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Skeptic Tank!

1 +-+ +-+ +-+ +-+--+-+--+-+ VOLUME FOUR NUMBER TWO | | ========================================== +___________+ FFFFF SSS FFFFF N N EEEEE TTTTT | ++ | F S F NN N E T | ++ | FFF SSS FFF N N N EEE T | | F S F N NN E T |_________| F SSS F N N EEEEE T /___________\ ========================================== | | BITNET Fantasy-Science Fiction Fanzine ___|___________|___ X-Edited by 'Orny' Liscomb <>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<> CONTENTS X-Editorial Orny Deep Trouble Jim Owens The Essence of Ur-Baal Roman Olynyk Date: 030286 Dist: 121 <>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<> X-Editorial Well, folks, here's the second batch of Dargon stories. The response to the first ish was, as we downeasterners say, "wicked massive". In fact, when I told one reader that my head was swelling and that I'd start charging for FSFnet, he came back saying that he'd pay for it! Well, for now we'll just keep cranking out the stuff for free, but I won't refuse contributions... I'd like to thank Chris Condon for keeping FSFnet in BITLIST, and all the new readers who responded to BITLIST or the note I sent out last month. Readership is better than ever, but we all know there are more people out there who would be interested in this sort of fanzine, so spread the word, send issues around, and coerce people if necessary to make them sign up! The more the merrier, right? Finally, for all you back-issue freaks, FSFNET INDEX, a list of back issues and their contents is available from mine truly. Feel free to ask for it, and any back issues, but remember that such requests often go several weeks before being fulfilled, since issues before 4-1 are kept on magnetic tape in my living room. Well, that's all the news from the north, on to the two newest Dargon stories... -Orny <>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<> Deep Trouble The day was sunlit, although there were still clouds in the sky, and rain still came down occasionally. The wind was no longer cold, as it had been, though, so Levy and Mattan Barel shed their cloaks as they passed through the great wooden gates of Dargon. All around them men carried heavy crates and barrels of food and goods, setting up their booths for the Festival. Levy and Mattan made their way through the streets to the home of Cavendish the Scribe. Levy had spent a few years with Cavendish learning several scholarly languages, and every year, when the Festival came, Levy made it a point to spend a few days in Dargon with his teacher and friend. When they arrived, Cavendish's son Dale made their horses comfortable while Cavendish personally saw to the comforts of his guests. After several hours of "catching up" on old times and equally generous amounts of food and good beer, the household settled down for the night. Levy was jolted out of a sound rest by the sound of loud knocking on the outside doors. As he rolled over, he heard Cavendish making his way to the door, unbolting it and greeting his early morning guests. "We would speak with Levy Barel. We know he is lodging here." The voice was not harsh, but there was no mistaking the authority behind it. By the time Cavendish reached the door to Levy's room, both Levy and Mattan were in their trousers. Levy saw the apprehension in Cavendish's eyes as he stepped into the room. "There are some men here to see you. Lord's Guards." Levy stepped into his boots and walked out into the main room, followed by Mattan. As he did he breathed a quick prayer. Standing in the doorway were three large men, all wearing swords at their sides, undrawn. Levy approached them. "How can I help you?" Levy's tone was carefully chosen, not arrogant, but not fearful either. "Lord Dargon wishes to see you. Immediately." Although there was no threat in the man's voice, it was obvious that he would not leave without Levy. While taking in the situation, Levy noticed his brother's face. It had a curious expression on it, as if he were sizing up the opposition, a look Levy knew well. The three guards, on the other hand, anxiously watched Levy and Mattan. Levy turned to his brother. "I'll go with them. It's all right." Levy knew that Mattan could and would stop these men from taking him against his will. It was always best to play things easy, though. Levy grabbed his cloak and stepped outside to where the men waited with four horses. The group rode silently through the sleeping city to the central keep. There they dismounted, and entered. Please let me see the outside of this castle again, Levy breathed, uncertain. Once inside, the guard Levy had spoken with turned to the other guards. "You may return to your posts." As the two guards saluted, and turned to leave, the third guard turned towards Levy. "Follow me. My Lord awaits." They made their way into the center of the keep, which was larger than any Levy had been in, and up to the top level. Levy was surprised to note that every one they met saluted deferentially to his guide, no matter how high their rank. Soon, they came to a