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ALCHEMIST CITY STORIES

Abridged Edition

John Xavier
“I was very pleased with myself when I discovered
that sunlight could not be reproduced; it had to be
represented by something else... by colour.”

Cezanne
CONTENTS

The Introduction of Orb

AIRSHIP LUXURY EXPRESS

BONES FOR THE SEA

CONFIDING IN ORACLES

GOLIATH’S ANDROID SHOP

HUNTING ORCS

IN MOONDUST SHADOWS

MURDERS ABOMINABLE

ULTRA CODEX – ORIGINS


The Introduction of Orb

All of the stories contained in this collection were first written in the span of
fifty days except for Goliath’s Android Shop, which had been published several
years earlier in a slightly different form. Alchemist City was therefore somewhat
dimly imagined well before any lore had been developed for it. The surrounding
cosmos of Orb conversely came in sudden inspiration when writing fiction began
to appeal to me again during a time of personal adversity. I was looking for a project
and found it in when I recalled the steampunk fantasy tale I’d created previously
that appeared now to be worthy of further development. This quickly proved itself
with Hunting Orcs and a deluge of accompanying notes fleshing out the lands
surrounding Alchemist City and their inhabitants. Ideas were practically piling up
on each other, so abundant were they, that the only thing which consistently
distracted me during the day from writing the stories I had in mind were
inspirations for other stories. I knew then that I’d tapped in to something special.
Previously I’d always preferred writing poetry, it was consistently more gratifying,
but now fiction was providing that same level of satisfaction. Which means I hope
to continuing writing stories set in Alchemist City and the world of Orb for years to
come. I’m not only driven by a personal artistic ambition here though; these stories
are also written for other people, a readership I picture that consists of individuals
like myself who are appreciative of all the rewards that literature has to offer,
regardless of genre. To them I offer this.
AIRSHIP LUXURY EXPRESS

The majestic zeppelin soared across a vast sea, carrying with it not only its
affluent passengers but the hopes of a new age. Where previously only powerful
wizards could levitate things, here was proof that the same miracles were also
possible through the genius of modern science. The world of Orb was now
undergoing a great and terrible revolution but, at this time, there was only one city
among its multitudes where the spirit of this change was in full focus. Alchemist
City. Hardly more than three centuries old, it was built on a site that had seen
numerous settlements over the last eleven hundred years and, partly because of
this, the civic motto of the city was “On the ruins of others.” But also on account of
the Technomages. Now the Supreme Guild of Technomages, as they were properly
referred to, consisted of mages obviously, but ones who uniquely embraced the
ideal of combining magic with technology. Elsewhere logicians carried out science
in leisurely speculation and wizards used the arcane arts for the purpose of
tyrannical domination, yet despite this no one had previously sought to yoke the
two under the whip of industrialization. As such Alchemist City quickly became
preeminent among the Free Nation city states and only its ancient enemy, the
distant and crumbling Old Empire, could plausibly dispute this. It was however a
time of relative peace and this gave the Technomages and their minions the
opportunity to devote all their energies to expanding their influence among their
immediate neighbors. Included in the projects this entailed was the development
of airship routes throughout the Free Nations (While being careful to maintain
clandestine monopolies over the companies involved) The earlier mentioned
zeppelin was the product of this very same plan and it was currently making
impressive speed towards the metropolis of its invention after a lengthy journey
from the deservedly celebrated city of Vesante-Vix, interrupted only by a brief
recreational layover at the island port of Fleurin. That’s why, as it neared in
approach of its destination, it arrived from the open Thalassic Sea and not via the
West Lowlands. Said Low-lands were an expansive stretch of flat country that ran
as far as the mountains of Elvany and ended in the east at the flank of the Clavac
mountain range where, on the other side of an elevated plateau, Alchemist City
throbbed at the mouth of the river Sybeles. If you believe this to be too much detail,
consider yourself fortunate that you are presently spared a lesson in the total
geography and cosmology of Orb since, if you weren’t, this knowledge would no
doubt prove too cataclysmic for you to endure.

Setting aside that apocalypse for the moment, it will be sufficient to return
to the present matter of the Airship Luxury Express now rapidly descending from
the sky as it made its way to land. With the regiment of men arduously shovelling
coal into a furnace hidden deep within its bowels, the passengers aboard the ship
had nothing guilt-inducing to distract them as they reclined on their cabin balconies
and took in the sites below. One young boy though, Bivels Hazerford, son of Sir
Esten Hazerford, wasn’t satisfied with this and made an absolute pest of himself
about it until his father finally relented and took him to the forward observation
deck. There Alchemist City was at last revealing itself and, with a darting finger
extended across the inner railing, Bivels unleashed a ceaseless stream of comments
and questions while the elder Hazerford did his best to be indulgent.

“That’s Gaol Island isn’t it sir?” asked the boy, using the formality his rather
stiff old man required of him. Sir Hazerford hadn’t even finished nodding to this
when he was hit with the next salvo. “Yes! There’s the Vampire District there I think.
Surely can’t image a whole district of vampires though.”

His father chuckled. “Oh, there’s not many vampires there Bivels. And I hear
the few there are have been mostly gentrified.”

Bivels looked over at his father with a sheepish smile before bouncing back
into a fresh run of chatter. “But that is Pox Island behind it and I know they do send
the sick there sir! A chum of mine told me so himself at school. Funny thing though
sir; doesn’t it look like they’re both about to get eaten?”

Sir Esten Hazerford however lacked the fanciful imagination of his son and
so did not interpret the two large encroaching peninsula as scorpion mandibles the
way his Bivels did. Out of necessity then he ignored the question and instead
pointed to a tall structure on the tip of the eastern peninsula.

“Look there Bivels! See that? That’s the Star Citadel. And over there behind
it is Star Citadel Academy; the finest source of military education in all the sphere.
You’ll make a fine sight one day Bivels after we’ve wrung you through that. Oh, rest
assured!”

The younger Hazerford was considerably less enthusiastic about the idea
than the elder one but he was smart about it and managed to hide this in his face.
He did not however attempt to feign interest in the matter.

“Not much to look at over on that side though sir,” began the boy with
growing momentum as he went. “That hexagon shaped building for instance is
rather boring. But quite the contrary on the opposite mainland! Yes sir, I think I like
that side much better. Why there’s all those splendid ships there coming into port.
And a whole mob of towers I should say beyond that! Is that a church in between?”

Sir Esten raised a hand to the brim of his top hat to shield his eyes from the
sun. “By the blessed deity my boy! That’s Eudoxa Cathedral,” he answered before
adding with emphasis, “Those are ow-rrr people.”

In matters of religion Bivels was ever eager to be in agreement with the old
man. “Quite right father,” he said. “And there’s jolly Minter’s Street; why you can
practically hear the coins jingling from here. And a bit farther there is the Cypress
District. Those are some of our people too, aren’t they sir?”

The elder Hazerford put an approving hand on his son’s shoulder. “Indeed,
some of them are my boy,” he added after making a show of scrutinizing the area.

By now the zeppelin was well on top of the city and other craft, mostly
balloons and gliders but also the odd mounted drake, were likewise cutting paths
across the immediate sky. As lively as these sights were however, Bivels focus was
presently occupied by a small shining disc almost directly below. “That’s the Omen
Well, correct, in that curve there along Elven Way?”

Sir Hazerford leaned over the inner railing to get a better look. “Yes, it must
be,” he replied before continuing. “Back when our ancestors first arrived on the
Landings, that was one of their most startling discoveries. Probably exaggerated
though; the things they saw in its waters.”

Bivels didn’t hear this last speculation however as his attention was
distracted elsewhere. “Sir!” he exclaimed. “That’s the Amphitheater just starboard
of us! And the Arena beside it! Oh! But that is a mighty pyramid even further
ahead.”

The elder Hazerford smiled to himself. Rather should humor the boy more
often, he mused before addressing his son’s erroneous appraisal. “That’s a ziggurat
Bivels. Centuries ago our forefathers used to make animal sacrifices to the deity on
top of that.”

The boy was mesmerized. “Wow! But not anymore sir?”

Here Sir Esten removed an elegant cigarette holder from the inner pocket of
his leisure jacket and placed an offering of immolation in this as he replied. “I should
hope not! I’m sure the deity prefers his meat at a civilized table like the rest of us.”

He accented his point by taking long smooth drags from his combustible in a
manner that had only recently been perfected after generations of breeding. For a
while then they simply stood together in silence, a father and son approaching the
last great destination on a transoceanic voyage. It had been grand. There in front
of them now though was the Aeroport and they had to prepare themselves for
disembarking. The elder Hazerford made a wordless tilt with his head for his son to
get going and then flicked his cigarette out of its holder so he could follow, heedless
of where the still smoldering item fell among the crowded streets below.

Alchemist City’s Aeroport, being one of its latest constructions, and most
important, was naturally a stupendous work of engineering. An unusual building, it
is somewhat hard to describe but, nevertheless, this you shall have. First, picture
the bell of a tuba and chop it off at the neck say, eight inches from the mouth. Then,
divide this in half diametrically and plant the wide end on the ground; that’s the
Arc. Following this, add large spoke like horizontal extensions out from the convex
side of the top, these being its docking bridges, and then place adjacent to the Arc
a detached Control Tower where the convergent lines of the docking bridges would
hypothetically meet. Now marry this with a brutal but ornate style of crystalline
architecture, flood it with supernatural light, and then swarm all of that with a flying
anarchy of machinery and there you pretty much have it. The dockhands working
at the Aeroport of course did not have the luxury of contemplating any of these
things as they were much too busy unloading crates of Orthosian wine, craft
furniture from the dwarven carpenters of the Wocce Forest, and even the
occasional live baboon or jaguar outrageously shipped by air from all the way down
in the Southern Continent. Tastes were quite decadent at this time and some of
those most responsible for this were eagerly awaiting aboard the Airship Luxury
Express as the slowing zeppelin neared the docking bridge it had been cleared for
by flag signal.

“Look lively Bivels!” clanged the elder Hazerford as the two stood at the front
of a queue waiting to exit. The other passengers were also ready to get going, but
casually so, with the temperament of those used to getting what they want and
when. Only a lanky porter who stood behind the two Hazerfords in a black and gold
uniform, his arms overly loaded with carry-on luggage, looked anything like
uncomfortable. It was his first week and, still unaccustomed to the pace of the job,
he was trying his best to shake off the persistent feeling he was drowning. He could
have fallen over dead right there though and the father and son in front of him
wouldn’t have noticed. Indeed, all they saw was what lay before them and, as the
bay doors of the passenger section opened, the two revved forth to meet it.

“Sir Hazerford, what a splendid honor it is to have as a visitor to our city


someone of your august peerage. Welcome!” These words came from a
suspiciously feline looking young woman who punctuated her greeting with a
curtsy in an ankle-length dress of robin-shell blue that was inlaid with white
embroidery. She was in fact half-panther; her best half too, although both halves
were very much admired.

“My name is Ms. Simone,” she continued in a velvet voice, “And I am the civic
guide you requested in your letter.”
Beast folk, although rare, were only slightly less common than elves and so
Sir Esten was not perturbed in any way by dealing with one; plus Ms. Simone was
certainly charming.

“Very agreeable my dear,” he said as the Hazerfords and their guide began
walking in a vanguard together at the front of an unloading crowd of people. Behind
this trio the porter trailed as best he could while, around them, other ships docking
on top of the sixteen-story high Aeroport bobbed against their anchor lines and
flushed steam into the air. While his father and Ms. Simone discussed an
assortment of mundane matters, Bivels was once again caught up in the novel
sights surrounding him. For example, he felt great delight in witnessing a pair of
mechanics pushing a trolley full of caged gremlins and almost interrupted his father
to bring this to the old man’s attention before finally thinking better of it. Other
fantastic spectacles urged him to do likewise but it wasn’t until the group of four
had made their way to one of the mechanical elevator stations that a pause in the
adult’s conversation gave Bivels the opening he was looking for.

“Father sir,” he began. “May I ask the lady a question?” The elder Hazerford
nodded at the boy as he lit another cigarette. Needing nothing beyond this, Bivels
launched away.

“Ms. Simone, I’ve heard that all the civilized peoples of the world reside here.
Every folk imaginable. Is this true?”

The panther woman gave the boy a radiant smile. “It most certainly is. But
sadly some are distinctly less civilized than others. Young master though, I have the
odd suspicion that these might be the ones you’re most interested in.”

Ms. Simone had of course hit the cyclops dead in its eye and, after checking
to find an amused look on the elder Hazerford’s face, she proceeded to delve into
some of the more fantastic business of Alchemist City and its exploits while deftly
avoiding any of the truly unsavory realities.

“Rumors abound precocious sir, that a banshee arrived in a bone carriage


just the other day, being led by a team of wyverns. It is said she’s a countess from
the lands of the Witch Queen Gidu and is here to consult the astrologers of our
Opticon regarding some matter of necromantic ritual. Then there’s our own
Tarantulas, the city’s thieves’ guild, who I’ve heard now employ a gorgon and have
been using her to petrify the drivers of armored stagecoaches in our poor Coin
District. Naturally the City Warders will soon put a stop to that and machine men
presently patrol the area in abundance, zealous to catch the culprits. Beyond this
there’s the usual issues with goblins and orcs and mermaids but they are too trivial
to merit any curiosity. What of your homeland though young master? I’ve heard
that the country of the East Lowland’s is utterly teeming with talking animals and
that a person can’t go farther than three paces afield before being accosted by
throngs of cheese begging mice?”

Ms. Simone here was significantly exaggerating for comedic effect. Before
Bivels could protest however, the elevator arrived and the four of them entered an
open air gondola that had a view of the fountained and statued courtyard
surrounding the base of the Control Tower. As they rode straight down in their
cushioned seats, all except the fidgeting porter standing with clasped luggage,
Bivels took only a couple seconds to study the view beyond before refocusing on
Ms. Simone and answering her as best a child pontiff could.

“I’d like it better if it were so but where we live in the East Lowlands, down
in Mundany Ms. Simone, there aren’t any creatures of the sort and hardly enough
magic to light a lantern. My chums and I think it’s dreadfully boring actually. Really
there’s nothing worthy of a tale until you get out to Dwarfania.”

Ms. Simone’s stunning eyes twinkled with mirth. “Oh!” she exclaimed, gently
putting a hand up to her collar bone. “Would you like to go and live among the
dwarves?” The elder Hazerford raised an eyebrow as he watched his son make a
face of undisguised contempt.

“Positively not!” sputtered Bivels, before adding, “I’d rather eat scaly chicken
stew!” Unimpressed, Sir Esten scowled at his son and used his third most imperious
tone of voice.

“None of that boy!” he growled before disposing of the cigarette he’d been
neglecting and crushing it under the front of his shoe. Bivels responded with a very
meek “Yes sir,” and lapsed into a submissive quiet. His father however had his own
questions for Ms. Simone.
“I was informed, my dear, that you would also have some news I’d be
interested in. Am I correct?”

The civic guide confirmed this with a bow of her head. “Indeed sir. As per
your instructions, I have reviewed the state of affairs regarding the subjects of your
interest and can proceed with a summary of them however you prefer.”

The elevator doors here rumbled and then opened as it finally reached the
main floor of the building and everyone walked out into the immense hall awaiting
them. Bivels eyes shot to the vaulted ceiling, and the frescoes there approved by
the Lord Mayor himself, while the porter sighed at the busy space full of well-
attired aristocrats and muttered a single exhausted prayer to himself. Sir Esten
though took no notice of his surroundings and instead replied to Ms. Simone.

“Just out with all of it. Beyond that I’m sure you can do the task quite
competently without specification.”

Ms. Simone bowed deferentially to soothe the slight note of exasperation


she sensed in his voice and then confidently did exactly as he asked.

“Well sir, to quote the ancient proverb ‘silver is the blood of power’ I must
begin then with matters of finance. Yesterday the Patrician Review reported that
quotas at the Foothills Mine have been lowered by the Syndicate for the second
quarter in a row. That, combined with the continuing riots in Meridio means a
simultaneous animatite and esaguan clay scarcity could occur in the near future.
Obviously this would be disastrous for golem production and, even if the present
difficulties are overcome in a timely fashion, speculators will certainly take a lash
to all susceptible enterprises. No doubt you know better than I which ones those
might be so I will spare you any further comment on this except to say that my
sources in the Scribes Guild inform me there are rumors crawling in from all
directions that our periodicals are deliberately underreporting the matter due to
directives from you-know-who.”

Sir Esten adjusted the cuff of a sleeve as he considered this. “A silent wolf
need not share their prey,” he remarked idly as he waved for Ms. Simone to
continue.
“A most perceptive analogy sir,” she said before proceeding. “Moving on to
another economic matter, but one more specifically political in its origins, unrest in
the Knave’s Quarter has worsened and this seems to be correlated with a recent
increase in piracy which Random Tides, a reliable newspaper published by the
Seafarers Guild, says is leading to calls for strike action from certain plebeian
agitators. The City Warders however raided half a dozen of the agitators’ tenement
meetings only last week and I am assured that this has alleviated the matter
entirely.”

Sir Esten contemplated what he’d just heard with a moment of opaque
concentration while Ms. Simone recalled the competing account offered by the
anarchist newspaper, The Kindler, which asserted that only two “civic activists” had
actually been caught and that the rest escaped the tenement raids by being tossed
across rooftops by a pair of troll sympathisers. Don’t imagine he’d like to hear that,
she thought to herself before Sir Esten asked another question.

“What of matters of magic though? I’ve just now recalled a conversation I


overheard in Fleurin concerning new regulations being imposed in that
department.”

Ms. Simone here, as chance would have it, randomly killed two vampires
with one stake when she bowed as Sir Esten motioned for her to exit the Aeroport’s
main doors first, some manners preceding even status of class, and in doing so
simultaneously acknowledging his last remark.

“That is indeed the case sir,” she confirmed. “Due to the higher than normal
levels of moondust production and addiction this year, city hall has passed new
laws regarding the sale of witching ingredients and alembic devices. Obviously no
one is going to publically dispute the wisdom of the wizards here but I confess I’ve
been told that many apothecarists think the extent of the new restrictions is utterly
mad.” Sir Esten Hazerford noted this final piece of news with an ambiguous
“Hmmmmm,” as his attention turned to the plentiful chaos of the surrounding
concourse.

Directly outside the Aeroport, the placid ambience it contained evaporated.


Hawkers, salivating at the prospect of hoodwinking some gullible patrician out of a
portion of their purse, set up temporary shops there in an eclectic array of tents,
disposable stalls, platformed wagons, and hovering airship. This is what had come
to be known as the Quicksilver Bazaar on account of its fluid composition and also
because of the occasional punitive actions by the City Warders which usually
involved demolishing large sections of it. Aside from these bits of unpleasantness
though, a general atmosphere of revelry prevailed. Not only were the merchants
here invigorated by a lust for gold but the area had furthermore begun to be
frequented by tourists and curiosity seekers from every social class. It would not be
an unusual sight there to watch a robed sorcerer with his hands behind his back
scrutinizing a heaped display of imp teeth while a pair of drunken satyrs clopped
past sloshing bottles of Red Basilisk wine. In short, it was an eternal spectacle.

Sir Esten however did not appear impressed by what he saw even as a
distracting feeling caused him to stare out in perplexity. Still unable to figure out
what it was, he nevertheless took a moment to address his guide. “Ms. Simone,
thank you for your services. You may take your leave now.”

Ms. Simone curtsied as she replied, “Of course sir. Again, it has been a great
honor.” With that she took one last look at the old man, even as he ignored her,
before bestowing a soft smile on a still chastened Bivels and turning around to
depart. As she disappeared back into the Aeroport, only a moving crease in the
back of her dressed betrayed a tail twitching with mild annoyance. A handful of
seconds passed then before the other Non-Hazerford spoke.

“Excuse me sir, would you like me to leave too?” This produced genuine
surprise in Sir Esten and here he did look over.

“Oh! The porter. Yes. Do go and run along as well.” The porter awkwardly
waited for a moment, expecting some kind of gratuity, when Sir Esten suddenly
erupted with epiphany.

“The blasted stagecoach! That’s what I forgot to ask her about!” With this he
snapped his fingers at Bivels. “Stay put while I go find that woman again.”

Bivels sniveled. “And what am I supposed to do here sir?”

Sir Esten unexpectedly crouched down beside his son as he directed the
boy’s attention skywards with a pointed finger.
“Look up. See that? That’s the other side of the world. Nothing’s hidden my
boy. It’s all right there, just waiting to be taken.”

Confused, Bivels nevertheless obeyed, and his father swiftly stood and shot
a command at the help. “You, porter, follow me.”

The porter, who in fact had a name, knew it was a bad idea to leave the boy
alone but the ungrateful gentleman bossing him around wasn’t even going to give
him a single bronze coin as a tip so why should he try to help the old dragon?
Instead, out of both duty and rebellion, he too did as he was told.

Bivels didn’t really look up at the sky much since it was always just there and
it didn’t change much. Sensing that he was supposed to understand something
though, he made a careful examination of what he saw. First he started with the
Thalassic Sea, also known as the Equatorial Sea, which circled the entire cavity of
Orb in an enormous belt of salt water that divided the Northern and Southern
continents. These were distinctly unequal, the North being noticeable smaller than
the South due to the asymmetrical band of the Thalassic, but very similar in their
main features. For instance, each had a polar desert, these referred to respectively
as the Aridic and Antaridic realms, where the shadow of the moon never fell and
night had never been experienced. Yes, in the lands of Orb that encompassed the
inner surface of its sphere, every dusk was an eclipse and every dawn its end. The
moon responsible for this, a physically crescent shaped body, meanwhile orbited,
in parallel orientation, a stationary sun situated at the exact center of the sphere
where it was surrounded by an inner host of circling stars and nebulae. This was
called the Heavenly Core and, aside from being a sight powerful enough to humble
anyone who hadn’t been raised beneath it, this slowly whirling storm of golden
light had been an endless source of consternation and reverence for at least as long
as Old Empire priests first started studying it twelve thousand years ago. As for
what Bivels’ father said, he was literally correct in so far as everything not directly
blocked from line of sight by the unmoving Heavenly Core or roving moon was laid
out perfectly illuminated. Two things helped in this; the relatively gentle radiance
of the sun and the reflective influences of the great sea, large lakes, and the twin
polar deserts. It was therefore possible for anyone of average vision to follow the
entire curve of the world with a single sweep of their head and this without moving
an inch from where they stood. That wasn’t the point though, thought Bivels. His
father had been speaking poetically. He didn’t just mean that the whole world was
accessible. Not merely that. Rather it was because the world lay there wholly
revealed, it was therefore ours to possess.

“What cha’ looking at?” jangled a melodic voice beside him. It was a girl
about his own age but one with strange markings on her skin and she was also
wearing the outfit of a primitive urban scavenger. Think pigeon wings and goblin
hide and industrial junk accessories. Despite this Bivels found her embarrassingly
beautiful and immediately became her captive.

“A destiny I think,” he replied without entirely comprehending what that


meant.

“I’ve heard of those,” laughed the girl in response before adding, “A little
boring though don’t you think?”

Bivels beamed. “Quite right!” He said with total enthusiasm. There was a
pause in the conversation as both children grinned at each other.

Then the girl said, “Come. I want you to meet my friends,” while offering
Bivels her hand. Bivels took it.

When his father reappeared several minutes afterward to find his son
missing, a search was swiftly begun but it wasn’t until weeks later that the younger
Hazerford was located in Pale Body’s Lane among a tribe of feral orphans. He was
barely recognizable however with all his fresh body and face tattoos.
BONES FOR THE SEA

With the tail horn of the moon passing from the face of the sun, dawn began
to flood Alchemist City and its mostly groggy residents. Mook Pearler though was
a fisherman, and fisherman got up early. In fact he was late and should have been
out at sea over an hour ago. This wasn’t his fault however, unless he could be
blamed for agreeing to take on that lousy Quird Cunes as a partner.

“You need help,” his wife had said. “You’re not a green dragon anymore.”
She did that sometimes, belittle him, but he’d long ago learned that she could talk
spider webs around anything he said so Mook usually kept his soreness to himself.

Why Quird though? He was half a devil if he was anything and may have only
been a half at that. The man was unreliable. He was always going off in the middle
of dock work on who knows what and then would show up at the Sunken Hull
without any attempt to explain himself. Since Quird’s magician acts tended to end
with him sitting at their local tavern, Mook initially suspected he was sneaking off
to go drinking. But the man was never drunk! And that in itself bothered Mook
because what type of self-respecting mariner spent all his time on land sober? No,
the whole thing was a mystery and an irritating one at that. When it came to trouble
however, his nets always came up full, so Mook Pearler did his best not to let the
shackle of Quird bother him and instead stuck to taking care of the morning.
Mrs. Pearler was baking in a frenzy at the small wooden table by the hearth
when he entered. Their house only had three rooms; the one with the bed, the one
with the fire, the one with the chamber pot. And of course all of these put together
didn’t even add up to the space he had on his boat. The Pearlers however were
childless so that helped, although sometimes Mook could sense that the long
periods of quiet shared between him and his wife at home didn’t please her as
much as they did him. Lately she’d been making herself busy with all sorts of things
though and, if it kept her from cracking the whip at him, he was fully supportive.

“Morning girl,” he said to the woman he’d married over sixteen years ago
when her first husband died. “Looks like you’ve been at it for some time now.”

His wife, who was concentrating on her rolling pin technique, didn’t look up
as she replied. “Can’t all fuss around in the bedroom all leisurely like can we?”
Mook was stung by this sudden cannonball and, despite his better judgement, he
fired one of his own across her bow.

“Not much I can do until your boy Quird Cunes gets here with a new net!”

Mrs. Pearler paused in the middle of her kitchen engineering and scowled at
him with one eye like the stare of a giant squid. “My boy!” she snapped. “What chu
mean by that!?” Sensing some real heat coming off her words now, Mook Pearler
attempted an ungraceful retreat.

“Nothing at all,” he sputtered meekly. Not really the best thing to do is it Mr.
Pearler? thought Mook to himself. Starting a row with the missus first thing into
the dawn. His professing innocence didn’t alleviate the tension in the room but,
after glaring at him for a few more seconds, Mrs. Pearler went back to work and
Mook let out a quiet sigh. For a moment he wasn’t sure what to say next but then
the smell of baked apple pie decided for him.

“Working on some pies I see. Very nice. Are these ones done over here?” The
abrupt weaponizing of the rolling pin here caused him to take a step back.

“Don’t be touching the pies!” growled his wife. “They ain’t for you!”
Throwing his hands up in the air, Mook decided he’d dug a deep enough hole
before breakfast and figured he’d take a break from trying to bury himself.
Grumbling quietly, he attempted to think of some satisfying jokes he could make
about his wife that would give the fellas a laugh down at the tavern. As always,
nothing emerged from the fog and he’d have to rely on the one he stole from
someone else many years ago. Yes, Mook liked to repeat the joke that he had two
anchors; one in his boat and the other in his bed. What he wasn’t able to admit to
himself however was that he deeply needed his wife. He wasn’t the same man long
ago when he was a bachelor. Someone who could arrive home to an empty shack
without a single pang of loneliness. And he was too old, and ugly frankly, to try and
trade her in for another woman now. Like wives were just islands to be hopped on
and off. No. His life was set in stone now and at this point it could only break.

Mook poured himself the last bit of warm coffee in the Pearlers’ dented
metal tankard and carried it over to the window. At the far end of the hearth room,
away from his toiling wife, he stared out at the harbor adjoining their second story
abode. The sails of tall ships buffeted in the breeze and cresting waves rasped with
curling white lips as they briefly lived and died. It was typical weather for the start
of the month of Glooming but today it put an icicle through Mook’s heart as the
weariness of his life swept over him. Must be nice to work in one of those spires
they got in the Tower District, he thought before adding a, I should’ve tried and
been a clerk. Instead he’d be spending the next eighteen hours out at sea in the
briny slop throwing stinking nets and traps into the water and it wasn’t likely he’d
bring in anything more than a coffin’s worth of catch. And he’d have to listen to
Quird and his endless prattle. Maybe he could just go and get the boat ready and
leave word for Quird to meet him there? Or he could have a second cup of coffee.
Before he’d had a chance to justify to himself the latter choice, fate decided for him
and a third decision imposed itself. Quird appeared.

Arriving from down the street with a glint in his eye and a strut in his legs,
Mook could not help flicking out his tongue and horking in disgust at the man’s
inconsiderate timing. His wife glanced over at him with an arching eyebrow’s worth
of curiosity but he said nothing and instead watched as his partner made their way
along the sparsely crowded walkway. He was a peacock, Mook would give em that.
Not pretty like a dandy though but presentable, yes that’s the word, by the
standards of the dock crowd. He was always clean shaven except for a thin black
awning of mustache and he kept his hair slicked tight with lard and his trousers neat
and his shirts tucked in. Not a big man though. Mook had about forty pounds on
him; admittedly that was with extra around both the arms and waist. Not that Quird
couldn’t handle himself in a rowdy patch of the briar but Mook was sure he could
take him even with his almost decade head start into the downhill years. But it’d
never come to that. They weren’t brawlers; they were working men. More anvil
than hammer really.

Mook was just putting on his boots when there was a flurry of hard raps at
the door. Quird as usual didn’t wait to be let in.

“There’s the old gruff,” he said to Mook as he bounded up to him with a


smile. Mook clenched his teeth but nodded as pleasantly as he could before
thinking of a response.

“Saw you through the glass,” he said. “Looking like a man who’d just found
buried treasure.” Quird laughed.

“Every day’s a treasure captain!” he replied before glancing over at a


spectating Mrs. Pearler. “Happy Woesday to you Mrs. Pearler,” chirped Quird. “Not
wasting the day at all are ya!” Mrs. Pearler seemed to fluster a little bit as she tried
wiping some of the flour off her hands with her apron.

“Just trying to do my part Mr. Cunes,” she said with a blush. “Us wives always
have plenty to do while our men are who knows where.” Quird shrugged his
shoulders comically in Mr. Pearler’s direction before looking back at the man’s wife.

“Well, Mr. Pearler most certainly is a lucky fella,” he proclaimed and Mrs.
Pearler blushed again while feigning to wave away the compliment.

“We’ll see how the day goes,” answered Mook with a grunt as he put on his
sealskin jacket.

There was a lull in conversation as Mook searched a shelf drawer for the pipe
he seemed to recall leaving there. Still looking, he asked Quird a question a few
seconds later.
“Get the net?” Quird gestured in light hearted dismissal despite not having
Mook’s attention.

”Of course captain. It’s hanging off the boat as we speak. I mean, I wouldn’t
let you down now would I?”

Mook exhaled sharply through his nostrils “Right,” was all he said before
finding the pipe a moment later. He’d started to hate the way Quird said “captain.”
Like there was a private joke in it or something. And Mr. Pearler had loved being
called captain once. Back when he and Mrs. Pearler still chased each other around
like starlings, she would call him captain, dripping the title like honey into his ears.
But those days were long gone and it was no use moaning about them. Walking
over to his wife, he surprised her with a quick peck on the cheek and then squeezed
her hand and turned to leave. She looked at Quird awkwardly for a moment before
recovering.

“When’ll you be back?” she asked. Mook stopped at the door and exhaled.

“Twelve hours past the noon or thereabouts,”” he said, meaning twenty


hours hence or a full two thirds of the thirty hour day. When it would be dark then.

The men walked out together into the chill of the morning. Both of them put
their hands in their pockets as Mook noted that Quird was pensive and silent. Well
that’s a nice spell of change, thought Mook. Moving briskly, the pair soon left
behind the Pearler’s apartment in the Angle District, so called because of the
random layout of its streets and correspondingly odd shaped buildings, and crossed
over into the Port District. Sailors and longshoreman, mostly human but with the
occasional dwarf or orc, attended to the hoists and cranes as cargo was unloaded
from as far away as Equatoria. Here and there were also various scoundrels and
scavengers recovering from their earlier nightly exploits but the cold and the
morning hours quelled any lust for trouble in their hearts and they mostly went
about in huddled quietude. No, the only sounds were industry and the cries of
seagulls which everyone there was so used to they barely even heard them
anymore. As Mook and Quird made their way through a throng of day-laborers
waiting on a dwarf foreman checking his ledger while standing on a crate, they were
greeted with the unwelcome sight of Alga Strimer.
You couldn’t imagine her young. You couldn’t imagine her clean. She was as
rancid a witch as they came. Picture a piece of dead wood pulled from a swamp
that was shaped like a human woman. Then cover this in rags and dangling oyster
shells and cat skins before finishing it off with raven eyes and a tangled bramble of
dreadlocks. Also her nails looked like long twisting yellow roots and she was
barefoot so you could see all twenty four of them. Worse for Mook and Quird as
they approached, she recognized the men. Alga Strimer lived in a shanty she’d built
under one of the docks and all the fisherman did their best to avoid it. This included
Mook and Quird but apparently fortune was against them today.

“More bones for the sea eh?” she cackled. “The great mother’s always
hungry!” Neither of the men said anything but Quird made a sign with his hand he
hoped would ward off her powers. Alga just laughed at this and, pulling on the chain
of a two foot tall imp she had in a collar, she addressed the creature.

