The sun is high in the sky when Hocus, Wicklow, Scythe ride through the clean, broad streets of Dakka, the capital city of Belgoria. The date is the 20th August 2477. Their destination is the Pelamakshi Hotel, recommended by Toylandic Miastadon, regent of Diamantis.
The Belgorians speak a dialect of Latin. They have their own introductions and pleasantries, which they use with enthusiasm and sincerity, and their own accent, but our heroes can understand all that they say if they speak slowly, and the Belgorians in their turn can understand the more classical Latin spoken by the travelers.
Riding with Hocus, Wicklow, and Scythe is Heraklese Polychronassos. He has a smile on his face as they enter the city. Only two weeks before, his companions made him a partner. He worked hard, fought hard, and risked his life many times to earn his position, and now that he has it, he finds himself constantly cheered by it. He is quite aware that, statistically speaking, he and his partners are unlikely to survive more than a few years in this business, but his heart tells him that he is safe at last, and that his agile mind is at last appreciated and put to good use.
On their way to the hotel, our heroes are permitted by the Dakka police to carry their weapons. Travelers are allowed to carry weapons and wear armor on the highways to protect themselves from bandits. In the streets of the city, however, only Belgorian Soldiers are permitted to carry metal weapons and armor. Even the Dakka police, who patrol the city in billowing white cotton shirts and trousers, carry only black-painted wooden truncheons. The hotel provides a metal-walled room in which guests can place their armor and weapons for safe-keeping. This is one among many services they offer the accomplished adventurer. They also provide two stables for hippogriffs alongside the horse stables. To our heroes' disappointment, both these stalls are empty, but the head groom assures them that they won't have to be here more than a week before they get to see a hippogriff land upon the stable roof.
There is a notice board in the Hotel common room, beside the fireplace. There is no wood or ash in the fireplace, but the mortar between the stones of the mantelpiece is stained black from long use. The notice-board is covered with several layers of advertisements. Most of them are requests for adventurers to act as mercenaries or guards for caravans and merchants. One notice reads:
Wanted: Evacuator to work in Vezdakh. Details: The evacuator flies to save clients from poison, attack, or accident. On call twelve hours a day, five days a week. Four weeks vacation a year. Salary up to half a million Olympian Dollars a year. Requirements: Minimum twenty years adventuring experience, one thousand hours on flying mounts, good references, grade three summoning license.
They take two rooms at the hotel for the four of them, Scythe and Wicklow in one room, and Hocus and Heraklese in the other. After a nap, they sit out in the hotel courtyard, which is large and sunny. Colorful flowers bloom in dozens of waist-high clay pots. Vines bearing unripe grapes climb up the walls. Heraklese has picked up a printed book called Enjoying Dakka. The book is written in Olympian Latin. Heraklese reads sections out loud as his partners sip their tea. When they are not listening to Heraklese, the partners watch brightly colored little birds playing among the vines and in a stone water-bowl nearby.
Belgoria, or Belgorash as the locals say, lies upon the north-western shores of the Satian Sea. On its southern border is Diamantis, from which our heroes have just come. In the west of the country, rolling hills ascend into the high valleys and pastures of the northern Trukulant Mountains. On the other side of these mountains are the dry planes of Gowachin. To the north of Belgoria are several smaller nations. Belgoria itself is larger than all its neighbors except Gowachin. Beyond several smaller nations to the north are the Kubla steppes.
"The population of Belgoria is roughly one hundred thousand," Heraklese reads, "The land area is almost one hundred thousand square kilometers."
"One person per square kilometer," Hocus says.
A waiter puts a bowl of fruit on the table. There are small, sweet apples, bright orange apricots, firm, crisp cucumbers, and a dozen cherry tomatoes. It is hot and dry in Belgoria in the summer, and the Belgorians make good use of the water that flows down out of the Trukulant mountains. They irrigate their grain and corn, and also their orchards and vineyards. They are famous among the nations of the Satian Sea for their wine.
"Ask any Belgorian," Heraklese reads, "and he will tell you: Belgoria is the oldest country in the world. Its culture and heritage have remained unbroken for two thousand years, since the Golden Age, when the goddess Polyamen lived among them with her spirits and deities to show the first Belgorians how to grow fruit trees, plant grain, and build houses. They are faithful to Polyamen to this day. Although the Belgorians have few temples, those that they do have are beautiful and well-maintained, and in every building you are bound to find at least one small room set aside for personal worship of the goddess. Her image sits in an alcove, comely and benevolent, with a space before her where you can kneel in prayer.
"When the Belgorians had learned what Polyamen had to teach, she left them to live in freedom, and to prove themselves worthy of her gift of knowledge. For a thousand years, the Belgorians lived in peace with themselves, and with their courage and determination protected their borders from invasion from the steppes to the north, and from ambitious rulers all around them. But not even the holy armies of Belgoria could withstand the mighty forces of the Weilandic Empire, and under its yoke they fell in the thirteenth century. When Gelden unleashed his hellspawn upon the world, Belgoria fell into slavery as well, but they hid their books and their relics in the mountains, and kept them safe, through the centuries of the dark ages.
"When the orcs withdrew, Belgoria's neighbors emerged from slavery stumbling and confused as to what they might do with their new-found freedom, but the Belgorians knew exactly what to do: they retrieved their books, tens of thousands of them, and their treasured statues and works of art, and built their museums and libraries again, and restored their senate and councils and their way of life. Belgoria now is exactly as it was, or so the Belgorians claim, and it is through their determination and faith in Polyamen that they alone of the countries of the world retained their dignity and self-respect through centuries of enslavement by base-born monsters of hell."
"The Dark Ages..." Wicklow says.
Scythe nods. "Lots of work back then."
"But nobody to pay for it," Hocus says.
Heraklese continues, "Certainly the Belgorian libraries and museums attract scholars from all over the continent. Their printing presses are said to be the best in the region."
Heraklese continues flicking through the book until he comes to a section on the Belgorian government, which he reads to himself.
"What did it say?" Hocus says.
"They tax the population based upon land ownership over and above that required to feed a family. The tax-payers get to vote for their local representative in the senate. The senate has twenty-four members."
"So if you don't pay taxes, you don't vote," Hocus says.
"I guess so. They also tax imports heavily, the main import being coffee. The tax on wool cloth is so severe that the Belgorians resort to growing their own cotton, and wearing cotton coats in winter."
"That doesn't make sense," Hocus says, "The winters are pretty cold here aren't they? There's a big fireplace in the common room."
Heraklese nods. He is looking at the book. "It says here that the import taxes are to stop imports, and keep Belgoria independent of foreign trade. That way they stop themselves from becoming corrupted by foreign interests and foreign culture."
Over the next two days, our heroes relax with books from the hotel library, spar in the sparring room, or chat with the other guests. The only other adventurers staying at the hotel are some caravan guards who drink too much and don't seem to fit in. Our heroes exchange pleasantries with these characters, but little else. The remaining guests, however, prove more interesting. Some are travelers, out to see the world, some are traders, but most are scholars here to consult the Dakka libraries. Some of the scholars are secretive about their research, but most are glad to talk, and all are well-spoken and perceptive. They are glad to answer questions about Belgoria, and about their home countries. There are two events in the news these days in Dakka: the turmoil in Diamantis, and the theft from the Belgorash Museum recently of some antiquities.
The hotel owner, a fifty-year-old woman called Tallila Pelamakshi, whose children run most of the hotel facilities, asks our heroes on their first night about the doings in Diamantis. The Belgorians are much concerned about the affairs of their neighbor. The reason for their concern is that the Diamatians have a reputation among the Belgorians for being not only warlike, but expertly warlike. After some discussion, it emerges that this reputation was earned by Diamantis before the Dark Ages. But the Belgorian's don't forget.
Tallila does not ask what has happened in Diamantis, because she knows what has happened, and she knows who our heroes are. She is glad to have them staying in her hotel, and she tells the other guests who they are, too. Her questions about Diamantis are along the lines of, "Do you think the boy will make a just king?" and "What are the intentions of Alamasius? Why did he let Diamantis slip into obscurity for two centuries?"
When our heroes stroll around the city, they are struck by the number of museums: there seems to be one on every corner, and next to it a library. There are libraries for every subject: metallurgy, horticulture, anthropology, and cosmology. There is a Museum of Natural History, a Museum of Art, and largest of all, the Belgorash Museum, which houses the most precious of Belgoria's antiquities. Every museum has an entrance fee, and every library too. The scholars buy passes for the week, or the month, but our heroes are not yet inclined to pay for entry into a museum, so they keep strolling. They pass coffee shops full of scholars and merchants, and approach the Dakka University campus. Here, young men and women both foreign and Belgorian fill the coffee shops, laughing and flirting, or crouched over books in the shade of tall trees.
Later, they come to the docks. Dakka lies on the delta of the Rapkin River. Ships sail or ride the tide up the channels of the delta to the city. There they unload coffee and iron and lamp oil, and take on wine, cotton, and books. Aside from trade, the ships carry passengers to and from the city.
In the morning of 23rd August, our heroes receive a written invitation to visit the office of Dalian Krass, of the Krass Insurance Agency, to discuss with him a "business proposal". That afternoon, they walk to his office and meet him. A young man, lean and athletic, answers the door. Our heroes introduce themselves.
"And you are?" Heraklese says.
"Reprobatim Krass," the young man says, "I'm Dalian's nephew."
"Delighted to meet you."
"Come on in," Reprobatim says.
He takes the four of them up to an office with large many-paned glass windows looking out onto the street. A tall man with a hooked nose, tanned skin, graying hair tied back in a pony-tail, and a silk shirt rises from his desk to greet them. "Thank you Reprobatim, you can go now."
Dalian winces, but then smiles at his guests. "Please sit down. Would you like some sherry?"
They accept. He pours out five glasses of dry, cool sherry, and puts on the table a bowl of green plumbs.
"You must have heard about the theft at the Belgorash Museum," Dalian says.
"Yes, we have," Hocus says.
"Almost all the items stolen were insured by me. I'm faced with a claim of over one million Olympian dollars."
"That's a lot of money," Heraklese says.
"Two hundred and seventy-eight separate items were stolen. By far the greater part of them belonged to one man, Galoopius Maximus. Six months ago he moved across the mountains to Gowachin, where he now lives in a villa. He had a large, private collection of Belgorash antiquities. Our laws prohibited him from taking them out of the country, so he lent them to the museum. Under the terms of such loans, the museum takes out insurance in case the items are damaged or stolen. The insurer, myself in this case, inspects their security arrangements, and accepts a premium from the museum."
"Why did Gloopius move to Gowachin?" Wicklow asks.
"His health was failing, and his doctor told him to move to the drier climate of Gowachin."
"It's drier than here?" Hocus says.
"It does not make any sense to me either, but that is the reason he gave. Perhaps it has something to do with his wife, who is considerably younger than him, wanting to go home. She comes from Gowachin."
"Is Gloopius pressing his claim against the museum?"
"No. If he presses the claim, he will do so with me directly, but he has not pressed any claim. Far from it, he has written to the museum saying that he trusts they will recover the stolen goods, and that he will be patient. Two other owners of the stolen articles are being less patient, though."
"And they are?" Wicklow says, with a pencil and paper on his lap.
"Malishka Beetlenut, a spinster who lives west of here. She owns the Divinicus Vase, which was on display in the museum. She claims sixty thousand dollars. And there's Kornelius Ignobius, a priest, who claims thirty thousand dollars for a set of clay tablets dating back two thousand four hundred years, and a number of turquoise pieces."
"How much is Galoopius's claim, if he makes it?" Wicklow says.
"Almost nine hundred thousand dollars."
"And the theft took place six weeks ago?"
"Yes, it did," Dalian says. "I'll tell you now, in confidence, that I have always been happy to insure articles for the Belgorash Museum, because it seems to me that the only people who are interested in Belgorash antiquities are the Belgorians. My countrymen, however, are convinced that scholars and collectors from other nations would dearly love to possess our national treasures. I offer insurance at a lower cost, because I think the risk of theft is low."
"But you were wrong," Hocus says.
"Perhaps. But I think you will understand my point: who would want to steal our antiquities? Only a Belgorian."
"So you think it was a Belgorian who stole them."
"Yes, in particular, and again I tell you this in confidence, I think Mr. Maximus arranged for them to be stolen, and is even now enjoying his collection again in the privacy of his mountain villa in Gowachin."
"You don't suspect these other owners, the ones who are pressing their claims?"
"No, they are just a nuisance. If they wanted to take back their own antiquities, they could take them back any time. If they wanted to sell them to a Belgorian collector, they could sell them. Mr. Maximus is in a unique position: he is a Belgorian outside Belgoria, and he is an avid and wealthy collector. He can afford to be patient when it comes to his insurance payment."
"I take it that you want our help in finding out where the stolen articles are?"
"Yes. To be precise: I would like your help in avoiding being defrauded."
"If Mr. Maximus does not make his claim, then you have not been defrauded."
"No, that's true, but if I wait until he makes his claim, the trail will be even colder than it is now, and I am sure he will eventually make the claim."
"And what about the local police, are they investigating?"
"They are, or they did. A man with a stocking over his head entered the museum at night and overcame and bound the guard. An estimated five or six accomplices then sought out and found all the items they were looking for. They opened locked safes and passed over many valuable items to get the ones they wanted. Most, as I said, were from Mr. Maximuss's collection, but not all of them, and not all the items that Mr. Maximus lent to the museum were taken.
"After that, the thieves loaded their crates onto a wagon and took them down to the docks, where they were loaded onto a ship, which left that night. The police have concluded that the theft was perpetrated by foreigners. Why else would the stolen goods be loaded onto a ship."
"A foreign ship?" Scythe says.
"A Satian ship, no less. So far as the police are concerned, the investigation is closed: the thieves were foreigners, and they have come and gone. Now it is a matter for the government to investigate.
"So that is why I have invited you here. You, I think, will agree that only a Belgorian would be interested in Belgorian antiquities, and you will be willing to travel across the mountains to find out what has happened to them. As the insurer, I have the right to investigate the crime myself, or through my appointed agents. With my authority behind you, you will be able to talk to all the witnesses and parties involved."
And so it is that our heroes agree to investigate the crime. As payment, they will receive ten percent of the money they save Dalian in potential insurance claims. If, after an investigation in Dakka, they come to the same conclusion as Dalian, they will consider embarking upon a journey to Gowachin to see Mr. Maximus.
"It so happens that I have an appointment to see Inspector Penatak Boorishmish at the police station in an hour. Why don't you come with me and talk to him, as a first step?"
Penatak Boorishmish does not seem pleased to see the adventurers, and it is only after Dalian quotes the law with respect to private investigations by insurers, that the inspector agrees to answer their questions. From the inspector they learn that the crates the thieves use to transport the stolen antiquities were made by the Orip the crate-maker. A sailor with a foreign accent ordered them a week before the theft, and picked them up shortly before. The museum guard who was bound and gagged was treated humanely by the thieves. The ship that carried the crates away was called the Ptolomy. It left in violation of the harbor regulations. There were two witnesses to the movement of the wagons through the dark streets in the middle of the night.
"That's all I have time for," the inspector says.
"We need a letter from you," Dalian says, "introducing my agents to whoever they want to interview."
Another argument ensues, which Dalian wins, and the inspector writes out a quick letter declaring that the four adventurers are the agents of Mr. Krass, and requesting that all involved in the case answer their questions.
The Belgorians like to make appointments. Certainly, you can't see an official without an appointment, and to make an appointment you have to see their secretary. You don't need an appointment to see the secretary, hence the Belgorian title for a secretary is "without appointment". Dalian takes the precaution of making another appointment to see the inspector on the way out: 9 am on 27th. Dalian assigns Reprobatim, his nephew, to escort our heroes around the city, and returns to his office, thanking them for their interest.
Reprobatim makes an appointment for them with the curator of the Balgorash Museum for 7 am tomorrow (25th). He also obtains from the inspector's secretary the name of one of the people who saw the wagons go by in the night.
Meanwhile, our heroes go and see Orip the Crate-Maker. They don't need an appointment. They find him in his shop making crates with his two sons. He says their letter of introduction is "not for him". He can't read. He says he is busy, and can't answer questions except for customers. Our heroes end up ordering a small crate for one hundred dollars (one gold piece). After that, Orip describes the sailor who ordered four large crates and six smaller crates from him. He was olive-skinned with a waxed moustache and black hair. His clothes were a striped "sailor's shirt" and cotton trousers. He wore a belt with an empty scabbard, in the manner of a sailor who has left his weapon on his boat. He ordered the crates seven days before he picked them up, and he picked them up two days before the theft of the antiquities. Because Orip can't read or write, he has no records of the transaction.
"I keep it all in my head," he says, "prices and everything. He paid twelve gold pieces, and he did not argue about the price, either."
"How did the sailor take the crates away?" Scythe asks.
"He picked them up in a wagon, one of Jehuda Menuin's wagons."
Down the street, they visit Jehuda the cart-maker. He invites them into his office and serves them tea. He talks freely. His employees are busy moving carts around and tending to horses. He himself is a big fat man wearing an orange cotton robe. His head is shaved, and he has a little statue of Polyamen on the tea table.
Unlike Orip, Jehuda is quite literate, and has a detailed ledger of his business transactions, which he consults when he answers their questions. According to his ledger, the sailor rented a cart from him on the day of the theft and left the cart down on the number-three dock where the Ptolomy was tied up. One of his people picked up the cart in the morning. Jehuda describes the sailor as between thirty and forty years old, with olive skin, clean sailor's outfit, vulture-like posture, dark brown hair, and a waxed moustache. The sailor signed Jehuda's ledger. Scythe reads the signature. The name is Pickup Andropov in Weilandic. Jehuda does not get the pun because he does not speak Weilandic.
"He paid cash in advance," Jehuda said.
They discuss the crime with Jehuda, who tells them his theory: the Satians organized the theft to undermine the Dakka Museums. Most of their valuable works of art and antiquities are on loan from private collectors, so if some are stolen, the collectors are likely to take back their property. Doing so will detract from the attraction of the museums, and damage the Dakka economy. Instead of coming to Dakka, scholars might instead go to Sax. Jehuda would not be surprised, he says, if the stolen antiquities show up in a Satian museum.
They say goodbye to Jehuda, and proceed to the docks. There they have a few words with the harbormaster's wife, who seems to serve as his secretary. She tells them the Ptolomy left on the midnight tide on the night of a full moon. It is not unusual for a ship to do this, even though it is against regulations. On a clear night, it is easy to drift down the delta to the sea. The next time the ship comes into port, they pay a fine, but the fine is often less than the cost of a delay. She confirms that the Ptolomy had never visited Dakka before. She says they can come and see the harbormaster tomorrow at 6 pm. As they leave, they get one more answer out of her: the Ptolomy's name was written on the bow in Satian hieroglyphs, which she cannot read.
"Who can?" she said, "No one but those crazy Satians. So I had to take the captain's word on it that the ship's name was Ptolomy. Now, if you will forgive my bad manners in the face of such illustrious guests, I beg your permission to say goodnight, and look forward to your return tomorrow, if you will honor one so humble as myself with your return. At that time, we will be pleased to show you what we have recorded in our books for the Ptolomy."
"That's Belgorian for get lost," Herkalese whispers to Hocus.
So they leave.
That evening, in the hotel courtyard, they go over what they have learned. Did the Satians take the artifacts? Or was it Mr. Maximus? Did they leave on the Ptolomy, or is the Ptolomy a distraction?
Our heroes rise early on the 24th August and take their breakfast in the courtyard of the Pelamakshi Hotel. They have an appointment with the Curator of the Belgorash Museum at seven o'clock. There is a bell tower two hundred meters down the street from the hotel, and at a quarter to seven its bell rings three times.
Scythe finishes the rest of his coffee and puts it down upon a white china saucer. "Okay, time to go."
Wicklow puts his coffee cup down, half full, and stands up. He is wearing a cotton shirt and trousers he purchased in the city. The cotton feels soft and cool against his skin. He will be glad of it when the sun rises higher in the sky and the heat of the Belgorian summer bears down upon the city.
"You don't want the rest of your cup?" Scythe says.
Wicklow smiles at him. "No, it's all yours."
Scythe picks up Wicklow's cup and drinks the coffee with evident satisfaction. This done, he stands up and, with Hocus, Heraklese, and Wicklow, walks out through the entrance hall of the Hotel and into the street.
Ten minutes later they climb the steps to the imposing stone edifice that is the Belgorash Museum. It is here, they know, that the greater part of Belgoria's national treasures are housed. The tall double-doors of the museum are open, and inside the spacious foyer, they find two clerks sitting at a desk, and two men in uniform standing beside them.
Because of their appointment with the curator, our heroes do not need to pay to enter the museum, but they sign their names in the guest book, and record the name of their hotel as well. One of the clerks leads them along the central hall of the museum to the curator's office.
There they meet Lamagra Gappsha, the curator. He orders his secretary to bring them tea, and they sit down.
"I was asleep in bed when the theft took place, as it did in the very early hours of the morning. The police came to my house and summoned me, telling me that the museum was robbed. Naturally, I came as quickly as I could."
"How many guards were on duty in the museum that night?" Wicklow says.
"One guard. It was unfortunate, although I doubt it would have made any difference."
"You usually have more than one guard?" Scythe says.
"Yes, two, but the other one reported in sick."
"And what do the guards do? Do they walk around? Are the doors locked, and if so, who has the keys?"
"All the doors are locked: the two rear doors and the main doors. The guards patrol inside constantly. They have keys only to the main doors, and no others. They do not have keys to the basement, or to any of the display cases."
Lamarga insists that the museum's security arrangements are rigorous and thorough. When our heroes ask him about previous thefts, he is at first evasive, but eventually reveals that ten years ago a painting was stolen from the museum, and appeared in Sax some months later. The painting they never recovered, although many other items stolen over the centuries have eventually made their way back to the museum.
"Many collectors of antiquities, throughout the region, covet the treasures in our collection, but even if they obtain what they want, they cannot take their stolen artifacts with them when they die, and eventually they return here, where they belong. We in Belgorash are patient. And we have faith in Polyamen."
Lamarga takes them around the museum, showing them the two rear doors. One of them, he indicates as the one out of which the thieves escaped with their loot.
"Was it unlocked when you arrived at the museum?" Hocus says.
"I don't recall," Lamarga says.
"Who has keys to these doors?"
"Only myself and Drollana the assistant curator."
"Where was he at the time?"
"She, not he," Lamarga says, "In bed also, I should imagine."
"But did you summon her here?"
"I did, and she came."
"Where are the keys to the basement, and the display cases?"
"They are all in my office, in a safe to which I have the key, and Drollana also. So you see, the thief could not have a key to the lock, nor the guards. However they entered the door, they must have opened it by some method known to themselves."
"The thieves took items from the basement, didn't they?" Wicklow says.
"Yes, they did. Most of it from the collection of Galoopius Maximus."
"Was the door to the safe in your office open when you arrived?"
"No, it was not open."
"Did you check the lock?"
"No, I did not, but I think it was locked."
"But you are not certain." Scythe says.
"I am not certain." Lamarga turns to welcome one of the two guards from the foyer. "Good morning Banka, these are the gentlemen who wanted to meet you. They are here on behalf of Mr. Krass, the insurer."
A lean young man with dark skin, a hook nose, and a broad smile shakes their hands.
"Yes, this was the door they left by," he says, pointing to the large iron-bound wood door. "And it was locked when I checked it, before the thief tied me up."
"And how did he tie you up?" Scythe says.
"I was standing looking at the Divinicus Vase. I like to look at it, especially at night, by the light of a lamp. It was very beautiful."
"And still is," Lamagra says, "it will return one day, you can be sure of it."
"I hope so, sir," Banka smiles at his boss, and turns to Scythe. "So, I am looking at the vase, when the thief comes up behind me and grabs one of my arms and twists it behind my back. He puts his other arm around my neck, and I can't move. I try to move, but it hurts very much. I am frightened. I think he is going to kill me, but he doesn't. He says he won't hurt me, and then he makes me kneel down, and ties me up, and puts a cloth over my eyes."
"Did he speak with an accent? Was he a foreigner?" Wicklow says.
"He spoke clearly, and slowly. I don't think he was a foreigner, perhaps he came from the north. But he did not speak like someone from the city."
Lamagra has to keep an appointment. He at first expresses reluctance to leave Banka to talk to them alone, but relents, and leaves them talking outside his office.
Banka confirms Lamagra's description of his duties, but says that his colleague, the one who did not show up, is an old man, and often does not show up for work. Banka heard the thieves collecting things from the museum. He heard no breaking glass, or forcing of locks, and later, when he was free again, he remembers no open cases, but there were many things missing, including the vase.
"How did you get free?" Scythe says.
"I heard the back door close, and then no more sound. I waited an hour and then crawled to the main doors and began to shout. The police heard me and went and got the curator, who opened the doors. I could not open them with my key, because my hands were still tied, and my legs too."
A woman's voice says, "Hello."
Our heroes look away from Banka and see a tall, slender woman of about sixty standing in front of them. She wears a long, loose shirt over a billowing pair of cotton trousers. Her hair is golden, streaked with white, and grows so plentifully that she has it tied back in a tight pony-tail. When she reaches out her hand to Hocus, Scythe sees the pony tail stretches down to her waist.
"I am Drollana, the assistant curator."
Hocus shakes her hand. "Pleased to meet you."
When Hocus has made introductions, Drollana says, "You must have questions about the theft. I will be happy to answer any that I can."
"At what time did you arrive here after the theft?" Scythe says.
"Soon after Lamagra."
"I must go," Banka says.
"Thank you for your time," Scythe says.
Banka tips his hat to Drollana. "Good day to you madam."
"And to you Mr. Toga."
Drollana leads them slowly through the museum as they ask questions. She points out the empty spaces in display cases, and they linger in front of the large and solitary case that held the Divinicus Vase. "It was our most beloved treasure."
Drollana tells them that she arrived at the museum shortly after Lamagra. She went to the back door, and finding it unlocked, she locked it. She went into Lamagra's office, and finding the safe unlocked, she opened it and checked the rows of keys on pegs. They appeared all to be there, so she closed and locked the safe.
"The thieves took things from the basement as well, it that right?" Hocus says.
"How would they know where to find things in the basement?"
"I don't know."
"How do you find things down there?"
"Each artifact or box of artifacts is on a particular shelf in a particular isle. The isles and shelves have labels, and we keep a record upstairs of the location of each artifact. It's simple."
"Who can look at these records?" Scythe says.
"Me, the curator, the clerks, any of the without-appointments."
"What about visiting scholars?"
