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A Paradox, Followed By a Quandary. The Wizard's Wrath. The Wizard's New Experience, and His Later Reflections Thereon. "Shelyid's Wild Ride." A Lousely Schism. The Crud's Doom. A Parting!

"Unspeakable gnome!" oathed Zulkeh. "What have you done?"

"I didn't do anything, master," whined Shelyid. "I just took the thing like you gave it to me."

"The seal is broken! Look you, 'tis broken!"

"It's not my fault," pouted the dwarf. "I didn't break it. I didn't do nothing!"

"Anything," corrected the mage. Then, still glaring, he stroked his beard. " 'Tis true," he mused, "there is no way such a novice as yourself could have broken the seal. Still, 'tis odd. 'Tis most odd!"

"Who cares how it got broken?" interjected Ignace. "It is broken, right—the seal, I mean?"

"Certainly!" snorted the mage. "Can you not—"

"Then it don't matter how it got broken!" cried Ignace. "And don't bother with my grammar," he added, forestalling the mage, "I'm to old to change habits. The important thing is to get out of here quick. We got what we came for, so let's go!"

"But the paradox—" protested Zulkeh. 'Twas of no use. Ignace snatched the relic from Shelyid's hand and headed out the door, Greyboar close behind. After a moment, the wizard threw up his hands in frustration.

"Bah!" he oathed. "I fear Ignace is right. Come, Shelyid, we must depart." And so saying, the mage followed the strangler and his agent. "Still," he was heard to mutter, " 'tis most mysterious, most enigmatic!"

Shelyid came after, followed in turn by the snarl, like a giant puppy following a child. Rapidly, the bizarre-looking party made their way through the snarl's former prison chamber and into Inkman's bedchamber. No sooner had the snarl squeezed its way into the room than it began a fierce sniffing of the bed. 'Twas apparent the beast had smelled his ex-captor's scent, for the monster suddenly roared—causing all others present to jump with alarm!—and then proceeded, in but three seconds, to transform the bed into so much wood and leather wreckage.

"Inkman did not win the heart of his pet, I'd say," commented Greyboar drily. The strangler stooped and entered the tunnel in the far wall.

"Here we go again," he complained. "I'll be a hunchback before the night's over."

Greyboar was followed by Ignace, then Zulkeh, then Shelyid, then—

—a problem presented itself.

Hearing a whimper, Shelyid turned and beheld the snarl's head at the entrance to the tunnel, its hitherto-fierce eyes filled with a look of sorrow. It whimpered again.

"Oh, wait!" cried Shelyid. "She can't fit into the tunnel! We'll have to find a different way out!"

There followed a most absurd dispute. For the dwarf, exhibiting that petulant stubbornness which was perhaps his most unattractive characteristic, refused to listen to reason, even as his master advanced the most cogent arguments and clever dialectic, the thrust of which was that there was no other possible escape route than Gauphin's tunnels.

"He's right, Shelyid," said Greyboar, as the mage paused to catch his breath. "The only other way out is through the main corridor into the Embassy. Place'll be crawling with soldiers. If I thought we'd have a chance, I'd be willing to try it. But there's limits, I'm afraid, even for a strangler."

"Let's just open the door into the corridor and let the snarl out," suggested Ignace. "Maybe she can escape on her own—what the hell, the soldiers probably won't try to stop her." The agent looked up at the great horror. "I sure as hell wouldn't."

"Bah!" oathed Zulkeh. "'Tis a ridiculous scheme! No doubt she could deal with the soldiers, but how is the great creature supposed to open the various doors along the way? The snarl could break through some of them, certainly, but an Ozarine embassy is sure to have any number of bronze portals, iron gratings and the like, cunningly locked and barred, which no amount of brute force can overcome. 'Twould require deft fingers to pass through such, and—well." He shrugged. "Examine the beast's paws, if you will!"

All looked. And 'twas clear at a glance, even to the dwarf, that the snarl's extremities were not well suited for lock-picking. Other tasks, yes—gutting, rending, disemboweling, mangling—but opening cunningly barred and locked metal doors, no.

"So, you see," concluded Zulkeh, "we have no option." In a rare gesture, he laid a kind hand on his apprentice's shoulder. "I am unhappy myself at the fact, Shelyid, for I abhor the thought of leaving the poor creature to Inkman's mercy—the more so as our recent theft of his relic will no doubt greatly enhance his already, judging from all evidence, exceedingly sadistic bent. But here as in all things, must Reason be our—"

"I can open the doors for her," said Shelyid.

