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Games, Literature

Foundering Valley, Book 2 Begins, Chapter 32

Foundering Valley, Beginning of Book 2, Synopsis of Book 1

For you, Maggi, my newfound love, for those who have not read the first volume of this chronicle, for those who have put it down for some time due to the demands of life and could only now return, and for those confused by the tangled web that resulted from the flood of events we have been caught in, I will now summarize the status of things, it being just over a week now since our arrival here, and I began chronicling these events.

            Founder’s Valley remains isolated with broken roads and no land route open to civilization, though there is hope of a water route opening.  While the Narwhal undergoes refits, the Buccaneer has set sail, taking away the dregs of the disappointed adventurers – those most lacking in moral fiber — but with a promise to return with a cargo hold full of aid.

            The dam that feeds water to the town and mill is still broken, and the local livestock has been depleted by werewolf attack, such that food and beverages are becoming short in supply.  Still raging above us are the Elemental forces, loosed by the mousling wizard, Flicker, in a misguided episode of manic heroism.  The mousling High Council is pressuring him to remedy his mess, but he is now in the throws of depression.  None of this is entirely his fault, as a trio of angels came to this world, in answer to a chorus of prayers, and set in motion a remarkable series of events, one falling domino-like after another, that seem to be on a course to right many wrongs – and they started all this by inspiring our little Flicker with a misleading vision.

            The cave dwellers, or Trogs (mixed TRolls, Orcs, Goblins, and so forth), whose gemstone mines fuel the economy of the region, are not yet producing or trading their goods, as they are still terrorized by lightning-like hounds – apparently pets of the Elementals.  And too, their Chief is hospitalized with the werewolf infection, so they are leaderless.

            On the positive side, the Trogs, with the help of my chosen ones, and the mental link I arranged for them via arcane means, have eradicated the werewolf threat (except perhaps for one escaped natural, but infected, wolf) by killing, capturing, or rescuing severally, the entire pack.  Those chosen ones also pacified the radical elements of the undead colony centered on the old Withers mansion, except for the infected hobo, Caboose, who was abducted.

            To understand things further, I must delve into local history.  The Withers family led the first human group to establish themselves here.  Then, seven more upper class families came along as the town grew, over time.  The Withers abdicated their governance some 200 years ago, taking an unusual route of, shall we say, ‘voluntary metabolic suspension’, becoming vampires, resulting in some contention among the other families as to who should rule – primarily because, like the lilies of the field, they were more focused on enjoying their luxuries than on righteous governance.  Recently, they asked a distant descendant of the first family, still bearing the hereditary title of Earl, to return and take the mantle of leadership.

            The Earl, Sigmund Escrivier, now Lord of Founder’s Valley, has proven to be a disappointment.  His principle magical ability, and solution to every problem, seems to be the channeling of archetypal spirits, historic or fictional, and stuffing them into bodies which he creates via a massive and expensive expenditure of magical energy.  For instance, his attempt to summon a repair crew for the yellow brick road resulted in the unfortunate arrival of a young woman named Dorothy, and her three fanciful companions right out of a children’s storybook.

            His summoning of five kings and heroes from literature to serve as his palace guard has provided him with a bickering contingent of Prima Donnas.  His summoning of a police force for town security was mixed as well, some of them being taken out, violently, by the adventurers they stupidly chose to harass.  Others are proving to be assets.

            The laboratory that he set up to battle the twin, or intertwined, disease that wracked the valley, had mixed results as well.  The surgeon, Dr. Green, turned out to be a sadistic butcher, and another doctor turned out to be the notorious Jack the Ripper, who, by the way, abducted the undead hobo Caboose, and are now on the lam.  On the positive side, my chosen ones have rallied the remaining, good-hearted, medics, who are now busily occupied with curing all the werewolves and undead that they will be able to save.  The chief of police remains infected but is hanging on, doing his job, which is principally comprised of symbolically guarding the werewolves in his jail who are patiently awaiting treatment.  A local nun, Maude, expired from the disease, but her helpful spirit remains with us, for a time.

