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The Witch Encountered. Indignities and Introductions. The Dwarf Behaves Badly. His Conduct Reproved by a Reputable Agent. The Astonishing Sequel Thereto. Uncouth Merriment and Wagers. A Salamander Protests!

The creaky stairs climbed up and up. The mage and his apprentice ascended, moving with utmost stealth and cunning. At length, they espied a landing above. Beyond the landing lay a door, standing slightly ajar.

"The utmost stealth and cunning, Shelyid!" spoke the mage in a low voice. "Even now do we approach the witch's lair."

"But, master," grumbled the dwarf, "why do we have to creep around like this in your friend Magrit's house? I'm tired! Why don't we just go up and knock on the door?"

"Bah!" oathed Zulkeh. "What absurd proposal is this? The witch is not my friend—and this, for two reasons. Imprimis, she is not my friend because she is a crass termagant, a loathsome virago, grotesque in both habit and mind. Secundus, and even were this not so, she is not my friend because I have long since eschewed friendship. For know, dwarf, that friends are as detrimental to the pursuit of science as enemies. I say this to caution you against your regrettable tendency—so sorrily evident in your recent conduct—to become ensnared by goodfellows, jovial sorts, and the like."

The wizard raised an admonishing hand. "But enough of this nonsense," hissed Zulkeh. "We must hasten—for even as I whisper, time wanes!" And so saying, the mage prepared to step onto the landing.

But he was stilled in his purpose, for at that very moment the door above was flung wide with a great clatter. Startled, our heroes gazed upward and perceived, illuminated from behind, the figure of a woman dressed in an old robe and wearing slippers. She stood there in a most aggressive posture, arms akimbo, fists planted on stout hips, gazing down the steep stairs over a most intimidating bosom, her face—so much was evident even in the dim lighting—disfigured by a sneer of cold disdain. Atop her shoulder, peering down with tiny red eyes, squatted a salamander.

"Thought so!" boomed the woman in a raucous voice. "It's that old fart, Zulkeh. And the little one with him—just as Les Six described. Well, dotard, come on up and stop creeping around—makes me edgy! Come up, I say!" Her figure disappeared from the doorway.

"Well, master," said Shelyid, "we might as w—" But he was silenced by the wizard's glare, like unto the fires of eternal damnation.

"Unspeakable gnome!" oathed the mage. "This disaster is entirely your responsibility! Look you at the result of your cretinous behavior the evening past!"

The dwarf pouted. "It wasn't my idea, hanging out with those drunks. I didn't want to do it. Although, I had a real good time and they were actually real nice to me even though I don't remember a lot of it and today my head really hurts. But," Shelyid concluded, a preposterous tone of accusation in his voice, "it was your idea in the first place, so if anybody's to bl—"

No doubt the dwarf's impertinence would have resulted in a most severe and well-deserved thrashing, judging, at least, from the gathering storm upon the wizard's brow. But, in the event, the wretch was rescued by the intervention of an unforeseen savior. For, at that very moment, the witch's voice was heard to say: "Greyboar! Fetch me these two clowns!"

A moment later, a gigantic form filled the doorway. And a frightful figure it was! Atop a pair of shoulders massive both in size and brutish slope, like unto the forequarters of a great bear, sat a most villainous head—if villainy can be judged from a predatory beak of a nose, beady black eyes, a crop of kinky hair. Not a vestige of a neck separated the head from the shoulders below.

But our heroes were given little time to examine the newcomer, for two hands the size of platters descended upon them, seizing each by the scruff of the neck. In a trice, wizard and apprentice were lofted from their perch on the steps and deposited within the room beyond. This seemed to have been done without effort, which was perhaps not surprising, given that the arms which connected the hands to the shoulders were of colossal proportions, being not only deinotherian in their circumference but possessed of a length which was altogether monstrous.

Looking about, our heroes found themselves in a cavernous room, the which was revealed to be the domicile of the witch Magrit, combining, as it did, the multichambered functions of a sitting room, library, laboratory, museum and curio shop. Within the room, besides our heroes, rested three persons: the witch Magrit, the giant just recently described, and a third individual. This latter, a red-headed man so small as to border on dwarfdom, sat in a chair to one side, his little legs dangling several inches off the floor. Upon his freckled and pug-nosed face sat an expression which was composed, in strange combination, of equal portions of amusement and dyspepsia.

But our heroes were given little time to examine their surroundings, for the witch spoke again, in an exceedingly discordant tone of voice: "What's the matter, you old fart? My place too messy for you?"

