Chapter 37 – Monday Morning, June 16 – Dealing with Dwarves
Grace slipped in the main castle gate a couple hours after dawn, eager to see how things were progressing in the lab, which was now fast becoming a clinic.
Rufus, Cleo, and D-Stract were left by the front door of the inn, unloading their equipment from the back of Shithead.
D-Stract stretched her back. “Shame we didn’t have to use most of this stuff.”
Rufus shook his head. “Au contraire. I’m happy things went so smoothly with the elementals.”
Cleo dropped a heavy canvas tent on the ground. “I don’t think I would have used something like this on a wolf hunt, anyway. Not unless it was raining or something.”
“What do you think you’re doing, giving our sand away?” There was Gorbag, suddenly looking red and angry.
Rufus turned slowly and smiled. “We didn’t give away anything. We’re swapping, some of yours for some of ours.”
“Oh really? Where in this valley are you going to get more sand?”
Rufus pointed silently in the direction of the lake, somewhere on the other side of the castle.
“In the castle? You can’t mean the Buccaneer is hauling back sand? Don’t be ridiculous!”
“No, the lake. Look, we have some things to talk with you about…”
“Yes, that’s right! You’ve been spreading rumors about elementals around town, and it’s got the people all up in arms.”
“Hey, calm down. We have it all under control. Give us a chance to stow this equipment, and return the mule, then we can have a nice quiet drink in the inn and talk about it.”
Gorbag pointed a finger at Rufus and shook. “My brother and cousin have a number of bones to pick with you, too. Be there!” He whirled and stomped off, back towards the center of town.
D-Stract took the mule back to the stables and Cleo stowed most of the baggage in their rooms as Rufus took the mousling-laden saddlebags up to the attic. There, he impressed on Flicker and Sticker that everything was going well, and that they needed to stay up there with the Asian mouslings and not get into trouble. Flicker especially seemed not to mind the scolding, and started in telling Penny about about his recent heroics.
In the inn, they were joined by two additional dwarves. Gnosh sat with his arms crossed while Grog called for three pints of his own brew. Gorbag still looked red, but kept his lips sealed.
Goldilocks arrived quickly with the three pints and asked what the others wanted. D-Stract and Rufus both asked for the same. Cleo wondered if there was any leftover breakfast. Soon a plate was delivered, and five noses wrinkled up at the smell.
D-Stract shook her head. “Honestly, girl, you keep on eating like this and you’ll lose your hourglass figure.”
Cleo frowned. “Give me a break. For the first hundred years of my life I ate almost the same meal every day – waybread and watered-down wine. After the first twenty years it may as well have been stale hardtack and ditchwater. I’m delighting in every meal now because I’ve never been able to enjoy such variety.” She looked around at the others. “Okay then, I’ll take this to another table. You magical types don’t need me for this talk anyway.” With that, she moved to a table in the far corner.
Grog toyed with his mug and looked at Rufus. “It seems you have something against our glassworks project.”
“No, I think it will be great for the local economy. Just the thing it needs.”
“You’re doing everything you can to throw a wrench into the works.”
“Not true. I’ll admit I had some concerns about your ability to handle an elemental as the heat source, but we’ve just been up negotiating with the elementals. Everything is squared away. You see… we have an extra bit of leverage over them.”
Gnosh banged his fist on the table. “You don’t negotiate with elementals, you control them! If you were a dwarf, you’d know that.”
“And if you were a sorcerer, you’d know the dangerous risks you are taking. Our group is able to influence all four elements, and see the big picture.”
“Shows what you know about it.”
Grog held up a hand. “Let me explain something you perhaps don’t understand. There may be language issues here, so let me put it in terms you may be familiar with. I work with what you call water elementals all the time in making my brews. Gorbag works with fire elementals in cooking and preserving meats, and sterilizing equipment. Gnosh has worked extensively with air elementals in building windmills, and using air pressure to shape molten glass into useful articles. And, of course, dwarves have a long tradition of mastering earth elementals.”
