Chapter the Twenty Second: The Benefits of Dwarven CompanionshipMagnus following along, I stepped inside of P. Schuyler & Sons to address the employee manning the front. I figured I had a better chance at persuading the good fellow to answer my questions than old Magnus did. That damned dwarf didn't strike me as the persuasive (or likable) sort, and I imagined he'd been even more of a pain to the poor employee than he had been to me when I mistakenly asked him for a bloody introduction. Unfortunately, it seemed as though Magnus had made enough of a nuisance of himself that the employee glared at ME just for having him in my company.
"Hello, Mr. Kingsford. I'd like to talk to someone about a ring I... er... used to have." The assassins are on my trail again... I can't trust just anybody.
He looked confused. "What exactly can I help you with? Did you purchase the ring from P. Schuyler & Sons?"
"Uh, well, no... I was given the ring by... uhh... someone..." Damnation! I sound like a blabbering fool! I really should've put more thought into this before just brazenly wandering in.
This was getting nowhere fast. "No, you don't understand. Perhaps if I spoke to Mr. Schuyler?" I tried turning on the charm, but he ultimately didn't seem to care. He was too accustomed to dealing with Magnus and was deflecting me without even hearing a word I had to say.
Don't you dare just brush me aside, mister. I will be speaking with Mr. Schuyler one way or another, I assure you. "But wait! I just need to find out who..."
I growled under my breath and stormed out of the shop. Hmm... I'll have to come back later when he's gone. I'll be getting in there for sure, but I'd rather not be caught. "Say, Magnus, do you know anything about smithing?" I asked as casually as possible.
"Do I?!" he gloated, "Why, my father was a smith, as was his father and his father's father! My family's craft can be seen in weapons and armor dating back to well over 400 years ago!" Magnus continued blabbering on for what felt like at least an hour before he finally decided to shut up. "So, yes, you could say I know a thing or two about smithing."
"Care to pore over a few schematics with me, then? I bet if we put our talents together we could build quite a useful set of armaments."
"That sounds positively lovely. Though, uh... I would like to be investigating the Schuylers as soon as possible, eh?"
"Not a problem, good sir. I was planning on returning later this evening when the employee there is perhaps... less present." I dragged Magnus back towards the hotel room where I was storing all of my technical manuals. It seemed like after over a week back in town Mr. Langley finally had returned to work. I was beginning to think he was avoiding me. "I've come for the coin, Ronald..."
Filthy little rat. "Thank you, Ronald. I will deliver this to Madam Lil. Goodbye." I strolled inside, pulling out a few relevant technical manuals and discussing them at length with Magnus. He seemed impressed with the depth of my technical knowledge and I had to admit he wasn't too shabby himself. He could craft a sturdy blade, that was for sure.
We worked together for hours and hours until the sun had very nearly set. First I had Magnus fine tune a suit of plate armor I purchased at the local smith's, then I set to fastening an electrical harness about it in order to absorb any electrical current it came in contact with. In this age of technology wearing big metal plates is foolish unless you're prepared to deal with enemies of a technological nature. I gave my masterpiece to Virgil as a thanks for trying to protect me.
Magnus was so enthralled with my electrical talents that he had me do something similar with a few shields for the three of us, though I made those to repel things of a more magickal nature. Things seemed to be going well. We needed more parts, so the three of us wandered out to the local shops and picked up the few things we could find. While we were out I decided to pay Madam Lil a visit and hand her what I owed her. "I've got the coin from Mr. Langley." The smell in her brothel was nauseating as always.
So that hadn't been a joke after all. Ugh. "The coin, please, and also any more jobs you might have like this one."
She thought about it very carefully, staring off into space as she considered exactly what she thought I might be capable of. "Do you know what I'd really like?"
As long as it doesn't involve removing my clothes again, you name it. "What?"
I do suspect this Madam is something of a pervert. "I'll do it for the coin. If I see one I'll be sure to snag it for you."