Zulkeh coughed apologetically. "I meant not to offend, madame, nor—I assure you!—is it the plenitude and disarray of objects which disturbs me, nor even the quaint deordination of chamber functions, for I know quite well—being myself, as you doubtless recall, a practicing thaumaturge of vast experience and plenary powers—"

"Who's the windbag, Magrit?" interrupted the salamander, in a voice both sharp and unpleasant. "Is he always like this, or is he just having a bad day?"

"His name's Zulkeh," responded the witch. "He's a wizard. And yeah, he's always been like this. I knew him when he was a little twerp of an apprentice at the University. Even then he was a windbag. I balled him once, just to win a bet, and I swear he was still talking in semi-colons with my legs wrapped around his head."

All eyes fixed on Zulkeh. His apprentice's eyes were the size of saucers. Perhaps the gnome found the image just sketched difficult to reconcile with his master's august person and demeanor.

As for the wizard himself, every fiber of his being, every nuance of his posture, every minute aspect of his expression, not excepting the scarlet color of his cheeks, bespoke with great eloquence his profound indignation.

"These are private matters, madame!" he roared. "I must demand that you respect my dignity!"

He glared at Magrit, then spoke again in a peremptory tone. "Moreover, the event in question occurred long ago, when I was a callow youth subject to occasional japes and escapades. And may I remind you of the unfortunate end of the affair? I should think you—of all persons!—would seek to keep its history hidden."

"Fuck you," said the witch. "Would you believe," she added, spreading her arms and taking in with her gaze the entirety of the room's occupants, "that no sooner did I screw the little cloddy than he runs—the next morning, mind you!—to the Rector of Novitiates and babbles a confession of the sinfulness of his deeds. 'Course, he depicted himself as the innocent party, dragged to the coupling couch by a scarlet woman, pleading for mercy all the while, practically chained to the bed and beaten with whips, to hear him tell it. Never did get around to explaining how he got a hard on. Not," she added unkindly, "that it was much of a hard on to begin with, now that I think about it."

The wizard positively spluttered. But the strumpet was unabashed.

"Yeah, he got me thrown out of the University for—and I quote—'gross and licentious behavior.' Himself, of course, oh, and he was the darling of the deans—'an unfortunate lapse,' they called it, 'but quickly rectified by the honest and timely confession of the fundamentally sound and sterling-charactered apprentice Zulkeh.'" She laughed. "Yeah, but it was just as well. God knows what I'd be like today if I'd stayed in the University!"

She sneered. "And as for you, Zulkeh, you ought to thank me! Probably the last time you got laid, am I right?"

The wizard's answer to this horrendously indelicate question will forever remain unknown, for at that very moment did the salamander leap from Magrit's shoulder, scurry across the room, and flash beneath Zulkeh's robe. A moment later, the wizard was hopping wildly about, scrabbling in his garment. The salamander had, it appeared, attained to the mage's private parts.

"Out! Out! Out, vile beast!" cried Zulkeh. "Out, I say! Out!"

In a flash, the salamander emerged and scurried back across the room, coming to rest by Magrit's foot.

"Must be true, Magrit," announced the little monster. "He's got wizard's whang. Most advanced case I ever saw."

The witch snorted. "Don't surprise me! As a kid, he had 'prentice's pecker. Most advanced case I ever saw."

Suddenly the tiny horror darted across the room again and disappeared up Shelyid's trousers. And now it was the dwarf who hopped wildly about, scrabbling in his garment. The salamander had, it appeared, attained to the gnome's private parts. A moment later, the foul little beast reappeared and scurried back to Magrit's foot. It peered at Shelyid quizzically, its head cocked.

"Well?" This from Magrit.

"Kid's in the wrong line of business," pronounced the creature.

"Fie upon this monstrous incivility!" oathed Zulkeh. "Madame, you abuse your guests in a most unseemly manner!"

"Guests?" demanded Magrit. "What guests? The only guests here are Greyboar and Ignace." She looked to the giant and his tiny companion. "Have you been abused?"

"Not at all," rumbled the giant.

"You've been a most gracious hostess," concurred the other. "Of course," he added, "we still have to do a job for you, you've made that clear often enough."

The witch glared at the midget. "I know, I know," he said hastily, " 'no freebies from Magrit.' "

"Not for you, that's for sure," snorted the witch. She turned back to Zulkeh.