Rufus smiled and nodded. “The issue is not one of mastering them, it is of achieving a working balance, as I have learned. This is especially true of this situation. You are used to approaching a natural situation that is in balance, and bending it only slightly with your will. Here, the elements have been sent spinning into dizzy chaos. Push them, and it would be a catastrophe – like a collapsing house of cards. I want to show you how to put things back into balance.”
Gorbag huffed. “And why should you do that?”
Rufus glared at him. “Look at your shop. You of all people should know what happens when things get out of control.”
Gorbag turned even redder, crossed his arms and looked at the ceiling.
Gnosh leaned forward. “What are you asking us to do?”
“In a nutshell? We want you to change the path of your lava conduit, and drill in another location.”
Gnosh threw back his shoulders and stroked his beard thoughtfully. “Drill from the top? It’s not structurally sound. It would have to be down through the old lava vent, and there is not enough headroom to work there – the equipment is too big. Our plan to drill at the base is the most direct route.”
Rufus shook his head. “We’ve been negotiating with the elementals, whatever you might think of doing that. We think we can get Earth to relax its constriction on the old lava vent, and let the lava flow out as it used to.”
“You mean we wouldn’t have to drill at all?”
“No, not exactly. As part of the deal, we’d have to have you drill another place. We need you to drain the water out of the old mine.”
“Six of one, half-dozen of the other. What’s the point? What’s in it for us?”
“Well, it’s a complex deal. We need to do that to get the cooperation of Water, so that we can get you back that sand you need.”
“You owe us that sand. Told you it was crazy to try and negotiate with elementals. Now you have this tangled web you need us to help you out of. I repeat: what’s in it for us?”
“I think we can get you a more stable process. You don’t want to be responsible for a volcanic disaster here in the valley. You’ll be just across one ridge from Uptown, you know.”
“This is just what we were talking about, control! You want to talk, talk, talk but in the end, you must control elementals or their power turns to chaos. What makes you think you can make these elementals do what you want. Say ‘please’ or something?”
Rufus looked around the table slowly.
D-Stract shrugged and spoke up. “As Rufus said earlier, we have certain… leverage over the elementals.” The dwarves crossed their arms and looked stared silently at her. “We were given certain… artifacts by Chief Conch before he left. One each to better control Air, Fire, and Water.”
Gnosh smiled greedily. “Wonderful. Give us those artifacts and we have a deal.”
Rufus sputtered. “What? That’s out of the… There is no way…”
At that moment, Sapphire’s voice raang in his head. Stop, Rufus! Don’t say another word. Tell them you need a moment to think, and move over into the corner.
Rufus stood up slowly, looking grim. “I need a moment to think about this.” He moved toward an empty corner, while D-Stract excused herself and followed him.
Sapphire: Rufus, I’ve been listening in. We don’t need the artifacts. With mastery of an element, you can achieve the same effect with spells.
Rufus: I know of no such spells. I suppose there may be such spells in the archives, but I don’t know them, so it doesn’t much matter.
Sapphire: The principles are very simple. By extending yourself into one of the four worlds, you take on characteristics of that world and can no longer by harmed by its mere touch.
Rufus: You can’t just go making up spells like that!
Sapphire: Why not?
Rufus: It’s too dangerous! Too complex. Too much at stake.
Sapphire: Loosen up! You are so rigid in your spell making. Take a broader perspective.
Rufus: Spells need to be carefully researched and tested. Otherwise…
Sapphire: Otherwise you might break out of your bog-infested library and do something new.
Rufus: New is not necessarily better. In fact, it usually is not.
Sapphire: Tell that to the hedge witches that took me in and trained me. They don’t use spells, they use principles. They actually had to understand what they were doing instead of just memorizing things by rote.
Rufus: Hmph. An age old educational battle – rote learning vs understanding. ‘Both’ is better. You must admit though, memorized spells are faster. It’s a matter of training your reflexes.