            The farm families have been devastated by the undead and werewolf attacks on both themselves and their livestock, but now seem to be on a slow road to recovery, due to the intervention of the angels, leading in turn to the actions of my chosen ones.  They will need special care to once again flourish and feed everyone in the valley, human or Trog.

            The townsfolk are in better shape, save for the supply situation, and the near-total destruction of the butcher shop.  This last is not as significant as it might be, as there is little meat to butcher anyway, and as a consequence, no hides to tan.  At any rate, the expert tanner is hospitalized with the werewolf infection, and the proprietor of that establishment, Captain Flang, is now overseeing the refit of the Narwhal.

            Two other groups that came in with the caravan that brought the adventurers, are still stranded here.  The Asian delegation, which did recover their kidnapped prince, still has their own reasons for moving on.  The troop of entertainers – actors and musicians – is running out of time to meet their contracted obligations, and is growing uneasy – and in number, as they pick up a few strays to swell their ranks.

            All in all, there is reason for optimism, as my chosen ones are likely to be up to the task of nudging events along towards a restoration of peace, here in Founder’s Valley.  However, many challenges lie ahead, and nothing ever goes according to plan.  If nothing else, the massive expenditures of magical energies that continue to be released here may draw unwanted attention, just as it drew me here.

            And so, my dear Maggi, we must remain vigilant, watch their progress, and intervene if and when it is called for.  So settle down with your bottle of wine and tidbits of whatever that is from Spamwich’s kitchen.  The full story is yet to unfold.

Chapter 32, Thursday Afternoon, June 12 – The Crew of the Narwhal

Rufus was the last on the dock to watch the Buccaneer shrink away as it sailed to the foot of Monolith Mountain.  There it turned to the right and headed back toward the center of the lake, beyond the sand bar and peninsula.  Rufus offered a few bits of birdseed to his new friend, the hawk named Parrot.  “You’d rather have meat, wouldn’t you my noble one?  I guess I can’t blame you for trying to eat my pigeon.  I’ve heard it tastes like chicken.”

            The splash of a distant anchor dropping broke through his revelry.  The Buccaneer had come about again, and was halfway back to the docks.  He watched as they lowered a lifeboat, then called out mentally to his companions.  Sapphire, I may be needing you here.

 Sapphire rushed back to the dock and stood by his side, muttering bits of the spell she had pulled together previously, to create an illusion of a giant crab monster.  It had proved very useful in warding off the pirates.

            Rufus held up a hand.  “Wait.  There are only two of them, rowing, and one smaller figure aboard.  You already found a safe place for their cabin boy, Punk, when he jumped ship.  So who is that there?”

            They watched as the lifeboat struck out for the far end of the beach, becoming obscured by a castle tower.  Together they rushed back through the Dock Gate, around the castle, and out onto the beach to see what was happening.  When they got there, the lifeboat had turned back, having deposited the small figure on the sand.  It appeared to be in conversation with three slightly larger figures that had, for some reason, been huddled on the beach.

 The three larger figures were obviously the dwarves – Gorbag, Grog, and Gnosh.  The fourth figure looked less dwarvish, and Sapphire finally recognized him.

 Sapphire smiled.  “Well, if it isn’t Master Skipper Marsh!  What are you doing out here, Skip?”

            Skip looked at his toes and mumbled.  Sapphire shook her head.  “You did just get put ashore from the Buccaneer, didn’t you?”

            Skip stamped his foot.  “It’s not fair!  Another few minutes and it would have been too late!  Then they’d have to let me be on the crew!  But no, they caught me just as they got under way.  They said taking me would complicate things too much, that’s what the Lady said.  So they kicked me off the ship.  Off the ship!”

            “Oh never mind, Skip.  They’ll be back, and you’ll be bigger.  You might still join their crew some day.”  Sapphire looked at the dwarves.  “Thanks, I’ll take him from here.  Uh, you weren’t sending something back to the ship too, were you?”