"So much for that! Let me remind you, you old fart, that I didn't invite you here in the first place. You crashed the party. And you didn't even so much as come straight to the front door. Not the great wizard Zulkeh! Didn't the sixth give you perfectly clear directions last night? But no! The magnificent mage has to go crawling through sewers and creeping through cellars."

She glared at the wizard. For his part, Zulkeh coughed in his throat, somewhat nonplussed by this—alas, it must be admitted—not untruthful charge.

"What's the matter," demanded the hellhag, "cat got your tongue?" She fixed Shelyid with her malevolent gaze. "You tell us, shorty! Am I right, or not? Didn't the old fart waste half the day down there? Probably kept telling you"—here the obscene ogress dropped her voice an octave—" 'the utmost shrewdery and stealth! the utmost sagacity and cunning! the utmost trickery and maneuver!' "

Shelyid coughed, somewhat nonplussed by this—alas, it must be admitted—not altogether inaccurate description.

"Thought so!" snorted the witch. "And what's your name, anyway?"

"Shelyid, ma'am," replied the dwarf timidly.

"Don't call me 'ma'am'!" barked Magrit. "Silly title! Magrit's the name. People wanting to be respectful call me 'the proper witch.' If I'm in a good mood you can call me 'the old bag,' or 'the salacious crone,' or 'the horrible harridan,' or—oh hell, any one of a thousand things I've been called." She fixed Shelyid with a piercing eye. "But I warn you, at the moment I'm not in a good mood."

"Yes, m—uh, Magrit," stammered the dwarf.

"Well?" demanded Magrit. "Speak up, Shelyid! Am I right or what?"

The apprentice furrowed his brow. "Well, pretty much. I mean, the master didn't actually—"

"Silence, dwarf!" Zulkeh glowered at his apprentice. "What means this craven toadying to the witch's impudent interrogation? Be silent, I command you!"

Discipline restored, the wizard turned back to Magrit.

"I shall graciously overlook the rude manner of your greeting, madame. Not to mention the impertinent behavior of your familiar!" He bestowed a fierce look upon the salamander. "For, I will admit, my method of entry was perhaps not altogether suave in its approach."

With a conciliatory gesture, he forestalled the derisive remark even now foreseeable in Magrit's expression. "Let bygones be bygones, if you will. Soon enough, Magrit, you will learn the cause of my apparently outré behavior. But for the moment, may we begin anew? Perhaps with some common civilities! For I have not yet been properly introduced to your other guests."

Then, observing the intemperate remark about to issue from the witch's lips: "Say rather, your proper guests! Or, if you prefer, the other occupants of this room."

With some effort, or so it seemed, the horrid hag restrained her natural inclinations. Taking a deep breath, she shrugged her shoulders.

"What the hell, why not? Zulkeh of Goimr, let me introduce you to Greyboar the strangler and his agent Ignace, lately of New Sfinctr. They're here at the moment due to a falling out with the authorities of that pesthole of a city. Not for the first time!"

The giant bowed politely. "I'm Greyboar. The little one's Ignace. My card, sir." And so saying, the mage was presented with an embossed calling card held between a thumb and forefinger the size of large sausages. The card read:

GREYBOAR—Strangleur Extraordinaire
"Have Thumbs, Will Travel"
Customized Asphyxiations
No Gullet Too Big, No Weasand Too Small
My Motto: Satisfaction Garroteed, or
The Choke's on Me!

"But I have heard of you, sir!" exclaimed the mage. "Are you not the same Greyboar who throttled the Marquis de Sangsue?"

The strangler nodded his head. "I have that honor."

" 'Twas a masterly stuffocation, by all accounts! And are you not the author, as well, of the legendary strangulation of the Comte de l'Abattoir and his entire party of Knights Companion, done at the very feasting table where they took their pleasure?"

Greyboar shrugged modestly. "It cannot be denied."

"How foolish of me not to have recognized your name at once! My apologies, sirrah."

The strangler dismissed the matter with a wave of his hand. Zulkeh turned to his apprentice.

"You are most fortunate, Shelyid, to make the acquaintance of such a universally admired master of his profession. In point of fact, not simply a master, but, according to the vast majority of experts, the modern exemplar of the chokester's trade. Why, the Encyclopedia Ozarinica has gone so far as to state that Greyboar is the equal of any of the great asphyxiators of history, at least with regard to fingerwork, if not, perhaps, in force of contraction."

"Sheer tonnage of gullet overpressure is the aspect of the trade which always impresses the amateur," stated Greyboar. "But all practitioners of the craft know the secret lies entirely in the fingerwork."

