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A Horror Heard. A Wizard's Uninterrupted Exposition. A Horror Seen. And a Horror It Is, Too! The Strangler Prepares. A Dwarf's Folly. The Unforeseen Results Therefrom. The Relic Found. The Mage is Disgruntled!

The nature of the horror lurking at the end of the corridor was known to our heroes long before it was seen. There was no mistaking the source of the bloodcurdling roars and bellows echoing down the corridor from some place still ahead.

"A snarl," announced Zulkeh. "A rock snarl, if I am not mistaken. The tone and timbre is similar, of course, to that of a mountain snarl. But that slight tremor at the upper registers—no, 'tis a rock snarl, 'tis certain."

"How did the lousy Crud get himself a tame snarl?" demanded Ignace. "I thought the things couldn't be captured and tamed."

"They cannot be tamed," responded the wizard firmly. "Indeed, 'tis this very impossibility of domesticating the snarl—in any of its varieties—which most clearly distinguishes the monster from all other manner of wild beasts. On this all scholars agree.

"As for the capture of snarls," he continued, "here there is some confusion in the popular mind. 'Tis not true, as many of the common folk think, that snarls cannot be captured. The beasts are not, after all, supernatural! They can be, and have been, captured on occasion—though very rarely, for the cost in life and limb is invariably immense. And the reward poor! For while snarls can be captured, they cannot be kept in captivity. All too often the creatures escape, for they are not only fearsome in size, strength and swiftness, but cunning beyond all other beasts. And when they do not escape, they invariably perish within a relatively short time, due, it would appear, to heartbreak."

'Twas clear as day, from the deliberate pacing which he now assumed in his progress down the corridor, that the sorcerer was well into his lecture mode. Under most circumstances, his not-academically-inclined companions would no doubt have interrupted him with rude and uncouth remarks. But on this occasion, they listened attentively. So does the prospect of encountering a snarl concentrate even the lowlife mind!

"In all recorded history, there is but one instance of a systematic attempt to entrap snarls. I refer, of course, to the reign of the legendary Panjandrum of the Voracious Regime, whose domain appears to have covered all of Grotum. As recounted by Herodotus Laebmauntsforcynneweëld, this great monarch developed, in the first year of his reign, an obsession with snarl fur. Thus was his army commanded to go forth and hunt down the snarls of the land for their pelts—prairie snarls, meadow snarls, mountain snarls, and the like. By his second year on the throne, the Panjandrum had enough pelts to carpet his throne room. Alas, he had no army. Then was his navy commanded to sail forth and hunt down the snarls of the coastal regions—delta snarls, bayou snarls, mangrove snarls, and the like. By his third year on the throne, the Panjandrum had sufficient pelts to carpet his bedroom as well. Alas, he had no navy. Then were his officials, the whole of his great bureaucracy, sent forth to hunt down the snarls of the cities and towns—street snarls, alley snarls, house snarls, and the like. Of course, there were no such snarls, for the beasts detested settled regions—as they do to this day. Displeased, the Panjandrum ordered the army to execute the officials. Of course, this mass execution did not take place, as he had no army. Displeased still further, the Panjandrum ordered the navy to execute the army. This mass execution likewise did not take place, as he had no navy. Now greatly displeased, the Panjandrum ordered the bureaucracy to execute the navy. Again he failed in his purpose, due, of course, to the absence of a navy to execute. Now displeased beyond measure, the Panjandrum ordered his lowly subjects to execute the bureaucracy. This they immediately did, with vigor and enthusiasm. Now again pleased, in his fourth year on the throne the Panjandrum ordered his subjects to sally forth and hunt down such snarls as they could find wherever they could find them. By his fifth year on the throne, he had but one additional pelt, enough to cover only his closet. Alas, he had no subjects."

