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Games, Literature

Foundering Valley – Chapter 29, Wednesday Afternoon, June 11 – War Council

Chapter 29 — Wednesday Afternoon, June 11 – War Council

Sapphire looked around the table, in the front room of the inn. “Well, it looks like the gang’s all here. What did you think of the Earl’s performance this morning?”

Flummox shook his head. “You mean his dismissive attitude toward the coming Trog-Wolf war, or his botched attempt at yet another summoning?”

Cleo clunked down her mug. “That man’s a danger. He needs to be stopped.”

Grace nodded vigorously. “Yes. One of the charges the angels gave me was to do something about the evil ones he has summoned. If he keeps this up, we’ll get an unending supply of vile ones to deal with.”

Rufus smiled. “Well, it is the vile ones that stand out in history, so that he’s heard of them before. He can’t imagine new people out of thin air – he just summons what he’s heard of. We got lucky this time, with a bunch of harmless cave people. Bog bless it.”

Flummox glanced around at each of them quickly. “So what’s our next move?”

Sapphire clenched her jaw. “We can’t keep running off half cocked. We need to discuss a plan this time.” She looked pointedly at Animus.

Animus drew back and put a hand on his chest. “Hey, we’re all free agents. But I agree, we need a coherent plan, and to act together. Time is short.”

Rufus leaned in. “Not to be pedantic and all, but I think it would be good to review our priorities. Make a list, and tackle them one or two at a time.”

Grace nodded. “Yes. Let’s start with what the angels told me to do. First, curing Maude.”

“I think that’s well under way. Zhivaga has plenty of help and samples now. I think the Withers bolstered some of her theories. But yes, someone should check on the lab.”

“Agreed. Second, they told me to stabilize the farms, get the economy rolling again.”

D-Stract smiled. “With all the romance in the air, I think we can counter the loss of people. We just need to replace some livestock, and get the trade with the Trogs going again.”

Flummox tilted his head. “And the problem there, is the coming war.”

Cleo rubbed the top of her mug thoughtfully. “I think my bow would be put to best use in making sure nobody else got infected. I can put aside ancient history and work with the Trogs.” She looked at Animus, who shrugged at her.

Animus passed Cleo a small jar. “You’ll need this more than I will. Just be careful – it doesn’t last long on werewolves, but it can give you some extra time to do what is needed.”

“Thanks.”

Rufus nodded. “All right, so pulling out the human werewolves as quick as we can, before the Trogs attack, has got to be top priority, or it all goes to the bottom of the bog.”

Animus raised a hand. “I call that one. I just need to get my nets back from the witch, so I can catch the young ones. It’s going to need a clever stealth job, rather than a frontal assault like I tried before.”

Sapphire chuckled. “Well, I know just the clever stealthy people to do that for you. I’ll appeal to their honor. I think they owe me at this point.”

Animus smiled. “Great. You mean the Asians. We’ll do this together, then.”

“So, the third thing the angels told me, was to get rid of the evil ones that the Earl has summoned.” Grace sat up and looked around the circle. “Just the evil ones, mind you.”

Flummox laughed. “And here I thought you were jealous of Dorothy or something. Of course just the evil ones. Looks like the first three are off the list with the little set-to last night.”

Cleo nodded. “Those three were pretty awful, and deserved what they got. I’d put The Visitor next on the list.”

Grace nodded too. “That guy gives me the creeps. Who else?”

Animus raised his eyebrows. “The witch, of course. I don’t think her flying monkeys are particularly evil. Sure, they can fend for themselves, just like any creature. Any of the old guard or the lab staff?”

Rufus shook his head. “I think they were selected one at a time with more care. None of them seem to be causing trouble – except the Visitor of course. Somebody should check in with Sherlock and see what he knows.”

Grace nodded. “Yeah. Sherlock and Bones seem okay, and of course all of Dorothy’s friends, including Woody in particular. The Viking actors seem harmless, as do those cave people. Rita?”

Flummox shook his head. “Nah. Just doing her job. She seems sweet on Chief Grief, by the way. I think that’s the whole list. Maybe Larsen, don’t know. We just have to stop the Earl from summoning any more.”

Animus snorted. “Speaking of summoning, what about the mess Flicker made with the elementals?”

Sapphire rubbed her lips thoughtfully. “I think we’re going to have to leave that to the mouslings. Those Council people seem to be leaning on him pretty hard to fix his own mess. And, Grace didn’t hear anything about them from the angels.”

Grace nodded. “True enough. Not our problem then, I hope.”

Rufus sat back. “So the last big problem is getting rid of all the restless adventurers down on the beach. Whatever they did to Capone and his muscle men may just be the beginning. We can’t wait for the roads to be repaired – which should be on the list, by the way – which means persuading the crew of the Buccaneer to take them back across the lake and out that way. Ideas?”

Sapphire sat back. “Well, at this point they think the Prince is dead, and I’m sure they just want to get the heck out of here. If I got the Asians to let us use the Viking longboat to pull the Buccaneer off the sand bar, in exchange for passage out of here for the ‘beach bums’, I bet they would go for it.”

Flummox sat bolt upright. “I’ll bet we can do better than that. We could use a regular ship run to replenish materials, food, supplies, livestock and so forth. For the right incentive, maybe we can get them to go straight, for a while at time. At least until the roads are repaired.” He looked around. “Okay, I’m on that one.”

Rufus sat up and stretched. “Unless there is anything else urgent…?” He looked around the circle. “Let me recap then. We’ll worry about the roads later, it is a big project, after all, and leave the elementals to the mouslings.

“Grace is going to check on Zhivaga’s progress and see what can be done for Maude, and all the other infected ones.

“Sapphire is going to hit up the Asians about letting go of the longboat, and doing for the witch while getting back the nets. She and Animus are then going to save the human werewolves and bring them in for treatment.

“Flummox is going to open negotiations with the Bucs.

