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Games, Literature

Foundering Valley – Chapter 34, Friday Afternoon, June 13 – Lucky Afternoon

Chapter 34 – Friday Afternoon, June 13 – Lucky Afternoon

 Grace and the two elves rounded the corner of the church.

 As they passed by, someone hailed them from the front steps of the church, where two dark shapes were huddled out of the rain.  It was Scotty, with his bagpipes, and a smaller figure.  “Heard you were off to serenade Tootsie.  Want some company?”

            Grace hesitated, then nodded.  “Sure.  The more the merrier.  Who’s your friend?”

 The other figure stood, pulling back his hood.  He only came up to Scotty’s waist, as it turned out he was a hobbit.  “Napoleon.  I brought my flute.”

            “Oh, I remember you from the show.  In fact, I was looking specifically for you.  The spell you wove over the audience is exactly what we need.  You see…”

            “I heard you talking to the others, and ran to get Scotty here.  He’s met Tootsie already, you know?”

            Grace looked surprised.  “No I didn’t.  That’s great.  So, the idea is to get her accustomed to the idea of…”

            “Yes, yes, I know.  We need to sell her on the glory of working together with others on a project that will make her mark in history, blah, blah, blah.  Make her happy about it, want to help.  I get it.  Let’s go.  That road is not going to fix itself.”  Napoleon hopped down the steps, ducked under their elbows, and headed for the gate.  “Doug!  Doug!  We need you to open the gate!  Hop to it!”

            The rest of them looked at each other in surprise, laughed, and followed him.

            Scotty waved at Grace.  “Hello, Maude.”

            Animus huffed.  “That’s Grace.”

 Maude’s voice rang out in their minds.  Hello, Scotty.  Can you see me?  Can you hear me?

            Scotty smiled.  “But of course.  That’s what I do.  Once we’ve made contact, we’re golden.  Hope you’re doing well…?”

            Animus shook his head.  “And so the circle broadens, like the burning rays of sunshine left by the fall of a rotten oak, disturbing the peace and quiet of the woodland forest…”

            Maude’s voice chuckled in their heads.  You’re cute too.

            As they passed the gate to the Withers Estate, they were a little surprised not to see the tin man.

            Cleo stopped them and looked around, concerned.  She beamed her voice to her friends, scattered about the valley.  Hey all, the tin man is not at the Withers gate.  Anybody know what’s up?  They then hear the sounds of chopping coming from beyond the hedge.  Never mind.

            Flummox beamed back.  While you’re there, can you check in with the Withers about donating some stone coffin lids for the road?

            Cleo beamed her assent.  “Scotty, Napoleon, we have some business inside.  You can come in or wait here, as you please.  Your choice.”

            The two of them exchanged glances.  “We wouldn’t miss this for the world!”

Inside to the left was the old arboretum.  The tin man was using his axe on one of the dead, decaying trees.  He stopped when he saw them coming.  “Hello!  Thought I’d make myself useful around here by clearing out some of this deadwood.”

            Grace raised a hand in greeting.  “Hey there.  I hope you checked for mistletoe and such — I think the Withers use ingredients like that as food.”

            “Of course.  They tagged specific trees for me to fell.  What’s up?”

 Grace pointed towards the house.  “We’ve a mission inside.”  As she pointed, a bat detached itself from one of the trees along the driveway, and flew to the house.  “Looks like we’re being announced.  Has it been quiet here?”

            The tin man smirked.  “Quiet as the grave.  No, seriously, nothing going on around here since Bloody’s minions were put to bed.  Granpa Rouge and Madam Sky have been going at it like minks, but they’re harmless.  There was no point to me standing around by the gate, and these trees were just crying out for attention, so I offered my help.”

            “I’m sure it’s appreciated.  Say, what do you use for energy?”

            The tin man paused.  “I don’t really know.  I take on water, and pass steam, but what heats it… well, I’m not that good a mechanic.  I mean, it’s not like I can open up my own chest and poke around inside.”

            “I see what you mean.  Well, take it easy.”  The tin man nodded and went back to his chopping.

  As they approached the front door, they found it open.  Grim was standing just inside, out of the sun.  “Greetings.  What brings you fine folk here?”

            Cleo started up the steps.  “We’re here to see Master Withers.”

            Grim raised his left hand to stop her.  “The Withers are taking a much needed regenerative sleep.  Can I help you?”

            Cleo stuck out her jaw.  “Not if you’re going to make us stand on the front steps.  I had enough of this from your nephew.”

            Grace took her arm.  “Cleo, please.”

            Grim chuckled.  “My apologies.  Things have been tense of late and I’ve forgotten my manners.  Do please come in.”  He stepped aside and bowed them in.

 They entered the foyer, and could not help but to notice three skeletal figures standing at the top of the main staircase.  Grim gestured towards the left-hand door at the bottom of the steps.  “Please, you should be most comfortable in the Salon.  Tea?”

            Grace shook her head.  “No thank you.  We were actually passing by on a mission related to getting the road repaired, and our friends asked us to stop by.”

            “Ah yes, the road.  It is the lifeblood of the town.  So much has come to this place over that road, some good, but some bad.”

            Cleo cocked her head.  “Like your nephew, Bloody?”

            “I’ll apologize again for him; there’s really no excuse.  We heard about this place, and the integration of the undead into society they’ve achieved here, and I thought it sounded like an ideal haven for those of our kind.  My family and I have had a long weary life, running from place to place, living in hiding.  I wanted to make this place my home, to settle in peace and quiet.  Bloody, it turned out, had other, secret plans.  I failed to control him, and for that I will be forever sorry.  But everyone will be cured, will they not?  That’s what I’ve heard from the lab.  No permanent damage?”