Drollana explains that visiting scholars can examine items from the main museum, or from the stacks as they call the isles in the basement, but it is the clerks who bring the items to the scholars, who examine them in the privacy of one of six, small study rooms.
"Surely the item comes in a box," Hocus says.
"Of course, we take the box off the shelf in the stacks, and if we take something from a display case, we put it in special carrying case."
"And the box from the shelf downstairs has a label on it giving its shelf and isle."
"As a matter of fact, it does, yes."
"Do you keep records of which scholars were here on which days, and what they examined from the stacks."
"Yes, we have to by law. All movements of the national treasures must be recorded."
"We would like to look at those records," Hocus says.
Heraklese leans against the window of the museum's records office. The windows are made of glass and lead. The glass itself is clear, but the small panes are crudely made. The world outside looks bent and its colors are smeared. Heraklese holds his eye close to a lump in one pane and looks at the sign above the coffee shop on the other side of the street. The letters bulge and contract as he moves his head.
"Look!" Hocus says.
Heraklese turns. Hocus is standing in front of a filing cabinet with a stiff paper folder in one hand, and a loose sheet of paper in the other. He is smiling and appears to be balanced upon his toes. He strides quickly around a desk to Scythe and holds the piece of paper in front of Scythe's eyes. "Look!"
Scythe takes the piece of paper, and Wicklow looks over his shoulder.
"Excellent," Scythe says.
"Good work, Hocus," Wicklow says.
"Are you willing to share your discovery with me?" Heraklese says.
Scythe brings the sheet of paper over and holds it up. At the top is a name, written clearly in black ink: Artificio Mendicanta.
"Get it?" Scythe says.
The street is hot, and the air above the city buildings shimmers in the rising heat of the morning. Our heroes walk briskly. They often step into the street to make their way past slower pedestrians on the pavement.
"We're hot on the trail," Wicklow says, "Hot on the trail."
"What did you think of that secretary?" Heraklese says.
"At the museum?" Wicklow says.
"Yes. She was surprised."
"I didn't notice," Hocus says.
Heraklese hops over a bag full of apples an old lady has put down in the middle of the pavement. "Well I noticed, and I think it's odd that none of them thought to look at the records, even though they clearly want to know who stole their stuff."
"Maybe they're just stupid," Hocus says.
"She wasn't stupid. And she was genuinely surprised. Her eyes were wide, and her jaw dropped."
"You should go back and ask her out for cup of coffee," Wicklow says.
Heraklese shakes his head. "Judge others by your own standards."
"What does that mean?"
After a few paces, Heraklese says, "I don't know. My father always used to say it at times like that."
Hocus smiles and shakes his head. They walk on towards the hotel."
"There!" Scythe says, a few minutes later. The leather-bound guest book of the Pelamakshi Hotel lies open before him upon on the reception counter. He presses his finger upon the heavy paper, beneath a name and signature.
Tallila, the owner of the hotel, stands behind the counter. Her face is flushed and her hair is clean and wet. She has just returned from a visit to the public gymnasium. "Now you must tell me what you are up to."
"This signature," Scythe says, "matches the hand-writing of the signature in the cart-maker's book, the signature of the man who rented the cart and used it to transport the stolen antiquities to the docks on the night of the Belgorash Museum theft."
"How can you tell?"
"Not only that," Wicklow says, "But the name is a joke name in Weilandic, just like the name in the cart-maker's book."
"The same name?"
"No, a different name from the cart-maker's book, that one was Pickup Andropov, but the same name as a scholar who visited the museum a dozen times in the three weeks before the crime and examined every single one of the stolen articles."
"And," Scythe says, "This is the same signature, exactly the same, as the one on the museum records."
Tallila looks at the book and then at them. She smiles. "Cool."
"Do you remember him?" Wicklow says.
"Yes, a quiet fellow, he was, with a full black beard. He was out and about most of the time."
Scythe is still looking through the guest book. "He left for three days about three weeks before the theft, and then came back, and then... He was here the day after the theft! He left again for three days, then came back again, and then left... for the last time."
"He came back after the theft?" Heraklese says.
"Yes, look," Scythe points to the book.
"That guy had some balls."
"Balls?" Tallila says, "what type of balls? Stolen balls, in my hotel?"
Wicklow looks across the counter at Tallila for a few seconds. She looks back at him, her eyes wide.
"Possibly," he says, "It's too early to tell."
"I feel strangely exhilarated," she says, "Oh! And there's something else. A letter arrived for him shortly after he left for the last time. I still have it, in my office, unopened."
They follow her into her office, leaving the guest book open on the counter. Wicklow closes the door behind them. Tallila stands before a hundred wooden pigeon-holes against the wall. After a moment she reaches into one and takes out a folded sheet of paper, sealed with clear wax.
"No mark on the seal, but it's addressed to Artificio Mendicanta. A mail carrier delivered it. The sender put no address on the letter."
Scythe holds out his hand for the letter, but Tallila pulls the letter back to her breast. "I can't give it to you."
"Oh, come on," Wicklow says, "We're investigating a crime, here, we have a legal document empowering us to ask questions."
"But not to seize evidence."
Wicklow looks at Heraklese, and Heraklese shakes his head.
"But surely this is an exception," Wicklow says.
Tallila shakes her head. "The guest's privacy is sacred." She puts the letter back in the pigeon hole. "There it stays."
Scythe walks around her desk to the window, and looks out at the hotel courtyard.
"It's lunch time," he says, but he is not hungry. Instead, his heart is beating fast, and his hands are starting to sweat.
"Okay," Wicklow says, "We'll try to persuade you later, Tallila."
Scythe leaves the window and walks towards Tallila past the pigeon holes. His hand reaches out, but Tallila begins to turn around to face him, and he backs away from the wall, and closes his eyes for a moment in frustration.
Heraklese opens the office door and walks out, Hocus follows him.
"Thanks for your help," Wicklow says.
Tallila turns to him for a moment. Scythe hesitates for a half-second, and then steps towards the wall and takes a letter out of a corner pigeon-hole.
"You're welcome," Tallila says, "I'm sorry that I can't show you the letter."
Scythe puts the letter he has in one hand into Artificio Mendicanta's pigeon-hole, takes the original letter, and slides it down the back seat of his trousers.
"That's okay," Wicklow says, "We'll manage."
Tallila turns to Scythe.
"Excuse me," Scythe says, and slips past her. "And thank you. Would you like to join us for lunch?"
"At my own hotel?"
"Sure, it's on me."
Tallila laughs. "Another time, but thank you."
"You're welcome," Scythe says. He follows Wicklow out of the office and closes the door behind him.
Our heroes retire immediately to their rooms and examine the letter. The paper is heavy and smooth. The address is written in simple child-like letters:
Artificio Mendicanta Pelamakshi
Hotel Dakka, Belgoria
They open the letter, and this is what they find written inside, in the same child-like letters.
Wvzi Xozfwv, R kfg nb gifhg rm blfi xbksvi. Wl mlg xlnv yzxp gl nb slnv. Nb tziwvmvi hzd blf ozhg grnv. Tl rmhgvzw gl gsv xvnvgzib, gl nb uznrob'h glny, zmw kozxv gsv ezhv drgsrm. R pmld gsv olxp droomlg srmwvi blf. Rg rh mvd. Dszg blf wl drgs gsv ivhg, R wl mlg xziv. hvoo gsvn uli blfi ldmkilurg. hl olmt zh tzoolkrfh ivxvrevh gsv hfhkrxrlm. Blfih
"A cypher!" Heraklese says.
Below the final line of letters is a flowing signature that reads Malishka Beetlenut.
"She's the owner of the Divinicus Vase," Hocus says.
"What's the point in writing in code if you sign your name?" Heraklese says.
"Can you break the cypher?" Wicklow says, looking at Scythe.
"It's probably a simple substitution cipher. If so, we can break it."
Hocus puts the letter down on the coffee table and takes out a pencil and paper of his own. "Let's get to work then."
It does not take Hocus and Scythe long to figure out the cipher. The letters are exchanged, 'a' for 'z', 'b' for 'y' and so on, ending with 'z' for 'a'. Hocus decodes the message slowly. It is written in Latin. Scythe reads it out as Hocus goes along. Heraklese and Wicklow stand close by, fidgeting with excitement.
"Dear Claude," Scythe says.
"Claude is it?" Wicklow says.
"He's a Claude," Heraklese says.
"I put my trust in your cypher," Scythe says.
"Bad move," Wicklow says.
"Cipher is misspelled," Hocus says.
Heraklese laughs. He puts his hands in his pockets and leans over the coffee table.
"Do not come back to my home."
"He's harassing her," Heraklese says.
"My gardener saw you last time."
Wicklow and Heraklese look at one another and nod their heads.
"Go instead to the cemetery."
"Cemetery is misspelled," Hocus says, and continues his work.
"To my family's tomb," Scythe says a minute later, "and place the vase within."
"The Divinicus Vase," Heraklese says.
"I know the lock will not hinder you."
"She's right there," Wicklow says.
"It is new. What you do with the rest, I do not care. Sell them for your own profit."
"That doesn't make sense," Heraklese says.
"So long as Galoopius receives the suspicion."
"The devil!" Heraklese says.
"Yours, Malishka Beetlenut."
Hocus looks up. Heraklese and Wicklow sit down. Nobody says anything for a few minutes.
"The letter is a fake," Hocus says, "and the thief it trying to set up Malishka to distract the blame from Galoopius. And Galoopius is misspelled as well, two l's instead of one."
"How do you know the correct spelling?" Scythe says.
"The labels next to his stolen articles all had his name written clearly, with one 'l'."
"What about the label next to the Divinicus Vase?"
"It had Malishka's name on it. And her signature."
"Her signature too?" Heraklese says.
Hocus picks up the letter and looks at the signature at the bottom. He stands up, and so do the others. They head for the door.
Dalian Krass leans across the low table in his office, upon which our heroes have spread their stolen letter, and their sheets of notes. In his hand is a crystal glass, half-full of sherry. He is smiling, and seems well-pleased with his visitors.
"And?" he says.
"I not sure," Scythe says. "If it's a forgery, it's a good one."
Dalian nods. He looks at the signature on the letter, and compares it to the one on the card our heroes borrowed from the museum. "They look the same to me, but I don't suppose that means much. You can take them both to Takiotomi Binkla at the National Archive. He is a handwriting expert. I have used him in matters of forgery before."
"Where is the Archive?"
"On Peach Street. But you'll need an appointment. I'll send Reprobatim to make one."
Once again, our heroes are walking briskly through the streets of Dakka.
"We skipped lunch," Heraklese says.
"It's a tough life being a private investigator," Wicklow says.
They walk up the steps of an enormous stone building, and enter the foyer. After some discussion with the ticket clerks, they agree to pay $25 each (twenty-five silver pieces) for a week-long National Archive pass before they can get in to see the handwriting expert.
They find Takiotomi in a room on the corner of the building, with the evening light shining through large windows. He is a scruffy old fellow who abbreviates the Belgorian introductions to a mere thirty seconds before asking to see the signatures. He examines them through a magnifying glass for a few minutes.
When he puts his magnifying glass down, he says, "They are not by the same hand. The signature on the letter is a forgery. It tries, but fails to duplicate faithfully the natural lines of the original."
Scythe and Hocus persuade him to show them what he means, and they spend twenty minutes taking turns to examine the two signatures. When they say goodbye to the old man, they are both convinced: the signature on the letter is a forgery.
"But is the signature on the letter by the same hand that signed the guest book and the records in the museum?" Hocus says.
"Good question," Scythe says, "We should make another appointment before we leave, for tomorrow morning, and tonight we must convince Tallila to let us bring her guest book here for the old man to look at."
As they leave, they make an appointment for seven o'clock the next morning.
Our heroes are making their way across the reception hall of the Pelamakshi Hotel when Tallila comes to the entrance of her office and gestures to them.
"Come here," she whispers to them, "Come here right now."
They go into her office and she closes the door behind them. "You stole the letter didn't you!"
"What makes you say that?" Hocus says.
Tallila hesitates for a moment. "Well, I looked at it."
"You did? Why?"
"Yes?" Wicklow says.
"Well, anyway, you stole it, didn't you?"
"Can you keep a secret?" Scythe says.
"Yes, I stole the letter. But don't tell the owner of the hotel."
Tallila laughs. "You are naughty!"
"Well, what did it say?"
"See for yourself." Scythe takes out the letter and shows her the encrypted text.
"It's a code."
"But we broke the code."
"It was simple," Hocus says.
"And what did it say?"
They tell her, and they tell her about their visit to the old man, too.
"We would like to take your guest book to him tomorrow morning, to compare the signature on the letter with the signature in the book," Heraklese says.
"I can't let anyone else take the guest book."
"So come with us."
Tallila smiles. "I think I shall."
As they leave, Tallila says, "That letter was stolen from me without my knowledge, if you get my meaning."
"We get your meaning," Wicklow says.
"The privacy of my guests is sacred."
"Their privacy is safe with us."
Takiotomi Binkla looks long and hard at the signatures in the guest book and upon the letter. Tallila, Heraklese, and Wicklow pace around his office, looking out the windows, and leaving through the books upon his shelves. Hocus and Scythe stand behind him, watching him work, and straining to catch the occasional mumbled comments he makes during his examination.
At last the old man puts down his magnifying glass. "Not the same hand."
"I agree," Scythe says.
Hocus frowns. He points to the magnifying glass. "Do you mind?"
The old man looks up at him. "Please, I would be honored."
Hocus picks up the magnifying glass and examines the two samples. The signature on the letter contains several pauses in the movement of the pen, each of which he and Scythe have examined many times already. The signature in the guest book, on the other hand, is fluid and unrestrained. But there is something about the letters 'e' and 't' that strikes him as unique. They must be by the same hand.
"I don't agree," Hocus says.
The old man chuckles. "Good for you, sir. You are proud. But you are wrong. They are not by the same hand, I assure you."
Hocus shrugs and puts the magnifying glass down upon the desk. Scythe takes the letter, folds it, and puts it in his pocket. When Tallila sees him do this, she closes the guest book, picks it up, and holds it to her breast. "So what does this disagreement between the scholars mean for us amateur policemen."
"It means that it is time for me to attend to my daily duties," the old man says, "I will not detain you further with my curiosity."
"Right," Wicklow says.
"Thank you," Tallila says, "most honorable scholar. We are in your debt."
"By honoring me with your attention, I am in your debt, Madame."
"I hope you will pay a visit to my establishment," Tallila says, "If you should ever be in such a state as to have nothing better to do for your evening meal, I will be much pleased by an opportunity to provide for you as my guest."
"You are most kind," he says.
An hour later, our heroes lead their horses out into the street. They have left their gold and other valuables in Tallila's safe, and they have donned their armor an weapons for the road. Tallila comes out to see them off.
"I will keep your rooms for you."
"Thank you," Wicklow says.
"I hope you find it."
"We appreciate your discretion," Hocus says.
Our heroes mount their horses and ride away. They will take the ferry across the river, and then go north to Peeshan, where Malishka Beetlnut lives, and where they intend to find her family crypt, and within the crypt, for reasons that they cannot quite understand, the Divinicus Vase.
The ferry ride across the Rapkin river is slow and peaceful, but our heroes pay hardly any attention to the dark, turbulent waters. While men on the bank opposite toil to pull them across with a two-hundred meter long rope.
"We agree, then," Scythe says, "That Galoopius Maximus must want both the insurance money and his collection if he is behind the theft."
"Yes," Wicklow says.
"And yet there is also the possibility that Melishka Beetlenut wanted the insurance money on the Divinicus Vase, and the vase as well."
"Yes," Wicklow says.
"On the other hand, the thief could be trying to frame Melishka. If so, then the vase will be in her crypt. If not, then the vase will be in her crypt, unless she has picked it up already. If she has picked it up, then we can search her house and find it."
"But if the vase is there," Hocus says, "then how did it get there? Did the thief take it there?"
"Shall we call him Claude?" Heraklese says.
"We'll call him Claude," Scythe says.
"It would be foolish of him to take the vase to his hotel room, and then carry it to Peeshan."
"He was no fool," Wicklow says.
"So he had help," Scythe says.
And so they go around and around. The one thing they keep concluding is that the vase will be in the crypt, and so they are resolved to continue to Peeshan. The vase is insured for six hundred gold pieces. If they can return it, Dalian Krass will pay them ten percent of that sum, or sixty gold pieces, which will at least pay their expenses in Dakka, and make them feel that they are not wasting their time.
After a long day's journey, they arrive at the Standing Horse Inn in Peeshan. They sign the guest book, and take the opportunity thus given to them of going back through it an looking at the entries around the time of the theft. There they see the familiar name and signature of Artificio Mendicantus. He stayed there twice, each time for one night, and each time coinciding with his absence from the Pelamakshi Hotel.
"He might have come back again, after he left Dakka for the final time," Heraklese says, when they reach the privacy of their rooms.
"The letter arrived at the hotel after he left. If the vase is in the crypt," Hocus says, "then he must have delivered it without the advice of the letter, which means that the letter must be an effort to distract us or deceive us."
"He might have thought that his letter would fall into the hands of the Dakka police," Heraklese says.
"But it didn't," Wicklow says.
"Alternatively," Scythe says, "He might have arrived here, without the benefit of the letter, and met with Malishka. She then told him to put the vase in the crypt."
"But he would go back and get the letter after that," Heraklese says, "to get it out of the way."
"Not if he had been paid already," Scythe says, "and wanted to leave town."
Wicklow stands up. "Lets take our armor off and go out to the cemetery."
The cemetery is ten minutes walk from the hotel. As they approach, they can see it is large, and ancient. Majestic cedar trees spread their branches and layered leaves over the graves, and the setting sun casts long shadows across the crypts and monuments.
At the entrance to the cemetery, a wiry, deeply-tanned man of about sixty years emerges from an ivy-covered cottage. "Good evening, masters, the cemetery will be open only until sun-down. Can I help you find anything?"
"Good day to you sir," Scythe says, "we are looking for the Beetlenut family crypt."
The old man cocks his head at them. "Are you now."
"Yes we are," Hocus says.
"Beetlenuts yourself, are you, from the city, or farther than that, even?"
"Oh yes," Wicklow says.
"It's all the same to the dead," the man says. "Follow me, and please keep to the paths. There is one thing the dead cannot abide, and that is disrespect."
The man leads them into the cemetery. they follow him. Heraklese whispers to Scythe, "Not so polite out here in the country."
"He's a cemetery keeper," Scythe says, "He's supposed to be a bit strange."
Five minutes later, they stand before a crypt. There is a door made of solid iron set in a stone frame in the side of a long, low mound. There are other crypts to the left and right. Engraved upon the door is the name "Beetlenut".
"We would like to be alone while we pay our respects," Wicklow says to their guide.
"I'll be back here," he says, and starts to walk away from them, "But I shan't leave you. The cemetery closes in a few minutes, and I'll make sure you don't get lost on your way out."
"We won't get lost," Wicklow says.
"That's right, you won't, because I'll make sure you don't."
They look at the crypt door. It is locked with a chain and a new padlock.
"Can you open that in the dark?" Wicklow says to Scythe.
"Given enough time, yes."
"We can't do much with him watching," Hocus says.
"Let's look around and remember where we are. I'll pay attention on our way back."
Two hours after dark, with the hotel quiet, and a hearty supper in well-settled in their tummies, our heroes prepare to sneak out into the night.
"That guy seemed to think that the cemetery was not safe at night," Heraklese says, "What can we expect to find, or be attacked by, in a cemetery in the middle of the night."
"I don't know," Wicklow says, "Dead men don't fight. But there might be criminals hiding in there. Let's wear our armor and carry our swords."
When they leave the hotel, half an hour later, with their armor under their shirts, and their swords wrapped in their cloaks, the doorman sleeping in the common room wakes up and opens the door for them. He says nothing.
The moon has not yet risen, and there are no lamps to light the streets. The town is asleep, except for a single tavern a few doors up from the hotel. A lamp hangs over its entrance, and a sign swings gently in a light breeze. As they stand in the street, listening to the sounds of the night, they can hear the faint sound of singing from the tavern, and of a woman laughing from an upstairs window.
"The doorman thinks we are going to the tavern," Hocus says.
"Let's get going," Wicklow says, "I can't wait to see if we are right."
With only the light of the stars to guide them, it is slow going through the streets of the town, and then out along the short road to the cemetery. Twice they make the wrong turn, but they soon correct themselves. They pass as quietly as they can through the gates of the cemetery, past the cemetery-keeper's cottage. Its windows are dark and quite.
The air in the cemetery seems damp and cold. An owl calls out from the top of a cedar tree, and then another bird that they have not heard before. Its cry is mournful and piercing.
"I don't like this place," Heraklese says.
"You are being superstitious," Hocus says, "There is nothing to be scared of in a graveyard."
Scythe knocks his armored toe against a gravestone. "So you say, but I'm glad I have my armor on, and my sword by my side."
It takes them twenty minutes to find the crypt. By the light of one of Hocus's luminous stones, and with a cloak over him to hide the light, Scythe tries to pick the lock. He spends ten minutes on it, and then stops. "I don't know what's wrong with me. My hands are shaking."
"Take your time," Wicklow says.
Scythe keeps trying. Hocus sits on a large stone grave nearby, and the others stand about impatiently.
"It's bad luck to sit on a grave," Heraklese says.
"Really?" Hocus says, "I'm really scared."
Wicklow adjusts his armor, and checks that his sword is ready to draw. He has the feeling that something is watching them, or listening to them. He searches the darkness around them for any sign of movement. In his pocket is a luminous stone. He puts his hand upon it. If they are attacked, he will take it out so they can see to fight.
"Okay," Scythe says, and emerges from under the cloak. They hear a clunk from the padlock and the sound of the chain coming free and knocking against the door of the crypt. "I did it."
Wicklow opens the door slowly. Scythe has oiled its hinges, but still it creaks as it opens. With his sword drawn, and a luminous stone in one hand, he walks inside. The crypt extends ten paces into the bank. There are a dozen coffins on shelves on either side. Against the back wall is a small wooden crate, brand new by the looks of it.
"Come in," he says to Scythe. He tries hard to stop himself from shouting in his delight. "It's here."
The others are crowded around the entrance. Hocus and Heraklese are looking outwards, watching the darkness.
"Come in and check the floor for tracks," Wicklow says.
Scythe enters the crypt, looks briefly at the coffins, and then examines the floor. He proceeds slowly towards the crate.
"Well?" Hocus says, over his shoulder.
"Tracks of one man or woman, probably a man looking at the size of his feet, going in and then coming out again. He dropped off the crate, but did nothing else."
Scythe examines the crate for several minutes, and then picks it up. It weighs about ten kilograms. He carries it out, and Wicklow closes the door.
"Here," Scythe hands the crate to Hocus. "I'll put the chain and padlock back."
About two hours after they left the hotel, they are again in the streets of the city. They are carrying the crate, still unopened. The gibbous moon is rising in the east.
"Stop," Scythe says. "I hear something ahead."
They stop and listen. There are people in the streets ahead of them. Now they see lights between the buildings. There is a party of four men with torches, walking up the street towards them.
Our heroes take the precaution of slipping down and ally. When the men pass by, it becomes clear that they are policemen, or guards. They are armed with clubs and wear leather jerkins. They look into the shadows around them, and down the side streets.
"They are looking for us," Hocus says.
"We've been set up," Wicklow says.
"Let's try to get back to the hotel," Scythe says.
They make their way through the streets, but when they come into view of their hotel, they see two more policemen standing with oil lamps in their hands outside the door.
"Damn!" Wicklow says, "We fell into a trap."
"Perhaps," Hocus says. "Perhaps not."
The other policemen are returning. Our heroes crouch in a doorway. Heraklese sits on the crate.
"How many people in this town, do you think?" Hocus says.
"A thousand," Scythe says.
"This must be their entire police force."
"The thief left them some kind of warning about us," Wicklow says, "and they turned out to arrest us. And now we have the vase. They will catch us with stolen goods, and throw us in jail."
"Try to throw us in jail," Hocus says.
"What are we going to do?" Heraklese says. "They will find us eventually, unless we leave the town."
"Let's all be quiet, or they might hear us. I need to think," Hocus says, "All of us take a minute to think."
Our heroes crouch in the street. Heraklese shifts his weight upon the crate. His hands are hot inside his gauntlets. He takes off his left gauntlet and wipes his hand on the hard black leather of his breast plate. That does not work so well. He tries the right sleeve of his shirt, where it is accessible between his shoulder and the top of his right gauntlet. The shirt is soaked with sweat already. He remembers the dry wood of the crate he is sitting upon, and wipes his hand slowly over its surface. A splinter digs into his hand and he winces. He puts his hand to his mouth and spends the next thirty seconds pulling the splinter out with his teeth. He is glad the others are not looking at him. They would not approve of him taking off his gauntlet for anything short of attending to an injury, let alone wiping the sweat from his hand.
"Our horses are in the hotel," Scythe says, "If we leave town we will have to walk."
"Our tents and packs are there as well," Hocus says, "I don't want to leave all our stuff behind."
"It's either that or go to jail," Wicklow says.
Heraklese pushes his left hand back into its gauntlet. He has pulled out most of the splinter, and decided to ignore the rest of it. "You don't really think a dozen farmers with sticks can throw you in jail, do you?"
"If we fight them," Wicklow says, "Even if we get away with our horses and the crate, the Dakka police will come after us. We won't be able to continue our investigation."
"I would rather that than leave our stuff behind," Hocus says.
"We get sixty gold pieces for returning the vase to Mr. Krass," Heraklese says, "That more pays for our expenses. But if we lose the horses and all our kit, we will be out of pocket at least three hundred."
One of the groups of men searching behind them comes close to turning into their ally. They see the light of their torches flickering on the whitewashed sides of the buildings down the street. But the men turn down a parallel way, and our heroes have another minute to debate in privacy.
"Suppose that someone is plotting against us," Scythe says, "If we allow ourselves to be taken captive, we will be at their mercy. If, on the other hand, nobody is plotting against us, then there is no need for the police here to take us captive. What have we done?"
"We have stolen the Divinicus vase," Wicklow says.
"No we haven't," Hocus says, "We recovered it."
"But they will think we have stolen it."
"No they won't. We're supposing that they are not plotting against us, remember, and if they don't suppose that we are plotting against us, we explain the situation to them, and show them the letter."
Wicklow nods in the darkness. His companions can see his sharp profile in silhouette, lit from behind by the two torches held by the policemen standing in front of the hotel. After a while, he says, "Yes, we confront them with the truth. We make it clear, without offending them, that we will not allow them to take us captive, but that we explain ourselves."
"If I may add something," Heraklese says.