Sapphire: Beside the point; we don’t need Conch’s artifacts. More than that, look at what he actually did. He gave you, the master of air magic, the lodestone. He gave Grace, master of Fire, the shell, and he taught D-Stract water magic, then gave her the shark tooth. He gave the artifacts to the people who needed them the least. He meant for us to pass them on.
Rufus: Why would he want that?
Sapphire: He was trying to make a better, more stable place for his daughter to live. He obviously was smarter than we ever gave him credit for.
Rufus: Well, I suppose you convince me. But first let’s check in with the other people who have to give away these trinkets. D-Stract, what do you think?
D-Stract: I want to play around with it a little, first. I think I can learn some things from it, but yeah, sure. If it will help, I’ll give it up. Hold it as a promise for services rendered, though – don’t just trust the dwarves to meet their end of the bargain.
Flummox: I’ve been listening in too. I don’t think you should trust the dwarves for a different reason. They’re foolish. I think a better plan might be to give the dwarves just the lodestone so that they can control the razor dogs, and give the shell and tooth to…
Sapphire: … to the razor dogs! That way the one with the tooth can enter the lake and guard against Crab Men…
Grace: … and the one with the shell can control the tongues of lava. I like it. Count me a ‘yes’.
Flummox: The beauty of this plan is that the dwarves can’t go off task and do something even more dangerous. You get to talk to the razor dogs first, convince them what their job is, and what they must not do in order to keep things safe for them to stay in this world, then all the dwarves can do is keep them on those tasks. If Gorbag an them try something crazy, the dogs shouldn’t obey but just come back to you instead, providing you’ve impressed on them first the right level of… caution in dealing with the dwarves. You follow? Checks and balances to make the plan foolproof.
Rufus: Okay then, I think we have a plan. Everyone with an artifact needs to practice intensively the next few days, so that they can duplicate the effects of their artifact – automatically, without thinking about it. Any last minute thoughts?
D-Stract: Don’t give the dwarves a thing until everything is finalized, and we’ve mastered the effects.
Rufus: Right. Let’s get back to them.
Rufus returned to the table. “Gentlemen, I think we have the makings of a deal. I’m going to let D-Stract here iron out the details with you. I’m afraid I must tend to my hawk – it seems to have wandered off. Good day to you!”
Rufus stepped out of the inn, to call Parrot, but was distracted by a crowd on the castle steps. A glance at the sun showed it was about noon.
The Earl was holding forth again. “… and so to protect the valley from these supernatural forces, I will summon heroes with supernatural powers.” He began muttering and going through his wind-up rituals. Smoke began to swirl.
Rufus shouted. “Wait! Everything’s fine! You don’t need to do this!”
With a final cry from the Earl, the smoke parted, to reveal five unusual figures.
They were wearing colorful costumes, with masks and capes. They stared at the townsfolk, while the townsfolk stared back at them.
The one in black and red, with the symbols ‘mM’ on his shirtfront stepped forward and threw out his chest. “I am the Masked Marvel. These are my friends IronGuy, Punch, BirdMan, and BatLord. We are here to save the day.”
Rufus shook his head. “Bog. Here we go again.”
Animus, Flummox, and Sapphire lay at the top of a low ridge and surveyed the valley that lay below. It was relatively small and steep-walled, but it held more green than all the rest of the burnt barrens they had seen. A handful of red-tile rooftops poked out between the tree-tops.
Flummox nudged Sapphire with an elbow. “Hey, you know air magic. Can you summon a sprite for reconnaissance like Rufus does?”
Sapphire slid away. “I suppose I could, but that would not be my first choice. If this Queen Medusa is a magic user, as she must be to turn people to stone, she might become aware of my efforts. I’d rather approach her on the spiritual plane – clairvoyance you’d call it.”
Animus raised himself up on his elbows. “Hey, wouldn’t stoning still work if you’re looking at her from the spirit plane? For that matter, couldn’t she turn an air sprite to stone, or you if you were linked in with the sprite’s eyes? How does that work?”