            Grace smiled.  “We are very hopeful.  I’m concerned about the old couple, though, Rouge and Sky?  I thought you had confined all of Bloody’s minions.  What if something happens to them before they can be treated?  We’re still looking for Caboose, by the way.”

            Grim alone had not taken a seat.  Now he drifted back and forth smoothly and Grace wondered what he used for feet.  “Well, that’s a different matter, isn’t it?”

            “How so?”

            “Well, they actually died before they were infected, weren’t they?  There is no real cure for death, only… continuation… delay — through artificial, magical means, that is.  They are dependent on the estate’s resources to stay… mobile, and are quite happy here, I assure you.”

            “So we heard.”

            “But please, I ramble.  You mortals must necessarily always be in a rush.  What can we do to help?”

            Animus spoke up.  “Culverts are being put into the marsh causeway as they are being rebuilt, to relieve the water pressure.  We need to cap the culverts and the best suggestion so far is to use stone slabs, about 2-foot by 7-foot.  About twenty five of them, in fact.  We thought you might be able to spare some coffin lids from the crypt.”

            Grim stopped in surprise.  His glowing eyes stared from beneath his hood.  “Well, I thought I had lost the capacity for surprise.  You know we’ve had an extra burden on our… ah, facilities due to the need to confine Bloody’s minions.  We use the heavy stone lids to keep them and others from getting up and wandering around.  Fortunately there have not been new additions to the crypt from the Withers family for 200 years, so most of the dearly departed are resting very soundly, in peace.”

            Animus pushed on.  “So does that mean you can spare some lids, from the older coffins?”

            Grim nodded.  “Yes, I suppose it does.  We have a good store of wooden lids laid in — we can replace some stone ones with those, to protect the helpless ones from vermin.  Let’s see, twenty five lids, eight families with crypts – you are asking the others I suppose?  I’m sure we can let you have four stone coffin lids.  Then none of the other families have grounds to balk at giving just three each.”

            “Could you throw in a handful of those wood lids, too?  We need temporary bridges to move supplies over the broken portions as we go along.”

            “Yes, of course.  Can we just put them outside the gate for you to transport to wherever it is you need them?”

            “That would be amazing.  Thank you so much.”

            “This is my family’s home now.  We will strive to be as good a neighbors as the Withers have been over the years.”

            “And you think this is going to be okay with them, too?”

            “Yes, we’ve had some very long talks, and trust each other completely.”

            Grace stood up.  “Well this is great; thank you so much.  We really must be hurrying on, though.  I’ll keep you posted on how things progress in the lab.  Scooter is bringing you mail now, isn’t he?  Now that, well… you know.  Sorry about your nephew.”

            Grim drifted towards the foyer.  “I never could control that lad.  I’m sorry that I tried, but I owed that much to the memory of my sister, gone so many years ago.  Good luck with your mission.”

            Cleo shot him a dark glance as they left, but she nodded and went on.

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

 Rufus watched as Sapphire left the inn, to deal with the problem of Animus’s glass vial.  Then, he climbed back into the attic.

 Maggi was deep into it with the mouslings, leading a lively conversation of one- and two- word sentences between the Asian and local mouslings.  Everybody seemed to be having a good time.

            Rufus cleared his throat.  “Miss Maggi, may I interrupt?”

            “Certainly, good sir.  What can we do for you?”

            “I need to have a word or two with Flicker.  Can you spare him for a minute?”

 “Of Course.”  Maggi looked at Flicker expectantly, so the mousling reluctantly got up and shuffled slowly over to follow Rufus into a corner.

            “Flicker, we need to talk.”

            “I suppose so.  The angel told me to consult with you.”

            “Tell me what happened with the elementals.
            “What do you mean?  I goosed them and they brought down the storm that nearly wiped out the farmers.  It was an honest mistake, I mean, they were holding animals captive and all.  I thought those were the ones I was sent to rescue.”

            “And you were in control every step of the way?  How did you convince them to do what you wanted?”

            Flicker dug his toe into the dust on the attic floor.  “Well, er…”

            Rufus nodded.  “You were not in control, the whole time.  Not keeping things in balance.”

            “Balance!  They always talked about balance back in school!  Balance is an exciting opportunity to make things happen, a tool!  Upset the apple cart, and they all roll away.  Balance should be about potential, not a ball and chain around my neck!”

            “What exactly were you trying to do?”

            “Well, I noticed that Earth, Air, and Water were locked in balance, but were acting to suppress Fire, which was struggling to emerge in its own right.”

            Rufus frowned.  “Fire?  There is no elemental fire in the valley, or wasn’t.”

            Flicker smiled.  “Oh yes there was.  Anybody with the gift can sense it.”

            “I can’t.  I have studied the air and fire elements.  Where is the fire?”

            “Beneath Monolith Mountain, of course.  It’s an inactive volcano.”

            “And you were trying to…”

            “Okay, so I goosed up the fire elements, to try and get the volcano to spew out lava and wipe out the farmers.”

            Rufus raised his eyebrows, at a loss for words.  “And all the animals you were trying to save?  They were in the path too.”

            Flicker shook his head.  “No, no.  You humans don’t give animals enough credit.  Lava is slow; they would have gone to high ground.  All the barns and buildings would have been destroyed – along with any humans stupid enough to try to fight the fire.”

            “But you said yourself, the animals were in cages, fences…”

            Flicker nodded wisely.  “Ah, but many of them could break out, and I was ready to help the rest escape.  The fences would have burned too.  And that was the point.”

            Rufus took a deep breath.  “And the cave up on the side of Monolith Mountain?”

            “That’s the old vent of the volcano.  Wait, I know what you’re thinking.  The two yetis that live up there.  No, I made the fire elemental promise to rumble and scare them away first thing.  I’m no fool.  That was the deal.”