“D-Stract, I think it falls to you to check with Sherlock and see what can be done about the visitor, and maybe get closer to the Earl and see if you can get him to show some restraint.”

D-Stract nodded. “Glad to. I think I’ll start with Archie Tomes, though. I think he’s responsible for some of the worst gaffs the Earl has committed. What about you then?”

Rufus paused. “First, I’ll see if I can’t find Caboose, or his comatose body. Last thing we need is the crabs eating him and going undead. After that, I think, I’ll keep an overall eye on things. I’ll monitor the mousling situation, and maybe recruit some more help for the long-term road repair. However, my top priority will be backup for you six. Whatever you need, I’ll drop the long-term stuff and help where I can. Does that work for all of you?”

Sapphire laughed. “So much for focusing on one or two projects at a time. Looks like we have one or two apiece.”

Rufus shook his head ruefully. “I don’t think we have the luxury, or the time, to do any less. It’s going to be tough for us. Let’s all keep an eye on each other’s backs.”

They looked at each other around the table, trying to show empathy and support. Many hands were grasped around the circle in affirmation. They had a plan.

Just then Spamwich arrived with a large steaming bowl of something that he plunked down on the table. The aromas of onions, herbs, mushrooms, strong red wine, and fish assaulted their nostrils. “Looks like we have a hungry crowd today. I hope you enjoy the stew!”

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Rufus borrowed an unbroken chair from Beryl and seated himself outside the inn door as the others dispersed. He summoned an air sprite and sent it skittering down the wind towards the beach.

 It passed Sapphire and Animus, who were heading for a parley with the Asians, skimmed above the water, hooked around the Narwhal at the dock, and zoomed over the area where Caboose had supposedly fallen in the water.

 He then had it skim along to the bridge, where Flummox was asking Achilles to accompany him to a parley with the buccaneers.

Rufus quickly realized this was not the right way to search for Caboose. The air sprite could not see below the water. Furthermore, air being volatile as it is, there was no memory retained of last night’s events. So, he requested aid from Sapphire, via the Monk’s spell. She and Animus marched right past the Asians encampment, clamored over the barricades, and headed down to the water.

There she closed her eyes and summoned a water nymph, as Animus stood watch. The nymph swam around the Narwhal and quickly found where Caboose had disturbed the mud beneath the water. The scent of decay still clung to the tracks, and the nymph was able to track it along the shore to the river mouth. There, the strong current tumbled her through the water. The nymph giggled with joy, though Sapphire imagined that Caboose would have been less pleased with the ride. Swept up against the base of the peninsula, the nymph quickly picked up the track again, and followed it out towards the middle of the lake, right up to a point not far from where Sapphire and the Asians had landed during the night. The fishing boat was no longer there, of course, but the nymph found the point where Caboose had headed inland.

Sapphire sent the nymph swimming out to the tip of the peninsula, around past the sandbar on which the Buccaneer was stuck, and back in to the fishing huts on the far side. She arrived at the boat landing as Flummox was exchanging pleasantries with Screetcher in reptilian hisses. Sadly, the dragonette could add nothing of value to the account of last night’s events.

The nymph took up the scent again and followed it back towards the causeway, and found where Caboose had dragged himself back to shore. At Sapphire’s urging, Flummox and Achilles turned back and investigated the spot.

The mud at that point was soft and clearly showed where someone had slithered in, stood up, and proceeded to higher ground.

Achilles pointed. “Look here. Tiny prints in the mud, then muddy tracks on the dry ground. These were made by felis domesticus – a common house cat. You know the little witch sends her beast out to scout for her? Well, he was here last night, and followed your man on from here.”

Flummox beamed the information to Rufus. I guess you better go visit Petunia next.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Rufus headed over to the bakery, and found Petunia playing in the dirt out front. Shadow was nowhere to be seen. “I understand your cat did some tracking last night.”

Petunia gazed at him carefully. “You mean Shadow. His name is Shadow.”

“Yes. What did he see down by the water last night?”

“What do you mean?”

“I mean, I know you use your magic to spy on things around town, using Shadow’s eyes. What did you see?”

Petunia bit her lip. “I was concerned, with the zombies running every which way last night, after you came by. Most of them ran back across the bridge, but not one. He went and visited the Captain on the dock, then went into the water. I… I had to make Shadow run to catch up to him. He found the zombie coming back ashore near the causeway.”

“Where did he go?”

“He met someone there. Two someones.”

“Who were they?”

“Shadow couldn’t tell. The zombie smell, and the muck, made his nose itch something fierce. They were all dressed up in dark cloaks. One of them threw something at Shadow, a knife I think, but he missed. Shadow had to keep his distance then.”

“And where did they go then?”

“Into the swamp. Shadow can’t go there. There are… creatures that would eat him that live in there.”

“Hmm. No undead crabs then, but maybe undead swamp lizards down the road. Great. So did Caboose go with them willingly?”

“I don’t know. I guess. He didn’t fight them.”

“See anything else?”

“Nope. They went into the swamp and Shadow came home.”

“Any idea what the mouslings have been up to?”

Petunia stared at him again. “Most of them are still in the attic above the inn. Two of them hide above the apothecary — kills their scent. Two of them are at the mill. They use their magic to keep Shadow away.”

“Does your father know that you use magic?”

“No. You’re not going to tell him, are you?”

Rufus shook his head. “No, I’m not going to say anything. Be careful, though, there are a lot of dangerous people around.”

Petunia nodded seriously. “I know. That’s why I watch them.”

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

 Grace found Dr. Zhivaga in the lab, looking tired but happy. “You look pleased about something. Making progress?”

Zhivaga nodded. “Yes, lots of progress. I think our path forward may be clear now.”

Grace sat down at the table. “Tell me about it.”

Zhivaga frowned. “It’s pretty… technical. I don’t want to bore you with details, but I think I understand what’s going on, and what to do about it. The interns have done a lot of side experiments, under glass, and consultations with the Earl and Master Withers have really clarified things. I now think I can understand Dr. Gnoll’s sporadic notes, too.”

