s family, a clan of thirty or so heavy-set trolls from the Old Hills or the ranges thereabout, were also on their feet—or rather on Diamond Dave’s supporters feet. Shortly after, fists began to fly. This was followed by arms, legs, torsos, entire Dwarves, and then large chunks of masonry and pieces of the court.
‘Order! Order!’ appealed Opus. ‘Someone for Zeubluedaweh’s sake stop that Dwarf from trying to mine until he’s out of court!’
The Guard rushed in, gently trying to placate matters with their own brand of heavy violence; rock hammers for the Trolls and height charts for the Dwarves.
‘Look, will someone—argh!’
Opus slunk into his chair as the bench from the third row careered into the plasterwork above his head.
‘Guards, get them out! Where’s the rest of them? You! Answer!’
‘Yesshar?’ saluted a large ambling figure whose hands dragged around behind him like bundles of bruised bananas. Two Dwarves lay stunned by his feet, alongside his height chart.
‘Where are the rest of your men?’ Opus snarled
‘Persons,’ corrected The Minister from somewhere underneath the shelfter of his overturned book.
‘Er, they’re on a secret misshon shar! Somethin’ to do with the Great Inspector Dwoirot, no less!’
‘What, all six hundred-odd?’
‘Dunno ‘bout that shar, but they’re all pretty odd, yesh.’
Suddenly, there was an enormous font-size change:
Opus blinked. ‘Where’s… everyone gone?’
There was a quiet cackle to his left. He turned to face the wizened, withered frame of Dangulf, leaning on his crooked staff, an equally crooked look of pleasure trundling across his face like a tired wagon trail.
‘Dangulf? Surely you aren’t behind… this? ’
Dangulf, slowly, inexorably, raised his gaze to meet Opus’s, straightening as he went to a chorus of protesting cracks from his back. He looked down at his sad grey cloak. ‘That will have to go.’
With a snap of his fingers, the grey material lit up and the much worn-in creases relaxed, giving his whole apparel a vibrant freshness. ‘My, that did feel good.’
‘What the pants have you done, you old fossil? Where’s my court? I was going to instigate Air Tax, Dust-mite Tax—even a restricted form of Unclean Vegetable Tax. How can I do this now without a court to ignore?’
Dangulf eyed him coldly. He snapped his fingers again and a stool scuttled across the room to meet him. ‘You know, it’s a funny thing, Magic. Right when you least expect it, it comes back to you. There I was, thinking ‘I do wish all these people would go away and stop fighting’ and snap they’re gone.’
‘Well, that’s nice. Now, bring them all back! At once, you old fool!’
‘Actually, I rather think not. I think that instead, I shall sort out a few things first.’
‘Me? How dare you! And what have I done that offends the mighty, Dangulf?’
‘Apart from that insanely cruel law encouraging Tax Deductions for every peasant killed and the fact that you have assassinated the real Mayor Opus and Zeubluedaweh knows how many other people—yes, apart from that, I simply don’t like doppelgangers.’
Opus gasped and fell back into his chair with a hard flop. ‘You know…?’ He nonchalantly scanned the surrounds for something that could be utilised as a weapon. ‘When did you notice?’
‘Oh, just there—right after my magic returned to me—which was also just after that piece of plaster landed on my head. Strange thing the head. Anyway, I’m not too sure how long my powers and memory will stay, so I’ll act quick—if you don’t mind.’
‘Yes. I plan to revert you to your natural form and summon what remains of The Guard. Or perhaps I’ll change you into a pigeon first… or something. I’ve quite a good imagination, you know—you’d be impressed by the variety of something’s I can think up.’
‘Look, let’s not get hasty…’
Dangulf raised his gnarled white hands. A horrible sparkle arose from them and dripped onto the wooden floor in a fizzle. A deep resonant throb began to fill the air.
Opus and gripped the paws of his chair tightly.
Dangulf pointed his left hand straight at Opus and a sphere of translucent white ecto-plasma drove forward—as at the same instant, Opus shot unexpectedly backwards, around and through the wall.
Opus opened his eyes and blinked a few times.
It was dark and although he was still seated in the familiar chair, the room seemed to have changed into a long dank tunnel that led off—seemingly to the sewers, judging by the smell.
The wall shook behind him, chunks of plaster exploded outwards, bringing with them cascading rays of magic-enhanced light.
Opus laughed. ‘A secret door! Perhaps the old Opus wasn’t the fool I thought after all. Well…’
The chair rocked alarmingly and little sparks of fire danced through the holes in the wall.
Dangulf, apparently, was back. This changed things.
Quickly, Opus removed his ceremonial garb, shifted form to that of an exceptionally large rat, and snuffled off down the tunnel—with a triumphant little squeak.
To Be Continued…
* The cases, that is. Hopefully the children were tucked up in bed.
* Groan…. *8^)
* Ddi you spot the pun?
* With the small print indicating that digestion of said candy was a legally binding agreement to enter into the service of the nearest Zeubluedawehian monastery for at least ten years.
* At last Lotopian survey, no fewer than four Ogres, two Elves, one human and a dog all declared their official occupation to be: ‘the reincarnation of Elfis Pixley, gods-sent to bring peace’n’lovin’ to the world.’
* And the darkness sighed in relief.
* And a sign saying “GET IT HERE”
* The undead always do this. They may have mastered the art of eternal life, but ask them to sit still for a moment and you’ve got no chance.
* It was said that a cunning cleaning lady once attempted to steal the circlet by applying a sticky substance to her knee-pads. Each day, whilst under the pretence of polishing the mosaic, she would collect a small amount of gold-leaf and over a period of weeks, managed to remove the entire circlet. Only when the renowned Inspector Dwoirot installed keen-eyed stop-motion Gargoyles around the mosaic was the culprit finally identified.