"Wonderful! I do look forward to it." Whatever catches your fancy, as long as I get the gold I hardly care. While we were over in the seedier area of town I was struck with a sudden urge to test out the new toys that Magnus and I had been putting together. I figured that one warehouse was probably as good as the next, so I crept over to a nearby warehouse and sprung the lock with ease. It happened to be immediately next to Mr. Plough's warehouse, so my searching was developing something of a pattern.
"Excuse me," Magnus started indignantly, "Just what is it do you think that you're doing?"
"Hm? I'm going to see what's inside this warehouse. We've still got a bit of time to kill." Don't you start with me, dammit.
He scoffed loudly and crossed his arms, "Not with me here to stop you, you aren't. That warehouse doesn't belong to you and you'd better be keeping your hands off of it. I'll not be associating myself with a damned thief."
Put a sock in it, dwarf. "Come now, we were just starting to get to know each other. You don't expect I'd be able to sneak us into P. Schuyler & Sons without a bit of lockpicking, now do you? It just so happens that while we both need to get into there, I also have need of getting in here. I'm trying to track down a missing set of skulls that's been stolen straight from the mausoleum where they were interred. I just want to put them back."
He arched an eyebrow at my fumbled attempts to explain. "Alright, fair enough. I'll go with you just this once, but you'd better be on your best behavior around me. I'll not have you tarnishing my name nor the name of my clan."
Whatever, dwarf. If you don't like it you can leave. I pushed open the newly unlocked warehouse door and crept inside quietly. Virgil, on the other hand, wasn't quite used to traipsing about in plate and he made quite the ruckus as he entered. An ogre guard rushed at us angrily. I stepped to the side and let him charge past me, slipping my dagger between his shoulder blades when the opportunity presented itself. He fell to the ground with a loud thud. I guess these ogre guards aren't quite so fearsome after all.
Magnus was glaring at me. "What? He attacked us!" He only sighed. I was determined to ignore him and I went about searching the crates and boxes stacked about the warehouse.
First try... of all the damned luck... I guess things are looking up after all. "Aha! Found 'em!" I called out, plucking the pair of skulls from a box in the middle of a rather large stack of them. "You've no idea how long I've been looking for these."
"Can we get back to our work, then?" Magnus asked pitifully.
"Certainly, I just have to deliver these to Benjamin the Phrenologist."
"I won't ask." Magnus spat.
The sun had almost entirely set by the time I reached the university district. It was nearly blinding the way it sat on the horizon, making it impossibly difficult to read address numbers. Luckily I recognized the building (it was the same one I had to go to when I wanted to steal more technical manuals). "Good evening, Benjamin. I've procured those skulls you were asking for, but there's something you might need to know..."
"You don't understand. It is dangerous to have these skulls." Fair warning and all. I almost got killed three times just finding the damned things.
"I do not care!" he shouted excitedly, "I will pay you double my original offer! 200 coins!"
"Well, in that case, here you are." It's not like I'm going to let you keep them anyway, I might as well take what I can get.
"It was no trouble at all, sir." ...and it will be even less trouble to take those back from you and give them to Cesare.
He set the skulls down on the table and turned his attention towards a shelf that he began pulling books and assorted tools off of. I took the opportunity to snatch the skulls right quickly stuffing them in my purse. Magnus looked at me with wide eyes, puffing out his chest and holding his hands up in the air as if to say, "I cannot believe you would do such a thing!" Believe it.
Once we were outside the dwarf nearly exploded, "This is unacceptable! You just sold those skulls and then stole them right back! That's terribly dishonest!"
We continued walking as we talked. "I tried to tell him the skulls were dangerous. Don't you see, by taking them I'm protecting him from the fate that would surely befall him if he kept them." I bit my lip. I wasn't sure whether Magnus would believe this or not.
"Then why in Alberich's name did you even bring him the skulls in the first place?" He was good and angry about the whole matter. I didn't rightly see what business of his it was or why he cared so damned much.
"I am a woman of my word. I told him I would get the skulls for him, and I did. I only learned after accepting that they were as dangerous as they are. I was almost killed trying to acquire them! Look, Matt is over on that corner there. He's the one who told me the skulls were dangerous in the first place." I walked up to him, pulling the skulls out of my purse and handing them to him, "I've brought you the skulls." Magnus glared at me, crossing his arms and tapping his foot.