“That’s great. But I am accomplished in the arcane arts, so let’s see how much I can follow before you give up on me.”

Zhivaga took a deep breath. “All right then, you asked for it. So the metabolic cells we have been looking at supply energy to the body…”

“Okay, first cognitive block. Energy comes from the food we eat, reacting with the air we breathe, and everything is distributed throughout the body by blood, pumped by the heart…”

Zhivaga nodded. “Yes, yes, the culture I grew up in understands all that very well. Energy arrives in the cells, or parts of your body, in the form of a special sugar. What these cells do is combine that energy with willpower to create action. Your culture understands that the energy, or manna, can also be drawn directly from other physical worlds, called planes or dimensions, based on the four elements. This I’ve learned here. Plants and such at the bottom of the food chain are drawing that energy from those places and storing it, you call that manna, and the tendency for it to ‘return-to-source’ is what we experience as physical energy. Willpower on the other hand, can be supplied by the brain, or be drawn from other dimensions, to wit the spiritual planes, that we call heaven, hell, purgatory, limbo, and so forth. The different viewpoints, call them science, magic, or religion, are in fact compatible, just different stages of the process.”

Grace rubbed her chin. “All right, I’m with you. Go on about the disease.”

“Well, you’ve seen the normal blue matrix that holds the normal yellow metabolic cells in a protective cocoon. It grows slowly by a creeping expansion (sort of plant-like), and stabilizes the yellow cells as they divide and develop, splitting over and over again through natural life processes (sort of like bacteria). Eventually the yellow cells become free of that matrix and can then specialize, turning into red or black cells depending on the age and need of the person. The only source of the red and black cells in the body is the maturation or ‘specialization’ of the yellow cells. They can no longer divide and multiply — that is the price they pay in order to specialize.”

Grace nodded. “That matches what I’ve heard so far.”

“For all that, and this next part I’m relying on the intern’s experiments. So, the disease, which comes over in bodily fluids, is caused by the presence of the purple cells, which are consuming the blue matrix cells. This is how they reproduce, when they grow strong enough. Once free of the natural blue matrix, more of the yellow cells specialize than is good for you, and the metabolism runs amok. Depending on the age and disposition of the patient, the metabolism either ramps up to werewolf status, or shuts down, turning the patient into the living dead, and thus becoming dependent on external manna sources.”

“Okay, so how do you treat the disease?”

Zhivaga smiled. “That is where Dr. Gnoll’s notes come in. Dr. Gnoll took a very aggressive approach on himself, using nutrient starvation to kill off the purple cells, and unfortunately the few remaining yellow metabolic cells at the same time. He then carefully balanced the presence of red and black cells, which are naturally antagonistic, via continuous infusions of Iggy and Chessy’s blood. He kept it up until the blue matrix cells, added only later from normal blood, re-established themselves, actually encapsulating the red/black cell mixture, so they no longer fought each other. A good idea, but you see the result — he’s a tortured man. He almost had it right, though. If he had only taken transfusions of normal blood all along, with yellow metabolic cells, he would have been fine. I think he was trying for the best of both worlds, like superman, and overcharged himself.”

“So what happened to Iggy and Chessy? Did he drain all their blood?”

“No, no, that happened after Dr. Gnoll’s… incapacitation. Dr. Green worked on them, and overdid the starvation process. The purple cells ran amok, and destroyed more than just the blue matrix, they attacked the body’s basic integrity, as you can see. I don’t think there is any way of saving them. I don’t know if their spirit has fled, it seems not, but I’m not skilled at speaking to people across the spiritual plane. Maybe you know someone…?”

Grace’s face fell. “What about Maude? She didn’t have many yellow cells left at all. Can you save her?”

Zhivaga bit her lip. “All I have to go by are some older blood samples. She seemed to be starving herself, not eating. It’s just a matter of time before she lapses into the sleep of the living dead, and if she does not have the will to live, she’ll simply shut down her body altogether and die. Her yellow cell count was much lower than we saw in active undead, werewolves, or Chief Grief – now there’s an interesting case. Both he and she were balanced on the mental/physical line so they resisted the disease an extraordinary long time. The difference is, he is clinging to life and still eating, creating yellow metabolic cells with the energy he has. She is not, or at least was not according to those old blood samples.”

Grace stood up. “So she’s running out of time. If I bring her in, will you help her?”

Zhivaga looked surprise. “Of course, my dear, that’s what I do.”

 As Grace rushed out of the castle, she noticed a certain dejected person with bagpipes approaching the inn. “Hey Scotty, have you got a minute?”

Scotty turned with a surprised smile. “Why, Miss Grace! Certainly! What can I do for you?”

“Could you please go to the lab, just inside the castle wall and to the left, and wait for me there? I think we have some spirits we need you to contact.”

“With pleasure. What should I…”

But Grace had already hurried off toward the church, and broken into a run.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Sapphire and Animus trudged back up the beach, clamored over the barricade again, and headed into the Asian encampment.

 At first Butterball blocked their way, but then recognized Sapphire and led them to the carriage. After a quick exchange of words, they were allowed to enter.

 The carriage was surprisingly roomy. The Prince sprawled on a bunk in the back, snoring, while Master Gin-Tzu and Mama-San sat on couches on opposite sides. Sapphire’s eyes went to a large hook in the ceiling, now holding an empty cage.

Gin-Tzu stood and bowed. “We are honored by your visit. Thank you for your help last night, and the other night, earlier.” He indicated the empty couch along the front wall of the carriage. “Please sit.”

Sapphire settled on the couch. “How is the Prince?”

Mama-San gave a nod. “Thank you for your concern. He is well, but needs his rest.”

“That is good. Animus and I have come to ask for your help now, in return.”

“We are in your debt. What do you need?”

“Two things, actually. We are negotiating with the Buccaneers for use of their ship. Is that a problem for you?”

