It is the afternoon of the 11th November, 2477. Hocus, Wicklow, and Scythe are talking through their space bridge with Heraklese. He is in Dakka. They are in the Powachella Mill Hotel. They will ask Dreadmanifold to pay them 2,500 gp, half in advance, to watch his kobold village for three months and to deliver a ship-load of supplies to his orcs down on Tankum Island in the South Satian Sea. Dreadmanifold will arrange for Galoopius and Dalian to meet on 16th November to sign a deal, after which Dalian will pay GMI 940 gp. GMI's commitement to D requires three adventurers in the kobold village. But Hocus wants to go with the boat to protect it, so he plans to come back to Dakka. Heraklese should hire another adventurer in Dakka for 200 gp, and find a crew for the ship, and depart as soon as possible. Heraklese says that his girlfriend, Bonita, is a fine sailor. She will come to meet them, and he proposes that she help sail the ship. He believes he has a good canditate for the third adventurer in the kobold village: Jack Pulruset, an adventurer staying in the Pelamakshi Hotel.
Go over GMI accounts. There is 270 gp in cash in the boat's strong box. They call the boat Loose Lips, and it is the property of GMI. Its estimated value is 2000 gp, for which it is insured with Dalian Krass. In their Dakka bank account, they have 300 gp. In their Olympian GMI account they have 1330 gp. Recent payouts were 70 gp to Heraklese, and 200 gp to each of Hocus, Wicklow, and Scythe, for a total of 670 gp. Liabilies are roughly 1000 gp to the widows and families of the police killed on the Dirty Rat (previous name of their boat). Agree that Heraklese can settle for 1000 gp immediately. Receivables are 940 gp from Dalian Krass, and 1250 gp as advance payment on 2500 gp from Dreadmanifold. Ownership of the company is 30% each to Hocus, Wicklow, and Scythe, and 10% to Heraklese.
It is evening on the 15th November, 2477. Around a large table in the Powachella Mill Hotel dining room, and attended to by Theodore, their favorite waiter and Galoopius's spy, our heroes sit with Dalian Krass, Heraklese's sun-tanned Belgorian girlfriend, and Jack Pulruset. Jack grew up on the Kubla Steppes. His parents were missionaries among the nomads. He worked as a debt collector for five years in Gastranoi, and has now moved into global bounty-hunting. He is a member of the Claran Bounty-Hunters Association. He is twenty-seven years old. He owns a summoning bridge with the Triple-A Summoning Agency, and he claims to have a thousand gold pieces deposited in his account there. He is willing to work with Wicklow and Scythe in the kobold village for 200 gp for three months. He says it will be an honor to work with them.
At the end of the meal, Martha Howard, reporter from Adventuring Wizard, sits next to Hocus and asks him for an interview. It turns out that she approached Heraklese in Dakka asking about Hocus, but Heraklese would say nothing beyond the commonly-known legend of Hocus the Destroyer. She wants to know the truth. Hocus sits with her after supper and has brandy. He tries a Beguile on her, but she says her father was a wizard, and he should not waste her time. She is an adventurer herself, and her job now is to go around finding adventuring wizards and accompanying them on adventures, or interviewing them on the road. It can be dangerous work, and she is well-paid. Hocus reveals how he destroyed the Castle of Diamantis. She presses him for the story of Fatimeh Shajarian, and says she has information that will make his revealing the story to her worth while. He tells her the story. She tells him that Fatimeh's mother, Sarah Khamani, who surives her adventurer-husband Mahsood Shajarian, is a wealthy wizard in Pakesh, and she has put out a bounty on Scythe's head for the murder of her daughter. She wants him dead.
It turns out that Jack Pulruset knew of the bounty on Scythe's head, and declared a conflict of interest in the matter of that bounty, so that information about other bounty hunters going after Scythe would not be revealed to him, now that he is an ally of Scythe's.
Martha completes her interview article, Hocus approves it, and she sends it off by post to Jamchelk, where her magazine is published.
It is the evening of 18th November, 2477. Wicklow, Scythe, Hocus, Heraklese, and Galoopius have supper in the number-six cottage of the Powachella Mill Hotel. Galoopius talks about his long-term support and participation in Trade Barrier Penetration. Smuggling, he says, is a dirty word used by greedy beaurocrats to describe rebellion against their effort to control and oppress the human persuit of happiness.
It is morning on the 20th November, 2477. Hocus and Martha, Heraklese and Bonita, and Dalian take the stagecoach back to Dakka. There is some concern about snow blocking the pass, but it proves unfounded, and they reach the city two days later. Martha and Hocus appear to be in love, and she is coming with the boat on the supply mission. Bonita is going too. She will share Heraklese's cabin (he gets the captain's cabin on the boat, being the best sailor among the GMI owners).
Wicklow, Scythe, and Jack put on their packs and hike up into the hills to the kobold village.
Dreadmanifold looks down into a large cast iron skillet. He holds the handle of the skillet in one hand, and a steel whisk in the other. He stirs the sauce in the skillet vigorously and every few seconds raises the pan and rolls the sauce around so he can see the metal beneath. Under a plain green apron, he wears a blue shirt made of fine wool, and black wool trousers that end half-way down his calves. Upon his feet are black leather sandals. The claws on his toes are smooth, curving, and painted blue.
Behind him, at a high butcher block table, his partner, Stardiamond, dices some parsley with a wide-bladed chef's knife. Liker her man, she is hairless, black, and tall. But she is slender beside him, and her tusks are shorter. Her smile sqeezes her cheeks and wrinkles the corners of her eyes, while Dreadmanifold's bares his teeth and opens his eyes.
"Where is the oil you brought me?" Dreadmanifold says.
"Right by the stove in the can with the screw top."
Dreadmanifold looks up for a moment and sees the tin of oil. "Thank you."
"You're welcome, my dear." Stardiamond pokes her chopped parsley with the tip of her knife and begins to chop it a second time. "And after the parsley, my beloved?" she says.
Dreadmanifold stirrs his sauce with a frown. "Hold on a minute."
Stardiamond puts down her knife, wipes her hands upon a cloth hanging by a hook from the side of the butcher block, and stands beside him, looking down into the skillet. "What's going on?"
He continues to stirr the sauce. He is holding the base of the pan off the stove. "I have lumps in my sauce."
Stardiamond puts her hand upon his shoulder and leans a little closer to the skillet. "And that's a bad thing?"
"But it will have lumps in when you put the onions in it anyway."
"Yes, it will. But I don't want it to have lumps in now."
Stardiamond nods her head. "Well, good luck with that, then."
Dreadmanifold keeps stirring. "I think it's going to be okay. I'll get the lumps out with the sieve."
She takes her hand off his shoulder and steps away from the stove. "May I get the sieve for you?"
"Yes, it's in the second draw down to the right of the sink."
Stardiamond crosses the kitchen to the draws, opens the second one from the top and looks inside. "And what does this 'sieve' thing look like."
Dreadmanifold puts the pan down and turns around. "Surely you jest, Madame."
Stardiamond pulls out a sieve and raises it in the air. "Is this it?"
An hour later and our heroes are trying to rest comfortably on Dreadmanifold's large dining chairs, each of them feeling that they may have eaten too much. Wicklow looks at the bowl of venison in red wine sauce, and wonders if he should have just one more piece, or whether he should hold out for some kind of dessert. Or what about the last remaining deep fried fresh-water minnow, sitting all alone on its serving plate, the batter golden brown and crispy over its entire body. He reaches with his fork, spears the little fish, and puts it in his mouth.
Scythe puts his knife and fork together on his plate. "Thank you, Dreadmanifold, and Stardiamond, for a fine meal."
"Yes, thank you," Wicklow says, around his food.
"The venison was superb," Jack says.
Dreadmanifold bares his teeth. His eyes open wide, showing his red irises and slitted pupils. "You are most welcome. We are used to cooking for ourselves. It is a pleasure to have company."
"Are you all full?" Stardiamond says.
"I'm stuffed," Jack says.
"But you hardly ate anything." Stardiamond pushes the venison bowl towards him. It is still half full. "Have some more venison."
"No, really, I could not eat another bite." Our heroes understands, however, why Stardiamond might think they have held back, because she ate at least three times as much as they did.
Dreadmanifold puts one of his feet upon his own chair, and wraps his enormously muscular arm around his knee. "My exiles had to insist upon double food rations when they worked in the Dukedoms. Their employers always thought they were going to go to fat, but it never happened."
"Even a kobold would eat more than these fellows," Stardiamond says.
"Almost, yes. But I trust that they know how to feed themselves." He releases his knee and sits back in his chair. "I like your kobolds from Olympia. How long have you had them with you?"
"A couple of months," Wicklow says, and smiles when he remembers their first night in the woods talking to the kobolds, and how the kobolds were invisible in the darkness.
"They are three men and three women," Stardiamond says. "Do you know their names?"
"The women are Nib, Bum, and Pod. The men are Tak, Lad, and Bin. Tak's the leader."
"They work in pairs," Scythe says, "or couples, I should say. Tak and Nib work together, Lad and Bum, and then Bin and Pod."
"I've seen that before in summoned kobolds," Stardiamond says.
"You have?" Dreadmanifold says. "Well, it sounds very sensible. It is convenient that they speak the language of my village. Your kobolds must have been born in the southern Kratanak Mountains, and judging by their age, they were born there at the time I was Commander in Chief of the army of the Empire."
"They did not mention knowing your name," Scythe says.
Stardiamong puts her hand on Dreamanifold's knee, and leans towards him to lick his cheek. "I'm sure they are just pretending not to know your name. You are so very famous."
Dreadmanifold furrows his brow for a moment, looks at Stardiamond, and smiles. "Yes, that must be it." He turns his smile upon the adventurers. "So, let's talk some business. You will need money to buy supplies for my Exiles. I'll give you fifty thousand dollars in advance, and another fifty thousand after delivery. Add to that half of two hundred and fifty thousand dollars for watching the village and making the delivery, and we have a total advance of one hundred and seventy five thousand dollars."
He looks at our heroes. They are silent for a few seconds before Jack says, "Yes, that sounds right."
"Good. Tomorrow I will arrange the transfer from my Olympian account into that of your company, which is called Global Machinations Incorporated, is that right?"
"Global Mediation Incorporated," Scythe says.
Dreadmanifold nods and looks at Stardiamond. By his bared teeth and wide eyes, the adventurers judge him to be smiling. Perhaps he had mis-stated their company name on purpose, as a joke. Or perhaps not.
Stardiamond returns his gaze. "Global Machinations Incorporated. I like it."
"No, Global Mediation Incorporated," Dreadmanifold says.
"I like that too." She turns to Jack. "So, you are a new member of the company?"
"No," Jack says, "They hired me to help out here in the village for three months."
"What did you do before this?"
"I was a bounty hunter."
Dreadmanifold stands up and walks to a large cupboard on the wall and opens it. "And a member of some bounty-hunting guild, is that right?"
Jack nods, even though Dreadmanifold is not looking at him. "Yes, the Claran Bounty-Hunter's Association."
Inside the cupboard is a decander of ruby-red liquid on a tray with four glasses. Dreadmanifold slides the tray out, closes the cupboard, and turns around. "And you found that there was a bounty out upon Scythe's head."
"Yes," Scythe says, "A one-thousand gold piece bounty."
"Which is how much in Olympian dollars?" Stardiamond says.
"One hundred thousand," Jack says.
"Not bad," she says, and smiles at Scythe. "You must be proud."
"I am," Scythe says, and he looks into Stardiamond's slitted eyes and smiles. He is proud. "Do you have a bounty out on your head?"
"Not any more," she says, "but in the past, most certainly. If there are any outstanding, I am unaware of them, or they are for trivial amounts."
Dreadmanifold has put the tray down on the table, and he distributes the four glasses to Stardiamond and his three guests. "If someone is willing to pay one hundred thousand dollars to see you dead, they care about whether you are alive or not. It's true that they want you dead, but they still play close attention to your health, and are eager to hear the latest news about you. You may not be loved, but you are honored all the same."
"I'm starting to think of it that way," Scythe says.
Dreadmanifold pours some of the ruby-red liquid into Stardiamond's glass, and she picks it up with her thumb and two fingers. Her claws are short and unpainted. They are black and smooth, with blunt ends. She raises her eyes from her glass and looks at Scythe. "So, you have a bounty on your head, your new colleague, Jack, is a bounty-hunter entitled to collect the bounty, and we are about to leave the three of you in charge of D's village. Perhaps you can explain to me why we are not making a mistake."
Dreadmanifold has just finished filling the fourth glass. He puts the decanter down and walks into the kitchen. He opens another cupboard and takes out a fifth glass. Jack turns to Stardiamond. "Well, I declared a conflict of interest on the bounty, so I'm not entitled to claim it."
"How do we know you did that?"
Dreadmanifold pulls out his chair and sits down. "Now, now, darling. We know he did it because he told us he did it."
Stardiamond furrows her brow and pulls up one corner of her mouth. The expression is new to our heroes, and they are not sure what mood it signifies. "Very well," she says, "You can't claim the bounty. But others might come here to claim it."
"They might," Scythe says, "And this seems about as safe a place as any for me to be, thank you."
"I was not concerned about you, I was concerned about the kobolds who might stand between you and your assassin."
"I know," Scythe says, "I was being light-hearted. Don't worry. Nobody who is willing to kill someone for one hundred thousand dollars will be capable of doing the job."
Dreadmanifold is just putting his glass down after a slow sip with his eyes closed. "Ha! Spoken like a man. Here's to you and your bounty, Scythe, may it rise to a million dollars before you meet your end." He raises his glass. Scythe does the same, and their glasses clink together for a moment before they each take another sip of port.
"Did your bounties reach a million?" Wicklow says.
"Oh yes, they did."
"And what did you do about it, if anything?"
"In the end, I found out who was putting out the bounties, and I went and killed a few of them. That put a stop to it."
Wicklow nods and smiles at Scythe. "Well, perhaps a trip to Pakesh is called for some time." He turns to Dreadmanifold again. "Scythe's bounty was placed by a wizard in Pakesh called Sarah Khamani. She is the mother of the late Fatimeh Shajarian of Diamantis."
"Really?" Stardiamond says, "Fatimeh was the daughter of an adventurer called Mahsood Shajarian. I remember him bringing her to Jamchelk when she was a little girl. They flew from Pakesh together on a hippogriff. He was killed a few years ago."
"How did he die?" Scythe asks.
"I don't know. I just heard he was dead."
Our heroes sip their port. It is dark outside, and cold. The woodstove in the kitchen keeps the open dining room warm. But there is another fireplace in the adjacent room, and to this room they move their port glasses and the decander, and sit upon the floor upon cusions and a thick carpet, while Dreadmanifold lights a fire in his two-meter wide fireplace.
When the fire is burning brightly, and everyone is warming in front of it, Wicklow says, "So, Dread, would you tell us how you came to leave the Kratanak Empire?"
Stardiamond laughs. "Dread? I like that. Dread."
"I'm sorry, I mean Dreadmanifold. I meant no insult."
"None taken," Dreadmanifold says. "And yes, I will be glad to tell you." He stares at the fire for a moment. "I was elected general of the armed forces of Bootika, a nation of orcs in the Kratanak Outlands, ruled by Nastinklackel the King. The king himself was a sorcerer, and a descendant of Gelden. He was determined to learn how to make molecular bridges. For myself, I have no magical power, nor have I ever made any effort to cultivate such power. But I understood, from his explanations, how important such a bridge could be for us, and how it might allow us to bring back the days of our glory, which you call the Dark Ages."
"They were dark for us," Scythe says.
"Because of his experiments, he did not want to campaign against the neighboring nations, but he wanted an empire and a large army to be ready when he had his molecular bridge working. He believed that once he could transport soldiers instantly with this device, he would need to do so immediately, before sapiens found out and came to stop him." Dreadmanifold pauses to stretch one of his legs. Stardiamond leans over on her elbow and strokes the smooth, black skin of his exposed shin with one of her finger-tips. "I was ambitious, so I built his empire with him. I conquered the Kratanak Outlands for him, and made the Bootika Empire."
