Authors: Orjan Westin and
Marco Villalta, introduction by ppint
Outside the windows the rain drizzled down the street in grey depressing streams, like the discarded bathwater of the gods. Without the rubber duckie. Within the inn a merry fire failed to light up the fireplace, because all the wood had been reserved for the kitchen – by now the innkeeper had learned that they would need it to keep up with the two storytellers who were quickly eating him out of business. But the tall one had said they'd be finished today, he reassurred himself, he'd said so. Still, he was doing good business selling hot cocoa and renting blankets to the assembled masses who were waiting for today's part of the tale. And the bill for all the two men had consumed would almost be enough to keep him fed through winter by itself... surely they must have realised that only the first meal had been on the house, right?
Marco came merrily walking down the stairs, with Orjan in tow, mumbling something about noisy neighbours. Cheerfully Marco sat down at his usual table and said:
"'morning, all, I trust you've slept well. Do you want me to get on with the tale right away, or will you let me have some breakfast first?"
Before the crowd even had time to assure Marco that they would never try to come between him and his food (they did quite like their arms and legs stuck on) Marco continued.
"Well, it doesn't matter what you think, because storytelling is not a job to do on an empty stomach. So if I may have a bowl of yoghurt..." One was quickly fetched by a serving maid. "Thank you, much obliged."
"Let's see now... ah, yes. The last thing Orjan told us about Gideoallet was his little chat with Roi Nimco. I have only one thing to add to that..."
Gideoallet emptied his cup. "So, what now? I'm glad you helped me out with the Gleur guards – saved me some bruises and possibly one or two of their lives – but what do we do next? Should I just try to sneak out the back?"
"Well," said Roi, "since you are here anyway... there are some of the actors that could use a lesson in sword handling... If you're up to it... And forget about my help, I'm just glad there was something I could do... Being beaten around isn't my idea of a good way to spend one's time."
"True. Well, it's fine by me. You said the play is already done?"
"Yes, once I knew what her ladyship wanted, writing it was fairly easy... Not like that time I tried to co-write with Kip James."
"Why, who's that?"
"Another playwright... Moved out of here a couple of years ago... Nice chap, but his plays were so horribly over-complicated... You wouldn't believe it... They were full of secret plots, conspiracies among the nobles, magically enhanced swordsmen, and fairy abductions... A favourite character of his was a dodgy old man who would constantly be smoking cigarillos... And he would change around the entire premise and character motivations completely, so the whole thing would have to be explained again, and retrofitted, to maintain continuity... He'd do that at least twice in every play."
"Sounds like he wasn't the easiest man to work with."
"You're right there... Absolute hell to try and author a play with... But damned fun too." Roi's grin faded. "Listen, Gideoallet... do you really think we have a chance to beat the Cult of Me?"
"We have a chance. It won't be easy, but we have a chance. But we'll need the very best people we can get. Do you know Bart the woodsman?" Roi nodded. "Do you know about the cabal he formed with three of his friends? No? All right, after we're done here, let's go for a pint at the Plummeting Lemming, and I'll fill you in."
"Will Lowmar let us in at this time of night?"
"Lowmar's not there. I'll tell you about it later. But yes, Kaylad will let us in. Us, she'll let in." He stood up. "And when we're done with the Cult, I think we should have a serious look at nobles like this lady Gleur. They can run, but they can't hide."
In the crevice at the foot of the cliff below the fort, Westala's staff lay right next to the stash of all the adobe bricks the adventurers hadn't been able to carry.
As the eye of the narrative draws into the sack, it is revealed that although they had all – apart from the ones the warriors had been carrying in their pockets – been fresh and smooth to begin with, they were now ageing by the minute.
Inside the Masse-Chute Capitale, a large collection of cheeses had been brought into the dining hall, and was enjoyed together with some fine cognac.
"Bos," said Sherilob, "could you have another look in that crystal cube of yours? Maybe that staff, whether it was the Staff of Sista or not, is closer now."
Bos reached for the magical instrument by his side. After a few moments of tweaking and twiddling, he shook his head. "No use. There's even more static now. Maybe later."
"All right. So, what do you plan to do about the Clench problem?"
"Is eet not e-neuf to simplee scare zem away?" said Ballong.
Sherilob smiled. "Scare away the Clench? Good luck to you. Thery're almost as pig-headed as I am unyielding. Messy Marall in particular."
"See?" said Bos. "You're going soft, Fix. I told you we'd have to eliminate them completely."
Ballong shrugged. "You're ze Bos."
But Sherilob shook his head. "That won't work either. Kill one, and another will oppose you even harder. I don't even think you could work around them, which would otherwise be best, if they hadn't already known about you. They are quite devious."
"So what should we do, then?"
"If you want to, I wouldn't mind distracting them. Take them on head-on, while you go about your business in the background. It's always refreshing to have a little skirmish with Messy. And it's been a while since the last time."
"Sounds quite all right to me. And should appeal to Fix as well, no?"
"Atsa right, Bos! And now, eet is time for le dessért!"
"... so that staff you got seems to be quite useful."
Villtin had related everything he'd been able to find out in the fort, finishing with what Sherilob had said about the elf-staff. The others were exchanging glances.
"Rationality? That could explain your behaviour before," said Autopet to Westala, who was staring stone-faced into space.
"What behaviour?" asked Villtin. They told him about the episode below the cliff. "You said that? You're usually not one to be rude to people, women in particular, without cause."
"No, that seems to be more your game," grinned Newra.
He glowered at her. "That's it. I'll not be pleasuring you tonight, young lady!"
"Oh, thank gods, that's a relief."
"Anyway, a magical staff of rationality could explain it," said Mega Vole. "What Westala said wasn't nice, but it was perfectly logical."
"If that's the kind of rationality it promotes," the Varing muttered, "maybe it's not such a great weapon after all."
"Maybe not," said Villtin. "But a sword can cut its wielder as well as his opponent, and a crossbow doesn't choose who to kill. Speaking of which, this one's yours." He handed Newra's bow back. "What I'm saying is, we'll have to wait and see."
"Have you found the cabal yet?" asked Lowmar. "And where's the dragon?"
Villtin smiled, raised his lantern and pointed to the ceiling. Right above Lowmar's head the dark, sinister shape was crouched up. The innkeeper almost jumped out of his boots.
"No, I haven't found them yet. I'm guessing they're held at the ground floor, but until now, I've been busy looking for the way here. This fort is only... what, fifty by fifty yards? – but whoever built it must have been a fan of labyrinths. Come on, let's see what we can find."
They made their way along twisty passages that looked mostly similar to each other. After a while they found a stairway down. Now finding themselves rather close to the front gate, they went on with extra care.
And sure enough, soon they heard voices. Voices raised in excitement, apparently over a card game.
"The quarters of the cultist guards, I presume," whispered Westala. The warriors quietly drew their weapons.
"We can't afford any mistakes here," said Newra. "What was it you said before? 'Close doesn't count at the fort.'"
"True, but nothing's impossible, either."
Villtin turned to the dragon. "This could be your big moment. Do you know what the word 'decimation' means?"
The eight-foot flesh eater tilted its head and grinned a mirthless grin.
Peterwok worked late. He was inspecting a large cast-bronze cylinder, looking much like a sealed-up diving bell in reverse; designed to keep the water in, not out.
He peered through a small round window at Wise Martin, the clone of Westala and Autopet. In just another day or two the new swordsman would be released from the tank, and he would start being taught all that he needed to know which had not been covered by the genetic learning. The Clench had volounteered to help with the teaching.
The doctor went back to one of his workbenches and the strange device mounted on it. Looking into the eyepiece of a magnification instrument, he fiddled with some handles on the device, whereby a tiny needle was manoeuvered point-to-point to another, slightly larger one, in a solution of some kind. Eventually he picked up a pipette and transferred the liquid to a glass tube.
He'd prepared to make another clone. He still wanted to study the peculiar traits of the Northmen, and although he could simply take tissue samples of Westala, Autopet or Wise Martin, they might not always be readily available. He may need to grow the samples himself.
The cell in the nourishing solution was all set now, and only needed activation to start growing. Peterwok sealed the tube and put it in a rack in a glass cabinet, then returned his attention to his frogs.
Marco broke off and looked at the table in front of him. While he'd been talking an assortment of breakfast foods had been put in front of him and Orjan. There were fresh fruits, a jar of yoghurt, buttermilk, cereals, toast, tea, coffee, milk, honey, nuts, assorted jams, a small pitcher of cream and some sugar. Spotting something he liked, Marco exclaimed:
"Ah! I see there are still some strawberries left."
Whereupon he grabbed a spoon and started heaping the juicy berries into his bowl, now emptied of yoghurt. He paused briefly to address his friend:
"Orjan, you want any?"
"Hm?" Orjan looked at his friend as the question registered. "No, you eat them. I'll just have some nuts. There might not be any lyres here..." Orjan frowned as he looked around the room. "... but there sure are plenty of nuts. Manga nutter, as we say back home."
Bos and Ballong showed their guest the quarters they had prepared and said good night. The next day would be taken up by planning, but the two sorcerors were concerned as they walked the deserted corridors.
"I am not sure this is wise," Bos said. "If he... um, she, it..."
"I theenk 'e will find ze guzunder, should 'e need it." Ballong replied.
"As I was saying," Bos said, shaking his head, "it seems our new ally is not entirely reliable. He seems awfully keen on getting that staff. I wonder..."
"Can you be obsessed with rationality?"
The dragon slipped away silently and they waited for the inevitable screams.
"I swear he understands every word I say to him," Villtin said quietly with something approaching affection.
A scream came, but a lot more coherent than expected: "Dammit Hort, you can't make me believe you got a triple onion four times in a row without cheating!"
"No? Who're you calling a cheat?"
Then it turned incoherent, but still in a way more often associated with people fighting each other than an eight-foot flesh-eating dragon. This was explained when the dragon quietly returned, shaking its head.
Villtin stared at it. "What happened? Why didn't you decimate them? You stupid creature! Right, if you want something done properly, you have to do it yourself."
He took out various sharp implements, eyed them critically and put them back again, until he had finally settled on the matched pair of matchyetis. "Better with short blades for close quarters," he muttered.
Newra, who had silently moved out when the dragon re-appeared, returned and smiled at the dragon. "It understood you," she told Villtin, "but it couldn't do what it was asked."
"What do you mean? It just had to decimate them!"
"Exactly. There are only nine of them there."
Villtin stared at her for a while, then looked at the dragon, who, for someone without any readable facial features, nevertheless managed to look very smug.
"Right." Villtin cleared his throat. "Good... boy. Now, let's all go in there and kill them, okay?"
"Hang on," Autopet said, "why bother when they're doing the work for us?"
They listened to the brawl going on and agreed to wait a while. The fracas, or maybe it was a rumpus, ended after a couple of minutes and they prepared to move in and take care of the survivors, if any.
"Wait a minute," Westala said. "Villtin, how many guards do you reckon they have here, in total?"
"Oh, judging from what we observed earlier, I reckon around forty, give or take. Why?"
"So where are the other thirty?"
"On their posts, I imagine."
"No, that can't be right. They probably have a rota, in three or four shifts, so at any one time you'd have most of them off-duty, sleeping, eating or just relaxing."
"Yeah, I know. So?"
"So either those nine over there are two thirds of the lot, which can't be right, or..."
They heard footsteps approaching behind them. Villtin had a quick look around and found a narrow passageway off to one side, down which he quickly ran with the others close behind. It ended suddenly in a dead end, and Westala, who was last, turned around and pulled dagger and sword.
"... or we came here just as one shift was changed for another," he said grimly over his shoulder.