Before his master could fully grasp the meaning of these words, Shelyid darted out of the tunnel and seized a tuft of the snarl's throat fur.

"Come on!" cried the gnome, tugging the monster toward the far door, "you and me'll go the other way! I'll meet you back at Magrit's house, master!" he shouted over his shoulder.

"Shelyid!" exclaimed Zulkeh. "Halt! Cease and desist in this madness!" His voice rang with sure command.

The dwarf stopped abruptly. His little shoulders hunched. He turned around and looked at the wizard.

"No," he said. Very softly, very firmly.

Zulkeh's face assumed the aspect of apoplexy. "Impudent dwarf!" raged the sorcerer. "Disobedient wretch! Not only stupid but-now-revealed-to-be-disloyal apprentice!"

"I'm not disloyal," stated Shelyid. "I'm not at all, that's not fair, and besides you'll be all right because you'll have Greyboar and Ignace to look after you." He stopped, groped for words, then said: "It's just, well, I have to be loyal to her too."

But 'twas clear as day the wizard was in no mood for argument.

"Bah!" he oathed. "My safety is beside the point! The issue here is your impertinence! Your rebellion 'gainst my authority! Your—"

The silence which now fell upon the mage was total, sudden, complete.

In later time, Zulkeh would reminisce more than once on the new experience he was now undergoing. On such occasions he would allow, with quite atypical modesty, that the vast theoretic knowledge which he had acquired beforehand, even when added to his own empirical observations, had never prepared him for the actual reality of Greyboar's choke.

" 'The Hand of Fate,' 'tis called in southwest Grotum and the Grenadine," he would comment to his rapt audience. "In the Crapaude, Mortemain; in east Grotum, 'Doomclasp'; throughout the Ozarine, of course, 'the Great Crunch' is common, though many prefer 'the Devil's Grip'; in Alsask, 'tis invariably called simply 'the Squeeze,' which is further embellished among the Kushrau to 'the Big Squeeze.' But"—here he would wag his finger solemnly—"I have personally experienced the phenomenon, and I can assure you that none of these names—though they each capture some aspect of its essence—approaches in exactitude the phrase which is universal in Greyboar's own homeland of Sfinctria, I speak, of course, of 'the Thumbs of Eternity.' "

"You know," growled Greyboar, "sometimes you piss me off."

"Take it easy, big guy, take it easy!" exclaimed Ignace, prying himself between Greyboar and the mage.

"You don't want to piss him off," he said to Zulkeh. "Trust me on this one."

'Twas apparent, by his gestures, that the mage was attempting to indicate his full agreement with Ignace's last point. Words, of course, failed him.

"Greyboar," came Shelyid's shrill voice, "let go of him!" And, astonishingly: "Now!"

A moment's hesitation, then the strangler released Zulkeh. The wizard gasped for breath. Greyboar turned to Shelyid.

"I was just—" He stopped, stared.

Truly an incredible sight! For there was the dwarf, perched on top of the snarl's shoulders, for all the world like a tiny mahout riding a carnivorous elephant!

"I know," said Shelyid, "but you still shouldn't choke the master. He just gets excited sometimes, especially when I irritate him, which happens pretty often." Then, to Zulkeh: "Are you all right, master?"

The wizard wheezed and whistled. "Of course . . . not . . . all right . . . imbecile! Just been . . . throttled . . . world's . . . premier strangleur . . . what a . . . question! Rattlepated runt . . . half-witted homunculus . . ."

"He's okay," announced Ignace.

"He's right, master!" cried Shelyid. "You'll be back to normal—"

"—moronic midget . . . pinheaded pygmy . . ."

"—in no time!" The dwarf tugged on the snarl's left ear, turning the beast around—for all the world like a champion equestrian! "We gotta go! I'll see you at Magrit's house later!" And so saying, dwarf and snarl-mount headed toward the door leading to the main corridor. But Shelyid stopped almost at once and turned to look back, consternation on his face.

"Oh! I almost forgot! The master's sack!"

He looked appealingly at Greyboar. "I really can't take it with me," he said, "I was wondering if, well, maybe you could—"

"Don't worry about it," rumbled the strangler, "I'll make sure the wizard doesn't lose his precious bag."

"Oh, thank you!" cried Shelyid. A moment later, he and the snarl disappeared.

"Good luck, Shelyid!" shouted Ignace. Turning back, he said: "Well, let's hope he makes it. Come on, Greyboar, pick up the sack and let's get out of here!" The agent grabbed Zulkeh and shoved the still-wheezily-denouncing mage ahead of him into the corridor.