short hallway, in the center of which was a door with guards on both sides. When they reached the door, the two guards blocked their entry until the guide surrendered his sword. Once inside Levy immediately recognized Lord Dargon, a young man, straight and honest-looking. The Lord looked up almost as soon as they stepped in. "Bartol. You found him. Well done." "Thank you, My Lord." "Bartol is my bard. He sings for me when I hold public court. What most people don't know is that he is also second in command of my personal bodyguard, and one of my most valuable spies." "Concerned citizens, Sire." The reply was accompanied with a grin. "Forgive me. Concerned citizens. I would make him ruler of a third of my lands if it weren't for the fact that then he would be of no use to me anymore." Levy infered from their talk that this was to be an informal audience. Therefore, he got to the point as soon as possible. "How can I be of assistance to you, Lord Dargon?" "Allow me to explain; it is a short tale. I must, as all lords in this country must, pay tithes to Baranur. Unlike most lords, I have always paid them promptly, and without grudging. This year, however, a problem has arisen. My financial adviser died this spring of old age and left his eldest son, whom he had been training, in his position. One of the first things his son did was to, how did he say it, invest the tithe money overseas. It really was a good idea. For every piece of gold I sent over, two have come back. Further, because of their increased trade with us, several of our long time enemies would not dare invade us, for fear of loosing a good customer.The only problem arose when the tithe collector from Baranur came. The ship carrying the tithe was late, so we had to put him off for two weeks. He was not happy. When the ship finally did arrive, it arrived during a storm, and sank just outside of the harbor. The tithe collector grew suspicious, and returned to Baranur despite anything I could do. Now, we don't have enough gold in Dargon to pay the tithe, and Baranur has sent me this." Lord Dargon handed Levy a scroll, which he opened. Out of it rolled a dead scorpion. With shaking hands Levy read the scroll. "Be it known! The hand of Baranur is long and heavy! Tithes must be paid in full by the full moon, or the next messenger will not be a dead one!" Levy looked up at Lord Dargon. "The moon is full tonight." "Yes, but the letter did not arrive until yesterday. Baranur is impatient, but not unrealistic. It would take two days for the money just to reach Baranur. No, we have until the next full moon to pay the tithe." "I see. Just what part do I play in this little game, Lord Dargon?" "I am trying to raise the money by other means. There is little hope of doing it, but perhaps we could buy some time with a partial payment. What I want you to do is raise that ship. I know of the legends concerning the first Barel, how he saved this land by his engineering skills. I also know that you follow in his footsteps. Now I am hiring you to help me. Raise that ship. and you will walk away with a tithe of it's holdings." Levy paused. "And if I don't?" Lord Dargon looked Levy straight in the eye. "I will not threaten a guest to my city, nor will I threaten someone I wish to hire. But I will not take no for an answer. And if you don't raise the ship in time, you and your brother will be here in the city when Baranur comes to claim it's due." Dawn found Mattan Barel and Cavendish asleep in chairs, with half empty cups of strong herb tea in front of them. They had been waiting a long time for Levy to come back. They awoke and sprang to their feet when Levy opened the door and stepped in. "What happened? Where have you been? What did they want?" Mattan was relieved to see his older brother in one piece, but now his curiosity was aroused. "It seems I'm not going to get to see much of the Festival after all. Lord Dargon has a minor engineering miracle he wants me to perform for him." Cavendish and Mattan sat back down as Levy removed his cloak and took a free chair. Cavendish leaned forward with a knowing look on his face. "Was it about the ship that sank?" "I'm not allowed to tell any more than what I have, but I will say he's willing to pay me very well. You might say, a lord's ransom. And he won't take no for an answer." Levy sat back, grinning at the expression on Cavendish's face. "I would ask you not let anyone know of this. Not even your family. Mattan, I may need your help later. For now, though, you can have your fun at the Festival. And don't worry about saving enough money for the trip home. We won't be needing to worry about that." One way or another, Levy added, as a silent afterthought. After breakfast, Levy rode across the city to the docks. Once there he rode up to the largest ship he could find. Naturally, it was one of the Lord's own. It was a trading vessel, the Heavenly Walls. Levy tied up his horse, and strode on board. He found the captain, one John Largo, directing the loading of the first part of his cargo. Levy approached him. "I really hate to say this, but