Flummox laughed. “This whole thing is ridiculous. The original Medusa was so horrible looking, she caused people to freeze in terror, not turn to stone. That’s just one of those stories that grew in the telling. This Queen is just a copy-cat, doing everything she can to paralyze us with terror.”
Animus cocked an eyebrow. “Look at us, groveling on this ridge; she’s doing a pretty good job. But how can you be sure that this one hasn’t figured out the trick of stoning people?”
“Boys, I also have a pretty good precognition sense. I trust it to ward me off danger if the clairvoyance thing isn’t safe. Now be quite for a few.” Sapphire closed her eyes and went into a meditative state.
Animus and Flummox spent the time surveying their surroundings, alert for dangers. High overhead, a green eagle circled. A dark shadow moved along a distant ridge, but it was not very close.
“Okay, here’s what I saw. There are a half-dozen buildings arranged spoke-wise around a central garden that is filled with statues. Stone statues, of people cringing and screaming in fear. The buildings are of different sizes, and apparent purposes. One is a large hall, one seems to hold a number of smaller guest rooms, one is filled with half-done statues and sculpting tools. There is a tall gray reptilian humanoid lazing around that building – doesn’t seem to be working.”
Animus gestured impatiently. “And the Queen?”
“She’s got one building decked out as a luxury suite just for herself. Oh, and by the way, there seem to be snakes everywhere.”
Flummox shrugged. “No problem there.”
“Speak for yourself; they give me the willies.”
“I’ll handle the snakes, you just put up a good illusion for the Queen – anywhere that we aren’t! Then we can creep up and watch the show.”
Animus held up a finger. “Sapphire, why exactly do you want to go talk to this Medusa?”
“Well, as the only magic user in the group, I think it’s essential that I…”
“No, no. What are your reasons for talking with her at all? Why not just go straight to that southern lair, kill Doc Green and The Visitor, rescue Caboose, and scram?”
Flummox shook his head. “You make that sound easy, but…”
Sapphire held up a hand. “Look here. Even if we could take them, we’d be trying to struggle back over rough country with a comatose body in tow. If we had just attacked the home of some members of the lizard tribes, we’d have bog’s own time getting out of there. Every one of them would be hunting us with no qualms about ending us then and there.”
Animus nodded. “So what you’re saying is, we’re not asking the Queen for help, so much as we’re asking for free passage out afterward.”
Flummox frowned. “There is the small matter of the two lizards — Mandor and The Seer? We don’t know a thing about them. We’d be fools to just rush in headlong against an unknown defense.”
“So we also need to know how to neutralize them.” Animus held up a hand. “Not fight them — pull them out of the battle. A distraction, or leverage of some kind.”
Sapphire held up a hand. “I get it. Our goal is to twofold: get the Queen to condemn the action of those two lizards so we get both a free shot at the humans and a way out after. Those two we can take, I’m sure. They’re not fighters. Just get the Queen to have the lizards stand aside for the whole affair. Let me think on this. What visage should an illusion take…”
Flummox cocked his head. “Umm… we do want that free passage to apply to us, not some fictitious characters. You may not be able to hold that illusion for 48 hours straight.”
Sapphire shook her head. “Of course not. If I could, I’d just make us all invisible. An illusion of nothingness in our place, I should say. So you’re right. We need a better approach – some sort of leverage. I think we need to talk more with Raven.”
Flummox nodded. “He should be able to guide us. Let’s set up a camp and see if he shows. I think that green eagle up there belongs to him. Besides maybe Batty and Tutu will have some info to report.”
Animus started turning around while keeping low. “Let’s get off this ridge. We are too visible up here – especially from the air, as you’ve reminded me.”
The three of them slipped down off the ridge and headed a half mile away before building a fire behind yet another hill.
Sapphire settled down and stuck a sausage on the end of her dagger, then thrust it into the flames. “And now we wait.”