            Grog shook his head. “No, we were out here surveying a site for our new glassworks.  It’s going to be quite an enterprise.”

            Sapphire frowned.  “Way out here?”

            Grog smiled.  “Well, the major ingredient in glass is sand, you know, and there is plenty going to waste here.  We’ve got the Earl’s agreement we can use it, and we’re just working out the best spot – probably about a quarter of the way back from the foot of the mountain.”

            “So you have financial backing then?”

            Gorbag stuck out his chest.  “Yep, Mr. S. set us up, and with Gnosh’s help here, we can get started right away.  We might even get it running before there’s anything much for me to work on in the butcher shop.  Plus, the vermin seem to be gone.  These are exciting times, and plenty of gold to be made!”

            “Indeed!  Well, good luck to you.”  Sapphire turned to Skip.  “Come along with me, young man.”

            “Aah, are you gonna take me home?”

            “Not just yet.  I have some people I want you to meet.”  She glanced at Rufus.  “Thanks, I think I’ve got it from here.”  Rufus nodded and headed up the beach to find a place to sit.

            Sapphire led Skip back into town.  “The first person I want you to meet is a boy about your age.  He’ll have plenty of stories to tell you about his time as a captive aboard the Buccaneer.  You’ll see that a bunch of pirates do not make the best of crewmates.”

            Skip said nothing but followed along until they got to the market office.  No one was manning any of the permanent booths just then.  “I don’t see your mom, but it’s just as well.  Hey, Claire!  Could you come out here a minute, and bring your charge?”

 Madam Claire appeared, clutching a broom defensively.  She relaxed when she saw Skip.  “Got another one for me, have you?”  She turned back to the office.  “You can come out, boy.”

 Punk, the former cabin boy of the Buccaneer poked his head around the corner, then slowly emerged.  “Hello, Miss Sapphire.”

            “Hello, Punk.  No, Claire, I bring good news.  The ship has sailed and it is safe for everyone to come out now.  I’d like to introduce Punk here to a few folks.  Punk, this is Skip, his family lives along the lake and take a boat out fishing.  Do you think you’d like to do that too?”

            Punk tucked his chin into his chest.  “Uh, sure.”

            “What do you think, Claire?  Would the Marsh family want another boy for their crew?”

            “They’re a lot better set up than I am, to take care of a fidgety little boy.  I hadn’t remembered how much trouble Hound was when he was their age.  Go on, you!  Run and have fun.  If you ever need anything, you know where to find these old bones.  Now git!”

            “One moment.”  Punk ducked back inside and returned immediately with his pitifully few belongings.  “Okay, I’m ready.”

            Sapphire led the two boys back toward the castle, as they eyed each other silently.  “Before we go find your mom, I have somebody else I’d like you both to meet.  Captain Flang used to be the captain of the Narwhal, before he lost his foot.  You mustn’t stare at it, he’s sensitive that way.  But he does need lots of help refitting the Narwhal – climbing ropes and fixing rigging and the like.  Does that sound like fun?”

            “Oh boy!” said Skip.  “It sure does!” cried Punk.  The boys began to chatter together about sailing ships and boats and by time they got to the dock, they were fast friends.

 Sapphire spotted Captain Flang, who was watching the scarecrow try to secure some rigging high above the Narwhal.  A gentle breeze came up, and the scarecrow’s feet flew out from under him.  He gripped the ropes with one hand, and his feet flapped like a flag.  Flang groaned.  “Not again.”

            Sapphire suppressed a giggle.  “Captain Flang, I have two able-bodied seamen to help you with that rigging, if you’ll have them.”

            Flang peered at them suspiciously.  “They’re a little small, aren’t they?”

            “They’ll grow.  By time you get that ship ready, they’ll both be big as an ox.  In the mean time, you look like you need some help.”  The scarecrow slipped and fluttered down into the water.  He floundered to the dock, dragged himself up, and laid himself over a line to dry out.

