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Murals Examined. The Mage's Critique Thereof. A Chamber Devoted to Love. A Dwarf's Inquiries. A Melee. A Pathetic Scene. A Reconciliation. An Historic Event!

Greyboar was not a happy strangler.

"Couldn't you have made these tunnels wider?" he grumbled.

"For what purpose?" demanded the Underground Artist, Paul Gauphin. "They were not intended for gorillas."

A somewhat injudicious reply, this—so at least is your narrator's opinion. I myself, were I a man rather than a louse, should have hesitated before labeling a man, to his face, a gorilla—especially a man who was, in actual fact, built like a gorilla.

Fortunately for the future of Art, the strangler was of a phlegmatic disposition. He satisfied himself with cracking his knuckles, which act, be it said, caused Gauphin no little terror.

"My God!" cried the artist. "The tunnel's collapsing! We'll be buried alive!"

"It's just the big goon cracking his knuckles," explained Ignace. Gauphin made a sour face, but eschewed comment.

Greyboar's disgruntlement was perhaps inevitable. The strangler had had a most miserable time of it, squeezing his great body through the labyrinth of tunnels below the Ozarine Embassy. The worst of it, he was to say later, was that his discomfort made it impossible for him to fully appreciate the art work which decorated every foot of Gauphin's burrows.

"Of course," he would explain, "I was only interested in the still lifes—marvelous!—the flowers! the bowls of fruit! Pity you had to wade through such a lot of nudes to get to them."

Ignace, on the other hand, due to his miniscule size, was better able to gain the proper perspective on the murals. One would not have thought, based on previously observed behavior, that the little agent was a devotee of the finer arts. But a connoisseur he proved to be, or such, at least, seems the only possible explanation of his reluctance to move at the rapid pace one would have thought more appropriate for daring adventurers on a perilous mission. Indeed, so slow and halting was his progress that his client finally resorted to dragging him forward by bodily force.

Shelyid, whose dwarfish stature gave him an even better opportunity to study the pulchritudinous portraits, took no advantage of the fact. Instead, the gnome kept his eyes firmly on the ground ahead, blushing like a schoolgirl. Of course, he could claim as his excuse that he was bent double by the wizard's sack. His master, on the other hand, scrutinized the murals carefully, and blessed his companions with a running commentary on the Mission of Art, replete with many citations from the ancients, the essential thrust of which was that Paul Gauphin was an arrant alphabetarian, a nugatory neophyte, a coarse catechumen, a posturing parvenu who thought to conceal his blatant ignorance of the classic methods of proportion, line, perspective and portraiture by his extravagant colorism, the which was nothing but a maneuver to dupe his patrons by passing off crudity as primitivism.

His chief complaint, however, was that the nudes were not fat.

" 'Tis the First Law of Nudistry!" he exclaimed, many more times than once. "Consider, if you will, the classic masters of the past—Rubens Laebmauntsforscynneweëld, to name just one! Did that great soul ever paint the nude portrait of even a single nubile? Nay, fie on such witless notions! Understood he well that the very essence of nudistry is the presentation of human flesh, and thus, it follows as the antithesis from the thesis, that the more copious the expanse of flesh portrayed, the greater the Art!"

Gauphin, oddly enough for a temperamental artist, seemed not at all irritated by this flood of criticism.

"Stuff sells like hotcakes," he remarked, and said no more.

But at length, Zulkeh's impromptu lecture on Art came to an end. Gauphin held up a warning hand. They had reached, or so it seemed, the end of the tunnel. Ahead of them was nought but a wall.

"Here's my secret entrance to Inkman's bedchamber," whispered the artist. He pointed out a latch which enabled the wall ahead to be swung aside.

"That's it for my end of the deal," he said. "Give me ten seconds to get clear."

"Thanks for the help," said Greyboar pleasantly.

Gauphin snorted. "Think I had a choice? I'm not happy about this, let me tell you—it's probably going to sour my romance with Inkman's girlfriend." Then, shrugging: "What the hell, falling out of favor with a lady beats falling out of favor with Les Six. What's that old saying? 'Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned'? Ha! Try pissing off Les Six some time, if you really want a toasty taste of the underworld! Anyway, I'm gone. If you make it out of there alive, be sure to tell the half-dozen homeboys from hell that I satisfied my end of the bargain."

