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In Which Our Heroes Complete the First of Their Self-Appointed Tasks, Falling Thereby Into the Most Unseemly and Questionable Company, At Great Peril To Their Good Reputation.

A Search for a Secret Door, Thwarted by a Clumsy Dwarf. A Surprising Entrance Found, Thanks to a Clumsy Dwarf. The Secret of Its Entry Sought By the Mage's Lore, Undone By a Doltish Apprentice. A Stairway Leads Up!

The following day, under cover of a heavy rainfall, wizard and apprentice set out on their mission. Guided by his cunning, Zulkeh quickly found the location of Magrit's house. It was much as described the evening before: a gray, dilapidated building, four stories in height, surmounted by a profusion of turrets, crenelets, and whatnot architectural monstrosities. Even from a distance, the main entrance was plainly evident: a large wooden door, painted yellow, facing directly onto the street.

"Seek we now another entry," whispered Zulkeh to his apprentice. "Quiet now, Shelyid! Enemies lurk all about!" And so saying, the mage circled the block and came up to the rear wall surrounding Magrit's domicile.

"Doubtless there is to be found a secret door in this wall," spoke the mage. "Search now, dwarf, and be quick about it!"

Alas, the dwarf's efforts at finding the concealed entrance were sorely hampered by the overhang of his sack, the which prevented him from approaching the wall closer than two arm-lengths away. Shelyid began to whimper and complain.

"But master, I can't see anything and I can't even get close to the wall."

"Clumsy dwarf!" oathed Zulkeh. "Is the advance of science to be thwarted by the stubby limbs of such as you? Stretch your joints, dolt! Again, I command you: find the secret door!"

Grumbling but obedient, the dwarf made a valiant effort to reach the wall. But in his clumsiness he stepped upon a wooden storm drain grate, the which, overcome by the bantamweight gnome and the heavyweight sack, broke beneath his feet.

"Help, master! Save me!" shrieked Shelyid, as he plummeted into the hole. In an instant he was gone.

"My sack!" cried Zulkeh, and leapt after the gnome.

The gentle reader may imagine the difficult moments which ensued, what with wizard and apprentice swept along down a storm drain torrential with rainfall. Fortunately, though much battered about, our heroes quickly came to rest upon a ledge within the sewer below. All was as dark as a cellar at midnight. But it was only a moment before Shelyid produced a taper from the sack, the which soon produced enough light to see a few feet.

"Diminutive clod!" oathed Zulkeh. "Did I not entrust you with the safekeeping of my thaumaturgic possessions?" He cuffed the gnome soundly.

"Yet all was not in vain," continued the wizard. "For look you, wretch of an apprentice!" His finger pointed to a large gate in the wall next to Shelyid. Through the gate could be seen a passageway beyond, which was dry as a bone. "No doubt yon passage leads direct to some hidden entry into the witch's quarters. Seek we now the trick of its opening."

For long moments did the wizard remain poised in silent stillness, examining the iron gate with that degree of concentration which is the unique attribute of great sorcerers, a depth of perceptive focus which is as far beyond the understanding of common folk as is the eagle's power of flight to frogs in the fen. Meanwhile, Shelyid shivered and hugged himself, looking both bedraggled and woebegone.

At length the mage spoke.

"Know, my stupid but loyal—I graciously leave aside the scandalous events of the evening past—apprentice, that the problem which presents itself to us at this moment is of the deepest intricacy."

"What problem's that, master?" queried Shelyid.

"What problem, you say? It is obvious, lummox! In what manner—and by what means?—are we to open yon secret gate which leads to yon secret passageway which, in turn, leads to yon, not as yet seen, secret door?"

"Why don't we—"

"Quiet, if you will! I must concentrate my full attention on the task, undisturbed by the idle ramblings of an ignorant gnome." Abashed, Shelyid fell silent.

"Of course," mused the mage, "the obvious approach would be the utilization of either the Tomb Robber's Cantrip or the Grave Despoiler's Cantation. But the first runs the risk of arousing the pharaohs from their necrotic sleep, and the second, as is well known, will summon every zombie within miles. The pharaohs, of course, can be encapsuled in a cartouche, and even a mage much less puissant than myself can thwart any number of zombies. But the use of the cartouche will release great goetic energies, which Magrit—the noxious harridan!—will be sure to detect. And, as all experience attests, thwarted zombies would raise so great a din of protestation as to awaken every deaf mute in the city. No, no, 'twill not do." And again the wizard fell to musing.