            Flang shook his head.  “I hope this job doesn’t take that long – they have a lot of growing to do still — but yes, okay.  I’ll take them.  Bog knows I need the help.”

            Sapphire peered around.  “What happened to the rest of those guys?”

            “Well, when Hound went off to see the Trogs, the others started grumbling about having to do all the work while he played, and they left too.  It’s just me and the scarecrow right now, though there were a couple of lady warriors who checked in earlier.  They said they’re going to be a big help here, but I haven’t seen them since.”

            “Well, I’m sure they’ll be along once they get their lodgings in order.  They can’t camp on the beach any more.  Say, speaking of things to do, if you see Bonnie, could you ask her if it’s all right for Punk to stay with Skip and them for awhile?  She might even be out looking for this little stowaway.  She wasn’t at the market.”

            Flang laughed.  “I’m glad to help.  She loves kids, doesn’t she?”  He smiled, lost in thought.

            Sapphire looked bemused.  “Okay, I’ll be going then.  Thanks for helping.”  She turned to the boys, who were already clambering aboard the Narwhal.  “You two be good, and do whatever the Captain tells you now, hear me?  Don’t do anything silly without a safety rope, or I’ll be back and put you to work with Duncan, shoveling you-know-what at the stables.”

            The two boys answered as one.  “Yes, m’am!”

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

Flummox led the two elven archers across the North Bridge Gate and along the yellow brick road towards the base of the peninsula.  “The tracks from the direction of the fisher huts led to this point.  Shadow was unwilling to enter the swamp, so we must pick it up from here.  Keep your bows handy, but don’t shoot at anything that we might be able to talk to, or get information from.”

            Cleo grinned.  “In other words, anything just the right size to eat a cat.”

            Animus frowned.  “It’s been half a day since Caboose came this way.  Why do you think we’ll be able to track him through this swamp?  There is going to be all sorts of wildlife muddying the waters.”

            Flummox stopped and faced his companions.  “Look, if I understand the energy issues with a Zombie, Caboose will have run out of steam somewhere near here – he had a very busy night, and can’t recharge by eating regular food.  I don’t think he’s leading Dr. Green and the Visitor anywhere; I think they’ll be carrying his hibernating body.  And two people dragging a third body between them is going to make quite a trail.”

            Animus nodded.  “Fair enough.”

            Quickly they came to the small hillock with the dead tree on it; today it was deserted.  They investigated and the only dry routes were back to the north-west the way they came and to the south-west, parallel to the road back towards town.

            They followed this a way, and the dry area widened.  They elected to veer to the south-east, left, away from the road.

            Slowly they became aware of a deep rumble occurring somewhere further off to their left.  Animus held up a hand in caution and they all stopped and listened for a while.

            Cleo relaxed.  “It’s just a big old bullfrog.  We had lots of those back home.  They always try to sound bigger than they really are.”

            Animus shook his head.  “I don’t know.  It doesn’t feel right.”

            Flummox pointed somewhat less to their left.  “Let’s just move along this way, quietly.”  The others continued on in the direction indicated.  Suddenly, something small and furry broke from the brush on the left and darted toward them.  It was followed by something large, making loud crashing and splashing noises.

 A huge frog, slightly larger than a man, leapt in front of them.  Its tongue shot out twelve feet and nabbed the furry thing, then yanked it into its mouth.  Both elves readied their bows, and Flummox drew his sword.  The frog turned towards them and swallowed.  The tongue came out and licked along the huge lips.  Both bows sang, and twin arrows appeared in the tongue.  With a giant croak and twist, the frog turned and leapt back into the brush making a massive splash.

            Animus turned to Cleo.  “ ‘Bigger than they really are, eh?”

            Cleo shrugged.  “I’ll admit, that’s one for the record books.”

            Flummox grimaced.  “What are the chances of that, around here?  Being sarcastic, of course.  Let’s see how much further we can go before we lose the light – but slowly, very slowly.”