Below the cliffs, a small creature had found heaven, in the form of a cache of food hidden in a crevice. As it rummaged around the bags it bumped into a long stick which fell away with a clatter. It froze, momentarily, before continuing its feast.
He had to admit that M'Pik's accuracy was impressive, given the near complete darkness in the dank cell.
He just wished that the man would stop throwing pebbles at the iron bars.
"Ow! That's my head!"
There were mutterings about non-contractual table-waiting and washing-up duties among the men, Westala heard as he stood waiting, hoping to avoid being spotted. They carried torches, and in the flickering light he counted to nineteen men walking past. That would bring the total to forty-two, or thereabouts, including those on duty. Against four experienced warriors, an inn-keeper, a young girl and a dragon. He shook his head. Forty-two is too much of a challenge, he thought.
When they had all passed he turned around. "Villtin? Can you give us some light, please?"
His friend complied, opening the shutters of his lamp. "What do you think?"
Westala frowned. "I don't like the odds much. Now there are twenty-eight people in there." He turned to Newra. "Can we lock them in?"
"No, there was no bolt or anything on the outside of the door, and the place had at least two back doors I could see. They might not lead out, but would you want to take the risk?"
Villtin frowned. "I don't like this. What we need is some way to bring them all to some place that can be locked. The room where I met you would be ideal. The door was heavy and could be bolted from outside, and they can't climb the wall like you did. But how to get them there?"
Autopet smiled. "Do you remember that time we were all working for 'Wakey' Ling?"
"The man who never slept? Yeah, why?"
"Hah, yes," Westala grinned, "that'd do the trick. It worked on you, sure enough."
Villtin looked embarassed. "Oh, that. Come now, you two are just freaks. I just reacted like any sane man would, it would have worked on anyone."
"Exactly. Do you think these guards would react in any other way?"
"What," asked Newra, "are you talking about?"
"Oh, sorry. Have you heard of a thief called Humility Bar?"
"Yes, not that I have heard anything about her for some years, but she was said to be a brilliant thief. She worked with that big knife fighter, right?"
"Yeah. She used to. But Autopet took him down, and I took care of her, when a trick she's used a lot turned out not to work on us."
Westala smiled. "This is a job for Mega Vole."
Sherilob was tossing and turning in the bed, trying to find a comfortable shape. Somewhere out there it was waiting. Its emanations were so strong, it simply must be nearby.
>From a pocket Sherilob withdrew the little instrument Ballong had been careless in putting away. She – because that was the shape currently being worn – had watched closely when her two hosts had used them earlier, and a bit of experimentation yielded a low, beeping sound.
"Hah! I knew it!" she exclaimed. It is close, and the signal is strong. They must have tried to hide it. No doubt they want it themselves. They are extortionists, after all. Now, let's see...
Sherilob got up and walked around the room, turning, pointing the device in different directions. So, she thought, it is down by the sea, beneath the cliff. Well, climbing down shouldn't be a problem.
Shortly afterwards, an enormous spider moved silently through the corridors, towards the balconies.
"Right, if I can only have a pot of coffee...?" Orjan said after having broken off his narrative to notice that the coffee had somehow disappeared while he was talking. He carefully stuffed his pipe before speaking again.
"I'm not done yet, though, so..." He lit his pipe and addressed Marco. "... if you want to grab that roast salmon you've been sniffing for a while, feel free to go ahead."
Marco nodded gratefully. "Ah, good. I'll try to save some for you, it's really good."
Orjan quietly puffed his pipe and drank his coffee, then returned to the adventures of Mega Vole and the others.
"Are you sure this will work?" Mega Vole whispered.
"Well, pretty sure," Westala replied quietly. "Don't worry, you've been through the route four times now, all obstacles are removed and Villtin has the dragon waiting to carry you away from the balcony. Just make sure you don't lose them."
"What if I do?"
"Backtrack a bit and tease them again. Autopet and I will be joining the rear, and we'll help point them in the right direction if needed, and close the door behind them. They won't notice us when they run, unless we try to shoulder past. Otherwise they won't care."
"But what if they catch me?"
"Um. Well, try not to let them. If they do, do your best to persuade them you want to get out to the balcony." Westala hesitated. "I'm guessing there'll be around twenty men coming after you, and I don't think Autopet and I will be able to take them all should we need to. Try to pitch them against each other, if you can. There doesn't seem to be that much loyalty and friendship among them."
"Well," Mega Vole took a deep breath, "I guess this is it, then."
"Don't worry, you've had lots of training for these sorts of things, right?"
She nodded absently. She had been trained, yes, but without a target audience. She had stage fright. It was a good plan, she told herself. Everything she had been told by her late mistress, Peril Rat, said it would work. But still...
She squared her shoulders, struck light to a torch and held it up, slightly in front of her to illuminate herself, then pushed open the door to the guard room.
The descent had been quick and simple. A strand of web on the edge of the balcony, then the giant spider had simply wound itself down along the cliff wall. Once on the narrow shingle beach it shimmered and became a middleaged man.
Sherilob looked around in the pre-dawn gloom, then closed his eyes. Sensing, feeling. There! On the edge of the water. The staff of Sista.
With reverent hands he picked it up, caressed its smooth shape. He studied the intricate carvings appreciatively, then opened his mind to its influence. The niggling fears and doubts he had never been completely able to get rid of were washed away, the behavioural patterns ingrained in early childhood were exposed, sanded down and removed.
Finally, he was whole, complete. In full command of his powers. He sat down on the shingle, with the staff held in his lap, to meditate and explore the clinically clean machine that was his new mind.
The sky was the colour of a crystal ball tuned to a spirit laid to rest – foggy, inscrutable and strangely vacant. Ahead of her, Capulette could see the home of Affor. It echoed the sky (apart from the foggyness, that is), giving an impression of a place that held promises of excitement and surprises but at the moment was calm and serene, like a g-string in a shop window.
It was an impressive structure, still, with high walls of upright tree trunks, a massive gate and towers at the corners. It looked a lot more like a fort than she had expected, but further study showed that it wasn't so much built to keep people out as to keep them in.
The trunks provided ample handholds for her, and quickly she scaled the wall and peeked over the top. She saw what looked like workshops, barracks, storage sheds... but no people, not even in the towers. Beneath her was the roof of a building, and without hesitation she scrambled over the top, hung from the edge of the wall and dropped silently onto the roof. Through which she heard a husky female voice.
"Agony and extacy come together in perfect harmony, side by side on my bed of furs and burrs so why don't we... Bugger!"
"What's the matter, have you forgotten the words?" another female voice asked.
"No, but it just doesn't work. The scansion is all off, the metre contrived, the rhymes desperate, and... Who'd put burrs in their bed?"
"Well, I'm sure Affor knows best, and I'm happy with my poem." The second woman cleared her throat. "It was hot, and the noon hour had gone by: I was relaxed, limbs spread in the midst of the bed."
"Yeah, but at least that has some literary merit. Mine just sucks."
Capulette tip-toed to the edge of the roof, jumped down and turned around. Behind iron bars she saw a patio area with a bench, on which two startled young women were seated. Behind them were doors leading into the building, presumably their sleeping area.
One of the women stared at her with open mouth, but the other quickly got to her feet and walked up to the bars, facing her.
"Good morning. Are you new?"
Capulette hesitated. The woman was dressed like a Dancing Rodent, only more – no hang on, the word we're looking for here is "less" – so, in small pieces of black and green leather and shiny chainmail, and was armed with a huge sword slung over her back and a collection of knives to challenge Villtin's. Her dark hair was tied away with a silk headscarf, black as sin, under which her alert eyes watched Capulette intently.
The other one was pretty much her opposite. As innocent as the first was sexy, as harmless as the first was menacing, she was dressed in a simple, corn-blue dress of linen, with her blonde hair tied up in braids. Her eyes betrayed nothing but a cheerful surprise and acceptance of the world. Like the eyes of a child.
"Oh, sorry," Capulette returned her attention to the female warrior in front of her, "I didn't expect anyone to be here."
"Oh? So you're not new, then. Fancy a cup of coffee?"
"A dark, invigorating beverage, served hot, possibly with a dash of milk or some sugar." She turned around. "Maizie, put some coffee on, will you dear?"
"Um..." Capulette looked at the woman in front of her. She looked menacing, but if you discarded the sword, the knives, and the outlandish clothing, she actually seemed both relaxed and friendly. "Yes, thank you. Er... are there any guards or something around here?"
"No, not now. Most of them left a week or so ago, to help some friends of Affor with something, and the three remaining haven't come back from the patrol they went out on the other day. But we're not worried, since Affor had some wizard put a protective spell on the area, so nobody who isn't invited can..."
Her eyes narrowed. "Hang on, if you didn't think anyone'd be here you can't have been invited. Who are you?"
"Ah... First, can I ask who you are?"
"Me?" The woman's eyes turned hard and her voice cold, ruthless. "I am Feminine, the fourth swordswoman of the apocalypse."
Then she smiled. "At least if you care for what Affor says. My friends call me Fiftyseven. And you?"
Capulette shook her head in confusion. "My name is Capulette... Um... I'm looking for a girl called Tessan."
"Oh, our newest member. She's not here, I'm afraid."
Capulette sagged, but Fiftyseven continued. "She's over there, in the training barracks. But come in and have a cuppa."
She walked along the bars to a gate, with an impressive-looking lock on. From the top of her boot she produced a key, then unlocked and opened the gate for Capulette.
"Welcome to the cage of fools."
"Thank you. Er... Do you mind if I prefer the gate unlocked?"
"Not at all, it's just by habit I lock it now that the guards are out."
"Let me get this straight. You lock it from the inside, to protect you from the guards? Why don't you just escape?"
"Escape? To what?"
"Huh. There aren't many fates worse than freedom."
Maizie returned with two steaming mugs, curtsied clumsily and gave them one each, then sat down on the bench again.
"Look at her," Fiftyseven said quietly and nodded towards the girl. "Sweet and innocent, eager to please, thinking the best of everyone, trusting everyone. Like a puppy. And about as bright. How long would she remain unmolested out in the big world, do you think?"
"At least she would have the chance to make herself a life, to search her own destiny."
"Yes. A destiny involving repeated abuse, no doubt."
"So? She's a slave, is that any different?"
"Yes, actually. Because most people tend to show more care for their property than for other people. And the customer Affor has in mind for her is someone who reveres innocence. As she ages, she'll find other duties in his household. She will have safety, security, predictability, friendship... What can you offer her? A job as a serving maid at a tavern, perhaps? If she's lucky? Would that be better?"
Capulette was speechless, then recovered. "But she'd be free."
Fiftyseven shook her head. "You can't give people freedom. It's not a thing, it's a way of being. You have to take it yourself. And most never do, regardless of whether they're slaves or not."
Another young woman came out and gave Maizie a disdainful look. Without a word Maizie stood up, curtsied and went inside. The newcomer studied Capulette briefly, then apparently dismissed her as unworthy of her attention and nodded to Fiftyseven who bowed slightly.
"Good morning, milord."
The woman nodded again and went to sit by herself on the far end of the patio. She was dressed in the height of fashion, if you were a young and rich nobleman: black riding coat and white trousers over high riding boots.
"That's Tracie," Fiftyseven told Capulette. "She's expected to fetch a very good price."
"And she doesn't want freedom, I suppose?"
"No, because she gets two thirds of the money, and is only sold for a limited period."
Fiftyseven sighed. "It's her own idea. She sold herself to Affor and he gets a commission to find the right buyer. There are people who chose to become, what's the euphemism, ladies of negotiable affection, you know. Tracie is using Affor's contacts to find the right kind of patron."