"I will certainly defer to your professional judgement on the matter," spoke the mage. "As a philosophe, I am in any event more inclined to respect the aesthetic than the muscular aspects of your craft. And all connoisseurs of the art are agreed that the burking of de l'Abattoir and company was a masterpiece, a masterpiece—not alone in the extreme elongation of the several throats, but in the delicacy of detail. As I recall, each of the chokee's necks was tied in a different knot, am I not correct?"

"I was particularly proud of the Blackwall hitch," admitted Greyboar. "Sir Mordicus, that was."

Zulkeh frowned. "I should tell you, sir—I speak now as one professional to another—that your reputation has been somewhat disparaged of late. An article appeared in a recent issue of The Journal of Contemporary Assassination, authored by none other than Dashiel Sfondrati-Piccolomini, in which he argues that your abilities, great though he admits them to be, have been cast in the shade by a rising Ozarine phenomenon by the name of Pythoneus."

"That twerp!" cried a shrill voice. Turning, all saw that Ignace had left his chair and was hopping about in great agitation. "That juvenile braggart! That pipsqueak posturer! That no-thumbed puppy!" He glared at Greyboar. "I told you we should have squeezed his fanfaron gullet for him when the swaggering snot came through New Sfinctr!"

Greyboar did not, it seemed, share his agent's concern. He shrugged his shoulders, like an avalanche.

"Why bother? Plenty of room in the trade. Besides, who cares what some pedant says in a scholarly journal? No offense, sirrah"—this to Zulkeh—"but it's precious few of my customers who ever say they've been referred by the latest issue of the Journal of this or the Annals of that."

"To be sure," agreed the mage. "We scholars tend to settle our disputes in a—physically, at least—less energetic manner."

"Still—" began Ignace, but he was interrupted by Shelyid.

"You mean you kill people for a living? That's awful!"

Reactions to this unexpected comment varied. Magrit chuckled, the salamander smirked, Greyboar looked aggrieved. But the wizard and the agent Ignace were alike in the look of outrage and indignation which sat upon their respective faces.

"Bah!" oathed Zulkeh. "Wherefore am I plagued with such a dolt of an apprentice?"

"Shut your mouth, you nasty little dwarf!" was Ignace's less rhetorical comment.

"Know, Shelyid," spoke the mage sternly, wagging his finger in the gnome's face, "that this upstanding gentleman is a respected practitioner of an honorable profession whose origins date back to the time of antiquity. How could you be such a lackwit as to confuse him for a common murderer?"

"But he kills—"

"Bah!" oathed the wizard. "He does not kill—if I may use your crude expression for a moment—anyone. He strangles them. Is this not so, sirrah?"—This latter to Greyboar. "Have you ever once resorted to any method of termination other than the prescribed placement of thumbs and fingers about the weasand and the ensuing application of pressure?"

"Nope," came Greyboar's reply. "Well, on occasion I've used garroting tools—rope, cord, piano wire and such—"

The wizard waved airily. "Those are recognized the world over as legitimate extensions of the art."

"—and, of course, I've often found it necessary to break bones, shred limbs, mangle bodies—but only with respect to secondary persons, bodyguards and the like, who interpose themselves between me and the completion of the job. The job itself is always done with legitimate fingerwork. I'm quite a stickler on this point."

The wizard nodded his approval. "Precisely so! The maiming, mangling and mortification of secondary persons in the course of a strangler's assignment are, of course, hallowed by tradition."

But the impudent dwarf was still not satisfied. "I don't care how he does it! He's still killing people for a living! They are dead when you're done with all this fancy choking and stuff, aren't they?" he asked the strangler. And a bizarre sight it was, the little gnome staring up at the person of the chokester, who loomed above him like a buffalo pondering a fieldmouse.

"Aren't they?" demanded Shelyid again. "Dead, I mean?"

The strangler coughed delicately. "Well, yes," he said. "Actually, that's rather the point of the whole thing."

Ignace came between the chokester and Shelyid. "We don't have to take this crap, Greyboar!" he shrilled. He shoved himself up against the dwarf, glaring down at Shelyid—not, let it be said for the record, by such a great height, for the agent barely escaped being a dwarf in his own right.

"Look, shrimp," snarled Ignace, "just shut your nasty little mouth! I warned you already! Who're you, anyway, to question the great Greyboar? A ridiculous dwarf! Ugly as sin, and hairier than a miniature musk ox! You need to learn some manners!"