"I think I am the group expert on captivity, and I can tell you: it sucks. I would go along with the team if we voted to be taken captive, but under no circumstances would I vote for it. I would rather die, at this point, than be taken captive again."
Hocus smiles. Our heroes give this statement a few seconds of respectful silence.
"We can consider making that rule number two, then," Wicklow says, "Don't be taken captive. But these aren't the Calipanti. I would prefer prison in Belgoria to death, and I think you would too."
A few minutes later, four heavily armed men, one carrying a wood crate, walk out into the street in front of the hotel. The two young men standing outside blow on wooden whistles and stand close together in front of the front door with their torches. They shift their weight from one foot to the other and flex their hands on their truncheons, which they hold straight out in front of them as if to keep the four men away.
But the four men do not draw their weapons. Instead they stand still in the street. One of them crosses his arms. The one carrying the crate puts it down and flexes his hand as if it is bothering him. Perhaps the crate is heavy. The other two look up and down the street. The one who has crossed his arms looks at them and smiles. He has something in one of his hands. It is something small. He is rolling it between his fingers. The two young men look alternately at the four adventurers and the street to their left, longing for their sheriff to come into view. He will know what to do.
Up and down the street, doors are opening. People are coming out and walking towards the hotel. One of the young men waves them back, but they pay no attention to him.
One of the adventurers takes off his helmet for a moment, and runs his gloved hand through his short, fair hair. His face is clean- shaven. The two guards are not sure how old he is, but it might be that he is only a few years older than they are. They look down the street. Where is the sheriff? It must be several minutes they blew their whistles. What can be keeping him? Are there more of these people in the city? What will they do if these men attack?
"Don't worry," the man who took his helmet off says, "We aren't here to cause any trouble. We will explain everything to your sheriff."
One of the young men says, "He's coming."
"I know. We'll wait for him."
"He'll be here soon."
"I know. And when he gets here, we will explain what we are doing here."
Twenty or thirty people of the town have gathered around the adventurers and the two young policemen at a distance of ten or twenty paces. Most are men, but there are some women as well. The men carry sticks. Sweat stands out on their foreheads, shining in the light of the torches, even though the summer evening is dry and cool.
One of the four armed men sits down on the wooden crate. He wipes his brow and looks at the ground. He sighs and yawns. At the sight of the yawn, men in the crowd frown and look at one another. Some of them hold their heads up higher, and lower their sticks.
The sheriff is coming. He is running up the street with four other men, all holding torches. The crowd parts to let him through. He stops panting in front of the adventurers, with his back to the hotel, and a short sword drawn in his hand. Unlike his policemen, he is wearing ring armor and a metal cap.
Heraklese gives the sheriff his full attention. The sheriff appears to be in his mid- twenties. He arrived at the head of his men, none of whom appear to be wearing armor. He stands up straight in front of Wicklow. His sword flashes in the torchlight. It's double edge is shiny and straight. There are no notches along its length, as there are in the blades of Heraklese's comrades.
Wicklow takes his helmet off again, and runs his hand through his hair. He must be getting hot too. Or perhaps he is trying to make the sheriff feel at ease.
"Good evening sheriff," Wicklow says.
"Good evening gentlemen." The sheriff does not lower his sword. "Are you aware that our laws forbid you to carry weapons unless you are travelling into or out of the town."
"Yes, we are."
"And yet you are armed."
"Yes, we apologize. We forgot your laws in our excitement this evening. In our country, we go armed as we please."
"If you forgot our laws, why did you attempt to conceal your weapons when you left the hotel?"
"When I say forgot, I meant 'ignored'", Wicklow says, "Please keep in mind that your language is not my first language."
"Very well," the sheriff says, "But our laws also forbid anyone to enter the cemetery between dusk and dawn, unless you obtain permission from the sheriff."
"We did not know that."
"I doubt you, sir," the sheriff says, "because you entered the graveyard under the cover of darkness, and in stealth. Your armor is covered with cloth to help you conceal yourselves. You have with you a wooden box that you did not carry out of the hotel when you left."
"Thieves!" a man in the crowd shouts.
"Robbing the graves!" a woman says.
"Don't let them get away with it!"
"Run them out of town!"
"We're all here, sheriff, you are not alone!"
"Run them out!"
"Out, out out!"
"Quiet!" the sheriff says. The crowd goes quiet. He turns to the adventurers. "I think you will grant me that I have reason enough to detain and question you."
"I grant you that," Wicklow says, "I suggest that we sit down in the hotel common room and you question us immediately."
The crowd begins again. "No!"
"Don't let it happen again!"
"Stay out here with us!"
"Run them out!"
"We're here to protect you, sheriff!"
"Okay, okay! Quiet!" the sheriff says, "Don't worry, it's all going to be okay. These men are being perfectly reasonable. You can all wait out here if you like, but I am going in to talk to them. They say they can explain themselves, and I should give them a chance. That's the law."
"It's a trick!"
"We can't let it happen again, sheriff! Think of your mother!"
The sheriff smiles at the woman who shouted this last remark. "I will decide this matter. Stay out here or go to bed."
He turns to the two young men in front of the door. "Go inside."
To the adventurers he says. "After you, gentlemen."
Heraklese stands next to a long table on the left side of the hotel common room. He is holding the crate against his chest. Wicklow orders drinks for everyone present, which includes a dozen hotel guests, the hotel owner, two policemen, and the sheriff. The hotel guests sit on chairs or stand against the opposite wall, figuring that if the adventurers have bought them a drink, they must be welcome to stay.
"My name is Wicklow," Wicklow says to the sheriff, "My companions are Scythe, Hocus, and Heraklese." He points to each of them in turn.
"I am Redemshin, sheriff of Peeshan."
"Pleased to meet you."
Heraklese puts the crate down on the floor, stretches, and sits down on the bench beside the table.
"What did they mean," Wicklow says, "When they said you should not let it happen again?"
Redemshin steps up to the crate and puts his foot on it. He looks at the table for a few seconds and then at Wicklow.
"My father was sheriff before me. He was killed by some travelling brigands three years ago."
"Oh," Wicklow says, "I'm sorry to hear that."
"Thank you." Redemshin looks again at the crate. "So, I have answered your question, now I am eager to hear your story."
Scythe looks around the room. The hotel guests are wide-eyed with anticipation.
"Do you recall the theft of antiquities from the Belgorash Museum?" Wicklow says.
"Of course," Redemshin says, "The Divinicus Vase was stolen."
"Indeed it was."
Hocus puts his hand on Wicklow's shoulder and whispers something in his ear. Scythe steps up close and the three of them talk quietly in their own language. Redemshin and the guests listen to the fluid and varied syllables of a language none of them have ever heard before, and most likely will never hear again.
Heraklese looks up at Redemshin, "I can't understand them either."
Redemshin is about to reply to Heraklese when Scythe addresses him in Belgorian Latin. "The Divinicus Vase is the property of a citizen of this town, Melishka Beetlenut."
"Yes it is. The Beetlenuts have owned it for centuries."
The hotel owner enters with a tray of glasses of fresh-squeezed orange juice. His son follows with a bowl of punch. "Here you are ladies and gentlemen, help yourselves to what you want, all courtesy of Mr. Wicklow."
"Much obliged to you, Mr. Wicklow," an elderly guests says. The remaining guests offer their own thanks, and collect their drinks. A few minutes pass before the room is quiet again.
"That crate beneath your foot," Scythe says to Redemshin. The sheriff looks at the crate. The hotel owner is polishing a glass with a bright white cloth. After a moment, he stops and fixes his eyes upon the crate. The remaining guests do the same. The adventurers step back so everyone can get a clear view.
"What about it?" Redemshin says.
"We believe it contains the Divinicus Vase."
The guests gasp. Redemshin takes his foot off the crate.
"We have been looking for it," Wicklow says, "and we think we have found it."
The hotel owner says, "Let's see if it's in there!"
"First we tell you our story," Wicklow says. He takes out their letter from Chief Inspector Penatak Boorishmish. "And we begin with this, a declaration from the Dakka police of our right to search for and recover any articles stolen from the museum, on behalf of their insurers, Mr. Dalian Krass."
Redemshin takes the letter. He reads it, and hands it back to Wicklow. "Very well, do continue."
Our heroes tell their story. Occasionally, they interrupt one another in Varayan and discuss exactly what they should say. Redemshin asks them questions as they go, and he appears to be satisfied by their answers. It is an hour after midnight when they reach the point in their story where they reveal themselves to the sheriff's men.
Redemshin picks up the crate and puts it on the table.
"Okay," he says, "I'll open it. Losenj, do you have some tools we can use to open the crate?"
"I'll get them," the hotel owner says.
When the hotel owner returns, he gives Redemshin a crow bar, and Redemshin removes the lid. The adventurers gather round. The crate is tightly packed with dry straw. Redemshin takes out a few handfuls revealing the top of a large vase. The rim is painted blue. The glaze inside is white and cracked with age. The sheriff lifts the vase out and puts it on the table.
The hotel guests, who are now standing as close as they can to the table, gasp. The vase is painted with blue lines, dots, and shapes. There is no obvious pattern to the painting, nor an image. But as the adventurers look at the vase, they see shapes hidden in the lines. Scythe sees a young woman looking over her shoulder. The shapes are partial, and they overlap. When Scythe looks again for the young woman, he can't see her. He sees instead an old woman in profile.
Hocus has seen such illusions before. Many of the runes he uses to prepare his spells are ambiguous shapes. There is nothing magical about the ambiguity, but the variety and number of images collected together upon the vase amazes him. Hocus does not take his eyes from the vase, but he can feel the other people in the room pressing close about the table, and leaning forward to stare at the vase. They are quiet, and breathing deeply. Hocus realizes that he himself is quiet and breathing deeply. He turns his attention again to the vase. There is a wave of blue glaze that looks like the sea breaking upon a pebble beach. But when he tilts his head, the wave becomes a tree, and the pebbles a flock of birds rising into the air.
How could the thief have returned this one article, from the entire collection? Did he understand that to take this vase would be too great a loss for Belgoria to bear? How could he leave it in a crypt, alone and unguarded? A school-boy might have found it in the middle of the night, and thrown stones at it with his friends.
The hotel owner steps back from the table and wipes his brow. "That's it, all right."
"Yes," Redemshin says. "I'm sorry, but I'm going to put it back in the box."
He picks up the vase and lowers it once more into its bed of straw. Wicklow picks up the straw on the table top and packs it on top of the vase. Scythe puts the lid back on the crate and nails it shut with the hotel owner's hammer. The harsh banging of the hammer breaks the pensive silence in the room. One by one, the guests say goodnight and ascend the stairs to their rooms.
Redemshin looks at the adventurers. "I believe your story. And this is indeed the Divinicus Vase."
"How can you be so sure?" Hocus says.
"Many people have tried to copy the vase, or to make paintings based upon its images. The imitations look the same, but none of them have the same effect as the original. That comes as no surprise to most of my countrymen because only the original is divine, and divinity cannot be duplicated by the hand of man."
Hocus doubts that there is anything divine about the vase, other than that it might have been painted by a god, or more likely an elf. The fact that nobody has been able to duplicate the vase must mean that, despite the random appearance of the designs upon the vase, the exact placement of the blue marks must be essential to its effect. If that is so, then it is remarkable that the innumerable thin cracks in the ancient glaze to not spoil the effect. Perhaps there is something magical about it after all? If there were, how could it have lasted for two thousand years?
Wicklow says, "What is your opinion of the letter we have addressed from Malishka Beetlenut?"
"I think it is a fake. You mentioned that it contained three spelling mistakes. Malishka teaches composition at our school. She was my teacher, in fact. She does not make spelling mistakes."
Wicklow, who has been holding the letter in question, hands it back to Scythe. "Perhaps you should not mention it to her, or to the town, because it might cause her some embarrassment."
"I will not."
Scythe puts the letter back in his pocket. "Also, we don't want to advertise how much we know about the case," he says, "We want to recover the rest of the antiquities as well."
Redemshin nods. "Agreed. I won't mention it, except in my police journal, which nobody reads anyway."
"One day they will, sheriff," the hotel owner says. He is the only spectator left.
"You'll keep quiet too, I hope," Redemshin says.
The hotel owner laughed. "Now sheriff, you're asking too much from an old gossip like me."
"Losenj, consider Malishka."
"I'll keep my mouth shut for a few days, how's that?"
Redemshin picks up the crate. "I'm taking possession of the this. I suggest we go down to the police station, and put it in one of our cells to keep it safe. Once we are in my office, I will of course give you a receipt for the vase."
Our heroes agree to this arrangement, and half an hour later the vase, still in its crate, is safely locked behind the iron bars of cell in the sheriff's office. Redemshin pulls out some cots with straw-stuffed mattresses, and the adventurers, the sheriff, and two policemen take turns to sleep and watch the vase until morning.
It is a bright day outside the sheriff's office. The dust kicked up by the line of visitors entering and leaving the office sparkles in the sunlight shining through the small and neglected windows. Wicklow stands by the locked door of the cell. One meter inside the iron bars, the Divinicus Vase sits upon its crate in open view. The visitors stand in front of the vase in groups of six for five minutes at a time. They move around to get a different view of the vase, although none of them can see the back of it. Wicklow is there to stop anyone from reaching through the bars to touch the hallowed object.
The sheriff opened the doors of the police station at eight in the morning, and twelve groups of people have already come through. There are a hundred more people waiting in the street, and many more to come. Redemshin's plan is to allow everyone in the town to see the vase, and then begin carrying it back to Dakka in the early afternoon.
A woman's voice greets Redemshin from the door of the office. "My dear boy, you have done well, I hear! Let me see it, I know I am jumping the line, but it is my vase, after all, let me take a look at it!"
Wicklow sees a woman of about sixty in riding cloths, with a hard-hat under her arm, and a crop in her hand. Her high boots seem out of place in the dry Belgorash summer, but they suit her, and shine with polish.
"Malishka!" Redemshin says, "You have come at last!" His voice is louder and more strident, as if in imitation of his visitor. "Of course you can come in, we will step aside for you. This group is just leaving."
Wicklow says to the group at the cell, "I'm afraid your time is up."
"Come on mom," a little boy says, and pulls his mother away from the vase. "Let's go."
Malishka walks up to the cell. "It looks like my vase, all right! Open the cell, boy, and let me take a closer look. We must know if it is genuine or not!"
Wicklow looks at Redemshin. Redemshin takes out the key to the cell and lets Malishka inside. She crouches in front of the vase, and puts her riding crop and hard-hat on the floor. Even she is quiet when she looks at the vase. She closes her eyes and runs her fingers gently along the rim. She moves slowly around the vase. The dust on the floor marks the knees of her trousers, and the flagstones scrape the polish off her boots.
After a few minutes, she picks up her hat and crop, stands up, and steps out of the cell. "Carry on, gentlemen, you have the Divinicus Vase. Guard it well, there is no greater treasure in this land."
In the mid-morning of the 26th August, Scythe sees the sheriff talking to a boy of about ten years. The boy looks familiar, or similar to someone Scythe has seen before. He walks over to the man and boy.
"This is Potash's the cemetery-keeper's son. His name is Kish," The sheriff says. "Kish, this is Scythe."
Kish looks up at Scythe's for a second. The boy looks straight into Scythe's eyes and then looks down at the floor. Scythe does not feel that the boy was frightened to look into his eyes, but rather that the boy had learned what he wanted to learn about him, and then looked away.
Wicklow gets up from a chair he has been reclining in, thinking about how nice it would be to take a nap.
"Hello Kish," he says, "I'm Wicklow."
The boy looks Wicklow in the eye for a second. "Hello."
"Show them what you have in your bag, Kish, I know they will be interested."
The boy reaches into his small canvass shoulder-bag, and takes out a dirty white plaster cast of a footprint. He holds it up for the adventurers to see.
"That's my boot," Scythe says.
The boy nods his head.
"May I look at it?"
The boy lets Scythe take the cast. Scythe examines it. Although there are pieces of dirt stuck in the plaster, the print has been caste with some skill. The boy has obviously done many such casts. Scythe has done a few himself, and he knows that the consistency of the plaster is critical to the end result, and difficult to control. He hands the caste to Wicklow.
"Nice work, Kish. You have done many of these, haven't you?"
The boy nods, and takes out another cast, this time of Wicklow's boot. Scythe examines it, nods with appreciation, and hands it back.
"You should show them the strange footprint you found a few weeks ago," Redemshin says, "Did you bring it with you?"
The boy shakes his head. "Everyone thinks it's a fake."
Redemshin says to the adventurers, "He has a strange animal print he made a few weeks ago. Nobody knows what the animal could be, so some people are saying that he faked it."
"I didn't fake it."
"Where did you find it?" Wicklow says. He hands the print of Scythe's boot back to the boy.
"In the cemetery."
"Where in the cemetery?" Scythe says.
"There were lots of them, but it rained that day, and there was only one left for me to cast."
"They were all over the place?"
"There were some near the Beetlenut crypt."
"Were there?" Redemshin says, "You never mentioned that, Kish."
Kish shrugs his shoulder.
"I'd like to see the print," Scythe says.
Kish shakes his head. "Ask my dad."
"Will you bring it here for us to see?"
Kish shakes his head, backs out the door, and runs away.
"Strange kid," Redemshin says, "but I like him."
"I would like to see the print."
"Let's go out to the cemetery and ask Potash," Redemshin says.
An hour later, Hocus, Redemshin and Scythe are standing with Kish in a ramshackle shed he uses to keep his collection of plaster casts. Out of a small box he takes the cast of an unusual footprint. The boy hands it to Scythe. Scythe looks at if for a couple of seconds and says, "Kobold".
"I beg your pardon?" Redemshin says.
"It's a bare-foot kobold print."
"Is it genuine?"
Scythe examines the cast carefully. There are five long toes protruding from the near- round base of the foot. Each toe ends in a claw.
"It looks genuine."
Scythe passes the cast to Hocus, and looks at Kish. The boy is smiling up at him, his eyes wide open, clenching his hands together, and then patting himself on the thigh.
"Do you know what a kobold is?" Scythe says.
"Not exactly. It's a humanoid, with two arms and two legs, scaly skin, and small, about your height, but heavier and stronger. They can see in the dark, and when they are bare-foot, like this one was, they move quietly. They don't have much smell for a dog to track them, they are great shots with a small bow and arrow, and they can stay absolutely still for hours at a time. Their scaly skin protects them from mosquitoes and leeches, so they can sit out at night without discomfort, and even hide in swamps all day using a straw to breath through. About the only way to know if a kobold has been around is to look for its footprints, which is what you have here. It is more useful to know what a kobold footprint looks like than to know what a kobold itself looks like, because you are unlikely ever to see the kobold itself."
The boy appears to be overwhelmed by these revelations, because he stands looking at Scythe with his mouth open.
"When did you make this cast?" Scythe says.
Kish points to the back of the cast. He has written the date in the plaster. Hocus reads the date and says, "Six weeks ago."
"Right about the time the crate was put here," Redemshin says, "if your theories are correct."
"Yes," Hocus says, "it is."
That afternoon, the adventurers set out with about thirty townsmen and their families, to escort the Divinicus Vase back to Dakka. Evening finds them a good ten miles from the town, and camping in a field outside a village. The villagers welcome them, and bring some gifts of honey, fruit, and yogurt.
When there are disputes about who gets the honey, and which camping spot belongs to whom, they argue with one another vigorously, but reach agreement in the end, none the worse for the experience. Indeed, the campers appear to be enjoying their night out. They sing songs, play poetry games, and look at the stars. When our heroes take out their binoculars and telescope, the campers are thrilled, and take turns looking through them until well after midnight.
When they are sitting together around a fire, Heraklese says, "There is one odd thing about them, though."
"What's that?" Wicklow says.
"None of them seem the least bit interested in how the vase ended up in their town. Some of them know that it was in the crypt, but they're not curious about how it came to be there. They are interested in the stars, but the stars have been the same for all their lives. They are not interested in us, or where we come from, or our language, or the mystery of our involvement in their lives."
The 27th August is another sunny day, and the escort party reaches the river, and crosses over on the ferry. This time our heroes take more time to watch the water, and admire the view down to the estuary.
In the afternoon, the Divinicus Vase arrives, with its enthusiastic party, at the Belgorash Museum, where the curator and staff, surprised by their arrival, receive the vase with great jubilation. They return the vase to its case, and the people of Peeshan gather around it and are glad.
Our heroes go to Dalian Krass's office, bearing a signed letter from the curator of the museum, and tell him of their success. He is delighted, and encourages the adventurers to tell them all that has befallen them since they left the city. He admires the way they obtained the vase, and revealed it to the sheriff. He takes them out to lunch, and in his office afterwards, he gives them a banker's draft for 60 gp (or rather, the equivalent of six hundred grams of gold in Belgorian currency). The vase was insured with him for 600 gp, of which 60 gp is ten percent.
"The kobold footprint," he says, "is a clue, you think, to the means by which the vase arrived at the crypt."
"Yes," Scythe says, "we hear that there are hellspawn smugglers in the mountains to the west. They might be involved in the theft. We mean to go and talk to some town sheriffs in the foothills, and so learn more about them."
"I fear that if the smugglers have the artifacts, then they have sold them and distributed them already, which will make it difficult to prove that they were stolen. But you have already achieved great things."
"Thank you," Scythe says.
Dalian raises a glass of sherry. "To your success, and to my credit for choosing you as my agents. I chose well."
Dalian cancels his appointments for the rest of the afternoon, or those that he can cancel. A young woman who is particularly insistent he agrees to talk to in the outer office, while our heroes remain, talking, in his own office.
"Well," he says when he returns and closes the door behind him. "Infernal, spoiled little wretch."
Our heroes look up at this remark, because they have never heard Dalian speak in such a tone before. They watch him cross the room, pour himself another glass of sherry, and sit down at the low table upon which our heroes have spread their maps, notes, sketches, and lists.
"Anything we can help you with?" Scythe says.
Dalian looks at Scythe for a few seconds. "What, the lady? No, I will put her out of my mind. I apologize for my outburst." He leans forward and picks up a large sheet of paper that has rolled itself into a tube on the table. He unrolls it and sees line after line written in Reprobatim's un-pretty but eminently legible handwriting. It is a list of articles stolen on the night of the 11th July, 2477, along with their value and weight.
Wicklow has another sheet belonging to the same list in his hands, the first sheet, and Hocus holds a pen poised over a fresh sheet of paper. "We are just figuring out what fraction of the value of the stolen goods we could carry back in our balloon basket."
Dalian nods and puts the paper back on the table. It rolls itself into a tube again. He sits back in his chair, raises one hand behind his head to adjust his ponytail, and stares at a portrait on the wall. Our heroes, return to their work. Wicklow calls out the value of the object, and then the weight. Hocus divides the value by the weight, and Scythe records the result in a new list together with the item number. Heraklese writes the item numbers down as well, each in one of ten boxes he has marked on his sheet of paper.
After a few minutes, Dalian interrupts them to say, "I would dearly love to come with you, but it would be inappropriate. I would get in your way, I'm sure. I'm not fighter. Galoopius would recognize me, if he saw me, which would stop you disguising yourself. It's a pity, I would very much like to ride in a balloon."
"The fewer people in the balloon, the more we can bring back," Heraklese says.
"Well," Dalian says, his eyes returning to the table, and a smile appearing on his face, "There we have it. Now, what are you up to here, it looks delightfully complicated."
"So, this is what we have," Heraklese says, reading from his sheet of paper. "If we choose the lightest items as our way of picking the items with the best value per kilogram, we will bring back seventy percent of the value in one hundred kilograms, ninety percent in two hundred kilograms, and one hundred percent in three hundred kilograms."
"Interesting," Dalian says. He has drunk two more glasses of sherry, and has his foot on the edge of the table.
"If we consulted our list during our recovery operation, we could improve the percentage value we can fit into a hundred kilograms, but not by much. Perhaps by five percent."
"We can carry one hundred kilograms, plus the four of us in a balloon," Hocus says.
Dalian puts his foot down on the floor and slaps his thigh. "So! A plan. You grab one hundred kilograms of the stolen articles from wherever Galoopius has hidden it, load it into a balloon, and sail it back over the mountains. I like it. It's simple."
He nods at his sherry glass. Our heroes look at him and smile. They are pleased to see Dalian so at ease, and so evidently satisfied with their performance, and their plan.
"Yes, just the four of you, it has to be that way. No Belgorian police, no Gowachin police. It would become far too complicated. Better a mission of stealth. Better to ask forgiveness than to ask permission."
He smiles at them. "A toast to the plan?"
"Not quite yet, sir," Herakleses says, "We need you to help us with some more figures."
"What is the price of wool cloth in Belgoria?"
Dalian frowns. "Well, I can't say I know exactly. Very expensive, for sure. The duty is two hundred percent. I believe it's close to three gold pieces per kilo."
We note here, for the benefit of our readers, that one Belgorian gold piece weighs ten grams, and ten grams of gold on Clarus is worth one hundred Ursian dollars. An Ursian dollar is worth approximately one Olympian dollar, which means that wool in Belgoria sells for close to three hundred Olympian dollars per kilogram.
"Thirty grams per kilo?" Heraklese says, "That's shocking. The smuggling must be..."
Dalian watches Heraklese try to find the word he is looking for. Heraklese frowns and thinks deeply.
"Epidemic?" Dalian says.
"No," Hocus says, "That suggests a certain progressive emergency, which can't be the case here."
"Prevailing?" Wicklow says.
"No," Hocus says, "Prevailing is the most common state of a thing, not the extent of a thing."
"Pervasive," Dalian says.
Hocus nods and puts his hand on his chin. "Hmm, yes, I suppose so. It doesn't sound right for some reason."
"Well, it never does once you have heard a few wrong words before the right one."
"Pervasive, then," Heraklese says.
Dalian turns to him, "Oh yes, it is most certainly pervasive, and handsomely profitable to many of our most respected citizens, Galoopius Maximus included, if you will be so kind as to keep the information to yourselves."
"You mentioned that once before," Heraklese says.
"Did I now? Well, I was quite right about it."
Wicklow laughs. "I think I'll have a glass of sherry with you, sir."
Dalian pours him one, passes it over, and then raises his glass. "To the plan."
"To the plan," Wicklow says.
"I had never fully appreciated the sheer volume of planning required in your profession, and the tenacity with which you go about it. I see now that behind the swashbuckling exterior of the dashing adventurer is a diligent student of mathematics and record-keeping."
"That's what I told them," Heraklese says, "When I talked them into taking me on. I'm a chartered accountant in my own country, you know."
"Is that so," Dalian says, and he is about to continue when Scythe holds up his hand.
"Excuse me, but we have a few more questions of business."
"Of course," Dalian says.