"Yes, it's a pose, but I imagine it will go down very well. Some people, usually rich and powerful, secretly want to be dominated by someone superior in private. Tracie has been a handmaiden, so she knows what they're like. And here's the last member of our little band of sisters."
Capulette stared. The woman coming out was covered in white feathers, more or less, and was absentmindedly quacking to herself.
"A duck?" Capulette exclaimed.
"What duck?" The woman looked around her.
"Daisie, meet Capulette," Fiftyseven said. "Do you wish to be rescued and set free today, dear?"
"No, thank you, but it was kind of you to ask." She smiled at Capulette. "I know a poem."
"Yes, it's very good and I've been practicing for ages to get it right. Do you want to hear it?"
"Bottoms up, heads down," Daisy said and illustrated the words by bending over before continuing more uncertainly, "a rose is red and a violet's brown..."
"Oh. Very good. Er... And what a novel place to put a feather." Capulette stared at the peacock feather in front of her, which thankfully disappeared from view when Daisie straightened up again.
"I'm afraid it wasn't entirely correct, dear," Fiftyseven said, "but well done nevertheless. You are a very fine swan indeed. Why don't you go back to your room and read the last line again?"
"She does get confused easily," Fiftyseven said sadly as the feathered woman went back inside.
"How does she make the feathers stay on?" Capulette asked in stunned confusion.
"Gum klatchic. I tried it once, just for a laugh, but it was a bugger to get out of the belly button."
Capulette shook her head and sat down. "And she doesn't want to be free?"
"Well, you heard her. She's not quite sane, though. I guess you could take her with you, if you want to, but then you'd have to take care of her. Are you prepared to do that? Or yould you pick her up and abandon her?"
Capulette gave the other woman an annoyed look. "I would like my husband to meet you, I think he'd enjoy it."
"No doubt. It's not very common to hear a wife say so, but it takes all sorts I guess."
"I didn't mean..." Capulette sighed. "Never mind. And you? You don't want to be free either, I take it?"
"Oh, but I am. Well, technically I guess I'm a slave, but I'm not too worried about that. I was a guard on a merchant ship, but when it was captured by pirates they got me too and sold me to Affor, and he offered me a quite good deal. I'm just here because didn't have anything better to do. But if you don't mind I think I'd like to come along with you."
"And abandon the others?"
"I have not accepted any responsibility for them, and Affor will take care of them. I can't really let you kill him, but I'll help you recover Tessan if you wish."
Capulette hesitated, then nodded. "One last question, though. Why are you all in costume?"
"Only Daisie and Tracie are, and that's because they prefer their imagined roles. Maizie and I are in our own clothes."
"I see. And you're the forth swordswoman because...?"
"Oh, it was just an idea of Affor's, to sell us as a package. But Maizie is too kind to be believeble, Daisie couldn't understand the idea at all, and Tracie almost demammarised herself, and Affor said that novel though it was, the market for female archers was too limited."
"And he doesn't mind you carrying weapons?"
"No, I'm the last bastion of the girls' virtue, as it were, and anyway the weapons are part of the feature set he's going to sell me for, although the bull whip might be a bit over the top. I like weapons, but..." She smiled. "I only like to hit people. If it can make someone go 'ow!' then I want one, preferably in green and black."
Maizie came out carrying a silver tray with breakfast for Tracie, and as she passed Capulette she said happily, "I like buttered cobs, don't you?"
"Wouldn't that make you fall off?" Capulette asked, bewildered.
"Hah!" Daisie said as she came out again. "It's nuts! Grease the nuts!"
Fiftyseven shook her head, led Capulette out and closed the gate behind her.
Mega Vole ran, torch in hand, listening to the footsteps and whoops of boyish enthusiasm behind her. The plan had worked, alright: the guards oogled incredulously before taking up the chase. Twice she had nearly been caught, and only quick bursts at the top of her speed had let her avoid the eagerly grasping hands.
She counted under her breath. Two, three, then the fourth passageway to the left. She turned, momentarily terrified when the floor dropped away from her feet. She landed on hands and knees and cursed. She had forgotten there was a step there.
Quickly she scrambled up again and grabbed the dropped torch as she hurried onwards. Not far now. One, two, three to the right and turn. She paused for a moment to catch her breath and listened. Had she lost them?
"No, she went left there, I saw her," Westala bellowed encouragingly, setting her pursuers on the right path.
It was only straight ahead now, so she dropped the torch by the entrance to show the idiots the way, then ran to the open door, through the room and out onto the balcony.
The sun was about to rise. She fought down a panicked desire to shut the door behind her – they had decided that the guards might be wary following her into a dark room, but that the reassuring light from outside would lure them in.
Where's that bloody dragon? she thought. There, to the left. She nimbly jumped up on the parapet and climbed onto its back. It started climbing at once, up to the next balcony, where Villtin's wide grin greeted her.
"You all right?"
"Yes," she panted, "just a bit out of breath."
She sank down on the cold stones of the balcony and tried to calm her pounding heart. Villtin stood by the parapet, careful not to be visible from below, and listened. She held her breath, then let it out silently as angry, bewildered voices were heard from below.
Villtin smiled and signed for her to follow him to the door. Once inside, he closed it silently and gave her a brief, grateful hug.
"Thanks, that was absolutely beautiful," he said, still smiling. "They'll never figure out where you went, and I heard them shout that the door was closed behind them, so Westala and Autopet finished the job.
Mega Vole blushed slightly and smiled back, then put her hand out to recieve her weapons from Villtin. She buckled her swordbelt on again and pushed a few errant strands of hair out of her face.
Villtin sombered up. "Lowmar and Newra should have finished off the ones who didn't chase you by now, which only leaves those still on duty. We'll return to the guard room and decide how to best get rid of them." He gave her a searching look. "You realise, of course, that the ones chasing you were the lucky ones? At least they'll survive the day."
She didn't trust her voice fully, so she just nodded, then followed his silent steps back to their friends.
Orjan sat back with a satisfied sigh. "Now, Marco, it's your tu—"
At this interruption Orjan turned to look at his companion who had his mouth stuffed with food, a laden fork halfway to his mouth and a piece of meat large enough to hang over the edges of the plate in front of him.
"Oh. You've got a steak as well, I see..."
"Mmph mphf mmphmph! Mmmphmf mmph!" Marco gestured with his fork, coming perilously close to dumping its contents all over the floor.
He sighed again, this time rather indulgently. "Oh, well, I'll continue a little bit more, but just this time, OK? And chew on."
"Mmmphf." Marco said, satisfied.
"They should be up now," Fiftyseven warned Capulette. "Affor is keen to get her trained."
"No," Capulette said, "what role has he assigned her? I'm beginning to understand his keen sense of marketing, I think, so he's bound to try to make something special out of her."
She only got a shrug as a reply, then Fiftyseven pointed to a building. "There," she said, "that's Affor's house, and she's been given her own quarters in it."
"How should we do this, then?" Capulette asked.
"I don't know. How about I just go there and say that Tracie has lost her temper again and is beating Maizie? It's happened before."
Capulette studied the other woman. "And then what?"
"Then you can hit him over the head when he comes out, not too hard, mind you, and we can take Tessan and leave."
"As simple as that?"
"Well, you said you took care of the remaining guards on your way here, so I can't see why not. The simpler the plan, the fewer things that can go wrong."
"Hmm," Capulette hesitated. "Well, let me first sneak up and see if I can hear anything, to check if they're up or not."
Fiftyseven shrugged again. "Fine, you're the boss."
Capulette quickly went up to a window and pressed her ear against the shutters. Then she almost jumped out of her skin, as a bellow came from within.
"Thar she blows, Cap'n! The legendary Great White Turbot, four points abaft of the starboard bow, sez I, and swipe me for a landlubber else. Pass me the harpoon, Mr. Holly, and I'll see if can't stick it Where The Sun Does Not Shine, for I am sworn to have him, look'ee, else he gobbles me up first. 'Tis one o' they geese, d'ye see, crabble me bowsprit. Ahar. Er..."
The rough voice had sounded familiar, and as it became natural Capulette recognised Tessan.
"Are you sure about this?"
"Yes," a man, presumably Affor, answered. "That's authentic sailorspeak, according to Sir Jon de Almondbread, and he should know, being the world's greatest explorer."
"Him?" Tessan sneered. "I remember when he once spent half a year in our taproom, drinking all the time, then he went home and wrote a book about his voyages to the land of the lemmings. I bet he's there now."
Capulette could actually hear Affor frowning. "No, I refuse to believe that. He said he would not return until he had accurately mapped and measured the shoreline of Julia Island, and I saw him sail out. He's been at it for a long time, but it is a task only he is worthy of doing, I'm sure."
"Hmpf. Then I suggest that the next time you're in the city, you go to Glint Street and visit the inn called The Island, which is run by the buxom Julia. She's running a gambling syndicate too, so you could always try to place a bet with her that this Sir Jon is at sea."
Capulette smiled. Tessan had evidently not lost any of her spirit.
"Anyway," the girl resumed, "if I'm supposed to be a sailor I think I should have a proper sailor name, like Nels or Chrys. Who's ever heard of a sailor called Selene?"
"Well..." Affor began, but was interrupted by another complaint.
"And the clothes! The cut is fine, I'll give you that, the stitches are neat and the fit is perfect and flattering..."
"Thank you," Affor muttered sourly.
"... and the model is more or less correct, with the high waist and flared legs on the trousers and all, but, you know, it's supposed to be white linen or cotton, not this... beige plaid."
"Actually, that cloth is called 'burusery', and it's the height of fashion," Affor protested.
"But not, I think, among sailors. No, this is enough. Tracie and Daisie, they might be crazy, but I'll never be your girl."
Capulette had heard enough. She found a suitable log on a woodpile, placed herself next to the door and nodded to Fiftyseven.
Sherilob's meditations were disturbed by a scream, approaching fast. Looking up, he saw a man coming towards him. The rope of spider web was coiling up on the beach as it preceeded the man.
The shapeshifter sighed and moved aside a bit. After some thought about heights, the speed of free fall and the hardness of stones, he moved another bit, up to the cliff wall.
There was a splat, the scream ended and the little beach had a new, colourful feature. Sherilob studied it briefly and drew the conclusion that it had, shortly before, been one of the guards of the fort. Now it was a meal for scavengers. Presumably, the man had not been aware that the strength of the web deteriorated quite quickly.
Sherilob inspected himself to make sure he had not been hit by any parts of the man, and something by his boot caught his attention. A string trailed out of a crevice in the cliff. Further inspection revealed it was the drawstring of a bag containing small oblong shapes in various degrees of detorioration. The crevice also contained food, pans, heavy cloaks and a long spear.
The supplies could not have been there long, as the food was still relatively fresh. The cloaks hinted at a party, rather than a lone traveller, and presumably they were no strangers to violence, as the spear showed signs of use.
So. A party of travellers – at least four, possibly more – had come here and somehow climbed the sheer cliff wall to enter the fort. There had been those people in the cave, of which four had escaped. And they had a strange creature with them, which might be able to carry them up one by one while climbing.
Sherilob pondered what to do. He had no real reason to help Bos and Ballong. But he needed to rest and recuperate his strength – he had, perhaps unwisely, changed shape a lot lately, and whenever he wore a shape other than his current, and natural, it drained him. Could he find rest in the fort, if it was attacked? On first appearances, a small party should not be a problem for the guards and the two sorcerors, but these people must be exceptional, given that they had come this far and only lost one man en route.
Having weighed the alternatives, he decided to return to the fort to rest, but barricade his room by physical and supernatural means, and leave as soon as he had recovered.