            Rufus shook his head.  “I wonder.  So instead of lava, you got the storm of the century.  How did that come about.”

            Flicker kicked at more dust and mumbled.

            “What was that you said?”

            Flicker yelled.  “I don’t know!  There, I said it!  Okay?  I guess I don’t know everything.”

            “So the other elementals…”

            “…didn’t do what they were supposed to.”

            “Why not, do you think?”

            Flicker started to pace up and down.  “I don’t know.  The more magic I threw at them, the worse it got.”

            “But what were the elementals trying to do?”

            “Do I look like a psychologist?  ‘Every elemental has motivations and a will of its own’, they used to say, back at the school.  Why don’t you go ask them?”

            “Ask the elementals?  They’re charged up and out of balance now, thanks to you.  It would be dangerous to go anywhere near them in this state.”

            Flicker shook his head.  “No, the mouslings of the High Council.  They used to teach at the school, you know.  And they’re still here in town, watching me and waiting to see what I do.  Ask them what the elementals are doing.  I.  Just.  Don’t.  Know.”  He put his little paws on his hips and stared defiantly up at Rufus.

            Rufus nodded.  “Perhaps I will, then.”

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

 It was about then that Sapphire entered the General Store and Apothecary, dripping wet, but clutching a small vial of black ink.

 Olivia was in deep conversation with C.K., who was leaning over the counter, and so neither noted her entry.

 Dahlia, on the other hand, was in her customary spot at the front window, saw Sapphire, and burst out laughing.  “It must be rainin’ harder than I thought.”

            Sapphire stood there dripping, and looked daggers back at her.  “It stopped raining some time ago.”  She held up the vial.  “I was getting an ink sample.”

            Dahlia chuckled.  “Aha!  Playing with Squid, then.  Don’t you know when you’re over matched?”

            Sapphire removed her outer robe and hung it on a peg by the door.  Her thin shift clung to her curves, but she paid it no mind.  Sitting down by Dahlia, she leaned forward and extended the vial.  “Can you make me more of this?”

            Dahlia took the vial.  “Squid’s ink?  You want to write, or what?”

            “I want to ward off crabs.”

            Dahlia nodded.  “The stink then.  I looked at this stuff years ago.  Are the crab-men givin’ you trouble?”

            Sapphire shook her head.  “We want to pull the sand up out of the lake, and we don’t expect them to cooperate.”

            Dahlia looked thoughtful.  “That would take hours.  The current is pretty strong there, and the ingredients for ink are rare.  I only ever made a couple quarts.”

            “What would it take to make enough?”

            “I don’t think that’s gunna work.  There is only so much of what I need here in the valley, and you need boatloads of the stuff.  See here, I put some of what I made into an oil emulsion so it doesn’t just wash away.  You can impregnate it into cloth, like a handkerchief or the tail of your shirt.  It doesn’t come out in water ‘cause of the oil until you flex or squeeze it, and then it makes a puff of ink, plenty big enough to ward off one crab for a short time.  It could be a personal defense, but you’ll never get enough ink to make a wall out of it.”

            Sapphire scowled.  “Well, I’ll take whatever you have.  We still need a way to wall off the whole sand bar.”

            “Did I hear that crazy pirate, Boomer, was tellin’ one of your friends to drop black powder charges in the water to ward them off?  Of course it would stun all the fish in the lake too, but maybe that’s a plus – easy food for the havin’.  What happened to all that powder the buccaneers left?”

            “I believe I will go talk with Mr. Larsen next.  Let me have that emulsion you’ve made, please.”

            “It’s over there on that shelf.  How you gunna pay for this?”

            “Bill it all to Tinker, please, he’s financing this road thing.”

            “In that case, come back tomorrow or Sunday and I’ll have all the rest of the ink into an emulsion for you.  Hot diggity dog — finally found a use for that stuff!”

            Sapphire headed to town hall, and there was Mr. Larsen in his new desk by the door.  It was only then that she realized she had forgotten her cloak.

 Larsen gave a wolf whistle.  “My lucky day; look who just walked in.”

            Sapphire sat down across from him.  “Mister, I’m not your type.  Talk to me about black powder.”

            “I wouldn’t be so sure ‘bout dat, sister.”  Larsen found a half-burnt cigar and stuck it in his mouth.  “Whatcha need dat stuff for, anyways?  You gonna put some cannons on da Narwhal?  I don’t tink my clients would be too happy ‘bout dat.”

            “Thanks for the idea, but no, we don’t have any cannons.  We need it to scare off the crabs.”

            Larsen sat up straight.  “What?  Is they comin’ for us now?”

            Sapphire smiled.  “No, no.  We want to dig sand out of the lake – for the road.  Unless you think your clients are going to be running daily shuttles back and forth to The City?”

            Larsen chewed on his cigar.  “I dunno, Lady.  I might have to check wit’ da home office on dat one.”

            “What’s your price for a barrel of black powder?”

            “On my own say-so?  I’d say it’s worth its weight in gold.  You want it?”

            “I’ll have to get back to you on that.  It’s gotten pretty cold in here.  I think I’ll go fetch my cloak.”  She gave her hips an extra swivel as she headed out the door.

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

 Rufus looked at the iron gate of the lumberyard.  There was a lock hanging there, but it had not been clicked shut.  “Perhaps it is my lucky day after all.”  He removed the lock and pushed open the gate.  The mill was the large building on the left.  Behind it, he could see the aqueduct, and the edge of the giant water wheel, now immobile.  Many roofed storage areas and sheds ringed the compound.  Various tarps covered mounds of lumber in the middle of the yard.