"How many days walk is it across the mountains from Gowachin?"
"Five, ten, depending upon where you start and where you end up."
"Are there any Outlands in the mountains?"
"What are Outlands?"
"Places where Hellspawn are permitted, by the Treaty of Reconciliation, to live without the Princes of Hell being fined."
"There are such places?" Dalian says.
"In the Truculent Mountains?"
"That's what I'm asking you. I don't know myself."
"Well, neither do I, but I assure you that there are little monsters living in the mountains. They seem to keep themselves to themselves, but your theory that one of them carried the Divinicus vase to Peeshan is perfectly plausible, and as that sheriff told you, what was his name?"
"Redemshin," Wicklow says.
"Redemshin, yes. As he said, the little monsters--,"
"The kobolds, they are involved in the smuggling, that's for sure. It's well-known."
Our heroes continue questioning Dalian, and making their own calculations, and discussing among themselves, and making notes, until they come to the following conclusions.
One shepherd can keep one hundred sheep. One sheep produces five kilograms of wool each year. One shepherd earns forty thousand dollars per year for his work, which supports his family. The raw price of wool is therefore roughly one hundred dollars a kilogram.
To pound and spin one kilogram of wool by hand takes roughly two hours. To weave one kilogram of wool into cloth takes two hours. Labor is twenty-five dollars an hour. It costs one hundred dollars to make one kilogram of wool cloth by hand.
Gowachin has fast-flowing mountain streams, fuller's mills, and an open economy. Their water-powered machines, aided by metal parts made by dwarves in the mountains, might cut the cost of making cloth by a factor of ten.
The cost of dying wool might be ten dollars a kilogram for the dye and the time.
The cost of fine, dyed, wool cloth in Gowachin is a little over one hundred dollars per kilogram, and with two hundred percent duty, it is three hundred dollars per kilogram in Belgoria.
Kobolds can carry ten kilograms of wool over the mountains in five days, and then return in another five days to their home. Kobolds will work for one hundred dollers per day, so the smuggling cost of wool across the mountains is one hundred dollars per kilogram, which means the smugglers can offer wool for two hundred dollars per kilogram, or one hundred dollars less than the legally-imported wool.
The Gowachin population is roughly two hundred thousand, of which two thousand are sheep farmers, for a total of one million kilograms of wool production per year. Belgoria imports roughly one kilogram of wool per person per year, of which ten percent is smuggled. The population of Belgoria is one hundred thousand, so the wool trade is one hundred thousand kilograms, with ten thousand kilograms smuggled. Of the smuggling, twenty percent or so might pass through the mountains. The mountains must compete with wool smuggling along the coastline from the Dukedoms of Weiland. The kobold smuggling is two thousand kilograms per year.
To carry two thousand kilograms of wool across the mountains takes two thousand kobol-days. If a kobold smuggles for two hundred days out of the year, then there must be at least ten kobolds. If each kobold in the kobold community does one journey each year, then there must be at least two hundred adult kobolds in the community.
"We still don't know how the kobold community is organized," Heraklese says, "Is there a man in charge, someone like Galoopius? Or do they organize themselves? From whom do they buy their wool in Gowachin?"
"Good questions all," Dalian says. "But I am ready for my dinner, and I think I shall go home for it. Gentlemen, it has been a most enjoyable afternoon."
It is now early evening. Our heroes gather up their papers and put them away, say goodbye to Dalian and return to the Pelamakshi Hotel, where Tallila is delighted to see them, give them rooms, and hear their story over a good supper.
They don't tell Tallila the full story, however. They mention the prevailing theory that Satians stole the antiquities, and say they might head down to Sax from Diamantis.
In the morning of 29th August, Hocus, Wicklow, Scythe, and Heraklese set out for Diamantis on horse-back. On the 30th, they arrive, and are received warmly by Toylandic Miastadon in Diamantis. He is overseeing the rebuilding of the castle. Sallinis and Dushkin are with Narassus in the hills, but Toylandic reports them to be well. They stand and admire the scaffolding climbing up what is left of the castel walls. Workmen pick stones out of the rubble and chip the mortar off them so that they may be used again.
"May we leave our horses here for a few weeks?" Scythe says, "We have to take a trip by boat, and we don't want to bother the poor animals with a sea journey."
"Of course you may," Toylandic says, "And be my guest while you are here."
At the docks, our heroes spread word that they want passage to the Gowachin River.
Our heroes expected to wait a few days, perhaps a week, to find a boat going north along the coast to the river, but they find themselves boarding a vessel with a single mast, about fifteen meters long, with a crew of eight, on the 31st August. The boat's name is the Dirty Rat. The captain, Permisso, invites them to come along for free, if they are willing to share the second cabin all four of them crammed together in hammocks. He says he stays close to the shore and fears pirates, so he will expect them to defend the ship if it is attacked. To this, they agree, and pile their stuff in the tiny cabin below decks. The ceiling of the cabin is too low to allow any of our heroes to stand straight up, and when they hang four hammocks from the ceiling, they have to lie head-to toe next to one another in a row or else their shoulders won't fit in the breadth of the room. The cabin would be less crowded if they took turns sleeping, but the ship pulls in at night, and all the sailors go to sleep in their own crowded cabin, except for a couple keeping watch. Seeing that sleeping at night is the ship's habit, our heroes decide to cram in and do the same.
The next day, the one-masted boat sails comfortably up the coast in good breezes, and handled well by its crew and captain. Our heroes are expected to do nothing but stay out of the way. They sit on the tiny forecastle deck, watching the sailors work the ship, and learning what they can about it. Heraklese, it transpires, knows a good deal about sailing. As a boy he used to spend the summers with his uncle, who lived on one of the islands of the Phthisk Archapelego, and he used to sail all day, every day in a little boat with his cousins, or on his uncle's fishing boat with his uncle.
If our heroes expected to make friends with the sailors, and hear from them their tales of the sea, they are disappointed. The sailors are close-mouthed with their passangers, although they don't mind being watched. Some of them are scarred cruelly on the face by old wounds, and all of them are uncouth in their manners. They are unashamed at the little seat on the back of the poop deck, and only the captain bothers to wash his hands in a bucket of sea-water after he takes the seat himself.
Our heroes are unsure about the food the chef serves them. But they have only two days traveling rations on their persons, so they decide to eat what they are given. They drink cold tea instead of water straight from the ship's cistern.
At two in the morning on the 2nd September, our heroes wake to the sound of the ship's row-boat moving away from the ship and towards the shore. Half an hour later, it's back.
"Wool smuggling?" Scythe says.
"Or he has a mistress in the town," Heraklese says.
"Wool smuggling," Hocus says.
During the day, they sail past Dakka without entering the port, and straight up the coast. At night, they pull into another secluded cove, in the lee of a small, rocky island.
At one in the morning on the 3rd September, Belgorian police raid the boat. Twenty of them get within fifty meters before the lookout on the port side sees them. By the time our heroes are up and on deck in their armor, the police boats are knocking against the side of the ship, and the police have uncovered their lanterns.
"This is the Belgorian Police! All hands on the deck! We are boarding and inspecting your ship!"
Our heroes look over the side. The boarders certainly look like policemen, and they begin to climb up the sides of the ship with energy if not skill.
The sailors are all on deck, armed with swords and knives our heroes had not seen before.
"All right, lads," Permisso says, "Stand back to starboard, let them board. We have nothing to hide. They can search the boat if they want to. We're a law-abiding ship."
The first policeman climbs over the side of the boat and stands upon the deck. He is about thirty years old, and wears police-issue leather armor (our heroes recognize the armor from occasional armored police in Dakka). He is followed closely by another man of about fifty with a sword in hand, who turns and shouts down to the policemen behind him, "Come on, move it!"
"Drop your weapons," the younger policeman says. He looks around him, and at the sailors. Five of his men clamber onto the deck, and then ten more. "You are outnumbered two to one. If you do not drop your weapons, we will disarm you by force."
Permisso hesitates. He looks at his cutlass, and then at his men. "Do as he says, boys, we have nothing to hide, and these are honest policemen." He turns to the leader of the police. "Isn't that right, officer?"
"We are honest policemen, if that's what you mean, now drop your weapons."
One by one, the sailors put their weapons on the deck. The older policeman standing next to the officer says, "Number two squad collect the weapons."
Our heroes, meanwhile, are standing among the sailors, and have no intention of dropping their weapons.
"Gentlemen, disarm," the officer says.
"We'll stand to one side," Hocus says, "We're passengers. We will not drop our weapons."
The officer is about to speak sternly to the adventurers, but the older man, the sergeant, whispers in his ear. The officer frowns, and then nods his head. The sergeant says, "Donkmaster and Fendelman, escort the passengers to the front of the ship."
Our heroes step up onto the forecastle, with two policemen at the bottom of the two steps leading up to it. The policemen finish collecting the sailors' weapons. The officer steps forward towards Permisso and takes a piece of paper from his breast pocket. He does not read from the paper, but he opens it before he speaks.
"You are all under arrest, on a charge of smuggling."
The sailors scowl, and look at Permisso. Permisso's eyes narrow as he looks at the officer. There are twenty policemen on the deck now, as well as the sailors. Through the press of people, our heroes have difficulty seeing what is going on, but Permisso appears to lean towards the officer, perhaps to look at the piece of paper, and then suddenly the officer's sword is in Permisso's hands. The officer looks at the sword for one shocked moment, and then Permisso thrusts it up into his bowls and through his heart.
The officer gasps. Permisso pulls the sword out. The sergeant attacks Permisso without hesitation. The remaining police stare at their officer, who kneels on the deck, clutching at his stomach, blood dripping from his mouth. One moves to crouch down beside him, but a sailor kicks him in the head, takes his sword from him, and cuts his throat. Across the deck, the remaining sailors jump upon the police. Some have knives in their hands that they must have hidden about their persons. One stabs a policeman standing in shock holding four of the sailors' swords. Within seconds, the sailors have armed themselves, and are attacking the policemen ferociously.
The police, however, are wearing leather armor, and once they realize that they must draw swords and fight like soldiers, their armor gives them good protection against the swiping blows of the sailors' cutlasses and knives. And there are still twice as many policemen as sailors.
Our heroes are wondering what to do. They have discussed before, as an academic matter, the disadvantages of remaining neutral when one finds one's self close to any confrontation. The question is, which side to fight with? Another policeman dies at the hands of a sailor. A sailor doubles over with a policeman's sword in his belly. A policeman staggers back, crying out and holding up his hand, from which three fingers had been cut. The sailor who wounded him stabs him in the throat.
Permisso looks up at the adventurers for an instant, and then returns to his fight with the sergeant. He shouts above the clatter of swords. "Come on gentlemen, keep your word to me!"
"I vote for fighting with the police," Hocus says.
"Me too," Wicklow says.
Scythe, knowing that his vote settles the matter, draws his bow and fires at Permisso. It's a good shot, but by luck or foresight, Permisso twists aside and the arrow misses him to strike the deck beyond and glance off into the sea.
Wicklow strings his bow. "I'm shooting at Permisso." He misses Permisso, but hits the sailor on Permisso's left right in the chest, bringing him down.
"Good shot," Heraklese says.
Hocus fires as well, but hits nothing. "We could hit a policeman," he says, "That would be bad."
"We must fight hand-to-hand," Scythe says.
Heraklese helps Wicklow and Scythe put their bows back over their shoulders, and the three of them draw swords and jump down onto the deck and into the fray. Behind them, Hocus puts his own bow away on his back, and pulls out a bridge ring.
Scythe is first down the steps from the forecastle, followed by Wicklow. They push their way forward through the crowded policemen, making their way aft to get to Permisso, whom they hope to engage. Heraklese, meanwhile, steps over a freshly-killed policeman and attacks a bloodied sailor with two front teeth missing and a big grin on his face.
"You want some too, pretty boy. I did't like the look of you the moment you got on board."
The sailor can talk so much because he has already killed one policeman and wounded another. The police in front of him are hesitating to attack him. But Heraklese steps right up and feints, stabs, thrusts, pushes, and swings. The sailor is soon fighting for his life against his pretty, young opponent, and closes his lips tight over the gaps in his teeth.
Hocus prepares a spell he has long wanted to use. He has practiced with it privately. It's called Circle, but the name belies its dreadful purpose. With Heraklese engaged with a sailor, and Scythe and Wicklow still trying to make it through the policemen to Permisso, Hocus steps down off the forecastel with what appears to be two mirrors in his hands.
"Stand back," Hocus says to the policemen in front of him. They are willing to do so. There are eight policemen dead or wounded on the deck. Hocus finds himself facing a single sailor with a policeman at his side. The sailor does not at first understand what the mirrors in Hocus's hands can do, and he laughs at them. But when the mirror grazes the hair on his head, and he hears it crackling and hissing, he begins to understand.
Scythe and Wicklow are still trying to force their way through the policemen, when suddenly the sergeant collapses to his knees, his thigh sliced open. A policeman cries out in dismay, and kneels down beside the sergeant to cradle the man's head in his arms. Scyth and Wicklow force their way forward, but they are too late. Permisso, in the manner of his crew, steps forward and cuts the sergeant's throat. The policeman kneeling beside the sergeant stands up to fight, and Permisso kicks him and might have killed him, but the police turn and flee, and in doing so, allow Scythe and Wicklow at last to come forward and engage Permisso.
As our two heroes step foreward, with policemen behind them clambering out of the ship and into their row-boats, Permisso says, "What's this? Do you think you'll fare any better? Do I look hurt? You're going to sink fast when my men throw you overboard with your hamstrings cut."
This intimidating banter serves only to allow Scythe and Wicklow to jump forward as Permisso is composing his next sentence, and force him to face them both at once. On Wicklow's left is another sailor, and then, farther to the left are two more sailors fighting with Hocus and Heraklese. Hocus is closer to Wicklow. Scythe is on Wicklow's right.
There are five sailors wounded or dead, and ten policemen wounded or dead. The deck is awash with blood.
The gap-toothed sailor fights on against the man with the mirrors, but he has left no mark upon his opponent. The mirrors confuse him. They are not mirrors. They are like little windows, and when you look into one of them, you see out of the other, so that he can often see himself in both mirrors, and when he stabs forward, it seems that he is stabbing at himself.
Hocus can move his circles around as fast as his arms will move. All he has to worry about it is their edges, which the sailor might cut with his sword, thus destroying the circle bridge, and leaving Hocus unarmed. But now he sees the sailor hesitate, and look over at the captain, and come to understand how few of his mates are still fighting. Hocus lunges forward. The sailor parries, but too late, and the circle comes down on the side of his head. When Hocus pulls it back, it is as if someone has cut a slice off the sailor's skull with a saw. There is his brain inside, and blood running out. There is a puff of strange-smelling smoke in the air, and some black powder swirling about the sailor's body as he collapses to the deck.
Heraklese's opponent wants to jump off the ship, but Heraklese presses him so hard that he dare not turn to jump.
Permisso has found that Scythe and Wicklow together are more than a match for him. He turns to vault over the edge of the ship. For a fraction of a second, Wicklow hesitates, but Scythe does not, and strikes at Permisso from behind. Permisso twists aside, but Wicklow now swings down from above, and suddendly, Permisso's head flies from his body and rolls across the deck. Wicklow turns away and steps back. He does not want to be covered with blood. Scythe watches Permisso's body twitching on the deck, with its heart still pumping blood out of the arteries in his neck. How odd, he thinks to himself.
There are two sailors left. They both take hold of the rail. Wicklow stabs one through the side and into the heart. The other, Heraklese's opponent, leaps off into the dark, and lands with a splash in the water.
Heraklese sheaths his sword and takes his bow off his back to string an arrow. Hocus lets go of his circles. They drift up into the night. He takes out his flashlight, and shines it on the sailor in the water. Wicklow strings his bow.
"He's mine," Heraklese says, and fires. The sailor cries out, struggles for a moment, and then keeps swimming. Wicklow is about to fire, but Heraklese says again, "No, leave him to me." He fires, and this time hits the sailor in the side.
The sailor cries out again. A young policeman is standing on the deck, along with four others who somehow managed to restrain themselves from fleeing the ship. "You men!" he says to the boats that are rowing towards the safety of the shore. "Get back here, the battle's won!"
He turns to the policemen still on deck. "You three, get in the remaining boat and fish that sailor out of the water before he drowns."
Wicklow kneels down and tends to one of the wounded policemen. Scythe does the same. Hocus looks around the deck. He feels a bit nauseous. He sits down on the steps of the forecastle and tries to stop himself from fainting.
Heraklese is talking to the young policeman, who appears to be in charge of what remains of the group that boarded the ship. The policeman is young, but no younger than Herakleses. They talk in earnest whispers. As they talk, the policemen return to the ship in their row-boats and rescue the wounded sailor in the water.
Fifteen minutes later, Wicklow stands next to the ship's mast and stretches his back. The young policeman approaches him. "By law this ship is yours, as prize for the battle."
Wicklow smiles. "I'm glad to hear it."
"But I believe there is wool in the hold. The wool is also your prize, of course, but I must take possession of it until you pay the import tax that is due upon it, now that it has come within five hundred meters of our coastline, as it has clearly done so."
Scythe wipes his hands on his shirt and walks across the deck to stand next to Wicklow. Moments before, he was placing Permisso's head next to Permisso's body.
"I'll help you search the ship," he says to the young policeman. "I'm Scythe, and this is Wicklow. That guy over there sitting down is Hocus." Hocus looks up for a moment and smiles at the policeman. "And that guy over there who you were talking to eariler is Heraklese."
The young policeman bows his head slightly to each of them in turn. "Thank you all for fighting on our side." He puts his hand to his mouth and coughs.
"And you are?" Scythe says.
"Ardent Plankmatter, constable first class, Belgorash Coastal Police."
"Pleased to meet you Constable Plankmatter," Scythe says, "Shall we search the ship?"
Ardent nods and follows Scythe below decks.
"You okay Hocus?" Wicklow says.
Hocus looks up again. "Yes, thank you."
Wicklow walks to a sailor's corpse on the deck. Its scull is cut away. "Is this your work?"
"I'm afraid so."
Wicklow stares at the wound, although he does not bend down to get closer. He looks away and walks over to the forecastle steps to put his hand on Hocus's shoulder. "First guy you've killed in hand-to-hand combat, isn't it?"
"That spell really works, then."
"You must be pretty pleased with yourself, then."
"Yup, but I keep feeling nauseous. When that passes, I'll be happier."
Wicklow pats him on the back. "We now own a ship."
Scyth and Ardent find 500 kg of dyed wool cloth in the hold, and 20 kg of quicksilver (elemental mercury). Permisso did not keep a ship's log, but he has a ship's strong-box. After some work with his pickes, Scythe gets it open and finds two hundred ten-gram silver pieces in sacks and a collection of well-worn but well-printed coastal charts.
The search completed, Ardent and our heroes have a conference on deck. Dawn is approaching. They decide to sail back to Dakka with Heraklese as ship's captain, since he is the best sailor, and Ardent and three other policemen who have at least traveled by boat before to come and help with handling the ship. This way, Ardent takes possession of the wool, without having to take it away from the adventurers. The policemen take their wounded comrades, and the wounded sailors, ashore, bound for a hospital ten kilometers inland. They take their own dead, too, but plan to bury the sailors on shore. There are only twelve able-bodied policemen left. Two of the wounded are fit enough when they come to their senses. There are five dead and three seriously wounded. Of the sailors, there are four dead and two seriously wounded, and two injured and hand-cuffed.
The policemen on the shore are just breaking earth for the sailors' graves, and the deck is passably clean from buckets of sea-water and brush-work, when the one-masted smuggling boat sets out into the wind with Heraklese shouting orders from the helm. They can't handle the boat with anything near the grace and speed of its previous owners, but a full day's hard work in favorable winds brings it safely to Dakka's harbor at sun-down.
As they wait for their spot on the docks to be freed by a departing sloop, our heroes gather in the captain's cabin, crammed around a small table. Heraklese has some notes in front of him, and a pencil in his hand. "I'm working in Olympian dollars. You're going to have to get used to it, because as we go from one country to another, I don't know what we are going to do to keep our accounts straight if we keep switching to the local currency. So one hundred Olympian dollars is a ten-gram gold piece, that's all you have to remember."
He looks up to make sure the other three are following him.
"Got you," Hocus says.
Heraklese looks down at his papers. "So the wool's fifty thousand minimum, the quicksilver I'm not sure about, I'm guessing ten thousand minimum. The silver is worth around ten thousand as well. The boat, anything from one to three hundred thousand. I don't know how hot the market for boats is around here, but she's sturdy enough to cross the sea, and she has plenty of sail, and she's in good condition, so I think one hundred thousand is the absolute minimum we can get for her."
From the 4th to the 23rd September, our heroes stay in the Pelamakshi Hotel, and spend their time relaxing, training in the local gym, sailing their boat in and out of Dakka harbor, and arranging the many appointments they must keep to register the boat in their name in Dakka, and also to sell the boat's cargo. They obtain the registration, in all four of their names, with ownership assigned 30% to each of Hocus, Scythe, and Wicklow, and 10% to Heraklese. They sell their wool for fifty thousand dollars, the mercury for twenty thousand, and they use their ten thousand dollars in silver to pay legal fees and harbor fees, and all manner of other fees. They are pleased to find, however, that they don't have to bribe anyone.
Ardent Plankmatter goes home after only a couple of days in Dakka, along with his colleagues. They are remain striken by grief for their fallen comrades. In their report to the Police Cheif Boorishmish, they describe the smugglers as expert and ruthless swordsmen, with the renowned Permisso leading them. The twenty policemen were out-matched, he said, and fought beyond the call of duty, until five lay dead and five more wounded. More would have been killed if it had not been for the adventurers, who stepped up and overcame the five surviving sailors, Permisso included. Consequently, Ardent insists that the boat becomes the prize of the adventurers, and its cargo as well.
The boat is in good condition, but it could use new rope, new sails, a new coat of paint, and much other maintenance besides, so our heroes invest forty thousand dollars in her. They rename her, Loose Lips, in reference to an expression Hocus thinks is funny. "Loose lips sink ships." Dalian Krass, who has lent them his nephew as their without-appointment for a few hours each day, inspects the boat after these improvements, and values it at three hundred thousand dollars. For three thousand dollars a year, payable in advance, he insures them against theft of the boat from secure harbors. He gives them a list of such harbors, and there are over fifty of them, around the Satian Sea. After these expenditures, the ship's brand new strong box contains twenty-seven thousand dollars in silver and gold pieces. There are four keys to the strong-box, one each for the adventurers. On the Dakka registration, Heraklese is listed as captain of the boat, and they all agree that he gets the captain's cabin when they sail.
When operating the boat, our heroes decide against hiring their own crew full-time. Instead, they will hire sailors for each journey. The sailors cost about two hundred dollars a day each, and can be found easily enough hanging around the docks. They are confident in their ability to handle the boat twenty-four hours a day if they hire four sailors to accompany the four of them on any journey on the Satian Sea.
Hocus is delighted to find that he can prepare the Vacuum Thruster spell, and he considers its use as a thruster for the boat. He concludes that the energy of the thruster will be used up in minutes when put to such a use, but he looks forward to obtaining a vacuum thruster apparatus so he can switch from ballooning to cruising with a thruster.
Our heroes also take the time to repair their balloon basket, which they brought with them on the smuggler's boat from Diamantis. When we say that they took time to repair it, we mean, of course, that they take it to a professional basket-weaver, who fixes it up good and proper.
"It's a contraption, all right," the weaver says. She has a tooth missing in the front, and speaks with a slight lisp because of this. "And out of consideration for your respected persons, and your services to the nation, I took the liberty of double-weaving the edges and corners to keep your illustrious persons from leaving the contraption before you wish to do so."
Hocus looks at the old woman and examines the basket. She has indeed double-woven the edges, and patched the crushes and breaks in the walls with skill and diligence. "Nice work, madame, thank you."
As he and Heraklese carry the basket away, Hocus grips the trusty enclosure fondly and says, "She's got another ten thousand kilometers in her."
Heraklese looks over his shoulder at the old woman, and then shakes his head. "If you say so, Mr. Wizard."
On the 24th September, our heroes visit Dalian Krass in his office. He has received a letter from a lawyer representing the widows and families of the policemen killed on the boat during the battle with the smugglers. Dalian received the letter, because the adventurers have assigned him as their Legal Representative in Dakka, to whom all official Belgorash communication with the adventurers should be directed. It is his address that they put on the boat registration, and every other official form they fill out.
The lawyer representing the widows and families is called Polinik Bish. He claims that the policemen who died on the boat did not run away, and are therefore part of the victorious party, and deserve a share of the proceeds, to help support their widows and children. Dalian Krass has a general understanding of Belgorian law, and subsequent discussion with him reveals that there are many points at which Polinik's case could be contested, but that the spirit of the law supports him. The exact ratio by which the profits should be divided is perhaps the biggest point of dispute. Would each policeman get the same share as our heroes, despite the fact that each of them has a mighty reputation from their work in Diamantis. Dalian thinks it unlikely.
Heraklese reveals that he made sure Ardent Plankmatten, the police officer who remained on the deck, offered the boat to the adventurers immediately. He told Ardent that the adventurers were ruthless, that he himself lived in fear of them, and that they would certainly claim the boat for their own and kill anyone who opposed them.
"I wanted to avoid an unpleasant confrontation that would end with your taking the boat anyway. As it is, we have the boat, which is good, and we can give the widows as much money as we want. We can even sell the boat if we want. It's my job to watch our money and make sure we are not foolish with it. In this case, I did not want to have to argue that we should be given the boat once we were back in harbor, with the police sitting back and re-writing the story of the battle so that they could keep the profits for their own New Year's Party Fund."
"You deceived him," Wicklow says.
"Did I? I seem to recall a whispered debate on the deck trying to figure out which side to enter the battle on."
"Is that true?" Dalian says.
"Yes," Scythe says, "But we didn't debate for long."
"We discuss every decision," Scythe says, "as a matter of policy."
"Very well, but there is something rutheless about that, not bad or evil, but certainly rutheless."
"But I put you in this position with the lawyer," Heraklese says, "So I'll stay here and get you out of it. I'll watch the boat and deal with the court case. I'll pay the widows off with funds from the ship if I think it necessary, and keep you informed through a bridge. What do you say? That's what I'm here for."
To this the adventurers agree, and make plans to depart again for Gowachin. They will talk to Heraklese every day at 10 am and 5 pm. They decide to leave their horses in Diamantis, and set out by stagecoach for Palash where the Gowachin River flows into the Satian Sea. Their pretext for leaving is that they are going to meet with the families of the deceased policemen, although they make no formal declaration to this effect. They settle their bill with Tallila, and pack their bags.