I'm afraid you're going to have to unload that cargo." Largo, and everyone else who heard, froze. They all turned to look at Levy. There was a long pause. Largo looked around at all his men, then back to Levy. "And why would that be? Who are you to be telling me these things?" Levy pulled his hand from where he had been concealing it in his cloak. He held it up, palm in. "Who am I? I'm the man who wears this ring." Captain Largo looked at the ring. His eyes sprang wide open, and he immediately doffed his hat and dropped to one knee. "Please! Pardon me! I had no idea!" He turned to the crew. "He wears Lord Dargon's ring!" The entire crew immediately dropped what they were doing and presented a hasty salute. Levy had not asked for the ring, but now he was glad it had been given. He realized now that it would make things much easier, for while he wore it, he had, for many if not all intents and purposes, as much authority as Lord Dargon himself. "Rise. Lord Dargon has asked that I use this vessel. He thought it to be the best one for my needs, and my needs are going to be great. Can you fulfil them, captain?" Levy knew that no man in the captain's position could allow his competency to be so questioned. "Name it, and we will have it done yesterday!" The crew gave a shout, and when Levy smiled and motioned for the captain to lead the way to the cabin, they broke into cheering. A week later Levy stood on the deck of the ship, frowning at the grey waves. Voices behind him drew his attention. He turned and walked across the deck to where three seamen were pulling a drag rope on deck One of the men stopped, and leaned over the side. A moment later he straightened up, pulling a diver on deck. Levy approached the diver. "What can you see down there?" "Nothing. The ship is down there, but we can't get close enough to see it. It's too deep, and the water's too cold, and there are too many sharks." "What about that sack I gave you? The one with the shark poison in it." The man gave a wry smile. "A shark made a pass at me, and I dropped it. The shark doubled back, and ate it." Levy vented a sigh, and turned back to the cabin, He stepped inside, grateful to be in out of the cold wind. The cabin was surprisingly warm, heated by a large cooking stove. The cabin was the living quarters for the whole crew. Two men were presently playing dice in the far corner. One had had his leg broken when a drag line had snapped and thrown him against some tackle. The other was a diver who had been mauled by a shark. The rest of the crew was on deck, busily trying either to put off marker buoys to mark the wreck, or helping the divers in their attempts to reach the wreck. So far the only success had been the initial find of the ship, and even that had taken three days. The grab lines had not been able to haul anything up. No divers had been able to reach the wreck, and at least one other diver had been injured by the sharks, although not severely. The captain had asked to be allowed to take the injured men back to shore, and Levy had agreed. He was secretly glad, as he needed time to plan his next move. He had hoped that the divers he had found at the Festival would help, but they were foiled by the deep, the dark, the cold, and the sharks. He had spent much time petitioning his God for another idea, but none had come yet. Three days later Levy was back at the wreck, only this time with two ships. The first was the Heavenly Walls. The other was a trader, the Green Squid. It's captain was a man called Itoh Carran Tchock. They were the largest ships available, and they had on deck the largest winches Levy could find, ones like those used to raise the drawbridge leading into Dargon Keep. At the moment the two ships were about two hundred feet apart with a thick hawser slung between them. At an order from Levy, the line was played out, until Levy figured that enough had been let out that it was now resting on the bottom. Levy then motioned to Capt. Largo. He bellowed an order to his men, and the ship started moving. He then motioned to Capt. Tchock on the other ship, and it moved forward as well. As the ships moved through the water, the hawser followed. Occasionally it would grow taut, only to slacken as the obstacle was overcome. Then, after about half a minute, it grew taut and did not relax. Both ships stopped. Levy then turned to Capt. Largo. "Launch the boat!" Five men lowered the ship's boat into the water and climbed into it. Another hawser was passed to them, and they started for the Green Squid. When they reached it, the line was passed up to it's crew, who made it fast to the winch on board. The boat crew then rowed back towards their ship. They stopped half way, and fished the hawser out of the water. Then, as Levy watched, more line was let out. The boat rowed forward, pulling the hawser out, until the weight of the extended line was ready to swamp the little boat. Then the crew dropped the line, which disappeared underwater. Capt. Largo turned to Levy, but Levy just stood there, watching. After a long moment, Levy turned to Largo. "It