Gin-Tzu snorted. “No, they are just common criminals. At home, they would be dealt with quickly. Here…?” He shrugged. “They are no longer our concern.”

“Good. Anyway, we need the longboat to pull them off the sand bar.”

“I’m afraid that’s not possible.”

“But you just said…”

“Sorry for the misunderstanding. The longboat is no longer seaworthy.” Seeing Sapphire’s look of disappointment, he opened a shuttered window and barked a command in an obscure language. “I think the story is best told by the White Ninja. You recall he was left to guard the longboat. I noticed your surprise when he accompanied you on the raid last night.”

 Shortly they were joined by the ninja, clad in black with white trim. He bowed low to Mama-San, then again to Gin-Tzu.

Gin-Tzu’s voice cracked like a whip. “Tell Miss Sapphire what happened to the longboat.”

The ninja bowed again, this time to Sapphire, and began his story. “I was guarding the longboat, always alert, when a big seahorse rushed out of the swamp and began to damage the boat.”

Sapphire looked incredulous. “A seahorse? How could a horse sink a ship?”

“That’s what they called it, later. This creature was almost as large as the longboat itself. It was trying… forgive me, my lady. It was trying to mate with it. It broke the mast, splintered the benches, and smashed holes in the hull. The longboat rests half below the water now, in pieces. There was nothing I could do against a creature that size, so I returned to my master’s service.”

Sapphire shook her head in disbelief.

Animus sat up straight. “You said ‘they’. What else did you see?”

“There were… I would call them ‘lizard men’. A half dozen of them — green and scaly, wearing leather scabbards and carrying weapons. I took a defensive posture but they actually apologized for their beast, saying they normally could control it, but that this was the mating season. Some of them climbed aboard the beast and they all swam and waded off through the muddy channels.”

Sapphire and Animus looked at each other and shrugged. Sapphire turned back to Gin-Tzu. “That is, indeed, unfortunate. We’ll have to find another way to pull the ship free.”

“And the other thing you would ask?”

“I will let Animus explain.”

Animus took a deep breath. “The ultimate goal is to rescue two human children that are captives of the werewolves, in the mountains west of the town. They have been infected themselves, so to take them alive — we need nets.”

Gin-Tzu spread his hands. “Sorry, we have no nets.”

“Let me clarify, I need your help recovering my nets. They were… stolen from me by some flying monkeys that serve a witch, now holed up in a cave up on Monolith Mountain. She is a powerful witch, so my nets must be recovered by stealth. Your people are quite skilled in that sort of thing.”

Gin-Tzu frowned. “You want us to recover these nets without being seen?”

Sapphire shook her head. “No, actually we’d like you to assassinate the witch. We can’t use magic, or force of arms — she is much too powerful a fire sorceress. However, she has a weakness, like her sister, that Dorothy exploited to good effect on her sister, many years ago. If you can sneak in and dowse her with enough water, the results should be quite satisfactory.”

Animus snorted. “And if that doesn’t work, just cut off her head before she notices you are there.”

Gin-Tzu smiled. “Leave it to us. We will have your nets shortly after sundown. Must we kill these flying monkeys too?”

Sapphire shrugged. “Doesn’t matter one way or the other. Without her, they’re just clever animals.”

Gin-Tzu nodded. “It will be done.”

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Flummox and Achilles approached the Buccaneer. The guards seemed more concerned with staying away from the railings, and watching the open water, than watching the shore, so Flummox had to hail them to be noticed.

 Shortly Lady Luna came to the railing. “What do you two want?”

Flummox gave a little bow. “I invoke the ancient rite of Parley. According to the code of the pirates…”

“Don’t give me that crap.”

“Okay, I just want to talk.”

“I don’t think we have anything to talk about.”

“I do. I think I can make it worth your time.”

She shrugged. “All right then, you can come aboard. But the stiff one can stay right there.” They slid a suspended longboat down the mooring line, then dragged Flummox back up aboard the ship. Flummox was escorted into the aft castle, past a few doors, and into the captain’s cabin.

 Lord Ironhand sat at the large desk that occupied the center of the room. The back wall was taken up by the aft windows, under which was a large bunk. The other walls held bookshelves, a trunk, cabinets, and a chest of drawers. Without a word, he gestured at the two empty chairs on their side of the desk. As they seated themselves, Ironhand grunted. “Are you looking for the Prince?”

Flummox shook his head. “We know what happened to him last night. I’m not here for the Asians. I wanted to offer to get you off this sand bar.”

Lady Luna laughed. “And you’re going to do this out of the kindness of your heart? Or perhaps you’ll accept an IOU for payment after we’re free, and trust that you’ll be paid later?”

“Please, we are not children here. The only good negotiation is a durable one; we will fulfill our promises, each in turn, because it will be in each of our best interests to do so.”

The two buccaneers exchanged glances. “Go on.”

“We will get you off this sand bar, because it is in our interest to do so. You will then carry passengers back to civilization for us. You will do that, and return with certain cargos we need, because you want an exclusive contract to deal regularly in the commodity that this valley produces.”

Lady Luna wrinkled her lip. “And what would that be?”

For answer, Flummox drew the little bag he had gotten from Hound, and emptied it on the table. From the way they drew breath, he knew they recognized uncut gemstones. They each reached out and picked one up for examination.

“These should bring enough to buy the cargo we’re asking for, and then some. Each time you bring us a load, we’ll give you more of the same. As long as the exchange keeps going, we each stand to gain more by continuing, than by cheating on the deal and queering the pitch.”

Lord Ironhand set down the gemstone. “Who are the passengers?”

“That party of adventurers on our beach, who want to get back to civilization – plus or minus a couple.”

Ironhand narrowed his eyes. “And what if a couple of them ended up on my crew?”

Flummox shrugged. “Not my problem. Under your discipline, they should keep out of trouble. We just want that rabble off our beach.”

