Monday, April 22, 2013

All is Well That Ends Well - Part 2

Arguments and Deliberations

... “So, how much did Garrison pay you to hand him our heads on a platter, Ipps?” asked Hermel.

“He promised me 50 Iron in payment! Promised! 50 Iron. What a cheapskate, that guy! He said he didn’t have any money on him. I guess he didn’t expect that I’d rather help my friends than hurt them! What a fool!” replied Ipps with a loud guffaw.

“I’ll pay you double!” blurted Ishcandar raising his forefinger in the air emphatically.

“You have no money,” commented Hermel.

“When we get back to Hobbington I’ll have plenty, don’t you worry. I’m good for it,” said Ishcandar with a wink and slap on Ipps’ shoulder.

“Common, common. Don’t mention it. I’m not doing this for money, friend,” replied Ipps, slightly insulted. He really wasn't, actually.

“Just in case you have any thoughts of betraying us,” said Hermel flatly, “I’ll give you fifty now, and fifty later when we’ve resolved the situation.”

“What?!” cried Ipps. “Don’t insult me! I didn’t come down here looking to get paid!”

“Listen to me,” answered Hermel. “I don’t trust Hobbits.” As far as he was concerned, Hermel wasn't really trying to be rude, so much as he felt he was simply being honest and forthright. The fact that he was being unbearably rude evaded him completely. He was, you might say, something of a country bumpkin, and this in fact is how most country bumpkins behave, for better or worse.

“You know,” said Ipps to Ishcandar and Lido, “I’m not liking this guy very much.”

“Oh, don’t’ worry about him!” insisted Lido.

“Yeah, no, he’s a nice guy,” added Ishcandar at the same time. “When push comes to shove, he does shove first, though,” Ishcandar went on thouughtfully, “but then he tends to back away.”

“I’ll tell you what,” said Ipps to Ishcandar and Lido directly, half whispering. “You could make it through the chamber, ya know, and we could make our way out of here that way.” He winked to his Hobbit brethren behind his hand.

“No,” said Hermel, misunderstanding Ipps suggestion, “you're not going to take us through the room. We’re going to take them down. And you’re going to help us.”

But Ipps was still whispering in low tones to Ishcandar and Lido.

“Which way?” asked Ishcandar, now also whispering.

“Through that room,” he said, nodding his head in the direction of the watery chamber. “We can make it through there. Along the ledge. Ya see?”

Now Hermel caught on to what Ipps was getting at.

“Hey guess what?” he said to Ipps. “Ishcandar is the clumsiest Hobbit on the planet.” And this, in fact was true. While most Hobbits, in fact all Hobbitkind, was known for their stealthy capabilities, Ishcandar was alone in having no skill at sneaking whatsoever. The Elkron must have forgotten to give him that quality when he was born. He rarely thought about it however, as being drunk always seemed to make up for it somehow.

“Aww… common,” said Ipps, thinking this was truly unbelievable. Hobbits, everyone knows, are very agile and dexterous.

“No, seriously,” replied Hermel. “If I didn’t know him so well, I would think he wasn’t a Hobbit, he’s so clumsy.”

“Nooo,” replied Ipps, staring wide eyed at Ishcandar.

“Ishcandar, walk a straight line,” offered Hermel in the way of proof, but the Hobbit just smiled.

“You know, come to think of it,” said Lido rubbing his chin, “I’m not sure I’ve ever seen Ishcandar’s feet. He always wears shoes…”

“Anyway,” said Hermel to Ipps, “if you betray us, I will kill you myself.”

“Ewwww… What’s with this guy?!” demanded Ipps, shucking his thumb at the dour human.

“He’s very serious,” replied Lido.

“All in all, he's quite annoying,” added Ipps.

“What do you say, fellas?” called Hermel, “Shall we go in there and put these Brigands down?”

“Hoorah!” the archers all cheered.

“That will certainly catch them by surprise,” said Bob the archer Captain. “They would never expect us to attack from below.”

“We could try to make our way stealthily into the basement, and when the stealth fails, Bantam can come crashing through. Once we clear a path through the Brigands in the basement, the archers can come in.”

“Uh huh,” said Ipps. It was a sensible enough plan so far. Better than slinking around the watery chamber with the clumsiest Hobbit in the world, most probably.

“Then we’ll use the sleeping arrows,” continued Hermel.

“Its worth a try,” said Arik.

“Are there any wizards with them?” asked Praymar with a squeak.

“Uh, well, yeah, come to think of it. There’s a real Freak with them. I mean this guy is a Freaaak!” said Ipps.

“Well there goes your plan,” said Praymar. “Bantam goes down at the first hint of magic.”

“Is the Freak in the room with the Brigands?” asked Arik.

“No, actually. I don’t know where he went,” replied Ipps.

“Why would he be?” asked Arik rhetorically. “After all, why station your Mystic in a basement. That wouldn’t make much sense.”

“Yeah,” agreed Hermel, “he’s probably outside with an eye on the barn.”

“Even if this is a trap,” Hermel conjectured, “I suspect that half the forces will be outside, and half inside the Inn.”

“Let’s go,” said Arik, suddenly growing impatient for battle.

“So are we decided we’re going to do this?’ asked Hermel. “Because if we go through the water, we’re going to lose half our men.”

“Arik,” said Praymar, “What do you think, tactically?”

“That’s a good question, come to think of it,” replied Arik, stroking his beard deep in thought. Arik plotted through all of the possibilities of attack against the basement room according to standard Guild tactical rules. As he was trained in the specialty of Tactical Combat, and the variables in this case were reasonably well known, unlikely to change, and so it should have been fairly easy for him to surmise the best strategy for the assault. Unfortunately, in this case, perhaps due to the the introduction of Hobbits into the equation, his calculations were thrown into something of a tailspin and after a minute of brow-furrowing concentration he came up with nothing. “Damnit. It's hard to say," he conceded finally.

“Well,” said Hermel, “how about this? Ipps, you came through that basement room once, and so I presume you could return that way again without raising an eyebrow. So, how about you go in, and say to the Brigands ‘Hey! Hey! You guys have to get upstairs!’. When they run upstairs, we can enter the room, and…”

“That’s nothing,” interjected Ipps merrily. “I can create a real distraction!”

“How’s that?” asked Lido, deeply curious about what skills Ipps actually had. “Are you an illusionist?”

“Hell, no. I’m a demolition expert!” he said with a wide grin.

“Oh, actually, that’s really useful!” said Hermel enthusiastically.

“Do you make an illusion of the demolition?” asked Lido.

“No. I make the real thing. Ka-Boom. That sort of stuff, ya know,” replied Ipps with one raised eyebrow. He was beginning to wonder about Lido, but he let it pass.

“I was actually thinking about demolition earlier,” said Hermel. “I was hoping the roof will collapse in the barn. Do you think the roof will collapse and block entry on that side to the tunnel we came through to get here?”

“Yes,” said Ipps. “In fact, I suspect that’s already happened by now.” Indeed, it had, about ten minutes prior.

“Ah, that’s good,” said Hermel, satisfied. “They won’t be coming at us from behind, at any rate.”

“A real mastermind,” comment Praymar with a squeak. As usual it was difficult to tell if Praymar said that out of admiration, or mockery.

“Mmmm,” said Ipps, gazing at the weird albino boy. Praymar fwipped out his little forked tongue and hissed at him. Ipps glared at him and stepped away. There was something just not right about Praymar, he thought.

“Actually not,” replied Hermel, unflappable as ever. “But I was considering meditating for an hour to regain some of the mystic energy I used up earlier. If Black Patch knows about these tunnels then he might have decided to come up behind us as soon as they discovered our bodies are missing in the rubble. But he won’t be doing that for some time, at least. And now that it's clear the tunnels link to the Black Dragon Inn, I'm guessing that as soon as they figure out we escaped they’re going to come down here looking for us. I have no doubt about that. So we have to attack them right now. Unless, you guys want to explore every single inch of this ancient catacomb in the hopes of finding another way out,” concluded Hermel with a chuckle. He figured no one was going to want to do that. It seemed the best option was a direct assault from below in order to catch Black Patch by surprise.

“How much mystic energy to you have left, fellas?” asked Ishcandar, considering his own level of strength as well.

“Not much,” replied Hermel. "I used up most of what I’ve got fighting the Hell-Cat illusion, or whatever that thing was.”

“Yeah, actually, based on everything that’s happened thus far, I’m guessing we’re all pretty low on mystic energy, huh?” suggested Ishcandar. He certainly felt low on power himself. It gave him an empty feeling in the pit of his stomach. He didn’t feel very confident about charging up the stairs to attack a horde of Brigands just then, that’s for sure. Those who didn’t rely on mystic powers, of course, would not really understand. But for all the mystics in the party those words rang true, indeed.

“Desperate times make for desperate measures,” clucked Dr. Chickenhiemer. Turkenator gobbled his agreement. They paused at the bottom of the stairs for a few minutes while whoever was physically wounded received healing from those who had the skill, and everyone prepared for the battle ahead.

“Ipps,” said Hermel, “could you bring down a section of this tunnel?”

“Hmmm… given time … um… no. Look at these stones,” replied Ipps. “This is monumental architecture.”

In fact, the stones dwarfed everyone there, even Bantam, by their size and weight. Looking upon them made everyone wonder how such a tunnel could have been built by the hands of men, in fact. After hundreds of feet the floor, for instance, still showed to be one solid piece of granite. Inconceivable, thought Arik. And yet, there it was. And the stone blocks that formed the walls and ceiling were roughly twelve feet by eight feet, and who knows how wide. Arik was deeply impressed. The stones would have to have been quarried, shaped, and set in place. And the spaces between each one fitted so perfectly as to leave absolutely no room for even a knife blade between them. Arik rubbed one. Beneath the lichen were enormously complex designs engraved in relief forming what looked like scenes of some kind. But he had neither the time nor the patience to investigate further.

“Ok,” replied Hermel after looking at the huge blocks of stone that formed the walls of the tunnel. Yeah, that wasn’t going to work. “Well, do you know about those creatures in the water chamber?”

“Um…,” said Ipps, preparing an equivocating reply.

“Wait! What about that book?” asked Hermel. “I can’t believe I’m going to use … a book,” he added, annoyed by the necessity of circumstance. After all, Hermel had always believed that books and letters are stupid things that waste a good man's time, when he could instead be doing something useful like tilling the soil. “Praymar, can you find out ... I mean what if there’s a way to lure one of these indestructible creatures up to the Inn?”

Praymar flipped through the book searching for some sort of clue. All he could discover was that the creatures ate everything, and lived to reproduce. The book said nothing more about them. Hermel felt a slight vindication. The book was a stupid waste of time after all.

“We could put Ishcandar on the end of a stick,” offered Arik, “and kind of wave him in front of one, you know... lead the thing along to the stairs, and...”

“You realize, the Elkron are glaring at you, Arik,” stated Ishcandar in a flat toned voice.

“I’m ok with that,” answered Arik, grinning. He was, in fact. Dwarves typically were not especially concerned about the niceties of polite interactions with the Elkron. Typically, when they did pray, their prayers tended to be short, gutteral, and to the point. "Hey Omri! Kill that guy with a rock, why don't ya!" would have been a typical translation from the Dwarven book of prayers.

“We want the thing to go up the stairs, but once it looses interest, it will probably go back to its watery lair,” speculated Hermel. “And I don’t know how to discourage it from going back.”

“Do the archers have rations?” Asked Praymar. “We could breadcrumb a creature up the stairs, maybe.”