            They cautiously explored in the direction the frog had gone and determined that no more dry land lay to the left or east.  The situation was just as bad ahead or south.  The only way they could go was to the right or west.

            Animus shook his head.  “This is just going to take us back to the road.”

            Flummox shrugged.  “We’ll see.”

            After a while, Cleo pointed off to the left.  “Hey look, stepping stones!”  A roundish boulder, about three feet across, was set in the water, just off the edge of the firm section.  Other roundish boulders of various sizes could be seen further into the water.  Cleo leapt lightly onto the first one, then stamped her foot.  “Seems firm enough.  Whoa!”  Suddenly the boulder submerged and Cleo was thrown backwards onto the bank.

 The turtle, as it turned out to be, took exception to having its shell stamped upon.  It whirled around and snapped at Cleo’s legs, taking hold of one of her boots with its hook-like beak.  Flummox leapt forward and rapped it soundly on the head.  Its hide was tough, and the blade did not draw blood, but the animal did let go, and Cleo scrambled backwards up the shore.  All the turtles began drifting away from shore.

            Flummox watched the turtles while Animus looked at Cleo’s leg.  “I don’t see any blood.  Does this hurt?”  In response, Cleo screamed and kicked.  “I guess so.  Can you walk?”

            Cleo glowered at him, but accepted a hand up.  “Yeah, I can hobble along.  Good thing this path is headed back to town, though.”

            As they went slowly west towards the road, Animus kept stopping them and listening.  “Hsst.  Something large and dark is tracking us back there.  I think it heard that scream, and may have our scent now.  You two go ahead and I’ll see what it is.”

            Animus waited while his two friends went ahead.

 A giant water bird, almost as tall as Animus but perhaps weighing thrice his weight glided along the water’s edge, and crept out onto the dry land.  It snuffled awkwardly along their track, turning over small rocks with its bill as it went, gobbling bugs and tender shoots as it went.  Animus roared loudly and rushed at it waving his bow in one hand and an arrow in the other.  The creature squawked and twisted around, sliding on its belly into the water.  Animus chuckled, checked his rush at the water’s edge, and hurried after his friends.

            He was surprised to find them stopped, frozen in their tracks.  He fitted an arrow in his bow and crept slowly forward.

 A giant snake-like figure had risen up in front of them.  It looked much like a great green cobra, except that it had arms on its shoulders, and it was carrying a shield and sword, which was pointing menacingly at Flummox, whose own sword was still at his belt.  Cleo had been leaning on her bow to keep upright, and did not have an arrow ready.  Slowly Animus drew back the arrow in his bow, then froze when there was a hiss in a language he did not recognize, right behind his ear.  Slowly he lowered his bow and turned.

 A five-foot green lizard, with gill-like fringes on his ears and down his back, was holding a trident inches away from Animus.

            Flummox whirled around, and called out in the lizard tongue.  “Wait!  We have met before!  You know me!  We come in peace.”

            The lizard pointed with his chin and prodded gently with his trident, so Animus moved to be with the others.  He spoke again in hisses and clicks, that Flummox understood, and translated for the others via the monk’s spell.  “You make a great deal of noise.  You become the hunted, instead of the hunters.”

            Flummox nodded.  “Yes, yes, you are right.  We need your help.  I am Flummox, and these are Cleo and Animus.  How should we call you?”

            “I am Gilli.  That’s Slim, with the sword.  Why have you breached the agreement, again?  Crysophordia is not going to be pleased.  You are obviously not prepared to swim, so you won’t get far.  What stupidity is this?”

            “We are in search of those others, you spoke of before.  Three men, traveling together.  Can you tell us where they went?  I don’t suppose they could swim either.”

            Gilli lowered his trident and shook his head.  “No, but stupid G.G. gave them a ride.  You know, on Red Nessie.  He took them to the edge of the burnt barrens.”

            Flummox cocked his head to one side.  “Why would they want to go there?”

