Right hand man
It had taken all the tact at Wolfgang, Count von Wolfrachen's disposal, (which, when he so desired, was considerable) to persuade Venus that following Korg, Squigs and Vila was simply suicide, and would fail to help anybody. He eventually convinced her that he had access to a network of agents who could find the exact whereabouts of virtually anyone, even on this complex world. Then he had persuaded her that getting to any other point within thousands of miles would be easier, quicker and safer, using his own branch as a base.
It was a good thing that the Count was there, because she certainly wasn't listening to her father, or to such lowly persons as Huigi. Kate wasn't saying anything.
But once persuaded, Venus occupied the return journey to the Schloss Raubgerig in questioning each of the expedition's members in turn in exhaustive detail. "Shades of her mother," said the baron quietly to Mungo.
Mungo, who had just been through Venus's information wringer, said nothing. But he thought that if he were the dwarf, he'd keep running, now that he had such a good head-start. But he kept a wary eye on his daughter. She'd been listening, intently, to the various statements from the members of the rescue expedition. She'd shaken off her father's arm. But Mungo noticed that she'd shaken off Crum's attempt, too.
Back at the castle, the count wasted no time. Orders were dispatched, messengers rode off into the gathering shadow-time. The count suggested baths and dinner. Venus shook her head agitatedly. The count bowed in his courtly manner to her. "My dear, perhaps you are right. If you do not eat, you will faint. And then you would give us all some peace."
For a moment murder hung in the wings. Then Venus bit her lip, restraining the edge of a smile. "I'm sorry. Have I been so difficult? I'd love to get clean, after the disgusting place they kept us in. And it will pass the time while we wait for news. But I don't think I could face food!"
The count bowed again, perhaps thinking to himself that all those years of dealing with his daughter's tantrums had perhaps not been entirely wasted. "Of course, my dear lady. We understand. Just come and join us, and perhaps have a glass of wine, and possibly a morsel. Imogene, my dear, if you'd be so kind as to take the ladies through . . ."
Imogene was sparkling with happiness and energy. For starters her father hadn't discovered that she'd been with the mounted column, and for seconds, she was formulating plots to see that her ten year-old lies became fact. As soon as possible. Having extra guests would help. "Of course!" She came away from her tête-à-tête with Huigi, who had discovered that she'd been along and was quietly explosive about it, and took the pale Venus and the oddly silent Kate on either arm. "Come up to my bathroom! It's probably the only one that has got decent hot water in this whole rotting pile."
This touched a chord in Venus. "You should talk to my father about it, Count. He's become quite expert at repairing prehistoric plumbing!" She smiled. "Thank you. I'm sorry I've been so difficult."
Count Von Woflrachen smiled, his long teeth exposed, briefly showing the monster behind the mask. "It is nothing, my dear." He put his hands on the shoulders of Mungo and the baron, and paid back the scores of a lifetime. "We fathers are used to it."
Of the three, only Kate did not turn and give him a poisonous look. She simply walked away, with her head still hung. She certainly didn't look back at the Crum.
Slugger wrinkled his nose at that individual. "Yer stink. Barf. Move! An' if yer gets pissed at supper again, I'll forget meself."
"What are you doing here?" The five who were huddled in the stone-slab hut were both surprised and not particularly delighted to see them. They were younger than the sentry, but still not young. And they all bore the marks of a life of hard work and tough times, in the lines on their faces.
"Are any of you, what's the bastard's name again, Squigs?" His recent encounter with closed-in spaces seemed to have given the dwarf even more need to prove himself invincible in every other respect.
"M'lord Strate." Squigs put a restraining hand on Korg's shoulder. His left. His right stayed firmly in his pocket.
The party looked at them, plainly incredulous. And then they began to laugh. One of them stood up, a broad individual, who, like the sentry, also had only one mid-forehead eye. "Come in. I don't know who you are, mister, but it's been a long time since we had a decent laugh. Was that what Gramps was shouting about passwords for?"
"You Henery?" The one-eyed character nodded. Korg went on, "The old guy with the spear says to send him a cuppa something hot. And you treat him with respect. He's a nice old fellow. Not your blooming 'gramps.'"
Henery gave a grin, exposing huge square teeth suited for crushing rocks. "I've called him that since I was a boy. He is my grandfather. And if I didn't treat him with respect he'd beat me with that bloody spear of his. We'll get him a cuppa something. Now, who are you?" He looked curiously at Korg and the towering Squigs. "What species are you fellahs? Never seen an imp or a devil or a fiend like you. You one of them Afrits or Gins?"