“Hmmm,” said Hermel, liking this idea as he glanced over at Bob, the Dectalion Captain, who happened to be munching on a wafer. Bob stuffed the rest of the wafer into his mouth, chewed furiously and swallowed as he turned a cold shoulder towards Hermel. He wasn’t particularly keen on giving up his wafers to the indestructible slime-bestrewn behemoth.

Hermel turned back to Ipps. “Is it open access to the basement room?”

“Its through a doorway,” replied Ipps. "There's a pretty sturdy door there, usually bolted shut. But it should be open now, as I left it slightly ajar. The heavy door, and it's massive, is at the bottom of the stairs. It's made of solid metal and has a wheel-bolt system, but I left it open. Should be ok."

“Ok. Well, we would have to stealthily open the door. Lay the rations down, move the creature to the base of the stairs and then hope the creature goes all the way up.” suggested Hermel.

At this Dr. Chickehiemer gave out a cluck that could have been interpreted as a gaffaw. Bantam looked up at his chicken friend, puzzled. Apparently Dr. Chickenhiemer knew a bit more about how those dread behemoths operate than Hermel did. Hermel took a glance at Chickenhiemer. So did the others.

“Hmm... maybe we should just fight these guys,” said Arik, growing ever more impatient with the planning process.

“Yeah, they could just close the door on it,” Hermel went on, half to himself. “Yeah, alright. Oh well. It was worth thinking about, anyway.”

“My head hurts,” squeaked Praymar. He flicked out his little red tongue and hissed again.

At this point they had come to the base of the stairs at the top of which was the door leading into the Black Dragon Inn. There was the huge metal door with the wheel bolt, still open. After that there was a ten foot span of level granite floor and then a long narrow flight, with an arched ceiling of cut stones that no longer seemed to be of the same kind as those in the corridor. Arik noted to himself that these were of a much later, and inferior construction, as were the stairs themselves, though by modern standards, well designed and laid. The stairs were narrow and required that the men march up in pairs of two to the top. They stood at the bottom and went to whispering mode.

“Ok Ipps, so you can create a distraction, eh?” asked Hermel.

“Yeah,” replied the Hobbit ardently.

“Oh, and I did make it clear about paying you, and if you betray us I kill you, right? I said that already, didn’t I?” asked Hermel with equal earnestness.

Ipps paused. He looked at Hermel. “What is with this guy?!”

“He’s not a cheerful fellow,” offered Lido unhappily.

“He’s a nice guy, don’t worry,” repeated Ishcandar.

“Eyaaa,” replied Ipps, not convinced but willing to go along with it for the Hobbit’s sakes. After all, Ipps was smart enough to know that their best chance to get the heck out of Dodge was as a group. Especially given that Hermel had 20 archers with him.

“No really,” said Hermel.

“I dunno,” said Ipps. “Maybe I won’t help them then. This guy... I can’t stand it.”

“Well, you have to understand...,” interjected Ishcandar trying to smooth things over, but paused uselessly in mid-sentence. Ipps went on without listening.

“He’s crazy. Saying he’s going to kill me like that and stuff,” Ipps went on heatedly.

“You should help us,” said Lido. “Don’t worry about him. Just let him do what he wants.”

“Alright, I’ll tell you what,” answered Ipps, with a new resolve in his voice. “I’ll help you two,” he said, pointing at Ishcandar and Lido.

“So you don’t want the money?” queried Hermel, a bit puzzled.

“Ah, no, I don’t care about the money,” answered Ipps matter of factly.

“Really,” said Hermel, incredulously. This was hard for him to swallow.

“I told you,” said Ipps, “I’m not down here for money. I came down here because of Ishcandar and Lido. Anyway, listen, you two, I can get us out of here,” he went on to his Hobbit brethren.

“Why should we leave our friends?” asked Ishcandar innocent of guile. If nothing else, Ishcandar was loyal to the end, no matter what.

“You like this guy?” asked Ipps, completely perplexed by Ishcandar’s attitude.

“Of course!” said Ishcandar emphatically.

“You want us to go through the water chamber?” asked Lido disbelievingly. “Ishcandar is not so good at that kind of thing. Like the first thing that happened when we first started our adventure together, he was trying to climb up a drainpipe - he fell into Dunn’s Brook and almost died.”

“It was slippery, I should say in my defense,” put in Ishcandar.

“Well, he was drunk at the time, too,” conceded Lido. Hermel nodded affirmatively.

“I’ve never been drunk in my life!” insisted Ishcandar thumping his chest with his fist.

“Have another drink!" said Ipps and offered him the last of the brandy.

“All right! Don’t mind if I do,” said Ishcandar, guzzling down the last of it with great satisfaction.

Golden Temptations

“Well, you know… I don’t know if I should mention it,” added Ipps, “... but there might be treasure along the way down there, you know.”

“Treasure?” squeaked Praymar suddenly interested. He had been looking at the ancient stonework, and remarking to himself that the majority of symbols he saw down there had to do with serpents of one kind or another. It made him wonder about Bo Chu's tempting remarks about the identity of his father, whom Praymar had never known. He was adopted and raised by Ben and Lanna Rusala, and did not know either of his parents, in fact. He didn't know why he thought so, exactly, but a treasure from this ancient place might just give him a clue as to why that was.

“I don’t know, but the idea of Ishcandar balancing on a ledge over water doesn’t sound like a good plan, actually. I think it would get us into trouble, really,” said Lido. “And as for Hermel... as much as he might be a grumpy curmudgeon, he’s still a good guy.”

“Hmmm… what kind of treasure?” asked Praymar.

“Well, there’s little statues,” answered Ipps with a gleam in his eyes.

“Oh? What kind of statues?” asked Praymar with a gleam in his own eyes.

“Little golden figurines. Down in the water, if you fish around for em,” said Ipps. “I found two of them.”

“Really? Can I see them?” asked Praymar with an excited little squeak.

“I don’t have them on me,” answered Ipps, not entirely sure if the red eyed kid with the little forked red tongue was even remotely trustworthy.

“Where do you keep em?’ asked Praymar.

“That's none of your business,” answered Ipps firmly, stepping back from the albino boy. He didn't care for that line of questioning at all.

“Have you checked to see if they’re magical?” interjected Hermel.

“What’s it to ya, grumpy pants?” growled Ipps, growing increasingly annoyed with every question.

“Well, cause they’re probably cursed, and you’re gonna die some horrible death, possibly,” replied Hermel matter of factly, and stepping away from Ipps a couple of feet.

“Ah, well, I’m not worried about that,” said Ipps. He was pretty sure he wasn’t going to die of some horrible curse from the statues.

“I’m not worried about your death either,” replied Hermel.

“Good, so we’re even then,” said Ipps with a growl. “Anyway, what do you say?” asked Ipps of Ishcandar. "Shall we be off, just us Hobbits, and go our own way?"

“I think I should stay with my friends,” answered Ishcandar.

“Okay,” answered Ipps, unhappily. “Well, fine then. I’ll try to ignore Hermel, and help you guys anyway. How about this? Have the big guy,” he said “kick the door down. I’ll throw in a smoke bomb. That should clear that room out for ya.”

Hermel looked up the stairs. At the top was a heavy wooden door. He had no clear idea what was beyond it. “What’s going on up there?” he asked.

“Yeah, well, it’s probably a good idea for you guys to have a plan before charging up there, that’s true,” said Ipps. “As for the basement, it’s basically a square with rooms around the perimeter, and stairs going up to the first floor. The room at the top of the stairs there is the lower level of the pub, and there's tables and a bar down there. The stairs to the first floor go up directly from the pub room. A long hallway connects all the other rooms in the square.”

“Ok. You could smoke the room,” said Hermel thinking out loud, “and then we run to the exit and lock the door so we can trap them inside. Does the door up there open inward or outward?”

“The door opens into the room,” said Ipps. “Combat tactics aside, you probably need a broader strategy as well. I don’t want to see you all get killed. Outside in the street three’s three groups of archers, one at the far end of the barn, and then two facing the doors on the closer side towards the Inn. One in the ally facing the door directly, and one up the street. Black Patch’s orders were to wait until your party emerged from the barn and then on his signal cut you down in a withering cross fire. You should also know that there’s a couple of sinister types, who I think are mystics of one sort or another with Black Patch on the first floor of the Inn by the windows next to the bar. Oh, and then there’s another mystic as well, and he seems to be the leader of the other two, I think. Or at least the others revere him quite a bit."

“You mean the guy who tried to hire you?” asked Hermel.

“No not him. That guy's name is Garrison, I think. I never saw him before. He’s a pawn as far as I can tell, though. I wouldn’t be too concerned about him,” said Ipps dismissively. “But the guy I’m talking about is a total freak. You know how dark outside it got so suddenly?”

“Oh wow, yeah!” squeaked Praymar, “That darkness was definitely darker than usual!” He had noticed it first when he had stepped outside and been confronted by the monk in the street. It was a darkness thick as pea soup, even with his mystical Night Vision.

“Well that was all because of that mystic! He performed some sort of ritual, and then darkness descended like a curtain all around the barn. That guy is definitely bad news. Everyone kowtowed to him,” Ipps explained excitedly.

“What did he look like?” asked Praymar.

“He had long white hair, and a green jade oval at the center of his forehead on a black headband,” said Ipps.

“We could run through, and dash up the stairs,” said Hermel.

“I could try to communicate with Golden Sparrow again,” suggested Lido to Star.

“Don’t do it now, but perhaps when we get to the battle she can help us spot the more dangerous Brigands outside from wherever she is,” replied Star, knowing that the telepathic rings had limited power.

“If you can get her to take out the gentleman with the green jade on his forehead somehow, that would be - ” Hermel was saying when Ishcandar broke in.

“That gentleman is the Fifth Animal,” he stated emphatically.

“Sounds like it to me, too,” Lido concurred.

“We’ve never seen him do magic before,” stated Hermel, questioning their assumption.

“Yes, that’s true, but the green jade on his forehead... and the white hair... it has to be him.”

“You said he did a ritual?” asked Hermel. “What kind of ritual was this?”

“Yeah. He set up a circle of stones on the floor of the Inn, with candles, and chanting and killing chickens and stuff…”

“Cluck-CluUUuck!” clucked Dr. Chickenhiemer noisily. He wasn't at all happy to hear about that!

“Ohhh nooo!” yelled Bantam, ready to stomp on any chicken killer within range of his warhammer.

“He likes chickens,” explained Lido to Ipps.

“Well, no offense there big fellah! It wasn’t me! I like chickens, too! I was just telling you what that guy was doing,” explained Ipps hastily.

“I will protect you chicken!” roared Bantam boldly as he brandished his warhammer in the air. The age-old rooster on his head felt significantly safer, and calmed down.

“I think we need to get rid of all the Brigand archers - we can use the sleep arrows on them - we need to search the Black Dragon Inn top to bottom. My sister may be in there somewhere,” said Hermel.

“Your sister’s here?” asked Ipps.

“What does she look like?” asked Lido.

“Well,” said Hermel, “she’s kind of homely.” His sister in fact was known as one of the prettiest girls in Yellow Clay village. But Hermel had always thought of her as kind of pathetic looking. “She’s got long brown hair, and brown eyes, and, well, hmmm… it’s kind of hard for me to describe her, actually. She has a small straight nose, I guess. I dunno.”

“Well, actually,” said Ipps, “Black Patch does have a girl with him that he keeps locked in a room on the third floor. I only caught a glimpse of her once, but from your description it sounds like it could be her, really.”