“Have a peek Vexly! You’ll not see them both again!” Vexly, a little red devil
with clawed feet and hands, a goblinesque head, and two purple veined bat wings,
obeyed. Then he smiled and the mouth that did this was filled with rows of scorpion
stingerish teeth. Mook and Quird needed no further encouragement; they
hastened away as inconspicuously as they could, checking more than once over
their shoulders as they did to make sure they’d left the witch far behind. Then Quird
began to stammer in Mook’s direction.

“Uh, I have to uh, see about something. At my hostel. Won’t be long though.”
For a second Mook failed to react.

“What!” he said with a scowl as he finally realized what he’d just heard. But
it was too late. Quird was already sprinting down the street, away from whatever
it was that awaited him out on the water.

After sending a shower of glass flying with an angry kick to an empty bottle
of Golem’s Blood Rum, Mook continued on his way. Of course! he thought. Couldn’t
do it on his own time! Mook was still seething when he reached the fisherman’s
wharf. At the sight of his own boat however his mood picked up a bit, as it always
did. There she was, all eighteen feet of her. The Regal Swan. Not the name he’d
have chosen personally but that’s what she was called when he bought her and
Mook Pearler was scrupulous when it came to superstition. You don’t rename a
ship that’s had as good a run as hers. Looking lovingly at the boat like it were a
daughter, Mook noted with relief that Quird hadn’t lied about the net. Deuce’s urn!
What was he doing then? Mook spat into the sea as he climbed about his ship. Well,
all I can do is get ready and see if he shows up. Heading out on his own however
would’ve been a considerable challenge so Mook didn’t prepare as fast as he might
have and frequently indulged the sights of nearby distractions. As he was sweating
away at his bilge pump for example, he gazed with a judgemental eye at the quintet
of leisurely attired patricians taking a sailing vessel out for a romp. In the middle of
the week? In this weather? Anyone who lived so idly had to be a cad, he thought.
The waves seemed to take mirth in this, in his private misery, and splashed around
the boat with glee.

“Blast you too,” he muttered and then turned to coil some loose rope.
Despite working as slowly as his conscience would allow, Mook Pearler was still by
himself when he finished with all the preparations he could attend to. Might as well
have a smoke, he decided as he pulled out his pipe and began stuffing it with
tobacco. He had just gotten it going properly when a large shadow flew over him.
The darkness didn’t even last a second but it was enough to get his attention and,
looking skyward, he soon found the drake banking a hundred yards to the right.
Probably an eighty footer, he mused to himself. I wouldn’t do that though, ride one
of those things. As a child Mook had met a drake wrangler and the man had only
one hand and a half a face. It was enough to leave a lasting impression. Got to credit
those city warders though, he continued as he noted the silver gleam of the rider’s
armor. Sometimes they’re all that keeps us from falling into orc-dom.

Quird appeared thirty minutes after Mook set foot on deck. The man seemed
to have recovered himself and Mook, eager to get underway, commented on his
vanishing act with the sparest of venom. Working the rigging of the sails together
while Mook simultaneously went back and forth from the helm, they maneuvered
their way efficiently through the other ships in the area and set out for open waters.
A wall of dilapidated tenement housing to their left, in the east, stood at the shore
of Gaol Island like exhausted alms seekers pleading to them, but Mook gave this as
much attention as he would actual beggars and steered his speeding craft true
south and then west, past the southern edge of his own Angle District borough.
Mook noted with satisfaction that the chop of the sea had softened a bit since
earlier and the two crew of the Regal Swan soon found themselves in a decent
location off the small, lighthouse topped island of Senfrey. A dunce’s cap, Mook
recalled. A warning. Again, this was not a witticism of his own invention but one
he’d heard from an elderly oarsman once, during his junior years aboard a galley
barge. Mook Pearler now was ready to order the anchor thrown but, after doing
so, he observed a snag up the main mast. As he went and stood under this, he
craned his neck so he could study the problem. It was a pulley, caught in one of the
mast rungs. He could climb up and take care of it himself but he might as well get
something for his coin out of Quird.

“Mr. Cunes!” he shouted with a hint of wicked zeal. “There’s a snare here
begging your enthusiasms!” Quird wiped his brow and made his way over in a series
of grabs along the rail while the Regal Swan listed against the tug of its anchor.

“I see it,” he said with a furrowed face and then began clambering up the
mast. Mook remained at the bottom, prepared to stand vigil, when he noticed a
trivial little detail that struck him with calamity. Indeed, it was a disaster as horrible
as any the sea could summon but this one didn’t have any involvement of storm or
water. Rather it was simply this; Quird Cunes had flour on the buttocks of his pants.

With sudden brutal clarity, Mook realized what this meant and he had to
hold himself up by one of the mast rungs to keep himself standing.

“Don’t be touching the pies!” he heard his scolding wife say. Ah! But Quird
had been having his share of pie alright! He was getting his fill, no doubt about that!
Suddenly everything made sense. Quird’s behavior, his wife’s recent distance. And
all this time he’d been happily playing the part of the fool. What a world! A pair of
angry tears now swelled in the corners of Captain Pearler’s eyes but he quickly had
to wipe them away as Quird Cunes descended from on high. The man landed with
a thud and stood there brushing off his hands for a moment.

“Easy enough Captain!” volunteered Quird with a grin. “You’ve just got to
know how to handle the old gal!” Mook could only stare at him with seething
disbelief before turning and stumbling away.

“Curse you,” muttered Mook to the deity. Maker of crap is what you are. He
was leaning on the railing at the prow of the Regal Swan, staring at the lighthouse
across the waves. Quird, having absolutely no idea what was going on with the
crazy albatross, coped with his confusion by baiting and throwing traps. For over
an hour they said nothing to each other as Quird worked and Mook fumed. Mook
thought about killing Quird outright but it was still too decisive an action for him
and, after a couple of hours fantasizing about it, he would eventually admit to
himself that he didn’t have enough ice in his heart to murder the man cold. In the
meantime though he contemplated other scenarios. He thought about confronting
the miserable cuckolder on the boat but didn’t want to deal with whatever that
would unleash for the rest of the day. He thought about when he got home to see
his wife; what would he say then? And, more importantly, what would she say? She
couldn’t turn it around on him. Well, he couldn’t see how. Also, there was what
other people would say since he knew that once he exposed the fact he’d
discovered the affair, word would get around. Or maybe it already had? Could he
have been the last one to figure it out? In a flash of fevered paranoia, Mook ran his
mind through the interactions he’d had over the past few weeks but nothing he
could remember confirmed this fear. No. The treachery of his wife and partner had
not only destroyed his marriage, it’d stranded him on a ship of sinking uncertainties
and no matter what he chose the outcome would be bad for him. Even if he just
went home, packed his stuff and left, he still couldn’t escape the consequences of
their actions. He had no family besides a brother locked up in Squidings; there was
nowhere for him to go. Sighing and then rubbing his hands together for warmth,
Mook realized the only power he had in this situation was when he himself was
going to dump the bubbling pot of tar on his own head. When he was going to pour
the mess over his life. That was it, thought Mook. That’s all I’ve got left. Oh, for
sure, he’d have it out with Mrs. Pearler and Mr. Cunes at some point, preferably
one on one, but he wouldn’t let their adultery force his hand. He would control how
it happened. When it happened. Gazing over at a now aimless Quird pretending to
look for things to do, Mook Pearler made a decision and approached.

“Time to throw in the net,” he said to his startled partner.

They worked together that day better than they ever had before. Quird,
realizing Mr. Pearler was grappling with something immense but being otherwise
clueless and unwilling to broach the matter, clung to the tasks he was given like
they were driftwood in deep water. Mostly he didn’t even want to look at the
captain; Quird, a man whose main concern in life was making sure he enjoyed
himself, didn’t have the experience or inclination to engage anyone in matters of
serious emotion. He was the sort of guy who made excuses about missing funerals
and he was content to live his whole life that way. Mook for his part was as
perfunctory as a gear in a machine, moving only as the external forces of necessity
demanded. When he brought traps up out of the depths, he didn’t care what was
inside and so he just threw their contents in the hold or tossed them back into the
sea out of indifferent obedience to memory. Such small whims of fate had
momentarily lost their sway over him and and it was with apathetic surprise that,
as he checked the relative positions of the sun and moon with his compass, he
realized it was five hours past the noon; five hours into the evening. He told his wife
he’d be back past twelve but that was with two hours added for a stop at the
Sunken Hull. So really five hours of fishing was left for them minus the time it’d take
to get home. Quird was examining a horned helmet covered in rust and barnacles
they’d dredged when he caught Mook looking at him and discarded it into the
water.

“I’m goin’ ta take her in closer to the mainland,” said Mook to Quird. “There’s
a spot there that hasn’t been touched in a while.” Quird nodded.

“I’ll go up front to keep an eye out.” A sensible course of action, thought


Mook as he steered his boat starboard so they’d be facing into the waves when
they cast anchor. This he did in a wide arc and, after travelling somewhere over two
thirds of a large circle, he motioned to Quird to go ahead and drop the chain. This
Mr. Cunes did immediately, knocking down the lever of the anchor mechanism with
a loud thwack and sending its weight rattling into the abyss. Or so they both
thought. Instead it hit something on its way down and that something rose up in a
furor to meet them.

Quird shouted as soon as he saw the surge in the water and Mook was
already halfway to him when the serpent reared its head. Or at least it appeared to
be a serpent at first. Then it became two and three, and long finned tentacles began
to coil around the railings. Therefore it was not a serpent; it was a hydra. Now, in
general, hydras aren’t found in that region of the Thalassic, and are really only
frequent around the eastern shores of distant Panhallia but, unfortunately for the
two men, their day had just decided to veer into the extraordinary. And, other than
a briefly precarious encounter with a pair of feuding water elementals in the month
of Perspis, the crew of the Regal Swan hadn’t seen any danger all season. As such
it certainly couldn’t be said that they were in peak fighting form.
They did have some luck however. The hydra was a juvenile so it couldn’t
simultaneously attack them from both sides. In fact its fray of snapping heads could
not even reach half-way over the deck and its tentacles were ineffective beyond
latching on to the ship’s railing. Using this to their advantage, as well as a pair of
seven foot hook-poles, the two fishermen held the beast at bay and the contest
settled into a stalemate. They knew they couldn’t kill it; any flesh they destroyed
would just regenerate unless it was cauterized and this was too big a job for Mook’s
meager pipe flint. Their only hope then was to flee but, even if they raised the
anchor, the hydras tentacles would still have them in its clutches. What they
needed was a plan. Mook recognized this though so among the bouts of frantic
swinging and alarmed yells, he went about giving the matter some thought. In fact,
it was only moments later, as Mr. Cunes happened to be briefly thrown to the deck
while hanging on to a hook-pole embedded in the monster’s flesh, that Mr. Pearler
realized the utter simplicity of their situation. Pull anchor, lock the steer, and
assault the beast until it went away.

“Mr. Cunes!” he shouted to Quird as the man scrambled to his feet. “I know
what needs to be done!” Panting as he swept some disheveled hair out of his eyes,
Quird Cunes was eager to hear it.

“I’m faster at the winch,” continued Mook, “So I’ll handle that. Meanwhile
you distract the creature so it doesn’t come around at me and then once I’m done
I’ll put the steer on a course and we’ll repel the fiend for good!”

Although not especially enthusiastic about the part where he’d be facing the
hydra alone, the Captain’s promise to get rid of the thing had enormous appeal and
Quird was persuaded by the sureness with which he declared it. Making a fist in a
gesture of solidarity and determination, Quird then went grimly towards his task as
Mook turned around and set to work on the winch. This took just over a minute
and, fixing the steer, even less time, so soon Mook was right beside his partner;
battling the hydra’s dozen fanged mouths and prying at its coiled tentacles. Helped
by the drag of the water as the Regal Swan picked up speed, both the men were
amazed to find themselves making steady progress. Moments later they were even
standing together on the precipice of victory with the hydra, now mostly
submerged, clinging in vain frustration against the hull. Quird, elated, leaned over
the railing to try and jab the creature fully away.
“We’re almost free Captain!” he shouted excitedly. Here, at the last second,
Mook had a spontaneous change of heart. Grabbing Quird around the knees, Mook
lifted him up and tumbled him overboard. On the way down, Mr. Cunes was kind
enough to dislodge the hydra by colliding with it but proceeded to disappear under
the water after doing so. Mook watched for a moment as the rippling area of the
sea where Quird landed began to float away; then the man came thrashing to the
surface. “Mook! What have you done!?”

Surprising himself, Mook roared with laughter. “I’ll tell Mrs. Pearler you
made off with a mermaid!” he promised before punctuating this with a maniacal
whoop.

Captain Pearler didn’t immediately leave the area; he made sure he saw the
man who’d been giving his wife the rod, wrapped up in the hydra’s tentacles before
doing so. Then he headed home. We’ve had enough drama for one day, he thought.
The weather had calmed hours earlier but now at last he could enjoy it. Sort of.
Mook still wasn’t sure what he was going to do about Mrs. Pearler but at least the
two of them hadn’t got the best of him. He’d won. And despite the fact that his
marriage was a fraud, there was satisfaction in this. Chaos had been held back at
the gates. Later, nearing the harbor front of Alchemist City, Mook pictured Quird,
as he must be now, torn to pieces inside the hydra. The thought made him smile.
No more dividing the spoils, he mused. A seagull riding on an updraft shrieked here
and Mook admired it with a benevolent eye. Ah! I wish I could be as free as you my
friend, he thought. Soon however Captain Pearler returned to shore, and all he said
by way of explanation on arrival was.

“A monster got him.”


CONFIDING IN ORACLES

The sorceress had a conservatory at the top of her tower. Consisting of a


single glass dome encompassing the entire eighteenth floor, the room was quite
simply stunning. Beyond its large triangular panels fashioned by the finest gnome
craftsman, the city sprawled in quiet panorama and an ample helping of arresting
sights lay there before the viewer’s discretion. An assortment of towers belonging
to other eminent wizards and the citadels of large corporations made up the rest
of the immediate vicinity but these did not obscure the sights of landmarks like the
Altar Sanctum or the great river Sybeles and, in the opposite direction, the Thalassic
Sea reached across the entire southern horizon and upwards, ascending with the
curve of the inner surface of Orb’s sphere. Far smaller in scope but still fascinating,
the contents of the conservatory were equally available for inspection. Most of
these ringed the outer edge of the marble floor; here newt farms rested beside
cages of mycotoxin-cultivating rabbits and potted mandrakes stood next to tidy
bookshelves stuffed with hardcover esoterica. There were other treasures and
wonders too but most notable was a plant at the very center of it all. Pythonesque
vines as thick as an adult man’s thighs spilled out in every direction across the floor
surrounding its truncated axial stalk. A three step recess in the ground contained
this all in a twenty foot diameter area and that was furthermore sectioned off by a
short gilded railing. The plant itself then had two other distinctive attributes readily
perceived from behind this. One was a plethora of flower bundles resembling
azaleas, but iridescent, and subtly drifting along a spectrum of luminous colors. The
other, less numerous, were immense green flaps fringed with tender spines; these
periodically opening and closing as softly as pairs of butterfly wings.

That morning when she arrived for work, Axiana Spranger headed straight
for the top as usual. Friarsdays were cleaning days and she preferred to do the
tower floors in descending order so she wouldn’t be climbing stairs at the end of
the day when she was tired. The lone apprentice to her mistress, the famed Huria
Crimsory, she had several hours of chores ahead of her but it was a trivial weekly
sacrifice for the chance to soak up the wisdom of one of the Landings countries’
greatest magic users. At least that was the theory. In the nine months she’d been
employed by Mistress Crimsory though she’d learned nothing in terms of spells or
insights from working there and all her progress in the arcane arts had come in
private and secrecy. At least it’ll look good on my application to the Arcaneum next
autumn, thought Axiana. She’d already decided that her apprenticeship would be
a temporary one so she wasn’t distressed by the situation and simply went about
her tasks as one confident that gates to more glorious opportunities would soon be
opening. It wasn’t like her days were hard, just tedious, and she was young and
eager for adventure. Naturally the city was more exciting than the medium-sized
town near Lake Argeno where she grew up but she had convinced her parents to
let her study here in the hopes of something greater. Reaching the conservatory
now, Axiana emerged from the spiral staircase in the floor singing gently to herself
as she made her customary first stop at the dissection table. There assorted
instruments had been left out haphazardly as a result of her mistress’ experiments
the previous evening and she reorganized these as she’d been instructed to while
also disposing of some specimens, both vegetable and animal, which were marked
for her as failures. Quite unprecedented however was the mirror resting there
rather than its normal place on a distant mantle and, picking it up by the handle to
go return it, Axiana couldn’t resist looking at herself for a moment. Pale from years
of cloistering herself in libraries, her skin had only the odd mahogany freckle but
she knew them all and eyed them warily like a teacher might a room of suspiciously
quiet pupils. Don’t go multiplying, she’d think. Her nose too, while petit and elegant
on its own merits, seemed disconcertingly larger in her own mind and she could
only look at it for so long before sighing and moving on. These eyes though she
liked, two turquoise lagoons, and the pink rose petals of her lips also provided some
measure of satisfaction. As for her hair, it was a constant and arduous battle. The
color of a fox’s tail, it was almost as wild, and so she combed it twice a day and
braided it every morning simply to keep it from open rebellion. Last of all before
replacing the mirror, she took a minute to scrutinize the sterling circlet she was
wearing; a gift from her mistress. No, gift wasn’t the right word. Safeguard maybe?
She could recall with perfect clarity the words which had sent a chill through her.
“What’s this for mistress?” she’d asked.

“To protect you, my dear, from the towers other residents,” came the sober
reply. And still she’d yet to see any.

That morning she wouldn’t either but an accident would set in motion a
change in circumstances which eventually would. Only three floors into her queue,
she stumbled off the stool she’d been standing on and landed with a thump. Why
do you have to be so difficult, she thought as she scowled at the unfinished golem
she’d been trying to wipe down. It made no attempt to apologize though so she
gave it no more mind and got up to brush herself off. It was then however that she
realized her circlet was missing.

“Mercy!” she yelped, as her eyes began to frantically dart around the room.
How could it just disappear!? Her answer came when, searching next to the
descending staircase, she saw something gleaming on the next floor down. Ah! A
bit of elfish trickery hmmm? Scurrying to go pick it up, she was dismayed to find
that it’d been broken in the fall. The narrow band of metal was completely severed
in one segment and the circlet as a whole was now only a misleading approximation
of one. It’s not even noticeable though, mused Axiana as she tried to console
herself. I’ll wear it as is for the rest of the day and get it fixed on the way home.
There was a blacksmith not more than two blocks from the public dormitory where
she resided, a kind good-natured man who always heartily welcomed her whenever
she stopped by to visit, and she had no doubt he’d mend it for her at no cost and
as quickly as an enchanter with their wand at that. So this is what she did, because
what else could she do? Tell her mistress? And have the great Huria Crimsory think
of her as a clumsy fool? Unacceptable. She could handle this on her own, provided
the sorceress didn’t find out and, that evening when she said goodbye to Mistress
Crimsory, the deceptively young looking expert in the arcane barely even noticed
her, let alone the circlet.

After a Satyrsday where a phantasmagoric party on the river shore made her
late for curfew, and led to her getting a lecture from the madam of the Spirit of
Chastity Dormitory for Upstanding Ladies, it was right back to life as an apprentice
the coming Sunsday. With her repaired circlet of course. A largely uneventful week
followed though and Friarsday came again. Repeating her cleaning routine, she
began in the conservatory and for a while everything was the same as it always
was. Then she started to feel a curious vibration in the air, like standing near a hive
of bees. Only it wasn’t many vibrations, it was just one. She glanced around but
couldn’t discern the source of it. How strange, she thought, but it was worse than
that and she could feel her nerves fraying as the vibration intensified. Here it
abruptly stopped and, despite telling herself it was nothing, she exhaled with great
relief. Meaning to focus on her work now she tried to do just that when she was
interrupted suddenly by an unknown voice.

“Never thorns, always flowers.” Spinning around in fear, she stared with fully
widened eyes expecting an intruder and finding none.

“Who’s there!?” she demanded but no reply was forthcoming. She waited
for a moment in the eerie calm that followed before calling out again. “If someone’s
around, answer!” Still nothing.

Axiana then cautiously checked a couple of floors below but she found
neither a person nor any sign of one. Lady Aca, protect me from evil spirits, she
prayed. As troubled as she was by all this however, she didn’t want to have to face
the displeasure of Mistress Crimsory if she didn’t finish her work on time today.

“What’s this!?” she recalled her mistress asking acidly the earlier Twinsday.

“That’s the seal of Master Starlings, Mistress,” she answered after a brief
look at the unopened scroll. “

So why wasn’t I immediately informed of its arrival?” demanded the


sorceress. It wasn’t that Huria Crimsory ever erupted in anger (No, she was too self-
possessed for that) but she could carve you up with a few sharp words and an
arched eyebrow if she was even slightly dissatisfied with your performance.
Conscious of this, Axiana steeled herself and returned to the atrium.

“Left to wait the endless hours,” poured the voice again. This time she didn’t
cry out, whirling only in silence where once more she found herself alone.
Crimsory’s apprentice now tried to rush through her tasks but she wasn’t fast
enough.

“If asked but once they could speak, the two atop the tower’s peak.” A devil
of riddles it is, fumed Axiana. Switching from fright to irritation here, she yelled

“Will you stop that!” A reply of sorts arrived after a pause.

“And how many times have I listened to her talk to herself?” Axiana didn’t
quite know what to say to this.

“Who are you?” she asked finally.

“Ah!” began the pleased response. “Very nearly a polite question. Maybe
there’s hope for you Ms. Spranger. But has she really not told you about me? Of
course not. She’s never been one to share.” Axiana’s eyes searched the room but
she still couldn’t pinpoint where the voice was coming from. It seemed to fill the
whole dome.

“I hear you,” the apprentice confessed, “But I can’t see you.” The air trilled
with a velvety laugh.

“I beg to differ,” the voice replied. “I can feel your eyes on me every time
you’re here.” Axiana remained baffled and her mysterious counterpart tried again.
“I’m the one who’s always in the same place. I’m her favorite prisoner.” At last the
apprentice clued in.

“You!” she gasped, as she addressed the gargantuan plant that dominated
the center of the conservatory.

“Mistress Crimsory certainly did tell me about you,” Axiana went on. “She
said I wasn’t to go anywhere near you. That it was absolutely forbidden.” The plant
absorbed this news without any apparent reaction; the usual color play of its
glowing flowers not seeming to be affected in the slightest.

“Did she say you couldn’t speak to me?” asked the plant eventually.
“No,” squirmed Axiana unsurely. “My mistress didn’t even say you could
speak.” This answer satisfied the plant.

“Well, that settles that then. If it was important, she would have mentioned
it. To even raise the matter with her would imply a lapse in judgement on her part.
It would be tantamount to an accusation of neglect. Or senility. And trust me, you
don’t want to go anywhere near the second one of those. She’s very touchy about
her age.” Axiana Spranger gulped at the mere thought of doing anything remotely
like that.

“It must be okay, mustn’t it?” she asked herself out loud. “The mistress was
quite specific when it came to everything else.” The plant hummed in approval.

“Excellent logic,” it said. “And anyways, don’t bother yourself too much
about old dour Huria. In all her centuries I doubt she’s even had a day’s worth of
fun. Mostly I think she just makes rules for others because she doesn’t know how
to be free herself.” It all made sense, mused Axiana. Everything the plant says. But
something didn’t feel right.

“How come you’ve never spoken before?” asked the young woman
suddenly, a hint of accusation in her words. The plant however was unperturbed.

“Have you not met the sorceress Ms. Spranger?” it retorted. “Do you think
she’d indulge my need for harmless conversation while she’s absorbed in her
vicious little experiments? Obviously not. Any time I grow a vocal organ now she
just snips it off. It’s the most casual of cruelties really. Ah, but you’re different. It
took me a few months to figure out what sort you are but I know now you’re a kind
and compassionate young woman. Someone who doesn’t begrudge a helpless
plant’s need for companionship.”

The entire time the plant had been speaking here, Axiana was studying the
aforementioned vocal organ. It was an apparently freshly budded appendage,
resembling a melon in size and shape, protruding from the top of the plant’s
truncated stalk. It had not been there when Axiana first arrived that day.

“You seem to know much about me,” she replied, “And I nothing of you. Do
you have a name?” The light from the plant’s flowers visibly brightened.
“I am called Oracle.”

At first she found speaking to a plant surreal. Axiana had heard of talking
trees and mushroom men of course but she’d never met any in real life. Soon
though it was as natural as anything. And surprisingly easy; Oracle was very
enjoyable company. The plant spoke so eloquently and listened so attentively that
in no time at all, Axiana was sitting on the outside of the railing around its
enclosure, beaming as she listened to its stories and sharing details from her own
considerably less exciting life. Every time she mentioned one of her problems too,
Oracle was ready with the most insightful advice. Axiana hadn’t talked like this with
anyone in ages. Maybe ever. It was with considerable regret then that, looking up
beyond the conservatory dome at the moon’s position in the sky, she realized
something like an hour must have passed in only a few frolicking minutes.

“I’ve been under a spell!” she exclaimed. “The mistress will turn me into a
troll if she finds out I’ve been dawdling.” Oracle laughed.

“Don’t torment yourself for her sake,” the plant continued. “She’s not nearly
as attentive to her things as you might think. That bookshelf across the room for
example, the one you carefully dust every Friarsday, she hasn’t read anything from
it in decades.” Axiana looked at the shelf and then back at Oracle.

“How do you know so much?” the apprentice asked. The light of her
counterpart’s flowers almost seemed to blush. “Oh, many ways,” the plant replied.
“I even divine things from time to time.”

Axiana’s mouth opened involuntarily in amazement. “You mean, like the


future?” she inquired cautiously before accepting the idea in a flash and adding,
“Please tell me mine!” The plant hummed and hawed as it considered this request
before finally relenting.

“I’ll say this. You’ll only be a servant for a short time. Then you’ll become a
part of something greater.” She knew it!

“Thank you, kindly Oracle,” she gushed. “Talking to you today has really
helped a lot.” The plant murmured in agreement.
“The same to you,” it said. “And who knows, maybe a situation might arise
one day where you can help me. But actually, there is one thing…” As Oracle trailed
off into an uncertain silence, Axiana sensed an anxiety in the plant.

“What is it?” she said as gently as she could.

“It’s just that, she’s so brutal with her clippers,” answered the plant, “And I
know if she finds out I’ve grown another vocal organ, she’s simply going to chop it
off.” The wickedness of such a thing, thought Axiana.

“Say no more,” she insisted. “Given that you’ve kept so many of my secrets,
it’s only right that I keep one of yours.”

Later in the same day, deep in evening when work was well behind her and
the moon was once more encroaching on the face of the sun, Axiana reflected on
all that had happened. Finally something magical, she thought, as she sat on the
edge of her bed and took dainty spoonfuls from a bowl of hickory garbanzo soup.
The private room her dormitory provided was modest and austere but tonight it
didn’t have the mildly depressing quality it usually did. Her imagination was alive!
Meeting Oracle felt like it had brought her to a threshold of wonderful possibilities.
A new and unknown world almost. Even meeting Mistress Crimsory and securing
the apprenticeship hadn’t been this thrilling. It was a new dawn for her but
unfortunately not one that was entirely free of dismal clouds. To treat Oracle so
poorly! Over the last several months it was quite apparent that the sorceress was
not a particularly warm person but Axiana wouldn’t have thought she’d be capable
of such malice. To keep an intelligent creature that isolated… it was downright
villainous. And actually Oracle was more than a mere creature; Oracle was a being
of great wisdom. Yes, she would try and find some way to help them; she was
certain of it. At the moment though she had no idea how she could, so she
somewhat reluctantly returned to the current object of her self-imposed reading
program. It was an issue from one of last year’s Gnosticomnia; a quarterly
periodical published by the Arcaneum. They were actually rather difficult to get a
hold of, copies being in limited circulation and fiendishly guarded, but she had
prevailed on a friend whose uncle was a warlock and professor at the Star Citadel
Academy to “borrow” it for her and let her have it for a few days. As if its rarity
wasn’t enough to impede the free distribution of knowledge, its articles were often
written in archaic strains of Imperial and then further veiled with highly symbolic
language. But Axiana would change all that; she had no doubt of this. When she
became a full-fledged enchantress and had influence over how things worked, she
would make enlightening humanity in the mystic arts one of her foremost priorities.
Once she had her own tower and her name was praised across the Lowlands, she
would use that fame for the benefit of others. She could host symposiums for
instance and have the foremost experts in fields like alchemy and levitation give
lectures on their respective specialties for the education of the ordinary and
mundane. True, even a basic spell of illumination was still a challenge for her, but
being adept would come with practice. Surely this was what Oracle was speaking
of when they alluded to her destiny. If only success wasn’t so far off! Here Axiana
returned to her soup and article, staring at the thickets of words in black ink while
stellar dreams danced in the background of her mind.

She had to wait a whole week before she got a chance to speak to Oracle
again. The next Friarsday however she made sure to get up several hours early and
fidgeted her entire ride into the city as she sat among the weary masons and
seamstresses she shared that morning’s commute with on a packed twenty seat
carriage. When she reached Mistress Crimsory’s tower, the giant who stood sentry
barely had time to winch the portcullis before she flew in under its iron gate and
dashed for the stairs. Never before had there seemed to be so many but gradually
she got closer and closer to the eighteenth floor and the awaiting conservatory.
Slowing down as she neared the second to last set of stairs, Axiana recalled some
of the topics she had thought about introducing into their next conversation. How
old was Oracle? Had they always lived in the tower? Were there others of their kind
like them with the same powers of thought and speech or were they the result of
a singular magical event? There was so much Axiana was curious about but, as she
made her way to the final set of stairs, she took a second to reproach herself. Don’t
smother them in prying questions. Nobody likes that. Make sure you act interested
but not over eager. As her head ascended above the floor line of the conservatory
though, she couldn’t help but immediately glance in Oracle’s direction. They really
are beautiful, she thought. I can’t believe I stopped noticing that after only a few
months. Doing her best to hide her excitement, Axiana made her way over to
Oracle’s enclosure hoping the plant would speak to her first. When it didn’t she bit
one of the corners of her bottom lip as she tried to think of the right way to begin.
Best to just keep it simple.
“Morning Oracle,” she said softly and with a brief but noticeable hesitation.
The plant did not immediately respond but then its vocal organ unfurled from a
hidden cavity.

“Ah, Ms. Spranger,” they replied. “A pleasure ahead of schedule.” Axiana


smiled with happiness and relief as she explained.

“There’s lots of work to do today,” she exaggerated before capitulating.


“And, um, I wanted to make sure we had time to talk again.” Her counterpart’s
flowers pulsed with delight.

“How nice of you to think of me,” said Oracle. “I won’t lie, this last week was
utterly dreadful. Barely even a sparrow song the entire time. I trust yours though
was much better.” Axiana furrowed her brow in thought.

“Not really,” she confided. “I spent most of my free time planted, or uh I


should say seated, at my desk. Studying.” Axiana rebuked herself inwardly for her
thoughtless gaffe but Oracle didn’t react to this. Instead their curiosity was aroused
by something else she’d said.

“You mean magic?” asked the plant before adding, “Can you tell me about
it?” This question came as a big surprise to the apprentice.

“You want… me, to teach… you, about magic?” she marvelled. “But you’re
so well versed in, I mean, everything. What could I share that you don’t already
know?” Oracle seemed to hum with mirth but then responded rather more
seriously.

“It’s somewhat embarrassing to be honest,” they began. “The truth is, I’ve
been fairly neglectful of the arcane. Anything you can tell me about it would be
immensely appreciated. Even the most basic things.” Ms. Spranger was amazed.

“Of course,” she blurted. “I could summarize the hexagogue curriculum I


suppose. It’s what I was taught and it’s probably the most widely practiced among
the academic systems of magic.” Oracle found this to be a most welcome
suggestion.
“Please do,” they said before withdrawing into anticipatory silence.

“Okay then,” Axiana began. She was on the verge of giddiness at finding
herself in the unexpected position of instructing one she so admired. This was not
how she thought this was going to go at all!

“Um, probably the best place to start is the nature of magic itself. The most
common definition of it is that it’s the ability to shape the world through acts of
will. A mage is someone who’s learned techniques for doing this and can utilize
these themselves. There’s actually a, I guess you’d call it, hierarchy of those with
various levels of proficiency…” At this point Oracle politely interrupted.

“So, is this what humans refer to as arcana then?” they asked.