On 25th September, they load their bags and the balloon basket into a private stagecoach and set off from Dakka. That evening they stay at Pinkelman's Inn, a place that prospers every thirty-two months at the time of the CSZK1 conjunction. The building is old and solid, made of wood beams, stone, and plaster. But CSZK1 is not due to open for another twenty months, and the place is quiet but well-appointed. It has stables for griffs, and the landlord claims that a party of griff-riders departed only a few days ago. But all that's left now are half a dozen traders and a like number of travelers.
Our heroes sit in the common room and eat a good meal. It is a tradition among guests, it appears, to carve their initials in the exposed beams of the common room. The beams, it turns out, are made of iron wood, and you need an adamantine blade to make much of a mark upon them. Scythe looks at one beam and reads, "Dale the Disnamed Woz Ere, 2465", and farther down the beam, worn smooth by many hands, and covered by other scratches, "Adrian Hatch, 2265, 2302, 2387, 2472." The last scratches appear much newer. Scythe wonders if it's a joke, or a fake, but he's not in the mood to talk to his companions. He looks into his soup. Chilled cucumber soup. Damned good, too.
On 26th September, 2477, they arrive at Palash on the banks of the Gowachin river, find a hotel, wander the docks, have a drink. The next day they buy passage on an empty wool barge returning by sail, oar, and poling up the slow-moving Gowachin River to the wool-country. Our heroes sleep under an awning on the deck. It is comfortable enough. The weather is still warm, despite the approach of Autumn. It rains only once, during the afternoon of the second day. The boat proceeds only during daylight, and makes about fifty kilometers progress up the river each day. Our heroes help with the poling and rowing and ship-work as much as they are able. They are glad of the exercise, and the bargemen are glad of the help. In the evening they exchange stories of the river for stories of countries far away, of Pakesh, Varay, the desert, and the calipanti.
One of the bargemen is passably competent with a guitar, and another has a good, if not fine, singing voice. Our heroes hear their first Gowachin Country Songs, and enjoy them. Gowachin is a Latin dialect, and it takes only a couple of days to get used to it. It would be more correct to say that Gowachin is a dialect of Belgorian, because the original Gowachins took the Belgorian language for their own and re-built their nation after centuries of slavery and orc-speech during the Dark Ages. Here are a couple of verses from one of the songs.
Dirt roads and dry-land farming, Might be the death of me, But I can't leave this world behind. My debts are not like prison, Where there's hope of getting free, And I can't leave this world behind. The preacher says that when the master calls us, He's going to give us wings to fly, But my legs are made of hay and corn husks, So I can't leave this world behind.
The "dry-land farming" is in the west of the country, where it merges with the desert. The summers are hot and dry, while the winters can be long and bitter.
After four days, arrive at Wakalin, the capital city of Gowachin. The master of the barge claims that the population of Gowachin is two hundred thousand souls, of whom about twenty thousand live in Wakalin, their biggest city, and the center of the wool trade. The Queen of Gowachin has her court in Wakalin. Here also is the house of commons and house of lords. Our heroes detect no resentment of their monarch, but instead a confidence in their house of commons. Our heroes are glad to hear that they can go fully armed without restriction in Gowachin.
They arrive in Wakalin on 1st October. It appears to be a pleasant and civilized town. There are shops selling mechanical contrivances for use in fuller's mills. Our heroes see three well-dressed dwarves in the streets, presumably there to sell metal parts made in their mountain city to the east. But our heroes have no time to dally in Wakalin. They buy the best map they can find of the Mountain Pass Road, and start walking up towards Galoopius Maximus's villa, the address of which is simply "Panorama Villa, Benwakili Village, Off Mountain Pass Road, Gowachin." The road rises quickly into the hills, and the mountains loom large ahead of them.
In the evening, they reach the Powachella Mill Hotel, where they stay the night, after confirming that Benwakili is indeed down the road that goes south from the Mountain Pass Road.
The next morning, the 2nd October, Scythe disguises himself as a Belgorian messenger. He carries a walkie-talkie space bridge to Hocus and Wicklow. Hocus and Wicklow accompany him half-way to the village and hide in the woods. Scythe proceeds to Benwakili. His plan is to ask directions to the Panorama Villa, walk most of the way there, and then return to his companions. They will go together to the villa at night.
He enters a picturesque main square. The village consists of only a few dozen houses. Several attractive villas are perched on the slopes overlooking the square, and the square itself overlooks the valley of the Gowachin River. On the other side of the square is the village pub, The Red Lion Inn, with a sign that has a red lion on it. Outside the pub are three picnic tables. At one table, next to one another looking out upon the Gowachin River valley, are a man and a woman. Them man is flushed in the face, rather fat, but smiling at something the woman is saying. She is slim, healthy, and looks pretty from the other side of the square where Scythe is standing. Nearer at hand is a plump and cheerful woman selling roasted chestnuts.
Scythe approaches the woman and buys some chestnuts with some Belgorian copper coins.
"Good-woman," he says in a Belgorian accent, "can you tell me the way to the Panorama Villa, I have business with Galoopius Maximus. Do you know him?"
"Indeed I do sir, and you will find him sitting right over there outside the pub with his wife. Isn't that a stroke of luck for you?"
Scythe looks over at the couple sitting outside the pub.
"Indeed it is," he says.
He peels a chestnut with one hand, puts it in his mouth, and chews slowly. The chestnut tastes good. It has been a long time since he has last eaten a roasted chestnut. His aunt had chestnut trees down by the stream at the bottom of her garden. He and his cousins would roast them over a fire on the river bank.
Scythe smiles at the woman standing nearby. "They are good. Thank you."
"I'm glad you like them."
It seems to Scythe that he now has only one graceful course of action, and that is to walk up to Galoopius Maximus and talk to him, even though this had in no way been part of their plan. Although Hocus and Wicklow might have been able to hear what the chestnut-seller said, Scythe certainly could not discuss the matter with them. The decision was his to make alone. He could walk up and tell Galoopius the truth. That might be Hocus's suggestion. But to do so would be rude, in front of his wife, and in public. He could ask for an appointment to talk to him about the antiquities, but that would give Galoopius the opportunity to avoid the conversation by refusing the appointment. It would reveal to him that they were present and suspected him.
"Good day, madame," Scythe says to the chestnut-seller, and starts waking towards the Red Lion Inn.
Some kind of deception was called for. Perhaps he could pretend to be a reporter from the Dakka Inquirer, asking for an interview on the subject of the stolen antiquities. But he could not pretend to be Belgorian in front of a Belgorian. Galoopius might know people at the Inquirer.
Scythe walks as slowly as he can without attracting suspicion. He is sixty steps from the couple sitting at the outside table. The man has noticed him, and watches him approach. The woman looks out across the square to the valley beyond, and lifts her glass to her lips. She has her hair tied above her head. Ther is plenty of it, and it is dark and shiny. Her skin is dark, too, like those of the Gowachin. There is a hint of red in the color, a deep lake red. Several of the men on the barge had hair and skin the same color. Her face is wide, with sharp cheekbones. Scythe knows she is forty-five, and her husband is fifteen years older. But she does not look forty-five. Nor does he look sixty, for that matter.
"I can't pretend to be a Gowachin either," he says to himself.
Galoopius is smiling at Scythe, and nods when he comes within twenty paces of the table. Although Galoopius is a fat man, his face is still handsome, and has about it a glow of health. His forhead shines as if from recent exertion.
Scythe puts one hand in his trouser pocket. Such an action fits with his original disguise: uncomfortable, but pretending to be relaxed. Beneath his loose trousers, he is wearing ring mail leggings down to his knees, and greaves strapped around his shins. Will Galoopius be able to tell?
In his pocket is a small bag containing six smaller bags, each of which contains a gem. He closes his hand around the bag. Rolled up in a little tube along with each gem are one or two strips of paper crammed with writing and numbers: the evaluations of the gems obtained from jewelers in Dakka and Gripp. Scythe looks at Miseralis. She wears a pair of diamond earrings. He breaths a quiet sigh of relief.
Half an hour later, Scyth is sitting at a rickety desk in a room of the Red Lion Inn, with his walkie talky in his hand.
"I told them I was a gem-trader from Diamantis, and I had heard that he, a man of means, was living in the village near the main road, so I came to see if he, or any of his wealthy friends nearby, were interested in buying. I don't think he was convinced. But is wife was enthusiastic, and agreed, against his obvious discouragement, to receive me and the two helpers I told them about, tomorrow morning at ten.
Hocus and Wicklow are delighted, and congratulate Scythe.
"So I have directions to the villa. I thought I might go for a walk this afternoon, to check out the route, and then come back to you. I could then guide you there through the woods at the end of the day."
The late afternoon finds Hocus, Wicklow and Scythe creeping through the forest in a circuit around and above Benwakili Village, and down to a knoll overlooking the Panorama Villa. On the way, they keep an eye out for kobol tracks. They find none, but there are plenty of human footprints from early in the morning. The villagers were out gathering Autumn mushrooms. They see nobody.
"That's not to say that there are no kobolds around," Scythe says, as they sit in a bush with a view of Panorama's well-tended back lawn. "There could be one in any of these trees. According to our instructor in the army, a kobold can go for four days without water or food, and without either urinating or defecating either. They can stay perfectly motionless for the entire time, too, and they don't get bored or cramped."
Wicklow looks up and into the branches of the trees around them. Hocus does too. Scythe gazes through his binoculars at the villa.
"That's what my instructor said, anyway. I'm not sure he knew what he was talking about. But I read Thrack Bunion's essays, and they said much the same thing."
Through is telescope, Hocus admires the two fountains in the villa's gardens. One is in front of the house, the other behind it, on the down-hill side. The water shoots in thin jets from each fountain, and falls in sumptuous curtains from the fountain bowls.
"Who was Thrack Bunion?" Wicklow says.
"A colonel in the Army. Our army. He infiltrated and worked with a band of hellspawn and sapiens in the last century, and wrote about it afterwards in a book called In the Borderlands."
"I must read it," Wicklow says, and returns to the business of examining the villa. It is an hour before sunset, and even now they see Galoopius Maximus and his wife, Miseralis, emerging from the house and taking up a game of croquet. Miseralis allows Galoopius to move the balls into the starting position while she exchanges a few words with the gardener about some roses he is pruning.
There are at least three servants in the house, one is a plump and smiling middle-aged maid, one a middle-aged gardener wearing overalls, and another a younger man who walks around the property energetically seeing to the horses, numerous other chores our heroes cannot quite discern, although there is nothing suspicious about the young man. He has dark, red-tinted skin just like Miseralis. The others look like Belgorians.
At one point, Galoopius sits down at a table on the patio, while his wife takes repeated hits at her ball, knocking the other balls all over the court. The maid comes out with a pitcher and four glasses. The gardener, who is lean, tanned and white-haired, sits down on another chair. Galoopius pours him a drink, and they sit and chuckle at Miseralis's expert performance.
Later, the master and mistress of the house sit at the patio table while the maid serves them a simple supper with a bottle of wine. The view down the valley must indeed be panoramic, although the view presented to our heroes is not, sitting as they are in a bush with a view of the villa from the north. Under close scrutiny with the telescope, our heroes conclude that neither Galoopius nor Miseralis look their age. In Miseralis's case, her youthful appearance goes beyond simply keeping herself in good shape. Her skin is clear and smooth. Her body is firm and lithe. Even Galoopius, forty pounds over-weight as he is, has a youthful glow about him.
"Longevity drugs," Hocus says. "How much do they cost?"
"About ten thousand dollars a month, I think," Wicklow says.
"Interesting," Scythe says. "He wants his antiques, and he wants money to keep his wife and him looking young. He arranges for the antiquities to be stolen, returned to him, and he claims for the insurance. It's an ambitious plan, but irresistable. Every woman wants to stay young.
"And every husband wants her to do the same," Hocus says.
The moon is a slender crescent in the sky as the sun sets far out beyond the rolling Gowachin hills on the other side of the Gowachin River Valley. Galoopius and Miseralis go inside, and our heroes wait for the utter darkness in which they will begin their night of skulking and searching. They have several places in mind to search. There is suspicious newly-turned earth on the north-west corner of the property. What have they hidden there? Could it be several chests of freshly-received antiquities? Or had they been buried there all along, and only now have they been transferred into the villa's cellar. What of the stables? The garden shed? And will they be able to gain entry into the cellar? These are tantalizing thoughts, and our heroes wait impatiently to begin their night's work.
Their first stop, in the absolute darkness of the night, walking slowly by dim shafts of light emitted by luminous stones in wooden tubes, is the water resevoir, or so they find it to be. We call it the Pump House in the drawing. The door is locked, but Scythe opens it anyway. There are pumps in the shed, but they do not appear to be needed at the moment, because the underground resevoir is full of cool, fresh spring-water. Our heroes descend to the edge of the resevoir and observe the clay pipes leading off under the ground.
"This is where the fountain water comes from," Hocus says. "The spring must be reliable, because they leave the fountains running all night."
Aside from the expert craftsmanship evident in the pump-house fixtures, our heroes find little to exite them in the small wooden shed, and leave with a feeling of slight, but not profound, disappointment. Scythe closes the lock again. The next stop is the stables, and our heroes debate with enthusiasm the question of its being inhabited even now by the young Gowachin, who might sleep there to watch over the horses. They find the stable door secured by a chain and padlock. Scythe picks the lock and enters. He creeps through the stable. There are two horses in there, a llama, and two goats. There is also a carriage, and a cart. Scythe restores the chain and padlock.
Our heroes gather outside the stable and make their way stealthily around the house to the garden shed. They find the door locked. Surely this must mean something, a locked garden shed. Who would walk all the way up to a villa to steal garden implements? And what an unusually large, strong garden shed it is too. Scythe picks the lock.
"You're on fire tonight, Scythe," Wicklow says.
Scythe takes the compliment with good grace. He has to admit that he is indeed, "on fire" tonight. The excitement, the darkness, and the quiet, conspire to give his fingers mastery over every pin and tumbler. He opens the door and enters with such stealth that it takes Hocus and Wicklow a few seconds to realize that he is inside.
Scythe finds an impressive collection of gardening tools, almost all new, and all of them freshly-sharpened and well-oiled. The cutting blades of the long-handled shears appear to be adamantine.
"I think the gardener bargained hard when Galoopius asked him to come with them to Belgorash," Wicklow says.
Our heroes proceed to the freshly-turned earth. This was the place they have been waiting for. They bring with them from the garden shed a couple of spades and a stoud oak pole. They dig in a few places, probe with the rod, and listen. They find several tree-roots, and evidence of a recent stump excavation, but not the satisfying thud of a crate full of stolen antiquities. It is 11 pm when Scythe leans on his shovel in the darkness and puts his light tube in his pocket. The stars cast a faint light upon the faces of his comrades. He looks at them both as they stand up and give up the effort.
"The night is still young," Scythe says, and takes the tools back to the shed and locks the door.
Just after Midnight, 3rd October, 2477
Our heroes sneak around the gazebo with their flashlights. Hidden underneath the floor of the gazebo, Hocus finds a small locked wooden box about twenty centimeters long, ten centimeters wide and ten centimeters deep. Our heroes become excited, and creep behind a nearby bush to admire their find. They pass it from one to another. Scythe receives it last.
"Go on, pick the lock," Wicklow says.
Scythe takes out his lock picks. His comrades hold their flashlights for Scythe to see. He examines the box. He shakes it. It makes no sound. There is nothing heavy inside, nor anything loose. He peers inside the lock with his loope, holding his own flashlight so that it shines down into the aperture. He checks the seam between the lid and the box. He sees no sign of any traps. He feels around the box slowly, looking for transparent conjured material or needles. "No traps that I can see." He examines the lock again. "This lock is dwarf-made. So is the box. It will be difficult to pick. There are eight tumblers."
"You can do it," Wicklow says.
Scythe sets to work with this lock picks. After twenty minutes he has five of the tumblers aligned, and is working on the sixth when he loosens his grip on the tool with which he is turning the barrel of the lock, and the tumblers slip back into their resting places again.
Scythe leans back and closes his eyes. He takes a deep breath. "I can't do it here. I need more time. We'll have to take it away so I can work on it in daylight." Scythe puts the box in his pack. "Okay, I think we should take a look in the house. I'll try and open one of the cellar windows."
Scythe is relieved when the cellar window, a simple inward-tilting hopper, opens easily. He puts his flexible metal strip away, and unscrews the wooden arms that stop the hopper from opening any farther. With these removed, the takes the window out of its frame, and places it on the lawn beside the house in the darkness. He leans into the cellar and shines his light around inside. The cellar appears to be used for storage. Furniture is covered with old sheets. The antiquities could be anywhere in there.
"I'm going in," he says.
He climbs into the cellar and drops quietly to the floor. Wicklow and Hocus wait outside. Wicklow crouches by the window, ready to jump in if Scythe needs help. He watches Scythe lifting sheets and working his way around the cellar. Hocus looks outward into the darkness, watching out of the edges of his eyes for movement in the starlight. It occurs to him that he could have used a Scan spell to search for the crates under the freshly-turned earth earlier, and also to look inside the box. Now that he has more slots for spells, he should consider running Beguile and Scan all the time. They last for a thousand hours on one casting. That would leave him with eight slots for other spells, still enough.
Scythe is back under the window again. "Nothing down here. I'm going up the stairs and into the house."
"Okay," Wicklow says, and shakes his head with disappointment.
Now Wicklow and Hocus wait anxiously. They hear nothing from inside the house, nor do they see any light in the basement. Twenty minutes pass, and Scythe is back, climbing out of the window and onto the lawn.
"Nothing," he says. He picks up the window and puts it back, restores the wooden arms and locks it again. "I searched the ground floor. There's no sign of any crates. They could be upstairs in the bedrooms, but I did not want to risk going up there."
"Well done," Wicklow says, "I think we should go about and cover our tracks before we withdraw for the night. It's about four hours before dawn."
To this Hocus and Scythe agree, and spend the next hour brushing over their tracks, starting at the barn and ending at the gazebo. While looking for their own tracks, Scythe finds two small, clawed footprints, about three days old. He lowers his head close to the earth and shines his flashlight full upon them. His heart beats fast, and he holds his breath. After a few seconds, he is certain. They are kobold prints, and they are in the flower bed right next to the place where Hocus found the box. He makes a quiet clicking noise with his toungue, and his comrades come over and have a look. They agree that the prints look like those of a kobold, but they do not appear to be as excited about it as Scythe. To Scythe, the box now takes on an entirely new significance. Galoopius's connection to the kobolds is now certain.
Four in the morning finds them in the forest discussing their next step. Hocus and Wicklow agree that the kobold footprints, together with the box, connect Galoopius with the kobold smuggling operation. They had assumed that this was the case already, but Scythe points out that they now have proof, which strengthens their hand. They want to know what is in the box, so Hocus prepares Scan, and casts it at five in the morning. He finds nothing in the box with his spell. Scythe takes the box back to the gazebo, returns it to its previous place, and returns to the forest, covering his tracks.
Our heroes have two hours before dawn, and they do not want to move off through the forest before it gets light. So they sit and talk quietly. After an hour, they decide that they are sitting on the line of communication between the kobold smugglers and Galoopius Maximus. The box is for messages. It might be that the kobolds are keeping the antiquities, but our heroes think this unlikely, because the temptation to sell the antiquities back to Dalian Krass for half a million dollars would be too great for them to resist. More likely, they conclude, the antiquities are in the warehouse of a trusted friend of Galoopius in Gowachin. The friend may not even know what is in the boxes, and Galoopius can get them any time he likes. There is no hurry.
But the kobolds must have delivered the antiquities to this friend, so they will know where the friend lives. Our heroes might be able to capture and bribe a kobold to reveal where the friend lives. Or our heroes might be able to insert messages in the box so as to create fictitious communication between Galoopius and the kobold chief, leading in the end to a damning revelation by either the chief or Galoopius.
These are delicious thoughts for our heroes, and they all point to their needing to open the box whenever they like, read any messages inside it, and substitute their own forged messages.
"We have to go and get the box," Hocus says, "and take it back to the hotel so Scythe can learn to pick the lock."
"I can do better than that," Scythe says, "I can make a key for it."
"Perfect. One of these nights, we have to risk taking the box away for the few hours before dawn, the entire day, and a few hours of dark after that."
"We might as well do it tonight," Scythe says, "We already know there is no message in there. The kobolds did not come tonight. They must come regularly. It can't be every night. Galoopius won't look at the box unless he knows they are picking up or dropping off."
"I bet they use the lunar cycle to time their visits," Hocus says, "That would be easy for a kobold. They might come on the new moon and the full moon. The new moon was on the night of the twenty-seventh of November. The half-moon will be the night of the fourth of October. Today is the third."
"So it's unlikely that Galoopius will check the box tomorrow," Wicklow says, "But likely he will check it the day after."
"It will be safer to take the box now than tomorrow night," Scythe says.
"Okay, so go get it again," Hocus says.
Scythe sneaks off into the night.
Our heroes look for kobold tracks on their way back to the Powachella Mill. They find no tracks, but make it back safely to their quarters at nine thirty in the morning.
Their quarters consist of a cottage on the Powachella Mill property. They are posing as hunters and astronomers taking a vacation in the mountains, out of Diamantis. The hotel proprieters don't show any suspicion, and leave them alone. They can come and go as they please at any hour, and nobody is watching them, so far as they can tell.
Scythe studies the box, picks the lock by mid-afternoon, makes a blank key, files it into shape, and opens the lock with his key at eight in the evening. The box is empty. Meanwhile, Hocus figures out an alarm spell for use with the box. He prepares two spells, one makes a space bridge, the other is a simple conjured-string spell. He finishes his preparations by mid-afternoon and sleeps until evening. Wicklow sleeps all day.
Scythe is exhausted. He goes to sleep. Wicklow and Hocus go off along the road after dark, sneak through Benwakili Village, up the road to Panorama Villa, and into the garden, arriving an hour before midnight. They replace the box and search the gazebo a second time, more carefully. Within the gazebo, they discover that the bench around the inner wall is in one place a hinged door with a storage space underneath. The hinged door is locked. Scythe is not there to pick the lock, but they want to know what is inside. They crawl under the gazebo and shine a light on the underside of the floor beneath the bench. Through the gaps in the floorboards, they see rolls of wool cloth.
They crawl out from beneath the gazebo. Now Hocus attaches a space bridge without a bridge ring to the back of the small, locked, box. One edge of the bridge is attached to the box with a blob of conjured string. The other edge sticks out from the box and he attaches this edge to the underside of the gazebo with conjured string. He surrounds the bride with conjured string to prevent air from passing through it. The other half of the bridge he places in a bridge ring covered by a membrane of conjured matter that will dissipate if and when the bridge itself is destroyed. Their hope is that the string will break the delicate bridge when someone removes the box. There will be a slight tug when this happens, and some transparent residue on the back of the box, but nobody is likely to notice.
Hocus takes the bridge he used to make the conjured string and he sticks it to a tree in the forest overlooking the Panorama property, with a clear view of the gazebo. He uses the bridge's own conjured string to stick it. The spell is such that he has one half of the bridge in a bridge ring in his hand, and the other half stuck to the tree. Well satisfied with their night's work, and both of them tired, Hocus and Wicklow follow the roads back in the dark to their cottage, arriving three hours after midnight.
4th October 2477
Tonight is the night of the half-moon. Hocus has two bridges in the cottage. Both are protected by metal bridge rings. Through one, which he calls his scrying bridge, he can see out from the tree. He sees the Panorama lawn and the gardener tending the flowers. The other bridge he places on top of a bottle. This is the bridge with a membrane of conjured rubber covering both sides. He places a pebble on top of the membrane. When someone moves the box, the bridge will be torn apart by the two strings tied to the other half. The membrane will dissipate and there will be nothing holding the pebble up. The pebble will drop to the bottom of the bottle and make a noise. This is Hocus's magical alarm.
In the late afternoon, the pebble falls. Hocus looks through his scrying bridge. He sees the gardener walking away from the gazebo.
An hour before dark, our heroes set out from the Mill, and head into the forest, to come upon Panorama as early as they can. They want to take the box and put it back in its place before the kobolds come and check it. As they make their way through the trees, they come upon a young couple climbing up a hill. Hocus, Wicklow, and Scythe hide immediately and hold their breath. The young people walk by within ten paces of them, but our heroes remain unseen
They arrive at Panorama an hour after dark and reach under the gazebo for the box. It is there. They take it behind a bush. Scythe opens it with his key. There is a envelope inside, sealed with wax. The imprint upon the wax is a bordered circle with a five-pointed star in the middle.
"Can you pry it open?" Hocus says.
"I think so," Scythe says, "But how will we seal it again?"
"I can do it with some conjured rubber."
With a thin knife, Scythe pries the wax seal open and they take out a single sheet of folded paper. There is a note written upon it in Latin. The ink is purple.
Scythe reads the note.
D, The three we spoke of, I believe they are nearby, staying at the Inn on the Pass Road. GM
Scythe shines his light through the paper from behind. "No watermarks."
He puts the note in his pack. They lock the box and put it back in its hiding place beneath the gazebo. Hocus rebuilds the magical alarm on the box. They return along the roads to their cottage, arriving at midnight. Here they light a fire, pour themselves a glass of port, close the windows, and sit down to wait. Hocus finishes setting up his pebble alarm. Wicklow examines the note.
"We can get ink the same color, can't we?"
Scythe nods. "I'm sure we can, and paper to match. We could forge a letter."
An hour after midnight, the pebble drops into the bottle. "Clink"
Our heroes look at one another.
Three hours after midnight they are back at the gazebo. The box is there, but has been moved slightly, and it is empty. Hocus rebuilds the magical alarm, and they return to their cottage, arriving shortly before dawn.
"Let's get a few hours sleep," Hocus says, "and then talk."
To this they all agree. They draw the curtains, put the "Do Not Disturb" notice on the door of their cottage, and get into bed. They are soon fast asleep, dreaming the sweet and uncomplicated dreams of those who are happy in their work, confident in the loyalty of their friends, and, of course, very tired. Hocus dreams he is sitting at a table in The Triangle, back in Pakesh where he went to school. On the table is a cup of strong, sweet tea. Above, in the clear and cloudless Ursian sky, a hang glider circles gracefully. On his lap, in his dream, is a book of runes, and he is about to look at the last one in the sequence required to prepare the Possession spell. With it, he will be able to take possession of the mind of a bird, and fly, in a manner of speaking, for himself. He has only one rune to go. He looks at it steadily, and its shape begins to settle into his spell slot. Almost there, almost there, and the tea-cup, for some reason, falls off the table onto the rune, breaks with an inappropriate claiking sound, and spreads a dark stain across the gracefull edges of the rune character. He sits up, awake in bed.