"You were also in love with Dreamstealer," Stardiamond says, "The daughter of the king."
"I was. Perhaps that drove me to fight for him. In 2441 by your calander we announced our desire to marry, and the king approved, but not before the empire was complete. Four years later, I lead my army to the final victory, and all of Kratanak owed allegiance to Bootika. I felt that my marriage to Dreamstealer was imminent. But the king delayed it, and soon I began to find the king distant from me. My spies told me that he was jealous of my power, and feared for his son's ability to hold the throne against me. Nastinklackel was old, you see, three hundred and six at that time, and still he had not made his bridge. His son was a good man in many ways, but not ruthless, nor cunning. I had no intention of taking the throne from him, but the king apparantly did not trust me."
Jack says, "He thought his son-in-law would steal the throne from his son?"
"I suppose he did. Or perhaps he had decided I was not right for his daughter, and that once he had refused me, I would take the throne. I don't know, but my army knew of the contest, and they knew that it would only be a matter of time before the king tried to have me killed. They encouraged me to take the throne now, while I had my army. They were loyal to me."
Dreadmanifold takes a deep breath and stares into the fire for a few seconds. "That was foolish of them, siding with me. By speaking out in favor of me as king, they made it impossible for them to survive if I failed. If I fought the king, I knew that half the forces in Bootika would fight for him, and that I would lose many of my own in a fight over the crown. It would be a fight to the death for me, and for my centurions, not a battle over tribute, but a struggle against a ruthless old man obsessed with enslaving the world."
Dreadmanifold stares into the fire. Stardiamond does the same. Nobody says anything for a few minutes. Our heroes wonder if Dreadmanifold has forgotten the story, or if he has fallen asleep with his eyes open, or if they are expected to say something. But eventually, he continues.
"I exiled myself. Dreamstealer refused to come with me. If she had loved me, she would have come with me."
"If you had loved her," Stardiamond says, "You would have stayed."
"How could I stay? The king would have had me killed, or tried to have me killed, and either he would have succeeded, or I would have killed him in return, which is more likely. What could she expect me to do?"
Stardiamond sits up and looks at Wicklow. "She was a princess. No princess gives up her power lightly."
"Be that as it may," Dreadmanifold says, "She did not accompany me. But my loyal centurions did. They had no choice. To remain was to be deprived of their land at best, and put to death at worste. There were two hundred of them, counting their women and children. Their leader was Bragash. These were common orcs, you understand, whom I had lead into battle a hundred times. Bragash was the finest orc soldier I have ever seen."
"When did you leave Kratanak?" Wicklow says.
"It was 2456, ten years after the empire was complete."
"So that was ten years of knowing the king resented you."
"Yes, and trouble brewing in my army, and fearing that Dreamstealer and I would be torne apart, as we were in the end."
"Where did you go when you left?"
"I went south to Gripp, and then north-west into the Dukedoms of Weiland. I found employment for my orcs as mercenaries, and I left them there. After a few years I settled here. I took control of the kobolds, instructed them in the building of their village, and made sure they did not harrass sapiens. I met Galoopius Maximus and began to work with him. He supplied me with wood, carpenters, and tools so that I could build this house. I did business with the dwarves, and they built my cave and my door. That was over ten years ago. I had been enjoying this house for a year when I heard that King Nastinklackel has been killed by a sapien assassin. Perhaps he had been close to making his molecular bridge, and Olympia sent an assassin to kill him. Or perhaps my kin in Kratanak had tired of him, and hired one themselves. His son took over, and now I hear that his rule, although well-intentioned, is weak. The nations of the empire are in rebellion, and there is war."
"What became of your exiled orcs?"
"Bragash died. His son took over, also Bragash. They did well for themselves, until last year, when Weiland sent an army of two thousand knights to eject them from the Dukedom of Anabrasius. Bragash withdrew to the coast of the Satian Sea, commandeered three ships, and sailed to Tankum Island, where they remain. There are one hundred and three of them left. Some died in battle, but most of old age. There have been some children, but it is hard to raise them among sapiens."
The fire burns on, and our hereos talk with the black orcs late into the night. They discover that Stardiamond is 162 years old, and renowned among the gods. She has special permission to travel between the worlds, and can take Dreadmanifold with her. He is eager to go. They are off on an adventure in a few days. They won't say what it is, but they make no secret of the fact that they hope to make a lot of money. They both agree that they are eager to have children, and say that first they must move the exiled orcs to the western outlands or some other permanent place, and then move there themselves, and set up a home where they can raise a family. Gestation of black orc children is seven years. When our heroes ask if they can go for a ride on Klestin and Fernald, Dreadmanifold and Stardiamond's wyverns, the black orcs laugh, and say of course they can. Tomorrow, they can all go riding with the black orcs on the wyverns. Our heroes go to bed excited. Wyvern rides, sparring with Dreadmanifold and Stardiamond, getting to know the kobolds in the village, chatting with their own Tak, Bum, and company who have entered the village as liasons, it is all thrilling stuff.
Meanwhile, out in the night somewhere, a determined party of kobolds is hunting deer for the wyverns to eat in the morning.
It is midnight on 28th November, 2477. The kobold named Mad is banging a hammer at night, trying to fix something. Jack goes out and tells him to stop. Ten minuts later, he's at it again. Jack goes out and wacks him on the head (double-formidability quarter-damage, still scores five hit points, kobold can't dodge it) and demands to be given the hammer. Bum shows up to translate, and Mad gives Jack the hammer. Lid, the female kobold leader of the village, speaks Latin. She tells Jack the next morning that Mad has a pretend lamb, and he was trying to fix the latch on the lamb's cage, because it was broken and his lamb ran away. Lid says that Mad may be very upset, and he's a bit nutty, and he's always causing trouble, so it's best to keep him calm. Wicklow laughs and says everything will be fine now. "The lamb represented Dreadmanifold, and Mad was worried that Dreadmanifold was gone, but now that Jack went and wacked him on the head, Mad knows that everything is alright, he does not have to worry about messing up his own life, so he'll be fine." Jack goes to see Mad and gives him back the hammer, and sure enough, Mad is cheerful, and says that look, his lamb is back. Jack nods. There is no lamb, but there is a little pen with a door closed, and a metal pin as a latch through the wicker.
It is the night of 4th December, 2477. Up until now, the sapiens staying with the kobolds have been able to see enough to accompany the kobolds on their night hunts five out of every nine nights that the kobolds go out. On the tenth night, not even the kobolds can see. But now there is snow on the ground, it's late this winter but here it is, and the moon shines brightly off it or even the stars make light enough to see by, and the sapiens can go out most nights. These hunts strengthen the bond between the sapiens and the kobolds because the sapiens let the kobolds lead them through the darkness under the trees, and the sapiens can shoot a deer at a greater range, and with more chance of brinding it down, than any of the kobolds. The spaien supremacy over the kobolds in personal combat has already been well established by the sapiens breaking up fights.
It is the dawn of the 10th December 2477. Loose Lips sets sail from Diamantis with four couples on board: Heraklese and Bonita share the captain's cabin, and Hocus, Martha, and two other professional sailing couples share the crew cabin. The four sailors they have hired are going on the trip into pirate waters for 100 gp each. They expect it to be a two-week job, but maybe four weeks. The trip down to Tankum will be about a week with normal winds. One of the couples, Jessica and Stanly, are in their early twenties. The other couple, Sallina and Garibaldi, are in their late fourties. Their children are grown, and they have gone back to sea to travel the world and work. They love to sail, and are fine sailors. As is traditional, the crew each get a share of the hold for trading. Heraklese agreed to one cubic meter each.
Their destination is Tankum Island, which is in the South Satian Sea, within fifty kilometers of the coast of Weiland.
It is the morning of 15th December 2477. Approching Tankum Island after four days of easy sailing, Heraklese is piloting for the second day through the shoals between the islands East of Kork Island. He scrapes the bottom a couple of times. Bonita is a better sailor than him, but they work well together. Hocus and Martha keep a lookout for pirates. When are they going to attack? Martha wants to write about Hocus defending the boat. It would make a great article. Without a pirate attack, how can she justify her journey with Hocus? Who cares, she is in love, and the company has been great. Jessica is a fine cook. During the day, Hocus spends time listening through the walkie talkies to the goings-on in the kobold village. He eavesdrops on the The Professionals in the Powachella Mill Hotel over their supper from about 9 pm until 10 pm.
In the late afternoon of the next day, Loose Lips is in sight of what Heraklese believes to be Tankum Island. They drop anchor in the shallows a thousand meters from the nearest island, a small jutting hill covered with large-leafed trees. Sallina and Garibaldi catch some fresh fish, which they grill on deck while everyone present discusses their upcoming meeting with The Exiles.
On the morning of the 14th of December, after a clear night with a gibbous moon, our heroes in the Kobold Village receive the following letter from Galoopius Maximums.Dear Wicklow, Scythe, and Jack,
I hope you are enjoying yourselves among the kobolds. I wish the same could be said for the inhabitants of Powachella, and the employees of the Powachella Mill Hotel, and indeed myself. No sooner do I come to peace with yourselves, and relish the idea of frequenting my favorite restaurant with my accustomed regularity, than the same restaurant is descended upon by a gang of allegedly invincible roughes who terrorize the landlord, befuddle the serving-women with enchantments, and insult the villagers. They are adventurers, or so they claim, and I am inclined to believe them, although they are not of the same kind as you. I rather think them to be of the kind Dreadmanifold regards as a niusance. Perhaps they have some code of honor among themselves, but there is nothing honorable about grabbing Theodore's wrist to detain him and complain about the texture of the white sauce. It's true that the sauce was indeed below the chef's usual standard (I tasted it myself), but who can work under such threats as, If I see another lump in my sauce, I'm going to come back and make a lump in his forehead. Get it? Followed by laughter, and the woman smacking Theodore on the backside with her scabbard. And that's another thing about them: they are always armed and wearing armor, as if they are always about to fight someone, although nobody shows the slightest inclination to fight them. Two days ago, Theodore came all the way to my house and complained that the landlord was at his wit's end, and the staff were wondering if there was any way to get in touch with you, and Hocus the Destroyer, so that you might return to the hotel and rid them of these guests, whose presense terrifies the village and intimidates the police into inaction. The mayor has tried to obtain soldiers from Wakalin, and has petitioned the Queen, but in the absence of any crime being committed, the Queen will do nothing. I did not tell Theodore where you were. He does not know that you are so nearby, nor do the villagers, or else I believe they would send a deputation even up to the kobold village itself to petition you for help as they did the Queen. Such is the good impression you made upon the staff and the village that they have no doubt that you could descend upon these obnoxious guests and drive them out of town with the very rumour of your approach. To my mind, however, there are five of them: a woman and four men, and they are well-equipped and supremely confident, so I expect they would stand and fight. But perhaps you will take pity upon us and find some way to help us out. The landlord would, I am sure, be eternally grateful. You may get a few free meals out of him, if not a hundred free nights board. So, I have written enough for you to think about. Any news from D?Yours, Galoopius.
On the morning of the 15th of December, Scythe puts on a simple but effective disguise, that of a Belgorian trader. He plans to pose as a gem trader in the Powachella Mill Hotel, but as a pottery salesman to Galoopius. He walks down from the kobold village. The sun is shining, and the snow fall of the week before is sparkling and melting. The walk takes four hours, and brings him the Galoopius's door shortly after lunch. He knocks and Galoopius's elderly male servant answers the door.
"Good afternoon," Scythe says, "I am a pottery trader, and I'm here to see Mr. Maximus."
Bentick (for that is the elderly male servant's name) says, "The master is unavailable. He is at siesta."
"Oh," Scythe says. What a pity. If Galoopius had been avaliable, Scythe could have tested his disguise upon him. But Bentick does not seem to recognise me. "Do you know who I am?"
"No, sir, although I am sure you are of immense importance."
"You don't recognise me?"
"I do not, although I'm sure I would if I were a more regular attendant at the Queen's Court."
"It's Scythe, the adventurer, who came to lunch with Dalian Krass a few weeks ago."
The old servant stares at him for a few seconds. "If you say so, sir."
"So please tell Galoopius that Scythe is here to see him, in answer to his letter. I have walked all the way down out of the mountains, and I would like some lunch."
After waiting outside for a few minutes, Scythe is welcomed by Galoopius, who looks as if he has just woken up and put his clothes on, but he is in a good mood, and looking slimmer than he was a month earlier.
"Thank you, sir, for coming," Galoopius says, and sits Scythe down at the dining room table. "A most convincing disguise. I'm sure I would not have recognised you. Bentick, some lunch for the gentlemen."
Galoopius sits down himself, with a glass of water. "You are well, I hope?"
"We are well, thank you."
"And is there anything you can do for the Hotel?"
"I don't know. But we will find out. The first thing to do is to spy on the culprits. I have a space bridge, and I suggest we plant it under their dinner table, after talking to Theodore in private."
"A fine idea. We can take my carriage. After you refresh yourself, of course."
And so it is that Scythe, Galoopius, and Theodore sit talking quietly in the common room of the Powachella Mill Hotel at around 6 pm that evening, in front of the fire so that their voices will be further muffled by the sound of its crackling. There is no real need for a fire today, because the weather outside is mild for this time of year, but the fireplace is large and well-stocked with wood that the guests can place upon the blaze themselves, so Scythe is happy to be sitting there, and takes his jacket off, sitting only in a silk under-shirt.
"Now, you see: you are not wearing armor. In fact, you're not even carrying a sword. Why is that?" Galoopius says.
"I wish I were wearing my armor, but it was a long walk, and I did not want my disguise to be compromised. I thought I might end up speaking with the adventurers personally, and I figured I would trust the disguise rather than my ability to fight them. There's a bounty out on my head you know, for a hundred thousand Olympian dollars."
"A hundred thousand?" Theodore says, and Scythe nods.
"Good heavens," Galoopius says. "But then again, who would try to kill someone like you for one hundred thousand dollars? Only a fool."
"Which fits the description of these five guests," Scythe says. "So, what are their names, Theodore?"
"There are five of them, and they call themselves The Professionals. They signed the guest book that way, and asked that their bill be collected together under their group name. Not that they have paid the bill: they get angry every time the landlord asks them about it. One of them is a dwarf, like the ones we see coming up and down the road from the dwarf cities in the mountains. His name is Amberic Nailhammer. He's the best of them, if you ask me: rarely rude to anyone. The rest are sapiens. The oldest of them is Charles Canning, who is around thirty-five, I would guess. He may be their leader, although I'm not sure they have a leader. He sleeps with the woman, who's name is Patricia Nonak, although he told Christine, one of the maids, that he has two daughters back in his home country. I think Charles is a wizard, or sorcerer, because he and another one, Hassan Nassiri, make fireworks in the garden at night. It's quite a show they put on. We all go out to see it, and at first we were glad to have them staying because of the fireworks. But they use their magic to make us do things against our will, and forget things. Most of the staff believe that we are all under their spell. Christine thinks we get up at night and do terrible things for the wizards, and then go back to sleep again without remembering any of it, except as a dream."
Scythe nods. "And the fifth member?"
"He is the worste of them all. He is quiet, but when he speaks his voice makes the hair stand up on the back of my neck. His name is Kadmium Herkocide, and I have never been afraid of anyone like I am afraid of him. He has not grabbed me or pushed me around like the others, but I could swear to you that he wants to kill me. In fact, I believe he wants to kill anyone he can find an excuse to kill. He has insulted every single person he has spoken to in this village, and not one of them have called him out for a duel, because every one of them believes him to be a master swordsman."
Scythe has been writing the names and details in his book. He holds up his hand to stop Theodore from talking, so he can finish writing.
"How and when did they arrive at the hotel?" Scythe says.