 Parrot fluttered down on his shoulder and gripped the hawk tightly for balance.

            Rufus winced.  “Ouch, you are a bit heavier than a pigeon, you know.  I think I need to get even more padding in the shoulders of this robe.  By the way, you may not be very welcome where I’m going.  You don’t care?  Okay, it’s your tail feathers.”

            Rufus moved to the large building and mounted four steps to the loading dock.  There were several bays with large square doors, and one human-sized door.  The windows were dark, and nothing could be seen through them, so he tried the small door.  It opened with a creak, and Rufus stepped into the dark.

            Seeing a lantern on a table right by the door, he hastily lit it with a match from a box left conveniently there.  Wheels and pulleys ran everywhere, and cast shadows like a giant spider’s web.  The huge saw, the hammer mill, and several other pieces of water-powered equipment would have dominated the room, if only the room itself were not even bigger than them.  Carts and lifts were scattered everywhere.  There were no hand tools in sight, but several chests with drawers were about, clean, closed, and locked.

            Rufus cleared his throat, and called out into the shadows.  “Hello.  Remember me?  I have come to talk with you about Flicker and the elementals.”

 A small ball of light appeared to float above the highest mezzanine. The two High Council mouslings looked down on him.  “You are Rufus.”

            Rufus squinted up at them.  “Yes, I’m Rufus, but I didn’t catch your names earlier.”

            “We don’t give out our names to human sorcerers.  Call us Sir and Madam.”

            Parrot must have caught the hostile tone of their squeaks.  With a shriek, he spread his wings and beat them, rising into the air.  A huge spark leapt down and struck the bird, who voiced his complaint with an even louder shriek, turned, and flew out the door.

            The bird landed on a rail outside, preening its feathers, and Rufus turned back, relieved it was okay.  “Sorry about that, ‘Sir and Madam’.  The bird and I are still getting to know each other.”

            “Why have you sought us out?  What is Flicker playing at now?”

            “I have learned much, talking with Flicker, but I need your wisdom to help him defeat the elementals.”

            The female sniffed.  “You speak of defeating the elementals?  Flicker does not need help from one of your narrow-minded attitude.”

            “Madam, I beg you.  We all want this mess cleaned up, and balance restored, but Flicker needs help, needs guidance.”

            “Now you speak of balance.  That is better.  But we are not here to intervene.  We have much to meditate upon while monitoring the situation.”

            “I have mastered air elementals, and fire elementals, but know little of water and earth, and what drives them.”

            “Now you say mastered.  Your attitude is all wrong, your world view warped.”

            “Teach me, please.  I beg you.”

            The mouslings exchanged glances, then scampered down to the lowest mezzanine.  Rufus had only to turn up his face to be two feet from them.

            The male mousling stroked his book.  “The first thing you must unlearn is that these elements are separate entities.  The universe is composed of dichotomies, opposites in tension with one another.  Earth, warm and wet, is merely the opposite of Air, cold and dry.  Water, cold and wet, is the opposite of Fire, hot and dry.  Our world is at a crossroads of these two boundaries, and the energies and tensions between them all are what drives life.  Of course there are other dichotomies as well, which most of us do not perceive.”

            “Like that of the spirit worlds?  The tension between Good and Evil?”

            “If that helps you to understand, then, fine.  Go with that.  But you humans confuse ‘spirit’, ‘soul”, and ‘will’ so very hopelessly.”

            Rufus rubbed his chin.  “Question.  Are you implying that the spirit-world dichotomy of Good/Evil is no different from the two elemental ones — Earth/Air and Fire/Water?  How is it we perceive them so differently?”

            The mousling chuckled.  “You are a being of spirit, inhabiting a body that is animated by the energies of the elements.  There are analogs of that arrangement, beings with different configurations, and various other soul-less creatures in the world, but who manipulate spirit energy as you manipulate fire, for instance.  It’s quite complicated, and requires higher mathematics to fully understand.  When an element gets out of balance, and energies are put in play, the elemental can invoke the energies of the spirit, taking on a will and persona, and the result you call… an elemental.”          

            “Okay, let’s stick with the elementals then.  What motivates them?”

            “Well of course the four kinds that you perceive play a game for control of this world.  Not a fun sort of game, more of a strategic antagonism, or enthusiastic contest, if you will.  And each type of elemental has their own personality, or style.  Earth is the staid guardian, embodied by mountains; it separates the Air above from the Fire below.  The Fire is of course full of passion and leaps at any opportunity to consume the Air, which is flighty and frivolous, delighting in teasing the Fire.  The Water though, is full of cunning and patience.  It permeates with insidious persistence, it pools calmly over ancient hidden depths, or leaps with enthusiasm and vigor over the land, as opportunity presents.  Always it is flexible, adaptable, formulating its plans with a view towards the far future.  But mostly it clings, and resists being dissipated or divided.”

            Rufus nodded, then rubbed his neck.  “This fits with what I’ve learned.  Tell me of the local situation.”

            The female mousling gave a superior smile.  “You must read the signs that lie plainly before you.  Let us begin with the story of this valley long, long ago.  This was a dry region, dominated by high mountain peaks, that separated the Air above from the Fire below.  The Water was split in twain, with the rains on the western slope of the mountains unable to join with the lake to the east, and ultimately the seas beyond.  Ever it plotted to be unified, and so ate and gnawed at the mountain, digging, tunneling, creating a network of caves, and exposing the precious inner treasures of the Earth.  Gradually, Earth was weakened, and it came to a crisis.  To maintain the division of Water, Earth reluctantly relaxed its control over Fire so that it could burst forth, spewing lava and ash, and building the second ridge that ends in Monolith Mountain, and in this way again blocking the flow of Water to the sea.  But Fire was now too strong, and life was impossible here.  So, Earth made a pact with Water.  The waters flowed more strongly through the older mountains, pooling between the ridges, and quenched the fires, which caused Fire to retreat very deeply, but it lay there still, licking its wounds, fuming and seething in anger, waiting for its revenge.  Earth and Air ruled.  Water was weakened from its fight and had to take a lower status, but it now had achieved its goal of uniting its two halves, if only by a tentative thread – the river.”