He disappeared in a flash.

Zulkeh made to unlatch the wall, but Greyboar gently pulled him aside.

"Why don't you let me handle this part? I'm rather good at breaking and entering."

"Of course, of course," agreed the wizard.

Greyboar unlatched the wall and slowly swung it aside. He peered into the room beyond.

"The coast is clear," he whispered. "Nobody's in the room. But keep it quiet—I can hear the guards in the room beyond."

All four members of the party crept into the room. They inspected the furnishings carefully.

"Quite a love nest this guy's got," remarked Ignace, pursing his lips.

Shelyid's face wrinkled in confusion.

"Master," he asked, "why are there all those handcuffs and chains all over the bed? Seems like it'd be uncomfortable, especially those spiked leather collars. I mean, you know, if you rolled over—"

The wizard stilled his apprentice with a gesture. " 'Tis not the time for a lecture, dwarf." He cleared his throat. Cleared his throat again. "An aspect of your education, this, which I have neglected. At some future date, possibly, when you are older. Perhaps a glance at Kraft-Ebbing Laebmauntsforcynneweëld's monographs, or certain of the diaries of De Sade Sfondrati-Piccolomini—expurgated, of course! But not now, my loyal but stupid apprentice."

"Well, if you say so, master," agreed Shelyid uncertainly. "But it all seems kind of peculiar. I mean, all these whips all over the floor, you could trip on them in the dark and hurt yourself. And—"

"Not now, gnome!"

"Yes, master," grumbled the dwarf. Then: "I still think the place is weird—why would you want to sleep on leather sheets? And, boy, this guy Inkman must crap a lot, there's gotta be eight or nine chamber pots lying around. One of them's on his pillow! Pretty vain, too, this guy, there's mirrors everywhere. And what are those funny long wooden things? Look like bananas except bananas don't—"

"Silence!" hissed the wizard. "I command you, wretch!"

Shelyid grimaced, but obeyed. And, in any event, even the dim-witted gnome must have realized that the time for questions and answers was over. For even at that moment Greyboar was standing before a door on the far wall, preparing to sally forth. Voices could be heard in the room beyond, raised in the coarse and uncouth jests of idle soldiery.

"How many, Ignace?" asked the strangler.

His agent listened intently, his ear flat to the door, then stepped back with a smile.

"Seven, maybe eight."

Greyboar grunted, seized the doorframe in both hands.

"Are you ready, Ignace?" The agent shrugged. The great muscles in Greyboar's shoulders began to move, like breaking surf.

"A moment!" hissed Zulkeh. "Perhaps some shrewd stratagem—the disparity in numbers—'twould seem wise—"

He got no further. Greyboar wrenched the door off its hinges and charged into the room. Three startled guards stood immediately before him, uttering cries of surprise. Greyboar swung the door high and brought it down directly upon them. The door splintered into a hundred pieces. So did they.

Five soldiers remained. These had been seated at another table in a corner of the room some steps distant. They were now on their feet, their faces pale with shock, but sharp swords in their hands. Trained and experienced warriors, 'twas plain to see.

Greyboar advanced upon them, flexing his hands.

Meanwhile, Ignace leaned casually against the wall, placidly observing the scene. Shelyid nudged him fiercely.

"We gotta go help Greyboar!" he cried. "He's way outnumbered! And they got swords and he's got nothing!"

Ignace laughed. "Are you nuts, kid? For Greyboar, this kinda thing's a light workout. Knights in armor on horseback, now, he'd of maybe done some warm-up exercises first."

"Yes, Shelyid," concurred Zulkeh sagely, " 'tis always wise to let professionals handle matters involving their trade. Best we stay out of the way," he added, matching deed to the word, "lest—"

But Shelyid would have none of it. Exhibiting yet again that cretinous mentality which the gentle reader has, by now, no doubt found excessively tiresome, the pathetic gnome launched himself into the center of the room, clenching his puny fists.

"You guys better watch it!" he cried. "He's not alone, you know!"