And so saying, Ignace placed his hand on Shelyid's face and with a shove sent the dwarf sprawling onto the floor. Not satisfied with this indignity, the peppery little agent scurried across the room and stood over Shelyid. He drew a knife and made a great show of testing its edge on his thumb.

"Ignace!" came Greyboar's voice.

"I'll take care of this, big guy!" exclaimed Ignace, waving away the strangler, who was not, as it happens, moving to his assistance.

"See this knife, runt?" demanded Ignace. "Sharp as a razor! Any more crap out of you, and I'll cut off your tongue!"

"I say!" spoke Zulkeh. "I must protest, most vigorously, this uncouth threat to the person of my apprentice! Desist, sirrah! I insist! I admit that Shelyid has behaved badly here, but there is no—"

He spoke no further, for 'twas at this very moment that an extraordinary event came to pass. So extraordinary, in fact, that the entire Alfredae clan rushed as one louse to observe the scene. And so it was that the Alfredae, who were more knowledgeable upon the subject of Shelyid than any intelligences on earth (were we not, after all, blood of his blood?) observed, from divers perches and vantage points upon his brow, his scalp, his ears, and whatnot, what was—all were agreed on this point—the most unexpected and astonishing behavior ever exhibited by the misbegotten gnome.

For the first time in his life, Shelyid lost his temper.

Lost it, moreover, not as one carelessly misplaces a glove, easily found after a moment's thought. Lost it, not as one forgets a familiar name, and suffers a few minutes of minor embarrassment. Lost it, not as one loses one's way in an unfamiliar city, and spends an unpleasant hour retracing one's steps. Lost it, not as the shepherd loses the stray sheep, and spends an arduous day clambering about the hillside until the lamb is recovered. Lost it—well, I could go on in this pleasant literary vein for some time, but let me just conclude by saying that the gnome Shelyid lost his temper much as Dispater, Archduke of Hell, lost the keys to Paradise and the hope of eternal salvation.

He sprang to his feet before the astonished Ignace, who stepped back a pace. Then, garbling incoherently, the dwarf drew from some fold of his tunic the small poignard given him by Rascogne de Sevigneois. No sooner drawn than utilized! For the apprentice immediately attempted many maniacal gashings of the agent's throat, stomach, chest, indeed, whatever portion of the rapidly receding Ignace's body was closest at hand.

"Shelyid!" cried the wizard. "Desist! Desist, I say! Desist at once!"

But the dwarf evidenced no inclination to obey his master. Such, at least, seemed the only reasonable interpretation of his replies, of which "I'll drink his blood!" was the least profane.

Truth to tell, the agent's predicament soon became extreme. Early in the contretemps, Ignace waved his own blade cunningly, demonstrating both by stance and surefooted poise his expertise in the skill of knifery. But to no avail! For the dwarf, responding at first with a clumsy attempt to exercise the lessons imparted by Rascogne—the which succeeded only in causing him to trip over his own feet—eschewed then and thereafter all subtlety and maneuver. Pitiful and wretched gnome, inept in this as in all things! Instead did he rely thenceforth entirely on the uncouth force of his fury, a wild and witless hacking, stabbing, chopping, hewing and suchlike incompetencies, the which rapidly succeeded in disarming (I should say, disblading, for Ignace's quick reflexes prevented the actual loss of his arm at the same moment as his knife went flying) the now-less-than-cocksure agent.

Then, piling error upon error, the crazed dwarf advanced in utter confusion, while, for his part, Ignace retreated in a most clever and adept manner, interposing 'twixt his body and Shelyid's blade all manner of chairs and footstools, the which adroitness, however, availed him but little, for the now-howling-like-a-banshee apprentice did rapidly transform these shields into so much firewood, mostly suitable only for kindling.

Backed into a corner, the now-less-belligerent agent escaped by slithering like an eel between Shelyid's legs. Abandoning all thought of armor and shields, Ignace now drew upon that deep reservoir of tactical subtlety which derives from a lifetime of experience in tavern set-tos and alehouse disputes, and essayed the time-honored tactic of fleeing like an antelope.

Alas, it soon became clear that here as well the agent's well-honed experience was moot, for the now-baying-like-Baalzebub's-hellhound apprentice tracked down Ignace and flushed him from every hiding hole with the same single-minded determination shown by the wolf in pursuit of the hare, not excepting the disgraceful exhibition of the gaping jaws and the lolling tongue.