            Gilli spread his hands.  “They told G.G. that they wanted to ask the Queen for sanctuary, and he believed them.  Stupid G.G., nobody wants to visit the Queen — she does not treat her visitors well.  But he got them across the swamp and out of the water.”

            Animus whispered in the common tongue.  “We can get on the burnt barrens just past the graveyard, like Sapphire and Cleo did before, right Cleo?”

            Cleo winced.  “I just want to get back to town.”

            Flummox turned back to Gilli.  “Why should Crysophordia care if the humans and lizard tribes talk to each other?”

            “He reserves the right to hunt the people and their horses.  He is very insistent, and we dare not defy him.  The arrangement works well.”

            Flummox bowed.  “Oh.  Well then.  Thank you for your help.  If we continue on this way, will we get to the road again?”

            “If nothing eats you.  I suggest you be more quiet.”

            “Good advice.  Thanks again, and good day to you.”

            Slim slithered aside, showing an impressive length of tail.  He waved his sword in the direction of the trail, then dropped it to his side.  It did not, however, return it to its sheath, and the trio edged past him nervously.

            The path was short and easy, and the three adventurers quickly popped out of the brush, went up the embankment, and found themselves on the yellow brick road, right at the base of the peninsula where the shore veered out towards the middle of the lake.

            Animus snorted.  “Weren’t we just here a few hours ago?”

            Cleo bent over and massaged her leg.  “Come on guys, help me back to the inn.  This is getting really stiff.”

Map – Their Path Thru the Swamp

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

 D-Stract found Sherlock at the Inn, and sat down at his table.  “How did you fare with the Earl?”

            Sherlock looked at her with sad eyes.  “Not well, I’m afraid.  I tried to explain to him that the jewelry thefts he, er… summoned me to solve were in fact a childish back-and-forth game between the uptown folks.  That they didn’t even care who knew, as witness the fact that Charlie Exchequer tried to blackmail some of the thieves, with ironclad proofs, and they just laughed at him.”

            “So how did he take that?”

            “The Earl pretty much lost interest as soon as he saw where I was going with it.  Then, I tried to explain that some of the lab personnel he summoned were in fact dangerous, even criminal, figures out of history.”

            “I doubt that went well.”

            Sherlock shook his head.  “That’s a real understatement.  He got downright angry.  He denied that it was possible, yelled at me, and told me to leave.  And he said… how do you say it?  I was given the sack.  My services are no longer required.”

            “Geez.  Well, I guess you can take comfort in the fact that you didn’t just go ‘poof’ when he didn’t need you any more.  Wait, what am I saying?  He still needs you, he just doesn’t believe it, or admit it.  Same thing.  So what are you going to do next?”

            Sherlock cocked his head.  “Well, what are the most important problems of the day?”

            D-Stract brushed back her hair.  “Of course we need to get the uptown folks to put their dogs to sleep – you know, in the undead crypt sort of way – so they don’t infect anyone else by accident.  They can’t be trusted.”

            “I don’t really see myself acting as the local dogcatcher.”

            “No, of course not.  Let me see.  It was really weird how Roland Montecristo almost bumped off his daughter, Princess Pumpkin, with that fire accident at the party.  Remember?  There’s a puzzle for you.”

            Sherlock picked at his pipe.  “Hmm, might be worth an afternoon’s diversion.  I’ll give it some thought.  But really, I am more concerned about affairs of state.  What have you learned about this business of Exchequer trying to take over the Earl’s seat as lord of the valley?”

            “I haven’t really heard anything.  Just speculating on the pranks he’s pulled, to make the Earl look bad.”

            Sherlock nodded.  “That’s what I’m going to focus on.  If there is a coup d’état in the works, it might be up to me to foil it.  Plus, doing so couldn’t fail to win me back the Earl’s ear, and I might be able to have some influence over these summonings he keeps executing so poorly.”