"But, master," whispered Shelyid timidly, "I think if we—"

"Did I not bid you to be silent?" demanded the mage. Then, seeing the hurt reproach on his apprentice's face, the wizard sighed deeply. "My loyal but stupid apprentice, you do not begin to grasp the difficulty. It is utterly pointless for you to fumble about in your feeble mind for the solution to the problem."

Here the wizard wagged a solemn finger at the dwarf. "Know, Shelyid, that for eons the greatest minds of mankind were united in the opinion that secret doors and passageways, buried entries and the like, were impenetrable to any not privy to their secrets. 'Twas only the supreme genius of Schliemann Laebmauntsforscynneweëld which finally proved this universal belief incorrect, when he opened up to the world's understanding the hidden treasures of the lost and fabled cities of antiquity. His example before them, other members of the clan have since followed in his footsteps, of whom the great Breasted Laebmauntsforcynneweëld is perhaps the most notable."

The mage settled himself comfortably, preparing, 'twas clear as day, for the pleasure of a learned lecture. It seemed, on the other hand—judging, at least, from the furrow on his brow, the clutching of his shivering limbs to his body, the wrinkling of his nose at the noxious odors emanating from the proximate sewer—that his apprentice did not fully share the wizard's anticipation of the didactic prospect. But the mage took no heed, being totally engrossed in the pressing subject at hand.

"Sad to say, however, the prodigious progress made by the descendants of Schliemann in advancing the lore of secret doors, buried treasures and such, were not matched by any comparable feats emanating from their rivals in the normally noble, but in this instance sadly remiss, clan of the Sfondrati-Piccolominis. This peculiar archaeologic imbalance 'twixt the great clans—well-known to the world's cognoscenti—has itself been the subject of much scholastic inquiry and debate. Indeed, 'twould be the proper subject of a profound dissertation on some future occasion—remind me of this point, gnome!—to examine this problem at our leisure. But now is not the moment—for even as I exposit, time wanes! Let me simply say here that it is my tentative opinion that the reticence of the Sfondrati-Piccolominis is best explained as the result of their collective shame at the disrepute brought upon their scholarly traditions by the jackanape Houdini Sfondrati-Piccolomini, the which charlatan and rogue did so—"

The mage's discourse was interrupted by a loud clangor. Looking up in surprise, Zulkeh was even more astonished to discover that the large iron gate, the very item the complexities of whose secret of opening had been the proximate cause of his study, was even now, at that very moment, lying flat upon the ledge. The way to the passage beyond lay open and unhindered.

"I'm sorry, master," said Shelyid. "My hand must have slipped."

"Several times, it would appear," spoke the mage stonily. He eyed the many clasps and latches which were strewn about the ledge, the which had previously held shut the gate and had, or so the evidence indicated, been detached by the clumsy dwarf.

"Bah!" oathed Zulkeh. He glowered at his apprentice. " 'Tis fortunate for you, my stupid but loyal apprentice, that Magrit in her cunning has placed here a common and ordinary gate, cleverly disguised as a secret entry." He glowered further, then shrugged.

"But what boots it? 'Tis perhaps fitting that the debauched harridan should be undone by her excessive trickery. Follow me closely, Shelyid!"

This command given, the wizard strode through the gateway into the passage beyond. A few short steps were taken by our heroes to the end of this passageway, where, opening to their right, was unmistakable proof of the sorcerer's prescience. For there, even before them, was a small and dingy room, empty of all furnishings. At the far end, but a few steps away, a narrow and winding staircase wended its way upward.

"Magrit's basement," proclaimed Zulkeh, his voice filled with satisfaction. "And there lies a staircase, the which, I have no doubt in my mind, leads to a secret entrance into the witch's very lair. Leave the sack behind, dwarf, for you are clumsy enough without it. And remember—the utmost trickery and maneuver!"

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