should be down there by now. Make it fast, and start pulling it in." The crew scrambled to fulfil the command. The line was attached to the winch as the first was, and then teams started laboriously turning the spool. Onboard the other ship the crew did the same. The two ships drifted together. As soon as a line could be tossed across, the two ships were drawn together. Wooden beams were placed across the gap between the ships, and lashed to the two decks, binding the two ships together solidly. Levy's plan was easy to understand. It had come to him as he stood on the pier and watched the waves pushing anchor lines around. He didn't know if it was divinely inspired, but it was better than no idea. The first hawser had been dragged along the bottom until it had caught on the bow of the sunken ship. A second had then been sunk around the stern of the wreck. The ships had then been lashed together, so that they could try to winch the wreck to the surface without worrying about capsizing. All through the day the crews turned the big spools. Inch by inch the wet rope wound around the drums. Levy did not plan to totally raise the ship, only get it high enough so that it could be hauled to shallow water. As the sun drew towards the horizon, the wind picked up. With it came rougher seas. Levy told the captain to start to make for shore. The men who were not cranking the winches raised the sails. They had gotten them half up when the two ships lurched. The beams between the two ships snapped, and both ships rose suddenly higher in the water. Levy fell to the deck, as did just about everyone. He got up and ran to the winch. He didn't even need to ask what had happened. Both cables were limp. Levy had been there for only a moment when both ships shuddered again. This time the ships rolled away from each other. One man fell overboard. The air was filled with horrible thumps as each ship was struck several times. When things quieted down, both crews ran to the side of the ship, and were astonished to see the man who had fallen over standing, apparently on top of the water. It didn't take long for Levy to realize that the sunken ship had surfaced, and was now floating on it's own. It wasn't for a few minutes that Levy realized that the ship was now in two pieces, the stern and the bow. After that it was only a moment before the real impact of what had happened hit him. The reason the wreck hadn't floated before was that it was weighted down with it's golden cargo. If it floated now, it was only because the gold had all poured out when the ship had broken in half. Levy stood in an open field. Three weeks ago the Festival had started in Dargon, and three days ago the sunken ship had broken in half as Levy and the crew of the Heavenly Walls had tried to raise it. Since then an effort had been made to dredge the gold off the sea floor, but to no avail. The bottom was rough and craggy, unlike the smooth floor of the harbor. Attempts to dive down to the gold had almost gotten a diver eaten. Levy looked around him. The sun was hot, a welcome change to the cool sea air. Levy had decided to take a break and practice the archery his young twin brother had taught him. He had set up a target in the center of the grassy field, and had walked back to where his bow lay. Now he bent and picked it up, along with an arrow. He had only brought three, as Mattan had wanted to go hunting. As Levy stood there he thought. Where in the world am I going to come up with a way to raise that ship? In this field? He laughed quietly at that thought. I'll never be able to find the solution to this problem. It'll take a miracle. And that wouldn't be a bad idea, he concluded, aiming that last thought skyward. He raised the bow and shot. The arrow struck the target at the base. He drew and fired again. This time he hit to one side. Once more he shot. The arrow struck the very top of the target and glanced off in high, arching flight. Levy groaned. His aim this morning certainly wasn't inspired. He dropped the bow and jogged out to where he thought the arrow had landed. Past the target he found a small stream, and a tiny pool, and his arrow, sticking out of the water in the center of the pool. Levy squatted on the edge of the pool, staring at the brightly colored bolt as it pointed upward, unwilling to muddy the water by wading in to retrieve the shaft. As he sat there a movement caught his attention. A spider scurried along the edge of the pool. It reached a fallen branch that extended out into the pool, and turned out along it. Be careful, little spider, or you'll get wet, Levy thought. To his surprise, the spider turned down a side branch, and crawled right under the water. Levy leaned closer. He had heard of spiders that lived underwater, but he had never seen one. He watched as the small creature clung to the twig, a bubble of air cloaking its abdomen in silver. As he watched the spider, another movement caught his eye. A fish, rather large for such a small pool, swam by. The spider paused, and as it did the fish saw it. With a movement of it's tail, the fish