"On the second of December, they arrived in the afternoon, all sitting on a bench that floated in mid-air, and landed in the garden. Most days they go off on the same bench, floating off over the forest. They say they are hunting, but they have never returned with anything to eat. They say they shot several deer in the forest, but left them there because they could not carry the carcasses back on the flying bench. It seems that the bench can lift only a certain weight. The landlord, who is a keen hunter himself, was furious that his guests had been shooting deer and leaving them to rot on the public lands, but he had to keep his anger to himself, apart form slapping Christine for spilling water on the carpet in Kadmium Herkocide's room."
Scythe writes this down, and sips his coffee. Galoopius puts his own cup down, and sits back in his chair. "And what have you overheard them saying while you serve them, young Theodore?"
Theodore turns to face Galoopius, "Very little of substance, as it was with Scythe and his companions. The conversation becomes banal whenever I approach. Except for one time, when I was walking away, the wizard, Hassan, said, I'm not going in unless we're sure he's in Jamchelk. I know that Jamchelk is in the desert south of here, and they told the landlord that they came from Jamchelk."
The three talk for another half an hour, and then Scythe retires to a room and talks to Hocus, Jack, and Wicklow through the walkie-talkie. Jack uses his own AAA bridge to determine that the most recent occurance of the Jamchelk Conjunction was 2nd December to 5th December. The next occurance will be 16 weeks later, from 24th March to 28th. He also finds out from the Claran Bounty-Hunter's Association that there are no bounties out on any of the five names given to Scythe by Theodore.
"I know Hassan Nassiri," Hocus says, "He was two years above me at the Pakesh School of Wizardry. He was tall, about two meters, and from the south of Ursia. He had black hair and a big hooked nose, and pock-marked skin. When he was younger, I remember him having awful acne, poor fellow. We used to tease him. But he was cool about it."
"You used to tease him personally?" Scythe says.
"No, not personally, but the students in general used to tease him."
"And now here he is, avenging himself upon the world," Wicklow says, "Nobody will ever call him Spotty Face Hassan again and live to tell the tale."
"No," Hocus says, "I don't think he was entirely like that. Now, I have to go. We are coming up to an island, and we think it might be Tankum."
"Okay," Scythe says, "But you'll be listening at supper time. They are out hunting, or so they say, and I'm going to stick this bridge under their regular table before they come in."
"Yes, I'll be listening."
"The flying bench," Jack says, "What was that?"
"Probably a space bridge thruster attached to a bench. With two wizards, they could do a lot of flying around with a space bridge thruster. I don't have the apparatus, but I would like to get one. Perhaps you can steal theirs for me."
Scythe sticks his bridge under the round table in the middle of the dining hall with pine pitch, and retires to The Fox and Hounds pub down the street, for a casual dinner with Galoopius. The Professionals return a couple of hours after dark, and sit down for supper at their usual table. They have been out all day on their flying bench. When they come in, they talk in whispers, but Hocus, listening in Loose Lips, makes out several telling snippets of conversation. The language they speak at the table is Latin.
"I don't know who they are," a man says, in an accent that Hocus places to the north of the Western Outlands, perhaps Kentish or Caravelli. "But they must be friends of the black orc's."
Some time later, Hocus hears, "He's not there now," a throaty voice with a thick, sharp accent, "he was there just before the conjunction, and he's not here, so he must have gone through it."
"Maybe he's gone through the conjunction," the woman says, in another Kentish or Caravelli accent. "Maybe he hasn't. We're not certain. Our boy did not see him go through, and he's not in the city. We're not certain."
"You are afraid, as always," a slow, voice, even-paced and without intonation. The accent is hard to place, but could be Endan.
"Oh, shut up!" the woman says in response, out loud.
A little later, a new voice, which Hocus recognises as Hassan Nassiri's, or assumes it to be from the accent. "No, night time is best."
"I'm not counting on those foolish goggles of yours," the slow voice says.
Towards the end of the meal, the woman says, "Hah! If that key is a fake, that bitch is in big trouble, no matter how you feel about her."
"We need to rest, okay," the man with the Kentish or Caravelli accent says, "and I need to prepare some spells, so lets' go to bed."
"Me too," Hassan says.
Scythe returns to the hotel after The Professionals have gone to bed, without tipping the staff or paying their bill. But they order breakfast. Scythe pulls his bridge out from under the table and climbs into Galoopius's carriage. They arrive back at Panorama Villa at about 10:30 pm.
Scythe walks back to the kobold village on the morning of the 16th December. He, Wicklow, and Jack are assuming that The Professionals will attack at night some time soon, perhaps tonight. They have one day to prepare the kobolds for the defense of their village and of Dreadmanifold's cave. The first thing they do is cover the door of the cave with a thick layer of conjured rubber using an Indirect Conjured Rubber spell prepared over-night by Hocus. The rubber has longevity ten days, and is one meter thick. It extends two meters beyond the door and appears to be stuck firmly to the rock of the door frame, and wrapped around the bases of two small trees.
Meanwhile, Bonita pilots Loose Lips to Tankum Island, and they drop anchor.
Tonight the moon will rise at 3 am. The sky is partly cloudy over the kobold village, and looks so in the west, so our heroes expect dim starlight tonight. They talk to Dreadmanifold with Hocus's cooperation at noon. He says he's on a mountaintop on a tropical island. "It was a woman dwarf named MacLockandlock, who made the lock for the door on my cave. She was supposed to make only two keys, both of which she gave to me. It may be that she made three." They agree to talk again the next day. Dreadmanifold confirms that he does not want to lose kobold lives protecting the cave, but he hardly thinks that such loss of life would be necessary. "These Professionals are no doubt formidable on their own, but in a group they are probably incompetent. Let them argue among themselves."
The kobolds are cutting down trees in the forest around the village. They don't like to do this particularly, because they use the forest for firewood, and harvest it carefully. But the adventurers assure them that the defence of the village requires the trees. The kobolds, one hundred adults working together under instruction from three sapiens and the six kobolds of Tak's team, drag the tree trunks over to the cave door, prop them up vertically, and lean them upon it. Meanwhile, Scythe runs string across the wyvern landing platform, anticipating it as The Professionals' landing spot. He prepares thirty kobold archers uphill from the platform, hiding in the trees, to fire upon the bench as it comes in. Downhill, the kobolds in the houses that will be in the line of fire, are told to move out and stay in other houses.
Of the two hundred kobolds that live in the village, thirty-eight are under the age of eight, and therefore too young to fight. One is pregnant and one is near death with old age. Our heroes instruct ten adult female kobolds to hide in the trees with these forty to the north side of the village. They divide the remaining one hundred and fifty fighting kobolds into five groups of thirty each, and put one of Tak's kobolds with each group, and keep Tak with them. Tak's kobolds have calls with which they can communicate with their comrades even though they be separated by several hundred meters. Tak's kobolds speak Latin, so our heroes can communicate with them easily, and through them transmit orders to Dreadmanifold's kobolds.
As the sun goes down, the five groups of kobolds are hidden in and around the village. Our heroes are waiting on the porch of Dreadmanifold's house with Tak and group number two. There is no light in the village. The sky is partly cloudy. The moon will not rise until three hours after midnight. According to Dreadmanifold's thermometer, which hangs upon the wall next to the porch, the temperature outside is −5°C.
Seven hundred kilometers away, across mountains and sea, Hocus sits in the captain's cabin of Loose Lips. He has a bridge to Scythe and one to Jack. Wicklow's bridge sits in the trees that block the entrance to Dreadmanifold's cave, ready to be sacrificed in one of Hocus's famous balls of fire.
An hour after sunset on the 16th December, the kobolds report to Wicklow, Scythe, and Jack that they see something in the sky, decending towards them. Scythe looks up at the scattered clouds and the stars. After a few seconds, he hears a hissing noise, and then sees a dark shape decending towards the wyvern platform. The shape is too large to be a bird, and far too slow-moving to be a wyvern or a hippogriff. It must be The Professionals and their space bridge thruster.
Perhaps The Professionals intended to land on the wyvern platform, but they miss it and land a little to the north, in a snow-covered garden. Our heroes are standing with Tak. Through him, they order kobold group number three, which hides in the forest just north of the wyvern platform, to advance upon the enemy, fire, and retreat.
Within moments of landing, The Professionals unveil a bright white light that is almost blinding to look at. The light is set upon a pole three meters high, with a disk beneath it and another above. The disks are shiny, and reflect the light of the stone outwards, while leaving the space beneath in shadow. In this shadow, The Professionals stand up and begin to arrange their equipment. They talk to one another, and sound as if they are moving quickly.
Our heroes order group three to continue with their advance upon the enemy. Within seconds, the kobolds are visible in the shadows cast by the light pole, moving from one cover to the next, approaching The Professionals. Wicklow runs out from the cover of Dreadmanifold's house. He has a primed thunder-egg in his hand. As he nears the light pole, he hears arrows whisteling through the air. He sees the dim outlines of The Professionals standing beneath the light, and the arrows stopping short in mid-air. The Professionals have conjured shields. As Wicklow comes nearer, one of the people beneath the light fires an arrow out at him from between their shields, and then another a few seconds later. But by that time, Wicklow is within twenty paces of the shields. He throws the thunder-egg over the shields and runs away. Behind him there is a deafening explosion and a blaze of light as if lightening had struck the ground.
Wicklow slows down. He cannot see. After the blaze of the thunder-egg, even the light of the light pole is too dim. But his eyes adjust quickly, and he continues running for the house. The light pole is still shining because he sees its light all around him, but the shadows are moving slowly from right to left, and shuddering. He reaches the corner of the house and rejoins his comrades in the shadows. He turns to look back at the site of the blast.
On the ground where The Professionals had been standing with their light pole Wicklow now sees a wooden bench burning brightly. The light pole itself, and The Professionals, have moved off to the edge of the forest thirty meters north of the bench. The light pole is swaying, and then comes to rest upon a tree trunk.
Across the hundred meters of low huts and empty gardens that separates our heroes from the intruders, they hear a growling voice, "I'm not holding the damned thing any more, that's for sure." It is Amberic the dwarf. The Professionals are hiding behind trees near their light pole. They are talking. Our heroes cannot hear clearly what they are saying, but their tone is impatient, and at times angry.
Scythe looks to his left for the kobolds of group three, and sees them retreating to their former position in the forest. Within a minute, they will be hidden again beneath the trees, two hundred meters to the west of The Professionals. The stair and path leading north through the trees to Dreadmanifold's cave will lie almost exactly midway between them. "I think we should advance with group two and fire."
"Yes," Wicklow says.
Scythe turns to Tak. "Group two advance with us, fire, and retreat."
When they are within seventy meters of the light pole, there is a sudden flash of light and a bang in front of them. The Professionals must have seen them coming.
"A flash of light," Jack says through his bridge.
"It's a flash spell," Hocus says.
They continue to advance, and the kobolds follow them. The light pole vanishes. The brightest light remaining is the burning bench. Jack reports to Hocus through his bridge. "There is a burning bench. The light pole is off." There is another flash of light and a bang. "And another flash."
"The bench goes with their thruster," Hocus says, his voice weak but just audible to Jack, "The thruster apparatus is metal. It might be there. I want that.
Wicklow says to Scythe, "They must have covered up the luminous stone."
"Let's wait here for a minute," Scythe says to Tak.
A woman leaps suddenly into the light of the burning bench, holding another pole. This one flashes in the firelight, as if it is made of metal. It is shorter than the light pole, no taller than she is. She puts the tip of it into the orange fire above the bench, and a bright jet of blue flame appears at the end of the pole. Wicklow has an arrow notched to fire, and so does Scythe, but by the time they take aim, the woman is gone, back into the darkness away from the fire.
Jack describes this scene to Hocus. "It's a fire lance. Water forced through a bridge in a continuous stream. Very like my fire balls, but controlled and hot."
Wicklow holds his binoculars to his eyes and examines the dimly-lit trees at the border of the forest. He sees the shadows flickering behind the trees and among the branches, but no sign of The Professionals. "Where are they?"
"I think they are going for the cave."
"Yes. Shall we continue to harass them?"
Jack is listening to his bridge. He looks up. "Hocus thinks they must be rattled after the thunder-egg. I agree."
"I say we move group five into the forest, and then west to close with the enemy," Scythe says, "Order them to close, fire, and retreat."
Wicklow lowers his binoculars and puts them away. "And we will go into the woods also to join group five."
"Yes," Jack says.
Scythe turns to Tak. "Give the order for group five to move into the forest and go west, fire, and retreat."
Tak runs off to give group five their orders. Scythe says to Bin, "Now, move with us. We are going into the forest, north, and then west to the cave."
"Look!" Wicklow says. There are five bright cones of light flickering through the trees. After a few seconds, it becomes apparant to our heroes that The Professionals have head-mounted luminous stones. The five intruders, so guided by their lamps, have spread out through the trees, and are now jogging west towards the path that leads up the the cave.
"Okay, let's go," Scythe says.
Jack lets his bridge fall to his chest, where it hangs upon a chain about his neck. He follows Scythe and Wicklow along a narrow, snow-covered track. Tak goes ahead of them, and group two behind them. They enter the trees.
In the absolute darkness beneath the trees, our heroes each take the hand of a kobold and walk through the darkness. From in front of them comes the sound of bows firing. Group five is attacking. They hear a whooshing noise, and they see a sudden, bright flash of light. Kobolds are running back through the trees towards them.
Tak joins them in the darkness. "There is magic. Some troops are caught in something we cannot see. The eyes of some others will not see, because of the bright flash. The troops are running. I came to you."
"Well done," Wicklow says.
The kobolds of group five appear to have scattered. Our heroes proceed with group two, Tak, and Bin, until they encounter an invisible wall with a kobold protruding from it. "Hocus says it's surrounding sponge. The kobolds will be fine. And he's listening to The Professionals outside the cave entrance. They are sitting there with their shields around them, and trying to burn through a branch with their lance. He wants to let off his fireball through Wicklow's bridge."
"Wait until we are in position," Jack says.
A few minutes later, and group two is just north of the cave entrance, uphill from The Professionals and ready to fire down upon them.
"Okay," Wicklow says, "Do it."
In the captain's cabin far away, Hocus rips the sibilant membrane off Wicklow's bridge and then Heraklese grabs the bellows full of water and forces three liters of water through. There is no need for Hocus to ignite the gas, because there is fire nearby: a tree trunk is burning, set aflame earlier by the fire lance.
The fireball goes off, The Professionals scatter. Group two and our heroes open fire, upon them and retreat immediately. A poison cloud explodes in the dim orange light cast by the burning tree. When our heroes and group two settle into the forest twenty meters farther up the hill, they hear one kobold left behind shouting within a cloud of milky gas. He emerges waving his arms and dancing around, as if his feet are burning.
Wicklow recalls Hocus telling him about the poisoned cloud that causes confusion and visions. "Bin, send two kobolds to get him and look after him. The cloud has made him crazy."
Scythe says, "I think we should order group three to advance upon enemy, fire, and retreat, right away."
"I agree," Wicklow says.
Scythe turns to Tak. "Group three advance, fire, and retreat."
Tak puts his hands to his mouth and emits a call like that of an owl, but far louder. The call continues, rises, and falls. It is the intonation of the call, Tak has told them, that conveys the message. He does not punctuate the call.
The Professionls move into the forest to the south of the cave. They light their way with their head lanterns. One of them carries the light pole, covered with a cloth, and Patricia keeps hold of the fire lance, which is now extinguished. Unknown to them, they are moving directly towards kobold group three, led by Lad. The sound of arrows whilstling through the air reaches our heroes, and The Professionals are suddenly under fire from thirty kobolds they cannot see. They cannot even see the arrows, and they assume that they are under fire from behind. They take shelter, but they continue to be exposed. Three of them are hit, and they begin to shout to one another in distress.
Our heroes hear a man's voice. "Go South! Go South! All together!"