"I'll handle this one!" shouted five soldiers in unison, each pointing at Shelyid. "The rest of you take the big guy!"

And so saying, the five stalwarts hurled themselves as one man upon the dwarf.

Two factors alone kept the apprentice from becoming chopped homunculus. The first, ironically enough, was his diminutive stature. For Shelyid, seeing doom advancing in the form of five descending sword blades, immediately threw himself through the legs of the soldier directly before him. This unexpected maneuver caused the soldier to stumble backward and fall upon the dwarf. Shelyid's small arm appeared from below and locked itself around the soldier's neck. His four comrades stood around the interlocked bodies of the duo writhing on the floor, momentarily stymied by the fact that their target was covered by their fellow guard.

This slight hesitation was enough to bring the second factor into play, which was, of course, Greyboar.

As your narrator, let me take the occasion here to state for the record, that whatever slight skepticism I might have heretofore possessed concerning the reputation of the strangler, ended once and for all time within the next four seconds.

Professional fingerwork, indeed.

In the first second, Greyboar removed the spinal column from one soldier, as neatly as an angler filleting a trout. In the next second, he utilized this spinal column as a garrote to decapitate another. Then, in the third second, he deftly snared the falling head and used it upon the skull of a third soldier much in the manner of a gorilla using a stone to shatter a coconut, with much the same result. Finally, in the fourth second, he reverted to more classic form, seizing the last standing soldier by the throat with both hands, stretching his gullet to a truly preposterous length, and neatly finishing the job by tying the now-suitably-elongated weasand into a double bowline.

There remained only to rescue Shelyid from his assailant, who was still lying upon the dwarf. Strangely, the soldier had ceased his thrashing.

"Take it easy, kid," said Greyboar. "I'll handle this." The strangler reached down and seized the soldier, preparatory to committing mayhem upon his body.

But he stopped. A look of puzzlement came upon his face. I might mention, by way of an aside, that Greyboar's frown has to be seen to be believed.

"Hell," he muttered, "this guy's dead as a doornail." He lifted the soldier's body upright. The man was clearly dead, all could now see it. His head lolled at an impossible angle.

Greyboar peeled Shelyid's arm from around the soldier's neck, not, judging from the look of strain on his face, without some effort. He then separated the dwarf from the corpse, and held Shelyid up before him, dangling from the great fist wrapped around the gnome's skinny wrist. With the fingers of his other hand, Greyboar subjected the dead soldier's neck to a professional tactile investigation.

"As neat a throttle as I've ever seen," he rumbled. "Look at this, Ignace! It's a classic choke—windpipe's like a tapeworm, Adam's apple's so much applesauce, neck's broke in three—no, four!—places—" The strangler looked back and forth between the chokee and the choker, the latter of whom was gasping from exertion, sweat pouring down his face.

"You okay, kid?" he asked Shelyid.

The dwarf gasped, gulped, swallowed, coughed.

"Yes," he squeaked. "I'm okay. I guess." Then, after some more gasping and gulping: "Put me down, will you? Please."

Greyboar set him on the floor. Shelyid tottered about, his face pinched and drawn. The dwarf looked up at the corpse of the soldier, still in Greyboar's grasp.

His face grew paler still.

"Is. Is. Is he dead?"

"Like a mackerel on ice." And so saying, Greyboar dropped the corpse on the floor.

Shelyid started to speak, then doubled up and vomited. Greyboar knelt down beside him, wrapping his immense arm around the dwarf's little shoulders.

"Take it easy, Shelyid," he said quietly. "Go ahead, puke it all up." The wizard started to speak, fell silent at Greyboar's stare. Silence was not natural to the mage. But the strangler's stare that moment would have silenced a babbling brook.

A minute or so passed. Then Shelyid spoke softly. "I don't think I've ever killed anything before. Well, maybe a few bugs and such. Even then, it's never on purpose. Never stepped on a bug on purpose. Don't harm nobody, bugs." Then he said only, "Oh, oh, oh, oh, oh," and began to weep like a babe. Greyboar sat on the floor and drew Shelyid onto his lap. The strangler said nothing. His face seemed, if anything, even paler than the dwarf's. Odd, in such a man.