Yet the tricky little agent retained his capacity to think and plan, demonstrating yet again the qualitative difference between the experienced combatant and the emotion-ridden and easily-maddened amateur brawler, even in those rare instances where the professional finds himself at a momentary disadvantage. For the now-clearly-irresolute Ignace drew upon that selfsame cool professionalism and put to use his one remaining edge over Shelyid, I speak, of course, of his moderate advantage in height.

The agent leapt into the rafters above. There, he perched beyond reach of the dwarf's blade, the which flashed back and forth below like the futile claws of the lion at the monkey.

Grievous to relate, even this latest demonstration of his haplessness at the hands of a veteran did not dissuade the foolhardy Shelyid from continuing the one-sided struggle. For the witless gnome now flung himself upon the great stanchion which upheld the rafter, hacking and hewing like a miniature lumberjack, apparently intending by this primitive method to bring Ignace within reach of his now-like-the-shark-in-its-feeding-frenzy murderous resolve. Such, at least, seemed the only possible interpretation of the various stuttered declamations and doggerel verses which issued from his foam-flecked lips, of which the phrases "the higher they are, the harder they fall!" and "hey ho! hey ho! it's off to work we go!" were the least incoherent.

But it was even here, when the rapidly mounting pile of woodchips and sawdust seemed fair to result in the early demise of the now-wailing-like-a-lost-soul agent, that the sagacity of the experienced Ignace finally worked its way, much like the chessmaster coolly checkmates the novice who, in his amateurish enthusiasm, mistakes his trove of captured pieces for the harbinger of victory. For, of course, the dwarf's assault upon the foundations of Magrit's house necessarily brought the intervention of powerful external forces.

And where, I can hear the gentle reader asking, has Magrit been all this time? And Greyboar? And Zulkeh?

As for the wizard, he had been nursing his wounds. For the outraged Zulkeh had, on several occasions during the brawl, majestically interposed himself between the dwarf and his prey, commanding the apprentice to cease and desist from his unseemly conduct. Grievous to relate, the maddened gnome had paid no more attention to his lawful master's clear and explicit instructions than a ravenous weasel obeys the admonitions of the farmboy to respect the person of the chicken in the yard. Thrice had the wizard been bowled over like tenpins by the dwarf in pursuit of the agent, until, reflecting upon his bruises, he made his way to comparative safety along the wall. From that vantage point, Zulkeh contributed no further to a resolution of the conflict. Instead, he devoted his prodigious intellect to the development and exposition of a lengthy peroration upon the subject of his apprentice which was, it must be admitted, sullen in the extreme.

But at least it can be said of Zulkeh that he made an attempt to bring the light of reason to shine upon this dark and disgraceful episode. Not so Magrit and the strangler! The conduct of these twain was rather like that of arsonists heaving torches on the conflagration. For the two did roll about the floor throughout the fracas, howling with laughter and cackling like geese!

Worst of all was the contribution of the horrid salamander! The evil little creature summoned forth all the mice from their holes, offering bets on the outcome of the melee. These wagers the rodents declined, even after the despicable amphibian offered ten to one odds on the apprentice.

(Let me say here, by way of a narrator's aside, that from this very episode stemmed that streak of misbehavior on the part of our lousely youth which, in the time to come, was to prove such a burden to the honored elders of the Alfredae. For not only did the disease of gambling henceforth raise its ugly head amongst the youth, but 'twas from this episode that there developed that noxious habit among the more ruffianly adolescents of chanting in unison: "Shelyid's our host! Hoo, hoo, hoo! Shelyid, that's who!" Not to mention the thence-common appearance on the forelimbs of outright juvenile delinquents of such obscene tattoos as Born To Raise Hell and Shelyid's Slaves.)

But now, at long last, did Magrit and Greyboar retrieve at least a small fragment of responsible behavior.

"Oh shit," Magrit cackled, "the little barbarian-horde-in-one's gonna bring the whole house down!" And this pathetic jest caused her and the strangler to howl anew, slapping each other's backs with abandon.

"Yeah," sputtered Greyboar, "but at least we finally know what really happened to the Great Wall of Grotum—it pulled a knife on a dwarf!" And this ridiculous quip caused him and the witch to howl yet again, rolling about the floor like lunatics in an asylum.

But at length they recovered, and Magrit, holding her ribs, managed to gasp: "You'd better stop him, Greyboar. I can't afford to rebuild the place, and besides, I don't want to have to mop up what'd be left of Ignace if the dwarf gets to him."