“Well technically,” explained Axiana, “Arcana is the body of knowledge built


from magical experimentation. Sometimes magic and arcana are used
interchangeably though. But that actually brings me right to the hexagogue system
I learned. It divides magic into six classes; um, psyomancy, the arcana of telepathy
and extra perceptions, elemancy, the arcana of manipulating elemental forces,
necromancy, the arcana of controlling the dead and inducing vital effects,
conjuration, the arcana of summoning entities and powers, transmutation, the
arcana of altering entities and imbuing them with magical effects, and uh
invocation, the arcana of soliciting aid from the higher realms.” Here she’d been
counting off the different classes of magic on the fingers of her left hand and ended
finally on her right pinky. Then she found she had to suddenly inhale deeply
because she’d been forgetting to breathe the whole time.

“Wow, it sounds quite complicated,” remarked an evidently impressed


Oracle. “And you can do all that?” Axiana laughed in a gush of of untapped self-
deprecation but also with a hint of wistfulness.

“Oh no Oracle,” she replied smiling. “I’m just a novice. Right now the most I
can do is see auras if I really concentrate or bend a beam of light.” The plant’s
flowers glowed with apparent appreciation at her candor.

“So no summoning swords out of thin air yet?” they teased affably. “Or
shooting fire from your fingertips?” Axiana blushed.
“Nothing of the sort sadly,” she said. “Why? Do you need a fire?” At this
question the plant seemed to shiver.

“Summer forbid,” they said. “My kind are very happy not to be near any
gluttonous fires thank you.”

Their conversation carried on as it had the previous week, Oracle blossoming


with charm and Axiana thoroughly enraptured. She didn’t even notice when a
griffin veered by only a dozen or so yards above the conservatory’s dome and
instead focused on every word coming out of Oracle as if she were a juggler, in the
middle of a climactic performance, concentrating on the falling pins. Whenever an
opportune moment arose she asked one of the questions she’d collected the
previous week, but she noticed a curious pattern in this. Whenever she sought
advice or inquired about some random topic, Oracle was totally indulgent. Any
attempt however by her to learn more about her new acquaintance seemed to
bring their discourse straight into a bog. They don’t particularly like talking about
themselves, mused Axiana. It was almost starting to trouble her when she abruptly
realized what it was; Oracle had spent so much time alone, absorbed in the prison
of their own solitude, that they were utterly starved for the world outside
themselves. That’s a relief, she thought, but I should set aside any personal
questions for a while then. As young as she was, even she knew that true friends
are as precious as anything and when you meet one you need to keep that in mind.
Getting to know someone is more than just gathering information about them; it’s
attuning yourself to their needs and their preferences. It’s not just listening, it’s
perceiving. With this at the forefront of her thoughts, Axiana decided to go out of
her way to demonstrate how much she cared.

“Is there anything you need Oracle?” the apprentice inquired. The plant’s
flowers glowed with what Axiana interpreted as affection.

“No no, thank you though,” they replied. “I’ll say this in favor of old Huria;
she always makes sure I’m well-watered and the sunlight this room gets couldn’t
be better. I really have nothing to complain about besides tedium. Which your
company of course cures magnificently. Although, and it’s so trivial I only mention
it because you asked, I have been experiencing the strangest itch lately. Little spots
here and there. My vines, my stems, my flaps… It’s quite odd. Never mind though.
In fact, I notice it’s slightly past the time when you usually start your cleaning
rounds. And I don’t want you to get in trouble.”

Axiana was startled and grateful to find that Oracle had caught what she had
missed. So, after several minutes of protracted and mutually pampering goodbyes,
the apprentice got down to work. See, she thought to herself, that’s exactly what I
meant about caring for the needs of others.

Brimming with happy energy after such a great start to her morning.
Axiana took to her tasks like a hummingbird among flowers. A collection of skulls
on the thirteenth floor for example received an impromptu serenade as they were
receiving their weekly polishing and the array of crystal artifacts on the eighth floor
gleamed with her ghostly image as she danced in their midst while sweeping a
straw broom. Today a little toil was no match for her joyful heart and, with
relentless enthusiasm, she demolished her chores one after another until her work
had nearly been finished and the bottom of the tower almost reached. This ecstasy
suddenly turned into dismay though when she cavorted down the steps of the third
floor and unexpectedly found herself confronted by the petrifying glare of one
Huria Crimsory. The sorceress was seated in a wicker lounge chair and the austere
beauty of her regal face was momentarily lifted from the depths of a creosote
colored grimoire as she waited impatiently for her apprentice to explain
themselves.

“Mistress Crimsory!” stammered Axiana. “I… I didn’t see you!” The


sorceress took her time answering.

“That much is quite evident,” she said. “Yet it does nothing to clarify the
prancing manner in which you’re currently rushing through your duties.” Here only
the edge of the axe was being brandished but it was ready to come down in full
force if the ensuing reply proved inadequate. Normally this would’ve been enough
to reduce Axiana to abject submission, but the fire of rebellion spontaneously
swept over her and she responded with a glint of challenge in her words.

“My apologies mistress,” she said. “I didn’t realize a glad spirit could be
offensive.” Now the sorceress was the one who was surprised; her apprentice had,
up until that point, been thoroughly deferential. Huria Crimsory however had done
battle against infernal tyrants and gorgon coven leaders; she wasn’t one to be awed
by a petulant young naïf who grew up in a burgher family in the West Lowlands.

“Is that what that was?” mused the sorceress with a wry smile. “A glad
spirit? Perhaps you’ve decided that in your brief sojourn here you’ve absorbed
everything your apprenticeship has to offer. Which would make this a celebration
I suppose. The triumph of the great Axiana Spranger who accomplished in a few
months what it took her mistress several mortal lifespans.” While not a full
decapitation, this was enough to knock the imaginary crown off Axiana’s head.

“No mistress,” she replied with a sigh. “I was simply feeling unusually
happy.” The implication behind that answer softened Mistress Crimsory slightly.

“I do not mind zeal,” the sorceress continued. “Zeal has its place. But the
heart is, and always will be, a fool Ms. Spranger. Do not think that just because a
river appears gentle or pleasant that it can’t carry you to ruin. Bear this in mind
whenever you find yourself levitating away on some wonderful feeling.”
Chastened, the sorceress’ apprentice bowed her head.

“I’ll try,” she answered. Then, because Huria Crimsory had started to read
her book again, Axiana went to work in the room. This she did in a quietly morose
way and the two had no further interaction until, a while later, Ms. Spranger was
making to leave and Mistress Crimsory spoke up.

“Before you go, take this statue and put it on the shelf by the entrance to
the atrium.” As she said these words, the sorceress held up a small ebony statue of
a raven but instead of handing or throwing it to her apprentice, the statue briefly
came to life and flew across the room into Axiana’s hands. She was mesmerized
and it was the first time her mistress had ever done magic in her presence.

Feeling that there was plenty she had to think about, Axiana decided to take
some of the afternoon off that Satyrsday to go for a walk in Stag Park. An idyllic
location with fields of lush grass and venerable balsam trees, it was situated in the
easternmost region of Lower Domestia against the immemorial city wall known
since the founding as The Battlements. The maroon colored robe she wore had a
cowl but she decided to take a parasol anyways and she twirled this while shading
herself with it among the other upstanding denizens frequenting the park that
afternoon. Mistress Crimsory really wasn’t a bad sort, she thought to herself. This
business with Oracle must be some kind of aberration in her behavior. Maybe the
two had a falling out over something? In any case, it still wouldn’t justify keeping
the poor creature secluded from all other life and society. It was settled then. As
nervous as she was to do so, Axiana Spranger would confront her mistress over the
issue. She realized just as quickly however that it would probably be a good idea to
speak to Oracle first about the matter. Tomorrow, she decided. It was no good to
put it off. Here a flood of warmth washed over her in this newfound resolve. You’re
growing up, she thought as she watched a distinguished looking man in tails and
top hat training a fledgling wyvern.

Sunsday morning she kept the promise she’d made to herself and duly set
out at an early hour for Mistress Crimsory’s tower. There the sentry giant was
surprised to see her since she wasn’t expected at all, but he crouched down and
scratched his head as he tried to make sense of her rambling explanation before
shrugging and letting her in. As she had so many times before, she spiralled her way
up each of the ascending staircases, every step though bringing her closer today to
a moment of fateful resolution. For Oracle however it was simply a pleasant
surprise.

“Ms. Spranger!” they chimed as she made her breathless arrival. “This is
quite early, even for you. I believe Friarsday is still at the opposite end of the
week?” Axiana smiled bashfully at the joke but then recovered her sense of
purpose and launched herself into the matter.

“Oh Oracle,” she began with a certain amount of excess drama. “There’s
something very important I want to discuss with you. But it concerns Mistress
Crimsory.” At the mention of the sorceress’ name, Oracle briefly seemed to panic.

“Why?” asked the plant. “Is she here?” A little perplexed, Axiana
nevertheless answered the question.

“No no no,” she said. “In fact she’s going to be gone all day, at a guild council
I think. No, I merely wanted to talk about going to her to plead on your behalf. To
try and improve your circumstances.“ Oracle required an interval to contemplate
something before it replied.
“Truly?” they said with a trace of epiphany. “Then this really is the perfect
time. Go ahead dear. But actually, if you could just do something for me now. I
think I mentioned an itch that was bothering me before. Well, it’s gotten worse. If
you would scratch me in a few places while we talk? Assuming of course that’s not
too much trouble.” It sounded like nothing at all.

“Far from it,” assured Axiana as she straddled and then hopped over the
enclosure railing. It was her first time doing so and she stood apart unsurely from
Oracle for a moment.

“Could you start on the vine closest to you?” asked the plant. “Yes, that one.
Just give me a gentle scratch around the flower bundle on your left. Yes, there.
Hmmm, that feels very nice. Very nice indeed.” Axiana had never scratched a plant
before, well not intentionally anyways, and she tried to be extremely diligent about
not inflicting even the least amount of damage on her friend. So focused was she
in this that momentarily she forgot her whole reason for being there but,
remembering again, she began to go over the matter.

“The way you’re treated is awful Oracle,” she contended.

“Awful,” purred Oracle in agreement.

“Which is why,” Axiana went on, “I want to confront her about it. With your
permission of course.” The lights of the plant’s flowers flickered rapidly.

“Yes, you certainly have it Ms. Spranger,” they exuded. “But tell me what
you’re planning. And… and if you could move a little farther up the vine. Near where
those flaps are.” Axiana did as she was asked and was about to leap into her
proposal when she noticed the massive flaps beside her open wide, the spines on
their lips flowing in her direction. And then it happened; the flaps whipped towards
her in a flash, lifting her off her feet and swallowing her whole. No trace of the
apprentice then remained.

Snares, she heard her mistress call them once. Many months ago when the
sorceress was entertaining one of her rare guests. It had occurred so swiftly though
that initially Axiana was in a state of pure confusion. Then the horrifying and spirit
crushing realization set in; Oracle had eaten her. She wanted to sob but the instinct
to live made her lash out against the slimy walls of plant flesh pressing in on her.
Desperately Axiana searched for a way to break through; a place to pierce, a crease
to tear, anything. She found none. The inside of the snare was like a pliant enamel
that stretched when she pushed against it but grew more resistant the more she
did. It smothered her on all sides and it was becoming increasingly hard to breathe
in the hot acrid air filling up the confined area.

“Why Oracle?” she asked weakly but if the plant could hear her it gave no
indication that it did. The apprentice thought back to their previous interactions
and with sickening clarity she understood that it had been grooming her from the
beginning. To be a meal. The carnivorous plant had even made sure she didn’t have
the power to escape once it’d swallowed her. And she had never sensed any
danger. Every time a warning sign arose she explained it away in a manner that
would let her keep what she really wanted; the special hope of the extraordinary.
Of better things. And as death here was drawing ever nearer now, she admitted
how lonely she’d been. How much she wanted someone she could share a secret
with. To be significant to another. Tiring in her struggle, Axiana made only cursory
gestures of defiance against her approaching destiny. It was over. All her dreams
ended with this. She imagined how her mother and father would react when they
found out; but would they even get the real story? For all she knew, she would
vanish into a mystery that the people who loved her would never be able to answer.

Elsewhere in the city, Huria Crimsory was having a cup of tea. The meeting
of mages she was attending, all of whom were members of the supreme guild itself,
had devolved into the petty details of bureaucratic minutia and the sorceress was
presently more preoccupied with her warm beverage than anything else. If only
they knew how much the mundane dominated our lives as it did theirs, mused
Huria as she thought about all the under folk she crossed paths with on a regular
basis. My apprentice for example. A thoroughly romantic girl driven by typical
notions. Only, there was a thoughtfulness in her that might bloom one day into
something exceptional. As Huria Crimsory pictured Axiana Spranger in her mind
however, a sense of foreboding crept into the image. Something is going on, the
sorceress realized. Thinking about it for a few more seconds, Huria at last made her
decision.

“Magisterial colleagues,” she said in a loud voice as she rose from the table.
“If you’ll please excuse me, there is an urgent matter I must suddenly attend to.”
The other mages acknowledged her with a variety of respectful nods and more
idiosyncratic reactions before returning to the business on the agenda and leaving
Huria to exit out a set of rear doors opened for her by a pair of golem servants.
Then it was through a series of convoluted halls and out the front entrance of the
Technomages’ guild lodge. There her chauffer was waiting next to two zebras
hitched to an ash-colored carriage. Seeing his employer, he rapidly emptied the
pipe he’d been smoking and went and held the carriage door open for her.

“To my tower,” she said by way of command and the frock coated chauffer
obediently ran and took his seat up front before cracking his whip above the heads
of the zebras to get them started. Traffic down Elven Way was relatively light so
they made good time and it wasn’t too long before Huria Crimsory stepped out of
her transport and briskly crossed over to her primary work property. The startled
giant at the gate hurried to let her in and she entered almost without pause. There
in the atrium though she stopped.

“No, I think not,” she muttered cryptically to herself as she laid eyes on the
first set of stairs. Soon this was followed by a clarification of sorts; Mistress
Crimsory being enveloped in a fog that seemed to emanate from all around her.
Once she’d vanished completely in this, the fog then rapidly began to flow up the
stairs in a kind of hovering funnel. In less than a minute it ascended all the way to
the top where Huria Crimsory then materialized out of the once more gathered fog.

“I see,” said the sorceress as she looked upon the aftermath of her
apprentice’s misfortune. The snare was still bulging with its trapped occupant but
there was no apparent movement from within. Obviously Huria Crimsory could flay
the plant open in an instant if she wanted to but that would damage one of her
most prized possessions.

“The girl should have listened,” she sighed and then turned and walked
downstairs.

Axiana meanwhile was still in the process of being digested. Delirious now
from the fumes inside the snare, she contemplated the dim green-tinted light
seeping in through the walls of her prison. I’m going to die in a flower’s womb, she
thought. And then a second later; that doesn’t even make sense. Ah, well, what
does it matter? Stupidity doomed her to this, stupidity could see her through. How
rude to abandon her now. Coughing, Axiana looked at one of her hands with
squinting eyes. It’s dissolving my flesh, this slime. It’s like the acid of a man’s
stomach. Eventually I’ll become a liquid nutrient that’ll fuel the flow of those
sinister blossoms. In fact, as this sentiment rolled through her mind she seemed to
notice her hand fade in and out slightly. A trick of addled sight? But no. It happened
again, and more pronounced this time. Lady Aca please protect me, prayed Axiana.
The voice that suddenly began to arise in fearsome chanting though didn’t sound
like the gentle warble she’d always imagined that the first woman possessed.
Rather it sounded like the door to a furnace bursting open and some banshee of
fire howling within. This is it! Axiana had to shut her eyes completely as her entire
body phased back and forth from some unknown dimension.

“Save me,” she whispered. Anyone. And with that final thought she was
winked completely from existence. It came as a considerable shock then when she
landed in a pratfall not more than ten feet outside Oracle’s enclosure.

“How?” she said bleary eyed before she saw Mistress Crimsory kneeling in a
meditative posture on a glyph woven mat. Sweat was dripping down the sorceress’
face but, conscious of her apprentice’s gaze, she wiped it off as imperiously as she
could before standing slowly and approaching.

“Hmmm,” said Crimsory as she snatched Axiana’s circlet off and examined it.
“To mend the outer appearance of something does not always mean that it’s been
fixed.” Axiana, wavering between laughing and weeping, instead blurted a
question.

“How’d you release me?” Mistress Crimsory exhaled.

“Teleportation,” she explained. “A spell you might learn one day if you listen
to what you’re told.”

Axiana was miraculously alive but she felt utterly ruined. She’d made herself
completely vulnerable and her trust had been exploited with ruthless depravity.
From now on a piece of her innocence would always be missing. Huria Crimsory,
mindful of this, would wait to give the girl her inevitable scolding.
“They’re called Lady Trap Oracles,” the sorceress divulged. “They’ll eat
anyone whose minds they can get inside of but their seductive powers seem most
effective against children and young women. A long time ago this one almost ate
me so I keep it here; partly as a reminder, partly as revenge. Now, as for why I didn’t
tell you, there are a number of reasons. One, because I don’t want anyone to know
I have it. Two, because I’ve found that telling brand new apprentices they’re
working only a few feet away from a deadly carnivorous plant is not the best way
to retain them. Of course you may not like these reasons but if you intend to remain
as my apprentice you’ll have to live with them.” Axiana was still too weak to argue
but she responded with a certain amount of incredulity.

“You could have at least taught me some protective magic,” she complained.
“Instead all I do is mundane errands.” The sorceress sighed at this but she wasn’t
angry.

“The reason the wise majority of us who are experts in the arcane teach their
apprentices first through toil is because the most important things for new mages
to learn are patience and humility. The world has too many reckless and arrogant
magic users as it is.” She was right in this at least, thought Axiana. That I’m naïve is
beyond all doubt today.

“Alright,” the sorceress continued. “Come on then. You interrupted my tea


and you could probably use a cup yourself.” It took a minute but Axiana managed
to rise on her wobbly legs before her mistress spoke again. “Oh, and Ms. Spranger?”
added the sorceress just as she was going down the stairs.

“Yes Mistress?” her exhausted apprentice replied. Here Huria Crimsory gave
Axiana an extremely unambiguous look.

“Let’s be perfectly clear though about one thing,” said the sorceress. “You
are not allowed in this room anymore.”
GOLIATH’S ANDROID SHOP

In the heart of Alchemist City, among the cobblestone alleys patrolled by


hobgoblin cutpurses and platoons of steam-powered machine men trying to
preserve order, there lived a giant. He was unremarkable as far as giants go; plus
he mostly kept to himself in a gargoyle covered building located beside one of the
many mercury canals. Here he ran the business of an android shop called “Goliath’s
Android Shop” and his name was Goliath. He was a peaceful giant so the name
didn’t really suit him but he pretended he liked it just fine. Goliath preferred
tinkering away in his shop, as oblivious as possible to the outside world, rather than
living a life of eating peasants and battling heroes which people tended to expect
from his kind. So far he’d done a good job of avoiding adventures but this was about
to change when one day something resembling a girl snuck into his garage through
an open window and hid among the boxes of spare parts there.

No one inside noticed at first. “Cogwheel?” called the giant in a casual way
as his attention remained fixed on the eyeball mechanism he was examining
through a pair of small opaque-seeming goggles. When no answer was forthcoming
he lifted his head and called again.

“Cogwheel? Did you find the torso I asked for?” added the giant, his baritone
voice still pleasant. The sounds of things being bumped into and knocked over
resounded from a nearby doorway before a robot carrying a heap of precariously
balanced android parts in their arms veered erratically into the room. Their upper
body was obscured but its lower half consisted of an articulated cone shaped
system slightly tilted at a wide angle and ending in a large spinning sphere which
could propel the robot in any direction. This it seemed to do in short frequent
bursts and not entirely under the robot’s own control. As such, Cogwheel’s focus
appeared to be more preoccupied with not dropping the load they were carrying
than anything else. Goliath scratched the back of his head as he eyed his robot
assistant with amusement.

“Over on the table will do fine,” he said. Obediently, Cogwheel swerved in


the direction of said table and miraculously managed to deposit the leaning heap
of parts without any clanging to the floor. At first.

As the robot, whose turret-like head consisted of two small widely-set-apart


glowing eyes and a curling rubber appendage like an upside-down butterfly’s
proboscis, swept clean its hands in a theatrical display of accomplishment, the
items they’d just set on the table began to slide off one by one. Cogwheel froze in
apparent embarrassment until half a dozen things had fallen to the ground and
they began to pick them up. Goliath smiled a gentle smile. He could hire a mage to
adjust Cogwheel’s animatite crystal if he wanted and improve the robot’s
competency but doing so would inevitably erase their current identity and the jovial
companionship they provided more than made up for the harmless accidents they
had. When Cogwheel was done, the robot wiped away a non-existent forehead
with the back of their hand and let out an imitative sigh.

“Whew boss! We’ve sure got a lot of stuff in the back. Any chance we might
have a sale or something soon? Heck, I bet you wouldn’t have to repair me so often
if I didn’t have to dig through so much junk to find things. Think about it.” The giant
let out a single laugh before smirking.

“I’m not seeing the torso I need.” Cogwheel rotated a few times in place by
way of apology.

“Oops! Sorry boss! I’ll go get it!”

Minutes passed before a waiting Goliath looked at the cuckoo clock in his
garage. Then several more. Curious about what it was this time, the bald giant with
perpetually goggled eyes decided to go look for himself and, setting aside his
instruments, he trudged across the room and through the previously mentioned
doorway – one that unfortunately required him to stoop. Down a short hall he
came to the storage area where his supplies were kept and, inside, racks
overflowing with machine parts towered all the way to the ceiling. It was quiet
within but as Goliath paused he heard something strange.

“Don’t worry,” whispered Cogwheel. “We can fix that right up, trust me. My
master is the good sort. Never one to turn away from those in need.” Alarmed,
Goliath shuffled over in the direction of the voice and, appearing from behind a
shelf, he found his servant leaning over the cringing form of a young woman in a
colorful corseted dress. But despite her remarkably human features, it was clear
that her ceramic skin was the kind that could only belong to an artificial being. She
was stupendously beautiful even in her notably disheveled state, and it was this
quality admittedly which magnified the hurt in Goliath’s heart as the fear she was
radiating became evident. Alone and scared, she had snuck inside and was feebly
trying to reattach a severed arm.

It took nearly an hour before Goliath and Cogwheel managed to coax her out
of the storage area and into the main bay of the garage. There she arrived with soft
timid steps, her good arm clutching the separated one as if afraid it might be stolen.
Goliath took the lead in encouraging her to sit down and, after much gesturing and
glances exchanged with his robot servant, he succeeded. The android girl was
sitting on a stool, staring at Cogwheel as he amusingly discussed various aspects of
the garage, when Goliath finally decided to broach more serious matters.

“You’re… very wonderfully crafted,” he said hesitantly. “Do you know who
created you?” She apologetically shook her head.

“I don’t.” Goliath now puckered his lips in thought.

“Do you have a name?” he asked after a moment. The android girl let slip a
nervous smile before quickly concealing it.

“Arte,” she said with the hush of a confession. Then, just as Goliath was
about to venture another question, Cogwheel offered some awkward praise.
“A splendid name. The sum of beauty! Worthy of such a fine young lady,”
asserted the robot grandiosely. Cogwheel was trying to charm Arte and put her at
ease but Goliath became concerned the robot’s energy was too much.

“Rest assured the noble master here can put you right back together! He
fixes all sorts of machines! Takes them apart too! Not that he’d take you apart! Oh
no! But if you needed that he could do it blindfolded! Indubitably! I trust him with
all my maintenance. Furthermore…” Here Goliath interrupted.

“Cogwheel,” he said firmly. “Why don’t you see to arranging a room for Arte
to stay in tonight? I’m sure we can do better than the junk pile she stumbled into.”
Oblivious to the nuance of what Goliath had said, Cogwheel was nevertheless
happy to please.

“Right away master,” he said with a salute before turning to Arte. “This may
not be a patrician’s inn but we’ll find you something cozy, don’t worry.”

“You needn’t go to any trouble,” pleaded Arte a moment later. “I’m sorry. I
was just looking for somewhere to repair myself. I didn’t take anything and I’ll be
on my way… if you let me.” Goliath shook his head.

“I won’t hear it. You can stay as long as you like. Besides, Cogwheel rarely
gets to do anything besides helping me with my work. The surprise of your
appearance is honestly quite welcome. By both of us.” Arte smiled, but then looked
down, unsure of how to express her gratitude. Sensing this, Goliath continued.

“Can I see your arm?” he asked gingerly. Arte made eye contact now, silently
imploring the giant not to insist but then the faint signs of realization crossed her
face and she slowly handed him her detached limb.

“Amazing work,” he said sincerely as he inspected the arm lying across the
palms of his open hands. “And it appears there’s no serious damage. Some splicing
and light welding should do the trick. Here, let me see the socket.”

Nervously, Arte shifted on the stool so Goliath could inspect the shoulder
missing its appendage. After a few seconds of scrutiny, Goliath gave Arte a
twinkling grin.
“You’ll be perfect again in no time.” Arte didn’t try to disguise her relief.

* * *

A week passed with the three inhabitants of the shop in fine spirits. After her
initial caution faded, Arte proved herself a cheerful companion and the unusual trio
soon found themselves in pleasant domestic harmony. While Goliath and Cogwheel
ran the business as usual, Arte set herself to making little improvements in the
interior décor. A table cloth here, a reorganized drawer there; pretty soon the dingy
machinist feel that once pervaded things had all but disappeared. Customers who
never went farther than the front shop room were complimenting Goliath on the
changes but he couldn’t convince Arte to take any credit for things in person. In
fact, she swore Goliath and Cogwheel both to secrecy about her presence there
even though she’d yet to divulge anything significant about her background.
Inferring that she’d escaped some kind of serious ordeal, neither of them pressed
her but the mystery of it would fill the silences that occurred between them from
time to time. No matter what though, both Goliath and Cogwheel were agreed that
they wanted to do everything they could to help keep her safe. Unfortunately they
had no idea how difficult this would prove to be.

One day a man entered the shop. Arte was out of sight as usual but Goliath’s
heart instantly started racing. You see, the man in question wasn’t the sort to come
into this kind of place at all. He was wearing a red leather suit hiding nothing about
his gaunt but muscular body. An angular mass of sleek blonde hair jutted from his
receding hairline a couple feet beyond the back of his skull in defiance to both
natural and celestial law. His eyes meanwhile were milky blue and his lips, as pale
as those of a corpse pulled from the thawing snows of spring, were a window to
rows of sharp yellow teeth that had never shown anyone true kindness. The
electrical static that saturated his aura also confirmed that he was a sorcerer but
whether he was more monster or magician, Goliath couldn’t tell.

“Greetings shop keep,” purred the man without a trace of warmth. “We,
Revery Starlings, executor of the law, have inquiries for you to address.” Goliath
had to silently gulp before he could summon any reply to the man who was only
half his height.
“Truly my lord? I will do my best to honor your patronage. Any wares of mine
of particular interest to you?” A hint of irritation flashed over the sorcerer.

“None of that,” he hissed. “I’m here in the service of Count Ptolemy. Even an
oaf such as yourself must be familiar with His Eminence.” Goliath nodded meekly.

“I am my lord.” The sorcerer didn’t immediately follow up on this


acknowledgement but instead gazed around the room until his curiosity was
satisfied.

“Well then, no doubt you are eager to assist His Eminence with recovering
His property.” Goliath tried not to sweat.

“My lord? What kind of property?” Revery Starlings leaned over the counter
and, setting his elbows to rest on this while he brought the fingers of his hands
together, he furrowed his brow and stared up at the giant.

“Escaped property.” Trying to hide how nervous he was, Goliath abruptly


turned around and rifled through a shelf before producing a large vellum bound
book.

“I can write a report my lord and ask around.” The sorcerer’s eyes narrowed
as if they were about to cut diamonds.

“Anyone who assists us in this will be rewarded. Likewise anyone who


obstructs us will be repaid – but the other way.” Goliath fumbled trying to open the
book and barely refrained from dropping it.

“Surely… surely everyone wishes for His Eminence’s favor? I know I do. Will
you… grace me with a description of the missing item my lord?” Revery Starlings
leered menacingly before slowly standing up.

“Enjoy the rest of your day giant,” he said as he abruptly went to leave,
adding as he looked out the window at the evening sky, “Although it looks like you
don’t have much of that left.”
After a minute spent catching his breath, Goliath returned to the garage
where he found a terrified Arte slumped to the floor and Cogwheel hugging her.
Evidently she’d eavesdropped on the entire exchange.

“They found me,” she moaned, ready to sob but unable to due to her
construction. Goliath tried to console her.

“He’s gone Arte. He’s gone. And I think I convinced him I knew nothing.” A
sharp laugh descended from the rafters.

“You didn’t,” disclaimed a mysterious voice. For a second, Goliath thought it


was the wizard himself but, when he found the hooded figure standing on one of
the thin metal beams above, it clearly wasn’t.

“Who’s there?” demanded the giant but, before this could be answered, Arte
let out an outraged scream and, throwing off Cogwheel, she ran over to one of the
work benches. Snatching up a wrench lying there, she threw this spinning at the
unknown man with deadly accuracy. Instead of killing him as it should have though,
the man made a seemingly effortless leap and, in a kind of slow single cartwheel
with his feet together, landed with flawless balance on the floor far below. He held
his hands wide with an ironic look on his face as he replied to Goliath’s question.

“Not to brag but I’m Tom Stiletto.” Cogwheel let out an appreciative whistle.

“Not THE Tom Stiletto?” asked the robot with growing awe.

“Oh yes, the very same,” Tom replied. Goliath and Arte exchanged
dumbfounded looks before the giant demanded an explanation.

“Who’s Tom Stiletto?” Cogwheel clasped their hands to their face and
blinked their eyes in something that seemed disturbingly like adoration.

“One of the greatest thieves in the known realms!” Tom coughed


apologetically.
“Please. No need to be so wordy. Greatest thief will do.” It was too much for
the other two and they stood in stunned silence until the groping mind of Arte
managed to find something to ask.

“How do you even know this Cogwheel?” Taking a moment to look rather
pleased with themselves, the robot eventually got on to explaining.

“When Master Goliath first activated me he wisely made me study up on


everything related to the business – including of course security issues. Naturally
then I familiarized myself with the lore pertaining to theft in the city and the main
individuals responsible. You’d be surprised but the underworld economy is quite
large – and that’s not even including the gnomes and dwarves. Anyways, Mr.
Stiletto is very famous. Or infamous I should say. He’s had many interesting
exploits. All quite adventurous.” Tom Stiletto nodded approvingly.

It was at that moment that Cogwheel realized the presence of Tom might not
be an entirely welcome thing.

“Wait. You’re not here to steal anything are you Mr. Stiletto?” asked
Cogwheel, a hint of what for a robot approximates sadness in their words. Tom
shook his head.

“No no. I’m not here on business, strictly speaking.” Goliath let out an
exasperated sigh.

“Why ARE YOU here?” pressed the giant. The superlative thief took a seat on
a stool and stretched his legs.

“To help of course,” he replied before chuckling to himself.

“In what way?” inquired the still suspicious Goliath.

“First of all, to relieve you of the erroneous belief that you’ve fooled Revery
Starlings. The old eel’s coming back. If the obvious evidence of this android girl’s
handiwork around the shop wasn’t enough, your terrible attempt at lying no doubt
clinched it.” Real fear returned to Goliath and Arte but Tom ignored this as he went
on.
“Secondly, as someone with considerable experience in the business of
running away from the consequences of my actions, I thought I might make some
helpful suggestions regarding your departure. Most importantly, that it be soon. By
my guess, you have about half an hour before a squadron of Count Ptolemy’s goons
are kicking down your door.”

That spurred Goliath to action. Muttering suddenly to himself, he began to


search the cluttered shelves of his garage, ignoring the things falling to the floor as
he swept undesired objects aside.

“What is it boss?” asked Cogwheel while Arte looked on helplessly.

“I know it’s around here somewhere,” the giant groaned as he concentrated


on finding what he was after. Lifting up a metal rocket recently commissioned by a
fat earl for delivering decadent foodstuffs to his long besieged castle, Goliath
turned it upside-down and shook it hard. A number of gremlins fell out, swore at
the giant, and then scuttled away, but he was disappointed to find this was all.
Unsure of what to do, Arte turned to Tom Stiletto.

“Are you just going to stand around?” The thief made an effort at smiling
politely.

“Again, I’m here to be of assistance, despite the young lady’s preferred


method of greeting guests, but I assist in my own way.” Arte scowled.

“I’d throw something else at you if I thought it’d do any good.” Before a
quarrel could get underway however, Goliath cried eureka.

“It’s here,” he shouted as he held the small device aloft.

“What’s that?” Tom asked Arte nonchalantly but, irritated by his tone, she
proceeded to ignore him. Cogwheel meanwhile had disappeared to the front of the
shop to look out for trouble and now he came careening back. Seeing the remote
Goliath had grabbed, he wrist-whirled his hands in full circles approvingly.
“Just in time. They’re already gathering outside boss.” Tom Stiletto was the
least surprised of them all by this news but he perked up from the distraction of
scrutinizing his fingernails when he heard it.