Scythe is lying on his own bed with his eyes open, "The pebble dropped."
Wicklow gets out of bed and looks through the scrying bridge at the Panorama villa. "There he goes, the gardener is carrying something to the house, I think it's the box."
"Galoopius is hoping for a note from D," Scythe says, "We know there is no note in there, but he doesn't."
"Oh," Hocus says, and after a minute, "So I'll rebuild the alarm tonight, assuming he puts the box back, and until then we can sleep."
And so it is that our heroes embark upon another dark journey that night, along the roads and paths to Panorama Villa beneath a cloudy sky. They know the road well, and move along it in the near-total darkness, using only one dim flashlight. In the town, they proceed with stealth from one house to the next. Twice they must wait for a villager, out at night with a lamp, to walk by. The night being so absolutely dark, there is no-one out without a lamp.
At the gazebo, they find the box back in its place with nothing inside it. There is no wool in the bench-space either. Hocus sets the magical alarm. Scythe finds no new kobold tracks. They return to the cottage, arriving by midnight.
In the morning, they walk out of the Powachella Mill Hotel and into Powachella Town. They buy two star charts, many sheets of paper, ink of six different colors, several ink pens, wax, clay, and miscellaneous other articles that take their fancy. They are accumulating what Scythe needs to forge a note from Galoopius, and they are doing so under the cover of making charts of their own astronomical observations. Also, they visit several hunting equipment suppliers, stock up on hunting arrows, buy maps of the public hunting grounds, and those owned by the Inn, which are indeed substantial. They ask any old-timers they come across for their hunting advice, and take every other opportunity to substantiate their claim to be hunter-astronomors on a mission of blood and science.
Scythe takes his time mastering Galoopius's handwriting, and then forges the following note.
D, The three we spoke of have returned to Diamantis. Please advise, GM.
Scythe makes a clay impression of Galoopius's wax seal, touches it up with a scalpel, and then bakes and glazes it in their fireplace. His first two attempts crack, and he damages the original wax seal on the third attempt, but further work with his scalpel, and a successful fourth firing of the clay produce a decent replica of Galoopius's mark.
11th October, 2477
Tonight is the night of the full moon. The pebble has not dropped in the bottle for six days. But today, an hour before dark, the pebble drops. Through the scrying bridge, Hocus watches the gardener return to the house. It is raining steadily. Soon after dark, our heroes make their way along the muddy, unpaved road to Benwakili Village and then Panorama Villa. They see wool in the space under the bench in the gazebo. They retrieve the box. Hocus and Wicklow hold their cloaks over Scythe while he opens it. He takes out a fresh note from Galoopius and puts in its place their forged note with a new envelope and the forged wax seal. They withdraw into the forest, eager to read the the new letter.
D, It is raining. I doubt I will see you tonight. If it's clear tomorrow, I will expect you. I am anxious. GM.
"The kobold chief might be here tonight," Scythe says, "Kobolds don't mind the rain, why would the kobold chief be deterred by the rain?"
"Galoopius seems certain of it," Hocus says.
"Perhaps the chief is riding a horse," Wicklow says, "and the horse can't see if the sky is cloudy, even on a full moon."
"I don't think kobolds like to ride horses," Scythe says, "It could be a man instead. Their chief could be a man, and the man prefers to ride down on a clear night with the full moon."
"All the same, he might come tonight," Hocus says, "I suggest we hide with a view of the villa and wait to see if he does come."
"Put the alarm back on the box first," Scythe says, "Because if the kobolds come, we want to know about it, so we can intercept any letter form this D person. And we must also remove our own note from the box if, in the end, the kobolds don't come. We will have to take out our note and put back Galoopius's note."
"Which now has a few drops of water on it," Wicklow says.
"Never mind. He won't think too much about that. But if he finds our note in there, the game will be up."
Hocus re-builds his alarm system and they move off to hide in the bushes on the far side of the paddock. They have a good line of sight to the villa. But the villa is no more than a black shape in the rain-filled gloom. They wait for an hour or so. They are cold and wet. Hocus holds his alarm bridge in his hand so that the pebble will fall into his palm.
The pebble falls at around midnight.
"They're here," Hocus says. Only a couple of hundred meters away there are kobolds sneaking around in the dark, unseen.
"A rare position of advantage over a kobold scout," Scythe says, "to know he is there without him knowing you are there."
Shortly after, they hear a clunk from the gazebo. "The wool box," Wicklow says.
Three hours later, our heroes have heard nothing from the villa and no sign of the mysterious D. But they are even colder and more wet than before. They come out of the bushes and return to the gazebo. The box and the wool chest are empty. Hocus rebuilds the alarm. They walk home and go to sleep.
12 October, 2477
An hour after dawn, the pebble drops. Hocus sees the gardener walking away with the box through his scrying bridge. The gardener returns only two minutes later.
"I think Galoopius must be disappointed," Wicklow says.
Hocus sits on his bed. "If it's clear tonight, we will have to keep watch. In either case, we will have to go back and rebuild the alarm. So I'm going to go to sleep."
The rain clears during the day, but then starts up again at night. Our heroes once again make their journey in the rain and darkness. In the box under the gazebo, they find no note, and Hocus sets the alarm. After that, they find the tree where they put their original scrying bride, and Hocus takes it off and tunes it to a diameter of three centimeters and then puts it back up on the tree. They take a piece of bark from the tree, and head home.
Back in the cottage, they dry off in front of the fire. Hocus sets up the new enlarged scrying bridge in fronto of a piece of blank white paper. He unscrews the objective lense from his telescope and attaches it to the bridge ring. By adusting the paper, he trusts that he will be able to focus an image of Panorama Villa, which will greatly facilitate spying during the day, and also on a clear moonlit night. When they are not using the projector, they take the lens off the bridge, and put the bridge on the piece of bark they took from the tree, so that anyone looking up at the tree will not see a strange black circle on the trunk, but instead another piece of bark. It is true that close inspection will reveal the bridge, but our heroes doubt that anyone will have cause to inspect closely, and in this they turn out to be correct for the next week.
From 13th to the 16th October, it rains almost continuously. Our heroes watch their projector when they feel like it, go hunting sometimes, and study star charts to get a better grasp of celestial navigation. They enjoy some good meals in the restaurant of the Inn. They have concluded that when D shows up and meets with Galoopius, their interception of messages will become obvious. They are thankful, therefore, of this rain. It might delay D until the next message exchange on the 18th, and if so, they might get one more message from Galoopius, and perhaps a message from D, which would be a great thrill. Scythe believes he will be able to tell a lot about D from D's handwriting.
On the 17th October, it is clear. The sun shines in the sharp, clear Autumn sky. The leaves are turning in the mountains, and there is a crips hint of winter in the air in the morning. Night-time finds our heroes hiding in the trees beside Panorama's paddock, wondering if D is going to visit Galoopius. But nothing happens. They see no sign of Galoopius watching out for D, or of D himself.
18th October, 2477
Tonight is the night of the gibbous moon. It is a clear day, and gives every indication of remaining clear through the night. The sun sets in a clear evening sky. The pebble drops soon after sun-down. Our heroes open the message box two hours befor midnight and take out the following note from Galoopius.
D, You are away, of course. I shall look for you at midnight on every clear night. I have a new chronometer to wake me. It will be no inconvenience, and I know your habit of punctuality. I will set something special ready for you. GM
After some debate, they decide not to put this message back in the box. They are still hoping to find out where the stolen antiquities are hidden, by reading messages between the mysterious D and Galoopius. But if D and Galoopius get together, they are likely to find out that someone has been opening their letter box, and they will be more careful in future. Hocus rebuilds the alarm and they watch the villa in the light of the gibbous moon from the bushes across the paddock. Will D show up? Midnight passes with no sign of him.
There is no sign of D on the 19th October either. But the pebble drops forty minutes after midnight. The near-gibbous moon has risen, and shines upon the lawn and the gazebo. The wool chest closes with a thunk, but our heroes see no sign of the kobolds they know must be there. Scythe sneaks over to the gazebo and fetches the box. They open it in the privacy of the forest and take out a single folded piece of paper sealed with black wax. The seal is almost perfectly circular. There are no stray drops of wax around it, nor any sign of trimming with a knife. The impression on the seal is intricate and well-formed. The center is a tree, with branches dividing and dividing as they ascend, and ending in single leaves. Around the edge of the seal are the spread wings of a dragon-like beast. Scyth is impressed with the skill with which the seal was imprinted.
"The detail is so clear," Scythe says, "the writer must have heated his metal seal before he imprinted the wax, or else the wax would not run so easily into the deeper, narrow grooves."
"That's great," Hocus says, "Now, what does the letter say."
Scythe pries open the letter gently. He feels the paper between his fingers. It is thick, and of good quality, but not exceptionally smooth. He unfolds the paper slowly. His heart is beating fast. He reads the following message, in Latin. The hand-writing is large, bold, and in blue ink. Although the letters are not elaborate, they are perfectly rendered, with the pen turned at the end of every line so that the line ends in a sharp point. There are no ink splotches, no lines with heavy drops of ink within them. The letters are evenly spaced, and follow parallel lines without any sign of a ruler or mark being used to guide the hand of the writer.
GM, I was grieved to miss our usual appointment, and now I am called away on business. As to your request, I see no reason to hurry. I will make every effort to keep our next appointment. Even if I have to walk, I shall do so, that I may taste again some of that excellent port of yours. D
Scythe copies down the content of the note onto another sheet of paper, and writes some further comments about the handwriting, ink, and paper. He sketches the seal as well.
"I think we should put it back," Hocus says, "The note does not contradict our forgery. There is no reason for Galoopius to be suspicious when he receives the note. In fact, he will be less anxious when he gets it, because he will trust that his communication is working."
After examining the letter for an hour, Scythe says he could not forge the handwriting. It is too perfectly written. The letter attracts the eye with its perfection. It is one thing to copy the imprefections in a hand, and another to avoid any imperfections. "I would be unable to do a convincing job. Even the wax seal is too perfect for me to copy. I could not get a good enough clay model. It would have to be a metal one, which I could heat. And then a mistake in dripping the wax would jeapordize the forgery."
So they put the letter back, set the alarm, and return to their cottage well satisfied with themselves. This time they don't bother going to sleep, but wait for the pebble to drop, and observe the gardener going to the house with the box, and returning a few minutes later. Their new projector works well in the second bedroom of their two-bedroom cottage. The windows are covered with sheets, and our heroes can enjoy looking at a full-color upside-down image of the panorama villa, sharp and bright with the help of Hocus's objective lense.
20th October, 2477
Hocus, Wicklow, and Scythe declare to the Inn owners that they are going hunting, and this they do, with their armor on. They walk along the contour of the hills above Benwakili village, looking for kobold tracks. They find the tracks they are looking for along the path of a stream with sandy banks that cuts a swath through the trees. They follow the trail up and away from Benwakili, along a ridge, down a defile, up the path of another stream, and then along a gully to the top of a hill. They are ten kilometers from the Panorama Villa. They see no sign of habitation around them, and they know from their maps that they are on ground belonging to the Crown of Gowachin.
"If we head back now, we could make an effort to hunt. We have our permits for Crown territory. We would be back by sun-down," Wicklow says.
"Or we could continue up into the mountains and find the kobolds," Hocus says.
It is an interesting choice. They sit down and have some sandwiches packed for them by the Inn.
Our heroes are enjoying their day out, and are not inclined to head back home. Perhaps, if they push on for a few more kilometers, they will find the kobold encampment they believe must be somewhere ahead of them.
"If we assume that they can get to Galoopius's place and back again in a night," Hocus says, "then it can't be much farther.
"What if they attack us in a group?" Wicklow says.
"We have armor on," Scythe says, "We'll be able to run away. They won't close on us. They're only little, you know."
And so they follow the kobold tracks down to a stream, and up the banks of this stream to the top of a pass. Despite the cool Autumn weather, Hocus is getting hot in his leather armor, but he bears his discomfort without complaint. Wicklow and Scythe, despite their heavier armor, are more comfortable. The metal links of their ring mail shirts and leggings conduct the heat of their bodies quite well, and allow a breeze to blow through to the silk shirts they wear beneath.
"You might consider getting a light suit of ring mail," Scythe says to Hocus, "So you can be cool like us."
Hocus shakes his head, "I'm not sure I want to be cool like you. I think I'd rather be hot and sweaty like me."
The stream emerges from between two forested shoulders of the mountain on the north side of the pass. On the south side, another magestic mountain rises up to barren heights. These are two of the higher peaks of the Northern Trukulant Mountains. Their summits are at about two thousand meters above the level of the Satian Sea. The trail besdie the stream has become a well-used kobold walking path, with some signs of use by sapiens as well. This path now crosses the stream and continues over the pass, presumably to descend into Belgoria.
Hocus hears a distant clanging from the forest on the north side of the pass.
"It sounded like a blacksmith," he says.
Soon after, his companions hear it too. Hocus sends up a space bridge suspended by a conjured rupper balloon and looks through eagerly, with Scythe and Wicklow jostling for a turn beside him. Behind the shoulders of the mountain is a secluded valley, protected on all sides by dense forest, and watered by several springs that gather together to form the stream up which our heroes have been hiking these past two hours. There are two or three dozen little circular houses with thatched rooves and wooden post walls. The doors are made of wood, too, and most of them stand open. Tiny little green naked humanoids play in the streams, and frolic between the small and well-tended fields. Larger, but still only a meter tall, adult kobolds wearing jerkins and breeches, walk between the houses, tend the fields, chop wood, and carry water to their houses. It is an idillic and rather rustic scene, in Wicklows eyes, populated by strange scaley creatures, perhaps two hundred of them in all.
"What's that larger building?" Wicklow says, "It's much larger than the rest. The door looks to be about three meters high, the walls are square, and it has a nice front porch. I'd guess two or three rooms inside. Not palacial, but spacious for a kobold."
"I can't see why a kobold would have such a big door," Scythe says, during his brief twenty-second look through the bridge before Hocus takes it back.
"Beside the chief's house is a wooden platform with no railing around it, with a ramp leading to the uphill side, and a drop-off of about three meters on the downhill side," Hocus says, "What on earth is that for?"
The bridge is floating up more quickly now, as it gathers momentum, and Hocus is straining to make out the details of the village, even though the bridge is directly above. He is already feeling queezy from the swaying of the bridge beneath its balloon.
"It's a state for the weekly play they put on for the chief," Wicklow says.
"There's the blacksmith clanging away."
A few seconds later, Wicklow and Scythe hear the distant clanging of a hammer on metal.
Hocus passes the bridge to Scythe, who watches the world below get smaller and smaller, the mountains shrinking and swaying, until, at a height of about ten thousand meters, the bridge begins to fall again, spinning. "Why does that happen?"
"I don't know," Hocus says, "I'll have to think about it. But it always does happen, which is a pity, because otherwise the bridge would keep going up into space, and we could see the sphere of the earth in the blackness. Or so they say."
"That would be cool," Wicklow says.
"Yes, cool like me."
Hocus walks down to the stream and washes his face and hair of sweat. He looks up with water dripping from eyebrows. "The platform is too high for a stage."
"And the house is too big for a kobold," Scythe says, "Too big perhaps even for a man."
"What's bigger than a man?" Hocus says.
"An ogre?" Scythe says.
"A black orc," Wicklow says.
They look at one another. Wicklow laughs. "D is a black orc."
In case you, dear reader, don't know what a black orc is, we invite you to read the following essays, all of which are part of the Varay Army's mandatory course on Hellspawn, and therefore familiar to our three heroes.
"It all makes sense now," Wicklow says, "The handwriting, the perfect seal, the confidence Galoopius had in him."
"The dragon-like creature on the seal," Scythe says, "It's a wyvern. He flies to see Galoopius, that's why he could not come at night. We nearly guessed before, but we thought only of hippogriffs."
"The stage is a launching platform for him and his wyvern," Hocus says.
Scythe sits down on the bank. Hocus and Wicklow put their hands in their pockets and look across the pass to the mountain that hides the kobold settlement. A black orc on a wyvern could be a formidable opponent, an invincible opponent. Scythe picks up pieces of gravel from the bank and throws them into the water. Now that he speaks Latin, if he were to meet a black orc, he could converse with the creature. That would be something to tell one's grandchildren about.
"I think the antiquities are with D," Wicklow says.
"Yes," Hocus says, "They are probably in the kobold village, hidden in the house, or in a cellar, or somewhere in the forest."
Scythe nods his head, and then says over his shoulder, "Galoopius and D are friends."
Wicklow looks up at the sky, "Looks like rain."
Our heroes debate whether or not they should camp out in the forest and try to enter the settlement at night, but they conclude that this plan is absurd given that the village is populated by creatures who can see in the dark, and are usually awake and out at night. They might as well enter in broad daylight. If they did that, they might find themselves fired upon by one hundred kobold archers at once. They might survive a volley, but they would have to run for their lives afterwards.
"Let's go home," Scythe says, and they start their long hike back. They follow the kobold trail back they way they came. it starts to rain, a cold Autumn mountain-rain, with gusting winds and the occasional flying leaf. But our heroes are excited, talking as they go, and seem hardly to notice the water dripping from their noses, and the cling of cold wet fabric on their legs.
The sun rises over the crumbling red hills to the south of Tak the kobold. He stands upon the bank of the river behind the complex of dormatories and gymnasiums that he calls home. It is a large, orange sun, and slow-moving. It has no white face to keep it company, and Tak imagines that it must be lonely, and for that reason moves slowly, so that the days are long, and the nights even longer.
Tak raises one hand to shield his eyes from the sun, and watches the line of hills shining in the morning light. This movement completed, he stands absolutely still, like a statue, his shadow cast out long and dark behind him. Water drips from his green, scaley skin. He is naked, for he has just bathed in the river.
Half an hour passes, with Tak in the same position, warming slowly in the rising sun, when he hears soft, steady footsteps approaching down the grassy path that leads to the river. He does not turn around, or feel any apprehension, because he knows those footsteps well, and he has no fear of their maker. The footsteps stop immediately behind him, and then there is silence, or nearly silence. The woman standing behind him cannot keep still, and shifts from one foot to another every twenty seconds. Her breathing is soft, but Tak can hear it clearly, and he can smell her breath, a strange, sweet smell that he has grown used to over the years, and come to like.
"You know I'm here, don't you," she says.
Tak turns around and looks up at the woman. She is almost twice as tall as he. She wears thin silk clothes that hide, and yet do not hide, the curves of her graceful body. Where her skin is visible, it is alabaster and featureless, like paper, except around her eyes and mouth, where there are subtle lines that betray the frequency of her smile. Upon her head, which is bald, she wears a small, red cap. Her pointed ears rise up and outside the rim of the hat, as if she wants to draw attention to them. She is smiling down at him, her arms crossed in front of her.
"Yes," Tak says, his voice the same pitch as the woman's, "But you are learning well, mistress, and one day I will not hear you."
She laughs. "Thank you, Tak, you are a gentleman."
Tak looks up at her without expression. She steps forward to stand beside him and admire the view of the hills, and he turns with her.
"You have been summoned to Clarus," she says, "Are you prepared?"
Tak bares his teeth in a smile. "Yes, madame, we are ready. We have been standing still for too long. Where are we to go?"
"To the Trukulent Mountains. You have been there before, I believe."
"Yes, Madam Kalawennin, I have. What is the mission?"
"Three adventurers wish you to spy upon other kobolds. There is a kobold settlement in the mountains. They understand that you will not kill kobolds for them."
"And the adventureres, do they intend to kill?"
"No, they do not. I believe they will kill if attacked. I liked them, and I think you will like them too. They have not used us before, but they seem to understand the nature of our soldiers. I have been looking for such people for you for some time, since your dear patrons disappeared. If these men kill any kobolds, or you are uncomfortable with them, you can come home. We will withdraw our charges from their account."
Tak nods. "We go."
The woman puts her hand on his shoulder, "Good, you have one hour to gather your people and your equipment. You will depart from Portal Six. Here is an hour-piece." She hands him a metal disk with a dial upon it. Tak knows that when the dial returns to its starting position, one hour will have elapsed. That is when he and his five companions must be at Portal Six for the summoning.
"Yes madame, we will be there."
She lifts her hand from his shoulder, and the little naked creature runs up the grassy path and over the lip of the bank. She turns and looks at the river, and then at her watch. After a quick glance back up the path, she takes off her shirt and trousers, and dives into the cool, clear water.
Back on Clarus, in the Trukulent Mountains, the sky is cloudy, with a chill wind in the air. Our heroes ascend once more into the mountains, and hike up the mountain on the north side of the kobold settlement. From the summit, they look down into the pass, but the contours of the southern slopes, and the tall trees nestling in the mountain's southern valleys, obscure their view of the kobold settlment's fields, houses, and inhabitants.
Our heroes are resolved to summon kobolds to search the settlement. They descend the mountain. They have estimated their position in Claran longitude and latitude by adding their day's hike to the position of the Inn, which they know from the maps they bought the week before. They hide in the woods on the north side of the mountain, and Hocus requests kobolds from the Three Aces summoning agency. They accept his estimate of position, and quickly grant permission. After some discussion with the Three Aces representative, our heroes choose a team of six kobolds, led by one of their best scouts, the twenty-eight year old Tak.
An hour later, about an hour before sunset, Hocus places his summoning bridge on its copper expansion holder, the bridge expands to a diameter of about seventy centimeters, and a small scaley creature steps through, wearing a leather jerkin and leather breeches. Upon his back is a canvass pack. From his posterior sprouts a tapering, tail just under a meter long. The tail is naked, showing its scaley skin, except for the tip, which is protected by a leather cap. On his belt is a truncheon, and in his hands he carries his un-strung bow and a quiver of arrows with black feathers. His feet are bare, showing their clawed toes and thick scales. He stops in front of the bridge for a moment and looks around at the adventurers, the trees, the sky and the mountains. He sniffs the air and bares his teeth for a moment before stepping aside and allowing five other kobolds to step through, each equipped in exactly the same fasion.
When they are through, three small sacks fly through the bridge and land on the ground, to be picked up immediately by three of the kobolds. The bridge begins to shrink, and then collapses to its customary fifteen-milimeter diameter. Hocus squeezes it back into its bridge ring with his bridge-handling glove and puts it away in its pouch. He folds up the bridge holder and returns it to his back pack.
"Welcome," Wicklow says to the first kobold. He speaks in Latin.
"I am Tak," the kobold says, "This is Pod, Bin, Lad, Bum, and Nib." Each of the kobolds nods his or her head in turn. The adventurers know that three of the others are women, but they cannot yet tell which these are.
"What is our mission?" Tak says.
"There is a kobold settlement on the other side of this mountain," Wicklow says, "We have reason to believe that there are certain items hidden in the village that we want to find."
Tak considers this statement for a minute. "What is hidden there?"
"Antiquities, old statues and clay tablets and vases. They come from Belgoria on the other side of the mountains, and the Belgorians forbid them to be here. We are trying to get them back."
"I do not understand."
"Wicklow," Scythe says in Varayan, "I think you should keep it simple. Don't give him the big picture."
Wicklow frowns. Surely the kobold would appreciate being told the big picture, and he seems to speak good Latin.
"We want you to search the kobold settlement," Hocus says, "If you find a locked place, or if you find wooden boxes nailed shut, come back and tell us about it."
"How big are the boxes?" Tak says.
"They are big enough for one or two kobolds to fit inside."
Tak nods. "How many kobolds live in the settlement?"
"Two hundred or so," Wicklow says.
"Do they know we are here?"
"No, but they saw us outside their village yesterday. They may be watching for people coming in at night, and during the day."
Tak nods and sits down on the ground. His followers sit down also, not in a group, but separately around the clearing the adventurers chose for the summoning. Tak asks them more questions, and our heroes try to answer each clearly.
"Can you do it?" Wicklow says.
"Yes," Tak says, "we will search the settlement. It will take five days."
"Five days?" Wicklow says.
"To go into the village and come out again?"
Tak is silent.
"It will take five days to go in and come out again?"
"I do not understand you," Tak says.
"He's not just going in and coming out again," Scythe says in Varayan, "he's creeping in slowly, searching the place thoroughly, and then creeping out again, without being seen. Just keep it simple, don't suggest that what he is saying is unreasonable, he does not understand what you are talking about."
"Okay," Wicklow says, "Five days. Will all of you be gone for five days?"
"No. One of us will meet you twice a day, and once at night, to tell you what has happened, and to ask you questions, and listen to your orders. You can wait here. If you move, you must leave a sign for us."
Here our heroes have something clear and self-contained to discuss with the kobolds: how to leave a sign saying where they have gone, and the kobolds have a number of solutions that use sticks, stones, and marks on trees, to indicate how far, and in what direction, and at what time according to the moon. Sycthe writes down the signs. Tak shows them personally, and once or twice one of the other kobolds steps forward with a stick or a hand-full of small round stones.
The sun goes down, and darkness descends upon the forest. The kobolds and the adventurers sit in the darkness. They light no fire, nor do they take out any magical light. "The kobolds of the village may have scouts of their own. We do not want to attraact them," Wicklow says.
Now that it is dark, our heroes cannot see the kobolds at all, nor can they hear them moving. They can hear one another shifting about on the ground, coughing every now an then, or breathing deeply, but no such sound comes from the kobolds. All they hear from the kobolds is the sound of Tak's voice, which is quick and clear, but alien. They describe the mountain, the location of the settlement, the river, the pass, the kobold houses, the big house of the black orc, and tell Tak that the black orc should not be back for another week or more.
"We can go now, is that your wish?" Tak says.
Our heroes discuss among themselves, and then Scythe says, "Yes, Tak, you may begin now. We will be here tonight."
"Good, one of us will be here when the sun rises. Farewell."
The adventurers sit in silence for a minute, listening, but they hear nothing.
"Tak? Are you there?" Wicklow says.
"Any of you there at all?" Hocus says.
"Spooky," Hocus says.
"I'm cold," Scythe says.
"Me too," Wicklow says.
"I'm nice and warm in my leather armor," Hocus says, "I think I'll lie down and get some sleep."
"Oh, come on Mr. Wizard, can't you conjure up something nice and warm and comfortable for us to sleep in? Don't hold out on us now, we know you have it in you."
"Hm..." Hocus lies down and looks up at the stars. He has not prepared the conjured wood spell he would need to make a shelter. It will take an hour to prepare it for casting, and it's already dark, and he's already tired, and his leather armor is very comfortable to sleep in. He has never appreciated it so much before. On the other hand, falling asleep on the ground is always a deceptively tempting thing to do. You wake up two hours later with cramps, and shivering with cold.