Moments later, and The Professionals are fleeing south through the kobold village. Our heroes and group two persue down the stairs and across the gardens, between the huts. Bursts of light appear in the sky, high above them. Showers of multicolored lights float down slowly, illuminating the village.
Wicklow looks up and smiles. "Fireworks!"
"Tak," Scythe says, "Order group four to fire and retreat!"
Tak stops for a few seconds to emit another loud, melodic call. Group four is to the south, almost in the path of the fleeing intruders. Our heroes advance to a stream, and are about to fire, when The Professionals take shelter in a hut. Our heroes, with group two, stop and take cover, wondering what the intruders will do next. As the last of the falling lights goes out, The Professionals emerge from the hut. They run into the forest south of the village and disappear. Our heroes order group one to join them from the east, and then direct group one into the forest to engage the enemy. Group one enters the forest with Pod at their lead.
Our heroes wait in the darkness and listen. From within the woods they hear a deep voice. They cannot make out what it says, but the cadance of its words, and the nature of the sounds it utters, suggest to the listeners that the voice is speaking Latin. Our heroes wonder for a moment if the voice is Dreadmanifold's, but they realise that it is too deep even for his voice. There is some other creature in the woods, and by its voice, it must be larger than a black orc. Even as they come to this conclusion, they hear the sound of a large branch cracking, and a sustained crashing among the trees, followed by a bellow in the deep voice. After that, the noise subsides, and they hear the quiet patter of kobolds running out of the trees as fast as they can.
Pod appears in front of them, panting, and speaks quickly to Tak. Tak turns to them and says, "Ogre. They have an ogre in the forest with them."
"Wow," Scythe says.
Wicklow laughs. "They summoned an ogre from Olympia!"
Tak is not laughing, nor smiling. "We cannot fight the ogre. Ogre wears thick armor. Arrows cannot go through. Village kobolds are frightened. They run."
"We understand," Scythe says.
They listen and wait. They have kobold group two with them. Group four is a hundred meters to the west, on the other side of a creek. Behind them, to the north, still in the forest, is group three. The members of groups one and five have scattered, and occasionaly show up to join group two, emerging from between the huts and across the gardens in the starlight.
Now there comes a sustained crashing from the woods, and sounds of steady progress to the west, towards the place where the village stream passes out between the arms of the mountain and into the pass.
"I see them," Tak says, "They walk by the water. I see their backs. The ogre carries two of them under its arms. The others walk behind. They walk well in the dark, like orcs."
"Thank you, Tak," Wicklow says. He speaks to Jack and Scythe. "Three of them must be wearing night vision goggles. The other two the ogre is carrying because they cannot see. I think we should send someone to follow them."
"I will follow them," Jack says, "With some kobolds."
The others agree, and soon after, Jack sets off with Tak, Nib, and two kobolds from the village. The light is still dim, with scattered clouds interrupting the stars, so Jack puts his hand on Nib's shoulder and follows her down the path beside the stream and out into the pass. Their quarry is ahead of them by five hundred meters, but Tak can see them clearly, and they can hear the ogre crunching stones with his boots as he makes his way west with The Professionals. Jack suspects that they are heading back to The Powachella Mill Hotel.
Scythe and Wicklow stay behind, with Bum and Pod as translators, to gather the village kobolds together and tend to the wounded, of which there are only a few. Most of the injuries the kobolds suffered when tripping and falling in panic when running from the flash spells and the ogre. One kobold was caught by the poison cloud spell, and he takes a few hours to calm down. Another was struck a glancing blow by an arrow from behind, and another was shot through the leg, the arrow passing right through his calf muscle and out the other side, into a tree. In both cases, Wicklow believes the arrows to have been fired by other kobolds to the rear, during an advance and retreat. Three kobolds were stuck in the surrounding sponge. They are frightened, but otherwise unharmed, after crawling out of the decaying sponge half an hour after being trapped.
The Professionals, meanwhile, walk briskly for four kilometers, and then stop. Jack and the kobolds hide behind some rocks one hundred meters away. The Professionals shine their headlamps, which allows Jack to watch. He sees the looming shape of the ogre in its ironwood armor, standing to one side. It is half again as tall as the tallest man in the group. Two of the men are arranging something on the ground, in the light of their headlamps. Soon a black circle expands between them to a diameter of two meters, and the ogre steps forward, bends over, and steps into the circle. Jack is surprised by the grace with which the large, armored creature fits its broad shoulders through the aperture available to it. Moments later, the circle is contracting, and the ogre is nowhere to be seen.
With the ogre gone, The Professionals take off fragments of their armor to expose cuts and scrapes that they clean and bind. As they tend to one another, they talk, and occasionaly shout. Among them stands Amberic the dwarf, his arms folded, and a frown on his face. Occasionaly he speaks, but he does not shout. Nor does he look at the others, although they at him and raise their voices.
After a while, They Professionals extinguish their lamps, and post two sentries while the others sleep. At three in the morning, they get up and move on, down the pass and to the east. Jack and his kobolds follow them all night, around in occasional circles, until The Professionals find the road leading north to the bridge in Powachella. The Professionals walk along the road, across the bridge, and into the hotel, arriving at about an hour after sunrise on the 17th December. Jack and the kobolds go up the river secretly, find a place to ford it, and then walk down again to hide themselves in the trees behind the cottages of the Powachella Mill Hotel. From there they plan to spy upon The Professionals for the rest of the day.
After breakfast on 17th December, 2477, Hocus sends up a Scrying Eye to examine the island to the south that they believe to be Tankum Island. After watching through the bridge as it rises into space, he draws the following map, or something like it, while sitting in the captain's cabin with Heraklese and Martha.
"And there's a three-masted frigate floating offshore from the village," he says, and draws the boat on the map.
It is chilly out on the deck of the boat. The sun is shining, and the wind is blowing at about nine kilometers per hour out of the south-west. Jessica and Stanley are on deck, keeping watch. The ship is anchored in ten meters of water. The sails are unfurled, held up to the wind and flapping gently, ready for departure.
Jessica is watching the horizon, and sees a blue sail rounding the coast of the island ten kilometers east of them. "Sail Ho!" she calls, and everyone but Garibaldi and Sallina rush on deck. Bonita examines the sail through her brass telescope.
"Have they seen us?" Hocus says.
"I can't tell. We have an island behind us in their view, so they may not see us if we stay still."
Hocus looks up at the sails, which are off-white. They are parallel to the wind, and so face the blue-sailed ship enough to be visible against the trees of the island behind them. If they furl the sails, the movement will surely make them more obvious. He holds his binoculars to his eyes and watches the blue sail as it makes its way across the water. Its sail only just visible to the naked eye.
Sallina and Garibaldi come on deck, woken from their sleep by the call of Sail Ho! Ten minutes go by before Bonita says, "They have changed course, they are steering towards us."
Martha says, "Does that mean they have seen us, or could it be that they are just tacking?"
Garibaldi is looking through his own telescope. It is made of steel, and delicately carved. "They have seen us. It's their business to see us. They have a man in their crow's nest, and he saw us before we saw him."
Bonita lowers her telescope to look at Garibaldi. "What should we do?"
Garibaldi folds up his instrument and looks at her. "I'm not the captain. Let the captain decide. Sallina and I won't fight, but we are not afraid of sailing under fire."
A few minutes later, and Loose Lips is heading south across the wind. They sail around the coast of the nearby island, and hide behind it and a larger island to the west. They are out of sight of the blue-sailed ship. They hold themselves in the wind with their sails, ready to move, waiting for the other ship to appear around the coast of the island to the east. Their prow is facing south.
At 10 am, the blue-sailed ship sails into view. It is only four kilometers away, and closing at about ten kilometers per hour, running straight towards them. When they are within a thousand meters, Loose Lips sets off to the west with the wind behind her. She rolls gently on the waves, a splash of salty water coming over her prow every few minutes. The blue-sailed ship persues them.
Sallina is watching the other ship through Garibaldi's telescope. "I see men gathering at the rails. Oh! He's unfurled a banner of some sort. I don't recognise it, but it's not Satian, nor any other official banner. They must be pirates."
The pirate ship has two masts, triangular sails, and is about thirty-five meters long, and appears to have about eighty people on board, most of whom are looking forward at their quarry. Loose Lips, meanwhile, has only one mast and is fifteen meters long. The larger ship is gaining slowly on the smaller. After an hour, it is within 100 m.
Heraklese takes the wheel of the ship. "Bonita, Jessica, Stanley, go below. One of you stay by the door so you can listen to what's going on."
That leaves Sallina, Garibaldi, Hocus, Martha, and Heraklese on deck.
Hocus casts Flash, and places the blaze of light in the middle of the pirate deck. The sound of the flash arrives a third of a second after the sight of it. The pirates, now clearly visible in binoculars and telescopes, hide themselves behind their ship's solid railing. Their captain is a large, muscular man with long black hair and bronzed skin.
Despite the Flash, the pirates continue their persuit. They are closing at about ten meters per minute. At eighty meters, the pirates stand up and fire a volley of arrows, then duck down again. Martha and Hocus fire back. As the pirates come closer, she begins firing repeatedly at the man at the wheel of their ship. At sixty meters, she hits him in the side, but he keep steering. Hocus places a Grand Flash above the deck. The pirates stand up and fire a volley every thirty seconds or so, and now that they are closer, dozens of arrows are landing on the deck. Martha and Hocus are firing back, and using up their arrows.
Bonita brings up more arrows from their supplies below decks, and Sallina brings them across the deck, amid the fire from the pirates, to Hocus and Martha.
Martha stands up and fires again at the pirate steersman, and hits him in the chest. He does not appear to be wearing armor. The pirate captain orders another man to the helm, and he is obeyed. He himself takes a bow off his back and takes aim. He fires at Heraklese, and the arrow thuds into the deck beside his left leg. The captain fires again and again. His aim is good, and Heraklese is surrounded by arrows, and he is getting nervous.
"Stand down!" Garibaldi says, "I'll take the helm, hide here by the rail." And he steps up and relieves Heraklese. The pirate captain's arrows continue to land around him, until Martha wounds the second pirate helmsman, and with that, the captain takes the helm himself and stops firing. At forty meters, the pirates stand up and fire their most devestating volly yet. Some arrows come in fast and horizontal, others come down from above. There are hundreds of arrows protruding from the deck and the masts, and it is difficult to move around without snapping them under hand and foot.
At thirty meters, Hocus stands up and casts Enveloping Sponge at the pirate's main mast. The spell binds the center of the main sail in conjured sponge, and the pirate ship leans over in the wind. The captain looks about him, orders his men into action, and steers the boat to one side. He stares up into the sail, and at his quarry, and barks more orders. They cannot understand him, but Garibaldi claims that he is speaking Satian with an unusual accent.
The distance between the two boats opens up to forty meters, then a hundred.
"How long will that hold them?" Martha says.
"Fifteen minutes," Hocus says.
"Fifteen minutes! They'll catch us up again. We have to go back and finish them while they are crippled."
And so Loose Lips turns about, sails for fifteen minutes in a loop, and comes back at the blue-sailed pirate ship. By the time she closes up on the pirates, Hocus has made a shield of conjured wood for Heraklese to hold in front of Garibaldi as Garibaldi steers the boat, and two more fixed to the rail of the boat for he and Martha to hide behind during the approach, and another for Sallina to hold before her as she supplies them with arrows. Their plan is for Martha to harrass the enemy with arrows, and for Hocus to disable the pirate ship by destroying a large part of its rigging with Slice. Even as they approach, it is obvious that the Enveloping Sponge has decayed, and the pirates are realizing that they are free to sail again.
As Loose Lips approaches, the pirates stand up and fire volley after volley. Each time they stand up for five seconds to take aim, they fire, and duck down again. Martha would like to fire at the helmsman, but he now stands behind a shield of wood planks, and the pirate boat is hardly moving anyway. It is not worth her exposing herself to fire in order to shoot at them. Despite the hundreds of arrows landing upon deck, Garibaldi is able to steer behind the conjured shield held by Heraklese. At one point, Heraklese is almost knocked backwards by the force of the arrows striking the shield, and one arrow even penetrates all the way through the twenty centimeters of conjured wood and sticks into the deck beside Garibaldi's feet.
When Loose Lips is alongside the pirate ship, the pirates fire their bows continuosly, and then eight grapnels fly through the air towards Loose Lip's rigging. Only one of the grapnels becomes properly entangled, and as the boats move past one another, the grapnel slides down the rigging and digs into the ship's railing. Hocus casts Slice, puts its bridge in a bridge ring while hiding behind his shield, stands up in the face of the pirate's fire, and throws the ring at the pirates' main mast. The bridge bounces off the mast, rotates, and goes off. It cuts up and down, through ropes and slicing cleanly through the main sail and half the sail on the rear mast. The loose rigging falls to the deck, and a pirate screams from somehwere behind the railing. They hear pirates running about the deck. The captain is standing on the rear deck watching. He shouts orders.
The rope that holds the grapnel on Loose Lips's railing tightens. It is thick, and the grapnel is strong. Even as it tightens, Martha can feel Loose Lips turning about the grapnel. She stands up. The pirates are still shooting. She strikes at the rope with her sword. Arrows fill the air around her. She ducks, stands again, and strikes. The rope breaks with a snap, and Loose Lips surges forward and around the rear of the pirate ship.
Martha sits down on the deck. She has a cut in her side from an arrow that tore through her armor and came loose as she brushed it against the railing. The wound burns more than it should. She takes deep breaths.
Hocus has not yet noticed Martha's plight, and instead is watching the pirate ship. The captain stands on the rear deck facing them. He frowns, but he does not appear to be angry. He is younger than Hocus expected. Perhaps in his mid-twenties. And he does not look Satian. He looks more like a barbarian from the North. The ships drift apart quickly, and the pirate sails are clearly destroyed. "Take us around to the west!" Hocus says. Jessica and Stanley come up from below, and start working the sails.
Martha stands up and goes below, followed by Hocus. Bonita squirts water into Martha's wound with Hocus's water bellows (the ones he uses for his Ball of Fire spell). Martha lies down on the captain's bed. Bonita binds the wound. It stops bleeding. Martha feels nauseous and the wound continues to burn.
Loose Lips passes the pirate ship again, at a range of five hundred meters, and proceeds west as fast as she can. The wind increases to seventeen kilometers per hour, and Loose Lips makes fifteen kilometers per hour across the water. At noon, they round the north-east corner of Tankum Island and see that the three-masted ship has gone, which is a great relief to them. They head south, aiming for the village, which they believe to be the home of the exiled orcs.
At three in the afternoon, Loose Lips is approaching the village beach, and they sight the blue-sailed pirate ship rounding the corner of the island to the north. Hocus takes a good look at their persuer through his binoculars. "New white jib sail, and they must have sewn up the blue mainsail. He's not giving up."
Martha is still below decks, resting and nauseous. Garibaldi is at the wheel, looking calm. Sallina is tending the sails with quiet efficiency. Jessica and Stanley are doing their best to remain calm, but they drop things, and are not as sure-footed on the deck as Hocus has grown accustomed to seeing them. Heraklese is frowning and bruised, but there is a glint in his eye, and he remains decisive and keen. Bonita is estimating the range of the beach, and examining the sea for shoals. She goes below decks to examine the charts every fifteen minutes. When asked, she replies that she is confirming that this is Tankum Island, not another like it with shoals on the west side.
Hocus himself has only a few of his spell slots with spells prepared, and he has only one or two that might be effective against pirates. His best fighter is Martha, and she is incapacitated for the moment. Sallina and Garibaldi don't fight, but they seem invulnerable. Jessica and Stanley need to be protected. Bonita is a good captain, but of no use in a fight with orcs or pirates. Heraklese is tired. They are in no shape to fight pirates, so this had better be Tankum Island.
If it is Tankum Island, their job is to make friends with the orcs and get some rest before they attempt another sea crossing. He looks towards the shore and considers what he knows about Bragash.