The wizard now stroked his beard, always a sign of deep thought. Then:

"To this point in the tale, all ancient chronicles agree. But here opens up the famed and furious dispute between Herodotus and his arch-rival in ancient historiography, I refer, of course, to Thucydides Sfondrati-Piccolomini. For where Herodotus would have it that the Panjandrum soon died from his inability to feed, clothe and bathe himself—never having needed to learn these simple skills—Thucydides claims, to the contrary, that his palace was invaded by a horde of snarls who tore him limb from limb. 'Tis difficult to choose between these two alternative accounts, for documentation is entirely lacking and the higher truth of Poetic Justice would seem to lie, with equal force, on either side of the dispute. I myself, however, am inclined to place more weight than most scholars on the point advanced by Thucydides' cousin, Xenophon Sfondrati-Piccolomini, in his—"

But there the lecture ended, for at that moment our heroes rounded a bend in the corridor and saw before them the very subject of discussion. A rock snarl 'twas indeed, a most large one to boot. And one which had, at the selfsame moment, espied our heroes.

The adventurous foursome paled as one man, or rather, as three men and a gnome. The huge monster lunged at them, its maw gaping wide. But its charge was brought short suddenly. A great twang was heard, as of a giant bowstring. And now, looking closely, our heroes saw that the creature was held back by a chain which stretched from a collar on its neck to a winch-like contraption to one side.

"Most clever!" spoke the mage. "Note how shrewdly Inkman has designed this chamber wherein the ferocious snarl even now prowls, roaring, lashing its tail, eyeing us with frustrated predatory zeal. The chain is long enough that the beast can seize anyone who ventures into the chamber, but not so long as to devour those who remain in the corridor."

"Then how does Inkman get by it?" asked Greyboar.

"See you the winch?" demanded Zulkeh. "No doubt there is some hidden device, located here in the corridor, which enables Inkman to haul back the monster far enough to allow him access to the room which lies beyond yonder door"—here the wizard pointed to a door at the opposite end of the chamber—"wherein rests, as certain as the sunrise, the very relic we seek."

"Then let's find the device!" exclaimed Ignace, who immediately began a close investigation of the corridor.

"Bah!" oathed Zulkeh. "What would be the point of this entire arrangement could such a device be found by any would-be reivers who came along? Desist, young man! You will not find it, I assure you. Even I, armed with a lifetime's theory and practical skill at the discovery of hidden mechanisms, caches, trapdoors and the like, have no hope of finding it. No, no, I fear we have no choice but to overcome the horror."

"You sure about that?" asked Greyboar.

"I am positive."

"How about using some magic on the critter, then?" queried Ignace. "You know, cast a spell on it or something?"

Zulkeh shook his head. "'Twill avail but little. The snarl is notoriously resistant to all forms of magic and magery. I will do my best, I assure you, to utilize those few cantrips which have in the past proved to have some slight effect on the monsters. But, I warn you, the cantrips are unreliable and, even at their best, not very effective. At most, I can perhaps slightly dull the beast's normally lightning-quick reactions. I fear me that we have no choice but to rely on physical force. Which," he added quickly, taking a step back into the corridor, "is neither my forte nor my area of expertise."

"Never fails," grumbled Greyboar. "When the chips are down, everybody calls for the lowbrow." He examined the snarl, not, or so it seemed, filled with joyful anticipation of the future.

"A bit dicey, this," he muttered. "I can whip five times my weight in crocodiles, twice my weight in bears. Even wrestled a walrus once in a circus, when I was hungry and down on my luck. Had him pinned, too, till he got cranky and tried to use his tusks. Had to throttle him, then, which irritated his owner no end. Cost me the job." He whistled soundlessly. "Oh, boy. Well, best get to it."

The strangler stripped off his leather jerkin. The musculature now exposed was, depending on one's perspective, an anatomist's dream or an aesthete's nightmare. At once, Greyboar began a regimen of stretching and limbering up exercises which would have crippled your average athletic champion.

Shelyid lowered the sack, his face creased by a puzzled frown. "What are you doing?" Then, as the light of comprehension dawned in his brain: "You're going to hurt the snarl!"

Greyboar looked up, startled. "You're worried about me hurting the snarl?" He grimaced. "My concern runs the other way around. Some friend you turn out to be!"

Shelyid looked around wildly, then appealed to his master.

"But, master!" he cried. "We shouldn't do this! I mean, the snarl didn't do us no harm! It's not his fault he's all chained up here—it's that Mr. Inkman who's to blame!"