“And the cargo?”

“Short term we need foodstuffs. Longer term we need to replenish our livestock. Plus we need some supplies to finish repairing the roads, and refitting the Narwhal. I’ll have my people put together a list, if you give us a tonnage allowance.”

Luna jerked her head back with a sneer. “So you refit the Narwhal and we’re out of business.”

Flummox shook his head. “Not necessarily. We don’t have a crew yet, and you might have a hand in setting that up.” He raised his eyebrows suggestively.

Ironhand and Luna exchanged glances. “Well, we certainly won’t stop you from pulling us off the sand bar. How are you going to do it, by the way? Boomer wants to scare the crabs away with explosives but that would damage the ship. Where do you have that longboat?”

Flummox smiled. “That’s my little secret. We won’t damage the ship.”

Luna set down her gemstone. “I suppose you’ll be holding on to these until the passengers are loaded.”

Flummox shook his head. “Nah, what’s the point? Besides, you’ll want some time to figure out just how much they’ll be worth, back in The City. I suppose you know they pick ‘em up off the ground around here, if you just know where to look. I want you to think about that. So do we have a deal?”

Lord Ironhand gazed into his eyes. “You’re a charlatan and a trickster, sir — I see it in your eyes. But you do know how to motivate a man.” He held out his hand, and they shook on it.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

 Rufus got himself another ale and sat at a table for a while, savoring it.

Goldilocks sat down across from him and just looked at him, silently.

Rufus put down the mug. “How are our friends upstairs doing?”

She shook her head. “Partying like there’s no tomorrow. Everybody is expecting Flicker to come up with a plan, to do what the Council told him to do. To me, though, he looks like he’s in a depressive phase after his earlier mania – really down in the dumps. Maybe he’s even scared of what he’s supposed to do, which is remarkable given that his inflated ego is as large as his body is small.”

Rufus shook his head. “Don’t put down that ego of his. It’s probably why he can pull down the remarkable magical energies he had to have used, to summon those elementals. We shouldn’t be surprise that there is a rebound. We just have to figure out how to get him back on top, so he can deal with them. Any of us would be scared at the prospect of tackling uncontrolled elementals.”

“Well, those Asian dolls, Penny and Pursy, may eventually do the trick. They’re all over the big heroes, singing their praise, and eventually those guys are going to have to brave up and do something gallant or else risk losing ‘em.”

Rufus nodded. “We’ll give them some time then. I have other cauldrons to stir that are more urgent.”

“Let me know if I can help.”

“You just keep an eye on them. Here, if they run out of money, keep the booze flowing.” He handed over some gold coins. “And let me know if there are any changes.”

“Will do.”

Rufus drained the last of his ale and headed to the apothecary.

 Dahlia was slumped on a stool with her face turned toward a sunbeam coming in the front window. Her eyes were closed, but they opened when he approached. “What are you doing, sneaking up on an old woman like that? Like to scare me to death, you are! Well, don’t you worry, it’ll happen soon enough without you. Well, spit it out! What did you want?”

Rufus laughed. “You are a card, aren’t you? I just wanted to sit and talk.”

She gestured at a crate. “You have a derriere to sit, haven’t you? You’ve got lips — so talk.”

Rufus sat. “I’ve been thinking about that remarkable musical giant in the woods that we met that night.”

“Name’s Tootsie. Ogre, not giant.”

“Ah yes, Tootsie — quite a character. Do you talk with Tootsie often?”

“Nah, she only talks with Pan. Or more like, plays music for him. She’s a weird one — lives in her own little world. Thinks she’s as ugly as sin, nobody could ever love her, and all that — tries to make up for it with her beautiful music, Pan says. That gal really can play, though.” She closed her eyes again and smiled.

Rufus gave her a few moments. “I’m a bit of a musician myself. How can I find her?”

Dahlia opened her eyes. “Go off in the woods and play some music — I’m sure she’ll join in. But you’ll never get close to her. She runs from anybody but Pan.”

“Pan is a musician too, if I recall.”

“Yes, little Pan and the ogre Tootsie. What a pair.” She gave a laugh. “They make sweet music together, though.”

Rufus got up. “Well, I won’t disturb your nap any more.”

Dahlia glared at him. “I wasn’t sleeping, just resting my eyes. Come back and talk again, sometime, Big Boy.” She smiled and closed her eyes again, and turned her face into the sunbeam.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

As they came to the fishing huts, on their way back toward town, Flummox turned to Achilles. “Are you up for another adventure?”

Achilles smiled. “Always, though I didn’t enjoy being left on the shore, back there.”

“You’ll be able to get your feet wet this time.” Flummox looked up at Screetcher, who was watching them silently from the roof. “Hey Screetch, how ‘bout you take us to see the goofy green guy again?”

Screetcher looked down at him, then took flight toward the causeway. Flummox and Achilles hurried after. They crossed it, and headed along a relatively dry path to the hummock with the dead tree. Screetcher landed in the tree, and began to call.

 Shortly, a large green humanoid with wings and a goofy grin surged up on land. It was G.G. As soon as he saw Flummox, he tucked his chin in his chest. “Oh, it’s you. Sorry about your boat.”

“That’s okay. You can make it up to us. We need your help with something.”

“Uuh, I’m not supposed to talk to hooomans. The dragon would get mad at me, and so would SHE.”

“But this is at least four times now you’ve had humans coming around here.”

“Four? There was the first time you was here, then the boat, now you is here again.”

“Weren’t there some people who came through here last night?”

G.G. nodded vigorously. “Oh yeah, them. They went on through to see HER.”

“Obviously, the rules have been relaxed, if SHE is entertaining visitors. You do want to make up for ruining the boat, don’t you?”

“I guess so. Okay.”

“So our only other boat is stuck on a sand bar, out in the middle of the lake. We need you to get your seahorse and pull it off the sand bar.”

G.G. seemed to mull this over awhile. “Uuh, just one? Maybe both seahorses be better.”