Greyboar bent over, reached down a hand, seized the sack, and flung it over his shoulder.

And collapsed to the floor.

"What's in this thing," he complained, "lead bricks?" The strangler rose again and lifted the sack anew, this time firmly braced and using both hands. His knees bent, his great thews rippled with effort. The sack now on his shoulders, he stooped and entered the tunnel, grumbling: "How does that tiny little guy manage to carry this thing, anyway?"

* * *

The events which now followed caused such excitement and consternation among the Alfredae as to completely overshadow the fierce debate which had erupted among us not more than a few minutes earlier. The debate, of course, centered on the proper significance to be given Shelyid's defiance of his master. Was this, as some argued, the first act of rebellion in his life? Or rather, so countered others, but a continuation of the insolence which had first manifested itself in Shelyid's behavior at the tavern and been shortly followed by his refusal to heed Zulkeh's commands to cease and desist his murderous attempts on the person of Ignace?

As the Alfred, it was naturally left to me to decide the issue. At the appropriate time I did so, coming down firmly on the side of those who advanced what came to be known as the Thesis of First Revolt. For 'twas clear, I explained in my authoritative judgement, that Shelyid's earlier acts of insubordination occurred while the gnome was incapacitated due to strong drink and frenzy. Whereas in this instance, we had to deal with conscious and sober insurrection, committed by the dwarf in full possession of his faculties (such as they were).

All this, however, came later. For no sooner had the debate begun to wax hot, than the events which piled upon us swept all other considerations aside.

In the official annals of the Alfredae, it is known as The Snarlrun, but noble and common louse alike invariably refer to it in the vernacular: "Shelyid's Wild Ride."

The madness began at once. For no sooner had Shelyid and snarl entered the main corridor than they ran right into a squad of soldiery—a platoon, I should say. These wights were hastening forward, led by a leftenant with drawn sword, who was even at that moment shouting:

"Faster! You all heard the alarm! Someone's—"

The leftenant's speech ended, as invariably happens when a speaker's head is bitten off by a snarl. A snarl in full fury, as the soon-decorating-the-walls-of-the-corridor entrails of half a platoon attested. The other half retained their innards by utilizing the classic methods of rout and stampede, though 'twas clear from the smell that these innards were no longer continent.

Even then, there is little doubt the snarl would have hunted them down with ease save that Shelyid restrained the great beast, not without difficulty.

"Stop! Stop!" he cried, tugging at the monster's ears. This availing little, the dwarf leaned over the snarl's forehead and slapped the horror's snout.

"Cut it out, dummy!" The snarl stopped in its tracks, whether out of obedience or out of astonishment that a bite-sized idiot would slap a snarl on the snout even while the snarl is rending flesh, it is difficult to say.

Shelyid hopped off the snarl and raced back to the corpse of the leftenant. A moment of groping, and the dwarf was racing back, holding up a large key ring.

"See? See?" demanded the gnome. "I had to get the keys—we'll need them later!" He leapt back aboard his huge mount. "Okay, let's go!"

The scenes of carnage which followed appalled even the hardened scribes of the Alfredae. Limbs strewn about like confetti! Torsos severed! Skulls shattered like melons! Blood pouring down corridors like a river! Intestines flowing down staircases like a mudslide! Grue and gore—gore and grue!

And the hideous scenes of individual tragedy, which burn deeper into the memory than the general slaughter! The elderly Seneschal of the Keep, cornered, crying: "Down, boy, down!" 'Twas perhaps the snarl's annoyance at this confusion of her sex which caused her to linger over the dotard's demise. The young Captain of Cuirassiers, stripped from his half-armor like an oyster from its shell, yet still possessing that savoir faire which is the hallmark of the aristocracy to which his handsome-though-ashen features clearly marked his membership, down on one knee in a clever stratagem, snapping his fingers, saying: "Here kitty, kitty, kitty!" Alas, to no avail! The distinguished Chamberlain—but enough! I grow nauseous at the memory!

Worse than the snarl's bestiality was the dastardly role played by the gnome Shelyid. 'Twas only the apprentice's aiding and abetting which permitted the slaughter to continue. Time and again, clots of fleeing officials and soldiers would yet retain the presence of mind to close and lock behind them the great iron doors which separated the various sections of the castle. On such occasions—each and every one!—would the pitiless dwarf leap from the snarl's shoulders and open the locks. The locks once turned, of course, no weight of officialdom leaning on the other side could for an instant prevent the snarl from forcing its way through. Then! Ambassador Salad—tossed! Flank of Diplomat—shredded! Plenipotentiary Steak—chopped! Loin of Legate! Envoy Bouillabaisse! Not to mention, of course, the steady diet of Ground Round Dragoon.