darted after the spider. Before the fish could reach it, however, the spider squeezed between two twigs. The fish bumped it's snout against the twigs, unable to reach the tasty morsel behind them. It hung there for a moment, then swam off, puzzled. Fooled him, you did, Levy thought, safe in your little wooden cage. Then Levy stiffened. Cage! Three days later Levy was once again on the deck of the Heavenly Walls, looking at the red marker buoys bobbing in the water. This time he had brought something else along. It had once hung from a gibbet, holding a criminal's body. Now it hung from a derrick, ready to be swung over the side of the ship. It was a large iron cage, just big enough for a man to stand in. A large, clear glass jar, which Levy had managed to talk the local glass blower into making, was wedged into the top. While the crew watched, Levy climbed in and shut the door. He had decided that he wasn't going to risk someone else's life on one of his ideas unless he was willing to risk his own life first. He motioned for Captain Largo to come near. "When I want up, I'll pull the rope. I'm no diver, and there isn't going to much air in this thing." Captain Largo nodded, and steadied the cage as his men swung the derrick around. Levy hung there a moment, then the cage dropped into the water. The shock of the water was muted by the woolen clothing Levy wore, but it was still great. He was overjoyed to see how well he could see through the glass. The sea around him was easily visible. He sank down quickly, the men above allowing the winch to run almost free. Soon the second part of Levy's idea was tested. A large shape swam up. Levy didn't see it until it circled around the cage. Immediately Levy tensed, and immediately the great fish sensed his nervousness. The shark turned toward Levy, and with a audible snap of it's tail it slammed into the cage. Levy and the cage swung like a pendulum, but the cage held firm. Just as the fish had done, the shark hung there for a moment, then swam off in search of softer game. Levy watched it for a moment, and then he was at the bottom. He scraped along a rock wall for a few seconds, and then thudded into a surprisingly flat bottom. The dark was too thick to see through now, so Levy opened a pouch at his side, and pulled out a small glass jar. Inside was some foxfire he had gathered before setting out. It glowed greenly in the gloom. By it's light Levy could see a metallic glint from the seabed. Reaching through the bars of the cage, Levy grabbed something hard and heavy. It was a gold coin. Joy flooded Levy's mind. He silently shouted praise, his mind singing. He was so happy at his success that he stared at the coin until his lungs started burning, and he realized that the air in the jar was going bad. He reached up, and yanked the cord. Later that day Levy stood at the bow of the Heavenly Walls. Down below divers were scooping gold from the ocean mud. Levy's mind was not there though. He looked out across the waves. He was thinking of what had happened down at the bottom of the sea. Just as the men above started pulling him up, Levy slipped his jar of foxfire back in it's pouch. But the sea around him stayed lit. He looked up, and almost stopped breathing, for staring right at him were two large, glowing eyes. As the cage rose, the eyes disappeared in the gloom. For all of his life, Levy had always wondered at the marvels of this great planet, this marvelous creation. Yet he now realized that he had only seen a tiny part. There were other lands, other worlds within the world. He knew now that he would not have seen anything if he did not take the time, and look deeper. -Jim Owens <>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<> The Essence of Ur-Baal Banewood smelled incense when he entered Aardvard Factotum's home. As his eyes became accustomed to the darkness, he noticed conspicuous details of wealth: polished wooden furniture from Magnus; a paved floor topped with woven grass mats; and thick tapestries, imported from distant Baranur, adorned the walls. The richness of the furnishings attested to Factotum's success as a local healer and surgeon -- a barber, in local parlance. The peasants, those who could afford his services, paid dearly with their cattle, which augmented what was already one of the largest herds in the realm. Those who were rich, however, had rich diseases, and they paid in gold for their treatment, preferably Baranur gold marks. Many of them. But Banewood wasn't looking for healing. And though he could probably use a different type of barber, he hadn't come for a surgical consultation. He was looking for magic and for anyone willing to trade magic spells and potions. When he had first arrived at Dargon, Banewood milled about the docks and warehouses, casting about for information among the sailors, longshoremen and merchants. It didn't take long. Beneath a red and white canopy, a soup vendor called Simon had volunteered the name of Aardvard Factotum, the physician, in barter for some exotic seasonings brought by Banewood. This was not an age of