Hermel was glad to hear that. This meant that his confrontation with Black Patch and the Brigands did not need to wait until they got to Yellow Clay after all. He would rescue his sister right there in Harrowsgate. If they could come up with a good plan on how to do it. He was suddenly flush with a renewed sense of determination.

“Oh, there’s also another person who might be of interest,” Ipps went on. “He’s been working in a room in the basement with all kinds of bizarre equipment.”

“Ah! That must be Doctor Lobe!” said Hermel punching his fist into his left hand. “So … it all comes together now, doesn’t it?”

“Um, well, no, his name isn’t Lobe, I don’t think. In fact I’m sure his name is Joe.”

“Ohhh… ok… yeah. That name rings a bell, too,” said Hermel. “Ah yes, I wonder if he's the mechanic we met down in the salt mine under the Prancing Unicorn before that barn burned down?”

“Oh yes,” said Star, “I remember him. He was not just a mechanic I don’t think. Some of that equipment he was working with was very ... sophisticated. I’d almost say it was magical, except he said it wasn’t. It looked a bit like some of the equipment we saw in Dr. Lobe’s laboratory, if I recall correctly.”

“Yeah, yeah,” said Ipps. “He’s got all this fancy equipment, and tools and stuff. In fact, uh, -”

“Did he have a bird cage?” asked Hermel suddenly cutting him off.

“Uh... hmm... bird cage?,” answered Ipps. “Well, yeah, he has a canary cage in the corner. He says he brings it with him wherever he goes. The canary is like a good luck charm or something.”

Hermel’s heart was suddenly torn in two. He had not forgotten the mysterious little canary girl who had helped him escape the salt mine. In fact, he thought of her every day since then. It was in his mind that somehow, someday, he would meet her again, and if all his stars lined up right, and the Elkron were kind, he’d marry her and they’d settle down together and have a large and happy family on his farm in Yellow Clay. Such are the dreams of young farmers I suppose. At any rate it was Hermel’s dream. But then again, he had to rescue his homely sister from Black Patch. He scratched his head. What should he do?

“As I was saying,” Ipps went on, “this guy Joe is working with some pretty sophisticated equipment. The white haired freak came into town on a wagon, with a coffin. I happened to know about it because I was in the Cartwright’s shop at the time, and I saw him pull out some odd looking components and tools from inside the coffin. And he gave that stuff to Joe. Oh he was pretty happy about that, I can tell ya. He ran off with the stuff right away, and told Black Patch he should be finished with whatever it was he was working on by tonight.”

“There was equipment in the coffin?!” asked Lido.

“Yeah,” replied Ipps shaking his head affirmatively.

“There wasn’t a dead body in the coffin?” asked Lido, puzzled.

“Well, yeah, actually, there was a dead body in the coffin, too.”

“Did he give the dead body to Joe?” asked Lido, following along with his usual style of thinking.

“No,” answered Ipps.

“Ok,” said Lido.

“So,” broke in Hermel to cut Lido off before could carry on with his next line of 'reasoning', “the Fifth Animal ransacked Dr. Lobe’s laboratory before he fled Hobbington, it would seem.”

“Yeah, so anyway, Joe said he was working on some sort of inter-trans-teletronics or something... An antenna array, I think he said, or something like that. It has something to do with the Mission bell tower, I'm pretty sure. But to be honest I'm better at destroying things than building 'em, so I really couldn't follow what he was talking about.”

Hermel remembered the bell tower. He shot an arrow earlier at the bell from the barn when he was demonstrating his marksmanship to the archers. They had, he recalled with some satisfaction, been suitably impressed. It was a long shot, and not even Bob, their Captain, could make it.

“I know this is going to sound a little strange,” said Lido, “but would you mind explaining this in as much detail as you can to the chicken on Bantam’s head?”

Dr. Chickenhiemer clucked. It had been an ongoing peeve of his that everyone referred to him as “the chicken.” In fact, he clucked, “I’m a rooster, not a chicken.” But of course, as usual, the humans paid scant attention to his feelings. Except Bantam, who pat Dr. Chickenhiemer politely and promised himself to try to remember to call him “Mr. Rooster” from then on, and promptly forgot all about it.

“Uhhhh… no,” said Ipps. “I don’t think so.”

“He’s a really smart chicken, we think, though,” said Lido.

“Uhhh… yeah. No,” said Ipps again. “I’m not explaining this to a chicken, sorry.” This comment earned him Arik's admiration. Finally, someone else who refused to go along with that damn crazy idea about intelligent chickens. He smiled approvingly.

“Bantam,” said Lido, “can you ask the chicken if he understands what Joe is building.”

Bantam dutifully asked. Dr. Chickenhiemer flew down and pointed his beak at the long line of jade stones that ran down the center of the corridor. He then flew back up onto Bantam’s head and clucked a few times.

“Mr. Chicken says that no one should not touch that,” said Bantam slowly. Everyone stared at Bantam. They then looked at the rooster. They then looked at the jade stones. Any of the men who happen to be standing on it made sudden haste to step off of it. That was a good idea. As it happened, the jade stones were part of a vast array of machines, and they transmitted a considerable amount of power once activated.

Lido and the others tried to inquire of Dr. Chickenhimer what the nature of Joe’s work was, but they made little headway using the “two clucks for yes, and one cluck for no” method. After a few attempts, they gave up on that. They were just guessing in the dark, and Bantam was too stupid to be able to relate Chickenhiemer’s answers to them.

The Surprise Attack From Below

And so, the heroes stood at the bottom of the stairs leading up to the basement room of the Black Dragon Inn pooling all their ideas together and so mapped out their strategy. Their plan hinged on the key elements of speed and surprise. If they could get the jump on the men in the basement, they could surprise them, and possibly route them. For that they would rely on Ipps to use his demolition skills. He had three smoke bombs and one explosive grenade. If they could route them up stairs and followed fast on their heels with smoke bombs and explosive devices they might be able to route the Brigands out of the Black Dragon into the street. If they could do that their position would be very good because the Black Dragon Inn was constructed with fortress-like attributes that would make it very difficult to counter-attack from the outside. Once securing the Inn, with twenty archers on their side to defend the two entrances, they could make a thorough search of the rooms for Hermel’s sister, and the canary, and then escape via the West Gate of the town and make their way back to Yellow Clay. There were many assumptions made regarding this plan, but it was overall, everyone agreed, a good plan. They assumed that Black Patch was personally overseeing the operations against the barn where they likely still believed the AAA Group was holed up, or were searching for them. Therefore, it was probable that Hermel's sister, Alisa, was unguarded and Hermel would have a chance to get to her. They would have to hope that Alisa would not get whisked away by Black Patch during the fighting, and that the Fifth Animal would not call down some horrendous curse on them. But of course, we all know about the best-laid plans of mice and men ... Hermel had set his heart on rescuing his little canary friend above all else. And this, of course, was going to lead to trouble.

“Now everyone,” he said to the others, “if you see the canary cage – all you have to do is open it. That’s it.”

“I’ll open it,” said Praymar with a wicked little smile and a flick of his little red forked tongue. No one paid attention to his comment. Annoyed by that perennial fact he scuffed the ground with his foot, and thought about how nicely the little canary might go down with a glass of milk. Delicious, he thought to himself.

“Joe is working with a lot of high powered equipment,” warned Ipps. “You mess with that… well … you… Joe… the Inn … the town …”

“Ka-Bloom?” asked Arik.

“I think so. What I saw him working with was probably enough to take out this plateau if things went wrong. I wouldn’t even mess with it. I could barely understand what he was doing, frankly. Way out of my league. In fact, I really don’t have any idea what the hell he was working on, but it involved a hell of a lot of power,” Ipps concluded grimly.

“So one more reason for him to not engage us,” said Hermel.

“Joe’s not a bad guy, though” said Ipps. “I got along with him fine. I just didn’t understand what the hell he was talking about. He’s like one of them there mad genius types, I figure. Maybe yer chicken would understand him, but, I couldn’t.”

“He’s a pretty smart chicken,” said Lido with quiet admiration.

“Oh stop talking about that damn chicken!” growled Arik.

“Ok, so I’ll just run in and tell Joe he’s got to leave,” said Hermel.

“That didn’t work out so well the last time you tried it,” responded Praymar thoughtfully. He recalled the incident down in the salt mine where they had encountered Joe the first time. Hermel’s efforts to get the canary came to nothing, and in the end he had to leave her behind after all.

“So I’ll tell him he’s gotta leave,” repeated Hermel ignoring Praymar's comment, “and uh, you have explosives, right, Ipps?”

“Yeah,” said Ipps.

“Which you could easily use to bring down this Inn, right?” he went on.

“Well, uh, no,” replied Ipps. “No, not really.”

“Yes,” said Hermel affirmatively, “you do.”

“Well, no, not really, no, I don't,” repeated Ipps.

“For all intents and purposes, though,” Hermel went on.

“He wants you to pretend you do,” said Arik.

“Ohhhh! Oh fine then. Sure, absolutely I can bring down the Inn,” replied Ipps with wide eyes and a smile.

“Ok so Bantam will bash open the door,” said Hermel, “and you’ll throw one of your smoke bombs, and we’ll charge in and try to route the Brigands up the stairs. Oh and here on out – archers, you’re using the poison arrows. I want captives.”

The archers pulled out their three poisoned arrows, each of which was wrapped neatly around the arrowhead with a white cloth. The poison was known as the Misty Cloud Venom, and would cause whomever it grazed, albeit ever so slightly, to fall immediately into a deep sleep.

“Oh wait,” said Hermel, revising his order. “Use the first two only. After that, save the third one and only use it when I give the order.” The archers all put their third arrows back into their quivers. Bob, and the other Dectalion Captain, went up and down the line of men and made sure that their men were following Hermel’s instructions exactly. They were.

And so the attack began. Bantam crept quietly to the top of the long flight of steps, followed closely by Ipps who had a smoke bomb in hand. The archers in the rear held torches high. Everyone else was clustered on the stairs in-between.

“Ok, Bantam,” ordered Hermel. “Go!”

Bantam braced himself and used both hands to give the door a tremendous shove. It was an old wooden door, very old, on metal hinges, with an old iron bolt that snapped straight out and flew across the room as the door came crashing down onto a table at which one poor slob was just toasting his friend saying “I feel like it’s my lucky day, today.” It wasn’t. He was crushed beneath as Bantam charged in over the door.

Ipps ignited the smoke bomb and tossed it into the room as Bantam ran forward roaring, followed by the rest. The entire crew of Brigands was caught completely off guard, and most of them were being fed drinks by the tavern owner and pretty drunk as it was. Chairs and tables went flying as the confused Brigands, coughing from the smoke, and panicked by the explosion, scrambled to their feet and ran pel-mel out the door, and up the stairs to the first floor. Arik summoned his mystic power of super speed and dashed wildly after the Brigands. Ishcandar ran to one of the tables and grabbed a bottle of scotch that hadn’t been knocked over. He took a gratifying swig and passed it to Ipps who did likewise. Everyone else pursued the Brigands up the stairs.

All except Hermel, who scrambled through a door into the basement hallway and began shouting “Joe, Joe! Where are you?” Seeing this Ipps ran after him, and showed him the way to where Joe’s workroom was. Down the hall, through a door on the right hand side, down another hallway to the corner room on the left. Hermel thanked Ipps and ordered him to follow the men upstairs with his bombs, and commanded two of the archers to follow him and ran down the hall.

