SORCERER SCURVY
EPISODE 1

Opening the door was infuriating. It wasn't the weight of the door,
the ill-fit of its broad oak form against its outer frame, or even the
uninviting darkness beyond it. Instead it was the creak of the door on
hinges so old and so contorted by rust that they seemed no longer to
serve any purpose other than to make the task of opening a door as loud
and irksome as possible.
No enemy could be more irksome to a thief at work than noise, as it
meant that anyone nearby could discover him. The rattling whine of the
hinges set his teeth on edge and heightened in him anxieties that were
already brimming. But at least the door was now open, and that showed
that young Eadric hadn't lost any of his old touch.
Eadric had been a Saxon urchin in his infancy, and he was now one of
the most skilled thieves of the north in his youth. He'd once worked as
a page answering to the court of King John himself, but nowadays he
tended to keep his head down after the dramatic way he had abandoned
the Royal stronghold. King John was now long dead of course, but Eadric
knew that there was still many a Norman aristocrat who was bitter about
the Northguard interference in the Magna Carta, and the part Eadric had
played in it. Therefore he tended to evade the upper echelons of
England, making do with the down and dirty avenues of village life -
especially thievery and serfdom.
Thievery was something he was good at. He'd had to be to survive as
far as his tenth birthday, and although he was now closer to his
twentieth, these skills were still the largest barrier between himself
and starvation.
It wasn't food he was looking for on this occasion, however. What he
wanted was money, and he knew that the easiest way to get it was to
take it from somebody else. The somebody else in question was a man
called Baits, a Lancastrian Earl of Norman extraction.
Although the Anglo-Normans had lost most of their French holdings
during the reign of King John, they still retained nominal control of
the southern territory of Gascony. The Baits dynasty was one of the
more powerful Houses in the region, which made them a big presence in
the largest Gascon export industry - the trade in wines. The set-up
was a classic bit of nepotism. The wines were shipped from the west
coast of Gascony to the north-west of England, where their local
cousin, the Earl of Branborough, would unload them and sell them
amongst the alcoholic aristocrats of Henry III's court. The Baits
family would then split the profits - the enormous profits -
amongst themselves.
Eadric was therefore attempting to pick his way into the wine cellar
to see if he could steal a cask or two of Gascon rouge, which he hoped
to sell at rock-bottom price to the local villagers who normally would
never get to taste it. An act of rebellion in the name of the masses,
and one he could profit by as well - illegal, self-enriching
idealism. Well, that was the excuse he made to himself whenever he felt
a pang of conscience about it. Which was to say never.
Keeping his head down so low that he appeared to be bowing to the
great Redeemer, Eadric pushed his way forward into the darkness... and
immediately tumbled down a flight of hard stone steps that he had
missed in the gloom because he'd been keeping his eyes aimed at his own
feet and not the ground ahead of them.
"Grumoomph!" he grunted coherently as he crashed mouth-first onto the
cellar floor.
He sat up, feeling more embarrassment than pain, and tenderly dabbed
his fingertips at his lower lip, which was bleeding liberally.
"The master thief's life is such a romantic one..." Eadric grumbled
to himself under his breath as he got up. He had to narrow his eyes
tightly to take in any of the details of this dingy chamber. It was
really just a broad cave, damp and unpolished, with another staircase,
this one made from timbers, that led up to a heavy oak door, beyond
which doubtless was the castle-proper. There was very little masonry
beyond some mighty timber struts that made sure the ceiling didn't fall
in under the weight of the small keep directly overhead.
But that was not a matter of concern for Eadric. After all, if the
ceiling caved in he'd probably be dead before he knew anything about
it. Instead, what drew his attention was the prize. There were iron
racks set up in numerous neat rows all along each wall. In every
aperture in every rack there was the pleasing rounded bulk of a cask of
solid pinewood.
Glancing from side to side to make sure he wasn't being watched (a
redundant gesture if ever there was one - if someone was trying to
watch him in this much darkness, they'd have lit a torch by now and
he'd have noticed it igniting) Eadric trotted over to the nearest cask
and examined with as expert an eye as he could manage. This was not, it
must be said, as impressive as he would have hoped. For one thing an
expert eye requires the benefit of light to be able to do its work. For
another he actually knew squat all about wine, but he wanted to imagine
himself as a connoisseur of the highest aristocratic breeding -
riches, nice castle, plenty of Norman relatives in the family closet,
and of course plenty of experience in the art of obtaining,
understanding, and (most importantly) drinking vast quantities of, high-
quality alcoholic beverages.
He ran his hand over the surface of the cask briefly, as though he
might draw knowledge of its contents by the magic power of his own
fingers. He then took a firm grip around the cask and, taking extra
care not to make noise, slid it out of its place in the racks and set
it on its base on the floor.