            D-Stract smiled.  “Sounds good to me.  It’s been a weird day, making sure everyone gets on the Buccaneer that needed to vacate.  I think I’ll go catch a nap before dinner.  See you later.”

            Sherlock smiled and winked.  “Perhaps.   Perhaps not, if I see you first.  Keep your eyes open.”

            “Will do.”

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

 Grace stood in the lab, looking at Maude’s former cot with sadness in her eyes.

 Maude’s voice rang out in her head.  Why the long face, sweetie?  I’m still here.

            Grace looked around the lab.  “So many people’s lives disrupted or destroyed.  And all because those people on the hill let their undead pets get out of control.  They were never meant to serve as guard dogs; they don’t have the brains to be careful.”

            When did that stop anybody doing anything — lack of brains?  Life’s an adventure, kiddo, then we die and start over again – here, there, or elsewhere.

            “It’s still hard for me to wrap my head around.  I have to believe this life matters.”

            Of course it does, sweetie, I didn’t mean to dismiss your feelings.  You take all the time to grieve you want.

            “No, I need to make the best use of the time I have.”  Grace straightened her shoulders.  “Where to start?”  She went to the lockup that held the three werewolf children.

 They were curled up next to each other like puppies, sound asleep.

 Salvia, the intern, came up to Grace’s elbow.  “They look so peaceful, don’t they?”

            “I’ll bet they give you a lot more trouble when they’re awake.”

            Salvia looked thoughtful.  “No, not really.  They’re quite calm and friendly when they’ve been well fed.”

            “That can’t be easy, given the shortage of meat in the valley.”

            Salvia raised her eyebrows.  “You didn’t know?  They don’t need to eat raw meat.  It turns out they do just fine on regular foods, when they can get them.”

            “Really?  How did you figure that out?  Some micro-cellular-mystic testing?”

            Salvia laughed.  “No, we just offered them stuff, and it turns out they’ll eat just about anything when they’re hungry; their heightened metabolism seems to extend to digestion.  We even offered them fruit rinds and bones.  It’s sort of awesome to watch, in a way.  Gives me shivers.”

            Grace patted her shoulder.  “Well done.  Keep ‘em fed, and keep ‘em happy, until you iron out the path to a cure.”

            “That’s my job.”

 Grace wandered to the door of the next lockup.  Dr. Gnoll was sitting on the floor, in the exact center of the cell, drooling on his straightjacket.  The moment he saw her he hopped up and rushed to the door.  “Mrkflux, gravenplof, rumpf, rumpf, rumpf!”

 Grace jumped back and bumped into Marvin, the animated blue box.  “Oh, sorry about that.”

            “Oh don’t worry about it.  Everyone treats me like furniture, at least when they notice me at all.  Biggest brain in the known universe, but do they ever ask me anything?  Do they ask me for advice, or data?  No, never.  They just moan about how difficult their lives are, and how they’re stuck here on this miserable planet, as if they had a choice.  I could have been piloting a warpship or managing a large country, or even a small planet.  But do they care?  No, not in the least.  It’s just ‘Marvin, hold still while I use you as a coffee table’.  ‘Marvin, carry out the garbage’.  ‘Marvin, don’t get in the way so much’.  Why, if I…”

            “Marvin,” Grace broke in, “what should we be doing for Dr. Gnoll?”

            Marvin’s lights blinked.  “I told them before, and they didn’t listen.  Why should they?  They have no idea of the complexity of…”

            “Marvin.  Short answer, please.”

            “Sedatives.”

            Salvia drifted over.  “See that?  He never makes sense.  We already tried sedatives — didn’t work.  Marvin’s off his rockers.”

            Marvin’s lights blinked again, and he wandered off.  “What did I tell you?  Don’t listen to me, don’t believe me.  Even talk about me in third person when I’m here.  Biggest brain in the universe and they don’t care…”

            Grace looked in her eyes.  “Are you sure?”

            Salvia nodded.  “Right up to the maximum safe dosages – no effect at all. Excuse me…”  Salvia rushed off.