Bantam was on his way to follow Hermel, but Star took him by the elbow and directed him up stairs. “Come on Bantam, we need your strength where the fighting is!” With a slow “Ok”, Bantam allowed himself to be lead up the stairs.

At the first door in the hall there was a guard leaning a little drunkenly against the door post. When he saw Hermel and the two archers come racing up the hall he pulled out his sword. Hermel and the archers skidded to a stop, and the archers shot the man with an arrow. Down went the Brigand in a deep sleep.

They ran through the door and down the next hall. At the far end in front of the left hand door were two more guards. Down went the first, sleeping like a baby. The second guard, nicked by an arrow on his left hand, went down, too. There was a considerable amount of snoring from that point on.

“Ok, you archers are worth every iron!” said Hermel as they ran forward to the room. Hermel tried to barge in, but the door was bolted from the inside.

When Time Stands Still

“Joe! Joe!” yelled Hermel through the door.

“What the hell do you want? I’m busy in here!” shouted Joe through the door.

“Joe! You have to go! The only reason I came back for you is because you treated me right back at the salt mine. But you’ve got to get out of here fast!” shouted Hermel through the door. “The entire Inn is going to blow sky high!”

“What the hell are you talking about? What do you mean it's going to blow sky high?!”

“Demolition! The place is going to blow!”

The door opened. Joe looked out, a scowl on his weathered face. He was a short man, with peppered hair and a short-cropped beard. His eyes were keen and bright. He wore overalls, and had three fingers of grease across his right cheek. He held a strange looking metal tool in his right hand, and a sheaf of papers in his left arm.

“Its you!” he said. “From the salt mine! I remember you... um... Hermel, wasn’t it?”

“Yeah, yeah, that’s right. Glad you remember. But we have got to get you out of here. The whole place is coming down any minute!” said Hermel emphatically. “We have to go. Now!”

“You’re after my canary aren’t’ you?", said Joe with a raised eyebrow after a pause.

Hermel sighed heavily. He just remembered how smart Joe was. Not just technically, but he was the kind of poker playing swindler who could not be swindled. Damnit.

“Look, I have twenty archers. If I wanted your canary I’d kill you for her,” said Hermel, trying to worm his way past Joe’s defenses. “I didn’t kill you last time – common.”

Joe grunted at this. He scratched his beard and looked up at Hermel, squinting. He looked over at the canary cage.

“Oh sunshine,” said Joe to the canary. “Your hero is here... he’s come to rescue you!” he said with chuckle.

The canary cage was giving off a warm golden light, and inside there was the wonderful little bird, chirping happily, and hopping from perch-swing to perch-swing. She was delighted at this wonderful news, in fact. Hermel glanced quickly around the room. It was filled from floor to ceiling with complex machinery, equipment, tools and a number of half open crates. There were bright copper wires hooked up to various devices, some of them emitting a blue white light, some of them crackling with electric arcs. The entire room hummed, buzzed and crackled, and there was the smell of lightning in the air. The hair on everyone’s heads stood up on end.

Hermel walked into the room and stepped over to one of the tables on which there was one such device with five dials, three meters, and numerous blinking red and yellow lights, and pointed at the device. His men followed behind him, looking around in awestruck amazement.

“What’s this thing do?” asked Hermel.

“Don’t touch anything!” yelled the technician, stepping between Hermel and the device.

“I’ve got bad news for you,” said Hermel. “Its all gonna go bye-bye anyway.”

“What are you yammering about?” yelled Joe. “This place is built like a stone fortress, in case you haven’t noticed. You couldn’t blow this place up with demolition works! Why look at the construction of this place. You can’t blow away the structural supports because they’re solid granite going up to the second story, and the entire basement is cut out of solid rock! That's why this place was chosen to being with, ya fool!”

“Well, all I know is my demolition expert said this place is going to go sky high any minute. You have to go.”

“The only demolition expert I know of around here is that crazy little Hobbit, Ipps. And I’m pretty sure he wouldn’t be able to make a dent in this place. Hell, I’d even have a hard time doing that! Not only is this place built solid into the granite mountain, but its foundations are rooted in mystic earth energies. There’s no way this place is going to come down any time in the next ten thousand years, if you ask me.”

Hermel stared at him. This was getting annoying. Joe was not going to budge.

“Besides,” said Joe. “I can’t leave what I’m working on! If you think Ipps can blow this place apart, which he can’t, believe me – what I’m working on, if it isn’t done precisely right, could baste the region with enough radiation to rot the flesh off of everyone within twenty-five miles of here! So if anything goes wrong... don’t say I didn’t warn ya. Now my advice is this – stand back and let me finish what I’m working on. When it’s done, which won’t take long because I’m almost finished now... well, man! That’ll be something!”

“I hate to say this, but look. Archers – spread out,” barked Hermel. “I don’t want to have to do this, but I’m going to put you down, and carry you out over my shoulder if I have to.“

“Oh boy,” replied Joe as he stepped back into the room. “Do what you gotta do I guess, but I’m busy here. I suggest you step away from the door and leave me to my work.”

“Ok,” said Hermel. “Archers, shoot your arrows.”

The archers both fired their two Misty Cloud arrows at the guards in the hall. They each had one left, but Hermel had ordered them not to use it until he gave the command. So they pulled out there regular arrows, and shot at Joe. However, they were all rather nervous about shooting the old man on account of what he said about the flesh rotting off of everyone’s bones if anything happen to go wrong. Only one of the arrows nicked Joe in the leg. He turned around, and glared at the men at his workshop door. That was quite enough of that! And so he reached over and flipped a small knob on a large indecipherable metallic device with blue crystals protruding from the top. As soon as he did the crystals began glowing with a pale blue light.

Hermel was lifting his own bow to shoot one of his poison arrows at Joe. As he took aim, and he let go of the string, hoping to render Joe unconscious with his Misty Cloud arrow, the pale blue light emanating from the rods filled the room up to the door where the light stopped, forming a softly glowing wall of light. Inside time slowed down. And slowed down. And slowed down. The arrow that Hermel had fired slowed to a stop and lay suspended in mid air. The archers were frozen in time. Hermel was frozen in time. Only the machinery, and Joe, and his lovely little canary were free from the effects of that eerie blue light. And with that, Joe turned around, and went back to what he was working on, whistling a little tune, and completely forgot about Hermel and his men. Out came the schematic diagrams, and back to work went he.

A Well-Timed Rescue

Meanwhile, upstairs Ipps threw a bomb into the first floor tavern, and dashed ahead behind a pillar. The explosion blew a number of men against the walls, and shattered the windows. Black Patch had turned to face the invaders as Hermel's archers came rushing through the door from the basement chamber. Six of them came dashing up and lined up in formation. Ipps threw a smoke bomb toward the front near the bar. There was a flash and then a cloud of thick gray smoke billowed upward filling the area causing the Brigands there a whole lot of trouble breathing. No orders could be barked out by Black Patch who was standing at the window shocked by the surprise attack from below.

“Shoot the guy with the eye patch!” shouted Arik.

Thwip! Thwip! Thwip! Thwip! Thwip! Thwip! Three arrows hit the Brigand Chieftain, and the Misty Cloud Venom took him down. Thud! He was on the ground snoring like an old sow and dreaming of flowers, puppies and rainbows.

As soon as this happened Ishcandar dashed and dodged and scrambled over to him. The nice sleeping Brigand Chieftain gave up his money pouch without the slightest objection. But more importantly he searched every pocket until he found, among other interesting things including a rolled up parchment, exactly what he was hoping to find. His good old silver brandy flask! And there it was. Shiny as new. He was delighted. He was a single minded and highly focused Hobbit after all, you know.

“Life is getting better,” said Ishcandar as he turned his head to take in a view of the fully stocked bar above him. “Lido, come join me for a drink, old friend!”

Ipps and Praymar both went around the room pilfering valuables from the sleeping Brigand’s pockets. Bob and five of his men began tying up the Brigands, starting with Black Patch, in case they might happen to wake up unexpectedly. They didn’t. But they were tied up anyway. All for the better, thought Captain Bob.

“Come on Ipps, join us for a drink,” called Ishcandar. Ipps happily complied. So far as he was concerned the raid was executed perfectly. Once Black Patch was down all resistance in the pub dissolved, and even the mystics surrendered immediately. The archers sudden arrival in well coordinated lines outmatched the Brigand fighters in the pub, and it was really little contest since Black Patch had deployed all of his own archers outside. As Bob made a point of shooting any of them that got near the door to the street, not a single Brigand had made it outside. Piece of cake.

While Bob set up lines of archers facing both doors, the other members of the AAA Group went to comb the rooms on the second and third floor to look for Hermel’s sister, Alisa. Arik lead the charge up the stairs, running faster than most Dwarves ever dream of. At the top of the stairs on the third floor he encountered a Brigand guard standing there, menacing him with his sword. Arik stopped on the stairs and shot his bow. The arrow thwaped into the wood beside him, and the man, suitably alarmed, turned to run. Arik fired another shot, and it to thwaped into the wood, too. However, another archer was behind him and shot the man as he ran. The arrow bounced off the man’s shield, which he had slung over his back. Another archer managed to nick the man in the leg with his arrow, and down he went to dreamland, finally. Arik sighed with relief and they kept going.

Bantam came thundering up the stairs. They made their way from door to door looking for Alisa. Arik opened a door. There was an enormous hulking man inside. He stood up and grabbed a huge sword from the table next to him. He was wearing heavy chain, and took up his shield. He looked rather angry. Arik closed the door.

“Archers!” he called as he stepped aside. The door opened. The hulking man stepped out into the hall. Bantam, who had just come up to the doorway, clouted the foe with his warhammer. The man, at least as gigantic as Bantam, was hurled backwards to the railing by the massive shock of the blow. He had to wave his arms around to keep form falling over the edge. Bantam gave the man a little shove, and over the edge of the balcony he tumbled, breaking through the railing and falling with a huge crash and thud to the floor two stories below. Delighted, Ipps ran across the room to pilfer his pockets. It was worth the effort.

Arik continued to the next door in the corner. Inside were two women. One looked rather a bit like a pretty version of Hermel, and had long black hair, but since she was not nearly as homely as Hermel had described his sister, no one was sure if it was Alisa or not. The other woman was very beautiful, and had long red hair tumbling down from beneath a black skullcap, falling in tresses over her black chain armor. She immediately pulled out her sword.

“Who the hell are you!?” she demanded fiercely.

“Um... are either of you the sister of a guy named Hermel?” asked Arik nonchalantly.

“Hermel’s my brother!” said the insufficiently homely girl with the black hair.

“Well, he’s here somewhere to rescue you,” said Arik

“Huh!” said the girl.

“Now is this red haired lady a friend of yours, or should I be killing her?” asked Arik.

“Don’t kill her,” said Hermel’s sister as she lifted a pitcher and clouted the red haired woman over the back of the head. Down went the red headed woman.

“Ok, lets get going,” said Arik. And with that everyone gathered outside the room. Alisa locked the door behind her and they ran downstairs, gathering at the bar where Ishcandar was sitting with Lido and Ipps. Praymar was still searching for loose change in pockets.

“Ok! We don’t have a lot of time. We should get out of here fast before the Brigands realize what’s happened and counter attack,” said Arik briskly. Everyone agreed. The plan had been an astounding success. They’d captured Black Patch, neutralized his accomplices, garnered a fairly sizable quantity of loot, and rescued Hermel’s sister all in one fell swoop. They were ready to skedaddle out of town as fast as their various sized legs could skedaddle them.

“There’s only one problem,” said Prayar with a squeak as he crouched beside one of the tied up Brigands.