Worse yet than the butchery of bodies was the spiritual anguish of unshriven souls. For oft were cries of rue and chagrin heard issuing from the lips of the doomed! And, as is known by man and louse alike, 'tis bad enough to die, but 'tis worse to die in the grip of hopeless regret.

"I told him not to use the whips!" were the last words of a consul, even as he disappeared into the great maw.

"Damn all Cruds and their schemes!" came from a stalwart Colonel of Lance, expiring on the chandelier whence a single blow of the snarl's paw had sent him and his several and separate portions.

The most common expression of regret, of course, was the ubiquitous phrase: "He could have at least fed the thing!"

In this entire holocaust, I can hear the reader's shaken query in my mind's ear: was there a single instance where the dwarf Shelyid used his influence to stay the monster? Even for a moment? Even if in vain?

Not one.

To the contrary! The gnome urged the ravenous beast on! Yes! Yes! I say it again! Time and again, Shelyid was heard to say, in the childlike tones of a boy excusing his pet's misconduct: "That mean Mr. Inkman! Starving you like that!"

From this day, came a sea change over the attitude of the Alfredae—of its scribal class, I should say—toward the dwarf. Of Shelyid's pathetically addled mind, of course, our view remained unchanged. But where, in times gone by, superior and subordinate notaries alike—even Alfreds themselves!—were oft heard to say: "Still and all, a sweet-tempered little fellow"—never again! Nay, never again! In the stead of such benevolent comments came the frequent habit, on the part of superior and subordinate notaries alike, of referring to the evil-souled apprentice by those cognomens which were to become, all too soon, the common property of the civilized world entire:

Shelyid the Terrible.

Shelyid the Merciless.

Shelyid the Cruel.

The Runt Rampant.

The Thuggee Dwarf.

Kali's Gnome.

The Midget Sans Merci.

Pygmy the Impaler.

And, of course: The Rebel.

But worst of all was the sea change which now also began among the lesser lice—the pen-fumblers, the ink-spillers, the mis-spellers, the lack-grammars, the declension-bunglers, the—well!—in sum, that entire motley rabble which is known as the class of louselouts.

For these dregs reacted otherwise than the cultured strata. Oh, otherwise indeed! Throughout The Snarlrun, while their betters stood silent, aghast, able to keep quill to paper solely by dint of long training and stern regimen, did the canaille gather upon Shelyid's shoulders and cavort shamelessly. Disgusting slogans did they chant:

"Two, four, six, eight! What do we appreciate? Masticate! Masticate!"

Most popular of all: "De Flense! De Flense!"

In defiance of all custom, 'twould be from this time forward that the lower lice would develop their own terms and definitions. The insolence began with the rabble's own nicknames for the apprentice, which cognomens became, all too soon, the common property of the globe's sansculottes:

Shelyid the Plucky.

Shelyid the Bold.

Shelyid the Brave.

The Runt Rambunctious.

The Disabused Dwarf.

The Gnome Unleashed.

The Midget Sans Peur et Sans Reproche.

Pygmy the Mahdi.

And, of course: The Rebel.

Soon enough, sentiment would lead to deed. Began then that period in Alfredae history known as The Troubles. Mad philosophies appeared, swept the mob, only to be discarded in favor of outlandish ideologies, which, in turn, were casually cast aside for doctrines still more extreme. Bands of savage young louselouts arose, who scuffled shamelessly with the respectable apprentices and sub-scribes. It became dangerous for an educated louse to scurry at night through entire sections of Shelyid. Why, the hooligans even declared the dwarf's left leg a "No Go Area"—and woe to the penlouse who ventured thereon!

But I race ahead of our tale. The Troubles lay still ahead—though not far distant! But 'tis well said that "narrative must follow its own course," and so do we return to the moment:

Shelyid and snarl were now in a great corridor on the ground floor of the Embassy. Ahead of them, at the end of the corridor, a door was open. Beyond, the lights of the city could be seen.

"That's the way out!" cried the dwarf. "Come on, let's go!"

The snarl made its way quickly down the corridor, approaching a door to their right, through which could be heard a great hubbub. Then, just as the beast was passing the door, the hubbub was stilled by a piercing voice.

The words could not be made out, but the snarl froze, twisted its head, swung forward its ears. The voice was heard again. Again. And yet again.