            The male mousling cleared his throat and took over the narrative.  “So it was when the first settlers arrived.  The valley was fertile with the ash of Fire, but Fire was constrained such that its energy could be tapped into and used in tiny bits at a time to warm the settlers, cook their food, bake their clay, and work their metal.  This was a paradise for humans.  They tilted the balance, though, by damming the river that flowed between the two ridges, increasing its depth and power, which they then tapped into somewhat for themselves.  The high valley filled with water, and the humans rejoiced because their industry prospered with hydro-power, and irrigated their lands for even more bountiful crops.  Thus the power of Water grew, until it matched that of Earth and Air.  This is how it was when Flicker found them, equilibrium achieved, in a three-way balance.  Earth channeled Air, Air would whip Water into a frenzy to create waves and rain clouds, Water continued to eat away at the base of the mountain.  Fire was buried far below, constrained by both Earth and Water, and humanity prospered.”

            Rufus gritted his teeth.  “So along came Flicker and stoked the Fire.”

            The female mousling nodded.  “Yes.  It seems that Earth was faced by a choice, and turned its energy to controlling Fire.  Water seized the opportunity to drop that task itself and instead contested with Air for the upper hand, and so they fought a mighty battle.  That battle was the great storm you experienced.”

            “When did the dam break?”

            “It was likely damaged by the stresses between Earth and Fire.  This allowed Water to break free and surge largely to the sea, to escape Air, but in so doing, it lost or rather expended the power it had built up in the deep lake.  Air then was able to take the upper hand, opening the way here for terrible creatures comprised of lightning to cross over from the Air dimension.”

            “I think we’ve seen those.  Quadrupeds, like dogs.  So, to restore balance…?”

            “You must establish a new equilibrium, preferably one that would allow people to stay in the valley.  The passion of Fire must be controlled above all others.  Earth will resume its place as guardian of the status quo if it can, and Air will then lose interest in the contest, though the lightning creatures may wish to persist as a matter of self preservation, and may need to be dealt with separately.  Water is the hardest to control; it is cunning and treacherous.  Finding a way to appease water even for a brief period of history, restoring the former balance, or finding a new one, is the hardest part.  That will be key to the rest of the task – very tricky though.”

            Rufus looked down and massaged his neck.  “And you expected Flicker to do all this himself?”

            The female mousling shook her head.  “No, but Flicker outgrew the school.  He is very gifted, more so than many of his teachers.  Now, he can learn only by experience, if he is to rise to his potential and be a Force in the mousling community.”

            “So he’s to practice releasing chaos on this valley until he gets lucky and finds a new balance?  The unlucky inhabitants just be damned, eh?”

            She smiled.  “We will leave it to you to protect your kin, and take both credit and blame for these events.  We will look out for the mouslings, and cover our tracks.  Perhaps you will teach Flicker the value of cooperation.”

            Without another word, Rufus shook his head and went to check on his hawk.

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

 Flummox and D-Stract sat glumly on the front steps of the Exchequer’s mansion.  D-Stract sighed.  “Well, that’s six down, one more to go.  Not our lucky day at all.  Do you get the impression our sales pitch isn’t working the way we thought it would?”

            Flummox shook his head.  “I’m not sure how else to ask for something without pissing people off.  It’s in the community’s best interest; they should be willing to pitch in.”

 “Maybe you should be less worried about pissing people off.”  They whirled around.  There stood Charlie Exchequer, grinning at them.

            Flummox frowned.  “We didn’t think it would be wise.  These are the richest people in the valley.”

            Charlie sat down on the steps between them.  “I appreciate what you’re trying to do, but you have to understand the people you’re dealing with.  They didn’t get to be the richest people in the valley by giving their money away.  They didn’t get it by being smartest either.  They got it by playing tit for tat.  They never give anything without getting something better in return, personally.  That ‘for-good-of-the-community’ pitch will never fly, uptown.”

            D-Stract twisted and looked him in the eye.  “So what is it you are expecting to get in return for this sage advice?”

            Charlie snorted.  “Me?  I’m the kind of guy who… well, if I came across a dangerous animal, I’d poke it with a stick to see what happens.  I’m bored with these people, and their petty games.  Time to stir the pot some, if you know what I mean.”

            D-Stact nodded.  “So we need…”

            “… leverage.”

            Flummox twisted around.  “So, are you going to pass us some juicy tidbits to use on your father, and the others?”

            Charlie smiled hugely.  “Oh no!  Where’s the fun in that?  But I will be watching your progress closely.  That’s my idea of fun.”

            D-Stract pouted.  “I don’t suppose you’d just give us some coffin lids yourself?”

            Charlie shook his head and stood up.  “I’d say you have time to run a line past D’Or before you hit my father up again.  He’s working on some contracts now and usually is in a pretty good mood when he finally gets something straight, just the way he wants it.  Break his concentration before he’s finished and he’s grumpy.”

            D-Stract stuck her tongue out.  “Thanks for the tip, I guess.”  Charlie gave a mock salute and went back inside.

            Flummox stood up.  “On up to stop number seven then, the D’Or mansion.”

 The guard at the D-Or estate was accompanied by an undead dog.  They were let through without incident, but Flummox frowned at D-Stract.  “I thought these guys were all supposed to be putting their pets in the crypts, to stop the spread of the disease.  They can’t be controlled like the undead servants.”