“Yeah? What’s that!?” asked Arik, annoyed as ever at any interruption to his plans.

“Where’s Hermel?” asked Alisa, looking around with a hopeful gaze in every direction.

“What?” asked Arik looking around the group. “Oh yeah. Where did Hermel go?”

“Don’t you remember?” answered Ishcandar, “he went to find Joe’s canary.”

“Oh that’s right! So he did!” said Arik, somewhat apologetically. He saw the crestfallen look on Alisa's face and felt a bit sorry for her.

“Where’s Hermel, though?” asked Alisa, growing more disappointed by the minute. “Didn’t he come... to... rescue me?”

“Yeah, yeah, sure he did,” said Arik, “he’s just down in the basement looking for some guy named Joe, that’s all.”

“but... oh,” said the crestfallen beauty.

With that Captain Bob picked up Black Patch and slung him over his shoulder, and they all tromped downstairs to the basement to look for the lost hero.

“Hermel!” shouted Arik. “Come on! We’re ready to get out of here!” But there was no answer. Lido noticed a pale blue glow reflecting off one of the walls down the dark hallway.

“Bantam!’ shouted Lido. “Ishcandar!”

“What is it?” they asked running up to him.

“Come over here you two. I think we have a problem,” he said quietly.

“What can it be?” asked Ishcandar, jovially.

“It’s ... time ... crap, I think,” answered Lido.

“Oh, right up my ally!” replied Ishcandar, even more jovially. “This calls for a drink!” And with that he uncorked his now completely re-filled brandy flask.

They came and looked down the corridor. Sure enough, Ishcandar recognized the fateful pale blue light. It was shimmering. Cobwebs fluttered along the ceiling though there was no breeze. Leaves, old and dry fluttered along the floor. It was not a comforting sight. They walked slowly down the corridor until they came to the door from beneath which the blue light was emanating.

“Mr. Chicken,” said Lido, “What should we do? We think Hermel is in there!”

“Oh not Mr. Chicken again!” snapped Arik, but he was hushed by his friends who had come to think rather highly of the ultra-intelligent rooster after all. Dr. Chickenhiemer, from his perch on Bantam’s head, gave a single little cluck.

“Ok,” said Bantam and opened the door.

Inside, they saw Hermel, frozen in time. There they saw the two archers, equally frozen in time. The arrows that the archers had fired were still just leaving their bows, and one of them hung suspended in mid air. Nothing was moving in the blue glow that filled the room. Well, nothing except Joe, who was busily chattering to himself as he checked his schematics and tinkered with crystal components, and wires, occasionally cursing at this technical issue or that. And the canary who was hopping from perch to perch in the glowing golden light of her cage.

“Right,” said Joe, speaking to the canary. “So, the 6550C is burned out. Damnit. It needs to be replaced, too! Dangit. Good thing ‘White Hairs’ showed up with the components. Now dangit, I can rewire the L4JZX and get the oscillation beam focused on those triclinic primitives, but hell if I can know for sure which crystal has the master pattern without more testing! These schematics are so old the ink has rubbed off where that’s defined. dagnabbit!…” and so on. The canary occasionally gave a little “tweet-tweet,” but her advice was generally useless. Mostly she just hopped from perch to perch gazing at Hermel.

Ishcandar, who considered himself reasonably well educated in a variety of academic subjects due to his extensive tutoring took two swigs of brandy and a careful peek into the room. It was filled from floor to ceiling with equipment, and he had absolutely no idea what any of it was for. Doubtless his tutor, Master Stouthart, would have not been in the least bit surprised by this. Ishcandar happen to have been one of the worst students he'd ever laid ruler on.

It was to remain forever an unknown irony that just before being frozen the good Dr. Chickenhiemer was thinking to himself, “This equipment is quite sophisticated, as the machinery is definitely pre-Varincarnian, and quite possibly relics from before the Ploorian War. Fortunately, given sufficient time my superior intellect can overcome any obstacle ... well, anything except sheer stupidity, of course... heh heh.” As it turns out, his assessment was proven perfectly accurate in the very next moment.

Bantam, eager to say hello to his friend Hermel, walked into the room. He was immediately frozen. Along with Dr. Chickenhiemer, who, caught completely by surprise, happen to freeze in a particularly amusing position on Bantam’s head with both wings extended and his eyes nearly bugged out of his head as he clucked, "CLUCK!!! CLUUUUUUUUCCKK!"(translation: “OMG!!! DON’T GO IN THAT ROOM YOU GIGANTIC HUNK OF IDIOT!”) Unfortunately, it was too late. Bantam was only so-so at Chickenese, after all, and Dr. Chickenhiemer for all of his vast intellect was not particularly dexterous. He stood frozen on Bantam's head looking perfectly ridiculous.

Everyone stared. One of the archers broke out laughing. He stopped laughing right away, though, as everyone turned and glared at him. They went back to staring at Chickenhiemer. He was, they all had surmised, their one best hope for figuring out how to break the Time-Lock. Not happening.

After some thought, Lido tossed a lock picking tool from his lock picking kit into the room to see what would happen. It froze in midair.

“Hmmm,” said Lido impressed.

Alisa came forward through the crowd of archers. When she came to the room she looked inside and seeing Hermel frozen in the pale blue glow began to weep.

“What... what’s wrong with him?” she asked in a tremulous voice.

“It’s hard to explain,” said Lido. “Um... it’s like time is really slowed down in there, and he can’t move. But don’t worry, we’re going to get him out.”

She burst out into sobbing. "How can he be such a total moron!? It's so embarrassing!" she was thinking to herself.

“Don’t worry, young lady,” said Ishcandar taking Alisa by the hand. “Come over here with me, and I will comfort you.” Inside the room, despite being completely frozen in time, had anyone noticed, Hermel’s right eye twitched ever so slightly, although technically speaking that was starkly impossible.

She took her hand back from Ishcandar. She gave him a condescending pat on the head. Perhaps she was the first young lady who resisted Ishcandar’s advances. He looked rather crestfallen himself, and took a swig of brandy.

“I have a grappling hook,” said Lido. “Perhaps we should toss it in, and catch Bantam over the shoulder with it, and pull him out.”

“Ewww,” said several people with enough imagination to understand what would likely result from that.

Lido threw the grappling hook into the room. It froze in midair. He tried pulling on the rope that he had attached to it, but it would not budge.

Lido turned to Ipps. “Is there any way to blow a hole through the wall on the other side of the room?”

“Well, no,” replied Ipps thinking about it. “Like I said before, this place is built like a fortress. The entire basement is carved out of solid granite. It would take a month to get around to the other side. And even then, what makes you think the blue glow won’t be just as effective over three?”

Lido paused. He looked at the door with the sheen of pale blue light shimmering like a glass pane along the stone lintel. He looked at the walls. Solid granite. He looked at the floor. Solid granite. Ceiling... solid granite.

“How are we going to get Hermel out of there?” he asked the group in general. The only sound was of a pair of crickest that happen to be sitting on a nearby door lintel. “Anyone have any ideas at all?” Crickets. The crickets, by the way, had plenty of ideas. But no one spoke Cricketese, so their thoughts did not influence anything whatsoever, except among cricket-kind where they received the usual applause and accolades.

In his head Ishcandar imagined the voice of an narrator saying “And so ended the life of Hermel... frozen in time... the end...” He took another drink.

Hornmel, who was towards the back with the two monks, came forward at this point.

“So Hermel got himself stuck in a trap, huh?” said Hornmel to Alisa, speaking with a long reed that he'd taken to chewing between his teeth. She wiped a tear away from her eye with a white handkerchief. “Well,” he said turning to Lido, “we can see that he’s stuck in there, along with the archers, and Bantam, and your rooster friend, but the fact is that the mechanic in there is moving around normally. And so is his canary. Why not try to catch his attention and ask him to release Hermel?” he asked with a flourish of the reed in his mouth.

Although Lido was a bit puzzled as to why Hornmel had called Mr. Chicken a "rooster", he felt this was nevertheless just the sort of common sense that one could expect from a provincial farmer-type. And indeed, with the possible exception of Hermel, it was generally true. Hornmel, wiggled the reed in his mouth, and smiled with a wink at Alisa. She smiled faintly in return. She really didn't want to seem too ungracious, but she couldn't help noticing that Hermel had managed to get himself and two archers trapped in a time-lock while trying to rescue a canary from a mad inventor instead of coming upstairs to rescue her, his own sister. She just smiled weakly, and dappled the corner of her eyes with her handkerchief. "Its just so ... typical," she was thinking. She and Hermel had shared and uneasy childhood on the farm.

“Hmmm,” said Lido. “I never thought of that. Lets try it.” And with that Lido took one of the torches from an archer and began waving it back and forth past the door trying to get the light in the room to change. He was hoping that would attract Joe’s attention. But the blue light seemed to be too bright in there for the torchlight to make any impression. They tried hitting the walls around the door with the pommel of Arik's axe. Joe did not appear to hear it. No matter what they tried, in fact, Joe displayed absolutely zero interest in anything other than his work, and was very busy going back and forth between equipment, tools and schematics.

Ishcandar closed the door. “Ah well, Hermel was a nice chap; it's too bad, really...”

Lido opened the door. The situation in the room had not changed.

“Well, this looks a lot like the same blue glow that we’ve seen before at Dr. Lobe’s Laboratory at Dunn’s Bridge,” said Lido.

“That’s true,” said Ishcandar. “And that’s when the Time Panther showed up.”

“Perhaps we should go over each experience with the blue glow that we’ve had in the past. We might be able to figure out something,” said Lido.

Between them they recounted every incident where the pale blue light had appeared. Their conversation, however, tended to meander and they sidetracked on interesting tidbits here and there. But overall, the events were: Arik and Star saw the pale blue glow the first time they met Dr. Lobe in Dunn's Tower below his Laboratory, when the black knight appeared and rotted that poor villain during the Hagglesmith Rescue. Then Lido and Ishcandar encountered it when they were being held prisoner during the Deja Vue Incident. They encountered it again below the Five Animals Hall during the battle with the Time Beast. And finally, the last time was at Hobbington Gate where they fought the Time Beast again and Dr. Chickenhiemer had used the device he'd cobbled together using Dr. Lobe's components. They went back and forth over these strange encounters trying to discern clues as to how to overcome the time-lock.

Arik suggested using his mystic power to cast an invocation of Hammer Stone with the intention of hurling it at Joe’s equipment. That should get his attention, he thought. That this might also have blown everything within eight miles to smithereens did not seem to bother them sufficiently. The crickets fled. And so Arik made the hand signs, chanted the invocation, and summoned a stone to fall from above in Omri’s Great Name. A stone suddenly came lose on the ceiling above the worktable. It began to fall, but no sooner had it come loose than it became frozen in time and hung in the air above the table. Joe, who was ignoring everything except the components he was fitting into a small metal contraption and continued working diligently without pause. Careful observation revealed that Joe was wearing a chain around his neck, and every once in a while he would pull a pocket watch out of his vest and look at it for a moment. That watch, they might have surmised, must have been what was preventing the Time-Lock from effecting him. Had Turkenator seen it he would have known that tidbit of information for sure, having a bit more experience with Dr. Lobe's contraptions than anyone else, with the exception of Dr. Chickenheimer, of course. But Turkenator was upstairs watching over the Brigands with a Misty Cloud Arrow in his beak, just in case any of them happen to wake up. The other archers who remained upstairs watched Turkenator with various grades of amusement, and some suspected there might just have been a method to the turkey's madness. And there was.