He looked at his finds. The food and travel gear he dismissed, but there was something about the hard, white things in the bag... Something intriguing. He tried to sense them but they were completely dead to his magic. But somehow he got the impression that they responded. A wave of weariness came over him, and he decided it would have to wait until he had rested.
He put the drawstring of the bag over his head, so it hung down on his chest, held the staff tightly and concentrated.
The little man disappeared and a large spider becan to scale the cliff.
It was a good plan; simple, straightforward and easily executed. It should have worked. It would have worked, had not Affor been the kind of thorough man he was. But he was, so when Fiftyseven knocked on the door and shouted her urgent message, and he emerged, and Capulette hit him with the log – with a force carefully calculated to let him live while still taking him out of action for a while – the log bounced off his high admiral's hat, pushing it down over his eyes, and he stumbled back inside with an 'ow'.
While Fiftyseven was eying the woodpile appreciatively, Capulette swore and followed Affor inside. The blow had made him dizzy, and he stumbled backwards until he hit a wall with the back of his head, whereupon he slid down and sat on the floor. He shook his head and reached up with his hands, pulling at the hat.
Capulette hefted the log and looked on warily. A long shelf on the wall above Affor wobbled, the small figures on it dancing like mad. There were hundreds of little sailors on it, Capulette saw, in different outfits, painstakingly painted. Then there came a combination of sounds that, if spoken, would have sounded like buh-kak-ur.
The first was the sound of the hat being pulled off the head by Affor. The second was the sound the long shelf made as it landed on his unprotected head. The third was the sound Affor made as he passed out.
Then there was a rattle as he dropped to the side, the shelf slid away and the little sailors fell off. Capulette prodded Affor's foot carefully, but he was out cold, his whole head covered in seamen. She picked one up and studied it.
"I think I would have preferred that uniform, it's so much neater," a calm voice said. "Hello, Capulette, have you come to rescue me?"
"Oh, hi Tessan." Capulette turned around. Tessan did have a point with the uniform. It fitted very nicely, showing her figure to good advantage, but the beige plaid was not very nice at all. It made the whole outfit look very drab. "Yes, since Westala and Villtin are away I thought I'd do it. Are you okay?"
"Yes, I'm fine. I've been abducted by him before, so I knew I didn't have anything to be afraid of." Tessan picked up another little seaman and showed it to Capulette. It had the same plaid uniform as her. "I'll keep this, to remind me how strange the man is. Are you in a hurry to get out, or do I have time to change into something more comfortable?"
"No, go ahead, I'll have to tie him up before we leave anyway. Does he have any rope around here?"
"Are you kidding?"
Two thirds of the way up, Sherilob paused his ascent. He felt nauseous and the effort to keep his spider shape was enormous. It felt as if something was sucking all his strength away.
There was a very narrow ledge, just above, and with his last strength he climbed up on it, then let go of the spider shape. He shimmered and became his normal self, precariously perched on a ledge no wider than the width of his hand.
He pushed himself close to the rock and breathed deeply. A cloud of white dust rose up from the bag between his chest and the cliff wall, making him sneeze. He would have to rest, he realised, but thankfully he was calm and composed. His situation was bad, but as long as he thought rationally and coolly he would be able to get out of it.
A sudden gust of wind almost tore him from the ledge and he instinctively scrambled for handholds. The staff fell from his fingers, but he managed to find a weak grip in a slight crack.
Calm, he told himself, you can always go back down and pick it up later. As long as you keep calm you have nothing to fear, he thought. Other, more treacherous parts of his mind raised their voices, though. You are standing on a narrow ledge on a cliff face, hundreds of feet over the ground, they said. You are too weak to climb, they said. You are too weak to change shape, they said. You are not protected by that staff now, they said.
And in his mind he stared wildly at the primal thoughts he had surpressed so long. We are Fear, and Terror, and Panic, they said. You are ours.
Nobody ever found his body.
Fiftyseven looked on in admiration as Capulette struggled with the rope.
She barely managed to get both ends meet after twisting it around Affor's unconscious body in many intricate and imaginative twists and loops, but at last she tied the knot and left him hanging from a hook in the ceiling.
"Neat," Fiftyseven complimented. "Did you find Tessan?"
"Yes, she's just changing clothes."
"Good. I'll just go and tell the girls we're leaving then, shall I?"
"Wait, let's all go together, okay?"
Fiftyseven shrugged and prodded Affor a bit to set him swinging.
Tessan appeared, dressed in a plain linen dress, and they went down to the cage.
"Maizie," Fiftyseven said, "I am afraid we will have to leave now."
The girl nodded somberly, then widened her eyes in surprise as she was struck by a thought. "Why?"
"Er... To chase some naughty fairies."
"Oh." This revelation was bounced around in the pretty and blonde, but quite empty head for a while, until it triggered another thought. Maizie was about to set a new personal record, it appeared.
"I thought fairies were nice?" she asked, her voice and expression betraying her concern that the world might not be a nice place.
Capulette sighed. You couldn't shatter the girl's illusions. It would be like kicking a puppy.
"Yes, Maizie," she said, "fairies are nice and beautiful. But these have been tricked by goblins to do something naughty, and we must find them and tell them they did something wrong, so they can apologise."
"Oh, that's nice." Again, the sweet eyes became vacant, while mysterious processes produced another response. "What did they do?"
"They tied Affor up," Fiftyseven said, "and made him fall asleep. So we must stop these bondage fairies before they do it to someone else."
"Yes," Capulette chimed in, "he has been tied with magical knots in his house. If you wait until the sun has come down, the magic will wear off, and you can undo the knots and release him. Can you do that?"
Maizie smiled gratefully. "Yes, I'm good with knots."
"Yes, dear," Fiftyseven said, "I know. I don't think we will come back, for we might have to chase these fairies for a long time. So... Good bye, Maizie."
Maizie looked sad. "I shall miss you, I think. Good bye."
Orjan stopped and said decisively, before Marco had time to order any more food: "Right, that's got to be enough. It's your turn now, Marco."
"Thanks. Some salmon?" Marco offered the remains of the fish to Orjan, who accepted the plate, then looked at it doubtfully.
"Well, I'll put what's left on a sandwich, I think. A small sandwich."
Marco ignored him and got on with the tale.
Newra and Lowmar had stacked the corpses of the less enticible guards in a neat pile, off to one side. Their room was apparently the old armoury, and was now searched for clues to where the cabal was held.
Villtin leaned against a barrel full of lances. "I take back any reservations I may have had regarding the dragon. Maybe it is a pedant, sometimes, and a bit of a short-sighted thinker sometimes, but when shove comes to push, it's really a remarkable creature. Wouldn't change it for the world."
"What," said Westala, "not even if Peterwok managed to cook up a real live gryphon?"
"Well... maybe. But I've come to like this dragon."
"Where is it now, by the way?" They looked nervously around the ceiling.
"No, it's not here. I left it to guard the room you locked the guards in."
"Hey, come look at this..."
Newra had been inspecting a suit of armour on a stand. Now she turned to the others with the faintest of smirks. "What's wrong with this one?"
"It's too frilly," said Westala instantly. "Too extravagant."
"Too heavy," Autopet chimed in. "Unpractical."
"You're both quite right, but it's simpler than that."
"It's rusted," said Villtin. "A rusty armour doesn't give much protection."
"Also right, but that's not it."
"Er... the visor isn't supposed to be fused with the rest of the helmet, is it?"
It was Mega Vole who had spoken. Lowmar stared at her, then stepped up to take a closer look at the armour. "She's right! And all the joints on the fingers... aren't. The whole thing is a fake. Rather well done, though – must have taken as much skill to do as a real suit."
"And now take a look at the foot of the stand," said Newra.
They raised their eyebrows.
"Well, my friends," said Villtin, "let's pull the great big lever and see what happens."
Smiling, Newra tugged at the armour suit. Her smile faded. "Hm. That took a bit more effort than I thought..."
Villtin grinned and went up to give a hand, and you just knew that he had some comment about "the weaker sex" on the tip of his tongue, but it never got any further before his grin, too, faded.
"What the...? Either it's rusted, or it operates some really big apparatus..."
It was an effort even for Westala, but it gave in. The machinery wasn't rusted; there was no creaking metal, but there was wood groaning under the floors and, from out in the corridors, a grinding of stone on stone.
Lowmar sneaked up to the door and listened. "From the dead end we hid in," he reported.
A section of wall had slid aside, to reveal the dungeons. And in one of the cells, the cabal thought that this was a pretty good start of the new day.
Bos returned to the land of the awake, looking blearily at the guard who had roused him.
"Haven't you ever heard about knocking?"
There was a pause, with Bos glaring at the guard.
"Well, what about it?"
Bos sighed. "I forget who I'm talking to. What did you want, and why can't it wait until morning?"
"One of our guys fell down the cliff. He was trying to climb down some kind of sticky silk rope he found on one of the balconies, but it broke. I thought you might be able to find out if he was thick-headed enough to have survived the drop. And the sun's coming up soon, so technically it is morning."
Bos ignored the last sentence; he was already wide awake. "Sticky silk rope, you said? Did it look like spider web, only much, much, much bigger? Which balcony was it?"
"The upper eastern, but how did you—"
"Get Fix and meet me there. Oh, and knock on his door and wait for a reply before you go in!"
Five minutes later Ballong joined his friend and a couple of the cultists on the balcony. Despite the late – or possibly early – hour, he seemed quite cheerful. "Ça va, mon vieux?" he greeted.
"Not too great, I fear. Look at this." Bos indicated the remains of the web stuck to the railing. "I think Sherilob went down here."
"Ah, malheur. Do you kneaux why? And I can not find my trackér..." muttered Ballong. Bos handed him his glass cube. "Oui, I can see ze staff 'ee talked about earliér... zere is no interference at all now. It eez floating far out at sea."
"Yes, I know. But I have no idea what it's doing there! And where is Sherilob?"
"Une moment, I uill to set it to living creatyres... Zere is somethang in ze corridors two stairs down, but eet doez not have 'is specifique signatyre."
"Hello? Hello! Is there anyone there?"
The four men on the balcony froze, and stared at each other. Another call gave them a sense of direction and they looked down over the railings. "Let us out!" shouted one of the men on the balcony diagonally below them.
"What's wrong with opening the door?" asked Bos. He saw no reason to be polite with the cultists, after having spent just a few days in their company, and their being in a troublesome situation stood a chance of amusing him.
"It's locked and barred!"
"Well, how'd you get locked in there?"
"We were tricked to come here by some girl. She must have had friends who locked the door behind us."
"A girl? There's no girl in this fort that I'm aware of. And how did she get out?"
The guards' spokesman hesitated. He'd hoped he wouldn't be asked that question. "Buggered if I know. She just disappeared. Maybe she was a witch... yeah, a witch! She magicked herself away and locked the door by magic!"
"Well, I certainly doubt that," said Bos. "We'd have noticed any magical activity around here. But if there is a girl and her friends in this keep, they're not invited."
He turned briefly to the guards by his side. "Go let them out. Come on, Fix, let's go find out what's going on here."
"Should we let you out before we settle the score with Bos and Ballong," asked Villtin, "or are you fit to fight?"
"They haven't drugged us since taking us here," said Lassie. "And although the beatings have been harder, they have been slightly fewer and further between."
"On the other hand," said M'Pik, "they can hardly be said to have kept us well-fed or rested."
"Still, all things considered, I think we can manage to at least assist you," No-storm-in-a-bucket volounteered.
"Hoom," muttered Bart slowly. "Long-range weapons. That's our best bet."
"Very good," said Westala. "If our calculations are right, there should be fourteen guards left, plus Bos, Ballong and Sherilob. We can do it."