When Loose Lips is within a kilometer of the beach, people emerge from the village houses and line up on the beach watching her approach. Hocus examines them through his binoculars. Seen from the front, the villagers are broader than most sapiens, although not too broad to be sapien. Their arms are a little longer than those of the average sapien. Their posture, however, is erect, and those that stand still on the beach do so without shifting their weight, or moving their arms. It is when he sees one of the people in profile that Hocus becomes certain that they are not sapien. Their lower jaws jut out, and from these jutting lower jaws there sprout two white tusks that curl up towards their cheeks. Some tusks are larger than others. Those of some of the larger adults appear almost to touch with their cheeks beside their noses. Those of the children are far smaller.
Hocus turns to Heraklese, who is steering the boat, and says, "Orcs!"
Drawn up on the beach, well out of the reach of the mild Satian Sea tides, are six longboats of various shapes and sizes. They have oars in them, but no masts or any sign of sails.
Ten minutes later, Heraklese guides Loose Lips to shore. The tide is going out, and has thirty centimeters more to drop. He turns the boat parallel to the breaking waves and lets her keel slither across the sand until she comes to a stop. Stanly and Jessica are up in the rigging, furling the sails. Garibaldi throws an anchor off each end of the boat. Sallina is bringing in the jib sail. Bonita unfastens the starboard longboat, the one closest to shore. Hocus and Martha look over the starboard rail at the orcs gathered upon the shore, out of the reach of the waves, only forty meters away. More orcs continue to emerge from the twenty small wooden cabins in the village and approach the shore. There are twenty orcs standing still on the beach, watching the boat. They don't stand absolutely still in the way that Hocus has seen his summoned kobolds stand absolutely still. They look more like sapiens standing still and at ease. They are soldiers, and must be used to standing still, if they perform military drills. But Hocus is not sure that these orcs would bother to perform such drills. It may be that they are simply "at ease" in the literal sense of the phrase.
Martha climbs up on deck to see what is going on. Her arrow wound is burning, and she still feels nausious, but she's still strong. She stares across the water at the shore. All the adult orcs are wearing chain armor. Some hold spears by their sides with triangular pennants tied below the metal tips. The pennants are red, blue, and yellow, and they tremble and flicker in the salty breeze. The orcs stand with their their backs straight. One stands out in front, his arms crossed.
"That one there," Martha says, "With the red ribbon in his pony-tail and the gold caps on his tusks. That must be their chief."
On the chief's right is a slender orc with tusks that are half the size of the chief's and a face that looks like the face of a sapien woman, except for the tusks and lower jaw. She holds a spear at her side. Martha looks from the face of the woman to the face of the chief. They might be brother and sister. On the chief's left is a large man with bright white tusks. In his belt is a knife in a black sheath, and over his shoulder protrudes the hilt of a large sword. He too, bears a resemblence to the chief. Unlike the orcs standing around him, this one crosses his arms, puts his hands in his pockets, and shifts his weight. He tilts his head as he examines the boat and the people upon it.
"They look like statues," Martha says, "Except for that one on the left of the chief."
Behind the adult orcs are half a dozen children. They walk up and down looking at the boat.
"The children are cute," Martha says, "Look at that little one hiding behind her mother's legs. She has her thumb in her mouth, and big kitten eyes."
She waves at the little girl, who ducks behind her mother's leg.
Ten minutes go by as the sailors secure Loose Lips and lower her longboat. The water on the starboard side of the boat is only three meters deep. When Hocus looks down at the water, he can see right to the bottom. A school of small, thin, silver fish flashes along the length of the ship's hull.
Hocus and Heraklese row ashore with Bonita and Martha riding on the benches. Martha insits upon coming, saying she can still fight. When they feel the longboat scraping on the sand, they jump out and pull it up the beach. They wipe their wet hands on their trousers and advance towards the orcs. Hocus removes from his satchel a folded piece of heavy paper sealed with black wax. The orcs remain where they are, watching silently. When the ship-mates come face to face with the chief, they see his fiery red irises and cat-like pupils, narrowed to mere slits in the sunshine. There is an emblem on his helmet: a wyvern with its wings wrapping around a tree. It is Dreadmanifold's seal.
"Greetings," Hocus says in Latin. "We are here on behalf of Dreadmanifold."
"Greetings," the chief says, also in Latin. His voice is deep with a scratchy grind to it. "My name is Bragash." He unfolds one arm and puts it on the shoulder of the woman to his right. "This is my daughter Quahiri." He holds his other hand towards the man on his left. "And this is my son Ugluk."
"Pleased to meet you Quahiri, Ugluk," Hocus says. There are many fine, white lines upon Bragash's face. Some have traces of stitches. The woman has one fine line on her cheek. Ugluk has a new scar on his chin with three stitches protruding.
"What are your names?" Bragash says.
"I am Hocus, and this is Martha, Bonita, and Herakleses."
Martha holds her hand out. "Pleased to meet you." Bragash nods at her, but ignores her hand. "Do you come in peace?" he says to Hocus.
"Yes," Hocus says, "We come in peace. Here is a letter from Dreadmanifold." He hands Bragash the letter. Bragash removes a gauntlet and reaches out with his clawed fingers. His claws are translucent, like those of a wild cat. His skin is tanned and hairy, with fine white scars. The soft tips of his fingers close upon the letter.
Bragash examines the wax seal. He levers it off the paper with the tip of a claw and unfolds the paper. He reads the writing inside, his lips moving slowly.
Heraklese smiles at the sight of the orc chief moving his lips. He clasps Bonita's hand. Her hand is trembling. She tries to smile at him, but her face is pale. "It's okay," Heraklese says in a whisper.
Martha's wound hurts, but she ignores it. The orcs press forward behind their chief. She wonders how many speak and understand Latin. Quahiri is smiling at her. Martha can tell it is a smile because of the way the corners of Quahiri's eyes are wrinkled. Martha imagines how her own face would look if she had tusks jutting up from her lower jaw. Her lips would be pulled back and away from her teeth, hence the baring of Quahiri's teeth at this moment. Quahiri's teeth are bright white, symmetric, and smooth. There is no sign of dirt or plaque between them, nor any stain of decay. Her skin is smooth and pale.
Bragash hands the letter to Quahiri. She tucks her spear into the cleft of her right arm and holds the letter in both hands. She moves her lips, her brow furrowed. Ugluk takes a few steps behind his father and leans over his sister's shoulder to see the letter. He does not move his lips. When he breaths upon his sister's neck, she waves one hand and scowls at him. She makes a sharp noise with her tongue. Ugluk moves back, but leans right over her shoulder again a moment later. She steps away, but he follows her. She holds the letter closer to her eyes. Bragash shakes his head but does nothing to stop the antics of his children.
The visitors stand together in the chilly winter breeze. Hocus looks back across the water and sees the blue sail of the pirate ship in the distance.
Ugluk returns to his father's side. Soon after, Quahiri folds the letter and hands it to Bragash. A woman steps out from the orcs behind them and taps Bragash on the sholder. She whispers something and Bragash hands the letter over his shoulder to the woman, without turning away from his visitors. She takes the letter and reads it with her lips moving.
Hocus looks at Ugluk to find Ugluk baring his teeth and nodding. Hocus decides that the expression is friendly. Hocus points to Loose Lips. "That ship is full of things for you, gifts from Dreadmanifold. We have food, weapons, tools, and gold."
"This letter says this is so," Bragash says.
Bragash turns his head slightly towards Quahiri and speaks with her in what must be the orcish language of the Kratanak Outlands. Hocus enjoys listening to the sharp tones of the language, and watching their faces as they form the words. Bragash appears to be asking Quahiri questions, and she is doing her best to answer them.
Bragash nods his head and grunts. Quahiri plants her spear beside her in the sand and smiles. Bragash crosses his arms. "Lord Dreadmanifold is generous. Thank you for coming here. Are you hungry? We will give you food and shelter. You are welcome here."
"Thank you," Hocus says. He points to the blue sail. "That ship attacked us. We escaped, but it still follows us. We don't want to fight them again."
"We know that ship," Bragash says, "And we know its captain. They know us."
Martha says, "The things on the ship are yours. If the pirates come, they will take everything in the boat, all of which belongs to you. Even if all of us remain on the boat, we do not think we will be able to stop the pirates from taking all the things we brought for you. If we leave the ship and come with you, who will stop the pirates?"
"This is our place. Your ship is safe here."
"Shall we take everything that belongs to you off the boat right now?" Martha says, "So that it will be safe in your village?"
"You are tired, and need to rest, I am sure," Bragash says, "We will bring everything to the shore tomorrow. The pirates will not steal from you here."
"Good," Martha says, "Thank you."
"We have four more sailors on the boat," Hocus says, "May they come ashore as well? I do not want to leave them alone on the boat when the pirate is coming."
"All are welcome," Bragash says.
Heraklese gets back in the rowboat and rows it to Loose Lips. He returns with the four remaining sailors. Sallina brings with her a selection of rubber dolls, wooden soldiers, and stuffed animal toys. These are of the finest quality, purchased in a toy store in Diamantis. As Bragash leads the visitors to the center of the village, Sallina and Garibaldi hand out the toys one by one to the dozen or so children among the crowde of orcs.
Bragash's hall is ten meters wide and twenty long, made of felled logs. The peak of the roof is four meters high, and the walls one either side are three meters. The gaps between the logs are filled with black tar. The sloping roof is made of logs also, sloping down from the peak to the side walls. Half of each roof log is cut away at the top so that it can rest against the log on the opposite side, but the half that remains is left uncut for a meter, so that the two rows of roof logs create two rows of half-logs like two combs. These combs are painted bright colors.
Hocus stands beside Garibaldi as he hands out his last toy. A girl half his height takes a doll from his hands and rubs its tuskless face with her thumb. She presses it to her breast and runs away to hide under a nearby hut.
"What do you think of the huts?" Hocus says.
Garibaldi surveys the huts and the hall, all of which are made in the same style. "They are well-made," he says. "The logs fit together tightly. The makers cleared the land and used the trees where they cut them, so the logs are from different types of tree. The work was done six months to a year ago. They makers had long saws and some good axe-men."
He looks down at Hocus. "You say it was build by pirates?"
"That's what Dreadmanifold told Wicklow. A pirate crew spent three months building the village, after which the orcs let them go with their ship."
Quahiri walks beside Martha. When they reach the hall, the orc woman says, "We will eat here, in the Great Hall. It is my father's house. He is our chief."
Over the entrance of the hall there is a plank with Dreadmanifold's emblem painted upon it in black and red. The painting is clear, realistic, and fresh. Martha stops on the first of the four steps that lead up to the threshold of the hall.
"It is the sign of our tribe," Quahiri says.
"Yes, it is Dreadmanifold's sign also. Who painted it?"
"Yes," Quahiri says. "My eldest brother is dead. He was called Parsa."
"I am sorry to hear that."
Quahiri climbs the steps and pulls aside the heavy leather curtain that covers the entrance to the Great Hall. Her mouth is drawn down at the corners and her brow is furrowed. "Do not be sorry for my brother Parsa. He was a great warrior. He died with glory in battle."
Inside the Great Hall, a fire burns in a hearth on the floor. Smoke gathers beneath the ceiling and makes its way out through a covered chimney-hole. The sun peaks through some gaps between the logs, but these gaps are few, and there is no other light besides that of the fire, so that the corners of the hall are dark. The visitors sit around the fire with Bragash, Quahiri, and Ugluk. In the darkness around them are forty orcs. The smell of the orc bodies is heavy in the air. It is not the smell you would expect from such a gathering of sapiens. To Hocus, the smell has a hint of pineapple in it. Martha is reminded of a perfume a friend of hers used to wear: a musk. Although the smell is pervasive, it is not unpleasant. Once in the hall, the orcs talk among themselves, filling the warm, smokey space with the strange sounds of their language.
Some of the children gather around Garibaldi and Sallina. They stare at the sapiens' faces. One gets right up onto Sallina's lap and touches her nose. Two of them start scuffling with one another behind Garibaldi's back. Garibaldi looks behind him at the two struggling figures. A toy soldiers breaks with a snap. One child stands up with blood running from his nose. He grabs the other half of the soldier from the child on the ground, who is winded and unable to breath. Garibaldi turns to Sallina and raises one eyebrow. She shrugs.
Jessica and Stanley are smiling, but only with their mouths. Their eyes try to follow the movements in the darkness beyond the fire and behind them. There are beads of sweat upon their foreheads. Heraklese leans close to Jessica and puts his hand upon hers. "Don't worry. We're quite safe here."
A woman sits beside Bragash. It is the same woman who read the letter. She puts her arm around his shoulders and licks his cheek. He shakes his head and holds a hand between his body and hers. "This is my wife. Sandalack is her name. Wife, this is Hocus, Martha, Bonita, Heraklese, and four sailors from the ship that is named Loose Lips."
Sandalack smiles. She moves her arm from around her husband's shoulders to around his waist. "I am glad to meet you. Are you ready to eat?"
"Yes," Heraklese says, "I most certainly am, thank you Sandalack."
Sandalack shouts a few words. Orcs bring plates out of the darkness and place them in front of the fire, before the visitors. Upon the plates are cheese, ham, smoked venison, roast mutton, bread, butter, honey, apples, oranges, and roasted onions. They put clay cups on the floor, beside a clay pitcher. "This water is good," Sandalack says, pointing to the pitcher, "It is coming out from our own spring." Someone puts another pitcher down beside the first. "This one beer not as good. We must waiting new barrels soon."
The visitors eat. They are impressed with the food, including the beer, but not the bread, which has too little salt in it, and is tough on the outside and not fully-cooked on the inside. It is still warm, however, and Heraklese concludes that it is freshly-backed. He puts down half of a chunk of bread and wonders if the orcs could benefit from some lessons in baking from Jessica.
Ugluk must have been watching Heraklese, because he reaches across Bonita's lap and turns a clay salt cellar upside down over Heraklese's plate to pour fine-grained salt on the bread. Then he pours oil upon it from a glass bottle, and pushes the plate towards his guest. "You try now."
Heraklese takes a bite of the bread with salt and oil. He is certain the oil is olive oil. The taste of the oil is welcome in his mouth, and the salt dissolves upon his tongue. He closes his eyes. When he opens them again, Ugluk is still smiling.
"Very tasty," Heraklese says.
There is a young orc woman standing behind Bragash. She has a truncheon hanging from her belt. She stands straight and is not eating. Her arms are crossed. She looks at the sapiens one after another, but says nothing. Sallina nods at her.
"This is my daughter, Moony," Bragash says, "She is not always so quiet." He nudges her knee, and she steps sideways, frowning at the floor. "She is standing guard over me, keeping me safe from the small-tooth barbarians."
"Oh." Sallina smiles at the girl, whose eyes and nose are smooth and perfect. "You must be proud, Bragash. She is so pretty. Who are the barbarians?"
Moony frowns at the floor. She turns her back on Sallina and takes one step away from the fire. But her father says her name once and she stops. She stands still. Her father speaks again in orcish.
Moony faces Sallina. "We say you are barbarians."
"You do? Why is that?" Sallina appears to have no trouble understanding the orcs' Latin, while Heraklese has to listen carefully, and misses the meaning of occasional words.
Moony looks straight into Sallina's eyes. "Because you kill children."
Sallina's eyes open wide, but she does not laugh. "You believe that people like us kill children?"
"Not your own children," Moony says, "But the children of other creatures. You eat the children of sheep. You hang baby cows by their feet and cut their throats to let the blood run out, and then you eat them and talk of how sweet their meat is."
Heraklese looks at his comrades on the other side of the fire. They are laughing with Ugluk, unaware of this exchange between the chief's daughter and Sallina. Ugluk is making a face.
Sallina looks up into Moony's eyes. The orc girl stares back. Bragash watches them with his arms crossed. Sallina licks her lips. "Thank you for your explanation, Moony. I see that we are barbarians." Upon Sallina's plate is a roast chicken leg. She picks it up and takes a bite. With her mouth full, she says to Bragash, "Good food."