“As I said. Now, you’ll have to pardon me but I won’t be fleeing with you this
evening. Other business and what not.” The rest of them absorbed this with varying
amounts of distraction but they were all too busy gathering things to respond. In a
couple minutes however the giant, the robot, and the android had all reconvened
in the main bay of the garage with some hastily packed luggage. Outside they could
hear the Count’s soldiers forming up in preparation to breach the shop. Oddly
enough Tom was still standing in the middle of the room, apparently waiting for
something.

“Why haven’t you left yet?” asked Arte. A fist pounded on the front door and
a menacing voice shouted for everyone inside to surrender while Goliath dragged
a large panel away from a hidden exit on the floor. Tom noted this development
without expression.

“I’m curious about the remote,” he said. “I want to see what the giant has up
his sleeve.” Goliath nodded solemnly as he ushered first Arte and then Cogwheel
down a slide-like shoot.

“This place is lost,” he said mournfully to the thief. The front door was
already being battered down as he clicked the button on the remote and the stone
gargoyle veneers outside burst apart, revealing the defensive robotic systems
underneath. Chaos broke out as they swiftly engaged the soldiers and Tom Stiletto
listened to it for a moment with a cocked ear, appreciatively, as if he were a musical
connoisseur evaluating a fine symphony.

“Well done,” was all he said as he casually saluted the empty space where
the giant had been last.

* * *

What followed next was many days of hectic uncertainty. The escape shoot
the three fugitives had slid down led to a long tunnel which eventually seemed to
stop at a dead end. Goliath then used the remote to activate a secret door that
opened out to another hallway. When everyone was on the other side, the giant
closed the hidden opening and collapsed the tunnel behind them. As the group
began to run once more, Arte started to wonder where exactly it was they’d ended
up. Only a few seconds later though she was amazed when the rusty industrial
corridor they were fleeing through turned into a crowded factory floor. There, at
least a hundred wizard serfs were engaged in the rapid conjuration and enchanting
of magical commodities along conveyer belt assembly lines. Few of these
indentured mages even noticed them as the group plunged through the heart of
their pandemonium but a tattoo-faced overseer did yell indignantly as they passed.
Goliath meanwhile led them as if he’d made this route before and they soon
hurried through another door which opened outside to a section of the city by the
seashore. Here the sun was setting over the water and, in the distance, the black
silhouette of one of the Lord Mayor’s drakes was patrolling the blazing sky as the
last of the daylight flowed out of it.

From there they managed to secure passage on a chattel barge headed up


the river Sybeles. While the phantasmal smoke from the ship’s coal engine wafted
over the river’s surface, Goliath divulged his plan to his two companions. The only
way they could rid themselves of Count Ptolemy and his henchmen for good was
to seek the aid of someone more powerful than him. This left them with one option
– Goliath had once made an emergency call to the palace of a cousin to the Lord
Mayor, Ambassador Melancholia, when one of the automatons in His Excellency’s
garden malfunctioned prior to a state soirée. What Goliath concealed in his plan
however was the fact that he’d never actually met the ambassador himself, only
their manservant, but he knew his friends needed hope to keep going so this gave
him enough sense of justification. As the group finished discussing things they
decided to head to their quarters for the night; Goliath trailing behind slightly.
Under the creaking floorboards of the barge’s deck he could hear the chained up
family of unicorns below and, like them, he too was trapped.

On the outskirts of the ambassador’s vast estates, the thriving town of


Caduceus Falls provided their natural disembarking point. Here the goods from the
vineyards, orchards, and animals the ambassador owned were sold off and shipped
out by caravans or transported down river. Being a busy hub of trade, artisans and
craft guilds had naturally also set up shops there; together creating a vital
commercial center where merchants from all cross the province, and even other
parts of the sister republics, would regularly come to purchase new inventory. As a
result, the streets of the town were quite busy; humanoids of limitless variety and
custom were to be found engaging in business and recreation on a regular basis.
One could just as easily come across groups of skin-dyed barbarian mercenaries
congregating in vulgar banter as one could elven monks slipping past silently in
downcast rows. There was also an energy pervading the place that held the promise
of great fortune and this wasn’t lost on Arte or Cogwheel as they waited for Goliath
outside an enchanter’s emporium.

“He’ll be back soon Mistress Arte,” assured Cogwheel.

“I’m not worried,” she replied while idly fidgeting with a knot she’d been
tying and untying all morning. “And you don’t have to call me that. Arte will do just
fine.” Cogwheel had been acting agitated ever since their narrow escape however
and a tendency towards formality was only one of the side effects.

“I’ll keep that in mind Mistress Arte,” he replied as he suspiciously glanced


around at the crowds of people going about with their day. Arte just shook her head
in acquiescence but a moment later her attention lifted from the rope she was
fiddling with as she eavesdropped on a pair of passing peasants.

“A cowls the thing,” said the fatter of the two with his arm around his
companion. “Can’t be much of a thief without a cowl.” The second peasant had his
doubts however.

“But ain’t that con – con – con – spicuous?” His friend furrowed his eyebrows.

“Course not! Never mind then. You’d best not tax that old pumpkin of yours.”
Here Goliath surprised his friends.

“I did it,” he said to Arte and Cogwheel as a few of the townspeople in the
vicinity gawked at his height.

“You spoke to the ambassador?” asked an incredulous Arte. The giant shook
his head.

“No, but I secured an audience through an intermediary. He’ll take us there


today.” It was Arte’s turn to be apprehensive now.
“You sure about this Goliath?” she whispered doubtfully.

“Yes,” was the giant’s immediate reply before this was followed by
qualifications. “I mean, I’m sure it’s our best course of action… at this moment…
given no other options. Listen, that wizard who came to the shop – he’s still looking
for us. So we don’t have a lot of time. I’m sorry Arte, I wish there was something
else I could do.” Goliath’s shoulders slumped slightly as he finished speaking and
when the android noticed this she reached out and caressed his arm.

“You’re doing a good job big guy. I’ll never be able to repay you for all that
you’ve done for me and, if you say we should do this, I trust you.” His heart swelling
with emotion, Goliath gently placed his hand over Arte’s. As he stuttered, trying to
do justice to her kindness, Cogwheel intervened.

“What you were saying master is time is scarce. Let’s go then before that
diabolical sorcerer catches up to us. The thought of seeing him again makes my
gears shiver.” Goliath promptly composed himself at the robot’s words and
directed Arte and Cogwheel to follow him. A few minutes later they approached
the tavern where the giant had arranged to meet the intermediary. Outside, a half-
devil beggar sitting on the ground sang to them insanely while they went by.

“Ifly ‘nd becausely, theref’re t’was quite wasly.” They ignored him as, one by
one, they entered the establishment. Inside it went about as bad as it could go.

The ogre Goliath had made his deal with was sitting at a table by the back
wall but, as soon as they got near him, Ptolemy’s minions rushed in and surrounded
them. This resulted in about two dozen huge soldiers in chainmail drawing swords
and muskets, so the three fugitives immediately surrendered. For a short spell the
entire tavern was reduced to a nervous hush but gradually the sinister humming of
a man rose from the quiet. Or not a man exactly.

“It was a nice little chase,” seethed a glaring Revery Starling. “To be honest
though, I found it all distinctly irritating. I guess I’ll have to punish you for that. With
cruelty.” Arte, despite thinking she understood the danger of her predicament
perfectly well, couldn’t refrain from a retort.
“You’re the worst. More dead inside than any machine. If you’d been an
android, you’d have been scrapped for being too un-lifelike.” The wizard laughed.

“Oh, I’m sure my creator regrets me. Too bad for him. But worse for you. Of
course I wouldn’t dare harm his Eminence’s special favorite. The object of all his…
doting. Your two friends however ARE MINE! How’d you like to see me take them
apart? I’m not sure if robots can scream. I know giants can though.” The wizard’s
ferocity overwhelmed Arte and her defiance evaporated. Revery Starling noted
how his words had crushed her, something he had seen in countless other victims
who’d dared to resist him, and he savored the wicked pleasure of it.

When all three of the fugitives were shackled, they were then led into the
streets, but here another surprise was waiting. Knights in gleaming silver armor
under a gold and ivory standard. Sixty or so. The ambassador’s own.

“What’s this?” snarled Revery Starling as magical energy began to build up


around his clawed fingers. “Let us pass!” But the knights didn’t move to get out of
his way. Instead, an intrepid looking paladin stepped forward, his stern eyes boring
into the wizard’s own unafraid, and he issued an ultimatum.

“On behalf of the lord of this land, Cyril Tyrus Adonai Melancholia, of the
noble house Autarcho: I, Captain Hasson, declare that you and your men are under
arrest in accordance with the Lord Mayor’s laws. Cast down your arms and submit
or be killed!” Revery Starling looked around uncertainly.

“On what grounds do you waylay us Captain?” spat the wizard.

“By direct order,” answered the leader of the knights, a gauntleted hand
pulling his sword out an inch from its sheath. The magic Revery Starling had been
channeling fizzled away.

“Very well,” the wizard conceded reluctantly. “Take us to the ambassador


and we shall sort this insult out. Don’t let those three escape though,” he
demanded, pointing to Goliath, Arte, and Cogwheel.

“You can keep an eye on them yourself sorcerer,” replied the captain.
“They’ll be coming too.”
Everyone parted deferentially before the magnificent group of knights as
they made their way through town and soon the company reached the gates of the
Melancholia estate. There the diligent sentries on duty let them pass after a brief
exchange with the captain and following this they continued on for several more
minutes before the ambassador’s palace emerged from a bucolic hillside. It was a
place of supreme decadence and the idle courtiers and aristocrats loitering around
the entrance gave them only cursory glances before returning to their discussions
of peerage gossip and the array of other trivial topics they indulged in to soothe
their smug boredom. Then, through echoing marble halls adorned with opulent
statues and frescos, Revery Starling and the three fugitives were eventually led to
a high-ceilinged room whose walls were painted blue and white with an array of
astrological glyphs. On either side of a dais, a few courtiers stood, and between
them sat the ambassador on his throne.

It was not the ambassador who spoke first however. Standing to his right, a
short plump man in a cerulean frock addressed the four new arrivals.

“The visitors will show their deference to His Excellency,” and they all bowed
or curtsied as best they could. Revery Starling, it must be said, did not look pleased.

“I hear you were conducting some kind of operation in my town Starling,”


drawled the ambassador. He was wearing a white embroidered doublet and a
white wig of curls; in fact, his shoes and breeches were also white and his face was
caked in white powder. His eyes however were discernably yellow and betrayed a
lifestyle of excess that few in the room could even imagine.

“I was retrieving the property of my master Your Excellency. It had all been
taken care of before your knights interrupted.” This reply irritated the ambassador
and he got to his feet.

“Is the Dear Count sovereign here? In my lands!” Revery Starling bowed
again, sincerely humbled this time.

“Forgive me Your Excellency.” The ambassador scrutinized the wizard for any
sign of insolence but found none.
“That I may or may not do,” he said at last.

Turning to his servant in the cerulean frock, one Secretary Umskull, the
ambassador launched into a brief dramatic utterance.

“Here I stand, in futile resistance, to the all-consuming tides of entropy.”


Secretary Umskull seemed unfazed by this declaration.

“Yes my lord,” was all he said. The ambassador then turned to his guests.

“For those of you who lack a gift for appreciating poetry, this means I am the
law. The law wizard! And here my will shall be done!” Revery Starling acknowledged
the truth of this with another bow but his cunning was also at work.

“And what of my master’s right to his property Your Excellency? What shall I
tell him of your law?” The ambassador’s eyes narrowed as he parried; “You’re
forgetting something wizard,” to which Revery Starlings replied, “I am Your
Excellency?”

The ambassador casually sat back on his throne. “Your master’s debts,” he
stated with a certain vicious enjoyment.

“But…” the wizard sputtered before being interrupted.

“I understand your confusion. Poor Ptolemy has so many debts. Umskull


though can clear things up for us. Umskull! How much does the count owe me?”

Umskull too was taking satisfaction in the situation. “Eighty thousand talents
my lord. Roughly.”

The ambassador’s taste for the theatrical gained full expression now as he
waved his hand in the air and spoke as if to the heavens themselves.

“Eighty thousand talents. Eighty! Thousand! So let us deduct a generous


amount for the girl. We’ll say, twice her worth. That’s six hundred. Now she is mine
and to the giant I give her, because I am generous. As for you wizard, you will take
your retinue back to your lord and remind him that he owes me seventy nine
thousand and four hundred talents! Or thereabouts! And tell him I’m tired of
sending out agents to remind him. Soon I will stop sending men with parchment to
do this and start sending men with daggers.”

The courtiers in the room were tittering as Revery Starling hung his head in
defeat. The wizard tried to mentally come to grips with what had just happened
but the persisting sound of the spectators enjoying his humiliation began to ignite
a rage inside him. He who was a master of the unnatural arts! Who commanded
primordial powers! That he should be subjected to this! It was unacceptable to give
these vermin victory. Somehow, through sheer instinct, they conspired together to
undo their betters. But he would not have it! No! They would regret what they’d
done to him. They would taste tragedy. With cold fury, the idea began to form in
his mind how he would make this happen. It was the girl! The girl if you could call
her that. He’d always disapproved of his master’s obsession with her and so his
anger converged without hesitation. With her destroyed the rest would all be
deprived as well. He knew he had only one chance though. Concealing his left hand
behind his back, he conjured a ball of lightning in it. Then with serpentine speed,
he flung it at Arte. She was standing farthest away from him though and before the
wizard’s missile reached her, Cogwheel threw themselves in its path. When it struck
the robot, the flash blinded the entire room.

***

A few days after the events at the palace, Goliath opened his new shop in
the affluent section of Caduceus Falls. The jeopardy was over. Revery Starling had
been locked up in the ambassador’s dungeon and Arte was safe.

“I guess everything worked out for you didn’t it giant?” intoned a familiar
voice to him one evening as he was alone, or so he thought, in the garage.

“I wouldn’t say that Tom,” said Goliath softly. Tom Stiletto appeared from
the shadows.

“It went better than you had any right to hope,” the thief insisted. Goliath’s
eyes remained focused on what was in front of him as he answered,

“You’re probably right. Did you have something to do with that?”


The thief sighed. “Well, I can’t take all the credit. Most of it, but not all. I
mean, I did send word to His Excellency that Ptolemy’s agents had set up an ambush
at a local tavern. Yet I imagine it was Umskull’s recounting of your previous
assistance that resulted in Arte being given to you.”

Goliath squirmed uncomfortably when Tom said this. “I set her free,”
divulged the giant. The thief shook his head.

“Why am I not surprised? And yet she’s still with you.”

Goliath couldn’t hide his smile as he confirmed this. “She is,” he said with a
happiness nearing awe. Even the thief, his feelings fortified in walls of irony, wasn’t
able to protect himself from the sudden pang of warmth that stabbed him.

“Is she in the other room? Getting you tea?” Tom asked facetiously.

Goliath turned with a quizzical look on his face. “Yes,” he answered sincerely,
pausing partly from confusion.

Tom Stiletto shook his head. “I think that’s my cue to leave. I got some petty
revenge against a nobleman who killed one of my partners and I inadvertently
assisted in your distinctly saccharine ending. So much the better. Don’t expect we’ll
run into each other any time soon. Goodbye giant.”

As the thief turned to leave however, Goliath called out to him. “Wait. How’d
you find us? Here in Caduceus Falls.”

The thief stopped and smirked. “The same way I stumbled across you before.
Following the wizard.” Goliath wasn’t satisfied with this though.

“And how did he…” the giant asked before trailing off. The thief’s shrug
silenced him. Then Tom Stiletto was gone, taken completely by the darkness. It
would have to be enough, Goliath supposed. It almost was. Taking up his welding
gun, he got back to work. Around him the broken pieces of his best friend waited;
ready to be brought back together, ready to live again once the bright arc had
finished.
HUNTING ORCS

[His Letter]

To the Esteemed Martha Summers,

I am being so forward in writing to you because of a recent adventure of


mine which, as chance would have it, coincides with one of the topics of
conversation we shared that marvelous night I had the pleasure of meeting you. I
am referring in fact to the matter of Orcs. Now normally I would never dwell on
such a brutish topic with a lady of your refinement but you are a woman of
exceptional scientific proclivities and I trust you will find my experiences quite
stimulating in that regard. To be sure, my journey was not all academic and, if I
indulge in a few tangential asides and remarks, it is only out of the hope that you
will derive a share of pleasure from this.

Going back to begin my story, it was several weeks since the gala your
parents held (And please thank them again for me) when a discussion I had in
passing with an acquaintance on Equestrian Row brought to my attention the
person of Cinnabar Morte. In fact it was the last Friarsday of Juvenas; I remember
distinctly because I was settling my monthly accounts and having a profitable time
of it. Anyways, what I learned was that this Mr. Morte, a flintlock-for-hire of
uncouth but distinguished reputation, was in dire need of a last minute loan. Miss
Summers, I cannot tell you why but for some reason I sensed a magnificent
opportunity unfolding here and, understanding his offices to be in my vicinity, I
immediately hastened to call on him. Let me add, when I arrived the gentleman
was in a state of exceptional agitation and didn’t have the faintest inclination to
speak with me until I finally blurted out that his financial woes could very presently
be solved if he would just stop growling and listen. Thereupon his manners
improved immensely and I proceeded to tell him I was someone of not
inconsiderable means who was interested in his predicament. This he shared, albeit
reluctantly, and I will do my best to quote him:

“It’s Coxcomb eh? Well, I never ‘erd of you but I suppose that attires dapper
enough to give you some bit of credit. Mind you yer not some slick swindler type
but, seeing as ‘ow I’ve precious little options at the moment, ‘ere’s the gist. I
secured a contract wit’ a Captain Wysler Heems of the Animatite Mining Syndicate
to depop (by this he meant depopulate) an orc ‘ive festerin’ not more than three
miles away from their northern most operations. Being as I’m expected ready to go
there tomorrow’s evening, while ‘aving got the news this morning the supplies I
needed be residing now at the bottom of Sabers Inlet courtesy of a foin lot o’
brigands, my er’lier surliness is surely quite appreciable.” As he wearily exhaled and
allowed the flush that had been building in his face to subside, I could not help but
feel swept up with sympathy for the man.

“Perfectly appreciable,” I concurred. Yes, I would definitely help him. After


all, generosity repays itself and it sounded like his predicament, as it is with most
in life, was easily fixed by money.

“So, if you had the funds, you could secure the items you require? Even so
late?” Mr. Morte, who at the end of his outburst had gone from pacing back and
forth to sitting slumped in his desk, looked up at me now with a weary gleam of
hope.

“Aye, and at an extra penny you can be sure,” he noted with disgust.

“How much are we talking about?” I asked. His head tilted slightly like a fox
investigating a baited trap. Finally he decided on an amount he believed wouldn’t
horrify me and cleared his throat.

“A half talent of silver ought to cover it.”


I did my best not to show any amusement on my face as I replied, “Mr.
Morte, I will write you a promissory note for that amount right now, using which
you can withdraw said silver from my bank forthwith, provided only that you agree
to some simple terms.” He said hardly anything at all as I detailed the conditions of
the loan, including a gentle interest rate and payment plan which would, at most,
yield me a modest profit. With quill in hand, I was just beginning to prepare the
contract when he sensed I was still holding something back.

“That’s not all though eh?” There’s a further imposition you’ve got fer me.”
I paused and smiled.

“Nothing so onerous my good man,” I said confidently as I at last decided to


broach the matter. “Only I intend for you to take me with you… on the expedition.”
His eyes narrowed and I imagine his mind was clambering around the idea like a
squirrel in a cage, looking for some flaw in it, when suddenly he threw a question
at me.

“You ever seen a wild orc?” he asked.

“No,” I replied.

“Ever ‘erd ‘em ‘owl?” I shook my head.

“Smelt one?” I scoffed.

“Obviously not,” said I. At this he leaned back, feeling himself no longer at


quite the disadvantage.

“Well, you’ll wish you ‘adn’t.”

We met just before dawn the next day in the Port District. Each of us had
gone away separately in a frenzy to prepare ourselves only to meet again a few
hours later and find each other transformed; I on foot in my old lieutenant’s
uniform with a sundry laden rucksack and him, seated at the helm of a wagon, clad
in a leather and chainmail outfit I can only imagine coming out of some sort of
mercenary catalogue. In fact, it has just this minute occurred to me that I have yet
to describe for you the general appearance of Mr. Morte and I will, with apologies,
rectify that immediately. The most conspicuous thing about the man was the
utterly bald top of his head, ringed on both sides by outwardly jutting tuffs of red
hair. Being myself five feet ten inches on an average day, and so having about two
inches on him in that respect, I had a chance to peer at the man very closely in this
regard and cannot overemphasize the exceptional contrast between these two
regions of his head. Across which the next feature of great distinguishment is a scar
running from his upper forehead, past his left eye, to the edge of his cheek. He told
me he received it from an elf’s axe on the southern continent and of this I have no
doubt. The scar is not so blemishing as it might otherwise be however since, as an
outdoorsman and individual of undoubtedly peasant stock, his skin is swarthy and
weather beaten from constant exposure to the sun. His eyes meanwhile have an
icy look to them, glacial I’d say, and tend to bulge as his temper flares. Despite the
latter being a fairly common occurrence, I must concede that he is more amicable
than not and flashes with equal alacrity a large toothy grin (among which one, on
his lower right jaw, is gold) I will say nothing of his ears and nose other than that
they would go unremarked on a dwarf and, in conclusion, I shall just add that he is
stout, brawny, and prone to gesticulating in moments of eloquence. Indeed, this is
the man I was about to brave several days of harrowing ordeals with, although at
the time the thought of facing serious peril had yet to enter my horizons.

But now I’ve gotten ahead of myself. Returning to where I left off in my story,
Mr. Morte’s wagon then took us out of a waking city bustling with morning traffic
and we made excellent speed all the way to Obelisk Junction where we quietly
diverted to a rather shabby cobblestone road that leads out to the Quarry District.
I believe it was around this time that the conversation of my companion and I
turned to the subject of the lone steed pulling our vehicle; a black pegasus that was
certainly once a majestic beast but now suffered from the defect of two mangled
wings it could do no more than flap in moments of impatience. Obsidian he called
it. I’ll admit I was eager to hear the tragic details of this noble creature’s past and,
pressing him for more, I was informed that it had previously belonged to a prince
from the far off duchy of Zuerfuhn who’d died gallantly in a pitched midair battle.
During one of the crusades several years back as I remember. The animal
unfortunately had not been so lucky as his master, crashing into a village of serfs
where he somehow survived to remain permanently ruined and spend the next few
years being cruelly yoked to a plow. One who had once led the charges of shining
hosts! That period in vulgar custody also took a further toll and by the time Mr.
Morte chanced upon him during a recent journey, the stallion was a grim soul to
be sure. My companion was rather vague about the matter in one respect though;
that is, how he actually acquired Obsidian but, sensing a reef that could potentially
wreck the frigate of our partnership, I did not inquire further. Instead a faintly sad
silence befell us both and I took the opportunity to turn my attention to the
untamed countryside where, despite growingly insidious appearances I, for a long
while, saw nothing more fearsome than some robins. However, let me assure you
that the land is quite savage out there and the absence of crossing other travellers
naturally emphasized the spectre of foreboding. Although I’m not sure that any
civilized person would want to meet the sort of cutthroats likely to frequent those
parts of the world.

Shall I continue? Fair Martha, if only I were speaking with you now. I haven’t
had the slightest excuse to call upon you however so I can only do my best to stir
your favor with a few paltry words by a man more business minded than poetical.
This story then, such as it is, will have to suffice. Let’s see, I just left off at the part
where we were in the midst of a wagon ride that remained uneventful up until we
came to the threshold of our destination. Here the terrain began to slope
downwards and a valley through the trees opened into view but, it was a sense of
being watched rather, that caught my immediate focus. Peering around, it did not
take long for me to see her and, as our eyes met, a chill went through my body.

“To your left,” I whispered to Mr. Morte and soon enough he saw her too; a
great mother of dread, a harpy. She was perched at the ridge of a small sheer cliff
some forty yards away and a freshly killed adult deer was clutched in her hind
talons. I will not relay too thoroughly the gruesomeness of the scene but, suffice it
to say, she had made an absolute mess of her poor victim and had only stopped in
her carnage to freeze at our approach.

“Deuce’s rod!” blasphemed Mr. Morte. “There’s a floi’ing witch as big as any
I’ve ever seen!” By superlative hearing and comprehension or uncanny coincidence
I cannot say but immediately after my companion uttered his remark, the harpy
bared a dagger-drawer mouth of teeth at us. Luckily Obsidian took no notice (I’d
hate to think what might have happened if he’d startled) but I did observe Mr.
Morte do a blind check with his hand of the blunderbuss rifle racked against the
seat between us. Previously I’d been somewhat wary of it due to the thinking it
might accidentally be discharged, Mr. Morte like myself did occasionally partake of
tobacco after all, but now its nearness was hugely reassuring. Circumstances
however did not yet veer towards calamity; that was still to come. Instead, us and
the monster persisted in our opposing vigils until our descent into the valley
separated us by welcome trees. I was inclined to swing into a joyful spirit at our
brief flirtation with real danger but one look at the grizzled warrior on my left and
I was struck sober.

For a while the clatter of our jostling carriage was all that could be heard and
then I listened to the man beside me mutter, ever so darkly, “Not the best omen.
No. A bloody bad one.”

His assertion would swiftly be proved right. The screeching and shudder of
firearms greeted us first but then the shouting and snarling of the combatants
joined in the cacophony. It is no exaggeration Miss Summers if I tell you that we
arrived to witness the purest mayhem. At the forward outpost of the Syndicate
Guard, a raiding party of the foulest orcs imaginable was lunging about with iron
swords and axes as they tried to push through the pike and trench fortifications
separating them from a small wooden castle manned by some rough looking
human defenders. The guard was holding them off but at considerable cost and this
despite the advantage of not only two cannons and ample muskets but also
crossbows, alchemical bombs, and the solid log walls of a station some fifteen feet
high. My word! There were men fighting with these brutes steel to iron, blade
clanging against blade at the foot of their besieged citadel while the hiss and twang
of missiles split the air between sizzling roars of gunpowder. We did not stop our
advance either and, the closer we got, the better my view of orcs gurgling as they
were run through and stalwart bands of men closing ranks against onslaughts to
protect wounded comrades being escorted off the field. It was all blood and grime
and smoke, torrent in a whirl of noise that would dumbfound anyone of purely
refined sensibilities. Though not wholly unacquainted with the violence in our
world, I will say I was shocked. Appalled even. Before I could think to do it first
though, it was Mr. Morte, handing me the reins to undaunted Obsidian, who
grabbed the ready blunderbuss next to him and I.

Aiming it for an arcing shot at the back of a bearskin clad orc some sixty yards
away (By my estimate) he flung a quick word at me, “Ere’s yer silver goin’ to work
Mr. Coxcomb,” and then lit the rifle’s fuse with a flint. Three seconds later my ears
exploded but I watched with remarkable clarity as a cinder shower of molten pellets
and sparks launched into the air and then descended in a splash directly on top of
the chosen target. Even in the prevailing clamor, the scream of this particular orc
demanded attention and several of the combatants could not help but watch as
the villain ran around ablaze for a moment and then proceeded to melt, yes melt,
I say that with total accuracy, into a bubbling puddle of charred goo. This of course
had a most desirable effect on the attackers and they, hesitantly at first but then
whole heartedly, broke into a disorganized retreat. I specifically recall what one of
them shouted as they ran away too.

“Make fast feet you humpers! Those mens got a new big nasty now!” His
guttural lament was then rapidly succeeded by cheers and huzzahs from the guard.

We did not have long to bask in our victory however. Captain Heems showed
up almost immediately and he ordered his soldiers to do a sweep of the battlefield
(Twenty three dead on their side, seven on ours) and then took myself and Mr.
Morte aside along with his own man, Lieutenant Secretary Corkly. Unsurprisingly
the captain was an impressive figure. The tallest of us all by several inches, he was
a man probably in his early fifties with impeccably groomed silver hair and a silver
handlebar mustache under his protruding crag of a nose. Square shouldered and
rigid in posture, he filled out his blue and gold-trimmed uniform with the utmost
certainty in himself and always moved about with a brisk forceful energy. His pale
blue eyes though were tinged at times with wistfulness (For what I could not say)
and he had the habit of periodically staring at things in silence without explanation.
Also of note was that his right arm had been amputated up to his elbow during a
campaign early in his career and in its place was a black mechanical surrogate with
a solid fist-shaped hand that was only capable of punching and clenching. The
machine was as admirable as you’d hope but it could sometimes demand more
than its fair share of audience by whirring its gears or shooting out jets of steam.
The person of Corkly conversely could not have been constituted in a manner less
inclined to scrutiny; he was desperate, I must say, to be as unobtrusive as possible
and this was rather sorrowful since the captain availed himself of every chance he
got to shove his secretary into the spotlight. A relentless ordeal that could however
produce no effect on the young man as he remained stooped, listless, hush, and
indecisive. His face moreover reminded me of a juvenile chimpanzee I once saw in
a zoo, an ape kept in a cage only with penguins oddly enough, and I had to resist
the urge more than once to toss a scrap of food at the boy.
During the initial encounter with the two men, it was the captain of course
who took the lead in conversation and he began by addressing Mr. Morte.

“Cinnabar! By the heavenly blazes! You’re always late to the party but you
bring the best wine!” My companion reached out to accept an offered handshake
from the captain as he retorted,

“Captain, if you didn’t ‘old yer revels so far out to nowhere, maybe I’d be
e’rly on occasion.” The two mirrored each other with a laugh before Mr. Morte
continued.

“To be ‘onest, I wasn’t sure I’d make it. Rather ugly luck in obtainin’ my
provisions if I may say. It seems yer lads in the city warders are ‘aving a ‘ard time of
it wit’ the criminal element this season.” Heems spat on the ground in solidarity.

“Oh! And it rattles my boilers!” he concurred. “Once I pulverize the lot of


vermin here, the deity knows I’ll be descending on the city with sword in hand. And
I did hear about that spot of jolly bad business you had from this morning’s courier
but there was nothing I could do out here. Surprised you made it actually! Yes! And
you’re not alone?” Mr. Morte gave me a pat on the back as he explained.

“This is Mr. Homer Coxcomb, the last minute investor ‘oo salvaged our
immin’nt orc culling enterprise. Wanted to see the money spent too.” Captain
Heems nodded at Mr. Morte and then turned to me.

“Rather I see it’s lieutenant Coxcomb,” he said and I saluted him out of
instinct. He returned my salute before removing his navigator’s hat and banging
the dust off it against his thigh.

“Experienced any combat lad?”

I shrugged apologetically. “Sir, I was in a logistical unit.”

He restored his hat to his head and his mechanical arm sounded a loud clank
as he did. “Well, keep in mind that plenty of the dead out here rot in the woods.
Don’t be mucking off on your own and have a blade ready with you at all times.”
I needed no convincing in this matter and responded with an appreciative “I
shall sir.”

Captain Heems then furrowed his brow and looked over at Corkly who was
rummaging through a satchel of scrolls and binders. “That reminds me,” he barked.
“Some of the men just now went into the damnable fray without even fixing their
bayonets! Get the sergeants on it at once!” Corkly however made no sign that he’d
heard the order and the captain continued with rapidly mounting disgust. “Corkly?
Corkly! Wizards beards man! Don’t just stand there blinking! You’ve been given an
order! An orrrrrder!” Some papers Corkly was holding in a folder slipped out and
flopped around his feet.

“Can you repeat it sir?” he asked with total innocence. Miss Summers, I will
spare you the substance of the epic profanity that ensued from Captain Heems but,
as he thundered on and on, an orc archer suddenly stood up from behind a nearby
mound and fired a wobbly arrow at us. This landed about five feet away and while
three of our group reacted as any decent people would, the captain merely glanced
over in annoyance before scowling at an attendant squad of soldiers and pointing
at the insolent party. True, orcs have notoriously poor aim, but this does attest to
the sheer nerve of the gentleman.

As we then proceeded to enter the wooden castle we’d been standing next
to, Mr. Morte and the Captain spoke at length while I listened by their side and
Corkly trailed behind. A competent looking corporal had taken the reins of our
wagon from us so I was able to divide my interest entirely between the
conversation of the two men and the interior sights of the outpost.

Some soldiers were unloading crates of munitions as we passed by and I


couldn’t help but grin a bit as the captain shouted “Make an effort! If you can!” He
was a marvellously tempestuous personality and even in the rising tide of our
predicament his gusto proved infectious. I was therefore in a state of genuine
exuberance when we reached the captain’s tent and he sat Mr. Morte and myself
down on some stools to enjoy an evening brandy.

“Cinnabar,” he sighed as he leaned back in his own seat. “Endlessly weeding


this miserable garden they’ve got out here is such an exhausting and inglorious way
to finish things. I should be out east, raising cities, instead of squandering my last
few good years against monstrosities and widowing subhumans.”

Mr. Morte gave the captain a sympathetic glance and then took a moderate
sip from his drink. “The stars circle and we try to make the best of it ey?” he said,
after preceding this with a deeply satisfied ahhh. “As a military man captain,
per’aps you should look at it loik a military situation. Ask yerself, ‘oo’s the enemy
and ‘ow do you destroy ‘em.”