Now did the beast's features assume that expression which gives the snarl its name. Without warning, the monster hurled itself at the door!

The door splintered under the blow. The snarl forced its way through, uttering such a roar as to waken the dead. They were in a great ballroom, filled with people, all of whom were at that very moment transfixed with terror at the sight of the snarl.

But, in truth, the huge crowd was—in its overwhelming majority—quite beyond danger. For the snarl's attentions were fixed entirely upon the person of a single figure within the room—a thin man, practically skeletal, tall, dressed all in black. The man stared back at the snarl with equally rapt fixation, his blue eyes flashing with the look of eagles.

Such eagles, at least, as have aroused the mortal fury of the legendary roc.

"Oh shit!" he cried. But the Savior of the Rellenos was made of stern stuff. Even as the great monster bounded toward him, maw gaping wide, Inkman stood his ground.

"Soldiers, arrest that beast!" he ordered.

Then, seeing the soldiers fleeing the scene, Inkman's voice rang with paramount authority: "Notables of Ozar! Nobles of Pryggia—arrest the soldiers!"

Then, seeing the nobility and the plutocracy trampling the soldiery underfoot in their mad rush for the doors, Inkman's voice grew stentorious with imperial command.

"Traitors! Arrest yourselves!"

Then, even as the doom was upon him, Inkman faced his end with that sangfroid which is the hallmark of all great champions of law and order. His last sentence, crackling with a tone which can only be described as Olympian:

"Stop, beast—on pain of investigation!"

Alas, crackling tone was now replaced by crunching bone.

So passed Rupert Inkman, Crud among Cruds, Groutch chief of station, brilliant investigator, dazzling interrogator, the Scourge of Sedition, the Hammer of the Right, and many other prestigious titles, positions and cognomens—but hereafter known among the Groutch masses, I am grieved to relate, as The Just Dessert.

Eventually Shelyid was able to coax the snarl to leave aside its frenzied Crud-crunching, though not before Inkman's last finger bone disappeared into the horrid maw.

"C'mon, baby," he whispered urgently into the beast's ear, "we gotta go!" The snarl, apparently sated both in body and soul, obediently ambled through the double doors leading to the entry beyond.

A moment later, dwarf and beast were padding through the deserted streets of Prygg. It seemed that word of the slaughter had spread throughout the city. Even many blocks from the embassy, all doors were shut, all shutters barred. No one walked abroad that Halloween night!

Or, almost no one.

"Psst! Shelyid!" came a low and hoarse cry from an alley to their left. The snarl's hackles began to rise, but fell soon enough as it became clear that Shelyid was ecstatic.

"Oh, it's Magrit!" cried the dwarf. "And Les Six!"

Sure enough, 'twas the disreputable septet in the flesh. They ventured out from the alley and came up to the dwarf—keeping a certain distance, to be sure.

Amazingly, Les Six were speechless. Magrit was not, quite.

"I've seen everything now," she muttered. Then, to Shelyid: "You want to come with us? My house is just around the corner."

The apprentice hesitated. "Well." He stroked the snarl's shoulder. "Well, yes, I guess I'd better." He started to climb down from the monster, then hesitated.

"Maybe I should stay with her just a while longer," he said. "Just to make sure she gets out of the city all right."

Good fortune is always brief. Les Six found their voice.

" 'Tis true!" cried the first.

"The snarl needs a shepherd to guide it through the streets!" pleaded the second.

"The perilous streets of the Pryggian night!" gasped the third. "Filled with ruffians and footpads!"

"I can see the horrid scene now!" wailed the fourth. "The snarl ambushed!"

"The bloodthirsty cutpurse advancing, knife in hand!" moaned the fifth.

"The snarl at bay! Cornered! Back to the wall! Whimpering for mercy!" This from the sixth, and back around to the first.

"But 'tis a pitiless rogue, yon blackguard of—"

"All right! All right! You've made the point!" shrilled the dwarf. He climbed down from the snarl. For a moment, dwarf and monster stared at each other, their eyes not two feet apart. The beast licked Shelyid's face with a great purple tongue. The dwarf giggled, then clutched the terror's neck. His puny little arms didn't reach halfway around.

"Take care of yourself," he mumbled into the mass of fur, then stepped back. Another moment of this absurd mutual admiration. Suddenly the snarl was gone, flitting down the alleys like a ghost, heading toward the great rocky crags to the west, which shone in the moonlight above the rooftops.

Now afoot, like a proper gnome, Shelyid followed Magrit and Les Six in the opposite direction. Once only he looked back.

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