Korg shook his head. "I was human last time I looked. Both of us. Name's Korg."
Henery took his hand. "Human? Don't be daft. What human is going to come here, after them tricks that Lord Tia got up to with that Dante fellah? Humans all think that this is where you end up when you're dead! Them lords have been playin' that old joke on humans ever since they found out they could get to Earth sometimes. We at least know the spirits of the dead head off into limbo, but them humans can't see that far into the red."
Korg shrugged. "I can't see that far into red. We really are humans, Henery, and I'm damned if I want to be in this place. But while we're here, I want to sort out this 'Strate' bugger."
Henery looked at the 3'6'' and 6'10'' extremes curiously. "So, this is what humans looks like. Certainly a lot of size variation in you fellahs. I heard you were all fifteen foot tall and bright green. As for Lord Strate, that's what every imp jack in the revolution would like to see. But there's not much chance of that, a little rag-tag bunch like us against a Demon, or as he calls himself these days, the Overlord Strate. Blooming cheek." The defiance was somehow tempered with hopelessness. Henery sighed. "Well, Korg, let me introduce you to the rest of the lads. Who's your silent mate, by the way?" Henery extended a hand to Squigs.
Squigs took his right hand out of his pocket. The ring on his middle finger was hot, and above the now glowing stone the two fire elementals danced, as he took Henery's hand.
"Blimey!" The broad imp snapped to rigid attention as he held the black eight-digited hand. Ever since the effect his parting handshake, before the garden-services expedition, had had on the count's butler, Squigs had been wary about shaking hands. Now all three of Henery's other hands quivered in a rigid salute.
"Field Commander Henery Seid at your command, ma'am," he said gruffly. A small drop of fluid edged over the lower lip of his single eyelid, to fall hissing onto the ground. "If I may make so bold, ma'am, we thought you was done for. This is a proud and happy day for the Fifth Field-Kitchen Unit! Now we'll show that bastard! He'll regret calling himself 'the Overlord' when the real one has come back! There'll be sunshine and crops again!" he said thickly.
Squigs looked down at the hand. Insight dawned. He looked at the shining eyes of the cheering Fifth Field-Kitchen Unit. And understood. "I'm sorry," he said, and realized, and then accepted the responsibility thrust onto him. "The Overlord has been . . . delayed. But she has sent me." He smiled wryly. "You might say I'm her right-hand man."
The parrot appeared on his shoulder. "Awk. Sucker."
Kate sat back and looked at the book's cover again. Read the title carefully
Atlas and statistical register, Sphere of Zoar.
Published by the Statistical Services Section,
E. P. A.
She opened it to the place she'd marked with her finger. And read the entry again.
Santara: Pop. 7
She'd found the Selig plain on the map, finally. Crummag the Barbarian. Scourge of Santara. Terror of the Selig plain. She wondered if Crummag had found anything more dangerous than reindeer to terrorize.
The atlas for Earth was next in the pile. She hadn't found Ruritania in the index either. So much for Noble Crummag. Squigs had sounded a little sarcastic when Crummag had said it. The wise-woman's prophecy had said she would find her true love in a hero both tall and nobly-born. A man who would fall for her immediately, a fighter the men Senaputt would fall before and flee from. Well . . . According to Slugger, the men of Senaputt would fall before Crummag. If they were smaller than he was. A man who would willingly sacrifice himself for her.
She found herself thinking about someone who had.
And had fallen for her the moment he saw her . . . Fallen flat. She'd been really vile to him. But she'd been furious when she'd heard about him fondling Vila. Disgusted and illogically furious.
"Hey, those are my father's agency books. For God's sake don't tell him I've borrowed them," Imogene said, half serious, coming out of her closet with an armful of dresses, "I'm not supposed to know they exist. I just wanted to look up the place Huigi's been working."
At this point Venus emerged from the bathroom, in a cloud of scented steam and wound in a large bath sheet. She knew Kate a lot better than Imogene did. Taking one look, she rushed over. "What's wrong?"
Kate looked up. Her normal high color was now closer to Imogene's white. "Oh, Vee. I've been such a fool."
The Crum was mad. And when he got mad people got hurt. Only . . . smaller people. Not Slugger McGee. Or Mungo Kentigern. Or Baron Ashill, for that matter. Or the werewolf count. Huigi had disappeared, and anyway he might be small, but he'd been prepared to fight the count. The Crum preferred smaller people who didn't want to fight back. And now, to add injury to insult they'd told him to have one of those cold showers.