specialization -- a physician, especially one trained by an elder, also dabbled in sorcery. The apprentice shaman, ever on the search for new spells and new knowledge, eagerly sought the physician's house and gave his credentials to a haughty secretary. After about ten minutes -- Aardvard didn't wish to appear eager -- the secretary returned and ushered Banewood into Factotum's richly appointed office. "Hansen, go take a walk and leave us alone," said Aardvard to his secretary. Hansen demurred at the order to leave his employer, but he left obediently. "Who's your instructor?" asked Aardvard. From behind thick lids, his reddened eyes peered at the dusty Shaman. He drew a heavy puff from a pipe. The pipe, made of whale ivory scrimshaw, was very rare. "Ostap of Gorod," responded Banewood. "Never heard of him," said the physician. He stifled a yawn. "I presume you came here with something on your mind." Banewood shifted his weight; he'd been on his feet all day. "Yes. I'm a stranger to the kingdom of Baranur, having journeyed through the forest from the east. "More to this bumpkin than meets the eye," mused Aardvard to himself. The eastern forests seldom admitted strangers. Ones who passed that way may, indeed, have something to offer. "Go on..." Banewood told Aardvard little of his adventure at the hut of Baba Yaga or of his meeting with the little people who lived in the dark forest which surrounded Gorod, his home. Nor did he mention Baba Yaga's book of spells. Baba Yaga was an evil sorceress who died centuries ago in the dark forest. Last summer, Banewood and his companion, Sod the plowman, journeyed through the dark forest to slay Kathryn, a monstrous sow believed by many to be the reincarnation of Baba Yaga. Banewood found Baba Yaga's book of spells within the ruins of her moldering hut. Books of any sort were rare commodities in this dim age, and a book of sorcery was beyond price -- more than one's life, at least. Banewood concentrated instead on his quest for the greater knowledge, his euphemism for the shaman's art. Factotum was amused. Never before had someone sought him out to exchange spells and potions. "Let's play with this one a bit," Factotum thought to himself. "Well, shaman, show me what you can do, and I'll see what I may have to offer you... But I'm sorry, I'm forgetting my manners, aren't I? Please sit and ease your feet." Banewood nodded in thanks. Picking a stool, he sat down and did little to suppress a weary sigh. He reached into his sack and produced a wooden rod. He waved the rod over a small table in front of him, muttered a few words and caused the table to rise about a foot into the air. It floated about for a moment and then abruptly settled back to earth. Aardvard shrugged. "I'm afraid the table is the only thing to get a rise from that old trick," he said with smugness. Thinking to impress Banewood, he reached for a nearby urn and showed the shaman that it was empty. Aardvard covered the urn with a fine cloth which he pulled from a pocket in his robe. He produced his own wooden rod and waved it over the container. With slight flourish, he produced a little white squat-hen, your typical rabbit. He offered the squat-hen to Banewood. "Something for your dinner, perhaps?" Banewood smirked. "Is that all you can do? Squat-hen tricks?" He reached again into his bag and this time pulled out one of his favorites; it was a narrow vial filled with a dark green liquid. He sipped once from the vial and placed it back in his pouch. Banewood closed his eyes as if resting and appeared to go to sleep. "Now what?" wondered the physician. Several minutes went by. However, just as the physician was thinking of offering Banewood a cup of tea or some other stimulant, a raven flew up to the open window and perched on the sill. It looked sideways at Aardvard, which is the way birds often look when gazing directly at you, and croaked "Aar-vard! Aar-vard!" "Is that all you can do? Bird imitations?" scoffed Aardvard Factotum. But the physician had never seen this bit of sorcery before. "Hmm... What else can you do with that potion?" He asked. Once again, Banewood closed his eyes and appeared to sleep. After about a minute, Banewood stirred; he opened his eyes and beamed a knowing smile at Aardvard. "You have twelve hundred gold marks hidden behind your hearth. Don't you trust the banks in Baranur?" Banewood asked. Factotum controlled an urge to jump out of his chair and throttle Banewood. "You can do that with your potion?" he asked. "What is it?" Banewood replied "It's the Essence of Ur-Baal. It sets the mind free of the body." "Oh! I've got to try this essence. Let me try it, please?" begged Factotum, going down a bit in Banewood's estimation. "No, I don't think so," replied Banewood. "It's kind of dangerous if you don't know what you're doing; you can easily get lost and not find your way back to your body." "I've never been lost a day in my life," retorted Aardvard. "You mean you've used the essence of Ur-Baal before?" "Yeah, sure. A long time ago." Aardvard lied. "Well, in that case..." Banewood looked