"I see a nice hot cup of tea in your future," Wicklow says.
"All right, I'll do it," Hocus says. He sits up and starts to rummage around in his backpack for his his rune cards, his incense, and his luminous stone.
Wicklow is boiling some water on a wood fire when Scythe and Hocus wake up. The sun is rising over the mountains. Hocus's shelter made of conjured wood is invisible, so the two sleepers can see all around them.
"Good morning my friends," Wicklow says, "I hope you are looking forward to a long day's hunting."
It is our heroes' plan to hunt all day, and sing camp fire songs at night, to give the impression that they are out in the woods doing just that: hunting and ccamping.
Scythe emerges from the shelter with his toothbrush in his hand, and a towel over his arm. "Any sign of the kobolds?"
"Over there," Wicklow says, "Under the Rowan tree."
"Which one is the Rowan tree?" Hocus says.
"The one with the kobold under it," Wicklow says.
Beneath a slender tree laden with bunches of hard, red berries, there is a cluster of anonymous green weeds, and crouching in the middle of the cluster is a kobold, absolutely still, watching the fire.
"This is Bum, she is a woman," Wicklow says.
"Good morning, Bum," Hocus says in Latin.
Bum looks away from the fire at Hocus and bares her teeth for a moment. "Good morning Mr. Hocus."
Hocus finds himself rather pleased that the kobold knows his name. He smiles at her. She looks back at the fire. Hocus walks down to the nearby stream, followed by Scythe. Wicklow tends the fire. He watches the kobold's earnest little face. Delicate and sharp it seems, with fine scales and white teeth just visible between her lips. Her skin is composed of shiny, overlapping scales like those of a snake. The give the impression of being both soft and tough. For the most part, her skin is dark green, although it is darker on her legs, and almost brown by her clawed feet. On her face, however, there are two flashes of red at outer edges of her eyes, and flashes of yellow along the edges of her ears. These flashes, and her eyes with their slitted pupils, her nostrils and protruding jaws, are symmetric and simply outlined, so that Wicklow finds himself staring at her features and thinking how he would like to stroke her head, as he might the head of a dog, or pet a cat with its soft fur and warm body.
Wicklow smiles and shakes his head. That would probably not go down very well at all. On the other hand, you never know.
It is evening, and our heroes are tired and hungry. They arrive at their campsite and find everything as it was. There are no signs of kobolds from the village searching the area. Wicklow lays a rabbit and a pheasant on the ground beside the fire pit. He still has sap on his hands from climbing up a pine tree to retrieve the pheasant, where he skewered it against the trunk with his arrow. Hocus has a rabbit too, with a slit throat, caught by an Enveloping Sponge spell while it was hiding in a bush. Scythe did not catch anything, but he is happy. It was a good day in the woods, and he is glad to see Hocus so pleased with his rabbit. And anyway, he spent most of his time looking for kobold tracks, and finding many of them. They completed a circuit of the mountain and the village. Scythe is certain that the kobolds hunt at night, by lying in wait besides streams and watering holes for deer. The kobolds do not appear to hunt for other quarry outside their village.
As the sun goes down, our heroes settle down to a meal of roast rabbit and pheasant. There is far more than they can eat.
"We could feed three families of four on what we caught today," Scythe says.
They are all full and feeling pleased with themselves, and sitting comfortably by a warm, healthy fire, when they see a kobold step out of the forest ten paces from the fire. She stops at the edge of the light and stands still. "We are moving forward. All is well," she says.
"Is that you, Bum?" Hocus says.
"I am Bum."
"Come and sit by the fire," Scythe says, "It's cold out, and we have some fresh roasted rabbit you can try."
Bum comes two steps closer and crouches down. She hugs her knees, staring wide-eyed at the fire. Scythe takes a shoulder of rabbit meat and warms it up on the fire. He takes his time, making sure that the fat starts to run freely out of the roasted flesh. He puts the meat on his plate and sets it down in front of her. She looks down at it and picks up the bone. At first she bites hesitantly, but then begins to tear at the meat like an animal, although while she does so, she remains balanced perfectly on her clawed feet, with her knees together in front of her, and her tail curved upon itself behind her.
When she has finished, she puts the bone on the plate and licks her fingers carefully for about five minutes. Then she looks up at them and says, "I like it very much. Thank you."
"Would you like some more?" Wicklow says.
"No, I will not eat any more."
"Something to drink?"
"No, I must go back. Do you have a message for Tak?"
"Goodbye," she says, and backs away into the darkness.
Our heroes look into the forest after her, listening for some sound of her movement.
"She's cute," Wicklow says.
Scythe smiles. "Yes, she's like a talking pet, or the pet you always wished you had, but could never get."
"We think of her as if she was a child, because she is small," Hocus says.
"I'm glad we summoned them," Scythe says, "It's worth it just to meet them."
At dawn on 23rd October, 2477, another of the kobolds, the woman called Nib, visits them, and she asks for roasted rabbit, which they give to her gladly. She eats it all, liking her claws afterwards until they are clean.
"Thank you," she says, with a slight bow of her head. She stands up, adjust her knife belt and quiver, and straightens her back. "Sergeant Tak is at the edge of the village. Lad and Bin also." Her Latin is high-pitched and her intonation is flat, like that of the speaking homunculi Hocus encountered at school. Her tail sticks out almost straight behind her. "They go into the village tonight for the searching of it."
"Good," Wicklow says. "Thank you Nib."
"Last night the men of the village catch a deer and bring it back," she says. "Today they cook it for a feast that is for tonight. It is a time that is good for move closer."
Before they leave for the day's hunting, our heroes sweep the ground in their camp to make sure any kobolds entering and searching it will leave prints for Scythe to discover. They put their left-over meat in a bag up in a tree, away from bears. It is raining today, and cold, so our heroes try to keep moving all day, instead of waiting for their quarry to pass them by. They have little hope of catching a deer.
Evening finds our heroes drying themselves off in their conjured shelter, which is enduring well, as Hocus assured them it would. They are very pleased with the invisible enclosure. Scythe shot a pheasant and a rabbit, and Hocus brought home a pheasant and a squirrel. So far as they can tell, no kobolds have intruded upon their camp during the day, but nor do they expect kobolds to leave the village during daylight.
Scythe starts a fire in the drizzle without too much trouble, because they put aside plenty of dry wood in their shelter, and an hour later our heroes are sitting in their shelter eating roast pheasant. They plan to cook the rabbit and squirrel in the embers of their fire over night.
A male kobold, named Pod, arrives at dusk. He accepts some roast pheasant and eats it eagerly. He also licks his fingers for several minutes afterwards. He tells them all goes well. Their scouts are in the village. The villagers are excited about the deer, and will eat it after sun-down.
In the morning of 24th October, a kobold is waiting under the Rowan tree when Scythe steps out of the shelter with some wood to start a fire. It looks like it is going to be a fine day, but it was a cold night. Even in the shelter, with the three of them lying near one another, insulated from the ground, it was chilly. He can see his breath in the cold morning air.
Scythe looks at the kobold for a few seconds. The kobold looks back at him and bares her teeth. Surely this is Bum?
"Good morning, Bum," Scythe says.
"Good morning, Mr. Scythe."
Scythe puts the wood down in the fire pit and begins to arrange it for kindling. Bum comes closer and watches him. She is only a few feet away. He looks up at her frequently. He has never been so close to a kobold before, in broad daylight. She watches his hands, and the wood, and his box of matches, and does not appear to notice him looking at her, taking in her reptilian nostrils, her unblemished scales, and her fine clawed hands.
He takes out a match. Bum's eyes are upon it, but Scythe does not strike it. Instead he addresses her. "Bum, how do you know it's me instead of Wicklow or Hocus. Don't we look the same to you?"
She looks up at him. Her eyes are like those of a cat, with slits instead of circles. Her irises are green and yellow, with streaks of orange radiating from her pupil, which is a narrow slit in the morning light. She bares her teeth.
"No, you do not look the same. You have different shapes, and movements. You are always moving, and when you move you tell us who you are."
Scythe nods. He strikes his match. Bum jumps backwards two meters in a single bound, her eyes wide and her hands shaking.
"Don't worry, Bum, it won't hurt you, it's just a match." Scythe sets fire to the strips of birch bark he has collected beneath his pile of twigs. But Bum backs away, still watching the fire, to her usual position beneath the Rowan tree. She is happy enough ten minutes later when Hocus brings her a haunch of baked rabbit.
After a clear morning, clouds drift up from the plains, but there is no rain. Our heroes hope for a deer, but in the evening they return to camp empty-handed. Hocus was hoping to find some potatoes or wild onions, but all he brings in are a few mushrooms and some rosamary.
"Our families would go hungry today," Scythe says.
In the camp, they see that a bear has dug up their dutch oven, the hole in the ground in which they cooked their rabbit and squirrel. But the meat was safe in a tree, and the bear did not enter their shelter.
At sun-down, Nib arrives and asks for some rabbit. They give her some of their supply. Tak has found a strong door in a rock face north of the village. Should he try to enter the door? Our heroes say, "Yes." Later, they check the trap bridge on the chest at Panorama. They find it intact, and Hocus tunes it. Tomorrow night is the night of the new moon, so they are expecting a shipment of wool to be picked up at Panorama, and perhaps a message left.
Hunting today is only marginally more successful than the day before: Hocus finds some onions. In the evening, they light a big fire and warm up their cold rabbit and squirrel. They take out some flour and make bread, and they roast their onions. They eat well enough, and when Bum shows up, they give her bread, meat, and onions on a plate. She eats all of it, and bares her teeth between mouthfuls.
"So," Scythe says, when she is done, "What news from Tak?"
"He says good lock, cannot open it. Lock and door come from Dwarves."
Our heroes discuss this revelation at length, with Bum watching them and the fire. They talk in Latin so she can at least try to follow their conversation. They notice, after ten minutes, that she has taken two steps closer to the fire, so that the glow of it reflects from her skin, and they can see her clearly.
In the end, our heroes tell Bum to instruct Tak to continue as he sees fit, and "good luck" as well.
Hocus checks the Panorama alarm bridge: it is broken. Galoopius must have placed a message in the box.
In the morning of 26th October, they make pancakes with syrup. They are short of rations, and determined to come back to camp with more meat today, so they can stuff themselves, and have plenty to give to their evening kobold visitor. The sky is clear, and the weather almost warm. Scythe finds the tracks of the kobold hunting party that caught a deer two nights before, but he catches nothing. Wicklow injures a pheasant, and chases it through the forest until it expires. He shoots a second pheasant, and a squirrel as well. Hocus finds nothing substantial in his foraging, although he does bring home a collection of herbs.
To their satisfaction, Bum visits them again that evening, and they are able to give her a big pheasant drum-stick. She tells them that two kobolds came up the path last night, each carrying a load on their backs, and entered the village. Neither she nor any other of Tak's team saw any kobolds continuing on the path.
Our heroes give Tak permission to withdraw from the village. They feel that they now know where the antiquities are: in a cave blocked by a dwarf door with a dwarf lock. They try to figure out a way to get into the door, by magic, by stealth, by brute force.
Bum leaves, and our heroes continue talking late into the night by their fire. In the end, they decide that they do not want to get into a fight with the village kobolds. But there is no way they can get in without being seen, even with the help of Tak and his crew and Hocus's magic. They do not want to damage the door, or destroy any of D's property, or injure any of his people. But they conclude that it will be sufficient, when negotiating with Galoopius, to convince him that they believe the antiquities are in the cave in the kobold village, and that they are unshakeable in their belief.
Tak shows up at their camp at dawn on 27th October. He sits right next to the fire and warms his hands. Our heroes make him a big pot of meat and onion stew with bread, which he eats with concentration and obvious satisfaction. At the end, he nods at them and says, "You make good food. Thank you."
Our heroes smile at him.
Tak describes his five days entering the kobold village. The village kobolds place sentries in trees and bushes all around their village, all the time, but they do not use the same places to watch from. Instead, kobolds come out for six-hour watches that overlap, and each pick a place somewhere along the stretch that they are supposed to watch. One kobold will come out and hide him or herself, and the other will soon after emerge from hiding and return to the village. There are about twenty or thirty kobolds keeping watch on the borders of the village at any one time, and their watch is constant and diligent. Tak and his comrades entered by figuring out where the sentries were, then moving along lines that they could not see, at night, and then hiding themselves, waiting for the next sentry to arrive, and so on, until they penetrated the ring, whereupon they had relative freedom to explore the village, by hiding under houses or among the rocks beneath the trees at the edges of the village.
Our heroes leave Tak with a communication bridge, tell him to watch the kobold village from afar, and hunt for food. Tak seems happy to do so. Hocus says that they can use the conjured shelter while it lasts.
With this bridge to Tak, we note that Hocus now maintains seven bridges: communication bridge to Tak, communication bridge to Heraklese, alarm bridge in the Gazebo at Panorama, observation bridge on a tree outside Panorama, and three bridges to make a three-way walkie talkie for he and his comrades. He uses a second-level tuning spell to give him a month between tuning, so he ends up casting a couple of tuning spells a week. If our heroes had to hire wizard to do this for them, it would cost around $3000 a week.
Our heroes return to the Powachella Mill Hotel, arriving there in the evening of 27th October. They enjoy hot baths and a fine meal. They have come to enjoy the chef's cooking. She is renowned in the area, and the restaurant is always busy. Because our heroes tip well, and are pleasant customers, they never have trouble getting a table. Even if there are no tables available, their favorite waiter, Theadore, will bring them their supper on a cart to their room. Such is the case tonight, because our heroes arrive late, and the restaurant is full of laughing, white-haired geriatrics who have chosen it as the sight of some sort of gathering. But Theadore is not there. He is on vacation.
The next morning it pours with rain, but our heroes are happily engaged in sitting in front of their fire and drinking hot chocolate. In the evening, the rain stops, and after dark our heroes set off to Panorama to rebuild the magical alarm in anticipation of the gibbous moon on the 1st November. This they do without incident, creeping along the road through Benwakili village at midnight.
On 1st November, the trap bridge goes off, and our heroes are notified immediately by the stone falling in the bottle. Through the spying bridge, they see the gardener retreating from the gazebo towards the house with the chest. It is late afternoon. It's a clear day, promising a clear night with the moon rising at midnight.
Two hours before midnight, and our heroes have taken a note from the box and they are examining it in the forest. It is from Galoopius to D.
Dear D, I eagerly await your visit. The three have been away from their hotel, allegedly hunting. They are up in the mountains. Yours, GM
They keep the note, put the box back in place, rebuild the alarm, and retreat to the woods beyond the paddock. At midnight, the alarm goes off. An hour later our heroes go back to the gazebo. The wool in the bench chest is gone. There is no note in the box.
It is rainy and windy and cold on the 2nd November, with low clouds skmming the hill-tops, blowing from the north-west. Our heroes are tired from being out all night. They lie in bed and rest as best they can. The alarm bridge goes off in the morning. Galoopius' gardener is walking back to the house. But our heroes know that Galoopius will not find anything in the chest.
That evening, they find that Theadore, their favorite waiter, has returned from two days with his family in the city. He tells them he loves the city. He asks them how their hunting trip went in the hills. Our heroes say it went well, and discuss their exploits. Theadore asks three times where exactly they camped. The third time, Scythe looks him straight in the eye, and he stares back. Theadore is sweating. It's not even warm in the restaurant. Theadore says nothing for a few seconds, and laughs. "I would like to take my sister hunting, but I want to take her to a safe place."
"You could do better than taking her that far up into the mountains," Scythe says.
"Yes, yes,"Theadore says, "Okay, so you all want the salmon pate with toast to start with>?"
Scythe nods and smiles. Theadore retreats to the kitchen.
"He's spying for someone," Scythe says, and he should know: he was trained as a spy himself.
Our heroes spend their next three days at the Hotel. Hocus receives instruction in sword-fighting, and gives instruction in avoiding the effects of various spells. He teaches Latin, while Scythe teaches tracking in the hotel grounds. They do push-ups on the lawn and spar with sticks down by the stream. They are happy, as they were when they were boys, playing together in the woods and fields around their home town.
On the 5th November, they spend the afternoon making a contraption that will allow the three of them to listen through one space bridge all at the same time. The contraption consists of a wooden box in which they will place the bridge with sibilant membrane, and three tubes made out of spirit rubber. They make the spirit rubber tubes by encasing a broom handle in spirit rubber. They fasten the tubes to the box by adding a flange to the tubes on both sides of the wall. They are very pleased with the result, absurd though it appears. It works well. They anticipate listening in to GM's conversation with D on the night of the 8th, through one of the bridges that Scythe is going to plant in Panorama.
The sky is clear on the 7th November, and it's unusually warm for the time of year, which makes our heroes glad, because tough and stoic as they are, it still tires them out to be sitting in the forest being quiet when it's damp and cold and raining. They sneak up to the house, open the basement hopper window, and Scythe crawls in. He carries with him three communication bridges. He plants one in Galoopius's study, one in the living room, and one in the dining room. Hocus plants one outside, under the eaves above the patio. They are confident that the meeting will take place in one of these places. Scythe notices a decanter of port in Galoopius's study, so they expect it will be there, and he takes special care to place the bridge in a corner that will be out of sight but also receive reflected sound from the walls.
Scythe gets out of the basement without waking anyone in the house, nor, so far as he can tell, leaving any trace of his intrusion. His heart is beating fast when he stands beside his comrades on the grass, but he makes no comment, because the window up above, opening onto one of the bedrooms, is open, and they do not want to be heard. They return to their hotel. Tomorrow night, at midnight, they will be hiding in the bushes beside the paddock with a pair of binoculars. The full moon will be high in the sky. Will the weather be clear? They hope so.
The full moon is high in a clear October sky. Galoopius stares out of his living room window at a world bathed in dim, white light. The forest climbs away into the distance. Far beyond, half seen and half imagined, are the mountains. He puts his hands upon the window sill and leans against it. He takes a deep breath and closes his eyes. But he cannot keep them closed for long. He looks again at the sky.
There, high up, he sees it: the wyvern.
His heart is pounding as he walks to the front door. He opens it and stands at the top of the steps. In front of him is his gravel driveway. His large stone fountain is silent and still. He cannot see the wyvern, but he can hear the rushing of wind over its leathery wings. A moment later, and the beast appears over the trees. It rears in the air above the fountain. Upon its back is a rider.
The wyvern flaps its wings twice, descends, and lands with its claws gripping the lip of the fountain. The rider leaps from the saddle and lands with a sharp crunch on the gravel. Galoopius walks forward until he is standing as close as he dares. The wyvern's black, skaly skin glistens in the moonlight. Suddenly, its head swoops down on its long neck and it brings its nose right up to Galoopius's face. He is surprised and terrified, but he does not flinch. The wyvern gives him a short, sharp sniff. It's nostrils and mouth are dry. Its breath is acrid and spicy. Its teeth are as long as his fingers where they protrude from it's dragon-like jaws.
The creature lifts its head again, and Galoopius feels his body relax. He claps his hands together and laughs.
"What a beast!" he says aloud, "What a magnificent beast!".
The rider shouts a single word to the wyvern. It leaps into the air, beats its wings once, twice, faster and faster until each beat sends a blast of air sweeping across the driveway, throwing up gravel and forcing Galoopius to raise his hand to shield his eyes. The wyvern launches itself forward with a violent thrust of its wings, and surges out of sight over the roof of Galoopius's villa.
"Where does he go?" Galoopius says to his visitor. He is exhilerated: at last, the black orc has come. At last, he will find relief.
The visitor is a black shape standing upon the gravel, far too tall for a sapien, and too broad. His voice is deep and slow. "She circles, waiting for my call."
Galoopius nods and reaches out for the black orc's hand. The black orc reaches out in return, and his hand, when it clasps that of Galoopius, envelopes the sapiens' as if it were a child's.
"I am glad to see you, sir," Galoopius says, "Thank you for coming. I am a worrier, you know."
"I am glad to be here. I have been looking forward to enjoying your hospitality and good company."
Galoopius smiles broadly, releases his visitor's hand, and jestures towards the door, "Well then, please come in."
In Galoopius's study, the black orc and the sapien sit in leather armchairs on either side of a low table. Upon the table is a decanter of port, and Galoopius wastes no time in pouring two generous glasses. He passes one to his guest. "Your health, sir."
The black orc touches his glass to that of his host. "And yours." He sips the port, and closes his eyes as he swallows. "Ah, yes."
Galoopius puts his glass down and sits back in his chair. He is confident in the port, and smiles as he waits for his guest to deliver his opinion. The black orc takes another sip, holding the glass between his white, curving, upthrust tusks to place it against his black lips. His skin is all black, or so it seems in the dim light of the study. In daylight, Galoopius remembers that his skin was not quite black, but very dark gray instead. There is no hair upon the black orc's body, so far as Galoopius can see, not even eyebrows or eye lashes.
While his guests's eyes are closed, Galoopius allows himself to take a long look at the black orc's clothes, which he sees are new. He wears a red wool sweater that fits tighthly to his tremendously muscular chest and arms. Upon his legs are brown trousers made of oiled canvass. His boots Galoopius has seen before. They are black leather with soles made of deeply carved rubber. The laces in the boots, however, are new. They are the same color as the orc's sweater: red.
The black orc opens his eyes, and Galoopius smiles at him. The pupils that Galoopius looks into are slits, and the irises are blood-red. The black orc puts his glass on the table. "Delicious. Delicious. Thank you."
"Drink as much as you want," Galoopius says, "I have three bottles of it. We found them in the city when we went down last week. And I was able to obtain them at a very reasonable price."
The black orc smiles and nods. "I shall feel no guilt then, is that your purpose in mentioning the price you paid?"
"You are a most gracious man, Galoopius."
"Thank you, Dreadmanifold, it is my pleasure to relieve you of guilt."
Outside the house, hidden in the trees beside the paddock, three sapien adventurers crouch in the shadows, each holding a tube of sparkling gray rubber to their ears. One of them lets out a quiet gasp when Galoopius says Dreadmanifold's name.
"My collection," Galoopius says, "is it safe?"
"I checked upon it this morning, and it appears to be untouched."
"Good." Galoopius sips his drink. "I would very much like to see it. How would you feel about my making another visit?"
"Of course, you would be most welcome. But you must stay for a few nights with me this time, and perhaps you can prevail upon your wife to join us. I would like to get to know her better."
"Ah," Galoopius says, "Yes, well..."
The two sit quietly. Dreadmanifold lets out a low sigh. "What a comfortable chair this is."
"I'm glad you like it," Galoopius says, "So, how are your little people?"
"They are well, thank you."
"When I visited you, I had the impression that they worshiped you like a god."
Dreadmanifold chuckles. It is a pleasant, rumbling noise. "Yes, they do, and I would bless them for it if I could. They are loyal and hard-working, and certainly they are better off than they were, so they have every reason to be loyal. They remember living on the run, and hunger and cold, and their children dying."
"You must be proud of what you have done for them."
Dreadmanifold does not answer immediately. He drums his fingers on the arms of his chair. "Yes, of course I am proud. You know, it is the function of my species to care for such creatures as kobolds. For myself, I do not think I could feel whole without doing so."
Galoopius picks the bottle up from the table and pulls out the stopper. "I think you need a refill, my friend."
The admired fluid pours gently into Dreadmanifold's glass. Galoopius smiles at the sight of the crystal goblet dwarfed by the black-orc's clawed fingers. "Why don't you cut those claws? Surely they get in the way. How can you hold a pen?"
"Hmm..." Dreadmanifold says. Perhaps he is looking at his fingers. The listeners in the trees cannot see what is going on. "You're right, they do get in the way, but I manage. My woman likes them this way. I hesitate to deny her."
"And how is Stardiamond, if you don't mind me asking?"
"I certainly do not mind. In fact, you might have to restrain me if I begin to talk about her."
A few seconds go by in silence.
"So," Galoopius says, "I'm glad your kobolds are doing well. They did seem a happy bunch to me. I was a little shocked by their appearance, close up, you know, that first time I visited you. I am hoping that this time, the next time I come, I will be more relaxed, and perhaps I can converse with one of them. Would that meet with your approval?"
"Of course!" Dreadmanifold's voice booms loud and clear through the tubes the three men in the trees hold to their ears. "You must talk to them, they are fascinating to talk to. You know, I am sure, that children are fascinating to talk to, am I correct?"
"Yes, we always enjoyed our children."
"So, kobolds are not children, but they think differently, and they can often inform us, and keep us honest. I am not saying they are wize, but they can be astonishingly intelligent. They enjoy playing chess, you know. There is a seven-year-old kobold in my village who plays a good game."
"Really? I don't play myself, but I know it for a noble diversion."
"I love to play. This kobold girl, well she's a woman now, they grow up so fast, she has a beautiful style of attack, quite beautiful. And she loves to play me, even though she fears me, because I am the only one who can beat her. Isn't that remarkable? She wants to play me because I can beat her."
"She has courage."
"I am glad you enjoy them."
"I do, and I feel a duty to them. But they are not like me. I cannot talk with them as I talk with you now. I value your companionship while I am here, you know. And I chafe sometimes. Stardiamond asked me to go with her on a journey, a long journey, and I wanted to go, but I cannot leave that village alone for more than a month. Without me, it is like a headless beast. Within sixty days, they will be at one another's throats, and burning one another's houses, and assaulting sapiens on the pass, and back to running and hiding and dying in the wilderness."
There follows a long silence, in which we eventually hear a match striking. "Another candle, I think," Galoopius says. "What did Stardiamond say? Will she go without you?"
"No! She will not go without me. What a thought. No, we will not be parted. She understands."
"I am glad for you."
"Thank you. And your wife? How are you together these days?"
"Oh, we are well. She likes it here, and as you can see, I have lost weight. We walk, we play games, we visit with her friends and family. Just last week we were with her sister in Wakalin. It was a most pleasant stay. You know, I have more energy now that I am fitter, and more good humor. I think we are prospering."
"That is as well, and much as I expected. Health and good humor are essential."
Galoopius laughs. "So you convinced me a year ago, and I believe you were right. For that I have given you credit, you know, and she thanks you."
"But still hesitates to meet me."
"Yes, you are a terrifying creature in her eyes. And she can tell that I have been anxious these past few weeks, which she blames upon our association."
In the trees near the house, the three eavesdroppers crouch on the ground, their cold fingers and toes forgotten, waiting for some further sound from the tubes they hold to their ears. There is only silence. One of them takes the tube from his ear and looks into it for a moment before putting it to his other ear. Another says, "Is it still working?"
The first one says, "I think so. I think they are having a quiet−" his voice stops because he hears the black orc's deep voice loud and clear in his right ear.
"Tell me about your anxiety."