He found the corked aperture in the cask's lid and slid out the
stopper with considerable effort. He then leaned close and savoured the
longing bouquet of the liquid heaven within. The aroma was pungent and
rich, warm and inviting. There was an undeniable pull of fruit, but
also something more powerful superseded this. Something that seemed
terribly tempting, devilishly so even.
Eadric couldn't resist a small chuckle of delight. Most of his life
he had made do with ordinary water. Occasionally - very occasionally,
on those very, very occasional occasions when he had occasionally
managed to "obtain" enough money for more than just the barest food he
needed to stay alive - on those very rare occasions he had allowed
himself the decadent luxury of purchasing a full pot of... wait for
it... ale! Those particularly occasional occasions were damn special to
him of course, and he wouldn't swap them for the world. But this, he
could tell with just the one sniff, was different. This was really
special.
Tenderly, carefully, as though afraid he might somehow break it by
daring to allow any part of his unworthy person to come into contact
with it, Eadric reached his finger through the aperture of the cask and
dipped it into the liquid paradise within. He then withdrew his finger,
feeling the precious wine dripping oozily from the tip of his finger to
the floor - oh the shameful waste of it! - and hurriedly ran his
tongue over his finger.
As the tiny smattering of wine tippled over his tongue, his taste
buds took a grip, did a lot of aggressive "whassallthisthen"-ing,
before the pleasure alarms echoed loudly around the inside of his head.
As a result, the smile that stretched across the bottom of his face
went all the way from ear-to-ear. It had never gone that far before.
"Oooooooooooooooooooo nice!" he gasped in a voice so deep and hoarse
with ecstasy that for a moment he almost didn't recognise himself. He
sat down merrily on his backside and set the cask into his lap, eagerly
licking his lips. Unsteadily fighting its weight, he raised the cask
and tilted it backwards, and moved his mouth towards the lid's
aperture. He tipped it a little further... a little further... a little
further... a little further... and the lid suddenly came away against
the weight of all the wine pushing against it. A deluge of rouge came
gushing out of the cask and thundered all over Eadric, soaking him from
head to toe in crimson.
It got everywhere, all over his clothes, up his nose, in his hair
(which paradoxically was suddenly far cleaner than it had been in
years), and of course quite a lot of it down his throat. It was only
after a few moments that he was giggling uncontrollably and rolling
around in a wide pool of red wine on the floor like a childish maniac.
There was a loud creak from above, which ceased the giggling fit in
its tracks. A thin stream of light from fire torches shone down as the
inner door swung slowly open.
A voice called out from the top of the wooden staircase. It was a
young voice, even mild, plenty of texture and substance, but almost no
maturity or authority. "Wh-who's down there?"
Silence. Legless as a newt though Eadric may have been - he'd never
had much of a head for alcohol - but he wasn't so insensible as to
not see when discretion was needed. He remained stock still, holding a
breath so deep that his lungs were aching.
"I am Lord Baits," continued the voice from the top of the steps,
"and whoever you are down there, you're trespassing."
This was not the most impressive display of hosting authority that
Eadric had ever heard. In fact, it seemed like nothing more than an
exercise in stating the obvious.
Eadric suddenly realised that it was entirely possible that he was
dealing with a total wimp. He'd never met Earl Baits of course, and had
heard very little about him beyond his big-time business stakes, but
he'd decided to make a break in strictly on the quiet as he'd expected
an imposing figure of traditional Norman foul temper and Angevin
arrogance. But looking up to the top of the stairs, Eadric could see
only the silhouette of a man of modest build and quivering with minimal
confidence. The lashings of wine that were swimming around moodily in
Eadric's stomach were now telling him to try his luck.
He got to his feet, in a shaky, unstable insurgent move that wouldn't
have looked entirely out of place in a Transylvanian crypt, what with
the gushes of scarlet fluid streaming down his cheeks.
As he stood up, Eadric finally stepped into the light of the torches
from above. The face of the man at the top of the steps, shaded though
it was by the oppressive gloom, twisted in true terror as the eyes took
in the ghastly apparition of serfdom drinking in the delights of upper
class luxury.
"Mother!" cried the young nobleman. "Oh God, Mother! Wine! Wine!"
And with that, Baits turned and scarpered.
"Hey, hey, hey," thought Eadric to himself proudly, "Mister Fearsome
stalks these walls, and his name is Eadric the... er, eerie."
Eadric the eerie didn't have quite the dashing, macho ring to it that
the young Saxon had been hoping for when he'd set out upon this
particular train of thought, but then trains of thought have an
unpleasant habit of going off the rails and crashing into the sidings
when spiked with testosterone-fuelled wit and copious alcohol. So he
decided not to care. Eadric the eerie would do for now.
Nonetheless, Eadric the eerie began to realise that now was not the
best time to linger, as the courageous Lord of Branborough might even
now have been bravely summoning up a few dozen guards to hide behind
while they scoured the premises for wine-soaked interlopers.
Admittedly, the only person Baits appeared to have addressed was called
"Mother", and Eadric couldn't believe that it was the name of the
Captain of the castle's men-at-arms.