"Crossbows, short bows, pistol bows, you can find it all here," said Villtin. "There's some food in the guards' quarters too, have something to eat while we explore the lower floor a bit more."
Marco broke off and leaned back.
"Well, that's all I had for now. Not a huge lot left, I believe. May I have a drink of cider?"
"Here you go," Orjan replied and passed the cider jug. "I'll just do a short bit now, while I'm waiting for the waffles."
"Will you be quiet?" Villtin turned to Lowmar.
"But there's such a good echo in here."
The innkeeper's first exclamation rolled around, reverberating, sounding eerily like the cry of underground spirits. Beyond the cells, the roughly hewn walls had given way to natural caves. No, caves was too small a word. They were standing close to the roof of a cavern.
Their torches only gave enough light to make the vast, empty darkness even more impressive. There was a path leading off to the left of the opening, a narrow ledge disappearing into the unknown beyond. The sound of waves indicated that somewhere there was a connection between the cavern and the sea.
"Say what you want about Ballong," Westala noted, "but he's got a huge cellar."
"Yeah," Autopet agreed and kicked up a cloud of dust from the floor, "it's just a shame there's nothing to drink in it. I'm parched."
Lowmar looked thoughtfully into the darkness. "You know, I'd really like to find out what's hidden in the depths here. What an adventure! It's such a colossal cave..."
Autopet coughed from the dust he'd kicked up. "You'd have to wear some sort of mask, then, otherwise you'd just net a hacking cough. Let's go back."
"Yes, I bet there are rogue monsters loose here, with no eyes, and scales and spikes and..." Newra's voice trailed off. She had an uncomfortable feeling the dark abyss was looking at her.
"Like the dragon, you mean?" Villtin asked. "Hang on, that rings a bell. A dragon in a huge cavern, guarding a pile of gold... Hm... And mighty warriors fail where a thief succeeds... Er... And stuffing people into barrels which you drop in the water?"
"Sounds like a children's story, to me." Newra shrugged.
"Now we're cooking with charcoal," No-storm-in-a-bucket said happily and wiped the sweat from his brow.
The three other released prisoners eyed the source of his pride warily. Rummaging through the abandoned storage rooms at the back of the guards' quarters he had found the armory. There were bundles of swords fused together by rust, sheaves of arrows that had lost their fletches, corroded lumps of what had once been chain mail, and in one corner, a couple of wooden contraptions.
These he had, with the help of his friends, moved into the guard room, whereupon he had busied himself with ropes and grease. The arrow slits in the walls let the rays of the rising sun in, lighting up the creaking machinery.
"So... What are these, then?" M'Pik finally asked.
"Well, since Lowmar said they'd whistle when they came back so we could let them in, I've boobytrapped the door. This is a small catapult, made to be powered by people pulling hard at these ropes. But since we're not in top shape, I connected it to the ballista over there, so when that goes off it will pull the ropes through these pulleys, powering the catapult."
"Why not just use the ballista?"
"Because this ballista is made to be loaded with javelins, and we don't have any of those."
Lassie went over to the catapult and looked at the contents of its sling, then wrinkled his nose.
"I see you found something to load this with, though."
No-storm-in-a-bucket grinned. "Ballistic cabbages at dawn. Great, isn't it?"
The cultists trapped in the room leading to the balcony turned to the door.
"Er... Yes?" their spokesman said.
"Just checking you're in there. We've come to let you out."
The cultist smiled. The look on the face of Bos had not been reassuring, but it seemed everything would be all right.
"Hang on..." the voice on the other side of the door hesitated. "The bar has been jammed in place. This will take a while."
"Eurgh!" Another voice joined the first. "Something slimy... Eww! What's dripping down from the roof? I got it in my hair!"
"Well, raise that torch and have a look then," the first voice replied impatiently. "I need better light to free this bar anyway."
"Oh, gods," the second voice gasped with terror, "what is that thing?"
The gristly noises and screams from the other side of the door made the cultist's face turn white. Wordlessly, he looked at his companions. Then, without speaking, they all began to pile everything they could move in the room in front of the door, barricading themselves in.
On the other side, the dragon burped contentedly. He liked humans, but he couldn't eat a whole one.
"The secret door to the dungeons is open," Bos said.
"Zat means ze prisonérs have been let out, zen?" Ballong frowned. "But zere should be guards by ze gates."
"Let's have a look."
The gates were firmly shut and barred from the inside, which reassured the two sorcerers. But the door to the guardroom was also closed, which was less reassuring. They looked at each other.
"You think they've barred themselves in there?" Bos whispered.
"Un moment," Ballong replied quietly and checked his device. "I zee four people, hurt. It must be ze prisoners."
"Right. But even so, they are probably armed." Bos thought for a moment. "I say we just kill them, never mind what the Cult wants. They're not our problem. Then we kill the people who freed them, get our profits and get out of here. This is getting too dangerous."
Ballong nodded. "Oui. Sherilob gone, guards locked up, mysterious girls... Let uz retire for a while. Il faut cultiver son jardin, eh?"
"Yes, but let's not take any risks."
Bos quickly wove a spell and cast it upon himself and his companion, to protect them from harm from any steel or iron weapons. That spell had played a large part in creating the reputation the two had of being fearsome swordsmen. As Bos was fond of saying, being satirists, they should be immune to irony.
Ballong nodded, unsheathed his sword and moved to the door. When they stood side by side in front of it, he lifted his foot and kicked the door open.
"Hey-ho!" Autopet's voice was raised in joy. "This is more like it!"
"What have you found?" Westala hurried to the room his friend had entered, then stopped in the opening with a smile on his face.
The cool room was stacked with barrels, casks and bottles. Wines, for the most part, but he spotted a rundlet bearing the crest of the McAroney family, which indicated there was whisky to be had. And close to it, he saw a tierce of Rhino Carte Blanche.
Next to the entrance, there were a row of tuns, most of them without lids, and stacked behind them there were smaller barrels which Autopet investigated while humming appreciatively. He beckoned Westala over to him.
"Look at this, will you, both mead and dricku. It's almost like being at home."
"Are you coming?" Villtin shouted from the corridor.
"Yeah," Autopet answered, "just let us grab some firkins."
The two northmen emerged, each carrying a cask under each arm.
"Breakfast," Westala said with a happy grin.
Bart walked over to where the door, doorframe and surrounding wall no longer were and sniffed.
"I love the smell of brassica in the morning," he said.
"Did they get away?" No-storm-in-a-bucket asked disappointedly.
"Seems like it. But we should be able to find them by the smell from miles away."
M'Pik wrinkled his nose as he walked over the brassica'd debris and went across the courtyard, following the straggling footsteps of two men.
"They went back into the keep, whoever they were. Shall we follow or wait for the others?"
"I say we go back inside, into one of the back rooms," Lassie suggested. "To get away from the smell a bit."
Never underestimate the importance of nutrition, Bos thought dazedly. Had the common cabbage not been so rich in iron, they would have been dead by now. Instead, they were alive. Dazed, bruised, stained and stinking, yes, but alive, in the relative safety of their dining room.
He tried to focus his thoughts, which proved to be a daunting task. Standing right in front of the door, he had received the brunt of the force. I wonder, he thought, whether the spell can be altered to protect completely from vegetables. Then I would be safe from cruel carrots and beastly beets...
But maybe, he mused, it was better to become friends with the vegetables? Then they wouldn't attack him. Yes, he would prove he was their friend, by defending them. He would build a new organisation to fight for the rights of the common parsnip. He could call it... "The League Against Turgorial Discrimination, Manifested," yes, TLATDM rolled nicely off the tongue...
"Zut, zut, zut!" Ballong exclaimed, interrupting his thoughts.
"Nut, nut, nut," Bos offered, still in legume mode.
"No! Zey are in ze cellars!"
"Non! No nuts! Ze peeple attacking uz!"
"Um..." Bos shook his head. "So? Zen zey, sorry, then they aren't here. That's good, isn't it?"
"No! My wines! Who knows what ze barbarians would do to them?" Ballong whined. "I must safe my babies!"
Trailing bits of cabbage leaves and a distinct aroma, Ballong ran out of the room. Bos looked after him, then shook his head again.
Orjan was interrupted by a serving maid with a stack of crisp waffles on a large platter.
"The waffles are ready? Wonderful." Orjan smiled. "Any possibility of some whipped cream and raspberry jam?" The requested items were revealed to accompany the waffles on the platter as soon as the maid had put it down. "Lovely," Orjan sighed.
"Oooh, yes, 'tis indeed," Marco agreed, looking at the crisp waffles, "But I think I'll have one with crème fraiche and lumpfish roe, first. After all, you don't eat dessert before you've finished the proper food. Well, you do, but apparently it's not good manners."
As Marco resumed the tale the innkeeper could be heard muttering to himself, off in the corner, slightly offended that anyone could even think he would offer waffles without whipped cream and raspberry jam! Why, that was nothing short of barbaric.
"I don't like this. We'd better go down and find out what the hell is going on."
The guards on the fort walls didn't really know what to think anymore. A while ago they'd learned that one of their fellows had dropped down the cliffside. Shortly afterwards there had been some kind of commotion at the balcony he'd dropped from – although they hadn't, of course, left their posts to find out what it was, because, well, it wasn't their concern.
Then there had been a hellish crash, and Bos and Ballong had staggered out on the courtyard and back inside. Their steps had been retraced by what looked like one of the prisoners. None of the guards was entirely sure of the latter, but they all suspected so.
And now the smell of cabbages was filtering out to them.
It was dawning on them that things happening in parts of the fort where they currently weren't perhaps was their concern after all. If the cabal had escaped, then it certainly was – the only feelings a member of the Cult of Me worried about, other than their own, were those of the high priest, since if he was upset he made a lot of other people upset too – and, moreover, there were also some remnants of what was once consciences that voiced uncomfortable opinions.
The self-appointed leader – all Cultists were self-appointed leaders, but some were more convincing than others – surveyed his ranks. Eleven men.
"We obviously can't leave our posts unattended," he mused aloud. "We'll have to leave at least one man on each station, that is, five. No, actually, let's say four, and to the devil with the seaside guard. At least it's getting brighter, so we can get by even on minimum watch."
He turned to the men beside him. "You're with me, Abe. Can't leave you here, or else you'll just fall asleep again."
"Yeah, well," Abe muttered tetchily. "I like action, that's all. I get bored quickly."
"Whatever. Leno, that means you'll stay here. Bobbob too, and... Abe, go get people from the other stations, and meet me inside."
The wine cellar had caught Villtin's curiosity, and he eyed it appreciatingly. "You're right, I wouldn't mind spending some time here. There's probably a food store down here too, it's nice and cool."
"Speaking of food, perhaps we should try to find some to restock our own supplies?" said Lowmar.
"Good idea. Shame we can't take more of this with us, though."
"Yeah. But, hey, didn't Scrappy tell us Bos and Ballong travel to and from the city by magic?"
"A teleportation spell, you mean?" said Newra. "Yeah, why?"
"Well, I wouldn't mind some of the contents in this cellar to be some of contents in my cellar, is all I'm saying."
"All right, then," said Autopet, "anyone here made any attempts at doing magic before?"
Reluctantly, Newra put her hand up. "Dabbled with a spell or two, but nothing in the way of teleportation. Wouldn't even know where to begin."
"Maybe Bos and Ballong have a spell book," Westala mused. "Would that help?"
"Sure, if you've got the spell, as it were, spelled out, then it's just a matter of getting it right and concentrating in the right way. Um... Villtin? Have you found something?"
"No, nothing important," said the lanky warrior. "A note from Ballong to Bos: 'Bos, zis cognac neds to bee more matyred before drinking, if you want an experiance trés magnifique. Don't bee in such a hyrry.'"