Zulkeh patted the gnome's head. "Yes, yes, Shelyid, in the broader historical and ethical perspective there is much to what you say. Yet, look you, dwarf, we deal here in a more circumscribed and limited sphere. 'Tis legitimate for us to do so, I might mention. For he did not say himself, the great scholar—"

What the great scholar said—indeed, the identity of the scholar himself—will forever remain a mystery. For at that very moment did the dwarf Shelyid charge into the chamber, directly at the raging snarl, his little hands raised before him!

"Go back, go back!" he called out to the snarl. "Just go over to the side, out of the way, and you'll be okay. Greyboar doesn't really want to hurt you, we just want to get into that door over there and what do you care anyway, I mean, it's that Mr. Inkman what put you in th—"

He got no further. With one monstrous swipe of its talon-tipped paw, the snarl smashed Shelyid's body to the floor, like a giant swatting a fly.

"Oh horror!" cried Zulkeh. Greyboar and Ignace looked away, grimacing.

"Oh horror!" cried Zulkeh. "The diminutive cretin's at it again!" Greyboar and Ignace looked back, astonishment upon their faces.

And indeed, the now-certifiably-moronic dwarf had risen to his feet, somewhat shakily, and advanced again upon the snarl. This time, however, his hands were not raised high in appeal, but clenched in pigmy petulance.

"That hurt!" shrilled Shelyid. The monster's head plunged down, jaws gaping wide.

Shelyid punched its snout.

The snarl pulled back its head abruptly. Its jaws snapped shut. For a moment—insane moment!—monster and dwarf gazed at each other, their eyeballs not more than two feet apart. Shelyid was glaring, if such a fierce description can be applied to the gnome's ridiculous little face. The snarl's expression was impossible to describe at all. Uncertainty, puzzlement, surprise, confusion—perhaps a bit of all of these. But perhaps not—'tis difficult to ascertain the mental state of a beast which is, after all, mindless.

The impasse was broken by Greyboar.

"Don't move, Shelyid!" he shouted, advancing rapidly toward the pair, his great hands outstretched in a wrestler's pose. "I'll take care of it!"

The snarl's head turned. Seeing Greyboar approach, the monster's hackles rose, a great snarl issued from its maw—and they don't call the beasts "snarls" for nothing, let me assure you!

"Stay away!" shrilled Shelyid. But Greyboar's attention was wholly fixed on the snarl, which was even that moment matching wrestler's stance with predator's stalk.

"Stay away!" cried Shelyid again. Rushing at the strangler, the dwarf stretched out his hands and thrust them into Greyboar's belly—if such a word as "belly" can be used to describe a stomach like the plastron of a giant weight-lifting tortoise.

Greyboar landed on his rump. "Utter shock" best describes the expression on his face.

"You knocked me down!" he bellowed.

Shelyid grimaced. He started to speak, then spotted the head of the snarl, which was even then pushing past him, jaws wide, flaming eyes fixed on the form of the strangler.

"And you stop it too!" shrilled the dwarf. He smacked the snarl's snout. Then smacked it again. The enormous beast backed up a pace, stared at Shelyid. Whined. Sat back on its haunches—for all the world like a dog brought to heel!

"You knocked me down!" bellowed Greyboar.

Shelyid turned back to the strangler. Grimaced again. Shrugged apologetically.

"You knocked me down!" bellowed Greyboar.

Shelyid wrung his hands—and well he should! He began to apologize: "Well, gee, Mr. Greyboar, I didn't mean to but—"

Greyboar, still seated, looked over at Ignace. "Did you see that, Ignace?" He pointed an accusing finger at the dwarf. "He knocked me down!"

Ignace nodded, his face pale. "Yeah, I saw it." The agent whistled tunelessly. "Word of this gets out, our fee'll be cut in half. If we're lucky."

Zulkeh tugged urgently at the agent's sleeve. "Mr. Ignace," he spoke, "I must urge you to exercise whatever ability you possess to restrain your client! I apologize for my apprentice's unseemly behavior, but I am quite certain the miscreant gnome" (here he gazed fiercely at Shelyid, shook his finger, and admonished his apprentice: "Apologize at once to Mr. Greyboar, unworthy wretch!" "I'm trying to," complained Shelyid, "if people'll just let me fin—") "did not intend any actual bodily harm or discomfort to the esteemed chokester—nay, fie on such witless notions! And I can assure you and your client that I shall certainly chastise the insolent youth in a most—"

"Shuddup!" cried Ignace. "Just shuddup! You don't get it, dummy! I ain't worried about 'bodily harm'—ha! Look at the great bruiser! Does he look 'bodily harmed' to you?" And, indeed, it did not appear that any actual physical harm had befallen the strangler.