"Excellent! This is the break we've been looking for." He seemed very pleased.
"You were going to tell me what was going on here, now?" Magnus was silently fuming and I was hoping the explanation would calm him down for at least awhile. You and I are not going to get along in the long term, dwarf, not at all.
Matt began his little speech. "I can tell you what I know, and a man named Arthur Tyron can fill you in on the rest."
It was terribly silly, but I had to admit it was also fascinating. I was certainly curious enough to continue with it for awhile. "Who is doing this? What was the purpose of these experiments?"
I stuffed the skulls securely back into my purse. "Okay, I'll do it. You've piqued my curiosity."
"Good!" Matt clapped me gently on the shoulder, "He was in Black Root, last I knew. Perhaps you can still find him there."
"I will do so as soon as I am able." I have business in Black Root anyway, I need only finish up here. "Take care of yourself, Matt." He nodded and then crossed the street, disappearing around a building.
I glared at Magnus. "See?"
He sighed indignantly. "We've still got work to do."
He was right. Using the parts we'd scrounged up Magnus and I got back to work, putting together all manner of tools, toys, and weaponry. My favorite was a dagger powered by a thick spring mechanism to add just that extra bit of force when stabbing. It seemed like it would come in handy, so I pocketed it.
By the time we were done the sun had finished setting over an hour prior and I figured it was time to sneak into the Schuylers shop. I cautiously made my way back to the isolated alleyway where the entrance was and peeked inside. Much to my surprise the employee was still sitting there behind the desk, shuffling through some papers. I hastily closed the door and stared around the alleyway with wide eyes.
Oh now that bloody does it. Magnus gave me a hard look as if to say, 'You'd better do something about this and soon.' I cast several glances up and down the alleyway until my eyes found a local wino. I approached him with a smile, "Good sir, I would like to make you an offer. I will give you this bottle of wine," I pulled a bottle out of my purse, "and in exchange I would like you to go inside the store there and inquire about purchasing a necklace."
The wino thought about it for all of three seconds before grabbing onto the bottle of wine, "Sounds good, lady. Thanks!" I waited about a minute until I could hear the clerk's pained voice carrying on with the clearly clueless wino. I slipped inside, motioning for the other two to follow quietly. I slid open the lock on the inner door, the employee none the wiser, and quietly entered.
Although the room seemed odd in many ways, the most unusual thing about it was the giant stone pedestal with some kind of thick tome on it. It didn't seem to be exactly normal fare for a jewelry shop. With Magnus and Virgil's help I grabbed ahold of it and quietly slid it aside, revealing a trap door underneath. Suspicious, indeed. We ventured downward.
The room below smelled of freshly turned earth and rotting flesh. I could tell what was about to happen even before it took place. As soon as our boots touched the loose dirt that made up the cavern floor a low moaning issued throughout the room. Piles of dirt began to form and rotting appendages clawed their way out of them, full zombies emerging to shamble towards us hungrily.
If anything they seemed even less resilient to a good, thorough stabbing so I got to work. A couple of animated dead certainly weren't going to stop me from finding out what I needed to know. It was utterly grotesque and the smell made me gag more than a few times, but I much preferred it to other things I could be doing. Never again, Mr. Franklin. Never again.
The torrent of zombies was nearly endless. They clawed their way out of the ground four and five at a time, groaning and wailing as they tried unsuccessfully to attack us. Magnus, Virgil, and I tore through them with ease using the new weapons Magnus and I had crafted together. I'm glad I decided to come prepared after all. Here I was beginning to suspect myself as paranoid as Cesare.
The three of us descended to yet another level below the inconspicuous Schuyler storefront, unsure of what further horrors to expect as we continued. The only horror immediately visible upon climbing down the ladder, however, was the atrocious, shabby stonework. It seemed that even the cavern leading into this area had been of better stonework, although the rough cracked walls we now found ourselves around were at least flat... mostly.
We turned the nearby corner and were confronted with even more zombies, though these zombies weren't nearly as aggressive. The corpses were still dwarven, but barely. Their limbs were oversized as were their heads, and their foreheads especially seemed to be exceptionally large.
