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CHAPTER XXVII.
Enemies Revealed—But a Deeper Mystery Bared. A Lunatic's Exposition. A Mage's Great Disquiet. A Resolved Apprentice. Traveling Companions Found. Forward the Mage!

"Magrit!" spoke the mage. "I require your expert assistance here. Can you not leave this—this obscene chortling and plotting to a later time?"


The witch looked up from mixing potions. "Huh?" she asked. "Oh. Yes, I suppose so." She rose, muttering fiercely, and stamped over to the table where Zulkeh was examining the Rap Sheet.


"I still can't believe," she snarled, "that two-faced rat! That smiling little slimeball! All this time, pretending to be my friend—and he even had me fooled, I got to admit."


It had been some time earlier, in mid-morning, when the various parties involved in the theft of the Rap Sheet had reconvened in Magrit's chamber. Greyboar and Ignace were alone absent, off on some business of their own. The witch had demanded to be the first to examine the relic. Zulkeh began to protest, then wearily nodded his assent. And truly the mage seemed exhausted by the events of the night past—not from the adventure itself, but from the rigors of the bargaining table.


"From that day forward," he was known to say in later life, "the chambers of the Inquisition held no fears for me. The rack—I laugh! The wheel—I sneer! The whipping post—beneath my contempt!"


And so had Magrit delved deeply into the Rap Sheet, cackling with glee as the name of one unsuspected enemy after another appeared, faithfully recorded in the relic as informers of the various police agencies which had taken a keen interest in the doings of the witch. So great was her enthusiasm, in fact, that she soon broke off further examination of the Rap Sheet and began happily plotting her revenge against the half-dozen now-doomed individuals whose identity she had already ascertained.


'Twas at that point that the wizard was finally able to scrutinize the relic for his own purposes. After a few minutes, a great frown took form on his features. It was then that the mage called for Magrit's aid.


"What is it, Zulkeh?" asked the witch.


"I am totally baffled," admitted the wizard. "Look you on what is revealed herein! Of my enemies—at least, those who have been thwarting me in my attempt to decipher the meaning of the King's dream—there is not a trace! Not a whisper! Not a hint! But—well! See for yourself!" He thrust the relic before her.


The witch examined the Rap Sheet, which was now attuned to the wizard Zulkeh. Listed on its magical pages was all information concerning the mage known to all authorized, semi-authorized, quasi-authorized, pseudo-authorized and unauthorized official agencies charged with police, regulatory or espionage powers anywhere in Grotum. Many sheets did Magrit scan, her eyebrows rising steadily.


She whistled. "Oh, boy! Have you pissed off a lot of people!"


"Practically every authority in Grotum and Ozar has me listed as an arch-criminal!" cried the mage. "Me! Who has always been the most loyal of citizens! A model of propriety!" He was livid with indignation.


Magrit summoned the crowd. "You got to see this!" she boomed. A moment later, all were examining the relic.


The first to react, to Zulkeh's everlasting chagrin, were Les Six.


"Comrade!" they bellowed in one voice, surrounding the mage and pounding his back vigorously. The wizard's protestation of innocence was to no avail.


"You can't be innocent," declared the first.


"You've been accused," explained the second.


"But there have been no charges filed!" protested the mage. "No warrants issued! No subpoenas! No inquest! No trial!"


"What nonsense is this?" demanded the third.


"Would you waste the taxpayer's hard-earned money?" inquired the fourth.


"Fie on such witless notions!" exclaimed the fifth.


The round was cut short by Wolfgang.


"You're all missing the important thing!" he cried. "The cryptic cypher! It's on every page!" The lunatic grinned like an idiot. "Look here, for instance!" He pointed his finger at a notation on the page.


Zulkeh peered closely. "Yes, yes, I had noticed that—and, as you say, it appears frequently, at least once on each page. Magrit, you are more conversant in these matters than I. What is the import of this notation?"


Magrit examined the cypher, then shook her head. "Got no idea. Surprising, too—there's not much in the way of foety gets by me."


"Of course you don't know what it means!" boomed Wolfgang. The madman cackled like, well, like a madman.


Magrit glared up at him. "Do you know something I don't, you fucking loony? Yes! I can tell by that drooling grin! Spit it out, Wolfgang! What does AVEXBU mean?"


"It's an acronym," replied the giant. "It stands for Avatar Extermination Bureau."