At any rate, in the end they concluded that Joe was not going to be distracted from his work no matter what. So much for the common sense of provincial farmers and crickets. And so they went back to thinking over every detail of when they’d had an encounter with the pale blue light. They went over every detail very carefully. Meanwhile, Arik kept a wary eye on Black Patch. He was considering that it would not take much longer for the Brigands outside the Black Dragon Inn to formulate some sort of counter-measure and do something rash.

“Well,” he said to himself, “in any event, we have Black Patch here as a bargaining chip,” and he pat the snoring Brigand on the head. “And not a half bad bargaining chip he is, I should say.”

Manipulating Time

“Didn’t we have a way to alter the Time by using phrases before?” asked Ishcandar.

“Time to spring into action,” said Lido, but nothing happened.

“Time to move,” said Ishcandar. But nothing happened.

“When we were using those phrases, we were fighting the Time-Panther-Beastie-Thing,” reflected Lido, scratching his head. It didn’t seem that this tactic would apply to the current situation, as those phrases were only good for manipulating the Time-Creature.

“Well, what else did we do?’ asked Ishcandar taking a swig of brandy as he thought.

“The only thing this reminds me of is when we were at Hobbington Gate fighting the Time-Beast on the Plaza. We were able to move through the blue glow when everyone else was frozen. But – we had a device!”

“Yes, but the chicken that made the device is stuck in the room frozen solid in time,” Ishcandar concluded glumly as he glanced over at Dr. Chickenhiemer's ridiculous expression.

“Yes,” said Lido, “and the device kind of exploded at the end, remember?”

“That’s true,” answered Ishcandar, “but maybe we can rebuild it?”

“But we have no more of those components,” said Lido.

“Didn’t Ipps mention that the Fifth Animal brought the components in a coffin?” asked Hornmel, chewing on his reed thoughtfully.

“Yes, but those are all in the room,” replied Lido pointing to the crates in the equipment room.

“Are we sure about that?” asked Hornmel.

“Ipps, are there any more parts?” asked Lido with sudden optimism.

“I don’t know,” replied the Hobbit. “They came from the coffin, which was on the wagon in the Cartwright’s shop, the last time I saw it.”

“The Cartwright’s shop ... that’s ... burning down ...?” asked Lido rhetorically. “Crap.”

“Not to mention,” said Star, “that the yellow paper sealed the coffin shut at the end. Whether there are components in the coffin or not, I don’t suggest we try to break that seal again. That could be bad.”

“Besides,” said Lido, “only the chicken knows how to build the device anyway.”

“Well, we saw him do it,” suggested Ishcandar with a hopeful look.

“Um... yeah, good thinking...” replied Lido. “Though I kind of doubt I could duplicate his efforts, even if I did have the components. The chicken, I think, must be some sort of master craftsman at this sort of thing. He constructed the entire device with his beak, you remember.”

Arik rolled his eyes and grumbled, “Not again with that stinking chicken!”

“I was kind of hoping there might be a fully assembled device that might work,” said Lido.

“Does anyone have any Black Lotus Poison?” called out Ishcandar to the group, raising his flask with a laugh and taking a guzzle.

“How would that help?!” demanded Lido exasperated.

“I don’t know, but it seems that every time we’ve been in this position someone was poisoned,” he answered. (Usually, in fact, it was Ishcandar.)

“Oh, just go drink some more over there,” decried Lido waving Ishcandar towards the farther end of the hallway.

“Don’t mind if I do,” replied the erstwhile Hobbit as he sauntered off taking another happy swig from his flask.

Arik at this point, seeing as rescuing Hermel was taking far longer than expected, took some of the archers back up stairs and positioned them in the tavern where they could help guard the tavern doors, and set Black Patch down at a table next to him. The Brigand Chieftain snored happily away, oblivious to what was going on. Arik sat the Brigand leader down at a corner table with his hand on Black Patch’s shoulder and a knife in the other hand, just in case the Brigands outside decided that it might be a good idea to counter attack. It might have been earlier, perhaps, but now it certainly wasn’t. Arik maintained a fearsome expression on his face as he waited.

Downstairs from further down the hallway, Ishcandar called out, “Lord Dunn! If you happen to be anywhere nearby, now would be a good time to appear!”

“The Time-Panther seemed to show up before Lord Dunn, each time we met him,” said Lido shaking his head hopelessly.

“Ah, what time is it?” asked Ishcandar. “If Joe is a Union man, he’ll be going on break soon.” However, looking at his overalls, Lido pointed out that Joe was not a Union man in any case. Obviously he was an independent contractor. His uniform was blue, not gray.

Lido and Ishcandar went back to thinking about everything that had happened, carefully winding through every detail. There was the hourglass in the round chamber. They were able to escape through time using the hourglass, but they didn’t have an hourglass. And besides that allowed them to travel through time and space, not neutralize the pale blue light. The second time they use the phrases to combat the Time-Panther. But that wouldn't help because the Time-Beast was not attacking. The Deja-Vue Time-Loop was broken by a yellow fly. But that seemed useless as they weren't stuck in a time loop. Then they talked about the incident in the Five Animal Hall Prison again, this time going over every detail they could remember.

"We saw the blue light from under the door, remember?" Ishcandar was saying, "and then the cob webs showed up in the corners of the room and wind began to blow, and then a calendar page flew by... and - "

"The calendar!" cried Lido. The calendar had played a role, they recalled, when the Time-Beast was attacking the various victims in those other-time places they had been swept to where they met the black knight. At the time it seemed the Black Knight, who it turned out was actually Lord Dunn, though they had no way of knowing that then, was trying to kill them. But he wasn't. He had been actually trying to kill the Time-Beast as it was devouring it's victims. The Time-Beast must have been positioning them where Lord Dunn would be striking, perhaps in an effort to get Lord Dunn to kill off the Time-Beasts victims himself. The Time-Beast was not only word-clever, but deeply cunning as well, it seemed. Very cunning, indeed.

“Yes! The calendar page!” cried Ishcandar. “I still have it!” He dug through his pockets and pulled out a single page of an old fashioned calendar. It had and angel on it whose wings wrapped around the spot where the year would be… except the year was smudged out, and illegible. He held it up, proudly. He took a big swig of brandy from his flask, and looked at it. It fluttered. As he approached the blue glowing doorway it fluttered more.

“Step aside,” said Ishcandar, as he prepared to walk into the room holding the calendar page ahead of him.

“Don’t do anything hasty!” advised Lido. “Maybe the calendar page doesn't work the way you think it does. Remember, everything so far has had some specific use. How did you use the calendar page last time? Maybe the thing to do is repeat that.”

“Well, I think I may have flipped the page, possibly,” said Ishcandar, uncertainly. He couldn't quite remember.

“What did the calendar do?” asked Hornmel, twisting the reed in his mouth casually.

“It just seemed to disperse time, I suppose,” explained Ishcandar. “It appeared to take us to different ages where the Time-Beast was devouring it's victims; and Lord Dunn showed up to try to rescue them each time. We didn't know it was him, though, as he was in his black plate armor, and he seemed in fact to be attack us. I wonder if that rascally Time-Beast had been trying to get him to kill us!”

“I’m not sure, but perhaps the calendar might take us back in time,” said Lido, returning to the subject at hand.

“Well, lets try it,” said Ishcandar. “Calendar, take us back to the time just before Hermel entered the blue lit room!”

Nothing happened.

“You stupid calendar!” said Ishcandar, peeved.

Actually, as far as they knew nothing happened. But whether they went back to that moment or not, they would never have been able to tell the difference. If they had really paid careful attention one or two of them might have noticed a vague and slight sense of Deja Vue again. But one loop through time is hardly noticeable at all, you see. So that might have worked, but they didn't notice.

They stood there looking at the calendar. A yellow fly buzzed through the hallway. Nothing happened.

They tried several things to get the calendar to do something. Ishcandar spun the calendar clockwise. Nothing happened. Counter clockwise. Nothing.

“I’ll get it next time,” he said and flipped the calendar as though he were flipping the page.

Ishcandar vanished. The fly vanished too, but no one noticed that.

Everyone stared at the empty space where he'd been standing.

One moment later Ishcandar was standing there again, but with a rather awed expression on his face. In that one moment he had had the most incredible adventure of his entire life. He went to a time far, far in the future. Much brandy was involved. He learned a great many astounding things, but because he was among the unluckiest of Hobbits, he learned nothing of use in the current situation. And furthermore he forgot almost everything as soon as he reappeared. Almost everything. But he had, in that moment, seen the vast far flung future of Elthos. He was very, very deeply awed. Even if he couldn't remember. He took a big slug from his brandy flask. The fly landed on his shoulder. It too had an astonished look on it's little face, if you can imagine that.

“Ok, this is the last time,” he said and turned the page again, but this time flipped it backwards instead of forwards. He vanished and reappeared again. His look of awe had changed. He now had a look of extraordinary surprise. Very extraordinary, indeed. This time he learned what had happened in the remotest history of their world, very long ago. It was the second most incredible adventure of his life. He was stunned beyond reckoning. There was no brandy there. Unfortunately, once again, almost all of his memories faded as soon as he reappeared.

He felt that he was on the right track with the calendar. He figured out that it was activated by a combination of verbal and physical gestures. The gestures had to go with the phrases to make sense. Then the calendar would respond. It was very tricky business. He came very close to the end of his precarious existence many many times over in those two brief moments, in fact. Perhaps it was fortunate for the young Hobbit's sanity that he forgot most of everything as soon as he returned. Only a few scattered memories of his far flung and awesome adventures remained. One of them was that at some point he met Lord Dunn on Dunn’s Bridge when he was a very old man with a long white beard and cane, and he told Ishcandar that a golden canary had saved him from the trap of the Time-Beast, and that the trap was named "The Whirlpool of Everlasting Despair". Somehow he had been able to follow the golden canary out of the whirlpool, and returned to the present, though as an old man, largely forgotten by everyone, and unable to prove that he was indeed the true Lord Dunn. He expressed his disappointment and frustration that his dear and loyal wife had been forced to marry Baron Assize. However, that was all Ishcandar could remember of it, though it seemed to him that this event on Lord Dunn's Bridge had occurred in the distant future. Most other memories were very vague and rapidly vanishing like a dream after one awakes. Before he forgot it completely Ishcandar blurted out the story Lord Dunn had told him.

“Hey canary! Well done!” shouted Lido into the blue-lit room. But sound would not travel through that blue glow any better than anything else. She did not hear him.

Then there was a Thwip sound.

“Ow!” said Ishcandar. He put his hand to his neck. He felt the tell tail signs of a dart. There was blood on his fingers. He glanced over to the wall from where he heard the Thwip sound. There was a narrow slit in the wall where a panel had opened. Out stepped The Fifth Animal with a twisted gloating smirk on his face. He waved his fingers in the air and invoked 'The Dreadful Awe of Obitus'. Everyone was suddenly paralyzed - The Fear of Death Himself had fallen upon them all. There they stood, utterly awestruck, trembling and unable to move! It was a lucky last ditch gambit on the Fifth Animal's part, but the situation had become desperate, and so desperate measures were required. He had to quickly neutralize Ishcandar's ability to flip the calendar again, and then hold the rest of the group at bay. His gamble paid off. The Fifth Animal walked towards Ishcandar with a leering grin. From the trembling Hobbit’s hand he plucked the all-important calendar page.