And there the two of them remained, for several minutes. It was a truly ridiculous scene.

The wizard apparently thought so. At length he cleared his throat, and spoke.

"I must say—perhaps—the urgency of the moment—well! That is to say, haste seems—for even as we emote, time wanes!"

"Shuddup," growled Ignace. The agent glared at the wizard, hunched his shoulders, glared around the room, crossed his arms, glared at the universe.

"It's a trade," he snarled, in his high-pitched voice. "Pay's good. Work's steady. What more do you ever get in this world?"

But he went over and tapped the strangler on the shoulder.

"I hate to say it, Greyboar, but the professor's right. We ought to be moving along."

Greyboar nodded. "Let's go, Shelyid," he said, and rose up. He placed the dwarf on his feet.

"Okay?" he asked. Shelyid nodded. He even managed a feeble smile.

Greyboar looked around the room. Except for the two tables and the chairs around them, the room was bare. There were three doors in the room. The first was the one they had burst through earlier, leading to Inkman's bedchamber. There was a second door on the opposite wall, normal in its appearance. The last door, on the other hand, was quite extraordinary. Located against a third wall, it was not only constructed of iron rather than wood, but was held shut by no less than four great metal bars.

"Check that door, will you, Ignace?" said Greyboar, pointing to the normal-looking door. "Pays to be careful. But unless I miss my guess, this great ugly iron door's the one where the business takes us."

A moment later, his investigation completed, Ignace announced that the door led only to a corridor.

"Thought so," grunted Greyboar. "That's how the soldiers get in and out." He grinned. "Can't have common troops parading around while the great Cruddy's engaged in sexual outré-course."

A more solemn expression then came upon him, as he inspected the iron door, very thoughtfully. The strangler pursed his lips and whistled.

"Don't much like the look of this. You'll have noticed, Ignace, that these great bars are all designed to keep whatever's on the other side of that door from getting to the warm little bodies of the people who hang out on this side of the door."

"I am not stupid," came the agent's reply.

"No, no, you're not," agreed Greyboar. "Irascible, yes. Dyspeptic, yes. Unpleasant, frequently. A pain in the ass, as often as not. But stupid, no."

"Me—a pain in the ass?" shrilled Ignace. "You should talk!" The agent glared at the door. "The Old Geister only knows what kind of horror's lurking on the other side of that door."

"Yes, and we're about to find out," responded Greyboar, placidly enough. "Come on, let's get to it." And so saying, the strangler made short work of removing the bars from the door. A moment later, the door itself stood open. A dark passageway loomed beyond, its end not in sight.

"Nothing ventured, nothing gained," announced Greyboar, heading down the passageway. Zulkeh followed, with Shelyid close behind. But before the dwarf could pass through the door, Ignace stopped him with a hand on his shoulder. Shelyid looked up at the agent, suspicion and wariness plain on his face.

"Look, kid," began Ignace, then, after a pause: "Look, Shelyid, I'm sorry about what I did back at Magrit's place. I shouldn't have picked on you the way I did. I just—well, it's like the big guy says, the truth is sometimes I'm an asshole." He stopped, groped for words, found none.

The frown on Shelyid's face cleared, and he said: "It's okay. I don't think probably anybody can get through life without once in a while being an asshole." He stuck out his little hand. Ignace took it and the two midgets shook hands. Acting for all the world like gentlemen!

"We'd better go," said Shelyid. He made to enter the passageway, then turned back. "I'm sorry I chased you around with a knife and tried to chop you into pieces," he said. Suddenly his face contorted, in a most astonishing manner.

And a sight it was, too, to see dozens of the Alfredae rushing to the scene, chittering with excitement. Long hours were spent in the days thereafter, scribe consulting scribe, logs and records examined, notes and diaries subjected to the most detailed scrutiny. Throughout, I kept a dignified silence, as befitted the Alfred. Of course, I am the Alfred, and therefore I knew the answer from the beginning, long before the lesser notaries announced, in solemn clan gathering, the official recording of a hitherto unknown event.

Shelyid had grinned.

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