Magrit and Zulkeh looked puzzled. "Never heard of it," said the witch. "Nor I," chimed in the wizard.


"Of course you haven't!" agreed Wolfgang cheerfully. "It's the most secret secret society in the world. Not more than a few thousand people anywhere have ever heard of it—and most of them work for the Bureau."


"Is it an Ozarine cabal?" demanded the first.


Wolfgang shook his head. "Not exactly—although it has close ties to many Ozarine spy agencies. Very tight with the Cruds, for instance. No, it's sort of a unique outfit. Ancient, it is—traces its origins back to the Knights Rampant. The Ecclesiarchs have always encouraged it on the highest levels—by which I mean the Twelve Popes. I doubt if even most Cardinals know of it. The Popes have provided much of AVEXBU's funding for centuries. But even they don't control it. It's truly marvelous! An independent spiral of organized insanity, institutionalized madness, passed on down through the generations like syphilis!"


"Then how do you know about it, you nutcase?" demanded Magrit.


Wolfgang blushed like a schoolgirl. "Well, actually, I myself have been the subject of their inquiries. In fact, it's one of the reasons I decided to go mad. Always a good alibi, lunacy."


"You? Why would they go after you?" Magrit's face expressed disbelief.


"I'm not positive, love," responded Wolfgang, "because as soon as I found out they were sniffing around I had my first breakdown. And a doozy it was, too!" He beamed around the room. Then: "But I've always thought it was probably my size."


"You are almost certainly correct," came the quiet voice of Zulkeh. Magrit turned, gasped. The wizard had collapsed into a chair, his face pale as a ghost, a trembling hand stroking his brow.


"Are you all right?" asked Magrit.


"Yes, yes," came the impatient reply. "A moment's weakness, no more. It all makes sense to me, now. I should have known from the beginning! What other subject would so arouse the deepest enmity of the fiercest powers of the Universe? 'Tis no wonder I have not been able to interpret the King's dream!"


"What are you babbling on about?" demanded Magrit. "The both of you!"


Zulkeh coughed. "Madame, please do not take offense at what I am about to say, but—as I recall—history was never your best subject at the University."


Magrit snorted. "Hated the stuff. Dry bones, chewed over by mangy dogs."


An intemperate remark began to emerge from Zulkeh's lips, was choked back. A moment later, the mage spoke:


"I will not dispute the question now. Wolfgang, it was the acronym which confused me. 'AVEXBU' is new to me. I assume it is of recent origin. What I mean to say—we are talking about the Godferrets, are we not?"


"Right as rain! Always thought that was a crazy expression, actually. Why should rain be right? Why not wrong rain? Or left rain, maybe?"


"Wolfgang!" roared Magrit.


"What? Oh. Sorry, dear, my mind wandered. Can't be helped—I'm nuts. Yes, yes! Business first! Zulkeh, you are absolutely correct! We are indeed talking about the Godferrets—also known, at various times and places, as the Weasels of Righteousness, the Almighty's Knout, the Fangs of Piety, the Guardians of—well! I could go on—and on and on. And those, of course, are the names given by admirers! Others—heretics, infidels, suchlike monsters—have preferred other cognomens: the Darkworms, the Slime of Creation, the—well! There's a lot of names. Lot and lots of names! Not surprising, they've been around for a long time."


"Yes, they have," agreed Zulkeh. "But whence this AVEXBU?"


"Oh, that's the new name! Modern times, you know! Separation of Church and State, rights of the individual, freedom of conscience, all that folderol. Slavering sanctimony needs a secular face, nowadays! And besides—acronyms are all the rage among the upper crust, don't you know?"


"Wittgenstein!" bellowed Magrit. "Start the pot boiling—the big one! If I don't get some sensible answers out of these two we're going to have psychopath stew tonight—garnished with chopped sorcerer."


"Right away!" squeaked the salamander, scurrying toward the kitchen. Its voice came back: "Oh boy oh boy oh boy oh boy oh boy I love psychopath stew! Especially the brains! Melt in your mouth like butter!"


"Madame, this is uncouth!" protested Zulkeh. Then, seeing the inevitable riposte, he held up a hand.