Nothing to get into a panic about then, but still it was best not to
waste any more time. Eadric left the empty cask where it was and went
back to the rack to pick out a couple of fresh casks, ready to haul
them away to the nearest village. He found two that looked most
promising (i.e. near enough for him to get at comfortably when the room
was spinning and dancing its merry way round on its own axis) and
managed to draw the first of them out of its slot with no difficulty at
all. He then tried to draw out the next one and hit upon a snag.
It wouldn't budge. Not an inch.
He hauled on it again, a little more forcefully, and it gave a
little. He gave one more massive tug and the cask popped out of its
slot with a force such as no drunk man would have any chance of staying
upright in the face of.
Rubbing the freshly-acquired bruise on his posterior, Eadric got to
his feet once more and, curious to see what had caused the obstruction,
he inspected the slot in the rack that the cask had come from.
He saw nothing at first. This was probably down to the dingy light,
because as his hand brushed against the frame of the rack he felt the
taut coarseness of a vine. It had a rough surface, with smoother, thick
leaves at intermittent intervals along its length. The vine was coiled
around the frame of the rack, and was so black from root to buds that
it had blended into the dismal background.
It also stung on contact. Unbearably so. Eadric snatched his arm away
at once and cradled it in his other hand, cursing quietly to himself.
No amount of intemperate language could soothe his pain though. The
more carefully he tended the wound, the more the pain seemed to grow
along his skin, and the more it seemed to intensify.
In growing anxiety he tried smashing open another cask of wine and
holding his hand in it, in the hope that something, anything, made of
liquid might soak up some of the burning sensation.
But... it just seemed to make it... worse.
He was still hissing colourful metaphors and shaking his burning hand
in the air when she was upon him. He hadn't seen or heard her open the
door above, or glide down the wooden steps toward him, and now she was
on him.
He was able to make out only the barest details of the face, and the
outline of her figure. She looked... old, very old in fact. She looked
strongly stooped, frail, and quite, quite evil.
These details did not make much impact on Eadric though (although
some corner of his mind did register to itself, not requiring much
shrewdness, that they were a little surprising). He was too busy
desperately evading the large, heavy iron broadsword that the figure
held poised above her head, and swung down towards him with as much
force as her tiny form could muster.
Despite being dulled by alcohol, Eadric's reflexes were still sharp
enough to evade the clumsy attack. He was not confident of
counterattacking though as he was unarmed, while the sword that the
woman was once more raising above her head looked frighteningly heavy
and sharp.
Eadric did the only thing that remained in his brain to calculate. He
turned and ran. He dashed up the harsh stone steps to the outer door,
kicked it open - nice move, Eadric, now you've got a couple of broken
toes to contend with on top of everything else - limped hectically
down to the road and started running as swiftly as he could along it,
disappearing into the darkness of the night.
He wasn't far along the road when he realised how shamefully he had
panicked. Yes, a strategic withdrawal had been in order, but he'd
hardly needed to completely lose his head and dignity in the act of
performing it. After all, the woman who'd attacked him looked like she
must have been sixty years old or more, she wasn't likely to catch up
with him.
He only got a little further along the road when the pain in his hand
began to overpower him again. The stinging sensation had in fact spread
all the way up his arm, and was still spreading.
A few more steps, and the pain in his toes was shocking its way up
his leg with renewed insistence. Suddenly his whole body seemed to be a
world of pain, and he could feel himself blacking out.
No more steps. Eadric slumped to the ground.
The cold night trundled on. Eadric did not move...

* * *

Lord Fear was not happy. In fact, he couldn't remember a time when
he'd been less happy than he was now, and he had a big memory full to
bursting with unhappy experiences. And most of those experiences
involved being squashed flat under giant tumbling leviatha. For him to
be less happy than that - and he was - left the veins of his temple
throbbing with hot anger.
He glared into the shadows through narrowed eyes, occasionally
muttering soundlessly to himself in an impotent rage. He'd been so
close, dammit! So tantalisingly, agonisingly close. He'd manufactured a
perfect win-win situation for himself - either he'd have gotten
control of Knightmare Castle as he wished, or he'd have had the next
best thing; a ringside view of the slow, blood-soaked demise of the
Lord and Dungeon Master of Dunshelm.
Instead, Fear had suffered yet another defeat, the most humbling
defeat imaginable... well, maybe not quite as humiliating as, say, a
trip into the Pool of Veracity... but it was more costly than any
before, not least because he had lost his finest creation - the
Chronosphere!
And that was all quite terrible enough, but, oh no, it wasn't
finished there. That just wouldn't have been bad enough to satisfy his
bad luck. That sanctimonious old fool Treguard, having already had the
barefaced effrontery to steal his beloved Chrono, then had the sheer
audacity to corrupt its technomagical power and use it to rebirth the
Dungeon of Deceit itself, placing it firmly back under the control of
he-who-must-be-bearded.