“Yes, of course you’re right. You’re clever.”

G.G. almost blushed beneath his green hide. “Shucks. I’m just trying to be good. I felt so bad about the boat.” With that he turned his head toward the sky and gave a bellow. It was answered by two similar bellows, in the distance. Soon the sound of something large came crashing through the swamp towards them. Two somethings.

 Two giant creatures with bulbous bodies and long thin necks emerged from the swamp. One was mostly red, one mostly yellow, but both had green wings, fins, and bellies.

G.G. sprang up on the back of the red one, suddenly looking quite small in comparison. “You two get on Yellow Nessie. She’s nicer than Red Nessie – he’s the one that ruined your boat.” Reluctantly, the two men climbed on the back of the yellow beast. It turned and looked at them, sniffed once, and then looked studiously straight ahead, as if to ignore them.

And then, they were off. Flummox had to duck and bury his head to avoid branches, but Achilles was clearly enjoying himself. Granted, he had the benefit of a full helm to protect his eyes. Through the swamp they went, across the causeway (knocking a few yellow bricks loose) and into the lake. The two beasts hooted with joy as they swam strongly to the middle of the lake.

G.G. was in the lead, and seeing the Buccaneer, he twisted Red Nessies’s head around to the left. It swam toward the ship, and Yellow Nessie followed.

There was instant turmoil on board the ship. Flummox yelled, as loud as he could. “Ahoy! You better throw us a couple of ropes!” There was a lot of hurried jostling, and two heavy tow cables came over the side.

G.G. led Red Nessie right up to the side of the boat. Red stuck his nose over the railing and sniffed heavily at the sailors, but G.G. grabbed one of the ropes and twisted the beast’s head away. He then simply reached around its neck, passing the rope from one hand to the other, and tied it off.

Flummox called out, “Throw that other rope out here to me, will you?” The sailors made a better show of throwing the other rope further out from the ship, and Flummox caught it. He tried to reach around Yellow’s neck, but his arms were too short.

Achilles took the rope. “Here, allow me!” He rappelled down the creature’s front, crossed under her massive teeth, and started back up the other side, where Flummox was able to reach out and give him a hand back up.

Together, the giant seahorses swam back towards the center of the lake, easily hauling the Buccaneer off the sand bar, leaving it far behind them. Flummox waved at Ironhand and Luna, who stared slack-jawed from the deck, as Achilles and G.G. untied the ropes.

In short order they were back across the causeway (knocking loose a few more bricks) and into the swamp. They dismounted awkwardly, only to find that they were not alone.

 A handful of scaly green creatures stood, holding a variety of lethal weapons. Some were the same size as the men, others were much bigger. The largest one, with a collection of elephant trunks, somewhat squidlike, spoke first, in reptilian hisses. “G.G.! What have you done? You know we’re not allowed in the human spaces. The Queen is going to turn you into a boulder and use you for a breakfast table.”

“Uuh, I was just tryin’ to help.”

Flummox stepped forward. “It’s not his fault. I asked him. He was invited.”

The squid-faced beast stepped forward too, and stared straight down at Flummox. “So, you speak like one of the tribe. Who are you?”

The tiny human stood his ground. “My name is Flummox. We are grateful for the assist. Please thank your Queen for us.”

The creature huffed. “You can thank her yourself some time, if you dare.”

“I would enjoy meeting her. I wouldn’t be the first human visitor she’s had, would I?”

The creature turned around, a wing grazing the top of Flummox’s head, then looked back over its shoulder. “I’ll tell you what I told the others. Don’t expect safe passage.” With that, the lot of them, including G.G. and the seahorses, faded into the swamp with many loud splashes, followed by dead silence. Slowly, birds began to sing again, in thin tentative warbles.

Flummox turned to Achilles. “I promised you an adventure. Have fun?”

Achilles nodded. “I can’t wait to meet this Queen of theirs.”

Flummox shook his head. “All too soon, I’m sure. All too soon.”

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

 D-Stract sat in the library at the Tomes mansion and thought about her day so far.

She had to deal with three zombie check points to get here, and remembered the letdown upon seeing how similar this mansion was to the other two she had seen before. Sure, there was an image of an open book in the rose window up front. The yellow brick driveway up to the front of the house looked the same, though the stable on the left was nearer the road, with the arboretum behind it, but the same well-tended orchard was next to the road on the right, with outbuildings beyond. The entry hall was almost identical, though without all the plants.

 Archie Tomes greeted her warmly, but had business to attend to. He was happy to let her spend time in the library.

This library though, she had to admit, was fantastic. Sections were devoted to ancient technologies for information storage and yet there was room for more books than she had ever seen in her lifetime. A table, surrounded by chairs, in the middle of the room, held a pile of recently browsed books.

Much to her surprise, many of the books were related to the summonings of the Earl, with bookmarks inserted in relevant sections. Ink, quill, and paper were there, with a few scribbled notes on possible future needs, with possible wordings of incantations scratched out and reworked.

She sank into fascinated reading for hours. She only came up for breath when a door opened. She sat up straight and looked around.

 Sherlock walked in, tending his pipe. When he saw her, he broke into a smile. “Miss D-Stract! I see you are enjoying the offered readings. Archie does leave his thoughts strewn about for all to see, doesn’t he? Of course some of these I had to find on the shelves, but the lack of dust and such made that an easy task, for one trained in observation, such as I.”

D-Stract nodded, then smiled. “Almost like an open book, himself. Archie Tomes, I mean.”

He pulled up a chair. “What I still can’t grasp is motive. What he has done is obvious now, but the why of it still eludes me.”

D-Stract bit her lip. “Perhaps I can help. At the big party, I encountered Master Exchequer. You know he used to hold the position of Lord of the valley before the Earl was brought back, by the other families?”