" 'Tis simple, witch! This—AVEXBU—is but a modern incarnation of the oldest, and easily the most vicious, of the Church's inquisitory agencies. Though, as Wolfgang says, the Ecclesiarchs long ago lost their grip on the leash. The Godferrets! They claim to answer to no one but the Old Geister himself. The most secret of secret societies—and easily the most powerful! Their influence reaches into the chambers and corridors of all the world's mightiest institutions—temporal and spiritual alike. All this, devoted to one general purpose—the ruthless extermination of Joesy. And to one specific purpose—the sniffing out and destruction of Joe's avatars."


"Joe's avatars?" demanded Magrit. "You mean—Joebacks?"


"That is, I believe, the popular name, yes."


"But that's just a fable!" protested the witch.


"Is it?" demanded the wizard fiercely. "You have, then, suddenly become an expert on Joetrics?"


Magrit snarled. "You know damn good and well I got thrown out of the University before I could qualify for the Arcanum! You should know, you rotten—"


"Please, please!" interjected Wolfgang. "Some calm! Tranquility! My nerves are shot—liable to break down any minute!"


Magrit and Zulkeh fell silent, glaring at each other. Wolfgang picked up the conversation.


"Magrit, dear," he said mildly, "what the wizard's trying to say—with his usual charm!—is that all questions surrounding Joe are mysterious and convoluted. Not to mention dangerous! Nobody can really claim to be an expert on the subject. Well, except my dear aunt Hildegard, I suppose."


"There is one recognized authority," said Zulkeh, his calm returned.


Wolfgang pursed his lips. "Well, yes, there's Uncle Manya. But he's crazier'n a loon, you know. Would have been locked up years ago except his family's so rich they can keep him on the estate—has a whole mansion to himself, I hear!"


A thought apparently came to the lunatic. "Wait a minute," he mused. "What if he's not really crazy? The Godferrets were never happy with him. Tried to kill him a few times, in fact! Nutty idea, of course—trying to kill a Kutumoff on Kutumoff soil. The Godferrets ought to have themselves institutionalized, the idiots! But maybe the General got tired of running assassins—told Uncle Manya to pretend he was a fruitcake, so his dogs could get a rest."


"Sort of like you, you mean," piped up Shelyid from his chair.


Wolfgang bellowed in outrage.


"Like me? What an insult! I'm a certified psychotic! The head psychiatrist at the world-famous asylum at Begfat has said so himself! Many times! And in any number of articles published in the most prestigious psychological journals!"


"You're the head psychiatrist at the asylum at Begfat," protested Shelyid.


"Yes, that's true. What of it? The man's still a giant in his field! One of the most respected figures in psychoanalytic circles the world over! Wolfgang the great psychiatrist says Wolfgang the big nut is a madman—who are you to question his word?"


Shelyid frowned, scratched his head. "There's something about this that doesn't make sense."


Wolfgang now appealed to the wizard. "You know, Zulkeh, you really have to concentrate more on the psychological subjects in the boy's education. Look at the poor tyke! Totally confused by the most basic concepts!"


Zulkeh waved the protest away. "Yes, no doubt. But for the moment, I must discuss a more pressing matter with my apprentice. Shelyid, have you followed this conversation?"


"Oh yes, mast—professor."


The wizard glared fiercely at his apprentice, but the dwarf held his ground. "It's in the contract!" he shrilled. Shelyid dug into his tunic, took out a booklet. "It's right here—right in Article I. 'The apprentice is henceforth to address the wizard as professor. Under no circumstances is the term master to be used, except under the following provisions: clause a: at such times as—' "


"Cease! Cease!" roared the mage. "Remind me not of that nefarious contract! That—that product of coercion!"


"And when was a labor contract ever squeezed from a greedy exploiter other than by coercion?" demanded the second.


Wolfgang interjected himself again. "Please, please! My nerves! My fragile grasp on reality! Even now I can feel it cracking!"


All fell silent. Then Zulkeh glowered and spoke again.


"What I was about to say, wretched dw—"


"No slurs based on stature!" piped the dwarf. "Article II, clause a."


Zulkeh ground his teeth. "Misbegott—"


"No slurs based on genetic origins!" piped the dwarf. "Article II, clause b."


Zulkeh face's was now beet red. He leapt to his feet, gesticulating wildly. "Anthropophage of Reason! Creature of darkness! Minion of the lowest sort! Base cur of low degree!" He continued in this vein for a minute or so.


When he was done, Shelyid brows were knitted in thought. "I think those're all okay," he said uncertainly. He appealed to Les Six: "Aren't they?"


"Within the letter of the contract," stated the third.


"Though 'base cur of low degree' rather bends the spirit," opined the fourth.