Bragash smiles. "Eat and get fat, my guest. You are welcome."
Bonita stands up with her telescope in her hand. "Excuse me. I must go outside and see the ship with the blue sail."
Bragash nods. Ugluk stands up immediately. "I will come and look also."
Heraklese puts his hand upon Bonita's knee. "Are you okay going out with him alone?"
She nods. "I'm going to act like I'm not scared. Maybe that will stop me being scared. So stay here. I'll be back." She thinks for a moment. "If I'm not back in five minutes, come and get me."
Heraklese nods. "Okay."
Bonita and Ugluk go out into the winter sunshine. They must walk down the steps and a little way out between the huts before they get a clear view of the blue sail. Bonita holds the telescope to her eyes and takes a long look. It won't be more than an hour before they arrive, and they are headed directly towards the beach. She lowers the telescope and offers it to Ugluk.
"Thank you," Ugluk says. He takes the instrument in his clawed hand. He holds the wrong end to his eyes for a few seconds and squints. Bonita watches him, smiling. Ugluk takes the telescope from his eye and winks. He turns it around and holds it the right way, focusing it easily with his other hand.
Ugluk returns her telescope. "Good," he says, "He comes."
When Bonita and Ugluk return to the fire in the hall, Bragash says, "What did you see through your telescope, Bonita?"
"The pirate ship with a blue sail is coming. You say that you know this pirate?"
"Yes, we know him. His name is Vango Gruel. He is a man of honor."
Ugluk leans towards Bonita, even though he is sitting on the other side of the fire. "Those pirates built our village."
Bonita laughs. Ugluk laughs too.
"They built the entire village?" Bonita says.
"All of it," Ugluk says, and gestures with one hand in a broad arc.
"That's wonderful," Martha says, "And the captain, he is the man with the long black hair and the broad chest?"
Ugluk turns to Martha. "Long black hair, yes," and he thrusts his chest out for all to see, "But not so broad in the chest as I am."
Sandalack translates their Ugluk's words for the orcs sitting in the shadows, and they laugh. They are drinking beer and eating the same food as was served to the visitors.
Bragash offers his visitors some wine. It is sweet, amber-colored, and cold. Bragash hands it around in small crystal glasses with stems. The bottle has been sitting outside in the stream. Martha puts her glass down next to her plate and yawns.
"Bragash, I am tired. Is there any place I could sleep for a while?"
"Yes," Bragash says, "Quahiri has prepared her home for you. She will take you there." He says Quahiri's name. She appears from the darkness. Bragash says a few words to her in orcish.
"Come," Quahiri says to Martha, "You may sleep in my house."
Hocus whispers in Martha's ear, "Are you willing to go alone?"
She nods. "Of course. Bonita went with Ugluk. I can go with Quahiri. Thank you for asking." She stands and follows Quahiri towards the leather curtain. Outside, the sun is bright and the cool air is bracing. Quahiri leads her to a cabin adjacent to the hall. Two steps lead to the porch. Quahiri opens the door and Martha follows her inside. The cabin is clean and tidy. In one corner are a selection of spears, javelins, and cross-bow bolts. On the wall is a picture of an orc man drawn in water color on canvass. It is nailed to the logs of the wall at its four corners, with no frame. There is a thin and colorful rug on the floor next to the hearth in one corner. There are no windows, but light enters through a covered hole in the ceiling above the hearth. The walls by the hearth are blackened from smoke. Martha wonders how long before Quahiri sets fire to her home.
There are four cots in the room, each with some kind of thin padded matterss and a pile of blankets. There are four more such mattresses with blankets on the floor. With the eight beds, the cabin is crowded. Quahiri pats one of the mattresses. "These are new. We made from cut grass and blankets." She smiles at Martha. "They are comfortable to sleep on."
"They look very comfortable. Thank you. You are wonderful hosts. Will you be sleeping here too?"
"No," Quahiri says. "There are only eight mattresses. We need nine mattresses for me to sleep here. You are eight people. I will sleep in my father's hall. My house is for you and your friends while you stay with us."
"We may be staying here for many nights," Martha says.
"You are welcome." Behind her, Martha hears boots on the porch. She turns and sees two armed and armored women. "These are my friends Pinoh and Jezel. They will guard your door while you sleep."
"Thank you," Martha says. "Will they also wake me up when the pirate ship arrives?"
Quahiri instructs the two women. They nod. "Hai, Quahiri!". They sit down on the porch, cross-legged.
"They will wake you. Now, please rest." She steps out of the cabin and closes the door. Martha stands for a moment and wonders if the orcs are there to keep her in or to protect her, and if they are here to protect her, what are they protecting her from? She picks one of the cots, checks the mattress, spreads a blanket upon it, and lies down. It is cold in the cabin. She pulls two blankets on top of herself.
Within minutes, she is fast asleep.
An hour and a half later, the blue-sailed ship drops anchor a hundred meters from shore. Martha emerges from Quahiri's hut and walks towards the beach, where her ship-mates and most of the orcs are standing above the water. The water has moved ten or twenty centimeters down the beach and Loose Lips is sitting comfortably on the sand. The pirate captain climbs down the side of his ship into a longboat. Eight pirates row him ashore. The boat slides gracefully into the shallows and buries its prow in the sand. The captain jumps into the knee-deep water, his shiny black hair tied behind his head in a pony-tail and his simple copper helmet flashing in the lowering sun behind the orcs. Martha guesses that he is about two meters tall. His arms are so large around the biceps that she doubts she could encircle one with both hands. He is a fine figure of a man in every respect.
"Pity he's not a wizard," she says to Jessica.
"Why's that?" Jessica says.
"Oh, never mind."
The crew remain in the boat. A few of the orcs shout to the pirates. Some of the pirates nod and smile, but others frown and look at their feet. There is some laughter among the orcs. The pirate captain, meanwhile, strides up the beach. He glances at the visitors and stands in front of Bragash. He looks down into the chief's face.
"Greetings," he says. His voice is deep and his accent so strong that it takes Martha a moment to understand even this single and likely utterance in Latin. The captain's eyes are blue and his skin is bronzed. His chest is indeed broad, as broad as the chief's, but not quite as broad as Ugluk's. His face is angular and stern, but there are signs of laughter around his eyes. He appears to be in his mid-twenties. A scar on his right cheek does nothing to detract from his good looks.
"Greetings," Bragash says, "How fare's your ship?"
"Ha!" the captain says, and looks at Hocus and Martha. "It does well enough, but several of my mean are sorely wounded, and one is dead."
"May he rest in peace," Bragash says, "Did he die with honor?"
"As much honor as a dog of the sea with plunder on his mind can die with, yes." The captain looks back at the men in his longboat. "It was Grinch, the old fellow who spat on your boots the first time you told him to work faster."
Bragash nods. "I remember him. He had spirit."
"We hoped to take this ship." The pirate captain gestures towards Loose Lips. "But they had a wizard aboard, and fought well."
Bragash turns to Hocus. "This is Vango Gruel, captain of the Kamazi." He says to Vango, "This is Hocus Pocus, wizard of Loose Lips."
Hocus extends his hand. Vango takes it and squeezes it almost to the point of causing the wizard pain.
"You are the wizard," Vango says.
"I am, and I regret the death of your shipmate."
Vango lets go of his hand. "We attacked you. You defended yourself with courage and daring. You came back at us to finish us off. That was boldly done." He pauses. "But we would have had you anyway, if you had not been close to a safe harbor."
These last words, being spoken in Vango's strong, barbaric accent, are hard for Hocus to make out, and he must look at Vango for a few seconds before he decides upon what the captain must have said to him.
"You are correct. Next time I will have to set fire to your ship. I did not want to hurt your crew without need."
Vango's eyes narrow. He and Hocus stare at one another. Vango smiles. "I like you."
Bragash introduces Martha. Vango nods and smiles at her. He does the same to Heraklese and Bonita.
"I have supplies for you," Vango says to Bragash.
Bragash smiles. "It is a good day for us. Our guests tell us that their ship is full of supplies also. Come to my hall, and we will talk."
In Bragash's hall, Vango lists what his ship is carrying. Most of it is stolen from ships in the Satian sea, but some of it he purchased especially for the orcs. Where he docked his ship to make such purchases, he does not say. He is not here to give things to the orcs, but to sell to them. He begins to bargain about prices, but Bragash says he is not yet ready to talk about money. Quahiri sits beside him with a large notebook, a graphite pencil and pencil-sharpener. Hocus is curious to see a graphite pencil in the hands of an orc. The pencil sharpener is a small and precisely made device. As Vango lists the contents of his pirate's cargo, Bragash frequently holds up his hand so that Quahiri has time to record each item. As she writes, she sticks her black, pointed tongue out of the corner of her mouth.
Vango sits with his back straight, drinking beer from a large pewter mug. He recites the contents of his cargo from memory, and never once hesitates in giving the quantity nor the price he is willing to sell it for. When it comes to the salt-pork, Bragash questions the price. "You ask a lot."
"My men do not want to sell the salt-pork. It is good. But I said I would bring you some, and I know you are fond of it. So I am raising the price. I guess you will buy half of it, and leave us with the other half."
Bragash nods and folds his arms. His wife, Sandalack, sits beside him, and upon her knee is a little orc boy. Vango looks at the little boy. "But I'll give your wife ten kilograms of it to make Norlick fat, because I know he loves it." The little boy smiles at Vango. At first, Hocus wonders if Norlick understands Latin, but decides that Norlick is smiling simply because Vango is looking at him and he likes Vango.
Bragash ruffles Norlick's hair. "The boy has been well for a month now. He needs no more favors. But if you will spoil him, so be it."
When Vango has listed the contents of his hold, Heraklese takes out a list and reads from it the contents of Loose Lips's hold. Vango listens. As the list goes on, Vango sits back and leans on one arm, his beer mug in his other hand. The orcs keep the beer mug filled up, and Vango drinks cup after cup. Our heroes have brought wheat flower, dried meat, dried fruit, fresh apples, onions, spices, salt, sherry, red wine, cooking oil, lamp oil, bellows, shovels, nails, tools, arrows, rope, toys, a few kilograms of gold, wool cloth, blankets, crossbows, and dozens of other items.
It is two hours after dark when Bragash says, "Good. Enough business. Let us eat and laugh."
The orcs bring out food. They put wood on the fire. They serve beer and red wine. It is not until the end of his meal that Heraklese tastes the wine. He looks at the bottle. Upon the label are hand-painted hyrogliphs. The wine is Satian. "This is good," he says.
"I will try some," Vango says. He drains his beer mug and extends it to Heraklese, who, after a moment's hesitation, pours Vango half a cup. Vango takes a gulp. "Yes, it is very good. You are a generous host Bragash. To Bragash!" Vango raises his cup, and takes another gulp. Many of the orcs echo the toast, and so does Heraklese.
"And so," Vango says, "I must return to my ship." He stands up, swaying a little. "Thank you Chief, and all of you my friends." He waves his hand at all the orcs present in the hall. "And I am glad to meet my enemies and break bread with them. I must return to my ship." He looks at them all and nods. "Goodnight." Bragash wishes him goodnight in return, as do many of the orcs. Ugluk emerges from the shadows, opens the leather curtain for Vango, and leaves with him.
The orcs take out drums of various sizes, and tamborines and all manner of other instruments of precussion, and begin to play. They sing, or screech, and huff and puff. Ugluk returns to the hall and dances. Our heroes are tired, and sit and watch from beside the fire, where it is warm. There is enough light for them to see their own hands and one another's faces. All around them, in the shadows, the orcs dance. So far as Heraklese can tell, the orcs are moving together in a slow circuit, even though their dancing is vigorous and quick. Sometimes they hold one another. The dancers stomp their feet on the dry grass that covers the floor. Their faces are visible in the orange firelight. Their white tusks shine, and as they warm up with their dancing, some of them take off their chain mail shirts, and their silk undershirts, and their white skin gleams with sweat.
At around midnight, Martha feels she cannot keep her eyes open for another minute, and tells Bragash she would like to go to bed. Bragash shouts an order to the dancing orcs. They stop their dance. The drums go quiet. He speaks again and the orcs say "Hai!"
Bragash faces Martha. "Go and sleep now. We will stop our dance and our music tonight so that you may rest. But it is our custom to dance and play at night. We like the darkness. If you stay with us, you must learn to stay up late or sleep while there is noise in the village."
"Thank you, Bragash," Martha says. "I like to stay up late myself. Tomorrow, I will dance."
The crew of Loose Lips spend the night in Quahiri's cabin. Two orc women keep guard outside. The fire dies down in the hearth, but the warmth of their eight bodies in the small hut, together with their blankets, keep them warm. Hocus nudges Martha so that she stops snoring. Heraklese and Bonita are giggling until Hocus tells them to stop it. Garibaldi lies upon his back, fast asleep. Sallina holds his arm and smiles at the ceiling. Jessica and Stanley whisper to one another beneath their blankets.
With our friends on Tankum Island in bed at the close of December 17th, 2477, we return to the morning of the same day, and to the Powachella Mill Hotel. Jack Pulruset watches from a holly bush in the forest behind the cottages. There is snow on the ground, and half the trees have no leaves, so the holly bush offers exceptionally good cover. A hundred meters away, Kadmium Herkocide sits on a rocking chair on the front porch of Cottage Number Two. It's a large cottage, and inside are the remaining four members of The Professionals. Kadmium is keeping watch. He is alert, and raps his fingers on the arm of the rocker.
Also hiding in the bush are Tak and a kobold from the village. Two other kobolds are hiding nearby. Jack cannot see them, but he knows where they are. The kobolds with him sit absolutely still. He has worked hard for years to stay as still as he can, and until now he has prided himself upon his ability. But next to the kobolds he feels like a fidgety child. The cold alone is enough to force him to move around.
At noon, Amberic the dwarf emerges from the cottage and takes Kadmium's place with only a few words spoken. He sits on the rocker reading a book.
Jack takes out his bridge to Hocus. At this moment. Loose Lips is sailing away from the ship with the blue sail, after sighting it for the first time. Hocus connects Jack to Scythe and Wicklow in the kobold village. Jack whispers into the bridge. "I want to fire a volley of arrows at Amberic." His comrades agree.
Two hours after noon, Jack and the four kobolds approach to within sixty meters and fire at Amberic. The five arrows land upon the porch. One sticks into the post beside the rocker. Amberic gets up immediately, looks around, and ducks into the room.
An hour later, The Professionals emerge from the cottage with their back-packs and equipment, and jog towards the main structure of the hotel.
Jack wonders what they are planning to do in the hotel. Are they planning to leave, or to stay in a room? He resolves to find out, and leaves the kobolds in the forest while he makes a circuit around the hotel grounds to the street, and so enters the hotel through the front door. He sits down in the common room and has a cup of hot tea. Half an hour later, at 4 pm, The Professionals descend the stairs all together, without their backpacks, and begin to settle their bill with the hotel owner.
Jack watches them over his cup of tea. Kadmium Herkocide notices Jack and stares back. He advances across the common room to stand on the opposite side of Jack's table. "You look tired," he says, in Latin.
"So do you," Jack says.
"It looks to me as if you have been up all night."
"I've just come down out of the hills."
Kadmium stares at him in silence for a few seconds, and then turns to his compainions. "This is one of them!" He puts his hand on the hilt of his longsword, and begins to draw it.
In that moment, with Kadmium drawing his sword, and the remaining four adventurers turning towards him, Jack wonders if he should try to bluff his way out of their suspicion. But he decides against it. The look in Kadmium's eyes suggests to him that Kadmium would not care very much if he was mistaken about Jack's involvment in the defence of the kobold village. Kadmium wants to kill somebody, and is looking for an excuse.
Jack pushes the table over in Kadmium's direction, forcing Kadmium to take a step back, throws his tea in the air, and turns and runs to the back of the common room, where he tries the rear door. It opens easily, and the snow-covered garden lies beyond. He runs across the snow towards the forest, where his kobolds are still hiding. Kadmium runs after him, but when he draws near the trees, he stops, allowing Jack to disappear into the shadows.