"It's his reputation, that's the problem," shrilled Ignace. "He's never been knocked down before, it's part of the mystique. Customers pay through the nose for that, don't you know."

"Not actually true," said Greyboar, now rising to his feet. "The Chevalier d'Escroc knocked me down."

"Not in the record book!" shrilled Ignace. "He only put you down on one knee and you right off used the position to tear off his leg and you snatched him falling off the other side of the horse and had him throttled before he even hit the ground—and with his helmet still on! The Records Committee ruled the kneedrop was a maneuver!"

Greyboar grunted. "Yeah, I know, you talked a good line to 'em—but I was there, I know it was a knockdown." He flexed his shoulder at the memory. "Good man with a morning star, the Chevalier."

"Who cares?" demanded Ignace hotly. "D'Escroc's the only one who could argue the point, and he's pushing up daisies. Record says you've never been knocked down!"

"Not any more," commented Greyboar, quite calmly. "Not even you can argue this one. Or what kind of 'maneuver' you want to call me landing plunk on my ass?"

Ignace shook his head in despair. Then, a thought come to him, he turned to Zulkeh.

"Listen, professor, maybe there's no real reason you gotta go public with this. I mean, who knows? Maybe Greyboar and Shelyid were just clowning around, you know, just friendly-like, and maybe Greyboar just pretended to fall down, you know, maybe just—"

"Calm yourself!" spoke Zulkeh. "I have no intention of broadcasting the recent event to the world at large—quite the contrary! I simply wish to retain the services of my stupid but loyal apprentice, who will be of little assistance to me if Greyboar takes umbrage at his recent offense and throttles the wretched little—" He turned to Shelyid, shaking his finger. "I denounce you again, miserable—"

But his admonition was cut short. The wizard was speechless, jaw agape.

The cause of this unwonted silence was plain to see. For even at that moment did the snarl, which had whiled away the preceding minute sniffing at Shelyid's person, seize the dwarf in both paws and begin a vigorous licking of the apprentice's face. Shelyid giggled in protest, trying to fend off the great purple tongue.

"I'll be damned," whispered Greyboar.

"'Tis true, then," mused the mage, stroking his beard, "the dwarf is, in actual fact and not his fancy, a snarl-friend."

"What's that mean?" queried Ignace.

"It is difficult to answer the question," spoke the wizard. "The essence of 'snarl-friendness' remains a complete mystery to all scholars and sages. Though, 'tis true that in his memoirs the world-famed snarl-friend Tarzan Laebmauntsforscynneweëld claims—well, perhaps not at the moment! And, in any event, his thesis is vigorously disputed by no less an authority than Mowgli Sfondrati-Piccolomini, who for his part advances the argument—well, perhaps at a later time! Suffice it to say, sirrah Ignace, that snarls are known to take a strange liking for certain individuals—not many! no more than a handful in each historical epoch—for reasons which are quite unknown. Based on what records exist, only two factors seem to demonstrate a frequency beyond the limits of statistical accident: hirsuteness, especially among males, and great size."

The wizard paused, stroking his beard vigorously. "Of these factors, Shelyid certainly exhibits the first—perhaps to such an extreme as to outweigh his utter lack of the other. For, as all can plainly see, the dwarf does not possess great size. To the contrary! The dwarf is actually—well, actually, he's a dwarf."

More vigorous beard-stroking. "Yet there seems no question that he is a snarl-friend."

Indeed, 'twould be hard to question, for even as the wizard spoke were the dwarf and the snarl engaged in that childish pleasure in play which so typifies the savage beast and the dimwit. The twain romped about, the apprentice shrieking with glee as he slapped the snarl's snout, the latter, for its part, gaily seizing the dwarf in its great maw and swinging the gnome about like a cat shaking a mouse.