Where this would have led will remain unknown, for 'twas at that very moment that Greyboar and Ignace came into the room. Ignace's face was flushed with pleasure.


"Good news!" he cried. "The heat's off in New Sfinctr! We can go back—in fact, we're headed off today!"


Zulkeh's attention was distracted. "But the King of Sundjhab and his heir are barely cold in their graves!" he protested.


"Actually," rumbled Greyboar, "I think the Sundjhabi practice is cremation. Be that as it may, it seems there's been some little changing of the guard in the Sundjhab. Whole new dynasty, in fact. And of course they'd just as soon everybody forgot all about the old monarch. Whose official name in the Sundjhab is now 'the Devil's Spawn.' " The strangler frowned. "Don't much care for that kind of disrespect for my guru. May just go down there some day and speed a few souls along the wheel of time."


"Later for that!" exclaimed Ignace. "There's been too much of this philosophy business as it is. Right now we're off to New Sfinctr!"


"If you don't mind my asking," asked Magrit, "why in the world are you so eager to get back to New Sfinctr? The city's a cesspool!"


"Pesthole of the planet," agreed Ignace cheerfully. "Armpit of the world. It's great for business!"


"When are you leaving, did you say?" asked Zulkeh.


"Within the hour," said Greyboar.


"A moment, then, if you please," said the mage. "I have a favor to ask. But first—" Here he turned back to his apprentice. A frown began to appear, then faded. Zulkeh sighed.


"Shelyid, if you will kindly leave aside for the moment the fine points of our new contract, I am attempting to commit a kindness. How much of the preceding discussion did you actually understand?"


"All that stuff about the AVEXBU and the Godferrets and stuff?" asked Shelyid. Zulkeh nodded.


"Well," admitted the gnome, "not actually a whole lot. I was paying real close attention, too, 'cause I could tell it has something to do with Joe, and I've always liked the Joe stuff you teach me. But I really didn't understand what it was all about, except that everybody seems real nervous."


Zulkeh snorted. "Nervous indeed! The key point you must understand now, Shelyid, is that there is no subject in all the world which is more perilous to meddle with than what you call 'Joe stuff.' And it is now clear that in some manner—I remain completely mystified as to how it all happened, by the way—I have become thoroughly enmeshed in 'Joe stuff.' 'Twas not by my choice, I can assure you! I am not pusillanimous, mind you—no practicing sorcerer can be—but I am not foolhardy."


He frowned, stroked his beard. "But there is no point in bemoaning the reality which faces one. Entwined in 'Joe stuff' I have become, and I must seize the tiger by the tail. Thus will my road forward be even more fraught with danger than I had foreseen. I say this, Shelyid, by way of a preface. For once again, my loyal but stup—not brilliant apprentice, I offer your release from my guardianship."


"You mean you don't want me to come?" asked the dwarf, his voice little with hurt.


"I did not say that, gno—short one," snapped the mage. "For myself alone, I would prefer that you did come." Zulkeh was silent for a moment, then: "In truth, it would be a great comfort to me. But I would not needlessly expose you to the perils ahead."


"Oh, that's okay!" cried Shelyid. "I told you before, mas—professor—I'm not afraid. And besides, I really like Joe stuff. I'm real good at it, too! I've always been good at the Joe stuff you teach me! I never forget any of it." The dwarf blushed, then said hesitantly: "You know, I think it's my best subject."


An expression of surprise crossed the wizard's face. He looked to Magrit and Wolfgang.


"You know, Shelyid's right. He always did soak up what little Joetrics I exposed him to." The wizard stroked his beard. "Odd, really, very odd. 'Tis normally the most difficult subject for apprentices. Apprentices! Wizards themselves fumble at Joetrics, in their great majority. Of course, I didn't expose the boy to but the simplest aspects, you'll understand! But still—" He fell silent, musing.


"Of course the boy's good at it!" boomed Wolfgang. "I've said it before, I'll say it again—the little tyke's got a knack for madness! And nothing's crazier than—what'd the lad call it?—'Joe stuff', yes, 'Joe stuff'!"


The lunatic waved his arms around wildly, like, well, like a lunatic.


"It's mad! It's insane! Heresies galore! Schisms enough to turn a schizophrenic green with envy! And talk about paranoia! Whisper the words 'Joe's back' in an alley somewhere—Church and State both will scream for your blood! Ask any priest to tell you about Joe and he'll shame a deaf-mute! And—"


"Enough!" roared Magrit.