The resurrection of a dungeon exclusively under the control of the
Powers-That-Be was galling enough. But what really got Fear's goat,
what really stuffed the firestick up his backside and hammered it deep
and dark until he was red in the face, what really got to him was the
sheer violation, the knowledge that Treguard had stolen (STOLEN!) the
device Lord Fear had spent years (YEARS!) working to design, build and
perfect! The ultimate work of technosorcerous genius, stolen and
violated like some cheap little Ottaman...
He stopped that thought where it was. This was no time for racism,
not even against a race as contemptible and foul-smelling as the
Ottamans. It was just that the level of righteous fury he was working
himself into over this point was so astonishingly hard to control that
it was difficult not to find someone to victimise, at least mentally.
And of course it was the Powers-That-Be who were responsible for it.
The dirty scoundrels, cunningly and maliciously outfighting and
outwitting him like that. Of all the foul chicanery, it must have been
one of those dirty foreign tricks that Treguard picked up on his
journeys through the Middle East. Just not cricket, dammit! And to
think they called themselves the heroes!
Huddled into the furthest corner of the room, the assorted henchmen
shivered at the sound of teeth grinding. Grippa and Rhark, knowing they
were the most expendable and therefore the likeliest available punching
bags, were doing their best to hide behind Skarkill and Raptor. The
goblins were the most likely to be vaporised with a fireball while
their master was in this mood, and even more likely to be the first
ones sent packing as soon as he got a bit claustrophobic.
Nobody dared to speak, though Skarkill was quietly wondering whether
to ask if he should find Sylvester Hands, who was conspicuous by his
absence (and in surroundings this cramped he'd have been noticeable by
scent alone). That way Skarkill would have an excuse to make himself
scarce until Lord Fear had had time to calm down.
Time to calm down? A week ought to do it...
"Yes, Skarkill?" grunted Fear.
"F-Fearship?" stammered Skarkill with one of those sinking feelings
that made his heart drop through the floorboards.
"Don't play the innocent with me, Skarkill," snapped Fear. "I know
what you're doing, you mutinous son of a dog's dog's dog's rectum!"
"I-I ain't doin' nuthin', Fearship," Skarkill protested.
"You're thinking at me," snorted Fear. "I can feel it. You're having
a go at me in your head. You're thinking, 'Why the hell did we go for
that stupid chronosphere plan, it's all Lord Fear's fault and it's
so...' " Fear switched to his best Skarkill imitation, " '...unluvly!'"
Fear spat at the floor. Some of the dust hissed and evaporated as the
sulphurous sputum dissolved into it like ravenous dogs attacking a pile
of meat.
"I never thought anythin' of the kind!" Skarkill promised at the top
of his voice.
This only increased Fear's imperial-sized irritation. "Well you
bloody should do!" he cried.
Skarkill's expression sank from terror to outright confusion. "Eh?"
"It was so obvious we should have just killed Treguard as soon as we
caught him!" grumbled Fear. "You knew it, Lissard knew it... for crying
out loud, even Bumptious warned me, and he was on their side!" Fear
shook his head. "It's just not good enough. You should've stopped me.
Why didn't you stop me? Give me one damn good reason why you didn't
stop me!"
"You'd've killed him," Raptor put in helpfully.
Fear stopped and thought about this. "Well, all right, give me a
second reason."
"You'd have killed the rest of us for not stopping him from stopping
you," suggested Raptor, "er, if you follow."
"Of course I don't bloody follow!" scowled Fear. "The words came from
your mouth. Once they've wheedled their way through all the impurities
on your tongue and the rotten micro particles of semi-digested meat
round your mouth, is it any wonder they're so covered in slop that I
can't understand a word you're saying?"
But Raptor didn't answer. It was clear he didn't understand a word
Fear was saying.
Fear rolled his eyes. "Why did I employ you?"
"'Cos you sacked me, yer Fearship," pointed out Skarkill.
"Did I?"
"Yes. Unluvly."
"So why are you here now?"
"'Cos you rehired me when you realised how thick Raptor is," answered
Skarkill. "And before you ask, you decided to keep him 'cos I only
specialise in goblins, and you still needed someone to sort out the
miremen."
"Oh yes..." Fear scowled again. "I really need to clean out some of
the chaff from my life."
Skarkill suddenly felt a rare streak of boldness running through him.
"Well go ahead then," he challenged, "like you can afford to."
Fear looked up at Skarkill sharply, so astounded to hear a henchman
answering back to him that he quite forgot to explode into a rage. And
before he could remember to, Skarkill interrupted.
"Face it, chief," he growled, "you've got no castle, you've got no
purpose. Half your techno-magic's gone to pot..." He shook his head
with a derisive frown. "You don't count for much at the moment - not
luvly - and that means you can't afford to lose us."
Lord Fear finally got round to losing his temper. "Now just a damn
minute, you worthless little minion..."