“At last! Finally I have the key to the time-flow! This shall prove quite useful, I dare say,” said he, pushing his long white hair aside as he examined the worn and weathered calendar page with pure evil delight. However, his gloating was destined to be cut short. In a shadow Moose Marjan, the youngest monk from the Iron Bear Kung Fu School in Bear Claw Village had been silently concealed, waiting for something like this to occur. He was young, but unlike most of the others there he had been trained to carefully consider all of the factors involved in combat. He had judiciously applied his Tactical Combat Skill, and thus, correctly predicted that the likelihood of a counter attack from the lurking Fifth Animal was likely. And so he had been crouching in a shadow waiting. His fellow monk, and senior, meanwhile, had been doing the same upstairs, watching over Black Patch, to defend against any sudden attempt to extricate the villain from Arik's grip.

Out of the shadows leaped Moose with a terrific Iron Bear Stomp, catching the white haired master by surprise. The blow landed, but the master turned at the last second and deflected the massive blow. The calendar page went fluttering into the air and floated into the shadows. The master, outraged, turned on Moose, and delivered a devastating series of counter attacks with his hands and feet in the Jade Dragon style. It was the attack named ‘Green Dragon Turns Its Head’ that caught Moose off guard, and down the corridor he flew, slamming hard into a stonewall, numerous bones shattered. He was lucky his spine had not broken from the impact.

Suddenly a phalanx of golden darts flashed from the shadows up the hall behind the Fifth Animal.  Three of the six hit him across his broad back.  He staggered forward.  Out from the secret door stepped the beautiful and radiant Golden Swallow. She without a moment's pause she leaped forward, her sword flickering with an edge of golden lightning. The Fifth Animal flashed out his Silver Moon Sword, and the two launched into a ferocious battle. Everyone else was still entranced by the horror of Obitus, and could not break the paralysis. All they could do was watch in horrified silence. It was as though they found themselves in the land of doom, and were facing the eyes of Obitus himself. They could do nothing but tremble from head to toe. The awful dread of Doom was upon them.

The battle between the Fifth Animal and Golden Sparrow raged for mere seconds. She struck, he deflected. He stabbed forward, she restrained, and neither seemed to gain the advantage. Then suddenly, Golden Sparrow made a blazing attack and there was a sudden flash of golden light. The Fifth Animal was blinded, and off balance reeling for a moment to regain his balance. But that was just enough time for Golden Sparrow to leap with unerring ferocity and plunge her sword through the master’s evil heart. She had been both lucky and blessed by Eldrik due to the purity of her heart, but ultimately it was the years of tireless training by her great master, Star of Eternity, that made the difference.

Down to the ground sank the Fifth Animal, his eyes expressing the kind of shock and disbelief that one often sees on the faces of the diabolical once they arrive at last at the moment of final judgement. It is a look that expresses their absolute disbelief that anything in the universe could possibly stop them or their evil plans from prospering. And so, down to the ground he sank, a final gasp on his lips as his eyes glazed over and he perished from the world. Down to hell his soul was carried by the demon to whom he had sworn his allegiance. Star of Justice sensed this in the cold breeze that suddenly blew through the basement, and a chill went up and down his noble spine.

Golden Swallow stood with one foot on the Fifth Animal’s motionless chest, her sword pointed at his neck in case he somehow recovered. Once it became clear that he was in fact truly dead, she leaned hard against a wall. She was badly wounded and blood was pouring from a long gash under her right arm. It was a special kind of wound from Silver Moon, that would soon turn lethal. Star ran to her and immediately began dressing her wounds and summoning the power of the Elkron of the Sun to heal her. Eldrick was pleased with her that day, and his blessing went deeply into her. The wound sealed, and the poison fled her body. She only needed rest. Star carried her to a place where he could lay her down comfortably.

Meanwhile Lido had run to the fallen body of the Fifth Animal, and searched the corpse’s cloths for anything that looked like the antidote to the Black Lotus Poison. He found a small white and black patterned porcelain bottle with a rubber cork, on the side of which read the words “Tears of the Black Lotus - Antidote.” He handed it to Ishcandar.

Ishcandar swallowed a gulp. Suddenly he felt remarkably better; the excruciating headache vanished, the thin black veins on his neck began to retreat, and the bizarre hallucinations of dancing devils faded into the shadows of the basement. Within a few minutes he felt back to his normal self again. He took a nice swig of brandy, and that seemed to help, too.

“Hang on to that,” said Lido. “I have a feeling you may need it again some day.”

“Ah, I shall add it to my brandy,” said Ishcandar as he poured the rest of the antidote into his brandy flask.

“Uh, I’m not sure that’s going to mix very well,” said Lido. Ishcandar was quite happy with the flavor, however, and made much of it with huge smiling facial expressions.

“It makes a lovely admixture,” he said, as he tasted it again. Fortunately for Ishcandar, drinking brandy mingles with his Mystic Energy and gives him unusual powers. When he drank the brandy-antidote it magically fused into to his blood, giving him an unanticipated, yet permanent immunity to the Tears of the Black Lotus poison. He didn't quite realize that at the time, but that’s what happened, just the same.

“I need a souvenir, I think,” said Ishcandar to himself as he stared down at the White Haired Master's corpse. He reached down and took the headband with the jade oval on it, and tied it around his own forehead. It looked a tad bit big for him, but fit nevertheless, and he instantly grew exceedingly fond of it.

The Grand Reunion

And with that battle, the entire Brigand force was deprived of the last of their leadership, and morale sank to rock bottom. It also happened that Constable Barnstormer, who had been promoted recently to Commander of the Archer Dectalions of Hobbington, received covert word to enter the town via the East gate, which his agents in Harrowsgate opened for him and his troops. A large force of Hobbington fighters and three more archer Dectalions entered the town and after a series of brief melees at various fortified locations, retook Harrowsgate from the Brigands without losses. The Brigands they encountered were captured, rounded up and hauled back to Hobbington for interrogation and trial.

Constable Barnstormer handed the reigns of control back over to the town’s original leaders who had survived the Brigand's invasion. He came at last to the burning barn, which by then was a smoldering ruin, across from which stood the Black Dragon Inn. Although they had recaptured the town numerous Brigands remained unaccounted for. As it turned out they escaped into the tunnels beneath Harrowsgate, and those who survived them made their way out of the town and into the hill country round about. It would be a long time before those particular Brigands became a threat to the region again.

Barnstormer entered the basement where the AAA Group was still huddled around the blue glowing doorway. He greeted the team, and inquired as to the status. Learning that Hermel, Bantam, the chicken, and two of his archers were hopelessly trapped in the room with the mechanical genius named Joe Ricci, he took out an apple, sat down and had a bite to eat. It had been a long day, after all.

“What are we going to do, sir?” asked Lido.

“Wait,” said Barnstormer. "Frankly", he explained, "Joe will be bound to finish his work at some point, so we all might as well relax and enjoy a good meal and have a few drinks, I say." That was welcome news, and everyone considered it a jolly good plan, indeed. All except Alisa, who remained pouting outside the room where Joe was working the entire time. Hornmel was kind enough to bring her a side of roasted beef, with mashed potatoes, two cobs of corn, and a loaf of bread, which she daintily scarfed down, and pat her lips with her white handkerchief. She had hoped for a flagon of ale or two to go with that, but was too dainty to make the request. She pouted outside the room instead as she sipped the glass of honey-mead he brought her.

And so it was that eventually Joe finished his work. He neatly folded the schematics and placed them carefully in a linen binder. Looking around the room at last he took note of the various arrows and stone falling from the ceiling. He moved a couple of pieces of equipment aside, stepped out of the way, and flipped the switch.

The pale blue glow ceased. Hermel and the archers, who were expecting to see Joe in front of them staggered forward. To their perception he had simply vanished and re-appeared elsewhere. The arrows flew ahead. Oddly, a rock fell from the ceiling and crashed to the ground next to a small table laden with delicate equipment that had suddenly, amazingly, moved itself out of the way. They had no idea that any time had passed at all.

Joe, smiling calmly, turned a dial and a low multi-frequency hum filled the room. Downstairs in the tunnel a Brigand who happened to be standing on the line of jade stones instantly fried to death in a white hot flash. All along the length of the tunnels below the town lines of green jade stone began to glow. Anything touching them suffered the same excruciating, albeit brief, fate. The entire town hummed. It was a glorious thing. To Joe.

”Ahhhh,” Joe, delighted, “the sweet sound of success!” All of his hard work had paid off, and the apparatus was completely restored to its original working order. Had it not been for Lord Dunn bringing Joe the schematics and giving him The XLJ-5000 Manual at Golden Canary's request (after all, she had saved Lord Dunn from the 'Whirlpool of Everlasting Despair'), which described the technical architecture of the machine, he would never have been able to make heads or tails of the thing. As it was, he was now delightedly listening to something that no one in the world had heard for a very, very long time indeed. To his ears it was an amazing sound. To everyone else it was a hum. A pretty loud hum at that.

There was a bell in the clock tower that hung above a peculiar shaped stone that was inscribed with thousands of fascinating, yet indecipherable, glyphs. Both of them were humming on harmonic frequencies far too high and far too low for humans to hear, synchronized with one another perfectly. As it happened the stone was named the Omphallus, and it was said to be capable, when properly attuned, to receiving the words of the Elkron from their Celestial Abode in the Heavens. Joe, however, had no particular interest in whatever the Elkron had to say. That all might be interesting to priests somewhere, but not to him. He was, however, a technician through and through, and so repairing the device successfully was reward enough in itself. He smiled with great satisfaction.

He remembered Lord Dunn's admonition not to actually DO anything with the device once it was repaired and activated, but instead to turn it off immediately, turn on the Time-Lock, leave the room, and close the door behind him. And lock it. And so he prepared to take golden canary outside and follow Lord Dunn's instructions.

Turning to her, he smiled broadly. “Ah darling, now we have all the time in the world to settle matters with your gentlemen hero here,” he said giving a nod towards Hermel approvingly. The canary chirped happily.

Hermel, having no idea what had happened, and still thinking that nothing at all had happened since he shot his arrow, quickly grabbed his second Misty Cloud Poison arrow and promptly shot Joe in the foot with it. Down went Joe into a deep slumber, snoring his little heart out as he dreamed all about the wonderful machine he had just activated. How grand it all was! So intricate and beautiful!

“Hermel!” said Lido running over to him, “It’s ok... look... it’s your sister,” he said as he pointed to Alisa.

“Heeeeyyy,” said Hermel, smiling at her crookedly, and thinking she still looked a little too homely, and a bit frumpy, and briefly wondered if he could ever find anyone to marry her off to. Anyone except Ishcandar would do, he thought to himself.

“Just one second,” he said and turned to run over to the golden cage and began fiddling with the little brass bolt to open the cage door.

Alisa, at first bright eyed and happy that Hermel had finally done something right in his life by coming to rescue her, thinking maybe he wasn't such an screw-up after all, took to her crestfallen look again. Her shoulders slumped, her smile drooped, and she stared at him as he took a canary out of the golden cage with evident delight on his face. “Typical, Hermel. Typical,” she said to herself.

The canary fluttered up into the air and flew around a bit, and then landed on Hermel’s shoulder and sang a happy little canary song.

Apricot Sunshine
“Huh,” said Hermel, fully expecting the canary to turn into a beautiful young woman for him to take away and marry. She didn't change at all. Just hopped happily on his finger and chirped with delight. She was a happy little canary that day.

“I wonder what Joe was up to with her after all,” he said, bewildered. Was she really only a canary? He looked around with a furtive glance. No girl. Just a canary. It was annoying. Golden Canary hopped on his finger and sang.