Captain Heems swirled his glass thoughtfully. “The enemy,” he hissed, “is
bureaucracy. How do you slay bureaucracy?”

Said question was hitched to an imploring stare at both of us but Mr. Morte
spoke first. “Can’t. A dragon eater that is.”

I was confused however so I sought clarification on something. “Captain


Heems, sir, please pardon my asking but why can’t you eliminate your problems in
a proactive offensive?”

The captain here leaned over and topped up both mine and Mr. Morte’s
glasses. “Because I have been commanded lieutenant,” and he said these words
with weariness, “To do nothing else but guard the immediate mining operations as
a result of the calculus by men so far on high that I don’t even know their names.
Besides, given my limited resources, I can’t afford to sacrifice a huge chunk of my
men just to save myself from the odd green-skin attack. Unlike you two, I have
things other than orcs to vex me. Subterranean things.”

Neither of us asked what he meant by that but it was clear the captain had
difficulties that were beyond our assistance. The modest service we would provide
though was indeed of his own initiative, an attempt to keep the orcs from becoming
a real threat, and towards that purpose our discussion now turned. Much of what
was said in the course of this you’d no doubt find rather tiresome so I will gloss over
the part where we delved into the blander aspects of our venture and move on to
when we were all decided.

“Wit’ the failure of their raid today,” Mr. Morte was saying, “The orcs ‘ill be
out makin’ a nuisance of themselves in the surroundin’ areas for the next day or
so.” (A tendency of orcs when thwarted or otherwise humiliated is to go rampaging
about in search of compensatory victims, including even tiny wild creatures like
rabbits and frogs; but here at last I am making good on my promise of providing
information with scientific merit) “We’ll ‘ave to wait a few days then before Mr.
Coxcomb and I go on our reconnaissance. Best too that we make our approach by
a wide arc from the west, which’ll add another day or so to the business, and then
set up a blind in them trees at the mountain’s foot.”

Captain Heems had, quite painfully, succeeded in gesturing at Corkly for a


map and this was spread out on an elegant varnished table where Mr. Morte was
pointing at details most adeptly.

“All ‘n all,” he concluded, “I say we’ll ‘ave the job done in two weeks at most,
a’suming fair we’ther an’ no catastrophes.”

The captain seemed satisfied. “Gentleman,” he intoned, “We’ve got


ourselves a plan. My confidence in its success could not be higher. That said,
protocols insist we indulge the tedious matter of signing your liability waivers so,
let’s get that out of the way – shall we? – and then offer a toast to our forthcoming
triumph.” Yes Martha, even in the bowels of primitive nature, civilized men are still
ruled by an abiding fear of lawyers. Naturally I would not think to disparage the
syndicate myself, deity forbid, since it is no more than prudence of the most
practical kind, but being the one signing the papers and putting my seal to wax, I
could not help but entertain some of the more pessimistic scenarios my
imagination now devised. The brandy helped though. Astonishing us all then was
secretary Corkly who, in a rare moment of inspiration, had overheard his superior
mentioning the waivers and produced them without being asked. The three of us
stared at him dumbfounded but he made no further display of newly discovered
intelligence and instead seemed to retreat into a private world of musings where
he smirked at things incomprehensible to ordinary mortals. Captain Heems’
bewilderment only lasted a few seconds however before he patted his breast
pockets, stood, and then patted those of his pants. Finding nothing, he turned to
his secretary.

“Corkly?” he inquired and then waved his hand in front of the young man’s
face. Receiving no response, he briefly looked at us and marvelled, “Does he even
speak modernese?” before erupting with “Maybe I’d fair better with moon talk!”
That was not the end of it though and I hope I won’t mortify you if I relay what he
shouted with vulgarities intact this time. “By the scaly chickens! A dung fondling
idiot and all it took was five years at the academy! Corkly! How do you not forget
to breathe!? Your mam must’ve half-drowned you coming out the fleshy gates
because it’s beyond me how anything that doesn’t drag its head along the ground
could have a skull as dense as yours! A positive horror man! If you ever figure out
how to reproduce, the world above will fall from the sky!” Mr. Morte and I said
nothing as we drank politely in silence and waited to sign our documents.

Accommodations at the outpost did not prove comfortable but were recalled
during the days that followed as luxurious in comparison. I did my honest best to
make the time of our interval a profitable one by studying a book on our prey and
reading recent entries in the incidents catalogue. When the hour came to depart
then I was once more fresh with zeal and eagerly set out on foot with Mr. Morte
and two scouts after a brief goodbye with Obsidian (I confess I had grown fond of
the animal) This occurred a fair while before dawn since our journey had been
calculated to reach the location for our blind well in advance of when the orc hive
would likely be up for excursions (Orcs are not often known to be active outside
before the late afternoon unless otherwise provoked) Mr. Morte and myself
sweated under our heavy packs as our escorts focused on spying ahead for danger
but, other than a few grisly carcasses, nothing much concerning intruded on our
hike. To the contrary, there’s stupendous beauty in the scenery of the region,
making the orc presence even more of a shame since their habitation inevitably has
a ghastly effect over time. Indeed, they strip the land bare and so we have reason
to be grateful then that the mining syndicate happens to be the custodian of that
area. I firmly believe Miss Summers that, through the inherent nobility of industry,
we will one day tame both continents and civilize even the very elements
themselves. Magic, for all its immense powers, has shown itself too elusive and
ineffable to be given this responsibility and so we must turn to engineering and
economy if we are to ever bestow on mankind the paradise it has so long deserved.
And this adventure with the orcs, though modest in scope, is still an infinitesimal
part of that glorious enterprise, sharing in the new spirit that is now elevating our
species above all else in creation.

Out in the cruelty of the wilds however I’ll admit my concerns were rather
more inclined to basic immediacies and so it was with quiet relief that I greeted our
decision that day to finally stop for a late lunch (At the height of noon!) “What do
hardy adventuring types eat when about on their quests?” you might ask. I shall tell
you with relish (But, no, there was none of that) Each of us had one boiled egg, one
porcine sandwich on rye with pungeous cheese and pickles, brittlish crackers with
alder marmalade, some blood soaked squash, slices of larded mice, and a dram per
man of gnome-brewed whiskey that would peel the skin off the back of your throat.
That is to say, we had a sensible modern meal right out in the middle of the ruthless
unknown. Afterwards the four of us indulged in a nice short chat, mostly comprised
of circumlocutive inanities, and then, because we were within minutes of the
threshold of the hive, our escorts said their farewells and left. Mr. Morte and myself
were now completely on our own.

Huffing and trudging with our loaded backs, we made directly for the nearby
woods that were at this point the only thing left obscuring the orcs’ settlement
from view. Pushing first through an outer ring of thorny brush, we now crouched
as we went about (At an agonizingly slow pace) between the crowded trunks of
timber looming imposingly above. Zigging and zagging as we moved because the
descending ground had become steep and uneven, I followed behind Mr. Morte in
duressed silence as I listened to him give a spontaneous performance in whispers
of the most impious oaths imaginable. Truly, I pity any wee forest soul who
overheard these! Our awkward plight was paused though when my companion
finally stopped at the base of one of the few especially tall trees and decided it was
adequate for our purposes. Taking several minutes there to organize himself, he
donned an assortment of climbing necessities before speaking to me in regards to
our ensuing course of action.

“Ere we are Mr. Coxcomb wit’ the ‘ole vertical part of the business. ‘Ope yer
not afraid of ‘eights.” I shook my head, having done some youthful mountaineering
during a leisure year. Nonetheless I was almost awed by the climbing prowess of
my counterpart. I cannot help but beam now at the memory of him; he was a
splendid menace going up that tree. With nothing other than cinches and cleats,
he was a good fifty feet up it in less time than it takes the average person to prepare
themselves a morning cup of tea. There he unfurled a rope to me and, one by one,
he hauled up the bags I tied for him. When this was done, the pressure then fell on
me to join him but I acquitted myself admirably enough and soon we were sitting
together on adjacent branches, our feet dangling in the air. To the top it was more
of the same and no noteworthy incidents occurred although we were once again
breathing heavily by the time we finally got there. Stolen thrones! And what a vista
it was! Despite still having plenty of foliage to disguise us, we could gaze for miles
at everything beyond; a vast portion of the Sybeles river was laid out before our
eyes with a plentiful accompaniment of plunging canyon and towering natural
stele. Such a sight a romantic eye could not endure without a tear and one was
ready to trickle down from mine when my stare lowered and fell upon the more
immediate travesty blemishing the land. Miss Summers, I don’t know if you’ve ever
seen illustrations of the termite nests they have on the southern continent but, if
you have, picture those great mounds of spoiled earth, magnify them to cathedral
proportions, and then perforate these with an abundance of dim foreboding holes
and litter the ravaged wasteland that shores them all with a piled sea of bones.
Several of these, clustered together, are what wild orcs call home.

Of the ingenuity of my companion I have said nothing so far, since he did not
display it with any great regularity but, I will credit him abundantly for the
observation platform he constructed for us. Said blind consisted first of a metal ring
enclosed around the mast of the tree that was then augmented with rope-threaded
metal poles that extended radially in eight directions after being attached to the
aforementioned ring (By inserting them into its available slots) Then, using more
rope, he wove a web through the poles and branches that provided a base layer for
further additions of netting and cloth. By the end of it we had a nest eight feet in
diameter with a canopy overhead and these, combined with the woolen cocoon
sacks we slept and waited in, made the other discomforts just bearable. Among
them it was not so much boredom (Since studying the orcs from afar yielded its
own amusements) but the sheer physical confinement of the situation which most
sorely tested the will. After all, we did not risk going down even during the orcs
dormant periods for fear of leaving behind some clue that would alert them to our
presence. As such we remained, for a good string of days, entirely in our tree even,
and I’m dreadfully sorry for saying this but it’s essential to understanding the
ordeal, even in matters of our physiological evacuations. A ghastly surprise it will
be to the next man who climbs up there and finds all the mysterious dangling
canisters we left behind! (For we could leave no trace of ourselves below) Ah! The
ugliness we must undertake sometimes to do good.

You may be wondering why we did not simply go about killing every hapless
orc we could and instead spent so much effort for the opportunity to spy on these
pestilent creatures. I will have to quote Mr. Cinnabar Morte himself to assist me
here.
“Ya can’t jus’ go murderin’ about wit’ ‘em. Well, you may, but it won’t do
much. Nah. If wot yer truly after is to kill as many orcs as ya can, the best way’s ta
find out ‘oo’s ‘oo among ‘em. Off a few of the roight ones an’ the resultin’ furor, as
they try to decide ‘oo’s the new big meanie an’ ‘oo gets to be ‘is chosen bullies, will
lead to so much carnage you’ll be laughin’ while leanin’ back wit’ yer legs crossed.”

A sound strategy, don’t you agree? I certainly thought so. Therefore we


began our great orc watch and it was in this that I made my chiefest contribution
to the whole endeavor. Not only did my inclusion make uninterrupted observation
of the orcs possible but my journalistic stamina and acumen turned out to be
pivotal to our success. I can say with utter sincerity that by the fifth day of our vigil,
my knowledge of orcs had eclipsed completely the sources I had invested myself in
back at the outpost. Let me tell you about these orcs Martha because, as odious as
they are, there is a great deal more that is curious in them than you might believe.
Using no more than a telescope and eavesdropping horn, here are the discoveries
I made. Not only do orcs have names (We all know this) but they change names
regularly. This results from some incident or other transpiring which causes a group
of orcs to rename one of their members. Think of it like nicknames, only for orcs
that’s as far as naming goes. During our time in the nest I personally witnessed one
young orc undergoing two name changes; first he was Lard Head, on account of
being slow and disproportionate even by orc standards, then he became Beg Leg
when he tried pleading for a bite from the last piece of a freshly dismembered elk,
and at last he was reduced to No Ears after making the disastrous mistake of
ignoring the orders of a much larger orc. I was surprised actually how many wild
orcs speak a crude patois version of modernese. Mr. Morte explained to me that
it’s largely the result of press-ganged orc laborers being re-released at the end of
their respective enterprises and I’ve also heard that orc mercenaries and the like
play a part too in spreading this scrap of civilization. Orcs will furthermore trade
with their unscrupulous or desperate human counterparts, desiring mainly guns,
alcohols, helmets, shiny trinkets, musical instruments (Oddly enough) and livestock
in exchange for furs, ore, and the occasional distinctly orcish knickknack; but I’m
not sure why anyone would want such grotesquery for their own. By the way, orcs
also have their own language, Urk, that sounds very much like slobbering
gobbledygook but which, and it’s been insisted to me, supposedly provides some
form of communication between them. Fascinating no?
And as I implied earlier, spying on the green-skins could actually provide all
sorts of levity. In fact, it was nearing dusk on the seventh day of our watch when a
delightfully barbaric drama played itself out among our targets. Perhaps three
dozen orcs were loitering about their hive while engaging in the usual pastimes of
brawling, hooting, tumbling about, molesting bonfires, showing off their physical
or plundered assets, and mangling anything not under the protection of another
orc that looked like it might provide fun in the act of being broken. I do not mean
to suggest that these are their only preoccupations, since I also saw them at times
making crafts, forging iron weapons, and chiseling their infamously crude stone
totems, but on a typical evening orcs are more procrastinatory than not. As I was
saying, that day our orcs were larking about like mad when two who had left several
hours earlier came running out of a small copse of trees located across from us on
the other side of the hive. They explained nothing as many of their tribe greeted
them with indignant shouting, preferring instead to dive into the nearest hive holes
they could find, when the reason why suddenly became apparent as a massive
adolescent troll (A good sixteen feet tall I’d say and as bulky as a bull elephant)
crashed into their midst. Of course the orcs took umbrage at this but since the
biggest in the hive was no more than six feet and maybe four hundred pounds
(Admittedly pure muscle that one) and their chief wasn’t present to rally them with
insults, the surprised orcs understandably shattered into chaos.

“Not the one! Not me!” Bent Knives wailed before a swat from the troll sent
him flying in cartwheels through the air.

“Arrrrrrggg!” screamed Hard Skull as he leapt at the troll’s feet to do some


desperate chopping with a hatchet, only to have the veracity of his moniker
disproven by a retaliatory stomp. A commendable number of orcs did in fact brave
the troll outright but, in its rage, the titan was a deluge of pure violence none of
them could withstand.

“We might quickly be made superf’luous Mr. Coxcomb!” chuckled Mr. Morte
as we watched the annihilation then underway, but he hadn’t even finished
speaking these words when I caught sight of Was Dead.

Now this Was Dead happened to be the most interesting orc of the lot. Unlike
his comrades, he was prone to bouts of silence and intense staring which I attribute
to the event for which he was known; as best as I could piece together, this involved
him being skewered quite thoroughly in a raid on a bandit camp, where he ended
up being left as a corpse in a ditch by the road, and then him walking back to his
hive on his own the next day. Indeed, he was disturbingly perceptive that one. Miss
Summers, have you ever seen a cat studying something on a high shelf, looking for
a way to get to it? That’s the feeling Was Dead gave me when I caught him, yes him,
looking at other orcs. Oh! It gives me a shiver, the thought of a smart orc and in
regards to the troll he certainly demonstrated his ruthless cunning. You see, Was
Dead’s favorite spot was always on a small elevated plateau protruding from one
of the hive mounds. Here he would spend most of his time stirring a large cast-iron
cauldron he used to make stews and potions in. And likewise, that was where he
was when the troll showed up that day. Whereupon he did quickly duck behind said
cauldron but, there he stayed, watching events unfold until the troll came near
enough and he hoisted the cauldron above him in a ferocious burst of strength and
proceeded to leap on top of the troll, jamming the upside-down cauldron over his
head. Blinded and bewildered, the troll reacted first by stumbling around
backwards as it tried fiendishly to shake off its obstruction and all while Was Dead
still clung to one of the cauldron’s stumpy legs, himself swinging around the whole
time by a single hand. Fortuitously he let go before the troll started to claw and
beat at the cauldron with its fists. Not yet satisfied though, Was Dead rushed to
grab a half-glowing log from a bon fire and then ran under the troll and rammed
the hot end of this into the most painful place you can imagine. The troll howled
like a monstrous living bell and other orcs, finally catching on, joined Was Dead with
flaming implements of their own. Writhing on the ground as the withering attack
mounted, it was only by impossible luck that the troll managed to get its head free
and careen clear in an utterly terrorized retreat while a growing swarm of jeering
orcs swiftly followed behind.

Whew! I trust this last torrent of orc related esoterica gives you a sufficient
portrait of them now. Mr. Morte and I were certainly approaching satisfaction at
this point so that evening, as the shadow of the moon brought on another night,
we discussed which orcs we had to remove. Grim Eye, their chief, was too obvious
to merit anything more than a cursory mention but we were also almost entirely in
agreement when it came to the other selections of Lug Bones, Dark Howl, Tall One,
Huge Nose, and Blood Chug. As it was, this list failed to included Big Woe, the
largest of them I mentioned earlier, but that was because he was a rather solitary
brute and we felt there was a good chance that in the frenzy we were hoping to
spark, he would be the cause of fatality among many of his kin. No, our point of
polite disagreement was in regards to Was Dead. I thought he was the most
worrisome of the bunch and wanted him eliminated but Mr. Morte seemed
strangely puzzled by the idea and eventually I relented. Knowing we had a busy day
ahead of us, and no longer obsessing over the goings on around the hive, we
decided to risk sleeping without sentry shifts and settled in for the night. I was
already drowsy so I likely fell asleep first but we were no doubt both comfortably
dreaming when, just before dawn, the swinging of an axe against the trunk of our
tree woke us. Had we been found! It seemed the only explanation but we did not
immediately do anything. I must have appeared especially disgruntled for a minute
because Mr. Morte looked at me and then put a heavy hand on my forearm.

“Keep ‘n mind Mr. Coxcomb,” he said in a tense but even voice. “Orcs ‘ill
climb a screamin’ tree to go an’ ‘ave a look.” I nodded, recovering myself. Instead
of doing anything then, the two of us waited there for a moment as the ugly noise
of orc talk rose to greet us and the steady swinging of an axe sent up the vibrations
that shook us through and through.

Let me pause here briefly. My butler has just brought to my notice a speck
of lint clinging to my cuff and this reminds me of a comical episode that transpired
at your parent’s gala which I have not previously had the chance to share with you
and is a matter of not inconsiderable social currency. I was engaging Dr. Attis
Whelper and a Mr. Cyril Quarles in a debate regarding the merits of the hundred
cost exchange system for the trinity of commerce-metals, versus those of a
radically absurd idea proposed at a recent financial symposium involving replacing
this with open market speculation. Surely doing so would lead to all sorts of
diabolical anarchy but Dr. Whelper was eager to offer a defense of the suggestion
and we were making a solid joust of it when a commotion broke out among a group
of guests huddled to our immediate left. All of us stopped and glanced over
discretely as the following contest of wills unfolded. Mr. Hume Cockles, a known
agitator and blusterer, had managed somehow to get himself within the orbit of
that peerless wit, Mr. Juas Ansant, and his usual retinue of ladies, when the former,
piqued with some dire species of jealousy, challenged the latter outright.

“Sir, I have read your latest treatise on the superiority of Imperial art. Sir! It
is an affront! Nowhere in all its contrived attempts at eloquence does it even begin
to justify the reckless insult it hurls against the culture of our own people! It is not
just literary sport sir, it is ammunition for our primordial enemy! How do you
answer this!? How can you!? Even in this time of peace, such a discourse is flatly
treasonous! What! You don’t think the matter important! Then convince us sir!
Make the case!” before adding at the end a final sneering “If you can.”

The footsteps of an aphid could have been heard in the waft of silence that
settled across the room. Everyone was looking at Mr. Ansant expectantly but he
just stood there for a second, staring contentedly at his bubbling glass of
champagne. And there was an exquisite torture in this for those of us who were
waiting but, just when it threatened to overpower our hushed enchantment, the
slightest look of curiosity dawned on his face and he handed his glass over to a
breathless female companion (While still unwavering in a focus that had slowly
crept down to his sleeve) It was a hair Miss Summers, a delicate female hair as
golden as your own, and ever so slowly and gently he plucked it with thumb and
finger so he could examine it in a better light. Then, with consummate grace and
breeding, he casually blew the hair away before looking out, taking in the whole
room at once, and bathing us all in the most glorious conceivable smile. Miss
Summers, there were gasps, honest gasps, at this display of social virtuosity.
Applause as well and, very rapidly, the rascal Mr. Cockles made his now
ignominious exit.

It was surely worth a bravo if I may say and I would feel myself a cad if I
deprived you of the knowledge of it. But I hope I have not strayed your interest
completely from my own story. As I was saying, the orcs had us in a rather bad way.
We listened though and noted that they did not appear to know we were there so
this put us in the awkward position of wondering if we should abandon caution and
attack. Thankfully it didn’t come to that. Instead, the hand of the deity lifted us
from our plight when a quarrel broke out among the orcs and they entirely forgot
about the tree they’d intended to fell. A magnificent sliver of dawn was beginning
to flood the land too as the begrudging moon finally neared the end of its nightly
eclipse. So, when they left, we knew they wouldn’t be returning for at least several
hours. Nevertheless we capitalized on our good fortune with all haste by
dismantling our blind of only its most valuable components and making our way
down without the least spot of idleness. How exhilarating it was Miss Summers, to
be back on solid ground after over a week living in the precarious sky! There was
still plenty of work for us to do though and we had already discussed the fact the
preceding night that we’d have to move to a different location in order to get a
clean shot at the orcs we wanted. We therefore moved in tandem now with
purpose, and no unnecessary conversation, as we scrambled over to our next
destination. Somehow we we’re split up however, undergrowth in the forest I
think, when I nearly collided with someone who was not Mr. Morte.

This someone in fact had green-skin and two other someones with them. I
knew right away that the first one was a she-orc however because wild females do
not cover their torsos and her large sagging breasts hung there with ever the
slightest tremble. She was frozen though as I recognized her as Drags Foot, a lamed
matron among her kin who was nearing the end of her forty year life span. With
her were two spawn who couldn’t be more than a summer old and of which neither
was tall enough to bump their forehead on their guardian’s elbow (On the ground
meanwhile lay a basket half-filled with picked mushrooms) It was a bizarre
predicament to be sure but fortunately I didn’t hesitate and before Drags Foot
could screech I had pulled the dagger Captain Heems had inspired me to have at
the ready and plunged it squarely into the she-orc’s throat. She died with
incomprehension still lingering on her face and I dispatched both the spawn too
with equal efficiency and ease before wiping my blade on the body of one of them
and dashing off to find Mr. Morte. When I caught up with him he looked at me,
covered as I was in fresh blood, and knew more or less exactly what had happened.

“Ah foin bit of work there Mr. Coxcomb,” he said approvingly. “Oi didn’t even
‘ear a thing.”

With the surge of vitalistic energies that I felt from dispatching my first orc,
and three at once in fact, I was keen to run and so beat Mr. Morte to our target
location by a full twenty seconds.

“Right then,” he said. “Same thing as be’fore. Up a tree we go. Only it won’t
be telescopes we’re brandishin’ dis time.” He punctuated his remark by patting the
side of his rucksack which had the F.R.O.M. in it (Far Range Optical Musket) and I
envied him for a second. I was not familiar enough with the weapon to dare suggest
that I take any of the shots. No, my part was to be a wary set of eyes and ears now,
to divide the weight of our equipage and, if the worse transpired, to unsheathe a
blade beside my companion as we faced off against who knows how many
ravenous foes. Yes, it was thoughts of this nature that preoccupied me while we
ascended the second tree and continued to distract me even as we built ourselves
a pair of hanging rope seats (No nest this time since we intended to move locations
each morning after we made an attempt on one of the prey) Our ideas about how
things were going to unfold from here though proved very wide of the mark. But
happily so! My killing of the she-orc and cubs turned out to be an amazing spot of
good fortune since her tribe discovered the corpses in the ensuing afternoon (Their
howling was unmistakable) and a spectacular pandemonium broke out. Oh! Please
excuse my penmanship for a moment because a bout of chortling just now is
making it difficult to write with my customary neatness. Actually, I will pause.
Alright! Better. Indeed, there was much commotion then as the outraged orcs held
an assembly outside to get at the bottom of which of them had done the killings
for which I myself was responsible. A full four thousand at least! And, even with so
many of the blighters crammed together, we were quickly able to identify all the
ones we wanted.

Mr. Morte in fact was practically salivating now to get on with it and, as their
uproar continued pouring into the air like ash from a volcano, he hurriedly attached
what was, in all likelihood, a totally unrequired muffler to the end of his rifle and
steadied the five foot long weapon for his first shot.

“Are you going to save Grim Eye for last?” I half shouted, thinking of our
previous consideration that dropping him might send most of them hiding in panic.

“Nah,” was all he replied as he found the cantankerous chief in his sights. I
turned towards the bedlam of orcs with our telescope and only had a few seconds
to watch Grim Eye smacking around a queue of underlings when the thump of the
F.R.O.M, with all its immense satisfaction, let me know that a projectile was now
on route. A rather deadly one to be sure as, not a moment later, the back of Grim
Eye’s head erupted in a fountain of vermillion goo. His brains, you see, turned to
mush as the bullet spun around inside his skull, following its getting trapped there,
after the initial entry wound.

“Capital shot!” I cheered before Mr. Morte quipped, “Bit of a decap-ital one
actually.” Meanwhile, their chief’s death, despite causing severe consternation
among his nearest comrades, failed to lead to a general alarm. Or even notice. In
all the snarling and tumultuousness it seemed, the orcs had failed to realize they
were being exterminated.
The next to go was Tall One. The first of our targets to be identified that day
for obvious reasons, he took a bullet through the temple and collapsed sideways,
falling on a trio of his startled kin. Then it was Lug Bones’ turn. Through no fault of
Mr. Morte, the brute required two shots; the first going right into his eye but,
somehow, he was still stumbling around after this so my companion had to put
another into his heart from behind. That proved sufficient. Moving on to Dark Howl
after this, the beast was hanging off a ledge of one of the hive mounds, shaking a
fist at a coterie of orcs below when, quite unexpectedly from his point of view, he
ungracefully joined them there; lying as motionless as a lightning-struck sparrow.
This left only Huge Nose and Blood Chug. The latter happened to be the easier of
the two and he was gleefully squeezing the last juice from a severed arm into his
upturned mouth when his thirst was finally quenched for good. Huge Nose though
disappeared for a while. We had to search the crowd of still teeming orcs for a solid
half hour before we spotted him again, sitting with his usual chums, sulking it
seemed but over who knows what. Mr. Morte, quite expertly, got him between the
eyes from at least a hundred and seventy yards away and this produced the tidy
result of a thin stream of blood flowing right down, and then off, the tip of his nose.

“We made a golly plum job of it, eh Coxcomb?” cackled my companion as he


started packing up. The vim of hooligans was in us then and, had I been less
distracted, I would have tried my case again regarding Was Dead but, instead, I
simply joined Mr. Morte as we made a dash of it. The forest below seemed quiet
despite the ample din coming from nearby so we sprinted through the woods and
up the slope we’d scrambled down so long ago until, nearing the ridge above, we
finally started to slow down.

“The captain will be pleased won’t he?” I asked, convinced I knew the answer
but eager to hear it from my colleague.

“Aye. An’ a bit more than that!” he replied, an accompanying grin flashing
his lone gold tooth. Mr. Morte then started searching himself for his pipe and,
perceiving his distraction, I turned forward towards the ridge again and bounded
the last stretch to the top. Standing there, feeling myself at the zenith of
accomplishment, I pivoted around and basked in the surrounding forest as a now
billowing Mr. Morte gradually made his way over. This lasted the whole of a very
pleasant minute before I suddenly found myself tackled by a slobbering orc.
Right away we were fighting to the death. As it so happened, it was Old Scab
I was up against and, pinning me down with the weight of his bulk, he immediately
went to work trying to tear out my throat. I had my blade though and, shielding
myself as best I could with one arm, I used the other to grab my weapon and start
stabbing him in the side. This amounted to all of two thrusts however before Old
Scab seized me by the hand and wrist, and began to twist the dagger towards me.
I shudder recalling this but let me not delay. We wrestled like that, both of us using
our two arms to try and point the blade at each other, in what felt like an unending
struggle until my enemy gained the advantage and succeeded in pushing the
acutely angled dagger into my stomach. I hardly felt it before I did and, as the shock
of the pain threatened to smother the last of my resistance, I wondered to myself
why I was alone in this. But I wasn’t. Good Mr. Morte, blessed Mr. Morte, had finally
come to aid me and he stuck a cocked pistol right in Old Scab’s face and fired off a
round. The fanged grimace of triumph that had just been lording above me rapidly
vanished with a trail of gore and I was left clutching my wound as Mr. Morte bent
down to assist. It was life threatening but not fatal and Mr. Morte did a physician’s
job of it, bandaging me with strips torn from a sheet of linen.

“Can you walk Mr. Coxcomb?” he asked with a hint of trepidation.

“I have to,” said I and, after he helped me to my feet, we hobbled onwards


at a steady pace until reaching the ring of thorny brush that divided the site of our
contest with the orcs from the rest of the enclosed world.

From this point on there’s not much to relate of interest. We made it back to
the outpost in darkness and I was thereupon swiftly carried to a bed where I
proceeded to argue with a military doctor regarding the administration of a
suspicious looking serum before passing out like a discarded marionette. I woke up,
days later, as a soldier was laying a bowl of soup beside my bed and after a bit of
haggling I managed to get him to bring around the doctor. Said man assured me I
would survive but this good news was tinged with a sigh now because I was of the
inference that Mr. Morte had left without me. Within the hour though I was proved
wrong and my companion remained during the course of my week long
convalescence so that, on an appropriately sunny Twinsday morning some time
later, we both set off in the tow of loyal Obsidian. Captain Heems of course had
been abundant with praise and in this he showed himself to be nearly as eloquent
as he was in cursing.
“You rascals sure put in some hearty work!” he exclaimed in one of our final
interactions. “Songs of the sirens man! There’s a swell future in it for you if you ever
tire of the gilded humdrum of Minter’s Street.”

I confess I seriously entertained the notion but, by the time we had reached
Obelisk Junction, the seers of Prudence and Calculation had prevailed. Mr. Morte
and myself meanwhile had made no discussion of any further involvement in his
business and when he stopped to let me out in front of my city residence (And what
a wonderfully deranged sight this was, the pair of us in a rustic wagon in that part
of town) we parted simply as friends.

“Homer, yer not a bad sort,” he opined. “Fer a dandy.” With little more than
a last minute handshake, our time together ended and it was with the fresh seed
of later-year nostalgia that I watched him disappear in a wake of astonished
pedestrians. Feeling the soreness here of a long journey’s end, as well as the still
throbbing memento I received from Old Scab, I climbed the stairs of my building
and shuffled my way inside.

Greeting me in my foyer was my man Aster (Excuse me Miss Summers, that


is to say, my butler) and he was dutifully attendant as he helped me settle into a
plush chair by the veranda. The poor fellow; I must have regaled him for hours with
every detail of my adventure and, even as late as that evening, I was still in a
talkative mood. Visitors had come and went but, in conclusion, I’ll just share one
last conversation Aster and I had that night.

“We never hear much about wild orcs in the newspapers, do we Aster?”

He thought for a second before replying, “No sir, we don’t.”

It suddenly seemed rather strange to me. “Would you say it’s peculiar?” I
asked.

“Yes,” he answered.

“And, inordinately so?” I pressed.


“Indeed,” he confirmed.

We appeared to reach the summit of our inquiry with this. “Most


inordinately peculiar,” I summarized while shaking my head and returning to my
glass of 1098 ReVoyae.

“Quite definitely sir,” he agreed.

There you have it Miss Summers; the whole of a modern chronicle of heroes
and villains, humbly presented by an admiring acquaintance. Yet for all my trouble
with the orcs, I did not gain much materially by the experience. However I’ve so far
neglected to share one thing I did obtain. The scar I now have on my abdomen isn’t
the only memento I got from Old Scab. And, when next we meet, I will present to
you as a gift the fearsome orc’s severed hand (Worry not, I’ve had it cleaned and
stuffed) Before then however I trust I shall hear from you. Please write soon; the
apple of a moment can’t stay ripe forever.