But Skarkill was now on a roll. "Or what? What if I don't give you a
minute? What if I don't give you ten seconds? Like I say, we're all
you've got left, and you can't afford to lose any of us. And like you
said, it's your own stupid fault! You had Treguard there for the
killin' but it wasn't enough for you. You 'ad to push for more. You 'ad
to push for Knightmare Castle as well." Skarkill crossed his arms
defiantly. "You screwed up, so you should start listenin' I say."
It was then that he saw the blood-boiling expression on Fear's face,
and his resolve finally started to slip.
"Or somethin' like that..." he added weakly.
But suddenly Fear calmed. He stared at the floor head in hands.
"Oh goblin spit," he snarled, "I'm dispossessed, I'm cold and I'm
damp, I'm surrounded by cretins, my minions are calling me names and I
can't even bring myself to fry them alive for it." He shook his head
and then asked what is surely the unluckiest question anyone can risk
asking anywhere in the world, anytime, ever. "Can it get any worse?"
The door above creaked open, and down the steps walked a small,
hairless man with green skin.
"Your Lord-nesssss...!" greeted the Atlantean with a bow so low and
over-extended that it nearly tore the crotch of his pantaloons.
"Oh terrific!" sighed Raptor. "The world's most valueless hostage."
"What-nessss?"
"Treguard let you go without charging a ransom," pointed out Lord
Fear. "I think Raptor is pointing out that even then we were
overcharged."
"Overcharged?" protested Lissard, looking most hurt. "But Lord-
nesssss, my firsssst work after my releasssse was to obtain ussss
thesssse fine new premisssessss. Our new headquarterssss-nessss."
"Ooooo, get her," mocked Fear, "'our new headquarters'!" Fear got to
his feet, and, having to keep his head down a little to avoid bashing
it against the ceiling, poked a finger at Lissard's arm. "You expect
credit for this?" He gestured to the surroundings. "I wanted a proper
base from which to launch a new counterattack. And thanks to your
ingenious contribution to the world of estate agency, we've spent the
last week stuck in the basement of the bloody Crazed Heifer!!!"

* * *

There was the chiming of a great, ancient bell, which rang vibrantly
around the antechamber. Two advisors looked crestfallen. The other one
just looked resigned.
"Oh dear," mused Treguard evenly, "what a pity. Never mind."
Majida was sat on one of the steps, eyebrows beetling against each
other in disappointment. "Not fair, Treguard. Not fair at all! There
only two places left in search zone..."
Treguard smiled, with a just a touch of the old callousness from his
earlier years. "Fair is about winning or losing on your own merits," he
explained. "I'm afraid you did not merit any better than you got here,
team. Harsh, perhaps, but true. One more dungeoneer bites the dust."
Treguard climbed out of his throne and held out a hand. "The staff,
Majida."
Majida scurried over to collect the Staff of Light from the corner of
the chamber. Treguard noticed that she was muttering to herself.
"Well team," grunted the Dungeon Master, accepting the staff, "a most
worthy challenge. But in the end you were unable to find where the
Opposition have gone into hiding, and your dungeoneer has paid a sad
price for venturing too far into dangerous territory. And now you must
all venture in one single direction... home. Farewell."
Treguard tapped the staff on the table, and the team of advisors
vanished.
"More agreeable way to travel, bringing that back," said Majida.
"Quicker than those wardays."
"If you mean, 'quicker than those doorways'," Treguard corrected her
mildly, "then I agree."
Majida looked uncomfortable about something, and Treguard was
surprised to discover that it concerned him. "What's the matter?"
Majida shrugged defensively. "It nothing."
"Come on, out with it," insisted Treguard. "If there's a problem I'd
rather we dealt with it now, instead of having you moping while the
next quest is in progress."
Majida looked at Treguard unhappily. "That exactly it," she scowled
in a tone that had an accusatory edge. "That exactly my problem."
Not for the first time in his life, and probably not for the last,
Treguard couldn't understand what his assistant was saying. "What is?"
"You," complained Majida. "You being crispwatch with everyone."
Treguard rolled his eyes. "If you mean," he explained patiently,
"that I'm being a crosspatch, again you may well be right. With the
Opposition on the run, the dungeoneers should now be winning more
challenges than they lose. We can't afford so many losers, not when
we've got the chance to apply the finishing blow to Lord Fear's
ambitions..."
"You forget something, Treguard!" Majida objected.
"What?"
"They young," answered Majida. "little more than children. They need
your patience. You no showing much at the moment."
Treguard had to admit to himself, privately, that this was probably
true. He was feeling impatient. With the victory at Marblehead and the
resurrection of the dungeon, he felt sure that he had the Opposition
pretty much where he wanted them, and he was determined to deal the
finishing blow. Unfortunately, hunting and questing are not always the
same thing. The main task for most of the teams in the dungeon's new
era was not to claim quest objects but to scout the countryside and
locate the Opposition, and they weren't proving very good at such open-
ended adventuring.