Jack rejoins his kobolds in the holly bush. He sits on the ground panting, and looks at the hotel. The remaining Professionals emerge from the back door. Two have their bow drawn. They stare at the forest and talk among themselves. A few minutes later, they go back inside and close the door.
"That was close," Jack says. "Kadmium must have been afraid I had set an ambush for him."
Tak says, "We shoot him good."
Jack smiles, and remembers the hot cup of tea he did not get a chance to finish. Would it be okay if they started back now? He would not wish to spend the night in this bush. But he must stay, either to watch The Professionals leave, or to harrass them again at night. He moves to another bush, posts the kobolds farther apart so they can watch the road, and waits.
He does not have to wait for long. At five in the afternoon, an hour before dark, The Professionals leave in a stagecoach with lanterns lit, and head West down the road towards Wakalin. Jack enters the hotel, and finds the staff delighted by the size of the tips The Professionals left them. The landlord admits that they paid their bill in full, without any complaint. Some of the staff express remorse at thinking so ill of the departed guests. Others, like Theodore, are relieved to see them gone, tips or no tips.
"They paid their bill," the landlord says, "and they did no wrong, other than being sorcerers and killers, so I would not turn them away if they came back."
The Professional's departure is certainly a relief to Jack. The landlord offers to let Jack stay overnight, but Jack does not think the kobolds would be welcome at the inn, and does not want to leave them alone in the forest. He heads home with them, arriving at the village at around midnight.
It is the evening of 28th December. Heraklese, Jessica, and Stanley are aboard Loose Lips, sitting in the captain's cabin. They are tired from a day adjusting the piles of rocks that now serve as ballast in the boat's hold. A lantern hangs from the ceiling. Herkalese has a half-full bottle of port on the table. He pours the red liquid into the three glasses and pushes one towards each of his guests. This is his cabin: he is the captain.
"So, you have some questions," he says, after he has taken a sip of port.
"Yes," Jessica says, "We signed up for a sea voyage, but now we seem to be staying here indefinitely. Sallina and Garibaldi advised us to talk to you about payment for the time here."
Heraklese nods, "We hired you for a month. We agreed to pay you a hundred guineas each for that first month. We already paid you half in advance. Your first month will be up on 10th January. We'll pay you the remaining half then. After that, we will continue to pay you a hundred guineas each a month to stay with us."
"But what if we want to leave?" Stanley says.
"You could hitch a ride with the pirates if you wanted, but we won't leave before we are ready. There's a lot going on here, and we have to serve the interests of the company."
Jessica frowns and squeezes the stem of her glass. "Aren't we employees of the company? Doesn't it matter to the company that we are stuck here beyond our contracted time, living on an island, not a boat, with monsters?"
"Why can't we just leave right now," Stanley says, "and go to Sax? You can pick up two other sailors and come back if you want to."
Heraklese leans over the table. "You are employees, and you are invaluable to the company. We are going to pay you well. But we are constrained."
Heraklese looks at the two sailors. They are the same age as him, perhaps a few years older, and yet he feels as if he is talking to two teenagers. Perhaps there is something about being captive of a savage calipanti, dragged through the water by a rope in the middle of the night, and stabbed with a poisoned knife that has aged him. Or maybe he is blinded to their concerns by his own greed and ambition, both of which have some chance of achieving satisfaction through the actions of Global Mediation Incorporated. He lowers his eyes. "Let me explain the situation to you."
"Please do," Stanley says.
"On the day we arrived here, a Weilandic frigate anchored off the village in the morning. We saw the frigate through Hocus's scrying eye, if you recall. The captain of that frigate was a man called Sir Gallivan of Weiland. He landed here under a white flag of truce, and talked to Bragash. He asked Bragash if Clodine was on the island. Now, this Clodine fellow was duke of Anabrasius until recently, which is where the orcs spent the past ten years. They worked for Clodine. They were his soldiers."
"Isn't Clodine one of the guys who arrived today on a big bird?" Stanley says. "I saw the bird land."
"Yes, that was Clodine and his friend Sacha. The flying bird is a hippogriff, and it's name is Basil. Clodine says he's going to teach Bragash how to fly it."
"What's he like?" Stanley says.
"He's a smart guy," Heraklese says, "And charming. I like him. I think he's homosexual, and Sacha is his partner. Clodine must be in his mid-fifties, and Sacha may be a few years younger. I liked him also. According to Bragash, Sir Gallivan described Clodine as a power-hungry criminal. But he did not seem like that to me." Heraklese folds his arms and sits back. Water slaps gently against the sides of the boat. "The Weilandic authorities are out to catch Clodine and put him on trial."
"What for?" Jessica says.
"He became duke eleven years ago when his brother died. Clodine's nephew, Horatio, was only twelve years old at the time, which is too young to take the ducal seat. Clodine acted as duke instead. Nine years later, when Horatio came of age at twenty-one, Clodine was supposed to resign and let Horatio be duke. But he refused to do so. After a year, the government of Weiland, on the other side of the Kratanak Mountains, sent an army of two thousand troops to enforce the Law of Ducal Inheritance."
"Of course," Jessica says.
"As I said, Bragash and his orcs were in the employ of Duke Clodine. It was through the work of the orcs that he retained power for so long and was able to dominate the other Dukedoms around Anabrasius during the ten years he was in power. The orcs lived in Flavia, which is the capital city of Anabrasius. They were well-paid by the duke, and had fine rooms to live in.
"But this army of two thousand coming from Weiland was too much for the orcs to stand up to. Dreadmanifold told them to leave. So they did. And Duke Clodine left with them. They made their way to the coast, hired boats, and sailed here. They have been here ever since. That was six months ago. This winter will be their first winter on the island."
Jessica has been nodding as Heraklese speaks. When he stops to sip his port, she says, "If he has a hippogriff, why can't he just fly away and never come back? Why come here? He could go to Ursia, or anywhere."
"Quite right," Heraklese says, "According to Clodine, however, the new Duke Horatio of Anabrasius has taken many of Clodine's friends and allies prisoner, and threatens to put them to death if Clodine does not give himself up. That seems far-fetched to me, but that's what Clodine fears. He believes that some of his friends are even now being tortured for information, although it's not clear what information they might have. So he does not want to leave yet. He wants to make some kind of a deal."
"What does he have to bargain with?" Stanley says.
"I'll get to that. Now, Sir Gallivan came ashore the morning before we arrived ourselves, and he asked if Clodine was on the island. At that time, of course, Clodine was not on the island. Nevertheless, Bragash said he would not answer the question. So Sir Gallivan answered that the Weilandic Parliament would assume that Bragash's refusal to answer meant that Clodine was indeed here, and they would order an invasion of the island in the hope of capturing Clodine. Another man from the frigate was a Roger Fullworthy, a commander of the Weilandic Marines. Roger confirmed that he would return with several ships full of heavy infantry to search the island for Clodine." Heraklese smiles. "Bragash said he would fight that battle when it came. The frigate left."
"Why didn't Bragash tell them Clodine was not here?" Jessica says, shaking her head. "He wasn't here on that day, was he?"
"Bragash believes that the Weilanders will come anyway," Heraklese says, "If they are going to come anyway, why answer questions about Clodine? If Bragash answers, what other questions are they going to ask him, and compel him to answer by the same threat of invasion?"
"And as a result of Bragash saying nothing," Stanley says, "now the island is certainly going to be attacked by a hundred marines."
Heraklese frowns. "It will be more than a hundred marines. More likely five hundred, plus another five hundred miscellaneous troops from Anabrasius, under Duke Horatio, and more from neighboring Dukedoms as well. These dukes will be hoping to get their hands on Bragash's money and his orcs' weapons. We estimate that their weapons are worth something in the region of ten million dollars."
Stanley thumps the table. "So you're going to fight for these orcs? But they are going to be massacered! How are we going to get away afterwards? It's absurd!"
Heraklese smiles. "You underestimate the orcs. You've watched their sports days. You saw them fighting with our fighters. You have seen their armor, their drills in formation. They can see at night. Have you considered what an advantage that would convey upon an army, to be able to see at night?"
"We're not talking about an army here," Stanley says, "We're talking about a hundred orcs, including children! The force that's coming to fight them, that is an army. It's an army against a small band of orcs. The orcs are going to get slaughtered."
Heraklese and Stanley stare at one another. Stanley is red in the face.
"Well," Heraklese says, "Thank you for your opinion. I will share it with my fellow board members. In the meantime, our reasoning, before receiving the benefit of your excellent opinion, is that with our help, the orcs stand a good chance of stopping half the army from getting here, and repelling the other half that lands."
Stanley is about to speak, but Jessica puts her hand upon his. They look at one another for a moment, Jessica tilts her head sideways. Stanley nods, and Jessica turns to face Heraklese. "Please continue."
"We're going to help Clodine and Bragash figure out how to deter the Weilandic force. Clodine is considering turning himself in to Sir Gallivan in exchange for some kind of guarantee that his friends will be released from prison in Anabrasius. In that case, the Weilandic Marines won't come. Meanwhile, we will try to sow dissent among the dukes who want to invade the island and rob the orcs. Or we will try to intimidate them somehow. And of course we will prepare the island for defence. All the orcs have to do is stay away from the forces that arrive until it gets dark, and then they will have the advantage. If the orcs kill a hundred men, the rest will flee."
Stanley shakes his head.
"I understand that you are frightened," Heraklese says.
"I am not frightened!" Stanley strikes the table. "I don't want to put my wife's life in danger for some parody of heroism on behalf of a bunch of orcs!"
Heraklese lifts his glass and takes a sip of port. Today the company board members agreed to obey orders from Bragash so long as they were guests in his village, which amounted to saying that the company itself would be obeying orders from Bragash. He had intended to reveal this to Stanley and Jessica, but now he thinks he will wait. "Frogive me for saying so, Stanley, but you are beginning to sound xenophobic."
"And what does that mean?"
"It means you don't like non-sapiens."
Jessica clasps Stanley's hand. "It's not that we're xenophobic. But how can we trust people we don't understand?"
"You can't," Heraklese says. "But you can understand them if you try, and we have been trying for the past two weeks. I think we are succeeding. We have sat in on their meetings. Just today we talked for three hours to Clodine about the orcs and about himself. In the past two weeks we have eaten with the orcs and danced with them." Heraklese pauses. He remembers dancing with an orc woman a few nights back, and how she had swayed her hips, and raised her arms above her head. "Ah," he says. "And we've raced with them and sparred with them on sports day. We play with their children. We help them with their labors around the village. By now we think we understand them enough to fight for them. And we are in touch with Dreadmanifold every day. We certainly trust him, or else we would not be here in the first place."
Stanley sighs. "Okay. But where will we be during the battle? Are we going to be expected to sail the ship against the Weilandic navy?"
"No," Heraklese, "Dreadmanifold has asked us the give Bragash and Clodine the benefit of our advice, and to see if we can find some other substantial way in which we can help his orcs. So far, we have concluded that our assisstance will be purely logistical, with the exception of Hocus's spells."
"And do we have your word on that?" Jessica says.
Heraklese pauses, looking at the lantern swaying gently above the table. "Yes," he says, "I give you my word that you will not be expected to fight. Dreadmanifold says he will pay us well for any assisstance we render him. We may offer you a large sum of money to sail the ship into battle, but you will have the option of refusing."
"And what if we want to leave before the battle? What if we want no part in this business?"
"Well, I think the board will agree that we must do right by our employees, or else we will not be able to attract good hands in the future. If I know my colleagues, they will work hard to give you a way out."
Stanley shakes his head again. "That's not much of a guarantee, is it? Hardly enough for me to stop worrying about my wife's safety."
Jessica takes her hand off his and puts it in her lap. "This isn't just about my safety," she says to Stanley.
He looks at her. "No, of course not." He turns to Heraklese. "That's not much of a guarantee of our safety."
"It is a fine guarantee. You are working for honorable men. You knew this was a dangerous journey when you embarked upon it. We were going into pirate waters. At the very least, you signed up to sailing out of those waters, with the threat of attack by pirates."
"With the knowledge," Stanley says, "That pirates in the Satian sea hardly ever harm the crew of the ships they steal from."
"Quite rigth. But notice that you say hardly ever. I promise you that our employees hardly ever get killed. In fact, nobody working for GMI has ever been killed." Heraklese looks down at his wine glass. Perhaps that was not a particularly good line of argument.
Jessica smiles. "But they do get stabbed by poisoned knives and almost killed, don't they?"
"Yes," Heraklese says. "I suppose they do."
Snow lies twenty centimeters deep on the gardens of the kobold village. The paths between the kobold cabins, and to and from the latrines at the edge of the village, have borders of snow almost a meter high. Some of the kobold cabins are entirely covered with snow, and are visible only at the eaves and at the door. Our heroes, Jack, Scythe, and Wicklow, wear the thick coats they bought in Powachella a month earlier. Their breath freezes on the fur linings around their hoods. Their armor, which they wear always, is heavy, but the work of carrying it makes them warm, and their gauntlets slide easily into the dearskin mittens the kobolds made for them after the first snow fall.
The kobolds themselves wear mittens and boots, both made of dearskin. Some wear dearskin hats. Upon their bodies they wear shirts and trousers of fine wool dyed brown, green, or rusty orange. But when they keep guard, they cover themselves with hooded capes of thick, bleached wool, and in these they blend with the snow, their faces in shadow, their breath coming slow and even, its mist condensing upon the inside of the cavernous hood before ever it shows itself. And there they sit, absolutely still.
In the summer, kobolds will sleep for a few hours in the night, when it is cool. But in the winter, they sleep in the middle of the day. They don't sleep much: from mid-morning to mid-afternoon. Our heroes take a siesta at that time, and talk quietly in Dreadmanifold's house, enjoying the peace and quiet, and the winter sunshine warming the hardwood floors through the large glass windows. They sleep a few hours in the night as well, and the kobolds have learned to be quiet from midnight until just before dawn, so that their temporary masters can rest easily. If the moon is up, and the sky is clear, the little creatures might sit outside in the freezing cold, playing chess, checkers, or cards. Their favorite game, however, is hide and seek. Their games can go on for days. In one game, Mad hid for two days underneath a pile of wood beside another family's cabin, and it was not until the rest of the village had organised a search party to go calling for him in the forest that he emerged, very pleased with himself, and very hungry.
When kobolds get cold, they don't seek out warmth. They seek out food. They are afraid of fire, and have no desire to sit beside it and warm themselves. Instead they want to stuff themselves with food. Each kobold eats at least as much as each of the sapiens, perhaps twice as much, despite being half the mass of a sapien. Our heroes are amazed at the rate with which the village's bags of flower, strings of onions, jars of pickled herring, and haunches of venison are being consumed. Dreadmanifold assures them that there is enough, but they count the bags of flower, and watch how fast they are disappearing, and hope that he is correct. They encourage the kobolds to hunt at night, and accomany them on their hunts, despite the bitter cold.
The only kobold family that uses fire is the baker's family. They bake bread for a few hours a day in a stone oven beneath which they light a blazing wood fire in the morning. The bread they make is excellent. Dreadmanifold taught them well. They make long thin crusty loaves for the sapiens, and small rolls for themselves. The rest of the kobolds stay away from the fire, and they have neither fire nor any source of light in their cabins day or night.
The kobold cabins are circular structures two meters in diameter made of log posts driven into the ground. The roof is conical, made of tapering logs, and stands about two meters high at the center. The cabins have no windows or chimneys, so they are cosy and air-tight. The doors are heavy wool blankets, usually four of five sewn together, covering a small break in the wall, and held down on the inside by stones. Gaps between the wall posts are sealed with whatever the kobolds have at hand: mud, sack cloth, and dried grass. Some cabins are covered entirely by a canvass tarpaulin, also held down around the permiter with rocks. Although the kobolds don't complain of cold, they find that they cannot sleep well unless the air in their houses is warm and still. If there are cool draghts, they wake up with hunger pains in their stomach. Our heroes enter the kobold houses only when they visit a sick member of the village or chase after a rule-breaker and drag him out for punishment. The kobolds are social creatures almost all the time, but they socialize outside their cabins, in the open air. Their cabins are their private places, where only members of their family are welcome.