Effusively Yours,

Homer Coxcomb, Esquire

***

[Her Reply]

To the Superbly Courageous Mr. Coxcomb, Esquire

My dear sir, I find your recent letter most gratifying and have since shared it
with many. All delight in it. I think you do yourself a disservice though when you
dismiss your own aptitude for poetry. Such a facility with words as you have is a
rare gift and it would be a true shame if you deprived the rest of us of further
narratives on account of a false sense of inadequacy. My father is frequently known
to remark that a man should always do what he is best at and, while your meteoric
prosperity has been noted by several of us in established households, I am tempted
to suggest that your most favorable destiny lies not in finance or soldiering but
rather in making contributions of a literary nature. Regarding your depiction of
Captain Heems however, I was greatly surprised by it as he has been a guest at our
home countless times and was always the epitome of a benevolent soul. I suppose
though that a civilized gentlemen will do as he must when rising to meet barbaric
circumstances. Understand Mr. Coxcomb that I do not fault you in any way for this
only, I was rather perplexed at the incongruity, and wanted to make a note of it.
Also I should do you the courtesy of admitting the fact that my interest in the
sciences is somewhat more dilettantish than you appear to believe. A kind mind
you are to remember me so grandly but in truth my interest in orcs was a matter
of fleeting circumstance since my sister and I had been reading aloud that morning
from a book of folk tales. You know the one by Mr. Olunds? Well, in it there’s a
story about an orc who believed himself a sorcerer and as you can imagine it was a
narrative of the most exceptional mirth. Not unlike your own. Thank you as well for
your account of Mr. Ansant’s sparring. I received multiple versions of it from our
guests as you must surely have deduced, but I’ll commend you for adding plenty of
otherwise unmentioned details. You are quite an interesting gentleman sir and,
because you have been so entertaining Mr. Coxcomb, I suppose I will have to
excuse the lapses into familiarity with which you have numerous times addressed
me. They are of course benign; even my fiancé found them amusing. You know him
I believe. Tyseus Prestor? Indeed, I’m certain you’ve heard of him in regards to his
commercial developments in the Cypress District. I am assured they are the most
capital intensive of their kind. Which reminds me, we will soon be going on our own
excursion in the West Lowlands, visiting charming coastal towns and the like. As
such you and I shan’t encounter each other anytime soon. Thank you though for
your delightful letter and one day we shall have a very pleasant talk about it.

Your Very Respectful Acquaintance,

Martha Summers (soon Prestor)

P.S. Please send Old Scab’s hand by delivery. I am most eager to appraise it.
IN MOONDUST SHADOWS

Twillard Cooty woke up in a pile of trash to a pandemonium of cheers. Coots,


as he was more commonly called among his small fellowship of wayward addicts
and petty hoodlums, had no idea what the uproar was all about. Or even where he
was. The latter of these was a common event for him though so he coped with it as
only a virtuoso of debauchery could, having a long degenerate history to their
credit, and stood up without the slightest embarrassment. More cheers arose from
the nearby invisible crowd. I’m goin’ to have to see about that, thought Coots as he
peeled some clinging pieces of lobster shell from his jacket; a jacket already layered
in homesteading stains. Looking around now he observed that he was in a grimy
sunlit alley which he recognized; but of course there wasn’t a grimy alley in the
whole city that he wasn’t on a first name basis with. Although he did go by his last
name so… In any case, he knew the place. Ah! Pale Body’s Lane! One of the best.
Many fond memories and more no doubt to come. Coots did a stumbling zig zag as
he got his legs swinging properly and then shuffled towards the noise that seemed
to be emanating from the direction of Elven Way. Trying to avoid blundering into
any of the other disheveled partakers of the alley, and there were several, Coots
swerved around these with a notable lack of grace before exiting the cluttered lane
and finding himself staring at a throng of people with their backs turned towards
him. “Fracas and ruckus,” he muttered to himself but he was eaten up with curiosity
and he both stood on his tiptoes and hopped to try and get a better view. Finally a
great garlanded chariot appeared at half submergence in the oceanic masses and
Cooty suddenly realized what was going on. A parade. But that would mean today
was Pawn’s Carnival, which was, and he had to think here, the sixth of Mirth.
Hmmmm. Satyrsday. This wasn’t important to him because he had any kind of job
obviously, what one might generously call a living he made by randomly scavenging
the neglected property of others, but he did have routines that coincided with
various times of the week. There were periods to inconspicuously loiter in certain
places that were more advantageous than others. And, as any self-respecting fiend
will tell you, a score that’s lost is a score no more. Coots naturally didn’t need to be
reminded of this; for all he could remember with his drug-scorched brain, he might
have even been the one who coined the phrase.

Yes, in his past eleven years of unrelenting junkie mania, he had reached the
very pinnacle of what it means to be upside-down in gonzo country. But what, one
might ask, was the man’s toxin of choice? Why, it was the same one shared by the
rest of the most ravaged of the rabble. Moondust. The sand of mazes, the appetizer
of eternity. One hoot could take you instantly to a heaven for the damned. Cooty
didn’t just smoke it though; it overpowered and numbed any senses it came in
contact with so addicts got creative. And Twillard Cooty was an artiste. So, yeah, he
smoked it but he also snorted it and gummed it and injected it and gulped it in shots
mixed with grog and sprinkled it on his eyes and hooped it up his anus. When it
came to moondust, there was really no bad way to go. It wasn’t magic; it was better
than magic. Sorcery was mostly just gibberish anyways with rarely more than a
cannon shot worth of kaboom at the end. Moondust, to the contrary, was gospel.
Folk abandoned their entire families just to be slaves to its truth.

Noticing that the crowd was thoroughly enthralled by all the fanfare and
spectacle, Coots started lurking a little closer to see if anyone’s pockets could use
his professional attention. Lots of respectable folk about, he mused as his eyes
passed from a portly man in a hazel double-breasted vest and matching breeches
to an equine looking woman in a gamely corseted dress. You must seem quite the
stand out fellow here Mr. Cooty! It had been awhile since he’d actually examined
his appearance but when last he did he recalled seeing a man in a state of age
defying dilapidation, a characteristic soon common to all hardcore addicts, with a
head of hair that looked like the backside of a stray dog and a nose twisted and
reset more times than he could faithfully recall and lips and teeth like some desert
lizard and then, beneath it all, a chin that narrowed into an edge of rude granite.
Only his eyes conveyed something of the spirit that survived in him and these were
a pair of green jewels gleaming with troves of trickery. Coots suddenly got a bad
feeling though and looking more closely he noticed the undercover city warders in
the crowd. Or “the law” as some might say despite the fact that they were just as
likely as any other gang to lay a beating on a guy like him simply because they felt
like it (And in this gathering he stuck out like a toad among turtle doves)

Spying them before being seen himself, Coots decided to elude a thrashing
for once and make Yours Truly as scarce as propriety at a bronze penny whore
house. Galumphing in to Pale Body’s Lane again, he soon re-emerged from the
other side into the Angle District. There the streets abruptly tossed aside all sense
of order and took off in random directions like scattering thieves. Not having settled
on a particular destination, he wandered around for a bit before stumbling on to a
modest cobblestone plaza. In it, islands of small groups stood around solitary
pedagogues standing on crates as the latter did their best to regale their fragile
audiences with lectures and diatribes. The infamous Cuckoos Forum, observed
Coots, before spewing a big glob of phlegm towards a storm drain and missing. It
was what could only be described, in all honesty, as a freak show of ideas.

Coots strolled around, carefully evaluating the selection of speakers, before


finally deciding to give an ear to a wizened sage wearing nothing but a fleecy shawl.

“Everything progresses in cycles,” the man intoned as he propounded on the


nature of reality. “The seasons, the tides, the celestial bodies orbiting the sun; all
of them moving as circles within the great sphere of the world. We see this too in
life, with plants and animals in their endless generations, including most of all
perhaps that of man himself. He wakes and sleeps, eats and squats, breathes in and
out, repeats pastimes and rituals throughout his life, until he dies. Should we not
expect too then that death will also obey this cosmic law? Why in a universe where
everything else is continuously reabsorbed and repurposed would the soul be the
one thing that’s permanently destroyed? No doubt many of you are faithful
believers in the Deity and so already accept that those who prove themselves on
earth will receive salvation in heaven but I tell you there can be no permanent
heaven! See for yourselves! The kingdoms above also follow cycles as our
astrologers have verified for thousands of years. Therefore even the elect of
heaven must return to earth eventually. The cosmos forbids stagnation.” For some
reason the idea of a temporary stay in paradise truly offended Twillard Cooty and
he insisted on making himself heard on the matter.
“That’s rubbish that is!” he growled to the surprise of those around him.

“Speak fellow immortal!” replied the sage however, appearing perfectly


happy to engage one only a few degrees more abnormal than he was.

“Well,” said Coots cautiously. He wasn’t expecting the unperturbed reaction


he got. “How’s it goin’ work then? They kick you out like a fancy restaurant you
don’t belong in or something? I thought this was supposed to be heaven. Looks like
there’s a big crack in your logic there you old goat.”

Despite the insult, the sage smiled at his angry challenger beatifically.
“Doesn’t pleasure bring forgetfulness?” they began. “Then bliss must produce
oblivion. And so, in our lack of remembrance, our astral selves begin to long for
material life again, unmindful of its hardships. With this the cycle then continues,
as it surely must, forever.”

Coots spat on the ground in rage. “I guess I’ll be zipping back real soon after
I’m dead,” he scoffed. “Not much a lout like me wants to remember of this place.”
His jibe succeeded in dislodging a few surprising chuckles from the other
bystanders and Coots took a moment to beam at their faint approval.

The sage meanwhile remained composed. “I do not try to say what is


enjoyable friend,” they explained. “Only what is true.” Disgusted by the man’s
patience under provocation, Twillard Cooty simply waved dismissively at the sage
and walked away.

Needing to cleanse his palate of the saintliness that’d just been shoved down
his throat, Coots searched around again for a public speaker more congenial to his
tastes. Eventually he caught a doomsday preacher in mid harangue shouting “The
stars will melt into pools of blood!” and this fragment was enough to reel him right
in. Here’s a fella for me, he thought, as he squeezed in among the rest of their
listeners.

“And the horse will devour the trees as the wolf devours the beasts!”
thundered the skeletal man in a prim grey suit as his lone gnome assistant passed
out self-printed pamphlets. “Then the moon will descend to imprison the land in
ice before the dragon who feasts on dragons awakes and condemns us all! Infants
will hang from their mother’s breasts like worm-riddled fruit and devils will make
themselves fathers over your sons and daughters! There will be years of darkness
and the fresh lakes will be swallowed in the earth and fire will shoot forth from the
wells you once drank from! Your offspring will envy the dead and ghosts will weep
for the living! Human flesh will become the banquet of locusts after they’ve finished
gorging themselves on your fields and your stores of grain! Last of all, the hooves
of machines will trample the final slaves that remain in an unimaginable threshing
until those who are left flee into cocoons of fantasy and nightmare as a world
drained of its sorcery is sentenced to die by a merciless judge! Your evil will bring
this upon you people of Orb! And at the end not one mountain will remain!” As a
punctuation of this concluding outcry, the preacher collapsed to his knees and
raised a tear stained face and outstretched arms to the sky imploringly. His
audience then erupted in wild applause.

That man’s a poet for sure, thought Coots, as he walked away with one of
the pamphlets in his hand. By the Deuce! His palms were sore from all the clapping
he’d done. Taking a gander at the literature he’d been given, Coots saw that it had
been printed by The Church of Our Savior’s Aegis. Hmmm, he thought. Aulsanians.
He didn’t know much about them so he started flipping through its pages while
continuing to walk without paying much attention to where he was going. He really
didn’t read so good though and his eyes soon grew listless at the sight of so many
squiggly words so he folded the pamphlet neatly with the best of intentions and
deposited it in his jacket to look over later. There it promptly fell out a hole in his
pocket and was just as quickly forgotten about in any case. Where to now then Mr.
Cooty? After a pause he decided he wanted to avoid the hullabaloo of the parade
as much as possible so he’d make his way to the waterfront on his right and have a
nice amble through the Port District. A few minutes later he was walking among
the multi-storied brick buildings of the area when he did his best imitation of a
waltz as a cloud enveloped him coming from a grated vent the size of a tunnel
gushing out steam generated by a conjoined sixty loom textile factory.

Appearing like an illusionist on the other side, Coots bowed to his imaginary
patrons and continued on his way before the sight of a stagecoach stopped him. A
nearby apartment or office must have been in the middle of switching its occupants
because there was a variety of quality belongings neatly arranged next to the
carriage. Coots began to salivate. And the lone man packing all these things was as
oblivious as a pigeon insipidly bobbing its head. He would dip into the back
compartment to place one box or item at a time and do this for durations long
enough that it would be as easy as a breeze to slip by and snatch something away.
Finding his preferred target in a two-foot tall ornately carved mechanical clock,
Coots innocently crept closer until he was directly on the other side of the man’s
carriage, seemingly engaged in an admiring survey of the nearby buildings. Really
he was looking to see if anyone was watching. When he had confirmed the lack of
witnesses to his own satisfaction and the man descended once more into the
obscured depths of the stagecoach, Coots snuck over in weaselling silence and
delicately snatched up the clock like it was an unguarded egg.

This he placed under his jacket and scuttled off in an inconspicuous direction,
successfully making it to a parallel alley without even raising an alarm. Well, if you
don’t notice it’s gone you don’t deserve it! Coots cackled as he broke out into a trot
and began to put some real distance between himself and the site of his theft.
“Woo!” he shouted gleefully to a pair of uniformed merchant sailors giving him a
puzzled look and he jumped and did a jaunty kick as his mind turned to how he
could change this fine specimen of time keeping into moondust as quickly as
possible. Ugly Knid, he thought, meaning Knid Bloxen, the guru of an embryonic
gang of minor league rascals currently squatting in the basement of a Gaol Island
tenement. That meant crossing open sea but he had a good system worked out
long ago for that. He’d take the Metro Ferry and not by paying a fare or hopping
the gate. No, he’d creep his way up to the hull of the ship from underneath the
dock and grab a hold of the prow anchor. Then he’d just have to hang on the half
hour or so it’d take to finish the crossing and he’d be safe on the other side.
Provided a hungry mermaid didn’t see him. Rod slobbering sea hags! But they were
a rare sight in high traffic areas during the day. Spurred on now by the dust induced
delirium that soon promised to be his, Twillard Cooty implemented his plan to
perfection and moments later he was dangling with one arm wrapped around the
anchor chain and a toe hold in one of its links while he cradled his stolen clock in
the other arm. No better way to travel, he mused, as his ferry left its terminal and
the boisterous reeking sea divided submissively before him.

At the other end of the crossing it was simply a matter of jumping off when
the right second arrived and Coots acquitted himself adequately here, landing on
the shore boulders below the pier with only a slight twist of an ankle and no
permanent damage to either himself or his liberated cargo.
“And I’ll be a witness to a legend,” drawled a voice suddenly. Coots tensed
with paranoia for a second before he spotted the pile of rags next to a pillar and
the tell-tale beak of a nose sticking out from this.

“Oh! Hey there Hunze,” Coots replied. The sprawled man buried under a nest
of soiled garments was merely another derelict acquaintance of his enjoying a no
doubt well-earned repose in the briny garbage-strewn gloom beneath a foot
pounded wharf.

“What’cha got there?” asked Hunze as he noticed the clock.

“Just nothing,” retorted Coots. “Payment for a debt is all.” Twillard Cooty
wasn’t about to tell Euffinias Hunzea that he was on the verge of snagging a hefty
pouch of dust and risk the pesky rotter trying to tag along. Waving an emphatic
goodbye to pre-empt any further conversation, Coots bounded away towards a gap
in the floorboards of the pier that led back into the world of daylight.

No one paid any attention as he materialized with a slither, this was Gaol
Island after all, and Coots found himself once again among the shabby brick
buildings and warped hovels and fissured streets he was such a regular frequenter
of. Knid’s squat meanwhile was only a short sprint to the northwest so he got going
immediately in that direction. A few minutes later however, as he was traversing a
large empty lot that had gradually grown into a community junkyard, he was beset
by two ogres. Literal ogres. One was at least twice as tall as he was, the other maybe
only a foot or so shorter than this.

“Look heer Dirk,” globbered the bigger of the two. “Da wind blew uss a skinny
liddle scarecrow.”

Dirk huffed as his ogly eyes bulged with cruelty. “Den shtick a pole up its butt
Morhl,” he sneered. The pair of brutes enjoyed a nice hulking bout of laughter as
Cooty shrank in anticipation of what was about to happen.

“Und wuts dis??” rasped Morhl as he noticed the clock Coots was swaddling
in his jacket. “Give us dat.”
Of course the ogre didn’t wait for their victim to hand it over and with one
anvil sized fist, they reached in and tore it from Cooty’s grasp. “Id any good?”
interjected Dirk as Morhl prodded it with a huge grubby finger.

“Nah,” id’s stoopid,” growled the latter ogre before he crushed the clock with
one hand and sprinkled out its wreckage in mild amusement. Then the two titans
took turns slapping him around for a while before finally succumbing to boredom
and leaving a battered Twillard Cooty doubled over in the fetal position. He lay
there tearful and bleeding for a few minutes but eventually the pain subsided and
he sat up. He didn’t care much for poetry but, wiping away some oozing snot, he
recalled a couplet he’d long ago committed to memory. “In moondust shadows
even satyrs weep, pondering paths of life they did not heed.”

Despite recognizing the futility of it, Coots couldn’t help crawling over and
sifting through the ruins of his plundered prize. There was nothing in the broken
pieces though that looked like it was valuable enough to pay his fare to the moon.
Those bungling louts! Two noggins all bone and no brain, eager to squander
unappreciated treasure in the service of a petty thrill! And Fortune! A woman for
sure, fickle without remorse! Filling his heart with hope simply for the pleasure of
squeezing it all out. Oh! How he hated being toyed with. But what power did a
puppet like him have against an invisible heavenly hand? Unable to think of any,
Twillard Cooty suppressed the last of his seething desire to scream and pushed
himself up from the ground. Standing alone, smacking the dirt from his clothes, his
mood plummeted from the crags of anger into the crevasses of despair. Another
wasted day in a worthless life. Shuffling away from the scene of his most recent
shame, Coots wandered around aimlessly for a while, simply trying to keep moving
so he didn’t have to contemplate the depths of failure he’d succumbed to. In this
too he was unsuccessful.

Memories of childhood proved an irresistible melancholy. It sure hurt


though, to picture the boy he’d used to be. Not a bad kid, a little lazy maybe and
unrepentant when it came to taking short cuts, but not mean and greedy.
Nevertheless he knew from a young age he was a disappointment to his father. A
county tax collector who’d aspired to respectable mediocrity since earliest
adulthood, the old man had no patience for dreamers and didn’t shed any tears
when his son Twillard ran away at sixteen to seek out the enchantments of the
magic city. Coots flirted with so many different ambitions but none of them lasted
long enough to amount to anything. Drake wrangler, artisan, merchant mariner; all
fell apart at the first moment of resistance. Then by happenstance, a fellow partyer
at a Nymphomorphosis festival gave him an introductory snort of moondust and
his continuing lesson in forced dependency began. Having nervously stayed on the
right side of the law until that point, it was hardly three weeks later before he was
committing a half a dozen acts of brazen theft a day. All to feed the dragon tyrant
that now ruled him. As if everything that had ever occurred since the beginning of
the world was pure clockwork, an instance of serendipity transpired here that
defied random coincidence. He saw from afar the Dragon Cenotaph, a memorial to
the victims of the last awakening. A forlorn and neglected monument presently
covered in graffiti, Coots felt an irresistible urge to draw nearer and soon he was
wistfully circling the statue of the dread beast like he’d reached the end of some
long pilgrimage. Meaning he felt exhausted. Then, to his utter dismay, the statue
of the dragon started speaking to him.

“You’re looking a bit glum there Coots,” remarked the dragon statue with
casual familiarity as its massive stone head moved slightly to gaze at him.

“It’s no problem,” answered Coots guardedly. His caution here stemmed


from the fact that one of the side effects of prolonged moondust usage was
periodic hallucinations. On the other hand though he really did live in a world
where wizards could bring inanimate objects to life and where the powers of magic
were nearly limitless, so there really wasn’t anything so implausible you could be
sure it was a delusion. At this point in his life, reality for Twillard Cooty was a
concept more hypothetical than actual, but he made do by matching the
unreliability of his perceptions with his own inconsistency.

“Well, you know what would cure that?” asked the dragon statue
rhetorically. “A spoonful of lunar medicine.”

Coots sighed in dejection. “Just another trick is all,” he muttered dismissively.


“A way to play you for the fool again.” Hearing this, the expression on the marble
dragon shifted with tectonic pity.

“Come on now Mr. Cooty,” it replied in mild protest. “Don’t be like that. How
many times have I basked you in joy and shooed off your sorrows? How many
times?”
A pang of embarrassment struck Coots from a sense of his own ingratitude.
“Lots,” he said sheepishly.

The dragon however didn’t gloat here. “No need for that,” it said with
munificence. “I’m simply trying to help you out my friend. And if you’re willing to
heed my advice, I’d recommend you pay your pal Knid there a visit. You may not be
able to afford a trip to the moon right now but that doesn’t mean you can’t hitch a
ride to get there.” Coots considered this idea with the same level of analysis a
banker would use when weighing out the merits of giving out a loan. His conclusion;
he had nothing to lose.

“Thanks dragon,” said a brightened Coots, but the statue had reverted to its
earlier lifeless state. No matter. He had hit the ground hard but he was bouncing
back. The day wasn’t over, the fight wasn’t lost.

Although not a particularly festive place, there were still some signs of Pawns
Carnival among Gaol Island’s crowds. With the jumbled tenements’ upper levels
visible above the rest of the surrounding sprawl, Coots weaved his way through the
usual masses dressed with scavenged elegance and pragmatic grotesqueness, as
well as the odd reveler attired in more celebratory costume. Two of these, a tip-
toeing fiddler and a one-armed man cranking a hurdy-gurdy, were performing a jig
in horse mask, and he felt drawn to them for a fleeting moment before his addict
priorities reasserted themselves.

Reaching the east-west thoroughfare of Hangman’s Boulevard, he waited


impatiently for a break in traffic he could use to scuttle across. The flow of carriages
and animals however seemed determined to keep him sidelined and eventually he
got so fed up he dashed into the lethal turmoil running in both directions. Between
slicing wheels he dodged and stumbled until, halfway in, he tried to catch his breath
during an apparent interlude. Here however a vehicle changed lanes and suddenly
a wall of hog-sized rats was rushing towards him. Somersaulting at the last second,
he quickly looked behind to catch sight of the caravan the giant rodents were
pulling; a huge rickety wagon helmed by a top-hatted dwarf cracking an angry whip
over his chittering beasts. Beside him a swirling fairy seemed to be offering useless
driving advice but there was too much noise for Coots to hear anything as they
rumbled by. He had time though to read the colorful sign on the side of the vehicle;
Garl’s Mystic Circus, it read. Shaking off the daze of a close call, Twillard Cooty
scrambled the rest of the way across the road. There he collapsed for a moment
and puked from dizziness before noticing a crow, pecking at some nearby roadkill,
who promptly took off. Wiping away his mouth, he lurched to a standing position
again and veered once more towards Knid’s squat. A shortcut through a fetid alley
halved the journey and, passing a clique of elderly drunks sharing a gallon of Dog’s
Breath Stout, he emerged from this immediately in front of Ugly Knid’s building.
There the normal mess of scorched lowlifes were idly enjoying the squalid
ambiance but Coots manoeuvered through them with minimal hellos and banter.
Finding the weathered steps that led to the basement entrance, he danced down
these in a flash and disappeared into the dark recesses beyond a pair of battered
swinging doors.

The basement was a dismal swamp. A shallow layer of water covered the
entire floor and it was only by haphazard islands of debris that you could pass
through without getting your feet soaked. Wall mounted oil lamps had originally
illuminated the area too but these had long ago been ripped out, leaving only a few
shafts of sunlight slipping in through cracks, and the occasional candle, to provide
any visibility. One of the latter of these was actually floating by on a crude toy boat
when Coots completed the series of leaps he needed to reach the curtained hole
to Knid’s lair. This was where he was supposed to knock beside the hole and wait
to be let in but instead Twillard Cooty just stood there and listened. For a second
he couldn’t figure out what was so peculiar and then it hit him; the quiet. Knid
Bloxen and his associates weren’t exactly known for that. Deciding after a minute
that he’d risk it, Coots swept back the curtain and furtively snuck inside. There he
found the gang passed out on the ground in random positions like a pack of hounds
depleted after a hunt. Creeping closer, he caught sight of Ugly Knid (Still as ugly as
ever) being spooned by a snoring wench with hideous yellow teeth. Her ephemeral
paramour however was jealously hugging a small leather pouch. Coots instantly
knew from Knid’s body language that the pouch had moondust in it; looking at the
man was like looking in a mirror at himself when he was flush. Twillard Cooty
realized that it would be next to impossible to steal the pouch without waking Knid
but his desperation paralyzed him for a minute as he considered risking it anyways.
Then, right when the temptation was about to push him into the reckless act, he
remembered something. Months ago while hanging out there, Coots had seen Knid
suspiciously opening and closing the door of the old iron stoke heater. This struck
Coots as odd because he’d never known the squat to be heated and, fueled by an
inarticulate faith, he went over first to investigate. Despite opening the heater as
slowly as he could, a sharp creak still escaped and this brought on a momentary
flood of panic. None of the dogs were roused though. Then, groping around in the
ancient heap of ashes, Coots found a tin box whose contents were as wonderful as
any he’d ever personally beheld.

Cradled in a nest of silver coins lay an ivory pipe carved in the shape of a wolf
and… twenty one dice sized cubes of moondust. Simmering with elation, Twillard
Cooty nevertheless had the wherewithal to shut the heater door again and inch his
way back out from where he came. It required an extraordinary act of will power
on his part not to let his greed convince him to try and pilfer Knid’s pouch as well
but here the earlier encounter with the ogres made him conscientious of the
possibility of sudden and total disaster. Instead he went with the smart play for
once and cavorted out of there in a hurry. Noticing how ashy his hands were in the
hall, Coots availed himself of all the foul-looking water around him and washed
away the evidence of his theft before abandoning caution and fleeing in a burst of
splashing footfalls. So quick was he though that the water didn’t have time to
rebound back to his boots and, when he shot out of the basement entrance into
the open air again, his feet were still perfectly dry.

Now he had to decide where he was going to get high. A place he could be
alone but no so secluded he might be surprised upon. Somewhere with visibility
and distance. The obvious answer soon struck him like a gong going duh. The
beach! And the nearest one was ideal too; Carapace Shore on the north side of the
island was never particularly busy so it’d be an excellent spot to launch himself into
lunar orbit. And, a quarter of an hour later, he was leaning against a wooden railing
with his back turned to the waters of Oblation Bay and the far off mouth of the
Sybeles, happily taking hits from his new ivory wolf pipe while passing merry
judgement on the assorted pedestrians walking by on a yonder path. For example,
Coots giggled hysterically when an older orc couple sauntered past in their church-
going best. Their earnest effort to be upstanding somehow seemed especially
ridiculous to him as his mind churned with ideas and impressions electrified by the
spirit of the moon. Then a wealthy looking trio of lads apparently having a day of it
in the slums went by. The Minter’s Street type. A now thoroughly dusted Twillard
Cooty saw them with the clarity of drug-enhanced insight and in an instant the
meaninglessness of the usurious luxury they strived for was revealed to him. Cats
chasing yarn, he thought. Here he finished off the last bubbling resin of his second
cube of moondust before deciding he’d reached peak intoxication and putting away
his paraphernalia. Feeling a bit parched from all the smoke he’d inhaled, Coots
wobbled away from the beach and went looking for a grocer he could grab a drink
from. Thumbing a silver coin he’d transferred to his pocket, he quickly made his
way to a busy street lined with shops and there he stumbled along contentedly,
examining each one with a conspicuous and unusual concern. It took a while but
eventually he found a bodega that looked promising and, smiling to himself, he
lurched inside, unmindful of the bemused looks others on the street were sharing
at his expense.

The first thing he noted was the intense aroma of spices. Garlands of garlic
and bouquets of dried chili peppers hung from the ceiling but there were also an
astonishing variety of onions in heaped display and clay vases filled with pistachios,
plus the amalgamated scents of cumin and turmeric and mustard hanging in the
air. Then his attention drifted to the variety of other provisions adorning the room.
Among these there were leopard mushrooms, jellied sheep eyes, ectoplasm
pudding, tattooed gourds, cyst of salamander, mineral of elementa, caramelized
locusts, pixie crystals, pigeon jerky, minotaur horn powder, cockatrice feathers, and
some fried yams that looked highly suspect. It was a cornucopia of delectables and
oddities overflowing the shelves of a hearthy store pennanted with primitive décor.

As one would expect, the proprietor was similarly eclectic and, when Coots
approached her, vendor and customer appraised each other with commensurate
scrutiny. For her part she was wearing a hand woven hemp poncho whose color
roughly matched the ochre of her leathery skin. The woman, appearing to just be
embarking on the downslope half of her journey into old age, had teeth studded
with a random spectrum of tiny jewels and her pick-axe nose and elongated ears
sagged with the weight of all their piercings but, it was her eyes, their irises like
purple quartz, which proved the most difficult not to stare at. And she had the aura
of the weird about her, the vibe of the uncanny, the luster of the ancient arcane;
she was, in other words, a witch.

“No samples,” she said sourly by way of greeting, letting him know exactly
what she thought of him in three rasping syllables. Coots however was immune to
slights at the moment and he was on a mission.

“A pint of mare’s milk will do me,” he slurred with a dazed smile.


“Well, I ain’t filling a flask of yours,” replied the witch with a grimace. “You’ll
have to take it in a glass bottle, which’ll be extra.” Coots unbothered, shrugged.

“Sure, sure,” he said as he unleashed the mighty sterling coin from his
pocket. Upon his producing the gleaming silver, his counterpart’s hostility
evaporated and was replaced by the most gracious affability imaginable.

“Thank you kindly,” she crooned as she took his money. “Are you sure that’ll
be all?” Coots responded simply with a dreamy nod and waited humming to himself
as the owner of the bodega ladled out his purchase into a translucent flagon which
she then topped with a cork.

“See you again,” she said with a contrived grin as she handed this to him and
the fistful of bronze change he was owed. Coots took the bottle in one hand and
most of the change in the other (Several coins fell on to the counter where he
ignored them) without bothering to acknowledge the witch as he left.

Outside he finished stuffing all his bronze into one of his two pockets which
didn’t have any holes in them, and then he started chugging his rapidly de-corked
drink as he began another adventurous stroll. Cheers to the Deuce, he thought, as
he soaked up the warmth of the evening sun. Yeah, they had to be some kind of
genius if they created all this. The day, which had started out so unpromising and
had wavered so wildly between fair and ill fortune, seemed to have finally decided
to settle into glory. He could mark it down as one of the good ones. Everything was
beautiful. The inner light of the world was shining through all the surfaces of its
objects, seemingly unable to contain itself in the presence of his uplifting mood.
Rushing stagecoaches were now splendid things and barking dogs merely added to
the stimulus of the ambience. Twillard Cooty felt like a patron spectator in the axis
of a mobile panoramic theater catering to his faintest approval. And he did
approve! He enjoyed it all immensely; every last detail right down to the amusing
antics of the smallest little insect. It was a realization of the profoundest truth, that
every experience was, when understood correctly, something worthy of divinity.

His elation carried him along until eventually he wound up at a recently built
gentrifying residential complex known as the Hexada Estates. Four hexagonal
towers three stories high had been erected in a diamond arrangement on an
elevated hexagonal plateau. This was then accessed by the subterranean courtyard
underneath and from there Coots duly arose into the diligently manicured park
where a central fountain maintained a tall cascading spray and the numerous
surrounding cherry trees were all in full blossom. Taking off his boots and socks
before carrying them in the hand that wasn’t holding his bottle of milk, Coots
stepped barefoot into the warm welcoming grass and wandered over to a nearby
pond. There he noticed his reflection and lay down to look closer at this. Out of the
shimmering mirror a wild man stared back at him with ravaged features that
nevertheless held together an unorthodoxly handsome quality. He spent a while
making faces at himself, stretching his expressions as far as he could and exploring
their underutilized diversity, before movement under the water aroused his
curiosity.