            D-Stract shook her head.  “This isn’t the first undead dog I’ve seen today.  I’d say more estates had them than not.”

            “Oh bog.  Well, maybe we can use that.”

 Penny D’Or greeted them at the door, then went to get her husband.  The foyer was identical in layout to the uptown mansions, except for the decorations.  Two doors each left and right, hall ahead to the right, staircase ahead to the left, leading to a balcony wrapping around three sides above with eight doors.  The rose window above the door had a gold-coin motif, and the foyer was adorned with numerous framed banking certificates, and printing plates under glass, presumably of some historic value.  As soon as Penny was out of sight, Flummox whispered to D-Stract.  “I almost asked for her father.  What is he, three, four times her age?”

            “The old goat.  She must be quite the gold digger, I can’t figure it any other way.”

 They were shown into the left front room – a combination library and office.  Mr. Mint D’Or lay down some papers on the desk he was sitting at.  He looked pleased with himself, as he polished his monocle.  “Welcome, please pull up a chair.  Nothing like the prospect of a profitable business to put a special glow on the day.”

            Flummox sat first.  “I’m guessing you’re the backer for the new glass works.”

            “Indeed I am.  I’ve just been reviewing the figures on the dwarves’ business plan.  If their alternative energy source works out, there is no limit to the profits to be had.”

            D-Stract sat down.  “Energy source?  I imagine it would take a lot to keep a small furnace going.”

            D’Or looked smug.  “I’m afraid I can’t discuss the details – confidential business matters, of course.  But pray, what can I do for you?”

            Flummox cleared his throat.  “Well, we actually have some concerns about the future prospects of any new business here in the valley, but the glassworks in particular.  You are aware, of course, that there is a major road repair needed, before you can move significant goods out by road?”

            “Of course — I keep an eye on anything that might affect my businesses.  The community will be repairing the road for any number of good reasons.  It should not affect us at this juncture, and the route will be opened before we need it.”

            “So you know, then, that a great deal of sand is going to be needed to effect repairs?”

            “Sand?”

            “Sand, like is on the beach.  Like you need to make glass.”

            “That sand was promised to the dwarves by the Earl himself.”

            “Really?  Do you have that in writing?  The Earl is a busy man.  I expect he actually said something like, ‘Fine, go ahead, I don’t care.’ ”

            “They said he gave his word.  That should be enough for a gentleman.”

            “He’s under a lot of pressure to get that road repaired, and I don’t think the dwarves offered to pay him anything for the sand.  It’s not like there was a quid-pro-quo or anything, to make a contract binding.  Without that, it’s not enforceable.”

            D-Or sat back and frowned at the walls.  “So why have you come here?  What do you want?”

            Flummox smiled.  “Well, we have a proposition for you.  We might be able to get sand another way, to remove the threat to your business.  But, we want something in return.”

            “How else can you get sand?”

            “ ‘I’m afraid I can’t discuss the details – confidential business matters, of course.’ ”

            D’Or opened his mouth, then closed it.  “So what’s your price to leave the beach sand alone?”

            “Three stone coffin lids.”

            D’Or looked surprised, then smiled.  “Done.”

 Master Exchequer looked fine in his tuxedo – an odd affectation for the middle of the afternoon.  His middle-aged body was still fit and muscular.  D-Stract stifled a grin as she thought of him working out in a tuxedo.  Exchequer looked down his nose at them.  “You were just here begging for your charity a half hour ago.  What is it now?  Another tiresome charity?”

            Flummox leaned back in his chair.  “In a way, charity, yes.  But you would be the one in need of this particular bit of help.”

            D’Or frowned.  “What are you talking about?”

            “Well, our friend Sherlock has told us that we’ve finally provided the proof of your little plan.  Proof that you yourself have just given us.”

            “Plan?  I have lots of plans.  What are you talking about?”

            “Well, in most places, a coup d’état is considered treason, punishable by death.  We thought you ought to know about these developments, before the lid blows off.  Maybe there is something we can do about it.”

            D’Or sat back and smiled knowingly.  “Ah, so your game is blackmail.  You’re going to have show a lot more cards before I worry about anything you’re saying.”

            “Okay, if you want me to be blunt, you’ve been behaving in a pattern that is clearly designed to make the Earl look bad.  Your refusal to help with the much needed road repair was the final straw.  Before that it was your word against Archie Tomes as to who was behind the bad advice the Earl had been getting on summoning aide for the valley.  If it was clear you were not acting in the best interests of the community, rather than just trying to make the Earl look bad… well, who do you think will be believed in the end?”

            D’Or frowned, rubbed his chin, then nodded.  “So, you say my lack of assistance with the road is the key bit of evidence you’ve collected, establishing a pattern to my behavior?”

            “Yes sir.”

            “And if I were to supply, what, three stone coffin lids, this frivolous slander against me would be shown to be baseless?”

            “I think we have a meeting of minds, sir.”

            “Fine.  Where do you want them delivered?”

 Mr. Roland Montecristo was rather dashing despite his frown.  He stubbed out one nasty black cigarette and lit another.  “I’m not following you.”

            Flummox leaned forward.  “I’m afraid Sherlock has been collecting witnesses to the incident at the party last week, involving your daughter.  If Princess Pumpkin had been badly burned, or worse, there seems to be no doubt that you would take the full blame.”

            “Ridiculous!  No one was hurt.”

            D-Stract cut in.  “This time.  Sherlock told us he was thinking about speaking with Chief Ash about the previous incident, with your wife.  I’m afraid things are starting to look bad.”

            Montecristo leapt up and began to pace.  “That meddling fool is going to drag up history that… It can’t be allowed!  Isn’t there some way to stop him?”