"You recall the three adventurers hired by Dalian Krass."
"Yes, they have returned to Diamantis."
"No, they have not. They did ride to Diamantis, but they returned to Dakka with a ship they had captured. They left Dakka again, going north, ostensibly for some other reason relating to the ship they captured, but two weeks later, they show up in the village. I did not know them at the first, but one of them came up and offered to sell me gems. I was suspicious, but he convinced my wife, and we made an appointment for him to return with his two assistants the next day to our house. I had resolved to cancel the arrangement, and said as much to Miseralis, over which we had a blazing row. They didn't show up in the end, but I had given them directions to the villa."
"Hmm..." the black orc says. Galoopius might be waiting for more, but if so he is disappointed.
"So, they take rooms at the Inn on the main road, the site of my favorite restaurant, I might add, and I have not been there because of them for three weeks. My wife likes the place too, the food is very good. So here we are hiding in the villa, unable to go to our favorite restaurant because these three adventurers are staying there, and they know where we live, and the reason they know where we live is because I told them."
Dreadmanifold lets out a low, rumble, which might be a laugh or it might be a sound of disapproval. The listeners cannot tell.
"They are wandering around the countryside at night, it turns out, star-gazing, or so they say, and during the day they are wandering about hunting, or so they say. I'm locking my doors, and I can hardly sleep. My wife is furious at me, because she can tell I am scared, so things are tense, very tense. I'm only a sapien, you know, I'm not made for this kind of stress. Are they creeping around my house at night? I don't know."
"Ah, my friend, I feel for you," the black orc says, "There are few things more distressing than to be at odds with your woman."
"I see it more as a symptom of being at odds with myself."
"It is not."
"Well, I..." Galoopius says, "Be that as it may, I find out last week that they have gone high up into the mountains to the pass by your village. They are hunting on the borders. They are gone for an entire week. I am certain they are watching the village. I start to think that they are going to break into your cave and take away my collection. I have not spoken to you for over a month, and..."
"Your collection is safe. Don't worry about it."
"What about the three adventurers? What if they assail you in the mountains?"
Dreadmanifold laughs. "I doubt they will do that."
"Well, they might, but it would be foolish of them."
"They might well be foolish."
Beneath the trees outside, one of the listeners is getting a cramp in his leg, and lies down as best he can to stretch it out. The other two have to accommodate him, and they find themselves leaning over their comrade's body to keep their tubes pressed against their ears.
"Sapien adventurers come in two breeds, my friend," Dreadmanifold says, "Those that are doomed to die, and those that are destined to survive. The second breed is the rare one, and is always crafty. We must be wary of them, that is for sure. One of them is a wizard. You say they are staying at the Inn?"
"Yes, in one of the hunter's cottages, number six."
"Interesting. I will pay them a visit, I think."
"But you will give us away if you visit them."
"You must be realistic, Galoopius. I am sure they know what is going on. They may be uncertain about the location of the antiquities, but you have to assume that they will find out everything eventually, if they are of the breed that is destined to survive."
"What if they are of the other breed?"
"Then I will kill them. Our troubles will be over, either way. We have nothing to fear from the other breed."
"Why not kill them anyway?" Galoopius says.
Dreadmanifold laughs. "You jest."
"No, I wonder. Please explain to me why not."
There is a silence of about a minute before Dreadmanifold answers. "The breed that is destined to survive will one day make a powerful ally. They may have allies themselves already. They have honor. There is nothing to be gained, in the long run, from killing them."
"One breed you kill," Galoopius says, "and the other you don't kill. There is no in-between."
"In practice, there is an in-between. There is intimidation, and maiming, and blackmail. But I don't like any of those. They are too complicated. And no matter what, I must confront them in person. If I don't, they will thwart you in the end. They are obviously determined, regardless of their honor and intelligence."
"Well," Galoopius says, "I appreciate what you are trying to do, but I don't want you to kill them no matter what, D, I would rather go to jail for theft and fraud before I have a man's blood on my hands. If we can't get the million from Dalian Krass, I'll be in trouble with the wife, but not to worry. I'm sick of being anxious. They are outside my door, and wandering around in the woods. I can't sleep at night. But I'm not going to trade anxiety for a lifetime of guilt."
Dreadmanifold chuckles. "Well spoken, my friend."
"Why don't we try to bribe them instead?"
"If they can be bribed, I will kill them. It's the ones that can't be bribed that are a problem."
"Can't you intimidate them instead of kill them?"
"No. My friend, you are being unrealistic. The ones that are doomed to die cannot be intimidated, and if you bribe them, you cannot be sure that they will honor the bribe, so the only way to get rid of them is to kill them. Your choice is a lifetime of anxiety or a lifetime of guilt. The guilt, I can tell you from personal experience, fades over time."
Galoopius pulls the stopper out of the port bottle and the listeners can hear two more glasses of being poured. "Is there any way I can keep my collection and not get the money?"
"Perhaps. I'm sure we could do a deal with them. Can you do without the money?"
"I think so. I have lost weight, because I am so anxious, so the wife will be happy with that in the long run. We can walk all day together now, and that is what she likes. I'm sure I can come up with some other source of the money we need for our divine serums. Yes, we'll manage without the money. But my collection, it would break my heart to lose it."
"I don't think you need to worry about money either. You are a good businessman. You will rise to the occasion. I think you'll find Gowachin more fertile soil for you ideas than Belgoria."
The two friends sip from their glasses. Dreadmanifold lets out a long, satisfied rumble.
"What if they try to kill me," Galoopius says, "to stop me making the claim."
"They won't," Dreadmanifold says, "If they wanted to kill you, you would already be dead."
"Yes. Does that worry you?"
"Of course it does."
"Well..." Galoopius says. The listeners hear him setting his glass down on the table. "I don't like to think of people operating above the law, able to kill me and get away with it."
"You don't? I could kill you and get away with it."
There is a short silence, followed by Galoopius clearing his throat. "I suppose you could."
"Of course I could. I have killed a number of sapiens," Dreadmanifold says, "Seven that I recall, outside of battles."
"You killed them in cold blood?"
"One I killed in a situation like this. He broke a commitment and hired four men to defend him. They were standing in the room beside him. He had men outside too, ready to come to his side. I was unarmed. I suppose he thought his precautions were adequate."
"Did you kill the guards also?"
"No, of course not," Dreadmanifold says, "They were no threat to me. They were only doing their job."
"How did you kill him?"
"I tore his head off."
"You tore his head off?"
"Yes. My hands are large, as you can see." Dreadmanifold must be showing Galoopius how large his hands are, because there is a pause in his explanation. "And quite strong. There is a trick to twisting the head off a sapien body, but I perfected it when I was young, wandering across a bloody sapien battlefield."
Dreadmanifold sighs. "That was a grim night. You sapiens are terrifying."
The two men sit in silence, sipping their drinks, and making sharp cracking noises that mystify the listeners until Dreadmanifold says, "These walnuts are excellent."
Eventually, Galoopius says, "Well, I must say, D, that I have enjoyed our association. You make me feel young again, even if you do scare the hell out of me. I look forward to many more years of productive cooperation."
"As do I. You have been a good friend. Our evenings together are a tonic to me in my life with my little followers."
A minute later, Dreadmanifold continues, "You have no reason to fear me. Punishment at the hands of the law deters the impotent and dishonorable, but reward deters the honorable. Only the honorable are to be feared because only they can rise above the law. You have nothing to fear from me because you deal fairly with me. Why would I want to harm you?"
"What if you get mad and lose your temper?"
"If I was the type who lost his temper, I would be long dead. I am one hundred and eighty-three years old."
The light of the full moon, moving slowly from its zenith, slants down upon the three listeners in the forest. They can see one another's faces for the first time, and each of them smiles at the spectacle of the others holding tubes to their ears, exhilerated as they are by what they are hearing, and the success of their enterprize.
"I know I am bringing this up a second time, but could it be," Galoopius says, "that they simply have no idea about what's going on here? Could it be that they are about to go home? Wouldn't it be a pity to over-estimate them and reveal your involvment by visiting them? Once you go there, if they escape you, they will know for sure that I am collaborating with a black orc, and that I am undoubtedly up to no good."
"It could be," Dreadmanifold says, "And perhaps you or I would have no idea what was going on if we were in their position, but my experience with sapien adventurers is that the good ones will find out everything that you think it possible for them to discover, and a good few more things as well. They might be spying upon you tonight. In fact, it is entirely likely that they are. They could be listening to our conversation right now."
The listeners hear Galoopius shifting in his seat. "One of them is hiding behind the wall or something? That's absurd."
"Possibly. It's not absurd. But they could listen by other means, magical means," Dreadmanifold says, "If these three are incompetent, I am going to kill them, whether you like it or not. I have too much on my mind to leave three incompetent adventurers prowling around at my back, making my dear friend and business partner nervous. To kill them, I have to visit them. If, on the other hand, they are competent, then I guarantee you that they know almost everything about our operation by now, and I must visit them to make a deal that will extricate you from your present position. You say you can do without the million dollars. That will be enough, I think, to placate them, and after that, who knows? You may have three new allies. From being anxious about their presence, you may find yourself glad of them."
"Hmm," Galoopius says, "If you were anyone else, I would say that you were a blind idealist. But you are Dreadmanifold, a one hundred and eighty-three year old black orc, self-exiled commander of the army of the Kratanak Empire, friend of Torque Edwards, and vetran of dozens of breath-taking escapades." He laughs. "So, I will believe you."
"I would not call myself a friend of Torque Edwards."
"He writes of you so in his biography."
"Yes, he does. He was flattering to me. Perhaps you are right." The black orc laughs. "Well then, to breath-taking escapades, as you say."
The two glasses clink together.
The sapien and the black orc talk for another hour, and then Dreadmanifold bids Galoopius goodbye, calls his wyvern down from the sky, and flies away. Galoopius holds his head erect when he walks back into his house. There seems to be a spring in his step, visible even in the pale moonlight.
The moon is once again high in a clear Autumn sky. The air is cold, almost freezing. Dreadmanifold's breath hangs in thin clouds that linger behind him as he walks towards the entrance of the Powachella Mill Hotel. He is wearing a leather jacket with a sheep-skin lining, and thick wool trousers with silk linings. The silk is smooth and warm against his hairless skin. Upon his head is a tight-fitting wool hat, and in his breast pocket is a pair of glass goggles.
He stops in front of the hotel, his hands in the pockets of his jacket. Until this moment, he had assumed that the hotel would be noisy and full at this happy hour of the night. But the lights are out, and all is quiet. He walks to the side of the building and finds a gravel path leading to the garden at the back. There he sees a man and woman, wrapped in a blanket, sitting on a bench in the darkness under a tree. She sits on his lap, and they are kissing. Dreadmanifold can see them clearly, but it is unlikely that they can see him, where he stands in the shadow of the hotel. The woman's hands hold the man's head tenderly. The man's hands are out of sight, under the blanket. The couple kisses slowly and gently.
It would be a pity to ruin their enjoyment by frightening them. Dreadmanifold looks beyond the garden and sees several cottages among the trees. He moves slowly across the lawn, so that his footseps will be silent, but he makes no effort to conceal himself in the shadows of the trees. The moon shines down brightly, and when he looks up at it, he squints for a moment from the brightness of it, and turns his head away.
The man and woman each utter a muffled exclamation under their breath. They must have seen him. Oh well. He does not bother to turn around. Doing so will not make them feel any more at ease. He steps into the darkness beneath a tall beech tree, and approaches the door of one of the cottages. Which number is it? There is no light coming from withing. None of the cottages are lit, except for one down there on the right.
He walks towards the cottage on the right. When he is within ten paces of it, he stops. He can hear voices from within. He cannot make out what the voices are saying, but he is confident that they are not speaking Latin. There is a small candle lantern hanging above the door from the eaves. In its light, Dreadmanifold sees a brass number six. This is the cottage in which Galoopius claimed the adventurers were staying, and there is a lantern burning outside at midnight.
He steps up onto the low porch of the cottage, crouching to avoid the eaves, and knocks loudly upon the door. Moments later, it opens, and inside he sees a warm fire, with chairs arranged around it, including a large one facing the door, on the left side of the fire, and set a little apart from the others. The man who greets him has fair hair and fair skin. He is lean and fit. His smile is broad and his eyes are wide as they look directly into Dreadmanifold's. "Come in," the man says, "Thank you for coming."
Dreadmanifold steps inside. It is warm. He takes his jacket off, and his hat, and hangs them both upon the hat stand beside the door. He looks down at the man who opened the door. "I am Dreadmanifold." He offers his hand. The man takes his hand immediately and says, "I'm Wicklow, it is an honor to meet you, sir."
In the garden, the two lovers are long gone, back to their room, where they whisper about what they saw, and look out the window hoping to get a better look if it comes by again. In a glade in the forest, a slender black creature twenty meters long from head to tail, with leathery wings folded upon its back, snorts loudly, looks around, grumbles, and settles itself as best it can on the cold ground.
The moon has sunk down behind the mountains when Dreadmanifold steps out into the night again. He walks away from the cottage. He fastens the top button of his flying jacket, and puts his hands in his pockets. When he emerges from the shadows beneath the trees, he is smiling to himself. He stops in the middle of the garden and looks around. The flower beds and benches are bathed in the light of the stars. The corners, ledges, and eaves of the hotel cast no shadows in the diffuse and gentle light, but the building stands out sharply against the black sky.
Dreadmanifold crosses to the bench where the lovers had sat, and lowers his great frame upon its wooden slats. He pulls up the sleeve of his jacket and looks at the glowing face of an instrument strapped to his wrist. He crosses his arms and sits perfectly still upon the bench for several minutes. He sees an owl try to snatch a mouse from the edge of a flower bed. The mouse escapes beneath the steps leading up to the hotel's patio. He looks at the instrument on his wrist again, and takes something out of his pocket, which he holds to his mouth.
"Beloved," he says, and holds the small object to his ear.
"Hello D, I'm here."
Dreadmanifold waits for five seconds, and holds the object to his mouth again. "Are you well?" He holds the object to his ear.
Five seconds later, he hears, "I miss you, my darling, but other than that I am in good health."
"How is Fernald?"
"He is doing better. The cut is almost healed. He slept all day. But he's in pain. He holds his foot close to him whenever I come near, and I have to order him to let me look at it."
"Is he eating?"
"Hardly. I fed him a few pounds of roast lamb by hand, but he ate it only because he wanted the attention. He has no appetite. But he will be fine. The infection has subsided. He will be ready to fly in a few days, and I shall be with you within a week. Now tell me about the meeting."
"They were expecting me. They left a lantern out to show me the number on the door, and they had a chair for me by the fire, and a bottle of chilled dessert wine (a fine bottle, I might add). They greeted me warmly when I knocked upon the door, and although they were nervous, they looked me straight in the eye, and did not flinch when I was near them."
"I am amazed."
"I believe I predicted as much," he says. He holds the object to his hear with one hand and stretches his other arm out and arches his back.
"You did. I am impressed."
"Thank you. And the meeting itself went well. Their reputation is deserved. They are entertaining, so young and eager and full of ambition. They told me the entire story of their adventures, interrupting one another frequently, but with no attempt at exaggeration. They answered all my questions gladly, and when they contradicted one another, they discussed the contradiction openly in front of me. They speak fondly of the kobolds they summoned from Olympia, and dealt fairly with several others with whom they fought earlier this year. I was impressed. My only concern is their inexperience, but they have clearly acheived a great deal despite their inexperience, such as the leveling of Diamantis Castle. And upon that matter, they revealed the simple manner in which they had brought about the destruction, and described the outcome as being more a consequence of chance than intention. Their intention was to start a few fires and frighten the king. Imagine that! And they leveled the castle. The wizard is famous for the deed, and yet they did not hesitate to explain the truth behind it."
"And what of the antiquities and Galoopius?" she says.
"They are willing to accept a letter from him relinquishing his insurance claim. I see no difficulties in arranging the deal. Galoopius is willing. They will be paid if they absolve the claim. Everyone will be content, except, perhaps, Galoopius's wife."
"Will you ask them to watch the village?"
"I am considering it. We have a lot to gain from such an arrangement."
"I do not want to come between you and your people. You will regret it if you allow me to do so. I ask you to make sure that you are certain of them before you entrust them with your village."
"I am certain of them."
"Are you certain of them because of Aries's review, or because of your own experience?"
"My own experience this evening makes me confident. But a five-star review from Aries is a convincing affidavit. I am not ashamed to trust his opinion."
"Subtle are the ways of the divine Greeks," she says, "The review could have been provided for your eyes, to lead you into an error. You are within Aries's circle of influence, in those mountains. He could be playing games with you. I would discount the review entirely, as a matter of principle."
Dreadmanifold continues to hold the object to his ear and stares up at the mountains rising in the east. He can see them outlined against the sky. Dawn is coming. It would be best if he were away before the sun came up. The days when he enjoyed watching sapiens shaking with fear are long passed. They deserve as much care as his own people. Any living thing deserves it. Even the deer that one slays in the forest. The three sapiens feel the same way. He knows they do. Everything they have done speaks for that care, despite the pragmatism with which they make their plans.
"Are you still there, my love?"
"Don't let your heart lead you astray."
"Please, my darling, don't insult me. I will not allow my heart to lead me astray. These three men are up to the task. I will never find any better, and I cannot be tied to this village of two hundred kobolds. I love them, and I will care for them, but I once commanded an army of fifty thousand men, brave and strong, who would shout my name as one when I leapt to the saddle. For them I gave up my home and... I gave up everything I had, except my honor."
"You gave up Dreamstealer for fifty thousand, so you won't give me up for two hundred. Is that what you are saying?"
"You don't have to give me up, my love. I am no princess. I am mistress of my own destiny. As soon as Fernald is better, I will be with you, and I will stay with you. Nothing is more important to me than being with you. You will never have to make such a choice again, dearest. Hire the sapiens by all means, if you wish to do so, and we can fly away on our adventure, but don't do it for me. I don't ask you to do it. I will come to you regardless, and hold you in my arms, and you will be at peace."
Dreadmanifold is still holding the object to his ear a minute later, looking up at the brightening outline of the mountains. He blinks, and a tear slips down his cheek to spread itself across his right tusk. He can taste the salt of it on the tip of his tongue. He moves the bridge to his mouth. "Thank you."
"I would like to leave this place. I am sitting in the garden of the Inn. The sun is coming up. Klestin is waiting in the forest. She will be getting anxious."
"Go ahead. Enjoy the flight, and call me when you feel like it. I'm just lounging around and looking after Fernald. I'll keep the bridge out to listen for you."
"Thank you. Goodbye."
He puts the object back in his pocket, stands up, and walks around the hotel and to the road.
Our heroes are sitting around the table in their cottage. It is mid-afternoon. At the center of the table is their bridge to Heraklese, with a trumpet Hocus made out of paper resting on top of it. Heraklese's voice is barely audible to each of them when it emerges from the trumpet. They might have heard better with their three-tube contraption, but the tubes have to be held, and moved from mouth to ear, so they decided to listen carefuly and speak loudly, but sit in comfort.
"I have the papers ready to file for our corporation," Heraklese says, "but we need a name. I can't go ahead until we have a name."
"Do you have any suggestions?" Scythe says.
"I do, as a matter of fact. My first one is Regime Change, referring to our exploits in Diamantis, but implying that all we do is overthrow governments. So here's one that's broader and might work for the longer term: Global Expiditers, implying that we can expidite far-reaching problems. And you might like just Facilitators Incorporated. I have a few joke ones, but we will be unhappy with a joke in the long run."
"Thank you, Heraklese," Wicklow says, "We'll think about those. In the meantime, arrange transport for Dalian and yourself. We hope you will be here within the week. We will reserve rooms for you in the hotel."
"I will do my best. Now, let's move on to the settlement with the families of the law enforcement officers killed on board our boat in the early morning of September third. The boat has been assessed at twenty-one hundred guineas. The families are prepared to accept a settlement of one thousand guineas, leaving the boat with us. I would like to form the corporation, hand over ownership of the boat to the corporation, and then pay the settlement out of the company account. We will have enough cash to make the payment, when we consider the 1330 gp we have in our Olympian accounts combined. We'll be receiving 940 gp from Dalian soon as well, and I'd like that to go into the company account."
"We are happy with the 1000 gp settlement," Hocus says, "Go ahead and sign the papers."
"You give me the company name, and I'll get everything done. If I start tomorrow, then leave with Dalian on the 12th, we'll be with you from the 15th to the 18th, and back here on the 21st. It will probably take me another week to incorporate the company, and after that we can complete the settlment and receive payment from Dalian."
Wicklow is writing in his notebook and nodding his head. Scythe looks up from his own notebook. "Thank you for taking care of the settlement."
"You're welcome. I enjoyed it. I will tell you the full story when I'm with you in person. Now, I suggest I go over to Dalian's office so you can talk to him directly. I have an appointment to see him this afternoon, as it happens."
"That sounds good," Scythe says.
When they talk to Dalian, he agrees to come over the moutains to Gowachin and meet with Galoopius to accept a signed statement from Galoopius that he will not file a claim for the stolen antiquities. Dalian will not have to pay the claim after that, and even if Galoopius pressed the claim, he would know where the antiquities were, so he would have some grounds to refuse payment, and get Galoopius into trouble. With the comittment in hand, he will consider their job done, and pay them at their earliest convenience.
At midnight, our heroes meet again with Dreadmanifold.
"I'm sure your proposal will be to Galoopius's liking," Dreadmanifold says, "Although not to his wife's. But it is not particularly to my liking. I prefer to have the antiquities in my cave, where they are safe, and to have Galoopius safe from blackmail or prosecution. His desire to hold and examine pieces of clay and jewelry thousands of years old I can understand, but not when it puts himself and his wife in jeapordy." The black orc shifts in his seat, and looks at the fire before he continues. Wicklow is about to speak, but Hocus puts his hand up to stop him. They have agreed that the black orc moves more slowly through conversation than they do, and they do not want to aggravate him.
"Nevertheless," Dreadmanifold says, "I will expidite this deal between your insurance agent and Galoopius if you accept another contract from me. As you may know already, after eavesdropping upon my conversation with Galoopius a few nights ago, I would like to go on a journey with my lover, Stardiamond, but I cannot leave my kobolds behind. They will be at one another's throats within a few weeks. I know from your descriptions of the kobolds you hired, that you respect them, and even take an interest in them. It seems to me that you are capable enough, and honorable enough, to watch over my village for three months, while I am away. I will pay you $100,000 Olympian to do so, with $50,000 in advance."
"You will be earning money on your trip with Stardiamond?" Wicklow says.
"Yes. More than enough to pay you your hundred thousand."
Our heroes are keen upon the idea, and ask Dreadmanifold about the village, how he manages the kobolds, the exact manner in which order would break down in his absense, and what other responsibilities they would take upon themselves. He tells them that it is possible that sapien adventurers will attack the village in his absense, hoping to steal what is in his cave.
"If that happens, I expect you to organise my villagers for a defence of the village and the cave. But it's not worth letting anyone die for the contents of the cave. What I have in there is not worth anyone's life." He looks down at his wine glass. "I wish it were worth it," he says, and looks up at them and laughs.
Wicklow laughs too, and says, "Well, Dread, I mean Dreadmanifold, we will be happy to watch your village. I think we would enjoy it. But we will have to discuss the price among ourselves before we agree."
"Of course you will. I suggest we leave the final agreement until tomorrow night. Can you decide by that time?"
Wicklow, Scythe, and Hocus look at one another and nod. "Yes," Hocus says, "We will talk about it tomorrow and come to a decision."
"I have something more for you to discuss," Dreadmanifold says, and he tells them about the one hundred veterans of his wars in the Kratanak Outlands, and their adult children, and young grandchildren, stuck on an island in the south-eastern Satian Sea. He is concerned for them over the winter. Will they have enough to eat? Will they resort to fighting when they get hungry? He would like someone to take a boat-load of supplies to them, such as flower, rope, metal tools, pemmican, and other preserved foods.
"If it's in the south-eastern Satian Sea," Hocus says, "it can't be that cold in the winter. But I'm sure they would benefit from supplies."
The island is ten miles across, it turns out, and Scythe calculates that this is enough land to provide the orcs with game indefinitely, even when you consider that orcs use twice the calories per kilogram as sapiens.
"In the long run," Dreadmanifold says, "I need to get them off that island and to the Western Outlands. But orcs are terrible sailors. They get seasick. It's genetic. They are designed to throw up poison immediately, and neurotoxins make them dizzy. When they take a neurotoxin, they get dizzy and they throw up. Make them dizzy for any other reason, and they throw up too. They are designed for land warfar only, with a good supply of food."
"These veterans must be a formidable bunch," Wicklow says.
Dreadmanifold laughs, "Yes! Yes, they are. I am proud of them. If you need a gang of mercenaries for a small war, you can't do better than that croud, I'm telling you, even the little girls can hit a squirrel at fifty paces with a sling. They have become a project of mine, but the veterans are old now. It's been twenty years since we left the outlands, and many battles, some of them lost against sapiens, and when you lose against sapiens, you lose lives. I hoped to increase their numbers, but we started with two hundred and seven, and now we have only one hundred and three."
"Another job we'd love to do," Wicklow says.
"We have a boat," Scythe says, "And we have a man in Dakka who can load it and sail it to your island, if you give him chart positions and a description. We will decide upon a price for the job, and let you know tomorrow night."
After an hour's entertaining discussion about hellspawn and navigation and supplies, Dreadmanifold says goodnight and leaves. Our heroes go to bed well content, and calculating how much they can ask for each of these jobs, or the two combined.
Dalian Crass meets Galoopius in the Panorama Villa, and they come to an arrangement in private. Dalian comes out with a contract of some sort, and assures our heroes that their job is done. He will pay them the remaining 940 gp of their fee. Dalian is pleased, even though he has paid out a total of $100,000 to the three adventurers over a claim that would have been fraudulent. "I'm in the insurance business, and I believe in the principle of insurance: I paid a thousand gold piece for peace of mind."
Galoopius appears pleased also, even though he has given up a potential $1,000,000 towards his retirement. "Well, money I can get from somewhere else. I just have to work hard. It will be good for me. But my collection: I will never be able to replace it, and life is short."
And so we conclude Stolen Antiquities. Our heroes have made friends with their perceived antagonist while at the same time satisfying their employer. They have formed a corporation registered in Dakka, with the name Global Mediation Incorporated, or GMI. Hocus, Wicklow, and Scythe each hold a thirty percent share in the company, and Heraklese holds ten percent. But there is no time for them to rest: they must attend to the kobold village, and sail to supply the orcs. For this, they will have to divide into two groups. The story of their adventures continues in Working for D.