The main problem was that the people the dungeoneers encountered on
their travels were never Opposition agents, and that tended to leave
them off their guard. Sadly, people didn't have to be Opposition goons
to be unfriendly, so the dungeoneers really needed to keep their guard
up.
The latest team had actually done well, in that they had covered
almost all of their allotted search area. Although there was no sign
that they were on the verge of locating the Opposition, they had almost
done enough to be judged winners. But they had chosen to enter the
Forest of Delamere when an alternative elf-path was available to take
them around it. When the dungeoneer was attacked by wolves, they had no
magic or usable clue objects, and the death knells soon followed.
It had infuriated Treguard, as he was beginning to get the uneasy
feeling that the Powers That Be were missing an opportunity. Contrary
to the legend, a wounded animal is not most dangerous when cornered,
but when it has wriggled out from under the hunter's thumb. Treguard
was determined not to let Lord Fear out from under his.
Unfortunately, while Treguard's spirit was willing, the flesh of the
latest crop of dungeoneers was proving decidedly weak, and it was
starting to get on his nerves.
"I'll try to be less short with the next lot," he suggested without
much conviction. He handed the staff back to Majida. "If you would be
so good, Miss...?"
"My pleasure." Majida walked to the door, raised the staff, drew a
deep breath...
"Treguard!" growled an oddly familiar voice from the Pool of
Veracity, cutting Majida off in her prime.
"What th-...?" muttered Treguard. He strode to the Pool, looked in
and saw... ooooooh dear, oh dear! "Arawn..." he hissed.
The sneering, green-garbed King of Anwin Wood was visible in the
waters of the Pool. His ever-youthful expression looked rather less
urgent than his voice.
"Greetings, mortal," said the Elf-King with all the warmth of
Aesandre's underwear during a blizzard. "By the terms of my life debt
to your mercy," he continued with pained indignity, "I must inform you
of ill tidings."
"Really?" sniffed Treguard, wondering what painfully transparent
endeavour to undermine the terms of his own obligations Arawn was going
to attempt this time. "Please tell me, I'm speechless with
anticipation."
"This 'sarcasm' manner is most unbecoming to one of your assumed
status, mortal," hissed Arawn nastily.
"Get to the point, Elf-King."
"Plague, Dungeon Master," answered Arawn. "The plague has struck in
Anwin Wood."
"Plaig?" asked Majida, confused. "What is dees 'plaig'?"
"Disease," explained Treguard. "He means there's a dangerous disease
spreading among a lot of people." He looked back into the Pool. "Do you
have a few details, o King, or are you expecting me to work it all out
for myself from what you've already told me?"
"Over a five of my people are dead, Treguard," scowled the Elf-King,
"and all the indications are that the plague did not originate in the
forest. It did not even originate among Elfkind."
"What do you mean?"
"I mean," hissed Arawn, sounding genuinely bitter, "that the plague
originated among you mortals. And now you've passed it to us!"

* * *

The song the down-and-out was singing was as tuneless as its lyrics
were obscenely biological. The street echoed with much by the way of
passion, and very little by the way of musical talent.
The singer's clothing might have been described as sack-like, but
this would be to underplay its qualities - it was a sack. His breath
might have been described as unpleasant-smelling, but this would not be
definitive enough - it was an unpleasant smell. His name was
Sylvester, and he had his eyes on a particularly Tweety pie. The pie in
question was a maid called Gretel.
It had been love at first sight of course... although only in one
direction. In the other direction it was loathing at first sniff. Poor
Gretel had been trying to throw off this stumbling bundle of
unseemliness for days, but from the moment he had taken in her willowy
figure and her lilting, cosy voice, Sylvester Hands had been transfixed
by her.
"I love yoou-uur eyy-yy-yyes...
They're unsurpaa-aa-aassed!
O, to kiss your lii-iips...
O, to feel your..."
"Oh leave me alone, you horrid little..." began Gretel hurriedly as
she tried to finish her chores.
"...loo-oo-oove!" finished Sly, glowing with the pride of managing to
hit no fewer than four correct notes during the course of the song. He
put aside his lyre and beamed merrily at the maid, confident that he
had seduced her with his romantic heart and soul, sure that he now held
her like putty in his hands, and getting ready for the nice juicy wet
one that she was doubtless about to plant on his...
Gretel slapped Hands for, at his best (but still unreliable) count,
the thirty-seventh time that week.
"Leave me alone you grotty little bag of... of..." Synonyms failed
her, "...grot!"
Gretel turned and stormed inside the house. She was a rarity - a
Saxon whose life had become much less dignified since the death of bad
King John. She had been working as a serving maid at his court before
his death, but now she was working as a washer-woman in a mucky village
called Wolthorpe. So much for the glories of serving the aristocracy.