The 6th of January has been a cold day. The mercury thermometer on Dreadmanifold's front porch read −10 °C at noon. Two hours after sundown, the temperature has dropped to −20 °C. Our heroes sit in front of Dreadmanifold's fireplace drinking hot tea and talking. They have set their armor aside upstairs, and lounge in comfort on the couch and floor cusions. The night before they caught two dear on a hunt, and tonight they feel entitled to relax. The kobolds appear to be in good spirits. The food supplies appear to be adequate. The only thing they can think of to worry about is the key that the vanquished Professionals believed they possessed: a key to the complex dwarf-made lock on the door to Dreadmanifold's cave. Will The Professionals try to use the key again, or will they sell it to someone else? Will Dreadmanifold seek out MacLockandlock the drawf woman and master locksmith who made the lock for him, and punish her for making an extra key? Should they go and offer to buy the key from The Professionals, wherever they might be, so as to remove the threat of the key, and confirm that the key is genuine?
On the other hand, what of events down in Tankum Island? Wouldn't it be fun to go down there and join Hocus? Could they infiltrate Duke Horatio's army, and by ill-advice, condemn it to disarray? But their place is here in the village. With the spare key to the cave out there somewhere, being offered for sale to any adventurer interested in trying his luck, all three of them are needed to keep guard.
As they contemplate these important matters, they hear a commotion outside: kobolds are moving around and shouting at one another. They hear the scream of a large animal. They put on their coats and go outside. In the moonlight they see a wyvern standing in the snow on the landing platfrom, raising its head and shaking its neck. It folds its enormous wings upon its back, screams again, and lowers its head to the upraised hand of a black orc standing beside its shoulder. The black orc says something to the wyvern, and shouts orders at the kobolds in their own language. The kobolds obey without question. Lid runs to our heroes as they walk from Dreadmanifold's house. "It is our Lord's friend, Stockandsteel. He says he will stay here. He asked to see Lord Dreadmanifold. I told him the Lord was away."
"Did you tell him about us?" Jack says.
Lid looks at him for a moment. "No"
"Are you sure he is a friend of Dreadmanifold's?" Wicklow says.
Lid stares at him but does not answer. Behind her, the black orc jumps down from the landing platform and strides towards them. Lid steps aside. The black orc looks at the three sapiens. They know that he can see them clearly, but to them his face is vague in the dim light.
"Who are you?" he says.
Our heroes give their names. "And you are called Stockandsteel?" Wicklow says.
"Dreadmanifold is not here. We are looking after the kobolds until he returns."
Stockandsteel furrows his hairless brow and looks at the windows of the house. "Well," he says, "I'm hungry and I need some rest." He steps around them and continues towards the house. When they catch up with him, he's sitting in front of the fire on a wooden chair. His sheepskin coat is hanging on the back of another chair nearby. Next to the coat is his great-sword in a blue, laquered scabbard. The laquer is splattered with mud, and in places the laquer is cracked and stained. Stoakcandsteel still wears his muddy, snow-encrusted, black leather boots. He leans forward to warm his large hands. His skin, where it is visible, is jet black, with a hint of night-blue. He looks up at them. "Bring me something to eat. It doesn't have to be anything special. I don't want to keep you up. But I am hungry."
"We will be glad to welcome you and give you some supper," Scythe says, "but we need to know who you are, and what you are doing here. Dreadmanifold placed us in charge here, so it is our responsibility to know who it is we are allowing to stay in his house."
"My business is my own, and I'm not in the mood to share it. Just get me my supper. I'm hungry and I need to sleep. We can talk tomorrow morning."
Jack, Wicklow, and Scythe stand together in the middle of the living room, with Scythe a step closer to Stockandsteel than the others. Scythe takes a deep breath. "I appreciate that you are tired and hungry, but you must appreciate that we need an explanation from you before we can grant you Dreadmanifold's hospitality."
Stockandsteel's shoulders slump forward. He covers his eyes with one hand and rubs his brow. After a moment, he stands up.
Wicklow sees kobold faces pressed against the window to his right. The faces look frightened. Wicklow imagines that he and his companions must appear like children in front of the black orc. The black orc towers over Scythe when he stands. He is two and a half meters tall. The ceiling is three meters high, and the furniture is giant-sized.
"You don't have to get up," Jack says, "Please sit and −"
Stockandsteel steps forward and kicks at Scythe's stomach. Scythe twists aside and chops with his bare hand at Stockandsteel's thigh. Stockandsteel follows with a jab at Scythe's face at such speed that it surely must knock him down, had he not been turning to look at his companions, hoping to see in their eyes what he should do. Should he fight? If so, should he fight alone? He steps back and raises his hands. But it does no good, because Stockandsteel slaps at him and sweeps his booted foot across the floor so that Scythe must jump aside to stay on his feet.
Wicklow wonders for a moment if he should grab a broom handle, or a candlestick, and use it as a weapon. But he recalls that Stockandsteel has his sword resting against the chair behind him, and he has made no attempt to reach it. If Wicklow arms himself, the black orc might do the same, so there would be no advantage in doing so. Jack moves forward to attack Stockandsteel. Wicklow does the same, with no weapon but his own body.
With the three of them attacking him, Stockandsteel smiles and jumps aside. He places a table between him and two of his opponents. The sapiens press their attack. He delivers a few far-reaching jabs and kicks, steps on the table, and leaps to land closer to the door. They move back. They don't want to be trapped in the room, with him standing at the door. He attacks them, and they do their best to attack in return. His blows are powerful and deliberate. They seem to come when the sapiens are in the middle of attacking him themselves, or moving around one another, or looking aside to make sure they have ground to retreat to. The sapiens move as quickly as they can, to and fro. By trading power for speed they find that they have some chance of landing a blow upon the black-orc's body, and they do land some blows, and they are encouraged by their successes. Do they have a chance of wearing him down?
It becomes apparant to the three of them that Stockandsteel is attacking them all equally. It would make more sense, as any soldier knows, to knock out one opponent first by concentrating upon him, and proceed to knock out the other two more easily. But he is not putting this policy into practice. Instead, whenever one of the sapiens lands a blow upon him, he persists in striking back at that same person until someone else lands a blow upon him. The three sapiens are tiring together, and Stockandsteel is drawing out the battle for as long as possible. Why would he do such a thing? Is it his desire to win, or simply to fight?
Our heroes fight on, regardless of their concerns. It may be that they cannot defeat Stockandsteel, but none of them is willing to be the first to give up, and each is imagining how their behavior will be received by Dreadmanifold. If nothing else, they should make an effort to dominate this alleged friend of their employer's.
The chairs in the living room are thrown down on their backs. The couch cusions are strewn across the room. Stockandsteel's coat and sword lie upon the floor near the fire. Our heroes are breathing hard and sweating. Stockandsteel jumps in the air, grabs a beam in the ceiling with the claws on his finger-tips, and swings over Wicklow to land still closer to the door. The sapiens move back and Stockandsteel charges them. They scatter and attack him from the sides. He flings Scythe across the floor, kicks Jack in the stomach, and almost grabs Wicklow by the neck. Scythe gets up off the couch. He is dizzy and so exhausted he's not sure he can move forward on his feet. Stockandsteel stands in the center of the room, turning slowly while stepping from one foot to the other and watching them. Scythe looks at Jack, who is kneeling on the ground trying to force his lungs to breath. Wicklow is flexing his hands, which hurt from striking the black orc's bony knees and arms. Sweat is dripping into his eyes. He wipes it away and looks at Scythe. Scythe shakes his head. Wicklow shakes his head also.
Wicklow straightens and takes a deep breath. "Okay. You win."
Stockandsteel nods, bends over, and sets to rights the small table. He walks to the hearth, picks up his chair, hangs his coat on it, picks up his scabbard, wipes it off on his trousers, and sits down in front of the fire. "Now I'm even more hungry than before."
Jack stands at the door, scowling. "I'm not going to bring him his supper," he says in a whisper to his companions.
"Well, I am," Wicklow says, and smiles.
He and Scythe go into the kitchen and prepare as good a meal as they can from cheese, preserved meat, today's bread, some salted butter, and dried fruit. Jack remains at the door for a minute, and then goes outside to explain to the kobolds what is going on, if any such explanation can calm the fear he sees evident in their little faces.
Stockandsteel thanks them for the supper they bring him. When he has eaten it, he insists upon sleeping on the couch while they sleep in their accustomed beds upstairs. They bring him blankets, put some more wood next to the fire, draw the curtains, and move towards the door. Stockandsteel is already lying on the couch. "I enjoyed the fight," he says, "It was just what I needed to warm me up and loosen my stiff joints. I hope you feel no ill effects in the morning."
Wicklow feels his fists for a moment. "No, I think I'll be fine."
"Good. Sleep well."
Upstairs, in their room, they lie quietly for a while. At last Scythe says, "We can ask D what to do tomorrow."
"Yes," Jack says.
Each of them goes through their position in his own head. Have they anything to fear from Stockandsteel? If he had meant to harm them, he could have done so in the living room. He might have killed one of them before they could escape. If he did not harm them at that time, why would he harm them now? Is he going to sneak up the stairs and attack them in the middle of the night? No, that would not make any sense. What if something attacked the village tonight? Whatever it was that attacked, they would have to deal with Stockandsteel as well as the sapiens. If anything, they are safer now, with him sleeping on the couch, than they have been since... when? Scythe has a bounty on his head. Who would try to kill him here, tonight?
Jack is still unhappy about being bossed around by the black orc. But the more he thinks about it, the more drowzy he becomes, and before he knows it, he is fast asleep.
"Hah!" Dreadmanifold's voice comes loud and clear through the space bridge. It is lunch time on 7th January. A little less loud is Stardiamond's laughter in the background. "Hah!" he says again.
Stardiamond says, "I can just see him, I really can. All serious, and wanting his dinner, the old grouch."
Our heroes, although not as amused as Dreadmanifold and his partner, are nevertheless smiling, because they are much relieved to hear that their actions meet with Dreadmanifold's approval.
"What shall we do about him?" Wicklow says.
"Let me talk to him."
And so they take the bridge into the living room, where Stockandsteel has just woken up. "Dreadmanifold would like to speak to you," Jack says, and hands him the bridge. Stockandsteel takes it and speaks into it immediately.
"My Lord Dreadmanifold?"
"It is I."
Jack moves to the door. "I'll let you talk privately." He closes the door behind him.
Fifteen minutes later, Stockandsteel appears at the door and hands the bridge to Jack. He wanders into the kitchen, looking for food, which he finds in the form of ten freshly-baked crusty loaves.
Our heroes step into the living room and huddle around the bridge.
"Stockandsteel has agreed to stay there until we get back. He needs somewhere to rest. I think you should leave, and go and join your friends on Tankum Island. I'll release you from your obligations to the kobolds on one condition, which is that you keep it secret that Stockandsteel is in the village. He does not want to be found."
After another ten minutes discussion, our heroes agree to this, and say they will pack up and leave in a few days, after making sure that Stockandsteel knows where everything is, and that the kobolds are ready for another change in leadership.
"Good," Dreadmanifold says. "If you can find some way of making yourself useful to my exiled orcs, I will pay you well. And I am proud of you for the way you handled Stockandsteel. Or perhaps I should say: I am proud of myself for hiring you."
"Thank you, sir," Wicklow says.
"Before we say goodbye," Scythe says, "What do you want us to do about the dwarf locksmith who sold a spare key to your door? Do we try to change the lock, or break it, or shall we pile more trees up against the door?"
"Ah," Dreadmanifold says, and there is a silence of a few seconds on the other end of the bridge. "I'm not certain the story about Maclockandlock is genuine. It's true that she is a bit of reprobate, so I will certainly pay her a visit when I have time, and ask her a few questions, if I can find her. Until then, however, I'm not certain that the spare key makes it any easier or more difficult for anyone to get into the cave. Whoever has the key thinks that we don't know about it, so they will plan their break-in as if we will not prepare for someone to approach with a key. With a few kobolds watching the door, well-hidden, Stockandsteel would get warning, and could surprise them while they are in the cave. We could let them enter and then trap them."
Scythe nods. "Okay. So we'll post guards, and that's all."
"I think that will be adequate. What is a lock, anyway, but a way to slow a good thief down?"
"But how can you let this dwarf woman go around knowing that she sold a key of yours to someone?" Jack says, "She cheated you."
"A dwarf woman sold a key and claimed it was a key to my door. Maybe it was Maclockandlock. Maybe it it a genuine key. On the other hand, maybe it was an imposter and a fraudulent key."
"How would anyone else know about the door but the locksmith?"
"I can think of any number of ways," Dreadmanifold says. "But as I said, I will talk to her when I next have the chance, and see what she has to say for herself. In the meantime, don't worry about it."
The next day, Stockandsteel is still resting, spending most of the time sleeping on the couch, and the rest of the time eating. He is respectful to the sapiens whenever he encounters them, and also to the kobolds when he walks out to check on his wyvern. The wyvern itself lies in the stable in a deep sleep, its body cold to the touch.
Jack, Wicklow, and Scythe sit near the wood stove in the dining room, and spend the day in conversation with their colleagues on Tankum Island. Heraklese, Hocus, Martha, and Bonita are sitting in the captain's cabin aboard Loose Lips. At first, Heraklese is hesitant to allow Bonita and Martha to be privy to these GMI debates, but Hocus says it's no problem, and Martha and Bonita are clearly eager to take part. Bonita's eyes shine at the talk of how to help Clodine break free of the bounty upon his head, and liberate his friends, and how to help the orcs win a fight against superior numbers. The rest of the boat's crew are in the kitchen cooking, or tidying the ship. They may be able to hear the conversations throuh the timbers, because everyone has to speak loudly to be heard through the bridges, but they make no comment. Sallina and Garibaldi are, as always, deliberately aloof from the strategic problems of the company, and Jessica and Stanley have lapsed into a grudging acceptance of their lot, with the promise of good pay.
At lunch-time, they all talk to Dreadmanifold. What to do about the upcoming battle for Tankum Island? Should they help Clodine? What does Dreadmanifold think of Bragash's motives in harboring Clodine?
"I want them off that island," Dreadmanifold says. "I don't want them getting embroiled in sapien politics. Orcs are not great at politics. Bragash is a good soldier, and an honorable man, but he can be tricked. I'd like you to think about how to get them off that island and across the desert to the Western Outlands, or perhaps to the kobold village if that's more convenient. If you think that helping Clodine will help the exiles, then that's fine, help him. If you want to kill Duke Horatio, then wait a few weeks, and I'll be able to come down and kill him myself. If you have to fight a battle, try to delay it until I can be there to fight with you. I may be able to force the marines to retire. In any case, I don't think that you should be thinking of yourselves as military assests in this conflict. You are logistical assets. Your value is in dealing with sapiens, making plans, avoiding traps, and providing whatever spells you can. Use your military skill to keep yourselves alive in a dangerous environment. I assure you that any one of those orcs could defeat any one of you in single combat. In battle you would each be worth less than half of one my exiles, because you can't even see in the dark."
The rest of the afternoon they spend discussing the implications of Dreadmanifolds declaration. In the evening, those on Loose Lips go ashore to have supper and dance with the orcs, and talk with Bragash and Clodine, as well as Ugluk. The next day, the ninth of January, they continue their debates on the ship with their colleagues in the Kobold Village. It seems to them that their first two jobs for Dreadmanifold are finished. They have looked after the kobold village. They have brought supplies to Tankum Island. It's time to open a new chapter in GMI's operations, that of taking one hundred orcs five thousand kilometers across the desert to the Western Outlands. Or somewhere else.