Sherlock puffed on his pipe. “You think he’s trying to take back his position by discrediting the Earl? Archie is clearly gullible enough to be influenced, but the families would still not want Exchequer back in power, because of whatever reason they had in the first place for bringing back the Earl.”

“Well, he all but admitted that he had planted the ideas for some of the pranks in Archie’s mind. I hadn’t thought through the family politics that far, though. I don’t really know why they wanted to oust Exchequer, but maybe if the Earl looked like the lesser choice, he might stand a chance.”

Sherlock shrugged. “There must be something more. I came back to see what I can find about local history. Politics seems to be the best thing to pursue next.”

D-Stract smiled. “Right. How can I help?”

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Dr. Zhivaga carefully examined the lifeless body of Sister Maude.

Grace hovered over her shoulder while Friar Tuck and Sister Schubert tried to catch their breath after their recent exertion. They had carried Maude between them as fast as they possibly could.

Zhivaga looked up. “I’m sorry. The decay processes have already set in. Her body is beyond recovery – the fasting has taken its toll. I’m not sure she could even follow the undead path from this point.”

Grace wrung her hands. “What about her spirit?”

Zhivaga shrugged. “How could I know?”

 Grace turned to Scotty. “Can you… can you try and contact her? On the spirit plane, I mean?”

“I can try.” Scotty licked the mouthpiece of his bagpipes, looked around the room, then set them on the conference table, looking embarrassed. “They’re just a crutch. Here, let me take her hand.” Scotty knelt by her bedside and closed his eyes. “I feel her spirit, still here. She is very troubled, though. I will channel her, and you may speak with her, through me.”

Grace cleared her throat. “Maude? Are you there? Can you hear me?”

Maude’s girlish voice came from Scotty’s mouth. “Grace? Is that you, child? It is so dark here, and I am afraid.”

“Yes, it’s me. I’m here. What are you afraid of?”

“I don’t know what’s to happen to me. I refuse to become one of those… those blasphemous creatures that stalk the night, but… I don’t think I’m welcome… above.”

“Why not?”

“I’ve done some bad things in my life. Greed, I think that was my worst sin. Enjoyed the pleasures of the flesh too much. Now I have nowhere to go. I think I’ll just sleep, sleep…”

“Maude? Stay with us! Are you still there? Maude!”

Scotty stirred. “She broke off. I feel her spirit fading, slowly.”

Grace let out a sob, dropped to her knees and clutched Maude’s hand. Her shoulders shook as she buried her face in the bedclothes.

Scotty stood and looked around uncomfortably. “I’m not much of a help, am I? Too often it’s that way. If there is nothing else…”

Zhivaga took his arm. “As a matter of fact, there is. I need you in order to talk to two other patients of mine. You won’t want to touch them, though – they’re quite infectious. Will that trick work if you wear gloves?”

Grace followed after them, wiping her eyes. Scotty had donned gloves and was kneeling between the gelatinous forms of Iggy Yeah and Chessy Exchequers.

Zhivaga looked for a go-ahead, then leaned over the bodies. “Iggy, Chessy? Are you there? Can you hear me?”

Again, Scotty channeled their higher pitched voices. “Is it over? Can you finally cure us?”

Zhivaga shook her head. “I’m sorry, your bodies have gone, there is nothing left here for you.”

One of the voices gave a great sigh. “It is time to move on then. We thought so, but we weren’t sure.”

“Wait! We need to know the details of what went wrong. Do you remember the specifics of your treatment?”

“Do we ever! It is burned into our souls.” “Cure us, and stick us, cure us and stick us. It went on and on.” “We were being tortured, Iggy.” “I don’t know, they said they were learning from us.” “We were their guinea pigs, my dear. How much pain could we stand, how fast would we react to poison, or wounds, or bleeding? They were sadists, Iggy.” “I suppose you are right, Chessy. They did seem to enjoy what they were doing to us.”

Zhivaga cleared her throat. “You said ‘they’. Who do you mean?”

“Dr. Green.” “And that other one, the Visitor.” “Oh yes, he grabbed us out of our homes at the first excuse. Said it was for our own good.” “Yes he did. But then the two of them tied us down and started doing things. Not nice. Not good.”

Grace looked grim. “I think we get the picture. Thank you.”

“We will go now. We see a light.” “Good bye.”

Grace closed her eyes. “May you find peace in another life.”

Scotty shook his head and stood up. “They’re gone. In a blink of an eye, they just left.”

Zhivaga looked angry. “Thank you for your help. I would never… the notes didn’t… of course they hid what they were doing.”

“I think I need to go lay down now. Communing with spirits is very taxing.”

Grace nodded. “Thank you Scotty, go ahead. I think I have some praying to do, for their souls.”

Zhivaga turned to Grace. “Dr. Green did not come in today. Bones checked in this morning to see if there were any calls for aid, but The Visitor didn’t. I think those two have flown the coop. I’ll let the Earl know what’s going on.”

Grace knelt by the cots of Iggy and Chessy as everyone else filed out. She stayed awhile, then rose and headed for Maude’s resting place. Things suddenly got quiet, and Grace looked around, puzzled. When she saw that everyone else was frozen in mid motion, realization of what was happening dawned on her. She whirled around, searched the ceiling with her eyes, and found them.

 Three angelic figures grew as they floated down from above. “Hello again, Grace. You have been very busy. You asked about the third miracle.”

Grace looked at her feet. “I’ve failed you.”

The golden angel smiled. “No dear, you did what you needed to do, because we told you what you needed to hear. Everything is now set in motion. All will be well.”

“But Maude is dying. Trapped in a rotting body.”

“No dear, we have spoken with Maude. We have told her that she is a good person, on the whole, her life has been weighed, and she is welcome to join us. We have brought her the light, and she is rejoicing. By trying to save her life, you have saved the lives of everyone in the valley, just as we expected.”

Grace sniffed. “Will I see her again?”