And so it was, still laughing shamelessly, that the strangler staggered to his feet and seized Shelyid by the neck. Suspended in midair, the gnome turned his furious knifework upon Greyboar, but the huge chokester disarmed Shelyid—rather gently, oddly enough—and tucked the apprentice under his left arm. Then, reaching up into the rafters with his right hand, he hauled down the agent and deposited him with a thump on the floor. He then said to Ignace: "Next time, dummy, pick on someone your own size."

And at this latest uncouth bon mot, he and Magrit again fell to hollering and backslapping. It appeared that Ignace did not share the humor, for after a moment the agent jumped to his feet and said to the strangler, in a tone of voice brooking no argument: "Greyboar! Strangle that dwarf!"

Greyboar gazed at his agent, tears of laughter still rolling down his cheeks.

"Why would I do that?" he asked.

"He insulted us, that's why!" came the shrill reply.

"Us?" demanded Greyboar. "What's with this 'us'?" He didn't insult me. Oh, and sure, I supposed you might feel insulted, being chased around like a cat by the Mouse From Hell"—again, he and the witch hooped and hollered disgracefully—"but that's your problem."

"What do you mean he didn't insult you?" shrilled Ignace. "That's how the whole thing started! I was just defending your honor! Didn't he call you a common killer? The outrage! The disrespect to your person! To your professional standing!" Then, with the air of one playing a trump card: "To your philosophy of life!"

The strangler snorted derisively. "What a load of bullshit," he said. "You—of all people—lecturing me on philosophy! Ha!" He glared at his agent. "But I'll get back to that in a moment. First I've got to calm down Midget the Terrible here." Another round of ridiculous gaiety.

Greyboar held up Shelyid before him and shook him like a terrier shaking a rat. More accurately, like a dragon shaking a mouse. This treatment finally snapped the dwarf out of his madness.

"That hurts!" complained Shelyid.

"That's the idea," commented Greyboar placidly. "Now look, midget—sorry—Shelyid, you've made your point, and made it quite thoroughly, but enough's enough. I'm going to let you down now, but I want no more chasing after Ignace, you hear? He's been my agent for a long time, and he's the best in the business. Besides, I like the little hothead, even if sometimes he is a complete asshole." Greyboar ignored Ignace's squeal of outrage. "Is it a deal? If you still want to fight, well, that's all right, too. But this time you'll have to fight me, and I don't suggest it. In fact, not to put too fine a point on it, I wouldn't even think about it."

The light of reason now having returned, Shelyid carefully examined the figure of the chokester, and nodded his head.

"S'a deal."

"Good." Greyboar set him on the floor, then turned to Ignace.

"Now, let's get back to you," he growled. "Philosophy—ha! From you—ha! First of all, my fair-weather little logician, the kid never insulted me once. Oh, and sure, he indicated reservations concerning the ethics of my trade. So what? Plenty of people have! My own sister Gwendolyn's said more than once—right in front of you, too!—that I wasn't nothing better than a thug and that I ought to mend my evil ways and go back to my honest job in the packinghouse. I didn't see you rise to my defense then, push her in the face and knock her down, stand over her waving a knife and threaten to cut out her tongue. How come? Speak up!"

Ignace coughed. "Well, she's your sister and all. Got to make allowances for family, you know, and besides—"

"What a load of bullshit!" interrupted Greyboar. A great sneer crossed his face. "Naturally, it doesn't have nary to do with the fact that she's almost as strong as I am and used to gut steers at her job in the slaughterhouse—each one with a single stroke of the knife, if you call that great cleaver of hers a 'knife.' "

"Well," muttered Ignace. "Well."

"Well, nothing! Ye olde sorcerer over there"—a massive thumb indicated Zulkeh—"can wax as eloquent as he pleases on the hoary traditions of my 'most honorable and prestigious profession,' but you know as well as I do that the plebes we hang out with don't think choking's anything more than a fancy name for the same stuff what gets them pitched in the hoosegow at the drop of a hat. I get away with it for two reasons." He held up a pair of fingers like cucumbers. "First, I only do it for money. That makes it a respectable profit-making enterprise, rather than a hideous crime of vulgar passion. Second, and more important, I only choke rich people at the request of other rich people, which makes it classy and haut cuisine."

"That's not true!" denied Ignace. "You've burked lots of lowlifes!"

"Most of 'em loan sharks or pimps. Or their bullies."

"Well. Well, even so!"

"Loan sharks and pimps don't count. Or their bullies. Makes even the porkers yawn."