pensive, Aardvard looked eager. "Okay." Banewood relented. He trickled a few drops of the essence of Ur-Baal into a waiting glass. "But be careful and don't stray too far," he warned. "Don't worry, mother, this will be easy," said Aardvard Factotum as he snarfed down a small mouthful of the dark green liquid. Aardvard Factotum closed his eyes. He didn't feel any different for about thirty seconds. Suddenly, he felt strange, like he was having a giddy dream. The muscles in his neck felt extremely loose, and then it felt as if the base of his skull was opening up. His thoughts poured out -- literally. "Boy, this is neat," he thought. In his mind, he went to the kitchen and looked for his gold behind a loose cobble stone near the hearth... "Yes, it's still there, all of it." And while his body remained indoors, his mind perceived the sky. He was moving... at least it felt like he was. He took in the panorama of a dimming twilight sky -- it was particularly beautiful -- and then perceived the smoke of a distant cooking fire. Following the source of smoke, his mind flew down the chimney and entered the living quarters of one of his tenant farmers. A farmer and his stoutish wife were eating and talking about the day's events. How odd! Aardvard didn't hear them, but he FELT what they were saying. They were talking about the stranger who had come to visit the physician, speculating as to what kind of chicanery might be afoot. "My secretary, Hansen, cannot resist passing on the latest gossip," thought Aardvard. "So Hansen becomes a rumormonger when he takes his little walks!" He passed through a small open window and again flew over the countryside with increasing exhilaration. Aardvard's disembodied mind experienced elation as the sensations bombarded him through numerous channels. Aardvard understood so many things. He sensed the heartbeat of a barn swallow in flight, he felt an oak tree breathe, and he felt the vastness of the earth and the sky surrounding it. His mind flew upward and toward the Street of Travellers which ran through the business district of Dargon, then over the wall of Dargon Keep. The castle of Dargon Keep served as home to Lord Clifton Dargon, for whose family the city below is named. Within the keep also lived the lesser nobility and other courtiers. Aardvard Factotum's mind now ran up and down the halls of Dargon Keep. He entered the chamber of Griswald Brutsam, a physician-sorcerer in the employ of Lord Dargon. Most potentates kept court physician-sorcerers to ward off bad food and bad spells. Clifton Dargon was no fool and, hence, no exception. And Griswald was one of the best. Someone else was in the room with Griswald. Normally, Aardvard wouldn't have known who this man was, but his instinct said that it was Lek Pyle, a leading shipping merchant from Baranur. Neither Griswald nor Lek took notice of Factotum's entrance, though Griswald did shift his eyes about as if he was about to impart something important to the other visitor. Anything that Griswald had to say, particularly to one of Baranur's leading merchants, was worth listening in on. Aardvard decided to eavesdrop. Griswald talked about Captain Markus and the return to port of the Singing Mermaid. The Mermaid had gone further east than any Baranur ship -- and it had managed to return. "I know Lord Dargon's will in the matter of sending an army against the island of Bichu," said Griswald. "He wouldn't risk it, and I'm afraid he's also morally opposed to it. He figures that as long as those people are already willing to trade with us, there's no sense in fighting them. And I'm not sure I see the sense either." "It doesn't matter what Griswald thinks of this matter," said Lek. What's important is that Baranur has the exclusive right to govern trade with Bichu." "I still don't like it," rejoined Griswald, "but it looks like I don't have any choice. Loyalty to Lord Dargon isn't worth my life." Lek smiled a crooked grin, stood up and headed for the door. "Still," continued Griswald, tugging absently at his ear and rising from his seat, "I'm not sure of the best way to get Lord Dargon out of the picture." If the disembodied mind that was Factotum's could have choked at this moment, it would have. "By the great gods!" thought Factotum. "They're talking of assassination! I've got to go warn somebody..." While Factotum watched mutely -- at least mutely as far as Lek and Griswald were concerned -- both men quietly walked out of the room and headed down the hall toward the stairs. But when Aardvard Factotum tried to follow, he couldn't move. He felt like a man trying to escape a nightmare beast; if he'd had knees, they'd have turned to rubber right now. No, actually, the feeling was more like standing in muck up to your chin, and knowing that it was going to get higher. Aardvard felt the same sort of panic that men felt when they were about to die, that is, his mind seized up and refused to work. It was a sinking feeling. -Roman (Mr. Fish) Olynyk <>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>

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