            Flummox smiled.  “Well, there are several other things he could be investigating instead, and Sherlock does listen to us.  We might be persuaded to whisper the right things in his ear, to distract him – for the right price.”

            “What price?”

            “Well, we still need those three stone coffin lids from you for the road.”

 Warmina Tomes showed them to the library door, where Archie Tomes was deep into a book.  She then took Pablo DaliTrec by the elbow and headed upstairs.  Her voice rang down the staircase, overly loudly.  “How much longer do you think I’ll have to pose for this portrait, Pablo?”

            “It is always hard to tell, Madam.  Art has a way of taking its own time.”  They proceeded right around the balcony towards the tower room.  Flummox and D-Stract exchanged knowing glances, then went in to talk with Archie.

            Archie looked up from his book.  “I told you earlier, I’m rather busy with some other projects right now.  Sorry.”

            Flummox nodded.  “Another research project for the Earl?  He’s getting pretty discouraged with you, you know.  I hope this lead is good enough…”

            Archie frowned.  “Good enough for what?”

            “Well, for him to forgive all the bad leads you’ve given him.  He’s only now starting to suspect there was more behind them than just honest mistakes, or even pranks.”

            Archie gulped.  “He is?  I mean, he doesn’t think that I…”

            “Well, it’s on a knife’s edge right now.  A word from Sherlock or one of us might tip it either way.  Evidence is coming out that perhaps Exchequer was pushing some sort of treasonous plot, but what role you played…  Well, he’s still guessing.”

            Archie sat up straight.  “He must understand.  I never meant any harm.  I was as much a victim as he was.  Can you talk to him for me?  Put forward my case?”  Archie sagged back in his chair.  “He won’t even talk to me any more.”

            Flummox crossed his arms and put a hand to his chin.  “Well,” he said, studying the ceiling, “perhaps if there was some element we could point to that showed you had the best interest of the valley at heart, and were trying to help improve things….”  He let this hang in the air while he silently counted to himself.  1 alligator, 2 alligator, 3 alligator, 4 alligator, 5…      

            Archie finally got it and his face lit up.  “Perhaps I could help with this road project you were trying to tell me about earlier.  Will three stone coffin lids be enough?”

            Flummox nodded.  “I’m guessing that will show you’re doing your part.  I’ll let you know how that goes.”

            Back in the street, as they passed the gate to the Longbottom estate, D-Stract put out a hand.  “The key to this next one is a novel plant or fungus or something.  Do we have anything?”

            Flummox shook his head.  “Maybe we can get something from Dahlia, then come back.”

            “Oolong is the same deal, but more focused on beverages.  Cardigan would be the last one then.  He’s trying to get something novel to break out in the textile trade.”

            Flummox snapped his fingers.  “That tough clear stuff the Trogs made their lanterns out of!  I bet we could even get some serious trade going, later on.  For now the fabric alone would be enough of a tease.  Didn’t you bring back one of those lanterns from the caves?”

            “I sure did.  It’s back in our room at the inn.  It’s still glowing, but pretty faint.  Makes a nice night light.”

            “Let’s not complicate things.  Cut it open and dump it out somewhere.  I’ll be talking with Dahlia while you clean up that bag and meet me at the shop.”

            “Sounds like a plan.  Let’s move.”

 Dahlia shook her head at Flummox’s proposal.  “Oolong is very par-tic-lar about his tea.  I got all kindsa herbs with medical and other properties, but he’s seen ‘em all, and shown no interest.”  She held up a hand and thought a moment.  “That old coot really only cares about his son, Lemon.  Ever since his wife died, that boy has been nothin’ but trouble for him.  Big embarrassment.  Figure out a way to get those two together, and he’ll kiss your toes in Market Square on Sunday morning.”

            “I see.  What about Longbottom?”

            Dahlia chuckled.  “I got just the thing for him.”  She went to a chest of many drawers and pulled out a tiny bundle of cloth, which she carefully opened.  Little fairy umbrellas of spikey white waved in the slightest breeze, but were tethered by long black seeds.  “Seeds of the legendary Dandy Lion.”  She carefully wrapped them up again.  “Tell him it has many uses, but ‘course he knows already.  The leaves make good greens, you can make wine, all kinds of stuff.  He’ll go for it.”

            Flummox looked at her carefully.  “What aren’t you telling me?”

            Dahlia smiled.  “Can’t put one past you.  In olden times, they thought these here was weeds.  They ran rampant, everywhere.  They were why the ancients sprayed everything with ever-lasting pesticides and triggered the great agricultural collapse.  Stupid, they was.  But anyway, I was thinkin’ I’d sneak these into his herb garden and watch the fun.  Sounds like you can get him to do it hisself, and save me the trouble.”

            Flummox laughed.  “Sounds good.  What do I owe you?”

            “I should pay you for this.”  She sobered up suddenly, and pointed a finger in his face.  “But don’t you go getting’ any ideas, mister.  You owe me one.”

            “No m’am, yes m’am, whatever you say, m’am.”  Flummox tugged his forelock, smiled wickedly, and joined D-Stract in the street.

 Plover Cardigan frowned at them.  “Buttons told me why you were here earlier.  We are not a charity.”

            Flummox smiled.  “Of course not.  But my colleague here reminded me that we never got to tell him about the business opportunity we were considering – a new fabric.  We thought we ought to give him a look before we took it elsewhere.”

            “Well, that’s different.  He’s still in the library.”

 Mr. Buttons Cardigan tugged at the flexible clear sheet experimentally.  It had very little stretch in it.  “Is it durable?”

            D-Stract nodded.  “The Trogs use it to hold some pretty nasty chemicals.  And it’s bog’s own hide to cut, believe me.”