Westala wrinkled his forehead. "Why do you read with his silly accent?"
Villtin showed him the note, eyes wide. "Because he writes with his silly accent!"
"Somebody's coming!" hissed Mega Vole, who was on guard by the cellar door. Listening intently, they could hear approaching steps and someone mumbling:
"Wine, wine, wine, wine,
Wine, wine, wine, wine,
Wine, wine, wine, wine,
Wine, wine, wine, wine!"
It sounded almost like a song.
"Hiho," Lowmar muttered under his breath. "It's Ballong!"
"Everybody got their bricks?" whispered Villtin. "Good, then we should be safe if he tries to throw a satire at us."
"Wine, wine, wine, wine,
Wine, wine, wine, wine!"
The six warriors drew their weapons. The next instant Ballong stormed into the room, swinging his sword around like a windmill from hell. He was quickly surrounded, but twirled and danced and was quite impossible to hit, slashing and chopping with unmatched fury.
Villtin drew back for a moment to change weapon. He thought he might need better reach, and drew his sabre – a heavy cavalry sabre. He engaged again, saw an opening, slashed, and... missed?
"Wine, wine, wine, wine,
Wine, wine, wine, wine!"
Ballong focused his attention on him, while still keeping the others at bay. Him hacking away, Villtin was hard pressed. Westala and the Varing exchanged glances, and sheathed their weapons.
They opened a large barrel of wine and pulled it out behind Ballong. Villtin saw them. He drew a matchyeti with his left hand, and with the extra leverage he could finally push back his opponent, into the hands of the two Northmen. They grabbed Ballong, who dropped his sword.
"Wine, wine, wine, wine! Wine, wine, wine, wine!" he whimpered.
"Oh, quit whining," grunted Westala, before he and Autopet dunked him head-first into the barrel and nailed the lid on.
"Blub, blub, blub, blub,
Blub, blub, blub, blub, yum."
Bos got up, unsteadily, although the daze and dizziness were beginning to wear off. He wanted to wash off, but realised that if they were under attack he had no time for that. Instead, he'd have to hurry to put everything together that needed to be saved, so they could leave.
Besides, maybe there was some object among the strange and/or magical items they'd found or stolen that could revive a man's strength, which he wouldn't mind at all right now. If not the Nine Princes, then perhaps that glowing, green crystal.
The door opened just as he was reaching it, and the seven guards outside wrinkled their noses. "What happened to you?" said the one at the front.
"Ballistic brassica," growled Bos. "Obviously a frustrated cry of protest against the mistreatment of our vegetable brethren. What do you want?"
"We thought it seemed like a lot of odd things were happening—"
"No kidding. We're under attack. Both of the off-duty shifts got locked in by a strange girl and her friends. I sent two men to let them out, and haven't heard from them since. Sherilob is missing. And the prisoners have been let out."
"That's bad. Where are they now?"
"I don't know! You're welcome to look for them. Try the cellars, Fix went down there to secure his wines, he might need some help." He left, heading towards the relic store-room.
The guards exchanged glances. "Well, I guess the cellars is as good a place as any to start looking," said one of them.
"Yeah. And if they're not there, at least there's wine."
The cultists found no prisoners as they made their way through the caves, and no Ballong either, but Abe's wish for action would soon come true. All of a sudden they found themselves face to face with six well-armed people, looking all too smug.
"Who are you? Was it you who let out our prisoners?"
"Us? We're just passing by. And yep, it was us," said Villtin.
"Where are they now?"
"Right now, I don't know. Last time we saw them they were in your quarters. If they're not there, we don't know where they are. And anyway, we couldn't let you lock them up again now that we've gone to the trouble letting of them out."
The lead guard frowned. Then he smelled the air, and the clear and oh-so present trail of cabbages in it. "Did Ballong come here? What did you do to him?"
"Ballong? Oh, him. He seemed to be addicted to something, I think he needed to shoot a fix."
"He needed a bath, that's what he needed," said Westala. "So we fixed him one."
"Enough of this nonsense!" cried a guard that Villtin recognised as Abe. "Now is not the time for incessant wibble, now is the time for action!"
He drew his sword. The other guards followed his example, as did the fellowship of adventurers, and they all clashed together in a beautiful mêlée. Westala, possibly inspired by Ballong's chanting, struck up a battle hymn.
"Jag kan hantera en såg,
Jag kan yxa en båt,
Jag kan ro!"
Autopet was none the worse, and chimed in with a song of his own.
"... och vulkanen börjar morra,
Ja, då tar jag väskan och springer som fan!"
Villtin fought in silence. He'd been rather discouraged from singing after his attempt by the campfire some days ago. Newra didn't sing either, but her fight wasn't quite wordless.
"Is that a broadsword you have there?" asked her adversary.
"Yeah, why? Wanna take a closer look?"
"Oh, please. You don't scare me. A woman can't handle a broadswoard. The very thought is ridiculous."
Newra raised an eyebrow. Then she flourished the sword and stuck it, with pinpoint precision, in the man's voonerables.
"That's your opinion, Jimmy," she said as the man went down. "Me, I think you've been utterly trasked."
Marco broke off and leaned back. "Well, then. I'm sorry to leave like that right in the heat of the battle, but Orjan's looking pretty warmed up, so I think he might as well take over."
"Well, okay, but first a peek at what happens elsewhere." Orjan answered.
Bos surveyed the relic room. So many things still left to figure out. The small red and white balls, with the little button that opened them, must have some use, but they hadn't been able to figure out what. One of them had, when first opened, released a kind of yellow mouse that went "Pi—!" before it died and crumbled to dust.
There were those items in geometrical shapes that emanated enormous magic energy which they hadn't been able to unlock. For prudence's sake they had taken care to store these well away from each other and put notices on them.
Then there was the strange tube with the flat bit stuck on one end. It had been inscribed with the word "Lux", but try as they might they hadn't been able to make it produce light. And the little rounded oblong with numbers and the word "Nookie" on it that vibrated could not possibly have been what Fix had suggested it was. Could it?
Nevermind. Bos shook his head. He definitely needed something to help him focus, and to restore his strength. Where was that green crystal? Ah, there. They had only given it a cursory investigation, but it had seemed promising...
There had been some notes found with it too, and he quickly scanned those to find the invocation he remembered having spotted. He read it a couple of times, trying out the alien syllables in his head, then placed his hands on the crystal and intoned them.
"Kal-el cardia luthor!"
A nimbus of green light surrounded him, and after a moment of being held like in a giant vice, he was flung across the room and slammed into a shelf.
Jubilantly, he realised he wasn't even stunned. He felt strong, and fast, and invulnerable. Then he paused. Might it be only in his mind? He took out his dagger and carefully, sceptically, he tried to pierce his skin, without success. Yes!
He punched the air and jumped up. Now he'd show them! Trust Fix to look after his wines first of all, leaving him to deal with the problems. Well, there wouldn't be any problems much longer.
He left the relic room without looking back. Had he done so, he might have been concerned that on the shelf he had been flung into, a sphere, so black it looked more like a hole in the universe than anything else, wobbled from side to side. A notice which in Bos' neat handwriting stated "Careful! Prob. v. high Danken qout. V. unreal" wobbled with it.
On the floor on one side of the shelf stood a perfectly white cube, about the same size as the black sphere, with a label stating "Attencion! Plus de Randi, check ze realité!"
Lowmar, who because of the confined area found himself in the rear without being able to join the festivities without hampering his own or his friends' movements, jumped up and down to try to see what was happening.
A man went down to Newra, he saw, but was quickly replaced by one of the two guards who had been hanging back like himself. Muttering about the selfishness of his own companions who wouldn't let him have some fun, Lowmar sheathed his katana and picked up one of the barrels Autopet and Westala had put down before the fight started. Hefting it speculatively, he took some steps back.
The former Conga Rat grunted as she parried a wicked blow to her thighs. "Yes?"
Without hesitation, she did as asked, surprising her opponent by rising up in the air. The eyes of the guard followed her up, thus completely missing the cask barrelling into his feet, making him fall forward. Then Mega Vole landed with her feet together on his neck, snapping it.
Westala spared her a sideways glance and steadied her briefly with his left hand. "Brought low by both drink and a woman," he grinned, "that's the way many would want to go."
Autopet chimed in. "If Villtin had sung at him, he'd have been hit by all three."
Then there was no more time for banter, as the last guard had entered the fray. The five remaining guards were fighting well. Cautiously, competently, and without giving quarter or wasting time talking, they proved a match for the fellowship. The clang of steel on steel, the grunts of exertion and concentration familiar to all battlefields, had replaced the mocking words and singing.
Then Autopet shouted, "Are you ready?" in a sing-song tone.
Westala and Villtin answered: "We are ready."
All three of them took a quick step backwards, leaving the two women alone on the edges.
"Are you ready for a clash together?" Autopet asked.
The three opponents in the middle stepped in to take advantage of their withdrawal, and both Westala and Villtin attacked high, forcing the guards to raise their weapons in defence. The third, who had seen Autopet held his weapons low, also attacked high.
"Clench your teeth, clench your teeth." Autopet, Westala and Villtin shouted in unison.
Neatly synchronised, the weapons of Villtin and Westala went past the defences of their opponents to hit into the neck of the middle man, while Autopet went down on one knee and lunged forward to both sides, putting the point of a sabre into the artery in the inside thigh of the guards to either side of him. All three guards died quickly, a surprised look on their faces.
Westala jumped forward again, blocking an overhead cut against Mega Vole, then kicking the man into the cave wall and rapping him over the head with the pommel of his sword. Villtin, likewise, had stepped forward, but rather than presume and interrupt Newra's fight, he just stood watching with a menacing smile until the man was so unnerved that Newra could skewer him without problems.
Bos strode confidently through the corridors, Fire Brand sword in hand. A faint sound behind him caught his attention, and he turned around quickly. There was nobody there. Mice, he thought, and continued.
In the briefing hall where he had received Sherilob, he went to a section of the wall looking like any other and muttered "Emases". He waited a while, and then, with a click, a crack in the wall opened slightly. He pulled the concealed door fully open and looked inside. The spellbook was on its shelf by the candles, and the blue flicker in the air in the centre of the secret chamber showed where the translocation spell was anchored.
He eyed it critically, trying to assess whether it had enough strength or if it needed to be recharged. He decided it had enough power – it should manage about a tonne before it faded to much to be reliable, he reckoned by the strength of the flickering light – to carry himself, Ballong and a nice selection of treasure to the city if needed. From there, further transportation could be arranged without any problems.
Bos nodded in relief, glad that the time-consuming and delicate tuning and charging process could be postponed. He left the door slightly open, should the worst come to the worst and the need for instantaneous flight arise. The guards knew better than to come here, anyway.
As he was about to leave, he noticed a wet patch on the floor. It looked like slime of some sort. He looked up, but there was no hole in the roof. Nothing else, for that matter. He shrugged. Maybe Ballong had used some spell to get rid of the cabbage remains.
He returned to the corridors, whistling softly as he went. First he'd go and find the guards he'd sent down, and if needed kill any intruders. Then he'd get Fix to help him blow the guard room up, including anyone in it. Then sort out the stuff to bring and put the rest under magical lock and key. Then go ahead through the translocator and re-position it – at the moment it was aimed at an alleyway in the city, and he didn't want to end up there with valuables. He'd have to find a warehouse to move the end-point to, before returning to fetch Fix and the valuables. Then buy, hire or steal a luxury carriage with horses and drivers. Then, a trip eastwards, to the homeland of Fix, for rest and recuperation. Then...
There was that sound again. He turned around and let his sword flare up. With wide eyes he stared at the monster following him. Then he attacked.