It was pond carp. A sizable school of them were lurking just below the surface
and, his heart sprung with generous emotions, Twillard Cooty felt a tremendous
urge to feed them. Glancing around he could find no worthy harvest and cursed
himself in disappointment at not having bought any food at the witch’s bodega. He
could go back there of course or… here Coots scratched his head as he tried to think
of a preferable alternative. This inadvertently caused some large flakes of dandruff
to flutter down and settle on the surface of the water, piquing the interest of the
fish. No, he thought to himself excitedly, before this turned into a yes and he began
to furiously scratch his scalp, sending down a continuous shower of dead skin. The
carp, indifferent or unable to tell that this wasn’t their usual food, now swam to
the surface all at once and began pecking at the floating dandruff with happy greed.
Coots laughed with joy as he kept inundating the aquatic critters with a feast from
his body. He was fish food apparently, but today it felt good to give.
MURDERS ABOMINABLE

It was a long night. Rain shattered as it hit the streets and people ran in the
open spaces to get away from it. What few of them were still out that is. Not only
was it late but the clouds that wrapped the skies were too hostile, too foreboding.
There was an ominousness in every shadow. Some people of course had no choice.
One of these was a clerk scurrying from the Tower District offices of his boss to the
weekly rented suite he had in a leaky building in the Port District. It was cramped
and noisy but he was lucky to have it. And the landlord’s son didn’t let him forget
this. In the meantime though he was just eager to get home and salvage some of
his evening after the unexpected overtime. So he pressed on; head down, shivering
hands holding closed the flaps of his jacket. He did his best to ignore the water that
seemed determined to impede him. His boots struck puddles in large splashes as
he half-flew past city buildings but he stared straight ahead through his splattered
spectacles and the parade of drips running off the brim of his soaking cap. Only the
cathedral gave him a moment’s pause. Eudoxa Cathedral; a mother superior of
stone and stained glass. All were welcome by her, even the poorest, provided they
entered through the designated side door and didn’t interfere with the services
catering to the more wealthy parishioners. For this she received no more than a
respectful glance however as he sped on, thoughts of dry clothes and hot tea
spurring him forward. Crossing Elven Way, where only an idle stagecoach on one
side and a garbage rummaging gnome on the other alluded to any life in the area,
he neared one of the two openings that led into Troller’s Alley. He was almost
home. Then, something made him slow down. He couldn’t tell what it was. A
shimmer in the gloom maybe. And, as soon as he caught a hint of it on his periphery,
it was gone. Most certainly just a trick of the eyes. Yet he couldn’t help looking and,
turning around, he barely had time to see the blur of the sword strike. Then he
stood for a second before quietly splitting down the middle and falling in two
halves. After this, all that was left was the sound of the rain.

When dawn broke, the storm had weakened to a misty downpour. For
Detective Constable Tyldavuis, this was better but far from good. Drenched
outdoor crime scenes were the worst. He even preferred the dry putrid ones; at
least then you didn’t have to go hunting for the evidence that’d washed away.
Which usually meant going into the sewers. Taking a swig from his flask of coffee,
the elf then ducked under a rope-barrier he lifted as he entered the cordoned off
entrance to Troller’s Alley. Human drinks weren’t popular even among city elves
but Tyldavuis had dwelled among men since early childhood and his habits were
distinctly unsylvan. Elves, fairies, nymphs; the sylvan folk as they were called, were
the denizens of Orb who lived in the greatest harmony with nature. Almost all of
them shunned the products of agriculture. Orphaned at the age of eleven though
when the majority of his troop was slaughtered by ranchers in the northern plains
along the Lupuis river, Tyldavuis had been forced to go to human farmers for aid
and from that time on he had lived as an alien among their people. In fact he made
no effort to be anything else. There was no point. Although elves had various
complexions, his terra-cotta colored skin certainly wasn’t shared by any of his
human counterparts and this was nothing compared to the adder-like eyes he had
which made more than one elderly woman gasp when she saw them. Then there
were the ears; oh, the infamous ears of the elves. Peasant villagers said they could
hear the sound of hair growing. But speaking of hair, Tyldavuis’ haircut was perhaps
the most human thing in his appearance. Parted on the right side and combed over
the top, it was a haircut that would suit any of his fellow city warders but somehow
it seemed to make him look that much more incongruous. No, he certainly didn’t
fit in, that was for sure. There were a few other non-humans on the force but
generally they had it even harder than him. His exceptional talents helped him here.
It’s true he had the lowest conviction rate among detectives but that’s precisely
because he was the best; all the hardest cases got thrown at him.

“Another one huh?” commented Tyldavuis as he walked into the tent that’d
been erected over the body. The detective and the inspector constables inside
greeted his arrival with a mixture of relief and unease but the sketch artist
remained focused on capturing the details of the corpse.

Detective Eigers, a leery tousle-haired boulder of a man, was the first to


speak next. “Appears so,” before adding, “But this victim doesn’t match the profiles
of the other two.” Here the detective was referring to the female shop-keep that
had been beheaded on the stoop of her store and the disemboweled patrician lady
left impaled on the wall that surrounded the Cypress District. Naturally it was the
latter of these which aroused the fury of the powerful and affluent but so far there
were still no leads despite the case immediately becoming the City Warder’s
utmost priority.

“Or maybe they just like helpless victims?” mused Tyldavuis. “Maybe it’s
pure opportunity? Maybe it’s ritual?”

Eigers scowled but not out of personal animosity. “You tell us elf,” he
muttered. “You tell us.”

Sweeping the length of his high collared trench-coat behind him, Tyldavuis
crouched down to do exactly that. Inspecting the body, he noted that it had been
separated in almost perfectly symmetrical pieces. Bone and flesh were carved
through with equal ease, from the crown of the man’s head to the taint between
his legs. “One swing,” marvelled Tyldavuis out loud.

Hearing this, the more junior of the two inspectors in the tent offered up his
own insight. “Not natural strength that,” said the man as he laid claim to the
incredibly obvious.

Tyldavuis looked at him without rising. “From the killer’s perspective though
it might be.” After all there were only a few plausible culprits who had both the
power and the speed to successfully execute these kinds of surprise attacks. Three
to be specific.

Here a werewolf made the most sense given the brutality involved but he
wasn’t sure whether the astrological conjunctions supported this. Artificial
transformation perhaps? Of course it could also be a vampire but this kind of
violence seemed a bit too crude and bestial for one of them. Finally, if it was neither
of these, the most likely answer was that it was a depraved sorcerer driven by some
kind of mystic evil. In a city ruled by wizards, Detective Tyldavuis didn’t even want
to contemplate the political challenges a scenario like that would involve.

Deciding he knew where he wanted to begin, the elf stood and spoke to
Eigers. “I’m thinking we should start with werewolves.”

Detective Eigers sucked his teeth before replying. “Yeah,” he said with a
drawl. “That’d be the sort alright. Ready to head over to headquarters?”

Tyldavuis nodded and the other detective left the tent with no more than a
brief glance of displeasure at the spilled mass of internal organs lying between the
two clothed sides of the dead clerk. The elf however decided he had one more quick
thing to do before he went. “And what are your thoughts?” he asked the still busy
sketch artist.

“I’m thinking I’m glad he’s not just hunting women,” she replied with grim
humor.

Tyldavuis indulged the slightest smile before responding. “He? You sure it’s
a he?”

The sketch artist paused for a second before gathering her thoughts. “Don’t
know one way or another really but, if it isn’t a man, I’d say it’d have to be a devil.”

The law enforcement of Alchemist City had its headquarters down in the
south shore end of the Port District. A sternly glaring colossus of a building that
monopolized an entire city block, it had been completed in eleven zero seven o.e.
(Obid Exilo) and so was now nearing the thirtieth anniversary of its construction.
Given the persistence of crime at all hours, the vicinity of the building was entirely
devoid of traffic and at any time of day you might see there lumbering machine
men in piston driven armor, perhaps leading a shackled witch to the inquisition
dungeons, or cloven-hooved lawyers with drake-skin briefcases, meeting their
incarcerated clientele and charging by fractions of the hourglass. That morning the
two detectives bypassed such sights however by going in a back entrance where,
after paying their hansom cab driver his fare, they were let in by a sentry who
recognized them from a sliding metal viewport. Inside, the City Warder’s citadel
(Since that’s what it certainly was) contained a warren of hardwood floor rooms
and archival libraries and equipment lockers and holding cells; as well as a gym and
the aforementioned dungeon.

Tyldavuis and Eigers meanwhile made a swift dash up the stairs to their
fourth floor offices and headed over to a desk that served as the administration
nexus for their section. Staring at them from over her spectacles, the woman
working behind the counter there was covered in the totemic scars of someone
raised among the people of the Olgoth plains but these did nothing to detract from
her abundant natural beauty.

“Morning Ze’ana,” chimed Eigers with unusual pleasantry. The reason


however being obvious.

“What do you want detective?” she replied with all the coolness of a woman
used to parrying the advances of men.

Eigers though was undeterred. “Oh, just a peek at the records you’ve got for
our local moon dogs. Unless of course there’s something else you want to show
me?”

Surprisingly, Ze’ana chuckled. “Nope. But I’ll see what we’ve got on beasts
who are occasionally men.”

When she left, the two detectives waited for her in silence and Tyldavuis
turned his attention to his surroundings. They were standing in a large open area
with several islands of desks and tables. Around them, the tedious clerical business
that took up such a large part of policing was being done but like all places of social
gathering there was a wealth of conversation too.

“Anything interesting in the queue?” one warder was asking of another.

“Not really,” the second replied. “A fisherman that went over-board’s still
missing but there’s nothing suspicious about the case.” This was then followed by
some back and forth bantering in single phrases that consisted of the following:

“Brigands?”
“No.”

“Drunkenness?”

“Uh uh.”

“Ahhhh… sea beast.”

“There you go.”

Given the less than consummate professionalism by some of his colleagues,


these assertions might be entirely untrue but Tyldavuis didn’t have time to give it
any thought before some banging and yelling from a nearby interrogation cell
swept the matter away. In response, a uniformed constable leaned back in his chair
and barked a reply.

“Pyre all! Food ain’t coming for another hour so quit your hollering!” The
outraged retort to this was too cockney for Tyldavuis to understand so he shifted
again to the administration desk.

As he did, Ze’ana returned carrying something enormous in her arms.


“Careful you don’t catch fleas,” she said to Eigers, dropping the velum binder on
the counter and walking away.

How exactly were-beasts were affected by the moon was a subject of


considerable speculation. Using their celestial histories, consulted astrologers at
the Opticon had determined that certain lunar alignments with the animal stars
seemed to be the key factor. And when it came to werewolves, it was observed
that different lineages were susceptible to transformation at different times. The
science was all very complicated but, over the years, fairly reliable consistencies
were observed and almanacs were published accordingly. Using these, plus an
index of known werewolves, it soon became apparent to the detectives that there
were no promising leads in this direction.

“Still could be one of ‘em,” Eigers grumbled in disgust.


“You’re right of course,” replied Tyldavuis. “But chasing down all these
unlikely suspects wouldn’t be the best use of our time. We should look at the
likeliest candidates first.”

Detective Eigers nodded in appreciation. “Those who thirst,” he said.

“And sleep,” added Tyldavuis.

Here the detectives divided between themselves some preparations they


needed to take care of before they went out knocking on the doors of vampires,
and then parted, each to their separate tasks.

Eigers walked away first though and as Tyldavuis was still watching him leave,
Ze’ana came up next to the elf. “Have you ever checked Eigers’ legs?” she asked.

Confused, Tyldavuis responded with a “What do you mean?”

Ze’ana shook her head in mock gravity. “I wouldn’t be surprised if he’s hiding
the fact that he’s actually a satyr.”

The elf had a good laugh at this and the two talked pleasantly for a few
minutes until Tyldavuis said goodbye and left the station. Tyldavuis didn’t tell many
jokes himself, a result of his upbringing and living in a society he didn’t belong to,
but his sense of humor in fact was something about him that was still distinctly
elfish. Elves, even ones that were centuries old, were well known for enjoying tricks
and mischief. For Tyldavuis this expressed itself in what one might call pranks on
his colleagues. Nothing humans would consider pranks though. Instead, Tyldavuis
liked to change things in ways that perplexed or disturbed people but were so
innocuous and trivial, no human would conclude they were the result of deliberate
interference. For example, sometimes Tyldavuis would reposition the mug of a
fellow city warder who left their desk so they’d, however fleetingly, wonder if
something was different when they picked it up again. That was fun. In general he
thrived on sprinkling the world with uncanny moments and so far no one had ever
caught him. None of this impacted his work though and, after spending the day
running down informants and making discrete inquiries, he returned home to
prepare a vampire fighting kit.
The detectives that night probably weren’t going to be in any real danger
but, when seeking out powerful blood thirsty immortals, not to mention one who’s
a potential serial killer, some means of self-defence might be in order. Now,
contrary to popular myth, vampires weren’t harmed physically by sunlight; they
simply found it too visually intense to endure unfiltered. The detectives though
might be able to take advantage of this so Tyldavuis duly set out some glass vials of
phosphorescent agent. Throwing these against a hard surface, a flash would erupt
that could blind a vampire for several minutes. Next the elf added some vials of
consecrated water to the mix. It didn’t seem to matter which religious order
performed the required prayers here, only that the people directly involved in
chanting were sincere and moral. The manufacturer of the items, a company no
doubt run by individuals of superlative dishonesty and corruption, recognized the
economic necessity of ensuring their product worked and, as such, Tyldavuis was
confident the Sacra Aca vials would be effective. They were Arcaneum certified
after all. Finally the elf added to all this a crossbow with wooden bolts and some
witch-elm stakes in case things got really nasty. Despite being a lifelong practitioner
of martial arts and having superhuman strength, Tyldavuis was not eager to have it
out with a vampire. A pre-centennial he might be able to handle but, one of the
elder brood? They’d flay him alive. Pondering the tepid reaction at headquarters
that news of his death would likely inspire, Tyldavuis poured himself a cup of
orange rind tea that’d been brewing and sat down among the numerous plants in
his Upper Domestia loft. All that was left now was to wait for the shadow of the
moon to fall. Which wouldn’t be long.

That night, when the appropriate hour arrived, Tyldavuis went down to
Floating Shield Pier in the vicinity of the Star Citadel and hired himself a ferry. This
consisted of a single rower manning a pair of oars who was content to do their task
without talking and so his elf patron gladly took a seat at the prow of the small
dinghy and quietly watched as Gaol Island grew larger in size. Squidings Prison
dominated the south-east corner of the place but Tyldavuis hardly glanced at it as
the shoreline adjacent to the Vampire District came into view. Technically this was
only a portion of the larger Knave Quarter that encompassed the whole island but
those who enjoyed the vintage of the human heart, or elf hearts for that matter,
certainly weren’t scrupulous in confining themselves to it. Meaning Tyldavuis and
Eigers might end up criss-crossing the whole island for all they knew. Which
reminded him, the two detectives had arranged to meet in just over an hour at the
Sterling Lance, a city warder tavern one hop away from the prison. Tyldavuis, a
vegetarian by physiological necessity like all sylvans, considered going there right
away and ordering a steaming bowl of long-noodle soup with fungus broth, but he
thought he could get some value out of doing a little preliminary scouting first.

Throwing a couple bronze coins to the ferryman as their boat reached the
shore, Tyldavuis jumped out onto a rocky beach and made his way to the road
running alongside it at the top of a short incline. There a row of shanty shops and
curio houses stretched in both directions and he briskly hustled over to the parallel
walkway, adjusting the collar of his trench-coat as he did so. The nocturnal life of
the Vampire District was predictably busy, giving Tyldavuis an ample selection of
the sort of people the half-chic, half-slum neighborhood had to offer. The elf
detective noted for example a propensity for black leather studded with steel
spikes as well as feudal clan garb and velvet baroque finery. There were many
fashions in vogue at the time. With regards to folk breed, it was as usual a mostly
human crowd, but he saw a few orcs and elves too as well as a centaur rickshaw
driver and a nymph street busker. She was singing melancholically as she plucked
a harp, naked except for a thin veil of silk, but Tyldavuis only admired her for a
second before he saw a slouched man shuffle into a dark alley and two skulking
youths stealthily trail in after. Something interesting, thought the elf, and he quickly
followed them in.

Fortunately for the helpless man looking to take a piss, he was drunk.

“Alas brother; this bottle’s spoiled,” complained the vampire who made the
discovery. “Stay back and spare yourself the stench.”

His sibling, by rite not by birth, was famished however and had to see for
himself; when the smell of Getsly Ale on the man’s breath invaded his nostrils
though he was instantly convinced and shoved their inebriated target to the
ground. “Bah!” spat the second vampire. “He won’t be good again for many hours.
Let us go sweet kin and seek our satisfaction elsewhere. A fresh young girl would
do us better anyways.”

Not killers, concluded an eavesdropping Tyldavuis, just blood thieves. Still,


he might be able to get something out of them. “Alright! City Warders!” barked the
detective as he pulled a loaded crossbow out from behind him and pointed it at the
ground. “You know how this goes. Down on your knees, hands on your head.” The
vampires froze then, seeing his weapon, complied.

“Hey! Addle-head!” snapped Tyldavuis now to the drunk. “Stumble off!” This
he readily did and with a sheepish grin while he doffed his cap. Once the man was
gone, the detective began his interrogation of the two vampires. “So you only
wanted a quick tap of the keg, is that it? Not going to slash him up for some fun as
well?”

Answering after a moment’s pause, the vampire kneeling on the left replied
in a sullen voice. “We’re not looking for trouble officer. We’re just thirsty.”

Tyldavuis scoffed. “And the overseer of your lair couldn’t spare you a free
drop from their slaves? Please. There’s plenty of willing cattle if all you wanted was
a drink from a vein.”

The other vampire protested. “It’s not the same. There’s no power in it
without the fear. It’s what you mortals would consider water.”

Tyldavuis here took offense at being called a mortal by a vampire who’d


probably been one for less than ten years. Not only did these two look like kids,
they were kids. “Well, I’m sure your overseer will consider that an adequate excuse
for putting your kin in the crosshairs. Ha! I bet you two are even too young to
remember the riots when angry mobs of fearful mortals burned several of your
predecessors in public bonfires.” The prospect of reprisal from the senior vampires
seemed to do the trick.

“No officer!” begged one. “Don’t! Please. There must be something else you
want. Tell us.”

Detective Constable Tyldavuis pretended to consider the proposition for a


minute. “Actually… I do have some unrelated business you might assist me with.
And, if you did that, I suppose I could just let you go. Hmmm.” Both vampires were
eager to hear more.

“Go on,” said one. “Ask.” Tyldavuis affected a casual air.


“It’s nothing really. All I want to know is where the elders are going to be
tonight.” Still kneeling, still with their hands on their heads, the two vampires
turned towards each other in disbelief.

“He must be insane,” whispered one to another. “Shut up,” the second
hissed back. Then the latter of these fixed Tyldavuis with a big innocent smile. “No
problem officer.”

They would be at the Lotus House Salon; a vampire-only establishment


overlooking the sea. This the elf was assured and he had no reason to doubt it. The
little leeches probably thought he was going to die there. Not that this was entirely
out of the question mind you. Nevertheless it was the best way forward at the
moment and, after arguing Eigers into going along with the idea, the two of them
began the lengthy walk over. Due to his earlier encounter, Tyldavuis corrected a
lapse in precaution he’d forgotten to exercise, and the detectives were sharing the
last of a bottle of Moon Cider when they neared the salon. Sure, it wouldn’t stop
the elders from killing them, but at least they’d be discouraged from having a taste.
Approaching the palatial mansion from the front, the two detectives went directly
to the windowless guardhouse situated at its gates. There Tyldavuis took the lead
and, knocking politely but sharply on its metal door, they awaited the response.
This came in the form of a pair of murky jaundiced eyes appearing at a view slot.
As the odor of the crypt wafted out around him, Tyldavuis realized it was a ghoul.

“Lost?” asked the ghoul with a rasp.

“Warders,” answered Tyldavuis. “We need to speak to the owners.”

The ghoul stared at them malevolently and then ran its slug-like tongue along
the whole of its bottom lip. “Or maybe,” it gurgled. “You need to reconsider. And
never come back.”

Sensing that the monstrous sentry was about to turn away, Tyldavuis used
his most authoritative voice. “Look. Tonight it’s two city warders. Maybe tomorrow
it’s fifty. Maybe we get the wizards involved. Or you can simply relay our presence
to your masters.”
The ghoul had to ponder this for a few seconds. “Got credentials?” they
eventually asked. Tyldavuis flashed them his silver warder’s badge and then handed
over a writ of officer identity. “Tiled-avus?” mused the ghoul out loud.

“Til-da-vee,” responded the elf with mild irritation.

“Well, dee-tec-tive con-sta-ble Til-da-vee,” the gatekeeper lisped, “I will


carry your request inside. And, if you’ve made a mistake, I will gather up the scraps
of you that are left behind and make a stew from these. Yesss. That will be nice.”

Then the detectives were alone with only the sound of the nearby surf filling
the darkness and Eigers took the empty bottle of Moon Cider and hurled it spinning
into the sea.

The vampires confiscated all their weapons. Tyldavuis and Eigers considered
resisting but they were met at the front entrance of the mansion by a pair of eight
foot tall ghouls and five attendant vampires who certainly weren’t like the young-
deads the elf had encountered in the alley. After this though their hosts were
cordial enough, and the pair of detectives were led through the gathering inside by
a fanged socialite in a powered wig and gown while two hulking guards shadowed
them. They received a few curious looks, mostly of distain, but there was so much
that was exotic and carnal going on around them they were easily overlooked.
Making their way past some lounging vampires discussing the metaphysics of
sadism, the detectives were brought into a wide statue-lined hall where the
atmosphere grew significantly more menacing.

As the pair of interlopers were escorted past the twisted shapes of tortured
stone figures next to them, Eigers gave one a lingering stare and quipped.
“Commemorations of previous visitors perhaps?”

Tyldavuis, impressed by his colleague’s fortitude, shook his head with a


morbid grin. “I’ve got to say Detective Eigers,” he replied. “I think you’d look quite
good in marble. Very distinguished.”

Overhearing this exchange, their escort insisted on clarifying the matter.


“Please officers, you impugn us. We are not devils. In fact, who more than our kind
has cherished the riches of civilization? These creations are testaments of art, born
only from the spirit of liberal imagination. They speak for the souls of the beautifully
cursed, for those hunted by the decaying and scorned by the heavens. Even you
fair elf, can never dread the chill of eternity like we do. These are not your people.
These are us.”

The detectives received this lecture with chastened silence and then waited
awkwardly together as the socialite knocked at a large set of ornate hardwood
doors. When these opened, she stood to the side and motioned within. “Come. He
is waiting,” was all she said.

Giving each other a look before doing as they were asked, the two entered a
gloomy hall and had to be patient as their eyes adjusted. With the door softly closed
behind them, the only light in the room was coming from two rows of tall iron
candelabras that barely illuminated a dais with an ancient wooden throne of huge
proportions and the two dozen vampire courtiers present. Unlike the ones they’d
seen in the rest of the mansion, these showed signs of the effects of long corruption
that came from drinking horror-tainted blood. Even in the shadows their bestial
features betrayed themselves and skeleton and flesh were warped as well,
extending and twisting in grotesque exaggerations. Yet they were still attired as
aristocrats and one of these approached the two detectives with impeccable
courtly manners. Bowing ever so slightly, he gestured to the ceiling above the dais
and spoke. “Look up you children of light and tremble in wonder.” Doing as
directed, they saw something that turned their bones to water. Still gazing at the
ceiling, both detectives slumped to their hands and knees in a daze as they stared
in terrified awe at the one hanging upside-down above them. It was Lord Cargena,
the primordial father.

Tradition stated that, thousands of years ago Cargena, as he was simply


called then, was a slave to a prince of the Old Empire. Folk tales abound with
competing claims but one of the most accepted versions of the story is that he was
unwillingly turned by a daughter of the First while out one night doing his master’s
errands. Making the error of revealing what’d happened to him when he returned,
Cargena, it is said, was placed in a cell under the floor of the prince’s torture
chamber and there he remained for several generations, feeding on the victims of
the prince and his successors through a small vent with iron bars. No comforts were
provided for him and his existence consisted solely of waiting and devouring the
damned. Sometimes alive, sometimes not. This didn’t continue forever though
because eventually the enemies of the prince’s descendants destroyed them and
the castle, where the torture chamber was (Being known as a place of evil) got
thoroughly razed. Again, decades passed, but somehow Cargena broke through the
layers of stone and iron he’d been imprisoned in by persistent effort and dug his
way to the surface. Here accounts differ so wildly up to the period of the exodus
that no reasonable chronology can be inferred but a sample of some of his legends
should be sufficient to provide an idea of his reputation. He is said to have turned
an entire abbey of nuns into his children and unleashed the women as assassins
against his enemies among the Imperial ruling class. It is claimed that he built a
temple to himself under the city of Ordulf and there, for over a century, mass
human sacrifices were held in his honor. There’s even a story that he shared a feast
with the great dragon Archapyras while the latter was enjoying a reprieve from the
succession of defeated armies attempting to destroy him. Then, just over eleven
hundred years ago, the Autonomists fled the tyranny of the empire in their fleet of
thousands and established the Free Nations far to the west. It’s unclear whether
Lord Cargena was with them initially of whether he followed soon after but,
however it happened, he made it to the lowlands where, since then, his supremacy
among vampires has never been challenged. Not only is he a sorcerer of
transcendent power, he is probably the eldest vampire alive and this, combined
with his networks of spies and secret thralls, means he essentially knows everything
worth knowing if it is even known at all. And this is who the two detectives suddenly
had to contend with.

Casually unwrapping himself from an artificial stalactite-like structure which


descended from the ceiling, Lord Cargena dropped to the floor and spread his
wings. All fifty feet of them. These largely conformed to what you might expect of
an enormous bat except, at the apex of each wing, large reptilian claws protruded
from colossal hands and the wings themselves were often folded so that these
rested besides His Lordship on the ground. Lord Cargena in fact was only twelve
feet tall so this gave him an almost gorilla posture. Unlike any ape however, his
mouth protruded with a forest of eighteen inch fangs and he could bite off the head
of an adult horse as easily as a man would gulp a piece of chocolate. Although once
a man himself, his face had elongated into something wholly unnatural and nothing
of his human ancestry could be discerned in its predatory features. His eyes too
were immense, and almost molten, seeming to fume at the edges as they radiated
a furnace-like glow. He was, in short, an absolute terror and even the other
vampires around him, killers with centuries of slaughter to their credit, gave him a
respectful distance. Tyldavuis and Eigers meanwhile kowtowed and shut their eyes;
not because they’d been told to but because an overriding animal instinct for self-
preservation compelled them.

“And why do I have visitors this evening?” These soft words were drizzled
out like honey but the detectives were still too immobilized by fear to do anything
about it. Mildly amused, Lord Cargena cocked an ear and leaned in slightly as he
listened to the sound of their tiny galloping hearts. “Speak elf,” he said, the words
still incongruously sweet and gentle.

Tyldavuis did his best not to stammer. “We’re investigating some murders…
your lordship.” This answer, strained out in a whisper, was followed by Lord
Cargena yawning and stretching with a daydream-like pleasure.

“Ah, murder,” he crooned. “Such a messy business. But I know of course the
ones you mean. And naturally you might suspect one of my creations. They did not
do this though. The wizards and I have an agreement.”

Sensing that here the vampire lord expected a response, Tyldavuis groveled
out an apology. “We’re so sorry your lordship. We made a terrible error.”

Lord Cargena laughed as if the elf had said the most delightful thing
imaginable. “Not at all little one,” the great vampire said soothingly. “I hope you
find whoever’s responsible.” Here Lord Cargena went and took a seat on his throne
and then wordlessly motioned for an attendant to bring him someone. This turned
out to be the nymph Tyldavuis had seen busking earlier and she went up to the
Lord’s ear and began to whisper into it.

The detectives then remained prostrate on the floor for a while before the
vampire courtier who had introduced Lord Cargena came and spoke to them. “You
may leave,” he said graciously and the pair that he addressed responded with
several meek nods. Then they both crawled backwards out of the hall, never once
ceasing in their bow towards the throne.

For quite a while after their ordeal, Detective Constable Tyldavuis and
Detective Constable Eigers made sure every room they were in was well lit. Some
of their colleagues noticed this new tendency and commented but neither warder
would offer an explanation. Regardless, their responsibilities as officers of the law
remained, and they preoccupied themselves as much as possible with matters
unrelated to what had come to be known as The Frenzy Cleavings. A couple of
weeks went by with no new victims and even The Orbserver and The Gab Diet
tabloids began to publish their lurid speculations about the case less frequently.
Eigers moved on to different unsolved crimes entirely and so Tyldavuis was left as
the sole party now dealing with the issue on a regular basis. Certain that he could
exclude vampires, the elf went back to his original werewolf suspicions and
investigated a number of them and their associates without any success or
progress. While he was doing that he also very cautiously looked into the sorcerer
angle but obtained nothing useful from the hostile magic users he tried to enlist
the aid of. If it was even possible, city hall and the community of patricians became
even less helpful and eventually his involvement with the murders consisted of
nothing more than the odd follow up on random tips and the occasional
perfunctory berating from his superiors. He was instrumental though in catching a
mimic jewel-thief during this period so his fortunes weren’t dismal by any means
and he began to settle into a sense of routine that’d been missing from his life for
some time. He pruned his shrubs, fed his pet turtles, and started going out on dates
with a female illusionist he met in a bookstore located at the mouth of Pale Body’s
Lane. Things as such were good and the elf, having endure plenty of unpleasantness
in his brief sixty seven years, made sure to appreciate this.

The happy lull ended when a fourth victim was found between the western
pillars of Legion Bridge. Taking a zebra-pulled hansom cab to the scene, Tyldavuis
ignored the Triumph District and gigantic Amphitheatre behind him as he got out
to see what he was dealing with. It was a neatly heaped pile of severed body parts;
dwarf parts to be precise.

“Great,” sighed Tyldavuis. “A non-human.” His exasperation here was the


result of a change in the killer’s chosen prey, which would mean he’d have to cast
a wider net in his investigations from here on out. Approaching the corpse, if it
could still be called that, the detectives gave a casual two-finger salute to a trio of
nearby warders before coming up beside a woman standing directly over the grisly
remains. She wore the coat of a forensic doctor and Tyldavuis perceived something
strangely familiar about her.

“Do I know you?” asked the elf.


The woman smiled. “I just made my qualifications. We met though while I
was finishing my practicals.” After saying this the doctor made a sketching motion
with her fingers and Tyldavuis at last recognized her.

“Congratulations,” he said, extending a hand to shake. “Detective Tyldavuis.”

At this offer of a name she responded warmly with her own. “Dr. Sulfurs,”
she answered before adding, “Polly.”

Here the elf recognized that a genuine connection had already begun to form
between them and he initially attributed this to the fact they were both outsiders
in their respective fields; her a female doctor, him an elven warder. “So, how’d the
devil pull it off this time?” he asked with honest nonchalance.

“Bare handed,” Dr. Sulfurs replied.

“Really?” The detective was surprised.

“See this tearing along the frays of the flesh?” continued the doctor as she
pointed to the remains of the expired dwarf. “That’s indicative of the fact the victim
was pulled apart. Piece by piece. And the killer was almost certainly holding him in
the air as they did so.”

Tyldavuis gritted his teeth. “So nothing to alter my pool of suspects.”

Dr. Sulfurs raised a lone eyebrow. “Who’re you thinking’s behind it?” she
asked.

“Werewolves or wizards,” he replied.

Polly Sulfurs pondered this for a second. “What about…” she said before the
elf’s firmly shaking head aborted her question. “Maybe a monster then?” she
suggested.
Detective Tyldavuis stared up at the underside of Legion Bridge and listened
to the streaming traffic above. “Can’t see how,” he replied. “Too much intention.
At least in the first couple.”

These ambiguous words hung in the air a minute before Polly veered into
something unrelated. “Can I ask what troop you’re from? Elven culture is one of my
interests.”

As he answered, the elf’s eyes grew sad. “Laughing Creek,” he said quietly.

“Oh, I’m sorry,” replied the doctor.

Tyldavuis decided he wanted to get a better look at the surrounding area so,
after saying goodbye to Dr. Sulfurs and checking in with the other warders, he
trudged up the incline leading away from the river shore to an intersecting road
that ran perpendicular beside the bridge. Here he had a wide view in almost all
directions and he noted the spacious plaza next to the Amphitheatre and the
statues and gardens of the Triumph district as well as a modest farmer’s market
that was taking place not too far away. With the sun in full radiance and only a
handful of merry clouds in the sky, the atmosphere that day was one of innocence
and unmitigated leisure. People were out enjoying themselves in fine attire and it
didn’t seem like anyone was aware of the fact that only a few yards away was the
site of a gruesome murder. Tyldavuis looked with wistful envy at the groups of
jovial pedestrians and patricians on horseback and trotted stagecoaches going past
before a member of the last of these came to a stop beside him.

A lone passenger inside beckoned to the elf with a flaunting wave and as
Tyldavuis approached he could see that the man was someone of considerable
means. He wore his cascading black hair untied, where it congregated around his
shoulders, and his proud face freshly shaved and free of any mark of toil. For clothes
he was wearing a matching cobalt blue jacket and pantaloons with ruffled trimming
and his pristine white socks were stretched taut to his knees. Tyldavuis even got a
glance at his shoes, which were mirror black and pointed with gleaming golden
buckles. “Officer!” the aristocrat began. “Our preferred route along the river seems
to have been impeded by the rest of your cohort. Any chance this imposition is
presently resolving itself?”
Tyldavuis discretely exhaled through his nose. “My apologies sir,” he replied.
“The situation’s still in its preliminary stages.”

Hearing this, the man in the carriage seemed somewhat aghast. “Dear me!”
he exclaimed. “A stage of some recent villainy is it?”

The detective, already weary of the conversation, did his best to calm his
counterpart. “Nothing to worry about sir. The matter has the full attention of the
City Warders.”

With these words though, Tyldavuis revealed more than he meant to. “That
serious my good constable?” whispered the wide-eyed aristocrat. “One of our poor
citizens has surely died then. And? No. But it must be. It’s the handiwork of the
Frenzy Cleaver isn’t it?”