"I don't care!" shrilled Ignace. The dyspeptic little agent began hopping up and down in fury. "Forget the philosophy, then! That miserable dwarf pisses me off! Choke him, I say, choke him! Throttle the little runt—as a personal favor to your old friend and faithful agent."

"Not a chance," replied Greyboar. "Three reasons." He held up three fingers like a stack of logs. "First, right now the favor I owe's to the kid, on account of how he just got through providing me with more entertainment than I've had in years." Another sorry round of merriment ensued. "Second, I don't choke people as personal favors to anyone, you included. Professional ethics, you know. And finally, I don't choke shrimps."

"I don't care!" shrilled Ignace. "You—"

"Although," mused Greyboar, stooping over Ignace, "there's always a first time."

Silence fell over the agent. Ignace peered up past Greyboar's great hook of a nose, his beady black eyes visible at a distance. So does the mouse examine the eagle's beak just before lunch.

"You'd be without an agent," he squeaked. "Business'd suffer. You'd go hungry—starve—have to go back to work in the—"

"Nonsense!" cried Greyboar. "Soon as word got out I was throttling obnoxious little loudmouths there'd be a line outside my door. A long, long line. Wouldn't need an agent! Just need to hire a few bouncers to keep the line orderly. Big, beefy lads, phlegmatic types, you know, the kind won't start fights for no reason."

Pondering this line of logic, Ignace soon came to the conclusion that there was some truth in Greyboar's argument. He was perhaps helped along in drawing this conclusion by the learned debate which promptly erupted between Magrit and Zulkeh over the precise length of the line of customers which would form to seek the asphyxiations of offensive twerps. Here the wizard leaned toward the conservative side, opting for a line no more than two miles long, while the witch—exhibiting a more sanguine temperament—firmly placed twelve miles as the lowest conceivable limit.

The argument waxed hot and heavy. Zulkeh, in a rare lapse into empiricism, cited for authority his long experience with the aggravations caused him by his diminutive apprentice. For her part, Magrit ridiculed this selfsame hard-won expertise, advancing the—to your narrator's mind—dubious premise that the dwarf Shelyid was "rather a fine and sprightly little chap." She went on to depict the sorcerer Zulkeh as a narrow-minded pedant whose cloistered existence had given him no concept of the true essence of the obnoxious little loudmouth, so well-known and despised by the common run of mankind, the which would eagerly scrape together their few coins to see the world rid of this plague.

In the event, the question was settled by the grotesque little salamander. For once again, it rounded up the multitude of mice and put the question to them, asking the rodents what they would offer for the privilege of ringside seats at the apparently-soon-to-be-forthcoming throttling of Ignace at the hands of his client. This question—though obviously framed in a weighted and unscientific manner—soon resolved the dispute, not to mention Ignace's mind. For 'twas but a moment later that the mice, having disappeared into their holes, came pouring forth in a great horde, chittering with glee, dressed in holiday finery, bearing in their tiny paws various crumbs, treasured trinkets, and bits of succulent cheese. One enthusiast went so far as to offer, in a squeaking little voice, "the pelt off my back."

Of course, the rodents were doomed to disappointment, for Ignace promptly announced himself satisfied and went to sit sullenly in his chair, pouting and sulking. A great uproar ensued, with much chittering and squeaking of indignant mice. The salamander was forced to flee onto a nearby table. Magrit, for her part, finally managed to quell the agitated mob of rodents with many pounds of cheese offered by way of a refund.

"Haven't had so much fun in a long time," commented the witch, after the last mouse had disappeared. In a rare good humor, she smiled down at Shelyid and said: "You can call me the old bag any time you want, lad."

"Oh, I wouldn't do that, ma—Magrit," protested Shelyid.

"Just as I said!" proclaimed the witch. "A fine and sprightly little chap. Well-mannered, too."

Then, with noticeably less pleasure, she gazed upon Zulkeh.

"All right, you old fart. Now that the fun's over, let's get to business. You do have business with me, I assume? It's not likely you're here for the pleasure of my company. Unless," she added, with a disgusting leer, "you got horny again."

The wizard chose to ignore this last remark. Instead, he drew himself up, in a most dignified manner, and spoke as follows:

"Yes, madame, I have come here on a matter of business. I find—not with any feeling of pleasure in the fact, mind you!—that I have need of your assistance. For it has come to my attention—most unexpectedly!—that I have enemies. And so—"

But he was interrupted by the salamander, who, from its perch atop Magrit's shoulder, exclaimed shrilly:

"Oh shit, not another one!"

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