The dragon, impervious to the heat generated by the blade, rose on its hind legs and swatted it aside disdainfully. A quick combination – left and right hook and left jab – hammered into the body of Bos, who panicked. He wasn't invulnerable! He turned and ran.
"It's us, Lassie," Villtin answered, "and we've found food for you."
"Oh, goody. Just wait a minute while I disarm this thing... Oops!"
A bag of leeks whizzed through the large hole in the wall separating the guard room from the courtyard and hit the wall opposite with a splat.
"Sorry about that, did I miss?"
"Yes. Once we saw the carnage here we decided we'd better hail from a distance."
Autopet, Lowmar and Westala carried over bags of smoked sausages, cheeses and bread. Wine was produced and distributed and a lovely lunch was had by all. Except Mega Vole, who stared morosely at the floor a distance away.
"What's with her?" M'Pik asked quitely.
"She's a bit distraught – she's just killed her first man, and by jumping on his neck," Villtin explained.
"Oh. That's too bad. Poor lass." The tribesman put his food away and moved to sit down by her, trying to comfort her.
Newra had told about their adventures underground, provoking laughter and happy smiles by relating the end of Fix.
"Hoom," Bart said, "I saw Bos running towards the old watch tower a couple of minutes ago, pursued by some kind of monster looking a bit like a swamp dragon."
Villtin and Westala exchanged a look and stood up.
"We'll take care of him," the slim thief said, "and then we can look into leaving."
Westala nodded. "There can't be more than four or five guards left now, by my reckoning, but it's probably best you stay put and enjoy your lunch first."
The tower was very unsafe. There were holes in the walls, and steps missing from the stairs, but Bos had only one thought in his mind. Up, up and away, up, up and away, he thought, in time with his steps. Get the height advantage, get to the top room, get to a place with only one entrance, and he could turn around and put a ward up to bar the monster.
Dislodged pieces of masonry bounced down the stairs, at the foot of which Villtin paused and listened.
"Dung," he said.
"What?" Westala asked.
They proceeded carefully, jumping out of the way when stones came tumbling down.
In the top room, Bos stood panting for a moment, then turned and concentrated. "Pengabinge," he muttered, and a haze appeared in the doorway. Now nothing would be able to enter that way. He looked around. The large windows gave him a perfect view in all four directions.
He was safe. Now he just needed to rest a bit before figuring out how to get rid of the monster. Speaking of which, it appeared in the doorway, but hit his ward which repelled it with a sound of a thousand angry bees.
Bos laughed at its attempts to get through, then smiled as it gave up, turned around and disappeared from view. He pondered for a while, then prepared some spells that might come in handy.
Westala and Villtin met the dragon coming down the stairs on their way up.
"Hello, boy," Villtin said, "did you get him?"
The dragon ignored him and went past, heading for a large hole in the outside wall.
Westala and Villtin looked at each other, shrugged and continued upwards. They found the doorway to the last room, saw Bos, and charged. And were repelled, with the stinging of a whole field of nettles.
"Ha ha ha!" Bos exclaimed. "Ha ha ha ha HA!" He danced a little jigg. "Now I have you. You can't reach me now."
"No, that's right," Villtin said, "but I know someone who can."
"Not who, what," Villtin smirked. Behind Bos, the dragon entered through one of the windows.
Bos turned around and screamed.
It was an impressive fight, Westala and Villtin agreed. Bos tried steel and hastily flung spells, and even tried throwing rocks at it. Nothing worked. The dragon just came closer and closer, slowly following the magician's footsteps.
It ended quite soon. Bos had backed up against one of the windows, his back against the middle post. The dragon's tail lashed out, but Bos jumped aside. The forceful blow missed him, but disintegrated the post, and with that out of the way, Bos stepped up on the sill of the high window. He took off his crimson hat and bowed at the two warriors in the doorway.
"Farewell. You've won this round, but I'll be back," he said. And took a step backwards.
The dragon jumped after, but was too late.
"Well, how about that," Westala said.
"Sore loser, he'd rather defenestrate himself than get captured," Villtin said. "Some people have no balls."
Westala chuckled. "I would have thought you'd have to have balls to be defenestrated."
Villtin gave his friend an arch look. "You know it means being thrown out of a window."
"Yeah, but he went himself. Don't tell me that doesn't take some balls."
Villtin looked at his friend, then shrugged.
"Let's go back and finish this whole thing now."
"Right, that almost concludes the story. Marco?"
"Yep, we're almost there now. Can I have a cuppa tea to sip on while I tell?" Marco said, the last bit of course directed at the serving maids, who were all rubbing sore feet and walking rather gingerly by now. One of them nodded and soon returned with a white china cup full of hot water and Earl Green tea.
"Thank you... oh, how did you know I like that blend?" Marco looked surprised. The serving maid just smiled.
The dragon rejoined Westala and Villtin by the hole in the wall, hissed at them and pointed down through it. Westala looked outside.
"That's odd..." Villtin joined him, asking what it was. "We're directly below the window Bos jumped from. You'd expect to see a body on the fort roof."
"Maybe he fell behind the outer wall?"
"No, he just took a step backwards, he couldn't have fallen that far out. I guess he was serious when he said he'd return."
Villtin nodded. "You can't kill the boseyman," he said, and then wondered why.
"What," said the Northman, "are you talking about?"
"Uh... not really sure. Must be something I heard once."
As you might have expected, the black sphere rolled off the shelf. But you may not have expected how it did it. In fact, once it had started wobbling, it wobbled more and more, clearly in violation of the laws of thermodynamics. It would proceed to violate more laws.
Eventually it had enough momentum to roll off the shelf, but it dropped off on the other side of it from the white cube. It rolled over the floor, rebounded off a chest of drawers, and then hit the cube.
They annihilated, the force of the blow shaking the fort. Fragments peppered the other artefacts, and they resonated most unpleasantly.
Three shimmering tetrahedrons, one red, one blue and one yellowy green, floated up into the air and started dancing in complex orbits around each other. The Nookie device started playing what someone must have thought was a jolly little tune, but that wasn't the worst of what was happening in the room.
The red and white balls opened, flashing, releasing their contents. The small animals inside died instantly, but dumped their power into the massive build-up of magic potential. But that, while bad, also wasn't the worst of what was happening.
The build-up was.
Soon it would go critical.
Newra, Autopet, Lowmar, Mega Vole and the cabal were climbing the stairs as fast as they could, thinking that Bos had thrown some kind of doomsday spell on Westala and Villtin. The trembling was getting worse by the minute.
The two battle companions, on their end, saw bricks and mortar dust falling down the staircase. The tower was actually swaying.
"Oh, this can't be good. This is bad, right?"
"Yes, this is bad. Quit asking!"
Smoke was coming out of their pockets. They pulled out the crumbling, smouldering bricks and dropped them to the floor, where they disintegrated immediately.
"Do you smell that?"
"Yeah. Either someone has left an empty frying pan on a really hot stove, or there's a whole lot of magic going on."
Their path through the fort took them past the relic room, and now there was no doubt anymore. Villtin carefully opened the door and peeked inside.
The green crystal shot out of the doorway, spinning like a boomerang. It hit the opposite wall and flew back inside, now going straight as an arrow. Villtin hit the floor.
Westala pulled him back. "Are you all right?!"
"Parted my hair down the side, but otherwise I'm fine."
The others came up the stairs at the end of the hallway. "What's happening?"
"Magical armageddon, by the looks of it. Newra, take a look, you're the magic expert of this outfit."
"What expert, I hardly know first thing about magic!"
"Even so, 'hardly anything' is one better than the rest of us."
They carefully looked inside again. Newra just shook her head; she didn't even need to voice how bad it was.
"Some of that stuff looks pretty valuable," said Villtin. "Should we risk trying to get it out?"
"No! With that many random spells going off you shouldn't go in, you could get turned into something ghastly."
"What about the dragon? Bos threw some spells at him, and he didn't even blink. Er, not that he can blink, but you know what I mean."
She eyed the creature. "He probably is more resilient than a human, but I suspect Bos's spells were designed to work against humans. It's your call if you want to risk it." The dragon, at this point, expressed his opinion by shying back and hissing.
Westala looked at the thaumaturgical mayhem. "What do you think would happen if we just left it alone?"
"Personally, I'm worrying about how far away we need to get."
"Ah. Wait a second, I'll go get something..." Villtin said, and hurried off. Shortly he returned, with one of the glass-cube instruments Bos and Ballong had used. "See what you can make of this."
Newra tried and tested her way around the subtle controls, and soon figured it out. When she trained it towards the artefact room, she froze and paled. "It's going critical," she said in little more than a whisper. "In three minutes this area will be a cloud of vapour the size of Detbradskar."
Autopet took the device out of her limp hands and read it. "She's right. According to this, all that built-up magic will blow up in two minutes and fifty seconds," he said. "Two minutes, forty seconds," he added at the appropriate time, and shortly after, "two minutes thirty."
"Will you stop counting!" said No-storm-in-a-bucket.
"Yes," said the Varing. "In two minutes, twenty-five seconds."
The dragon screeched at them, a shrill, kind of creaking cry, and set off down the hall. It stopped, turned back, and called again. The ten humans got the message and followed it.
"Where are we going?" asked Bart as they ran.
"I've no idea," panted Villtin, "but maybe it saw something useful when it chased Bos. It seems to be heading for the main briefing room... yes! I saw something there when I went to get that magic-meter, or whatever it's called, but I didn't stop to take a good look."
"You think we can take cover in the caves?" asked M'Pik.
"We might," said Newra, "but even if they would shield us sufficiently, it'd take too long to get down there."
"One minute fifty!"
"Thanks a lot."
They stormed into the briefing room. The dragon was pulling the secret door fully open. Newra dashed in and read the spellbook furiously, while Autopet informed them that they had a minute and thirty seconds before being toast.
"Yes!" Newra exclaimed. "It's the teleportation spell. Let me see how you work it, now..."
"We can take these with us," said Lassie, indicating a large book and a set of scrolls on one of the tables.
"What are they? Are they valuable?" asked Westala.
"Most definitely. This is the original Book of Jobs, and these are the scrolls of Xu-nil Xinu."
"Oooh, even I have heard about them," said Villtin. "Take them. And grab those nine amber figurines too, on that shelf there. They must be good for something."
"A minute ten."
"Newra, how's it coming?" said Lowmar anxiously. "No pressure. Have you found out where it leads?"
"It's five days since Scrappy told us the cabal was moved here, from an alley in the city. I have no reason to think the destination has been changed, have you?"
"So, do you know how to operate it?"
"Um..." Newra hesitated.
"Newra, 'um's and hesitations are not what I want right now!" cried Villtin.
"Fifty seconds," said Autopet. Villtin made a pointed gesture towards him, meaning "see what I mean?"
"Thing is, it says here it should have a light blue shimmer to it, and not a flickering violent purple one."
"Do you have time to fix it?"
"No. I'm just saying it, so you don't sue me for not having warned you in case anything goes wrong."
"All right, everybody get in the translocator right now! Move! Go, go, go!"
"Twenty seconds, people!" shouted Autopet. "Look sharp!"
They hurried inside the small chamber, and crowded themselves into the space marked by a circle drawn on the floor. Newra grabbed the spellbook, joined the others inside the circle, read the spell's executive syllables, raised her hand and concentrated.
"This is all rather exciting, isn't it!" Marco exclaimed and sipped his tea.
"I'll tell you what happened in just a minute." He waved a bisquit around as he spoke, which he then proceeded to munch on. When he was finished he looked at the innkeeper and said:
"These are good! If I may, I'll bring a few with me for the trip."