You've got to be kidding me. "Magnus... are you sure? These dwarves look strange..."
"You've got a point, Virgil..." Thanks for backing me up on this one. Glad I wasn't the only one to think that.
'oh, and by the way, you're stupid'. Magnus, you've really got a lot to learn about insults. Perhaps I should introduce you to Sammie. I would be happy to provide such an introduction, but I've got a lot more to lose than I did last time. "I don't know, Magnus... there's something strange about them..."
"Let's find out what's going on here, first..." I'll be damned if I let you ruin my last remaining lead on what the hell to do with this ring, even if it's your lost clan being desecrated here. Besides, undead don't get misshapen like this... they just sort of rot. I've read books.
Damnation! This is not going to end well. I turned towards the only remaining room yet to explore and began heading in that direction.
Bonus ContentThe Gods Give Us Soot
is an inevitable process. I propose that this is clearly evident in the natural laws themselves. Consider the following: a weak fortress will keep out sheep, but not marauding rogues. And yet, if the keeper of the fortress is able, he will strengthen his walls and his gate when he sees the rogues approaching. The invaders of the fortress of Nature are those who subvert Nature through the exertion of will, the mages. Through the course of eternity, only four outcomes between nature and magick are possible: they balance each other, they are mutually annihilated, magick suppresses nature, or nature suppresses magick. I shall address them one at a time.
The first possible resolution between nature and magick through eternity is that they always balance each other, an even match. This demands either equal power between nature and magick across the entire universe (universal balance) or, at any given time, equal portions of the universe governed by only one (localized balance). Science has shown that where magick and technology convene a small rift forms in space that is, literally, a boundary between the universe and a separate, yet connected, sub-universe governed by magick. Fortunately, the rift is so small that it does not affect the universe at a catastrophic level. The sub-universe, however, only exists for as long as a will exerts itself over nature, and when the rift recedes the world is as it was before: run by natural law. The rift acts as a pruning of the universe, it cuts off what is not natural. Thus, the universe as we know it will not stand for this kind of balance, for what is not natural it purges until Nature rules again.
Incidentally, the rift is the basis for the construction of devices which can detect the use of magick nearby through the inability of two internal instruments to interact with each other as the rift passes between them. The other-worldly effects of strong magicks are also thought to be caused by rifts that are growing or shrinking in width (as opposed to intensity or strength, as nothingness is a state and therefore cannot become any more or less "nothing"), although there is not as yet a firm explanation for this behavior. The apparent impermanence of the rift is also mystery, one which the mages of Tulla have been less-than-forthcoming in exploring.
The second possibility, that magick and Nature annihilate each other is actually a restatement of the universal balance hypothesis noted above. This is the case because, at that point, Nature stops functioning on a universal level and the magick that causes it to fail must be exerting itself universally with equal strength. The universe is transformed into an infinite rift and being ceases to be. Note that this surpasses even matter and energy, for, mysteriously, nothingness itself ceases to be. Furthermore, the wielder
suggested, is not even chance unable to rescind what it has declared enduring? Magick's victory would be counterfeit through gods and impossible through chance.
In summary, an eternal localized balance is impossible because the rift exists, annihilation is impossible because men are not gods, and magick's victory is dubious because the gods are not men. Thus the reader is left with but one option: that in the ultimate end, through eternity incomprehensible and marvelous, nature will reign supreme. Magick may be strong now, but as time passes, the infinite reserves of Nature will weaken it ever more. Magick might or might not ever pass completely from the world, but Nature has granted itself victory.
Having arrived at this conclusion through incontrovertible logic and reasoning, the question remains why soot, the bane of modern Tarant, is necessary for progress. I cannot deny the many unfortunate effects that distress our fine city because of soot, but soot and other unexpected side effects of technology are beneficial to the causes of Progress and Nature because they are the problems that Progress overcomes. The gods, in their wisdom, or chance, in its capriciousness, require trouble in the universe as a singular mechanism for improvement. If problems were to ever cease there would no longer be any direction in which to progress! Thus, it is more correct to say that soot is necessary because Progress has not yet run its course, the natural course to perfection.