The white angel chuckled. “Better than that. While we three are unable to interact with this world, beyond our quota of communications that is, Maude is under no such restriction until she follows the light. She asked us if she could stay and help you in the difficult days ahead, and we assured her that when her time here is done, the way will still be open for her spirit to join us.”

Grace smiled. “That’s… that’s wonderful, I guess. Do I need Scotty in order to talk with her?”

The green angel clasped her hands with a solemn look. “No dear, with your permission she will live within you for a time, and draw her energy from you, to accomplish in spirit what you cannot in body. I’m sure she’ll be a great help, if you are not unduly worried about… being possessed.”

Grace stammered. “Yes. Yes, of course. I’d be honored.” Her thoughts went back to her youth, when the priests of the convent tried to rid her of her visions, but only drove her into the arms of the pagans, who better understood magic and the spirit realm. With them, she learned to be unafraid of the arcane, even embrace it. That was when she developed a love of the earth, caves in particular, as well. It was only later in life that she found the true goodness at the core of the pure faith held by her parents.

“Then it is our time to go. We see clearly that, while you still face many challenges, events will unfold as was foreseen. The forces of Good will prevail.”

The angels slowly faded away, their smiles being the last thing to go. Grace closed her eyes.

Scotty looked at her with concern. “Are you all right, Grace? You looked a bit faint there.”

Grace shook her head, steadied herself, and met his gaze. “No, I’m fine. Thanks.”

A voice in her head spoke up. You’re not fine, we’re hungry! Let’s go see if Spamwich has a snack for us.

With a smile on her face, Grace headed for the inn. I’m so happy you’re here with me Maude. We’re going to really need your help. A chorus of welcoming mental assent from the rest of the gang swept through her head, via the Monk’s spell.

Grace, dear, this is going to be such fun!

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

 D-Stract closed her eyes and leaned heavily against a bookcase. The news of what had happened to Iggy and Chessy, at the hands of their supposed doctors, sickened her. She was thrown back to her younger days, at the orphanage. There had been many fatherly figures that abused their position of trust, for their own lusts. On the positive side, it had steeled her for her later life at the bordello, where Flummox had found her.

 Sherlock rushed over. “Miss D-Stract? Are you all right?” He put a gentle hand on her shoulder.

D-Stract opened her eyes and stood straight again. “Yeah, I’m fine. I just had… word, from my friends.” She filled him in on what she had learned.

Sherlock punched his palm with his fist. “This is the final proof. It is him.” He then offered D-Stract a chair.

As she sank into it, she gave him a quizzical look. “What are you talking about?”

Sherlock began to pace. “When I first encountered the Visitor, I had to believe that his resemblance to a man I knew to be dead was mere coincidence. But now I know better.”

He waved a hand at the pile of books. “You know I have been researching these so-called ‘summonings’ of the Earl. I have confirmed many of the hypothesis that your friends have voiced.”

He stopped pacing and threw back his shoulders. “I am a composite being, given a material form out of the pages of fiction. My soul, whatever that is, was suited to this… incarnation, and its union with this body, provided by the Earl, has made a complete person. I am here because the Earl called for ‘the most famous detective in all of London’s history’. And that, of course, would be the Great Sherlock Holmes, even though he never really existed, except in the minds of his readers.” He gave a modest little bow. D-Stract nodded, watching carefully, wondering if he was about to lose it completely.

“The Visitor, on the other hand, was called for by the Earl as ‘the most famous doctor in all of London’s history’. He did not specify whether that doctor should be famous for good, or for ill. And so it was that the Earl summoned that most notorious psychopath, never caught because he masqueraded as a respectable doctor. The Earl summoned none other than Jack the Ripper.”

D-Stract’s eyes went wide. “And then he tortured and killed Chessy Exchequer, the deposed Lord’s wife. No wonder he wanted revenge on the Earl. It was not just a prank, or a play for power. He wanted…”

“He wanted the Earl to be ruined. Blamed for everything that was going wrong, and looking like a buffoon while he was at it. Exchequer planted the idea in poor Archie’s head…”

D-Stract nodded. “And Archie unwittingly set up the Earl. Fortunately no one else summoned has been so deeply evil as that man. Except maybe the witch.” Then she got a puzzled look. But Dr. Green was summoned very early on.”

“Yes, surgeons who really, really enjoy their work, that of cutting into people, have a high chance of being sadists at heart. Both those two were early mistakes, and they probably fed off each other – birds of a feather, you know. The witch, on the other hand, is squarely on Exchequer’s narrow shoulders.”

“Are you going to tell the Earl, about Jack the Ripper? My friends are telling me he and Dr. Green have taken the undead hobo, Caboose, off into the realm of the lizard folk.”

Sherlock rubbed his chin. “There is much to think about here. Let us not be too hasty, or we might make matters worse. But clearly, we need to put a check on the Earl. Let me approach him, and get him to act with a bit more caution. You should help your friends track down Caboose and get him back, if you can.”

D-Stract nodded. “Sounds like a plan. I think Flummox needs me.”

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

 Cleo settled in on a pallet in Cave number 3.

She had tried her hardest to delay the Trog attack on the wolves, only to discover that her efforts were pointless. The wolves had collapsed the tunnel just the other side of the door from Cave 3 to Cave 2, and the offensive was aborted. It would take weeks to reopen the tunnel. Any attack would have to go overland, outside the caves.

There had been a debate about whether moonlight would be an asset in any such raid. Some of the Trogs had night vision, but some of the wolves that used to be Trogs may have it too. In the end, they decided their superior numbers, and ranged weapons, would benefit from light. They would march in close order to the mouth of Cave 2 only after the moon rose, and be prepared to enter the tunnels after a brief rest at the cave mouth.

This suited Cleo fine, as the rescue of the wolf children should be finished by then. The stars were aligning, just as the angels had predicted. Nevertheless, tomorrow would be a busy day.

Cleo drifted off to sleep with a smile on her face, and her bow close at hand.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

{LINK TO THE NEXT CHAPTER}

 

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