To add injury to insult, some two-bit thief from the back streets of
nowhere in particular had taken a fancy to her and had spent all week
singing embarrassing and tuneless love songs at her.
"Oooo, she likes me," Hands noted with all the visual accuracy that
eyes ringed with the grime build-up of all the seven-and-three-quarter
years since he had last had a wash can usually muster. "I can tell it,
she does."
Hands stumbled after Gretel in blind adoration... and was only
slightly put out by the pain in his nose as she slammed the door in his
face.
He knocked on the door.
"Who is it?" came the maid's scowling voice through the door.
"Open up, sweetie!" called out Hands merrily, "I's gots a surprise
for ya!"
"Euurgghh!" came the horrified response. "I've already warned you
about that, Hands! If I see you taking them down in broad daylight
again..."
"No not them!" Hands promised quickly. "Not this time! I's gots a
different surprise this time."
In so far as it is possible for an inanimate object to open with a
long-suffering reluctance, the door opened with a long-suffering
reluctance and Gretel stood framed in the doorway, giving Hands a very
pained warning look.
"All right, what is it?"
Hands leaned forward and stuck his tongue out at her. It was a
genuinely fascinating experience for Gretel to discover that it was
physically possible for a human - well she was assuming he passed for
a human - tongue to have turned such a vivid shade of black without
the assistance of several cups of hemlock. She therefore didn't get
round to feeling acutely sick at the sight.
"I thorr-rrt," explained Sly, "I'd giz you the chance to be the firs'
ever bird to gimme a Frenchie!"
Now Gretel did feel sick.
"HANDS!!!!" thundered an imposing voice along the street, causing the
thief to freeze in his tracks, and presenting Gretel with the heaven-
sent opportunity to duck back inside, slam the door shut, and bolt it
closed four times over. (This therefore goes down as the only recorded
moment in history that Lord Fear could be classed as the hero of a
particular hour. It should be emphasised that such happenstance was
entirely unintentional, and it should not be put down to anything
beyond pure chance.)
"Yes your Fairy-knees... er, Feariness?" responded Hands meekly, as
he looked up to see a techno-sorcerous apparition of his master's face
hovering above him.
"Let that hipless lobotomy be," snarled Fear, "I've got an assignment
for you."
"Oooooo!" boggled Hands, much impressed. "An assign-... a sign...-m-
..."
"A job, yes," Fear corrected himself, with the barest stifling of a
sigh.
"For me?" Sly looked proud. "Didn't think I was that important..."
"Important?" mused Fear. "You think this job makes you important?
Yes, well self-delusion is a common curse among the mentally-
deficient."
"Mentally wot?"
"Deficient," Fear repeated with thorough distinction, "which, just to
clarify, is precisely what I think you are. But enough of me grossly
overestimating you. We may have an opportunity to get back into the
driving seat in this war, and that is where you come in..."
"Me? Ooooo your worshipfulness! You's got the best possible man for
any job..."
"Yes but I'll be too busy on other things," growled Fear, "so I'm
looking to you to sort out the minutiae instead." His image seemed to
lean forward slightly. "Now listen carefully, Hands. You're going on a
little journey..."

* * *

"Well?" snarled Fear into his crystal ball impatiently. "C'mon,
Hands, you've been there for over two days now! You must have some
idea..." The absurd logical contradiction leapt out at Fear even as he
said it. "Scratch that. The day you have any idea I'll be very worried
indeed."
In the crystal ball he saw the hapless Hands sitting on a tree stump,
looking bemused, frightened and inassertive. How fond Fear was of Hands
in these moods.
"There's deaded elves everywhere," reported Hands, looking about
himself, unable to resist the impulse to gulp, "but I can'ts find wha's
got 'em."
"Hands," sighed Fear, "do you have any idea why I sent you to Anwin
Wood?"
"You wants me to does an assig-... job for you, yer Feariness,"
answered Hands, "wot you can'ts trust anyone else with."
"No," Fear corrected him breezily, "I sent you there because you're
the minion I can most afford to lose. Keep that fact in mind if you
don't want me to demonstrate just how much I can afford to lose you."
Fear clicked his knuckles once or twice, just to emphasise the violence
of the remark. "I don't need you to find me lots of dead elves, Hands.
I'm already well aware of them. I wouldn't have sent you there in the
first place if I weren't. What I need is for you to trace the disease
back to source. It could be exactly the breakthrough we've been waiting
for in the months since we lost Marblehead."
"'Ow?" asked Hands.
"You let me worry about the strategic details," suggested Fear. "Much
as I appreciate your cerebral input, I tend to find it rather less
useful than wheels fitted to the sides of my pet goldfish."
"You don't 'ave a goldfish anymore, does ya?"
"No," admitted Fear, "not since you went and tried to fit wheels to
it and skewered its internal organs."
"Oh yeah," nodded Hands at the memory, "tha's right. Honest mistake.