“Alisa,” said Lido bowing politely, “meet Hermel’s new, uh, girlfriend.”

“Hermel – girlfriend?” stammered Alisa, thinking that those words did not fit together very well, and briefly wondered if that was really her brother after all. No, his behavior was standard operating procedure for Hermel, but this idea of girlfriend seemed distinctly improbable. She decided to wait and see. Unlike some, she was not a hasty decision maker. She looked at the canary. “Ohhh... so that’s Hermel’s girlfriend?” she thought to herself. “Hmm. ok. I buy that."

The canary, meanwhile, flew up from Hermel’s hand and landed on Joe’s head. She sang a little birdsong, there was a bit of golden light that covered the old technician, and to Hermel's suprise, Joe woke up.

“You know, Hermel” said Lido, “you maybe could say hello to your sister who you came to rescue...”

“Things are going on!” protested Hermel. “This guy is doing ... things!”

Alisa began to cry. Hermel, for his part, knew that these were crocodile tears of the most insidious kind, designed to get everyone else to side with her against him. He was exceptionally annoyed, but tried to hide that by focusing everyone’s attention on something else.

“Enough of you,” he said grabbing Joe by the shoulder. Arik came over and took hold of Joe.

“I’ll take care of him, don’t worry, Hermel,” he said and took Joe by the elbow and started leading him out of the room.

“What the heck?” asked Hermel stammering. “Where did you all come from? I thought you were upstairs?” he blurted as he took notice of all the people standing outside the door to the room looking in. The two archers, and Bantum, were all equally bewildered. Only Chickenhiemer knew full well what likely happened, and wondered how many centuries might have elapsed.

“Uhm… well,” said Arik, trying to sound rational about this, “you don’t know it, but you were trapped in a time-lock. Along with two archers. And then Bantam... and the damn chicken, too. Anyway, it doesn't matter now. About an hour has gone by. Constable Barnstormer arrived and defeated the Brigands who were either killed or ran away, and we captured Black Patch. He's sleeping like a baby, just as you envisioned. And the kid from Iron Bear and Golden Swallow fought the Fifth Animal. Look over there... the Fifth Animal is laying on the floor. Nice and dead.”

Hermel was stunned. And not a little annoyed at this news. After all, everything happened, apparently, without him. He pinched himself to see if he was dreaming. The pinch hurt. He was even more annoyed.

“And look,” said Arik carrying the Fifth Animal’s silver sword. “This was the Fifth Animal’s magic sword. It's inscribed with the name 'Silver Moon'. You’re a sword guy. Why don’t you take it as a reward?”

“It’s probably evil,” said Hermel thoughtfully. “Here Ishcandar,” he said handing it to the world's luckiest, and must clumsy Hobbit.

“Oh, it’s shiny!” said Ishcandar as he took it in his hands. Unfortunately, it really was a bit too large for him to wield it. He looked around for Praymar, and spotted the young albino lurking in the shadows near the stairs, flicking his tongue and pondering who is father really was.

“Here Praymar,” he said enthusiastically, “why don’t you take it?”

“I’ll take it!” said Praymar, who was overjoyed to have been remembered after all, and thanked the Hobbit for his generous gesture. He began flashing it around to test it’s balance. He gleamed with delight.

Everyone broke out in laughter.

“Anyway,” said Lido to Hermel, “Come and say 'Hi' to your sister. You rescued her, you know,” he added with a wink an elbow to the ribs.

“Um, yeah, ... heeeyyy,” Alisa said to Hermel. She had a very disappointed look on her face.

“Yeah, Heeeeeey, sis,” said Hermel, with a tone thick with disinterest. “How’s ma?”

“She’s still dead, you imbecile. We’re orphans, remember?” said Alisa, with a grimace.

As Hermel and his sister celebrated their little family reunion, Joe Ricci quietly turned on the time lock, closed the door, and locked it. He carried Golden Canary in her cage and when Hermel was finished looking dour with his pouting sister, handed him the cage with the admonition to take good care of the wonderful little bird, and to stay in touch, and shook his hand in a fatherly way, with a tear in his eye. In all the time that Joe had had Apricot, he'd come to feel a fatherly affection for her, and though he'd sorely miss her in the mines, it was, after all, her time to be free and in love. Golden Canary sang a happy song as she few around and landed on Hermel's shoulder. He smiled and shook his father-in-law's hand joyfully.

And so ended the magnificent Campaign that started with the Rescue of the Hagglesmiths, and lead in the end to the Rescue of Hermel’s sister from the Brigands at Yellow Clay Village. And every mystery, drama, and weirdness in-between.



Epilogue

Along the Time-Line known as the Grand Meridian by the Elkron, some details of various Characters lives can be gleaned, although in the multi-dimensional Universe of Elthos it is difficult to say with certainty what will eventually and actually transpire...

During subsequent conversations Ishcandar revealed the few details he could remember from his vast adventures in the past and future, and foretold that Arik would discover a Flying Dwarven War Hammer in ancient ruins sacred to Omri, somewhere West of Harrowsgate. Arik was beside himself to find it as soon as possible, and insisted on cajoling the party westward, because "Omri wants me to fly!!" You've never seen a happier Dwarve in your life than Arik that day.

Ishcandar also foretold that Hermel would eventually settled down and marry the canary girl, whose name by the way was Apricot Sunshine, would live happily ever after on his farm village of Yellow Clay, and one day be voted Mayor of the soon to be prospering and well fortified village, and eventually leave the Jade Dragon's Tear which he kept on the mantle above the fire to his first born son.

The Harrowsgate Map
As it happened the parchment that Ishcandar had tried to pickpocket from Black Patch was a map of the region, detailing the locations of various ruins and hideouts that the Brigands were occupying. Ishcandar gave the map to Lido, who made two copies. One he kept for himself, the other he gave to Constable Barnstormer, and the original he gave to the Adventure Guild in Hobbington. That map eventually became instrumental in the rediscovery of various ancient ruins in the region, for better or worse.

Lido for his part had politely absconded with the Dagger he found laying on the floor next to Black Patch, earlier, though it was not magical in any way, it was sharp, sturdy, and serviceable. He was quite happy with it, in fact, and over the years it served him well.

A little later Arik, was astonished to find that once again the fetid and pungent bear pelt was in his back pack. Beyond passing strange, he decided with a shrug that it must be a sign from Omri of some sort or other, and decided to keep it after all. Others in the party are not in the least bit pleased, and from then on most members of the AAA Group gave Arik a fairly wide berth in the marching order. That suited him just fine.

Praymar continued to be haunted by dreams of his father. They weren't particularly comforting dreams.

Ipps went on to become a very wealthy Hobbit. His association with Ishcandar Rockafellah paid off handsomely for him, as he went on to establish the Yellow Clay Mining, Co. extracting sulfur and other valuable minerals from below the village.

Eventually the old Bear Claw Kung Fu School teacher returned to Yellow Clay, having found out that Black Patch and his gang of rogue monks had been disgruntled students of his whom he had kicked out of his school and who had sought to humiliate him and tarnish his name by assaulting his abandoned home village. His school became widely known for excellence, and he personally lived a life of poverty, performing deeds of charity in the provinces.

Black Patch was found guilty of numerous counts of crimes and misdemeanors in the Provinces and spent a suitable amount of time in Hobbington Prison before being released, having paid his debt to society. As it turned out he was not the worst of villains, nor the most evil, but was a rough character, shrewd and unscrupulous, but with his own code of honor that later on in life became a hallmark of the Kung Fu style he had studied under the Fifth Animal. Later in life he founded the Jade Dragon School, which also became well known in the region.

Bantam, the goodhearted giant, returned to Lilac Village to enjoy a happy engagement with the barkeeper's daughter Sally-Sue Jones. They enjoyed a happy life together selling umbrellas and making babies until the day that Dr. Chickenhiemer and Turkenator arrived to take Bantam on a far flung adventure somewhere very far away. Fortunately, Sally-Sue never was the wiser, as the entire adventure, and a very great adventure it was, took but a moment of time, since Chickenhiemer's mission utilized one of Dr. Lobes Time-Traveling devices. When he returned Bantam had learned a great deal about the ancient times of Elthos, but forgot them all even more quickly than Ishcandar forgot his. Only Chickenhiemer and Turkenator remembered just how great Bantam was to have around during those desperate adventures.

Bob, the Dectailion Captain, was promoted to Captain of One Hundred, and lived an adventurer's life to the end, a credit to his family name.

Senior Borge lived a life of splendid luxury and founded the Assize Court in Hobbington, which became widely known for corruption, blackmail, and extortionist practices for many years. Taxes remained high, and the people suffered considerably under the Assize Rules of Law.

Lord Dunn lived out his elderly years pining after his wife, who had been married under duress to Baron Assize, despite the Baron's already having a wife. Hobbington was rife with rumors and scandals for many years.

The Hagglesmith children grew up to become fine adventurers, leaving Hobbington eventually and exploring the world.

Garrison ran into significant troubles in Hobbington when his ill considered machinations went wrong. Whether he survived and prospered as an underworld villain, or perished at the hands of his jealous peers is not known.

Konar Wuldkarva lived happily ever after making wooden doggies, and became both wealthy and famous, despite being dumber than a bag of rocks. His artwork spread far and wide in the Glendale Region over the years, and he was known as a famous wood carver of fantastic, and sometimes magical dogs.

Ibis, having followed behind Golden Sparrow as she hunted the Fifth Animal through the secret tunnels under the Black Dragon Inn, wisely deciding not to reveal himself, and later on picked up the calendar page from the shadows and used it to pursue his henchman Korfu into the ancient past. After many sundry adventures he managed to rescue Korfu him from a life of debauchery and luxury as Pharaoh in some long forgotten ancient epoch.

Star of Justice continued on with Golden Swallow and Moose Marjan to Star Cliff in order to fulfill the Quest of the Black Sun to locate the broken pieces of the strangely powerful amulet and bring them to the Abbot of the Twelve Harmonies Pagoda in Hobbington.

Mae, the girl who had stolen one piece of the Black Sun amulet from Senior Borge was eventually found to be the source of the many terrible things that had been going on in Grizzly Falls Village, and that the Black Sun itself was at the heart of the problems with the wild zombie bears there.

The third piece of the Black Sun amulet was apparently lost somewhere along the line. The last time it had been seen was in a secret compartment in Bo Chu's coffin.

And finally, the mysterious Yellow Robed man, who was also disguised at times as a yellow fly, found out all about Hobbington, and more than he had wished to know. In the end the celestial warrior admitted that the town, while corrupt and debased indeed, nevertheless produced enough adventurer's of noble intent to spare the place the destruction that the Celestials had contemplated for it. Although it was dreadfully dangerous to allow civilization to thrive on top of Zatok Mountain after all those centuries, and plumb the mysterious depths of the tunnels and caverns beneath it, the Elkron decided that such risks had to be take if the human races were to produce Adventurers of sufficient caliber to take on the true challenges facing the World. And they hoped that in the meantime they wouldn't inadvertently destroy everything in the process.

To that end, the Elkron in their infinite wisdom sent Dr. Chickenhiemer and Turkenator back into the distant past to watch over Ibis and Korfu, those notorious world-destroyers, and hopefully prevent Ibis from igniting the 'God War' that would herald 'The End of Ages'.



Previous Episode: All Is Well That Ends Well - Part 1








This is the final Episode of the 2011 - 2013 Elthos RPG Game Test. I hope you enjoyed reading it half as much as we enjoyed playing it!

 :)
Sincerely,
Gray Falcon of Elthos


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