He was damned if he would. And double damned if he'd go and sit through another supper like the last one, dry. A servant carrying a tray came up the passage. A large servant. One who eyed the Crum hungrily. Not good material for the current mood, but instead to be treated with some discretion. "I say, fellow. Where is the nearest decent bar around here? One that's got some . . . girls, preferably," asked the Crum oilily.
The servant grinned hungrily, before remembering his place. Recovering his wooden face, he said, "Sir could try the Tom Cat. Down in Raubgerig Village."
"How do I find it?" the Crum asked, paying real attention for once. Fortunately the instructions were simple enough.
Now, all he needed was some money. Well, that tall smartarse and the stroppy dwarf weren't coming back . . .
Within ten minutes only his bouquet still lingered in the portals of the Schloss Raubgerig. At the Tom Cat he was received with obvious delight. Even if the patrons didn't want to sit downwind. A couple of foxy girls were distinctly licking their red lips over him. He felt sure he would soon be able to be rewarded as he reckoned a hero like himself should be.
And mine host was as slimily obsequious as a man who has just seen a fortune's worth of blood walk into his grimy tavern can be.
Ortant, the major-domo to the new Overlord, was a great deal more cheerful than he had been about hearing his master giving himself a new title. This was the first Ledge-meeting in ages at which he'd heard something positive. So, the Overlord was back! Ortant wasn't too sure of the identity of the Ledge-brother who was part of the overground. Identities were secret in the order, unless, like the new Ledge under-frankfurter, your body-shape betrayed you. Even then the brothers pretended not to know. The order drew members from all walks of life, even from beyond the law, and it was best not to want to know.
He supposed that, as major-domo to the Pretender to the Overlord's throne, he ought to be worried about his own skin, and marrowbones. But the Overlord hadn't been like that. That was why the Demon Lords had been able to trap her.
He would have been less cheerful if he had known that upstairs Lord Strate was hissing, with sulphurous smoke streaming from his nose, "Kill her! We'll find her and this time I'll melt the parts in an acid bath, not just scatter them across the other spheres. Obviously her spirit must be able to work from Limbo, assembling that body of hers. And this . . . Juvenile and Ignominious Order. I have tolerated it long enough! I want the names! Names!!!"
The rotund Ecunious licked his fat lips. One of the things about the order was the lack of names and positions. But because three-foot high seven-headed imps were unusual, especially ones as fat as he, he was sure everyone knew who he was. "I don't know the names," he squeaked. It was all going wrong! This was just supposed to be a way to get rich, not involved.
Lord Strate stared at him, his eyes cold. Eventually he said. "Very well. Go and call Ortant. And return with him. We will set a trap at this next . . . ledge-meeting."
"Well, thank goodness this Overlord left herself some supplies." Korg took a deep draught from the water bottle. "Quite frankly, I didn't have a clue what your game was back there. They're a decent enough bunch of duffers. It's not right your getting their hopes up like this."
"Shut up, Korg. Just let me finish this lot, okay. Look, I did this precisely because they're a decent bunch of duffers. Their precious Overlord is in pieces. One of them ended up in Huigi's stock . . . and just by luck I got it, and I may be the only person who could be able to help them. Now, leave me in peace to finish working out these equations."
Down at the dining-table, both Venus and Kate discovered that, although they had both said that they had no interest in eating, they were in fact both ravenous. And the food was excellent. If you were a carnivore.
Imogene found herself toying with the colorless boiled vegetables on her plate. It was difficult enough for a morphogenic wolf-woman to deny her heritage when faced with dry flat-meat. The blood on the plates around her was enough to make her nose twitch. Nobody had as yet commented on the absent Crum. Samur the butler came in hastily. He tapped each of the footmen on the shoulder, and indicated that they should leave. He then walked across to his master and coughed discretely.
"Yes, Samur." The Count was sharp attention.
"I have received reports, Count."
"Tell us, man. No point in being secretive. These ladies would get it out of me in minutes anyway. I should use them for spies."
"Very well, Your Honor. I have received word from an agent in Grottborg. Just by chance all three were observed by a stalk-fisherman . . . A poacher, who therefore kept himself hidden."
"All three . . . Korg was there?" Venus asked sharply.
"Yes, M'lady. He emerged from the boat somewhat after the other two."
Venus pushed back her chair and stood up. "Where is this place?"