You was just sayin' it was a shame they couldn't move on dry land and I
thought..."
"Yes all right, Hands!" interjected Fear, not wanting to retrace old
ground again. "Forget that. What I'm saying is, we've discovered that
the elves are dying out in their dozens, and the disease may be
spreading among the human populace as well. I want to know what the
source is. I've got you and Lissard trying to follow the paths of the
disease back to where it all began. There must be a patient zero. Find
him!"

* * *

Treguard was not in tears, as he had been at the death of Merlin over
ten years earlier, but he was still very saddened. Eadric had been a
loyal friend, and Treguard took the news that he had apparently been
one of the ones who had died in the plague very much to heart.
Apparently the village of Branborough had been one of the first to be
hit by the plague, and no one who came near the first body to be
infected survived longer than a couple of hours. Their first instinct
on falling ill, naturally, was to go home and be tended to by their
loved ones. Sadly, their loved ones would catch the infection off of
them within moments, and so the plague had spread through the village,
and then to other villages, with alarming speed.
Treguard knew that Eadric had been living in Branborough for months,
so there was little or no choice that the poor young man had survived.
He took this news as a most bitter pill to swallow, but put on a
brave face about it. Another quest had just ended in failure, and it
was time to start a new one.
"The staff, Majida..." he instructed a little bleakly.
Majida nodded obligingly, maintaining as discreet and tactful a
silence as she could manage while the old Dungeon Master tried to
handle his grief. She walked to the door, tapped the staff lightly on
the floor, and called out, with rather less gusto than usual, "Enter
stranger."
The door swung open... and Treguard and Majida both looked up in
horrified astonishment.
Lissard entered the room, carrying in his arms... oh no! Treguard
swallowed a knot of cold phlegm that was souring in his throat as he
recognised the decomposing corpse of Eadric.
"Doesss thisss belong to you, Dungeon Massster?" beamed Lissard
cruelly. "Carelessss of you to leave-nessss it lying around!"
He dumped the body on the floor, turned, and scampered back out the
way he came, giggling maniacally.
"Gross!" snarled Majida, whose immediate instinct had been to hurl
the staff in the direction of Lissard's retreating back. Fortunately
she managed to retain enough self-control to resist the urge. She
instead put the staff aside and moved to examine the body on the floor.
Treguard stepped forward and put a hand on her arm. "No, Majida.
Don't go near him!"
"What wrong?"
"It's Eadric," said Treguard, his face turning slightly white, "and I
was right, the plague has taken him!" He glanced down at the body on
the floor in horror. "We have to leave."
Majida gaped at him. "Leave?"
"For once, don't argue with me!" growled Treguard. "We have to go,
now! Quickly, before we're infected too!"
Hauling Majida after him with such furious urgency that he was
practically carrying her, Treguard veered away from the corpse... and
hit upon a major snag. The corpse had been left more or less in the
entrance, and they couldn't get past it to get outside. So he turned to
the other entrance and led Majida up the steps.
They strode up three steps at a time, such was there alarm.
When they got to the top, they hit upon another snag. The main door
leading out onto the battlements was jammed!
"Treguard, we sealed in!" exclaimed Majida.

* * *

In the shadows of the valley below the castle, Lord Fear stood with
Skarkill, and they were both smirking as they saw Lissard stood upon
the battlements waving the confirmation signal.
"He's done it!" cried Fear in jubilation. "And I really thought he
was going to sss-sss-stuff it up!"
Skarkill gave Fear a look of admiration. Any challenge to the
leader's authority was a thing of the past now. "Brilliant move... No!
Luvly move..." he grunted.
"Yes," nodded Fear. "Careless of Treguard to forget that the
Chronosphere is still my magic, even when it's installed in his
dungeon. And that means that every time he uses it, we can sneak in and
out of Dunshelm as we please." He glanced into the crystal ball he
carried in his hand. "Y'know, it was well worth the sacrifice to find
that plagued body. Well worth losing a guffer like Hands anyway."
In the crystal ball, there was the image of a small, bearded and
scruffy beggar thief, shivering with pain and illness. Surely dying.
"Poor ol' Sly," nodded Skarkill, sounding no more concerned than if
someone had told him that he'd trodden on a line in the street. "Like
you say, his loss is a small price to pay to find a weapon like that."
"Just as well we found that Atlanteans are immune to the plague of
course," admitted Fear, "or we'd have had real trouble moving the
body!"
"That's Treguard's problem now," grinned Skarkill.
"Not for long it won't be," smiled Fear. "He and everyone else in
that castle will be as dead as this ball of glass before they have a
chance to think about it."
Skarkill glanced at the crystal ball that was still glowing with the
image of Hands in mortal agony. ""That ball, Fearship? It doesn't
look..."
Fear dropped the ball onto the ground, and crushed it underfoot with
a single stamp of his heel. "Yes?"
"Oh right," smirked Skarkill. "Luvly!"

To be continued...