"That looks kind of risky," said Greyboar, frowning.

"Nonsense!" spoke the mage. "I admit my apprentice appears scrofulous, but I can assure you that I have always insisted on a regime of hygiene and cleanliness. The snarl is in no danger of contracting—"

"That isn't what I meant!" bellowed the strangler. "I mean it looks risky for Shelyid. Look at the size of that—" He gasped in horror, for the snarl had just swallowed the dwarf whole. Shelyid's peals of laughter could be heard faintly from within the monstrous jaws. But the strangler's disquiet proved unbased. The snarl opened its jaws and Shelyid popped out, none the worse for wear. Actually, he was howling in positive ecstasy at the experience.

Eventually, dwarf and snarl ended their foolish rompery. Shelyid, now inspecting the beast closely as he worked to unfasten its collar, turned to the wizard and said shrilly: "Look, master, the snarl's all scarred up and everything! He's got"—a moment's pause for examination, then:—"she's got all these fresh cuts and sores all over her!"

The wizard nodded his head. "Yes, Shelyid, and I am not surprised. For look you!" Here the mage pointedly dramatically at a great cat-o'-nine-tails hanging on the wall behind. "Clearly 'twas part of Inkman's trap! Not only to keep a snarl chained here in the chamber, but to keep the beast maddened by frequent scourgings. No doubt he also kept the monster on starvation rations! A shrewd man, Inkman, there can be no doubt of it. Anyone who attempts to pass through this chamber to the treasure room beyond must deal not with a snarl, which is bad enough, nor even a starving snarl, which is worse, but a starving snarl driven to the height of rage by torture and torment. Most ingenious! Most sagacious! Most—"

"He's mean!" interrupted Shelyid. He flung the collar to the floor.

"Well, as to that," spoke the mage, "ingenuity and sagacity have, in themselves, no moral character. Nay, fie upon such witless notions! Do we not have before us the splendid historic example of Borgia Sfrondrati-Piccolomini? Not to mention, of course, the—"

"Speaking of treasure rooms," boomed Greyboar, "shouldn't we be getting on with it?"

"Quite so, quite so," admitted the mage. "Some other occasion, Shelyid, will be more suitable for this lecture. But be sure to remind me! 'Tis essential, for your education, to discern with sure precision 'twixt the higher faculties of Reason and the maudlin morass of Emotion."

From the sour expression on his face, it appeared that Shelyid was not filled with anticipation at this promised lesson of the future.

Our heroes crossed the room and opened the door to the chamber beyond. The foursome entered—fivesome, I should say, for the snarl squeezed itself through the door after them. Greyboar looked back, paused, shrugged.

"Why not?" he asked no one in particular.

"Treasure room," the wizard had called it, but in truth, the chamber was utterly bare save for a table in the center. Upon the table rested a small book, bound in green leather. Such were the only objects in the room.

Ignace advanced to the table, reaching out his hand. "That's got to be it!" he exclaimed.

"Stop!" cried the mage. "Stop, you fool!"

Ignace looked back, frowning.

"What's your problem, professor?"

"Dolt!" spoke Zulkeh. "Yon object is a great relic—ancient, potent beyond belief. Think you it is not guarded by fell wards and gruesome glyphs, guardian daemons and the like?"

"Well, maybe, but I don't see anyth—" Ignace choked, then fell silent.

'Twas not, one suspects, so much the size of the great wraith-like serpent which even now appeared, coiled above the book, which convinced Ignace that the wizard had reason on his side. 'Twas probably not the coal-red eyes, nor the dagger-like fangs, nor even the drops of misty poison which fell from said fangs. No, one suspects it was the spirit-snake's voice—throaty, sibilant, seductive—hissing the words: "Oh you stud! Kiss me! Kiss me, you stud!"

"More your line of work, this!" muttered Ignace to Zulkeh, as he beat a hasty retreat.

"Indeed so," concurred the mage, examining the guardian spirit with an expert eye.

"Bah!" he oathed. "A naga!" Clear enough, Zulkeh was displeased.

"And not even a purple," he added darkly, "but a green." He glowered with ill-humor. Then spoke again:

"I am deeply offended at this disrespect!"

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