Samur shook his head. "I'm sorry, but they're no longer there, Your Ladyship. They passed through what could only be a congruence point. The poacher described hearing the sound of gongs and drums."
Without realizing what he was doing, the butler took a glass of wine and drained it. "I'm afraid they have all gone to Hell, sir."
There was a long silence, finally broken by Imogene. "Samur! That was my glass."
The butler looked down at his hand in horror. "I'm terribly sorry, Lady Imogene! I . . . I will get you another one directly. I can't think what came over me."
"Oh stop it, Samur!" the count said shortly. "It's not as if you don't drink my wine often enough. Now, get another glass for Imogene and join us. We are going to need to plan this carefully, and you might as well be here." He looked at the others, obviously faintly embarrassed. "Samur's my right-hand man in the agency I work for. Besides, I needed someone I could talk to after my wife . . . left."
Huigi stood up. "I think what we need is the device belonging to the one customer who ever got the better of me. I'll go and fetch it. No, Samur. You stay here. I know where it is."
He came back a few minutes later, grey faced and sweating. "It's gone! It's bloody gone!"
They found it, of course. In the Crum's quarters. Along with Korg's dreaded coffee-pot. But, after being violently opened in the Crum's quest for drinking money the PC had suffered a terminal systems failure. It was next to useless unless you had a microfiche to eat with the scattered chips.
It was a pity that the PC wasn't built out of cast-iron, like the coffee pot. Venus set the coffee pot down with unwarranted care and a loud sniff. Kate paced about the room like a caged tiger. "So he is a traitor and a spy! He used me! Me! I feel smirched. I'm sorry it was only one potty full. I wish it had been a whole cess-pit!"
"The question is: where has he got to?" The baron looked at the wreckage dispassionately. "If we can catch him perhaps we can find out how he reached his master."
Samur coughed as he entered the room. Leading a footman. By the ear. "This lummox gave the blond man instructions on how to reach the Tom Cat. It's a seedy tavern on the bad side of the village, sirs and ladies. I shall take a party there at once."
"Party be buggered. Show us the way, man." Mungo began rolling up his sleeves.
"Er, it's hardly the place for delicately nurtured ladies . . ."
"Just try leaving us behind, and you'll be the one in need of delicate nurture, dear Samur," said Imogene, thoroughly enjoying herself. "Come on . . . and it's no use trying to leave me behind. I know where it is, even if I've never been into it."
Thus it was that less than ten minutes later, the Tom Cat received an influx of quality custom that the owner felt he could have done without. Mungo and Slugger came in through the front door without bothering to open it. Kate was first into the room, however. And the naked Crum ran straight into her arms. Shrieking. The two foxy faced girls chasing him, who stopped just short of the astounded party, were also naked. And they had blood on their chins. The Crum looked over his shoulder at the two girls. And clutched at what used to be his most prized muscle. "Fthave me," he whimpered, giving them a desperate gummy grimace. His false teeth had plainly gone astray along with his clothes.
Huigi looked at him, and then at the inn-keeper. "I'm sure mine host over there was planning to save . . . some."
Mine host grinned nervously, exposing teeth like those of the girls, only less well kept. He bowed. "Er. Count. May I offer you some refreshment?"
"Yer can tell uz wot's bleedin' goin' on 'ere, yer fat rogue!" Slugger picked the landlord up by the scruff of the neck as he said this.
"Hersh, I can 'splain," gasped the inn-keeper.
"Put him down, Slugger," Mungo said austerely. "You can teach him the unwisdom of biting the hand that lays the golden eggs . . . later. If he doesn't tell us what we want to know."
Slugger dropped him. The inn-keeper decided that the floor was the safest place, for the moment. "My lords, I'm an honest man . . ."
"Cut the crap," Slugger leaned in threateningly.
The innkeeper hastened to comply. "My daughters . . . they were just taking my due," he whined hurriedly. "That . . . human tried to pass counterfeit money, Count!" The innkeeper scrambled to his feet and over to the bar. He produced a wash-leather bag, which he spilled out onto the bar top. "See Lords . . . worthless!" Several hundred Zoar Kares gleamed and rolled on the dark wood.
Slugger picked the Crum up from where the whimperer had fallen after being thrust away by Kate. By the hair. "Yer was cadging drinks at the bleedin' Green Monkey. Yer 'avint bin paid yet. So where did yer get this from?"