The wizard now addressed himself to the strangler.


"Sirrah Greyboar, as I mentioned before, I have a favor to ask."


"What is it?"


"As I understand it, you and your agent are departing for New Sfinctr within the hour?" Greyboar nodded. "My apprentice and I, for our part, must wend our way to the Mutt. For 'tis clear that I must, before all else, attempt to consult with Uncle Manya. Sane or insane, he remains the world's authority on Joetrics. If there is anyone who can shed light on the mysteries which surround me, 'twill be he."


Zulkeh paused, coughed apologetically. "I am, perhaps—what is the popular expression?—yes, 'beating about the bush.' The point is this. For some considerable distance, we shall be traveling the same route. Of course, our paths will diverge at Blain. But for the first many days, well—"


"You want to come with us?" asked Greyboar.


Zulkeh coughed again. "It seemed to me, you understand, the occasional footpad or highwayman—"


"No problem, professor," said Ignace, grinning widely. "Sure and you can come along. Greyboar'll no doubt enjoy the philosophical conversation. And, it's true," he added, his grin now evil, "we're not likely to be bothered by cutthroats."


"Haven't actually been mugged since I was eight," rumbled Greyboar. "The thing went badly for the footpad, and word got around. He survived, of course, I was too short to reach his throat, but—well—"


"Best thing that ever happened to the guy!" chipped in Ignace. "He made lots more as a beggar than he ever did as a cutpurse. People always chipped into his hat, feeling as sorry for him as they did, all twitchy and mangled up like that."


"Yeah, sure, it'd be a pleasure," said Greyboar. "On the way, I think I'll teach Shelyid a little fingerwork. Kid's got a great natural choke." He forestalled Zulkeh's protest with an upraised hand.


"Nothing fancy, nothing fancy. But the boy can't study sorcery every minute of the day. And you never know when a little professional fingerwork will come in handy, even in your trade."


"Well, yes," allowed Zulkeh. "There is the occasional rowdy demon. Oft cranky, your demons, especially if you summon them during copulation."


"If you want to come, we're leaving now," announced Ignace.


"We are ready. Are we not, Shelyid?"


"Oh yes, professor. The sack's right here."


"Let us be off, then. For even as I speak, time wanes!"


"Wait! Wait!" cried Shelyid. "We forgot something!"


The wizard frowned. "And what is that?"


"Well, it's the first of the month, right?"


"Yes, 'tis November 1, Year of the Jackal," replied the mage. "What of it?"


A huge grin split the gnome's face. Shelyid extended his arm, palm facing up.


"Payday!"


A black frown began to take form on Zulkeh's brow. But it faded, to be replaced by a rare smile.


"Why, so it is," spoke the mage. "As the contract says—Article III, clause a, if I am not mistaken—'the short-statured-but-fully-qualified-apprentice shall earn the wage of one shilling a month, to be paid on the first day of the month.' " The wizard fumbled in his purse, drew out a coin, and placed it in Shelyid's hand.


"Of course," spoke the mage, "from a logical standpoint this entire business is somewhat absurd. You are yourself, after all"—he coughed—"well, let us simply say that the funds actually originate from you in the first place."


"Is it not ever so?" demanded the first.


"Is not all value created from the toil of the suffering masses?" asked the second.


"Only then seized in its entirety by the grasping hand of the exploiter!" added the third.


"To be added to his already-obscene accumulation of plenty!" This from the fourth.


"From which bloated mass of wealth but a pittance is returned to the laborer!" The fifth.


"Upon which starvation wages the downtrodden working classes eke out their miserable existence," concluded the sixth.


No doubt a long-winded economic debate would have ensued, save for the intervention of Wolfgang.


"Crazy thing, money!" he boomed. "And they say we lunatics are insane! Nonsense—just another example of the superiority of lunacy over lucidity! Only sober-minded rational people with their feet planted firmly on the ground would ever come up with such a goofy idea as money! Won't find us demented types worrying over money! We've got real things to fret over! How do unicorns propagate when they've got this fetish about virginity? Why does a troll's tongue drool when it's naked as an egg and has sweat glands? Why are krakens extinct? Are they extinct? Did they ever exist? Why do—"


"Come, Shelyid, let us be off!" cried the mage, hustling his apprentice out the door. "For even as the lunatic raves, time wanes!"


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