            Dr. Gnoll moaned and muttered, and threw himself against the bars.  “Sorry, old chum.  Nothing I can do for you.”  Grace went on to the next lockup.  She put her hands on the door, and it swung open a crack – it was not locked.

  Dan and Dora Charles were sitting across a small table from each other, playing cards.  Dora looked up brightly at the sound of the hinges.  “Did you bring food?”  Grace shook her head.

            Dan put a hand on Dora’s arm.  “You know we’re not allowed any today.  It’s part of the cure.”

            Dora dropped her eyes sadly.  “Oh yeah.”  She laid down her cards.  “It’s no use, I can’t concentrate, I’m so hungry.”

            “I wish I had some of mine left to offer you, but… you know.”

            Grace shifted uncomfortably.  “Is there anything I can do for you two?”

            Dan shook his head.  “No, we’ll just have to tough it out.”  He turned to his wife.  “Do you remember what we saw in the old mine before we were tied up?  Now there were a few things we’ll want to go back for.  Remember?”

            Dora brightened up again.  “Oh yes.”  She pouted.  “But the best things seemed to be on the lower levels, and they’re all flooded.”

            “But that’s exactly why they’re still there, intact, unlooted, and waiting for us to uncover them.  Just think, if we can find a way to pump out the water…”

            The two archeologists put their heads together and began plotting their next expedition.  Grace left, and wandered over to the side room where the Trog chief was staying.

 He was lying on the cot, apparently asleep.  His armor and weapons lay close at hand, and his breathing was slow and steady.  Too steady.  Grace stood silently, watching him for awhile.  One of the chief’s eyes cracked open, then he whispered in goblin tongue.  “Is she gone yet?”  

            Grace looked around.  “Who?”

            “That nurse.  Every time I do anything, she either makes me swallow something or sticks something in my mouth or ear, or tells me to move my feet or my gear.  She’s worse than Leather Mama ever was, and that’s saying something.”

            Grace giggled.  “Amazing.  Is there anything I can get for you?  Food, I suppose.”

            The Chief grimaced.  “They say I can’t eat, and fasting will shake off the wolf blood in just a couple days.  Surprising what’s happening to my appetite, but I’m okay.  How are my people?  I suppose Lucifer is stepping up in my absence, but he’s too much into the arcane, and doesn’t connect to the rest very well.”

            “Most of them have gone back to the caves, and I’m sure they’re setting about making a normal life again.  Chopper and Basher are in a lockup nearby, waiting for the full treatment.  I gather they’re going to have it a lot worse than you – starving and feeding cycles, over and over.”

            The Chief snorted.  “Serves them right, traitors.  Well, maybe not.  It wasn’t really their fault; I blame Slasher.  He always wanted to be chief, and when he got bit by the dire wolf, he thought he had found his way to power.  He bit everybody he could, and recruited them.  We didn’t think there was a cure, so…  Anyway, I’m glad to be finally rid of him.  And please let Chopper and Basher know they’ll be welcome back, when they’re well.  How are they taking it all?”

            Grace chuckled.  “I’ll tell them, if I can get a word in edgewise.  Seems they found some rich deposits deep in Cave 2, and Hound has spent every minute with them, planning together how to get at them.  Something tricky about a chimney…?”

            “Oh bog, here she comes!”  The Chief closed his eyes, and gave a theatrical snore.  Grace suppressed a giggle.

 Nurse Scrubs stuck her head in the door.  “You really shouldn’t be bothering the patients.  They need their rest.”  She hurried on.

            “Goodnight, Chief,” Grace whispered in the goblin tongue.  She went out to the lab.  “Goodnight everybody!” she called in common tongue.

            Goodnight, Moon.  Goodnight, lamp, Maude’s voice giggled in her ear.

            Grace headed for the door.  “This is going to be a long night.  What do you suppose we’re going to dream about?”

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

{LINK TO THE NEXT CHAPTER}

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