"I took it from the dwarf'fth bag. He doefn't need it anymore." At this Venus slapped him furiously and had to be restrained from tearing him limb from limb by her father. The Crum whimpered.
"An' Squigs' stuff?"
"I looked there firftht. He didn't have any money. Not even in that box. I juftht wanted thome drinking money, I promithe. Pleafthe, pleafthe get me to an armorer. They'fthe bitten my . . . my fing . . . right off," the Crum wailed.
"You fool. You drunken waster." Huigi's eyes slitted. "You had the wealth of a thousand lifetimes in your greedy hands, and you didn't even know what it was. You destroyed it, looking for one night's drinking and whoring."
"Enough, Hu." The count intervened. "We will take our friend's money. Samur, if you would be so kind . . . And then we'll leave the good landlord and his daughters to their own legitimate . . . pursuit. I trust he won't forget his taxes, on this sudden . . . windfall. Come, gentlemen, ladies. I believe we've finished with our business here."
The Crum stared horrified, as they turned to go. "You can't juftht leave me here!" he shrieked.
Kate turned back, and smiled humorlessly at him. "Watch me, Sunshine. You took your pick. Now you get your chews."
Imogene tucked her hand into Huigi's. "Let's go back and order a couple of steaks," she said mischievously. "Suddenly I've decided to stop just eating meat in the pantry."
Korg measured himself against the wall. "Nope. Still the same. How long of this non-washing does it take before the shrinking wears off? Or did you tall folk just never bathe?"
Tiredly, Squigs looked up from the desk. "Quit stirring, you sawed-off hooligan. I know you're bored, but I'm nearly finished. I think I've got it. Now go and teach the field-commander some more combat skills or something. Another half an hour . . ."
Korg gave a gusty sigh. "Sorry, mate. Not used to all this inactivity. As for teaching these rock-bodies . . . I'd need a diamond edge to my axe, or better still a rock-drill to get anywhere with these blokes."
Squigs nodded distractedly. "Yeah. The devils and demons are tougher too. Purer silicates. What you need is an electric drill with an Ormandine bit."
"Ormandine . . . dragon's tooth to you Zoar people. Harder than diamond," said Squigs, trying to get back to the scrawls on the desk.
"I hope you don't need any of that, madam-sir?" said Henery, who had come in quietly. The . . . so-called Overlord has got just about all there is to have. He's charging a terrible price for it."
Squigs' attention focused on the imp. "Why?"
Henery looked puzzled. "Why what, sir?"
"What do you use Ormandine for?" demanded Squigs.
The imp blinked his eye. Shook his head. "But . . . it is the catalyst, madam-sir. For the Arrrgh!Uation heat conversion reaction."
Korg snorted. "Named after Sir Arrrgh!Uation, no doubt?"
The imp looked embarrassed. "No, sir. We're not supposed to call it that, but everyone does. Named after the noise the Devil Uation made when he dropped the reagent on his foot."
"I see," said Squigs, slowly. "Or rather I don't. What is this reaction . . . do you know what goes in to it? "
The imp blinked again, plainly surprised. "I used to work down in the heat-plant at Lord Eralise's castle, so I know it well . . . it'll run on pretty well any sulphate or sulphide. In the presence of oxygen at four atmospheres, and antimony and rubidium. In a point three thaum field. The reaction occurs on the dragon tooth surface."
A smile slowly broke across Squigs' face. "I've just spent all night working that out."
"Oh, well, you just had to ask, sir. I thought you knew," said the imp, slightly surprised.
"No, but now I know what we can do to get rid of this damned pollution cloud! Tell me, has it ever rained here?"
The imp looked puzzled. "Well, there was the reign of the Overlord, sir, and Lord Tia, Strate, Dant and Eralise reigned over bits."
Squigs stood up. Smiled broadly. "Ever since this lot started . . . I've been wondering why I took Alchemy. At last I have a reason—or at least a purpose. This is a problem only an alchemist could solve. Tell the imps of the Fifth Field Kitchen Unit to get ready for some cooking. In a month or two, you should be ready to start sowing."
"What is this," grumbled Korg, "a bloody housewives home-improvement course?"
"No." said Squigs, now smiling from ear to ear. "I'm going to make it snow."
Korg hugged his broad arms and shivered. "You're going to make it even colder?"
Squigs nodded. "It is an endothermic reaction, yes. But it'll happen at the cloud-tops. Believe it or not it's very hot in sunlight. Down here it will get briefly colder."
Korg shivered. "Then you'd better teach 'em knitting as well."
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