And then, winking at the crowd gathered around him and his friend: "But first I'll finish our tale, of course."
The fort faded from view, but wasn't replaced by the somewhat shabby yet at the moment very welcome sight of the streets of Anorankhmar. But what they did see was at least familiar to the five warriors, one innkeeper and a dragon who had passed the place a few days before. The party materialised in the outskirts of the forest city.
"Well, at least we're on the right side of the river," said Villtin, after a few breathless moments. "Always look on the bright side of life."
"Speaking of bright..."
"Considering that even our bricks got affected by the magic," said Newra, "I think we should be happy this was the worse that happened to the translocator."
"... four, three, two, one, zero... plus two, plus three..."
Autopet stopped counting, and they waited almost without breathing. Eventually, Villtin asked, "How far away are we, again?"
"Twelve, thirteen miles, I think we said," mumbled Lowmar.
They got to wait almost a minute, the most apprehensive minute of their lives. Then came the light, brighter than the sun, brighter than a hundred suns, and after a few seconds the sound, deafening them, and a shock force that threw them to the ground. They lay still, clutching their ears as a sound like a thunderclap from hell, drawn out to infinity, rolled over them.
Then the pressure eased, and they looked up to see a dark cloud rise over the site of the Masse-Chute Capitale. As it expanded it fragmented, and they could see it consisted of colourful balloons drifting up, up, and away.
Then the sky went dark. The sun was eclipsed by millions of small objects, spreading in all directions along ballistic paths, at high speed and with a shrieking sound.
"Get under the trees!" bellowed Bart. They took cover under sturdy branches, just moments before the land was barraged by a shower of eggs.
The explosion of magic had aftermaths throughout the whole of reality. In a place far from the blast site, a swarm of locusts died in mid-chew, to the great rejoicing of the local population who had until then helplessly witnessed their crops being ruined. In another time, a chain of volcanic eruptions spelled doom for the dominant species of the epoch.
In another space and time altogether, a hole opened in the universe. Not only because it was a small hole, it was invisible to human perceptions. It was somewhat similar to a wormhole, but belonged to a phenomenon never scrutinised by Earthly physics.
It opened in the study of a scriptwriter, in a year designated 1985 in the local calendar. It connected to that point in spacetime where Capulette was thrown into enchanted sleep, dreaming about "the Barrier".
What the wormhole, for lack of a more proper label, transported was an inspiration, a particle of raw creativity, the building blocks of ideas. This inspiration left Capulette's mind and was absorbed by the scriptwriter's, carrying the image of the Barrier – a man with a long coat and an ivory-hilted sword – just as he was saying "there can be only one".
The writer halted his train of thought and considered the scene, not to mention the line.
"That's pretty catchy," he said quietly to himself.
A casual observer might have thought Peterwok never slept. He certainly seemed to work at all hours, and although he of course did sleep he got by on rather little of it and, his surgery being mostly a cellar, felt a great indifference as to when it occured.
Presently he was at one of his workbenches, dissecting a colourful jungle frog, with a selection of amphibian limbs and the copper-and-zinc-rod-skewered lemon off to one side and cages of mice on the other. But he was indeed considering closing shop for a couple of hours and having a nap.
There was a crackle and a sparkling of light by the lemon. An arc of blue-white current wormed and squirmed its way up between the metal rods. The power increased – and there was far too much of it than could logically be expected to be produced by the electronegativity difference between copper and zinc – and lightning-like feelers began to crawl over the table surface. Peterwok interrupted his work and gave the lemon an interested look.
The first thing he did was what he always did when encountering a new and potentially dangerous phenomenon, which was to check that the blue bottle he'd put his soul in was safe. Thus he wouldn't come to any lethal harm. Malicious tongues claimed that his soul wasn't the only thing he'd put into it, but that was really just slander.
Then he slowly clenched his fists. Under the skin of his forearms something moved, and over the knuckles of each hand three steel claws slid out, slowly and silently.
Then he carefully approached the crackling lemon. He knew about electricity, but these sparks weren't behaving quite as they should. One of the feelers connected to the metal leg of the table, its endpoint following it down to the floor where it crawled on, another grounded itself in the wall. The power grew quickly, and in seconds the room was criss-crossed by lightnings and arcs.
They danced from every metal object, and a few non-metallic ones, in the room. The table legs, the window bars, tin boxes. The steel frame of a glass cabinet was a veritable fireworks display. Peterwok had to retract his claws, after getting burned a couple of times. Papers, dried leaves and other loose light objects were blown around by rushes of air caused by the the sparks.
The light got even more intense. There was a thunderous crash, and every window blew out. The glass cabinet exploded, tiny shards perforating the walls. Then the discharges and the gales died down, quicker than they had built up.
Peterwok got up, brushed himself off and inspected the wreckage stoically, his cuts, bruises and burns healing by the second. Not a whole lot was, in fact, whole. But in the debris of the cabinet he found a test tube that had miraculously escaped destruction.
The doctor eyed it suspiciously. He thought that the volume of liquid in the tube seemed, ever so slightly, smaller. He dusted off his magnification instrument, checked that it worked, and poured out the tube's contents in a small glass dish.
The clone egg was nowhere to be found.
This was somewhere else, sometime else.
In the smithy of a small village far up north, a crackle of light crawled across the distance between an anvil and a hammer next to it. Lightning-like feelers connected to other tools and anvils, nails and horseshoes. The power had no trouble finding grounding points in a place that lived and breathed iron.
Not that the two occupants of the room noticed any of it. They were busy doing something else.
Namely, each other. Or, put in another way, the proverbial "it".
The glow from the hearth shone a red light on the sweaty bodies of the smith and his wife. It was joined by flashes of actinic blue, but even if the couple had noticed they wouldn't have cared. The smith had closed his workshop for the night, and there would have to be a pretty serious emergency to make him interrupt the present activity. His wife shared the sentiment.
Gale-force winds sent their hair flying. The storm raged all around them now. She moaned when one arc passed through their bodies, he grunted. The sparks struck everywhere, there was a flash of light and a thunderclap. The windows blew out.
Their panting breathing calmed down. Eventually the smith commented, quite simply, "Wow!"
"Yeah," said his wife. "That one was good!"
Nine months later, they had a baby.
Lowmar surveyed the egged landscape. "Well, at least we have food for the trip back," he mused. "Bit monotonous menu, but it's at least got a high nutritional value."
"If it's safe to eat," said Newra. "It came out of a magical explosion. If there is any magical residue on it, it could be hazardous to ingest. I really don't want to draw you a picture. Nobody touch nothing."
Then they noticed a whistling sound, growing louder and shriller. They looked around. They looked up. They moved out of the way.
Westala's spear dropped straight down out of the sky, and bored itself two feet into the ground.
"Nice hang time," commented the warrior who owned it, and moved to pull it out.
"Don't touch it! Don't touch it!" shouted Newra. "Let me see if it's safe first."
She took the glass cube back from Autopet and examined the spear. Eventually she gave the thumbs-up to the eggs, and announced that the spear would be ready to go by midday, give or take an hour.
They collected some firewood, and Lowmar cooked the biggest omelette in the world.
The journey back was much more uneventful than the journey out. When Sherilob had left the Magdala caves and gone to visit Bos and Ballong, most of the spiders had escorted him, and when he'd disappeared, so had they. The cabal and their rescuers could pass through with no trouble.
They saw no trace of Count Ertremor and Bikkit, but stopped by again at the house of Ursa the Green Man. He had of course noticed the cataclysmic event to the south, and was very curious. But so jovial was he, and so earnest in his enquiring, that they had no hesitations about telling him everything. He laughed and applauded them when they told him their adventures.
They asked him questions too. Villtin had a particular one when dinner was served:
"What is the meaning of this? I ordered garlic-flavoured breadsticks, and you've brought me a limp asparagus... dipped in butter!"
The Green Man jerked a thumb towards Autopet.
"His idea. Don't ask me."
The Green Man had, for obvious reasons, the most bountiful garden of all the settlements in the wilderness, and they were sad to have to leave. But at the same they were eager to get back to the city. They reached it in the evening of the next day.
They had a slap-up tea, with cream buns, at the Plummeting Lemming. The stories of what had become of Affor on the one hand and Ballong and Bos on the other were told, and new faces such as Fiftyseven's were introduced.
The cabal had been placed in a seat of honour, but soon Lassie lay back with his head on Tily's lap, and she sang him an old lullaby from his family's land in the North:
"Är det en rullad affisch,
Eller kanske en pain riche,
Eller har du var't ute och fångat en levande svan?"
But quite all was not well. "You still have to leave town," Messy Marall told Westala and Villtin. "When the Dancing Rodents find out you're still alive they won't be best pleased."
"I have an idea," said Lowmar. "There is that big festival in Hanoverian Hinckley in a few days' time. Big shebang, goes on for days."
"Yes, that one," interrupted Westala. "Good thing you reminded us, we were planning to go there anyway. You're right, we could lie low there for a while."
Villtin nodded. "And there are decent roads all the way there, and an inn or two. Sounds like a good idea."
"It is a good idea," said Bart the woodsman. "It's even possible we'll join you there, to get away from the Cult of Me for a while and draw up some plans on how to defeat them."
"But it's most important right now that you get out of the reach of the Rodents," said Gideoallet. "You'd better leave as soon as you can."
Westala and Villtin were walking down the streets toward the gates. The street nightlife seemed no more active now than when they'd arrived, but now they knew that there was a movement to do something about it. And they were involved in it. It was going to be hard, but it was a fight worth fighting.
Like before, the roads were almost but not quite empty. They spotted a figure hurrying away down a side street. Westala pointed at him. "Isn't that 'Fingers' Olson, over there?"
"'Fingers' Olson? Isn't he dead?"
"He can't be, he's moving."
And then they met some old friends. The fat sergeant and scruffy-looking corporal of the city watch bore down on them.
"Oi, you! You, over there! We want a word with you two!"
The two battle companions exchanged glances. There was a handy rainwater barrel on the corner.
Marco looked out the window and noticed all the twinkly stars were twinkling their hearts out, it was quite definitely night. "Well, it is very late, but it is not midnight quite yet. We should manage to get some shut-eye, and then we shall be off to the festival early in the morning."
"Thank you for being such an attentive, enthusiastic and generous audience!" Marco said as both tale tellers stood up, recieved their applause and made ready to go to bed.
The crowd in the inn stood up, cracked backs, rubbed sore bottoms and noticed that somehow their knees didn't seem to bend quite as well as they used to. The serving maids took off their shoes with a collective sigh of relief, then fell dead asleep right where they were. The innkeeper tried to add up the bill in his head but gave up and stumbled off to bed. Later that night people all over the town found themselves dreaming of dashing heroes, beutiful heroines, dancing chicken-pot-pies with mash and, for some strange reason, little pink hedgehogs doing the conga. The next morning they would all wake up and wonder where their lives ran off to while they were mesmerised in the inn, but that was tomorrow. For now there were only dreams.
 The staff of Sista was eventually found, however. It was washed ashore on a tropical island and was promptly declared to be the latest god by the local priests. As the islanders' tradition demanded when a new god arrived, they took the old one – a cartwheel that had drifted ashore the month before – and carried it up to the volcano at the centre of the island and threw it in. Then they had a party to celebrate and honour the new god, as tradition demanded. After a week, though, they realised that it was highly irrational to worship a piece of wood that had come floating to them from random-fluctuations-in-the-space-time-continuum knows where, and carried it up to the volcano and threw it in, together with all the priests. Then they had a party, and, as far as the narrator knows, lived happily ever after.
 Where is the police when you need them?
 He had a rubber duckie for that sort of thing.
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