            “And you say they can get it in quantity?”

            Flummox shook his head.  “Now slow down, she didn’t say that.  I said we were thinking about talking to the Trogs about their terms for a trade, but we are kind of busy with this other thing just now – finding these road materials.  Oh well, you can’t start up trade with the stuff anyway, since the road is still closed.  I guess it was a crazy idea.”

            “Not so fast.  If I give you what you were asking for earlier, for the road, will you open a dialog with the Trogs for me?  I think I could find a market for this, when the road opens.”

            “If that’s what you want.  You can spare three stone coffin lids?”

            “Absolutely.”

 Longbottom recognized the seeds at once.  “Dandy Lion!  Right out of legend.  I’ve been hoping to get even a single seed for years!”

            “I gather you’ll see lots, and lots of seeds pretty quickly.  A bit of a caution may be in order.”

            “Nonsense.  If there is anything I know, it’s how to manage plants.  I suppose you’ll want to trade for those stone lids?”

            “That’s the idea.  Thanks.”

 As they entered the Oolong mansion, Lem Oolong pushed out the door past them.

 Master Shoogar Oolong yelled after him.  “You’re lucky I didn’t let you run away with those buccaneers!  They would have shown you how life really works!”

            Flummox and D-Stract stood stock still in the lobby, looking at the embarrassed Master Oolong.  “Is this a bad time?”

            Oolong groaned.  “I told you before, I’m busy.”

            Flummox cocked his head back at the door.  “He’s quite a handful, isn’t he?”

            “He dreams of getting away from here, like the world was a story book just for him, to explore.  He doesn’t realize how dangerous it is out there.  He doesn’t understand about the diseases that run wild in the world.  Neither does he understand that you have to work to get what you need in life.  I’m afraid I’ve spoiled him, and been over protective, and now he won’t even listen to me any more.”

            “I think the castle is making good headway on those diseases you mentioned.  Have you heard the latest news from the lab?”

            “I really don’t want to talk about it.  Too painful.  There was no lab here when my wife needed one.”

            D-Stract suddenly smiled and broke the somber silence.  “Hey, I have an idea.  Captain Clang is working hard to get the Narwhal ready again, so they can do safe, simple supply runs.  If Lem got together with the Captain, maybe he’d get interested in working towards a goal like that – getting on their crew.  He likes ships, and the idea of travelling, yes?  This would give him a taste.”

            “You can’t just give that boy what he wants.  He’ll never learn that way.”

            Flummox struck his thinking pose again.  “Suppose you held that out as an incentive — as a reward for doing his civic duty first.  Get him working towards that as a goal, by doing something like, say, joining the road repair effort to win the right.  Tell him if he pays his dues that way, you’ll let him try out for a spot on the Narwhal’s crew.  Better them than the Buccaneer, next time it comes back to the dock.”

            Oolong frowned.  “The Narwhal would indeed be a safer ship than what he’s talking about doing.  It might work, and tie him in with better company.  If he found the work too rough and quit, all the better — he’d have to stay here with me, no harm done.  I’m not sure the idea for this should come from me, though.”

            “Maybe if you just acted as a role model, showed him how you were doing your civic duty, helping with the road repair effort and all that, he’d follow your lead.  Kids really do learn from their parents, even if they pretend not to listen to them.”

            “And you’re suggesting…?”

            “All the other uptown families have been able to pledge three stone coffin lids apiece.  You’re the only holdout.  Quite the opposite of the role model I was suggesting.”

            Oolong huffed a bit.  “Well, well, then.  If you’d be so kind as to go tell Lem that his father wants him to see to it that our valuable contributions are put to proper use, so on and so forth… perhaps you can lure him into that bargain you spelled out.”

            “Happy to do it, sir.”

            As they headed back down to the inn, D-Stract couldn’t suppress a feeling of elation; she even tried skipping.  “I feel like a little girl again.  It turned out to be a pretty lucky day, after all.”

            “You’ve got to make your own luck, I always say.  Speaking of which, have you got any brilliant ideas for how to get that sand out of the lake?”

            “Not yet, but I’m sure it will come to one of us.”  She skipped ahead.

            Flummox shook his head and followed slowly after.

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

 The concert was a resounding success.  While their music was crude, and the bagpipes drowned out everything else until they asked Scotty to stop playing, Napoleon’s magic spread on the music throughout the woods.  Visions of pageantry, of working together as a community, of building lasting monuments for history, swept through between the trees.

 The unicorn arrived first, and began to conduct the music with its horn.

 Pan arrived and joined in with his pipes.

 Finally, Tootsie shyly entered the glade and blew through the hollow horn in her head in counterpoint to the others.  A feeling of warm fellowship enveloped them all, and lasted even when the music stopped.  Tootsie was so happy to find friendship, that she readily agreed to help them load rocks at the old mine.  She wasn’t so sure about working down by the lake, surrounded by strangers, but that was okay.

 To everyone’s delight, Trixie showed up, with Duncan riding on his back.  Trixie and Tootsie greeted each other like old friends, and Trixie wrapped her trunk around Tootsie’s arm, and pulled her in for a hug.  Everything seemed to click in place.  They would all be happy to haul stones down from the mountains where they were needed for the road.

 The real surprise came when Strong appeared ominously from out of the shadows.  He had a wild look.  Bits of broken bushes stuck in his hair, and his massive mace dragged behind him.  He frowned.  “Why you stop music?  It beautiful.”  Everyone broke into laughter.  He then caught sight of Tootsie.  “Beautiful…  Can Strong help too?”  Tootsie blushed.

            Grace smiled all around the circle.  “It looks like this was a lucky day after all.”

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

{LINK TO THE NEXT CHAPTER}

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