How did I get caught in this? thought Tyldavuis, as he tried to figure a way
out. “Sir, again, I’m sorry,” continued the elf. “But I simply cannot discuss police
business.”

The aristocrat seemed disappointed but he leaned back in his seat. “How
dreadful,” he moaned. “So abominable, murder. Please catch the culprit swiftly.”
At that moment the man turned away completely and called out to his driver
through a window at the front of the carriage. “Come on Zeffrey! A change in
agenda! Let us proceed with all haste to Madam Svetany’s ballet! Hence now!”
With this the stagecoach bucked and took off, leaving behind a bemused Tyldavuis
who watched it go in a state of perfect relief.

With the newly murdered dwarf, a fresh heap of coal was shoveled into the
engine of public interest, and Tyldavuis was forced to set everything aside as he
redoubled his efforts to find the killer. At this point he was doing everything from
shaking down moondust dealers to setting up stings so he could blackmail friends
of the deceased who were less than exemplary in their private conduct. Finally, a
week later, he decided he needed a night off and he took the illusionist he was still
seeing out to the Quicksilver Bazaar for some curiosity browsing and a culinary
meal. There they enjoyed a couple hours of gawking at the local spectacles and
haggling over trinkets when Tyldavuis decided he wanted to eat and found them a
pair of stools at the Gourmet Griffin, an eatery booth he’d heard good things about
from an elf acquaintance. His companion that evening though realized here that
she needed to pick up a few necessities before she forgot and, after asking him to
order for her, she disappeared for a while. This Tyldavuis gladly did, selecting two
servings of spicy carrot bisque as well as two slices of potato lentil pie and a pitcher
to share of Honeycomb Mead. These materialized faster than he expected however
and, after waiting a couple more minutes, he shrugged and picked up his spoon.
Not much later, as he was chewing with a somewhat overstuffed mouth, someone
addressed him from behind.

“Greetings elf,” trickled the melodic female voice. Proselytizer? Prostitute?


Tyldavuis didn’t know and Tyldavuis didn’t want to find out.

“Go away,” he said emphatically, the food still in his mouth doing its part to
accent his disinterest.

The voice did not go away however. “I bring a message,” it said. “From His
Lordship.”

Tyldavuis swallowed slowly and swiveled on his stool in dread. It was the
nymph. There were of course three folk breeds susceptible to vampirism; human,
elf, and nymph. The fair ones. This nymph though was so pristine and wholesome
looking it was hard to imagine her being one of the afflicted. And yet, as she spoke
to him, Tyldavuis would occasionally catch a glimpse of the fangs she could use to
inject the paralyzing poison shared by all of her kind.

“Our father thinks you should be informed that the victim selection is not as
random as it’s been made to seem. The patrician woman, Mrs. Junabeth Smith, was
known to frequent the shop of the first murdered girl and we have heard that the
former of the two was seen in a heated quarrel with a gentleman at a society event
two weeks prior to her demise. These are things you should look into. And we
trust…” the nymph added with the slightest edge to ensure clarity. “You shall do
so.”

Tyldavuis nodded with due deference but, at the last second, couldn’t resist
a question. “May I ask why you’re helping me?”
The nymph smiled. “You shouldn’t,” she replied with what almost appeared
to be real concern. “Suffice it to say, we desire to remove the spectre of suspicion
from ourselves.” Then she smiled again and walked away, brushing past the
confused illusionist as she did.

“Who was that?” inquired his date.

“A total stranger,” answered the elf.

The next morning Tyldavuis grabbed Eigers and the two of them rushed
down to the shop of the first murder victim like two starving hounds who’d just
caught a scent. Of course investigators had spoken to the proprietor and remaining
staff several times before but now Detective Tyldavuis had a hunch. Opening the
rough oak door of the Motley Antiquarian, Eigers was the first to enter and peer
around its knickknack laden shelves before Tyldavuis slipped in a second later. At
the far end of the store a man, with an assortment of varied optical lenses that
jutted from the goggles he had on, watched as they entered. More good luck. This
was the owner himself who’d been lately forced to be present at his establishment
now because the girls on his staff didn’t want to work there alone.

“Warders of course,” he said as they neared. Not hostile but not impressed
either.

Eigers took the lead now and Tyldavuis was content to scrutinize the
proprietor as his colleague worked. “Just here for some last bit of follow up Mr.
Haffle. Hoping to look at your ledgers actually.”

The proprietor cranked aside the lenses currently filtering his view and
stared at Detective Eigers with two narrowed untrusting eyes. “I don’t know if I like
that,” he mused. “What for?”

Eigers smiled like a pastor ready to baptize the man. “Only want to explore
some other potential witnesses. Follow up with your customers on shady
characters they might have seen. Plus, it’ll give us some people other than yourself
to trouble.”
Mr. Haffle snorted. “Don’t mind the sound of that,” he admitted with a half-
sour grin. “You’re not gonna tell them I sent you though?”

Eigers pretended to be mortified by the mere suggestion. “By the deity, no


sir.”

Mr. Haffle screwed his mouth into a knot before surrendering. “Well alright.
I just need a second.”

As the two detectives waited they made a show of admiring the wares
around them while they leaned against the counter. This consisted of things like
cuckoo clocks, fairy cages, ceramic vases, butterfly collections, whistles, siren plugs,
croquet sets, lizard cigar cases, and pewter figurines. When the proprietor returned
with a table sized book, Eigers and Tyldavuis were still examining their
surroundings, but he took no notice of their feigned interest.

“Here it is, the year so far,” said Mr. Haffle with a twinge of reluctance. The
man handed his ledger to Eigers but Eigers quickly passed it to Tyldavuis before
engaging the proprietor again in distractive conversation. His elf colleague got right
to work. Flipping through the pages before him, Tyldavuis noted the name of
Junabeth Smith in connection to an Imperial ruby necklace but that wasn’t what he
was looking for. He was looking for gentlemen; ones who might have been buying
things for her specifically. Nothing stuck out around the appropriate time frame
however until a receipt of delivery entry caught his attention.

“Eigers,” said Tyldavuis as he marvelled at his luck. Eigers excused himself to


Mr. Haffle and looked at what the other detective was pointing to. He was
perplexed though and was about to say so when Tyldavuis shut the book with a
snap and handed it back to the equally confused owner. “Thank you sir. Thank you,”
he gushed to the man before yanking on Eigers sleeve and hauling the other
detective out into the streets.

“What is it you crazy wyvern?” pressed Eigers. “Who’s Zeffrey Poltroon?”

Tyldavuis laughed in a state of exaltation. “We’re about to find out! Yes we


are!” This was it; he could feel it. This was the moment shared by all hard-solved
cases where the mystery at last began to unpeel itself.
Zeffrey Poltroon had a juvenile record as a result of being marked as a coin
chiseler but, due to the intervention of a wealthy benefactor, he’d largely escaped
unscathed from the consequences of his actions. It was enough though for the
detectives. Using this they managed to get what they really wanted; a much more
plausible suspect in one Count Huson Bansardo. Tyldavuis had no doubt this was
the aristocrat in the stagecoach; certainly he would be the sort to return to the
scene of his crime in order to try and surreptitiously gather information from its
investigators. And here the whole picture quickly emerged out of the various puzzle
pieces. With the addition of some stories from a few gossipy servants, as well as a
venomous diatribe from one of the Count’s more helpful enemies, the two
detectives reconstructed the following events. The Count and Mrs. Smith, both
married, were having an affair. Nothing particularly unusual about that among the
patrician class. Mrs. Smith however was apparently not satisfied with only her
husband and a single additional gentleman so she sated herself with other discrete
encounters as well as occasional visits to a bordello known for its exotic array of
male prostitutes.

Discovering this, the Count, who was both grossly enamored with the image
of himself as a peerless lover and paranoid about any injury to his reputation,
became utterly incensed. Confronting his mistress at a fund raising gala held at the
Prestor Arboretum, the Count must have been so thoroughly humiliated or
unsatisfied at the end of their private argument that he decided to dispose of the
lady completely. Meanwhile, the shop girl had been previously involved in the
matter through a relationship established with Mrs. Smith as her customer, and
later the Count when he was still sending his mistress gifts. It is likely that she was
confided in by the former at one point or otherwise privy to some intimacies
pertaining to the liaison and so the Count decided she had to be dispatched too.
This he did, making her the first victim so she wouldn’t be able to accuse the Count
when news broke that Mrs. Junabeth Smith had been murdered. As for the other
deceased, the detectives were agreed that these were merely the result of the
Count trying to mislead investigators. And it had worked, for a while, but then his
arrogance had betrayed him. Although their investigation wasn’t finished by any
means, Detectives Tyldavuis and Eigers had total confidence in their having enough
to obtain the warrants for an arrest of person and for a search of property which
they required next. Therefore they now went directly to their boss with the plan.
Chief Inspector Worming, the man himself, listened politely as they laid out what
they had. Then, with his metaphorical antennae twitching at the mere hint of a
political scandal, he officially killed the idea. “Detectives, I must say, it all seems
rather circumstantial to me.”

For a moment they were both shocked but then the truth dawned on them;
he didn’t believe what he was saying, he just wanted them to. Tyldavuis though
was still willing to make a fight of it when a dampening look from Eigers and a heavy
hand on his shoulder reduced the elf to seething.

The Chief Inspector ignored this exchange entirely and continued. “In fact, I
have to confess it’s been my opinion for a while that you two’ve been a bit stymied
by the whole business, and so I asked Detective Ardent to have his own look at the
case. Discretely naturally. He tells me there’s a very promising ogre whose
whereabouts are consistent with all the… unfortunate events; therefore I certainly
see no merit in levelling implausible accusations against one of our most
upstanding residents.”

An ogre! Tyldavuis mentally scoffed at the idea but responded with


considerably more tact. “I understand sir,” he grimaced. “At least let us make a few
more inquiries into the matter. If only to absolve the gentleman completely.”

Chief Inspector Worming erected a steeple with his fingers as he considered


this before calmly spinning in his plush chair and looking out his office window. “No,
I think not,” he said as the pair of detectives faced the bald spot on the back of his
head. “No. I think you two are done with this entirely. And I’m sure there are other
criminals you can preoccupy yourselves with from now on.” There was silence in
the room as Tyldavuis and Eigers glared at the spineless oozing barn-carpet of a
man who’d just covered up a murder as if he were doing them both a favor. The
Chief Inspector swiveled back towards them then and adjusted the dainty
spectacles perched on the end of his circumspect nose. “That’ll be all,” he said.

Outside afterwards, the two detectives did their best to calm themselves.
Tyldavuis danced with rage and Eigers brooded until, following a flurry of punches
in the air on his part, the elf burst into a lament.

“We had the rotter!” he moaned.


Detective Eigers seemed to make up his mind about something. “We still
could,” he said. Tyldavuis gave him a confused look and the man continued. “Tyldy,
Tyldy. Always policing by the rules.”

Tyldy? Had they crossed some human bonding threshold? The elf didn’t have
time to contemplate this however because Eigers had just dangled a scrap of hope
out of nowhere and Tyldavuis was eager to pounce. “Come on. Give it up,”” he
insisted.

“Well,” smirked Eigers. “If we should find some overwhelming evidence, we


could conceivably force the Chief’s hand. And we have a list of all Count Bansardo’s
properties; even the apartment he keeps exclusively for his women on the sly.”

This got Tyldavuis enthusiastic again but he paused and then started talking
out loud to himself to work at a nagging issue. “But he wouldn’t go to the apartment
to clean himself up. Too many eyes, too many acquaintances. And that rules out
the Cypress District mansion of course. No. It has to be somewhere more isolated.
Somewhere not residential.”

Detective Eigers recalled something. “The Count rents a warehouse in the


Forge District. Right on the edge of the Crypt Quarters actually.”

Tyldavuis grabbed the man by his shoulders and shook him excitedly. “We’re
goin’ to get that rabid bastard, I swear it!”

Eigers clasped him on the arm back and looked directly into his face. “Tonight
my friend,” he trilled. “You and I get to be the criminals.”

Here the moment began to fade away naturally and Detective Eigers raised
a preliminary matter. “You’re still thinking he’s a werewolf right?”

Tyldavuis nodded. “Oh, for sure,” he replied.

Eigers let out a long sigh before adding, “Well, I guess we better silver up
then.”
That night Tyldavuis took great care in preparing his crossbow and a
bandolier of silver tipped bolts. Also, he painted his body in battle glyphs and spent
over an hour in ritual chanting. Then he attired himself in appropriate infiltration
gear crafted from blackened witch-elm fibers and concealed this under his usual
trench coat. Now he was ready. Roughly forty minutes later Detective Eigers met
him at an earlier agreed upon location just north of the Arena and the two warders
talked in conspiratorial voices as they made their way to the destination on foot.

“You look like you could do with a little exercise,” said Eigers. “So I’ll leave
you to the climbing and the window entering. I’ll keep a lookout at the back door
and you let me in when you get downstairs.” Tyldavuis agreed to this reasonable
course of action without any mention of his counterpart’s paunch and the pair of
detectives soon found themselves at their target building; recognizing this from the
description of one of Eigers’ more reliable informants. As they crossed the street
to enter the adjacent alley, they paid less attention to the largely unremarkable
brick warehouse and spent more time frequently glancing around to see if anyone
was watching. They saw no one. However, in reality, they had been under
surveillance ever since they left their homes.

“There you go,” whispered Eigers as he tugged on the rope he’d just set up
by way of a grappling hook. “The fancy part’s all yours.”

Tyldavuis, his trench coat already removed, responded with a jesting nod
before testing the rope himself and then starting his ascent. It took him no time at
all to climb the fifteen feet he needed to place himself eye level with the
warehouse’s lone rear window. From here he saw that it was mostly dark inside
but he could also make out some stacked crates on the main floor and a desk
situated on a wooden platform connected to the upper tier. Here’s where it starts
to get illegal, he thought, as he removed a diamond tipped compass used for
cutting glass. He was therefore too busy tracing over his deepening circle the
numerous repetitions required to pay any mind to his fellow city warder down
below. The lone figure now watching them though recognized their awkward
position and decided the moment was right. They went straight for Eigers who, on
his end, only noticed things were amiss when he caught sight of a shadow leaping
down from a distant rooftop and begin sprinting towards him. “Isle of elves,” he
blurted as the charging werewolf rushed him.
Detective Eigers had thrice checked himself to make sure he remembered to
bring his sixteen inch silver short sword and, once the spell of surprise wore off, he
pulled this to engage his assailant. The werewolf came only within a few yards of
the man though before it rapidly broke off galloping on all fours towards him and
instead bounded off the wall across the alley; at the detective again but from a new
angle. Descending on him with its huge claws in full swing, Eigers frantically dove
aside and took a blind swipe at the beast. He managed a superficial wound to their
arm but this did nothing to slow his attacker’s next charge. Here the werewolf
managed to catch him on the bottom of his jaw, ripping the bone out of his face
and sending it clattering in shards down the street. Had Tyldavuis not succeeded in
burying a well-aimed silver bolt in the werewolf’s stomach right then, Eigers would
have been finished; but he did and the beast howled in pain and fury before
disappearing once more into the night.

With their enemy fled somewhere to claw out the piece of metal inside his
guts that was currently melting everything this touched, the two detectives were
left alone to recover from the assault. Eigers at first tried to stop the flow of blood
with his hands but that achieved nothing. He was already succumbing to shock and
passing out when Tyldavuis dropped from the rope and caught him, propping the
critically injured man up against the wall. There the elf tried his best to bandage
Eigers’ wound with a sleeve torn from his trench-coat before grabbing a flintlock
flare pistol and shooting it into the sky. The rocket screamed in a wispy arc of white
light before turning into a throbbing star gently falling to the ground. A City Warder
invention for signalling an emergency with one of their own. Several desperate
minutes passed though before Tyldavuis heard the lung-fueled horns of the
mounted responders dispatched by the shift sentries.

Detective Eigers barely survived. Fortunately St. Demota Surgical was only a
short distance away and there he spent almost two whole months as anatomist
doctors and monks attended to him with their respective scientific and spiritual
remedies. A necromancer even came in as a favor to Tyldavuis to make sure there
was no arcane infection and to apply a healing poultice. Eigers jaw however could
not be saved and he was reduced to communicating via a portable chalk board and
sarcastic hand gestures. Many nurses left his bedside blushing. Tyldavuis of course
visited frequently and took the brunt of the heat when the Chief Inspector
interrogated him regarding what had happened. Out of necessity the detective lied,
covering up the real reason for being in the area with a story about chasing a gang
of hobgoblins before getting surprised by an axe wielding barbarian in a moondust
induced rage. The police bulletin on the barbarian was duly sent out and Tyldavuis
was released back to his regular duties. For a while he laid low, doing the work
expected of him, but the elf knew who had attacked them that night. And he was
still around, living as extravagantly as ever, while Eigers was left to recover from his
brutal mauling. Naturally Tyldavuis wasn’t satisfied with things ending this way so
he kept tabs on Count Bansardo, tracking his movements and accumulating a trove
of details on the man whose werewolf status was still being denied by authorities.
You’re not the only one who can play without rules though, thought Tyldavuis; and
one evening, when the Count was going to be at the opera, his elven nemesis
decided to confront him.

Tonight they would be staging The Duchess of Lunefall, a formulaic romantic


comedy devoid of anything even remotely resembling profundity or moral insight,
and the Sun Palace Theatre was sure to be packed with an impressive selection of
the city’s wealthy and famous. Detective Tyldavuis of course didn’t even bother
trying to get tickets but his warder’s badge and a domineering manner proved
enough for the ushers at the door and the elf soon found himself the most
underdressed person among the crowd despite him wearing his best suit. Engulfed
in the full kaleidoscopic plumage the decadently privileged had at their disposal,
the detective waded through all the golden laughter and strategic banter
surrounding him in consternation as he searched the bustling halls before act one.
He could not however find Count Bansardo. Then the show-time bells rang out and
the throngs thinned as the patrons went to go take their seats. Soon he was one of
the only few left; the others being theatre employees tasked with cleaning up all
the discarded wine glasses and stubbed cigars left by their slovenly betters. Missing
on his first chance to find his target, Tyldavuis sat down on a bench to think.
Certainly the Count was in one of the box seats. And that should make finding him
easy enough. Where to have a private word with the man though? Suddenly a
surprise image of the Count traipsing off early with some woman he’d seduced
struck the elf and, unnerved at the prospect of his quarry slipping away, he made
for the stairs. On the next floor up he found a hallway like the one he’d just left but
here each end had a velvet roped section reserved exclusively for the patrons
whose private seats lay just beyond. Going up to one of the staff guarding these,

Detective Tyldavuis guessed right when he flashed the man his badge and
asked, “Is Count Bansardo in this section?” His counterpart seemed a bit unsure of
himself before nodding but that was enough for the detective and he raised his
hand in a gesture that conveyed this. Having only to wait now, he paced the hall
and listened to the muffled singing and laughter and orchestra that let him know
the opera was transpiring with due haste. Yet he was anxious. In a few minutes he’d
be facing a lethal enemy and who knew what the outcome of that would be?

At intermission the hall began to fill again but Count Bansardo didn’t
immediately appear. Then Tyldavuis saw him among a company of chattering
aristocrats; only in a canary yellow outfit this time. Not wasting a second, Detective
Tyldavuis approached him right as he was nearing the velvet rope marking off his
section. “Count Bansardo!” hailed the elf with false good humor. “It’s been a while
hasn’t it since last we spoke?”

The other members of the Count’s entourage sneered at Tyldavuis with both
contempt and irritation but Bansardo recognized him and raised a hand to pre-
empt any comment from his group. “Detective Tyldavuis of the Laughing Creek,”
he replied augustly. “An appropriate name perhaps for an inappropriate person.
You desire something? Other than the amusement of the theatre?”

Tyldavuis bowed, his heart ice. “Only a word in private. It won’t take more
than a few seconds.”

The slightest scowl glanced across Bansardo’s face before he did a swift
mental calculation and decided to indulge the surprise course of events. “I’m sorry
my friends,” he sighed to the rest of his company. “Only some old business I’m
afraid which needs to be dispensed with once and for all. Go, please, and I will meet
you downstairs.” They left with only a few curious looks between each other and
Count Bansardo motioned for Tyldavuis to join him in his box seat. That’ll work,
thought the elf.

There Bansardo spoke first, turning around to face Tyldavuis right after he
followed the werewolf in. “You have some courage elfling,” he snarled, but that
was all he could get out before Tyldavuis pulled out Eigers’ short sword he’d hidden
under his jacket behind him and sunk this deep into the Count’s sternum. Up into
the heart. The Count was surprised of course and attempted to express this, but
only blood and saliva bubbled out of his open mouth. He started to transform
though, involuntarily, and his proud face twisted and bristled into something
grotesque but not fully canine. He was dying. He would soon be dead. It wasn’t
enough for Tyldavuis however. Still holding on to the hilt of his partner’s sword,
Detective Tyldavuis peered into the Bansardo’s face and then pushed him
backwards and over the edge of the balcony. Somewhere below, the slain murderer
landed with a thud.

Hours later at headquarters, the storm Tyldavuis had unleashed was still
raging. Everyone was furious at him. The owners and patrons of the theatre, the
tabloidists eager to make him a villain, and of course the senior management of the
City Warders. He was even hearing about rumblings at City Hall. Only their desire
to salvage the whole mess with a press release about the Frenzy Cleaver’s demise
spared him from the full vengeance of the ruling class.

“I tried to administer a test of silver on him,” protested Tyldavuis to the Chief


Inspector with scrupulous dishonesty. “He resisted though and attacked me.”

This did nothing to alleviate the livid hue that had flooded Worming’s face.
Pacing back and forth in front of his empty chair and the seated detective, he gave
the elf an unrestrained scourging. “You conniving little snake! Do you have any idea
who I have to explain this to!? Shut up! I bet you think you’re the cleverest mystery
in the forest! Got one over on the old man huh!? Rotting elf! Oh! I would love, just
love, to put you in the stockades right now! Let the inquisitors have their way! But
it seems you have an influential friend among the nymphs so I’m going to have to
make due with a permanent reprimand in the Warder annals and knocking you
down two levels of pay.”

If he’d thought about it, he probably would have realized he was getting off
easy. Instead the hypocrisy of the Chief Inspector’s outrage made him snap.
“Okay,” he spat as he shrugged and rolled his eyes in anger. “I quit. Had enough.”

Boiling but at a loss for words, Chief Inspector Worming impotently watched
as his former detective got up and walked out of his office, flashing two fingers in
the traditional archer’s victory taunt behind him as he went.

At the hospital that evening, Eigers was elated by the news. He even chuckled
at one point before the pain of his wound stopped him. Tyldavuis shared the whole
story without embellishment but made sure to really emphasize the parts where
Bansardo and Worming received their comeuppance. These were Eigers favorite
parts too.

“It seems my career among the Warders though has reached an inglorious
end,” Tyldavuis sighed. “And after being so careful for so long! What I don’t get
though is why, after the fact, they were all so offended that he was dead. I get the
politics of it when Bansardo was alive but… to almost mourn him? He killed a
patrician lady! And that’s besides the other three victims”

At this Eigers waved his hand side to side in a gesture of contrary opinion and
wrote something down for Tyldavuis on his chalk board. This read: yes but he was
still one of them and they dont like it when small poeple do what you did.

The elf nodded and shrugged at his friend’s logic. The system was corrupt is
all. No use letting it plant roots of resentment in your heart. “You know what?”
Tyldavuis said suddenly to his seated companion. “I could probably use some time
off anyways. I’ve always wanted to see Panhallia.” Having been informed a while
ago about Ze’ana’s joking suspicions, Eigers made himself a couple of mock horns
with his index fingers and Tyldavuis laughed hysterically. Then they embraced,
shared their goodbyes, and Tyldavuis left. Outside it was beautiful and the lead
horn of the moon was just beginning to blot the sun. Tyldavuis pondered the city
around him, the city he’d become a part of. A whole variety of thoughts swirled in
his mind now but one idea in particular was preoccupying him. Maybe he should
start a private detective agency.
ULTRA CODEX – CHAPTER OF ORIGINS

1. At first there was nothing. Then the nothingness grew empty and a void
formed inside it. This was the womb of the original being. In it, one who could
remake things using only their will was born. When they awoke they saw the
emptiness and became displeased. “A void cannot be,” they said, and the
nothingness listened. The one from the womb now pushed the void outwards until
it became a sphere. “Here I will create a world,” promised the being because that
is what they desired. So far there was nothing to build the world with though so
they pondered that question. After an age had come and gone, they decided. “This
time I will make the world in four parts.” The void could not comprehend this
however and it resisted. “A time is coming when you will be destroyed,” said the
one who was to that which wasn’t.

2. The void hid within a darkness but the one who was reached inside this
and removed some light. They then divided the light into four shapes. “Go to the
center of the void,” commanded the maker and one of the parts went there and
became fire. “Go to the edge of the void,” commanded the maker to a second and
it became earth. “Divide these two from one another,” commanded the maker to
a third and it became air. Here he asked the fourth, “Will you fall on the earth I
have made?” and it did, becoming water. The one who had created all this was very
glad and they descended on the earth to explore it. They found the earth flat
however so they raised up mountains. Then, because the water was everywhere,
they split the earth in two and made a place for all the sea. “Stay there,” they said
before returning to the earth. “You have pleased me,” the maker told their
creation. “But I cannot enjoy you alone.” Hearing this, the sea crept towards the
maker’s feet and the maker smiled. “Yes, you will be the one,” they said.

3. From the sea another being was made and the one who created it spoke
to them. “You will be a woman and I will be a man,” he said. “Yes,” she replied. So
the maker gave them both bodies which he crafted from the four elements and this
was the beginning of the flesh. Through this their beings achieved harmony and the
maker gave the woman his heart. “You are a delight to me and so I will call you
Aca,” said the maker. Aca considered this. “That is a good name, but what will I call
you?” The maker laughed. “You will call me husband and father and lord; but
because you have asked, I will name myself Deis.” Aca kissed her maker and replied,
“Let these things always be so but also let us have children.” He that had created
the woman stared upwards and said, “If that is your wish.”

4. After this Aca gave birth to three sons and the maker named them
according to the spirits they received. “You will be Fer because your heart will be
fire,” he said to one. “And you will be Ert because your heart will be earth,” he told
another. The third had disappeared however so the maker shouted, “Because your
heart is a wind you will be Vand.” That angered the third son and, appearing from
behind the fire in the center of the sphere, he taunted back, “And who are you to
say so?” The maker reached into the sky and pulled down Vand before tossing him
into the sea. “I am your father and this woman is your mother. You must honor us.”
Vand sat in the water frowning. “Well who is your father?” he asked. The maker
kneeled his sons at his feet. “I am the one who has no father,” he told them. “Above
me there is nothing.”

5. The earth was still barren then and soon Aca said to her husband, “I also
want to create.” The maker shrugged as he replied, “So create.” Aca thought about
this and then turned to her son Vand, “Lift up a part from the sea and spread it on
the earth.” Vand did so and then his mother spoke a word which made green things
rise from the ground. “These are interesting,” said Fer as the brothers examined
their mother’s work. “What are they called?” asked Ert. “I cannot say,” replied the
woman before adding, “Ask your father.” The maker smiled. “Let them be known
as Ave.” The brothers and their mother were satisfied with this and, exalting in the
power of creation, they filled the world with many things. Each wanted to create
that which shared their spirit but they also combined their powers as well. Fer
however was jealous of his father’s creation in the sky. “What is this called?” he
asked. “That is the Sun,” replied his father. “And it is life and death.”

6. The world was now full of plants and beasts so the maker decided to create
a council of stars to rule over them. “Make sure this creation prospers,” he said and
the stars bowed. Vand however had been listening secretly and he said to himself,
“Why should this maker give our creations to others?” Having an idea then, he went
to his brothers. “Fer! Ert! I’ve just heard father say that one day one of you will
have to take his place but he does not know which.” Fer answered, “It should be
me. I am father’s glory.” Ert retorted, “But I am father’s wisdom.” The two brothers
were previously building volcanos together but now they began to fight. “That’s
enough!” cried their mother. This did nothing so instead Aca broke them up with a
flood. “Let the stars rule over that,” laughed Vand. Then his father descended on
him and asked, “Why do you create mischief?” but Vand slipped away without
giving his father an answer.

7. Later Vand went to the sea and stared at his reflection there. “Ah,” he said.
“Without light the stars cannot see.” Therefore he concentrated with all his will and
lifted the whole sea into the sky. Here it froze and from this he made a wall around
the sun. As soon as he did this though, darkness swallowed everything and Vand
cried out in fear. “Oh no! What have I done?” He was too tired to repair his mistake
and, helpless, he listened as his mother and siblings yelled in confusion. The maker
however had seen all and he was not alarmed. With a single shout he shattered
Vand’s wall and all of it except one piece fell back to the earth and melted. “Will
you kill every living thing?” the maker asked his son. Vand didn’t reply so the maker
continued. “I will leave a reminder of your error in the sky and, because of you, the
living world will spend a third of each day in darkness.”

8. For a while Vand did not make any more evil but one day, after secretly
watching his father and mother united in the flesh, he approached the maker. “I
want a woman too,” he said. “Make one,” his father retorted. Vand howled with
rage and fled. Now at that time the maker often travelled to the kingdoms of the
stars and sun to attend to affairs there. During one of these absences, Vand was
thinking about his father’s refusal of his plea when he made a decision. “Fine. If he
will not give me a woman, I will take his.” So, extracting the venom of a viper, he
made an elixir which put his mother to sleep. After this he used her as he’d seen
his father do and she became pregnant. Realizing what had happened when she
awoke, Aca wept and threw herself into the sea. For seven days the sons of the
maker waited. On the eighth day finally the sea churned and out of it rose the
titans. All numbered they were thirty six, male and female.

9. Soon the titans proliferated and they became nations. Fer, Ert, and Vand
made themselves lords over these and took wives from among them. Aca
meanwhile reigned over a city deep underwater and she only spoke to Fer and Ert
when they went down to visit her. Vand she refused to see. The corruption he had
given into had taken him over too. For instance, he twisted the children of the titans
to create monsters and from these came the earliest devils. Fer and Ert and Aca
also used their powers on the children of the titans and eventually there were
peoples of many shapes and sizes. The world fell into war and chaos. Hearing of
this from the stars, the maker returned and, when he learned of all that had
happened, his wrath was swift. “Vand! You have defied me, ruined your mother,
and spread evil across creation! Since you only devour as the void does, you can
join it in its nothingness!” Vand tried to escape but the maker struck him down with
lightning and then began to breathe in the flesh of his son. “No father!” cried Vand
but it was too late. From then on he was doomed to forever be a spirit.

10. The maker gazed across his broken world and decided what needed to
be done. Gathering his two remaining sons to him, he issued them the following
instructions. “Of these peoples there are too many kinds. Choose three who are
fair and three who are foul and set these apart. Then gather with them all our
original creatures and ready them together. I will command the stars to bring an
urn to save these before you cleanse the world of the rest.” Fer and Ert initially did
what their father said but the spirit of Vand whispered to them and through this
many evil creatures were saved. With the urn then set safely in the sky, the maker
ordered his sons to sweep the world with inferno and earthquake. “What of our
mother?” asked Ert. The maker looked towards the sea as he replied, “She will die
and I will create a new one.” With no more delay, the removal of the titans and the
monsters was undertaken. None still on the earth or in the sea survived. Satisfied,
the maker opened the urn and spread its contents over the world.

11. Of the six who had been specifically chosen, the three fair were elves,
nymphs, and humans while the three foul were dwarves, gnomes, and orcs. Of the
condemned who Vand had saved, there were many, and these went and hid
throughout the lands and waters. Most notable were the devils who built kingdoms
under the earth where they created imps and gremlins and goblins. The maker
however only considered the six chosen ones and he blessed each with an animal
spirit. “The elves will have the spirit of the deer. The nymphs will have the spirit of
the otter. The humans will have the spirit of the horse. The dwarves will have the
spirit of the badger. The gnomes will have the spirit of the mole. The orcs will have
the spirit of the wolf.” That done, he turned to his sons and said, “So that none of
these peoples challenges us, I will bring into being a creature to rule over them and
this will be the dragon.” His sons were confused, and Fer asked, “What of us?” The
maker replied, “We will live among the stars.”

12. The maker and his sons left and the peoples of the world lived for a while
in plenitude and simplicity. They did not build tools or dwell in cities but rather ate
abundantly what the land freely provided and slept whenever they would under
the stars. The evils created by Vand emerged to torment them though and in their
distress they cried for help. Here the stars heard them and sent a messager to give
aid. The visitor instructed all the peoples in how to make tools for agriculture and
war. It gave them medicine and crafts. It even showed them how to build ships and
tame animals. To each people it gave appropriate lessons and urged them to follow
their own spirits. “What is your name?” asked the peoples. “I am Alethenos,” said
the being and it left. Using what they’d learned, the peoples became strong and
defended themselves from evil. Humans especially flourished and began to
dominate the land but many fell under the influence of the moon. The spirit of Vand
was still striving with his father’s creation.