The second bullet strike swallowed the cries of the fight. It was a buzzing that shook the floor beneath Fazgood’s shoes.
The buzzing! If I recall the Three Cities, that bullet will reduce its target into its granular essence. The General will shoot that near the door, so he can enter easier.
But it was in the middle of a wall, near the floor, where the stone had become yellow and glistening, and trickled. A hysterical whine pierced the shouting.
Fluxion! Were any touching that wall when it struck?
Varalam and Calzhja fought with deputies charging up the stairs. One who staggered up was a small, sharp man, who wailed at the white, flaking sculptures at the ends of his arms, mashed together in disbelief.
No more casual bashing for Tlezjoy, recognized the Earl, though he will have no worries about how to salt his soup.
Fazgood looked again at that trickling span on the wall where the bullet struck.
Sand will not hold the weight of the stone above!
There was a wink of billowing spray before blocks scraped together and tumbled into the anteroom. That wall collapsed and deputies sprang away.
Greatsergeant is barely bothering with the pretense of rescue. He will order this keep brought to rubble, kill us all, secure the mask, and endure the outcome.
I thought I would have to set the place on fire myself, but if the General wants to help, let him. Seems I had those combustibles cast about for no reason.
On the landing, Obdurate searched for an opening; a knife plucked from the floor gleamed in his hand, his eyes gleaming wet with fear and passion. He slashed at a human deputy, who slashed back with a sharp length of ablewood. The soldier buried the knife in the deputy’s thick chest and with a sick grimace pushed the deputy back down the stairs.
The Earl cast his mind to Warren: [Has the Dropsy come through the passage yet, squire?]
[I have smelt its sulfur since before the activated bullet, my liege!]
[Do not worry about this assault. The brigades will need some new deputies, but the keep may hold for hours yet.]
[Do you see? The Dropsy comes!]
Through Warren’s eyes, from Warren’s hiding spot beside the bedstead, the Earl saw the still-opened lacquered door lit from the flickering varicolored lights within the secret room. A darkness swelled from the gap. It probed the air, swaying back and forth like a whisker-stubbled tongue.
Fazgood felt a shove, and his concentration was broken. The Inspector’s hot breath was in his face.
“What is at you?” said the man. “This is no time for shock!”
The Earl looked into those panicked eyes and laughed. “’Shock!’ Show me something to be shocked about.”
He bent to the bottom of the wall and snatched up — one-two-three — three paring knives. To his right was the balcony rail overlooking the anteroom. Before him was Varalam snarling in front of the steps leading up.
At the side of the landing beside the rail, Calzhja struggled with two deputies. Calzhja ducked a skullwarmer swung by tall Bookwright, and thrust Hand Position Three into the man’s armpit. The deputy yelped and collapsed.
A flapping! A Exult with plughat and magnate’s colors lit on the rail!
The Earl swore and shoved the Inspector before the Exult’s face! Hissing, the tottering deputy tried to claw around his superior. Mehzadapt screamed and squirmed, talons and toothy beak flailing past his cheeks and ears. The Earl seized the hair on the back of the Inspector’s head and butted the Exult. It pinwheeled back into the anteroom.
The Earl pulled and tripped the Inspector to the floor. “Stay down, you!”
Fazgood looked and saw the captain was beside the gate latch and winch, as he had been earlier instructed. The Earl strode to the top of the stairs.
Varalam carried a squirming junior deputy by the back of his coat and flung him down the stairs. The Earl crouched down below the rail.
“Pull now, Respiration!” yelled the Earl in Adanikarese. “All should please cringe!”
Calzhja and Obdurate ducked to the floor. Respiration pulled down the release latch.
Oiled gears and chains rattled. The metal gate swung crashing down upon the stone parapet. It caught Varalam at the back of the head and sent him sprawling down the steps. A grate slid down and struck the stone floor with a deafening clang!
On the stone floor Mehzadapt lay, scuffed and bewildered.
An odd thought struck the Fazgood: To think if I stayed with the scouts, or if the circles had succeeded, I could have ended up like him! A pathetic!
He cast the thought aside and contacted Warren, [Squire, I pray you are not eaten!]
[Ha! Yes! You would know if I had been, but this creature is unsettling and revolting and it is creeping across the ceiling in a most unsettling and revolting way and I --]
[Has it seen or smelled you?]
[It does not behave as such because it just icks along very revoltingly to the door and I do hope you will be arriving soon though please be careful and --]
[It is as confused as the rest of the deputies. More so!]
The Earl looked to the landing. The air tingled. His hair bristled.
He announced in a sing-song cheer: “Lightning!”
The bolt can only strike the walls, and make a lot of noise.
He covered his ears and stepped away from the metal gates.
A blue flash from under the keep door. All sound seemed sucked away.
Thunder slapped the ears and slammed the air.
He peered through the bars and saw the deputies reeling. Now the cries were broad and lowing, as the deputies could not hear themselves or each other. Somewhere, someone made nerve-shriveling shrieks.
That goes well. And I should put that screaming fellow on the payroll.
Obdurate and Respiration clung to each other exhausted and shaking.
Calzhja picked herself up from the floor laughing, eyes glittering. “ The citizens… told me…this is a peaceful city!”
Fazgood shouted. “I thought Greatsergeant would have evacuated the square before firing or using lightning! My apologies!”
Calzhja leaned upon the Earl. “You are apologizing? What a unique evening!”
Heart thumping at the weight and smell of her, despite himself, the Earl brushed at a bruise under her eye. Her gaze followed his hand.
“Yes!” called the Earl and he dropped Calzhja , who landed upon her hip.
[It seems to know the intention of the assault! It has icked its way out into the hallway. I can still smell it, so the all-disgusting is just outside the door!]
Ignoring Calzhja’s glare and feeling a profound sense of relief, he looked over the railing. In the anteroom, the bottom of the keep door was twisted and blackened. Still, it held.
From that gap came Greatsergeant’s call: “Surrender, scouts! Surrender, Earl Fazgood!”
Another bullet thundered! A roar of a rushing river filled with banging porcelain.
A cloud of dust billowed through the windows. Three paces worth of the wall facing the Square shattered into white, tinkling, brittle shards! The ceiling nearest the wall dropped bricks, and overhead a beam snapped.
Mehzadapt reached for the rail and pulled himself up, gasping.
Fazgood went to the lovers on the stairs and said. “Go to the common room. Listen close. If the keep door is opened, call upstairs. Wait for Warren to arrive or my call to go upstairs. Stay away from the windows! Greatsergeant wants to kill us all!”
Respiration trembled. “Can we not leave now? Why can we not leave now?”
“There is a creature in your room. I must draw it out.”
Obdurate swallowed. “It is that thing when, when –“
“The creature we encountered when we found you is upstairs. I will draw it out. Either Warren or I will come to get you.”
Calzhja hissed. “I will not let you risk yourself –“
“You will not argue! It has to be led away! No one else can do it!”
“But I am your bodyguard.”
“Ah! Today you are my bodyguard! Today I need no guard. Respiration and Obdurate do. Keep a fire handy near your door. The creature will respect that.”
He led the three to the common room. Beside the door, he stooped and picked up a jug shaped as a rosebush by its neck and shook it. Fazgood listened to the comfortable deep slosh.
As the trapped deputies howled and cursed, the Earl walked back to the Inspector leaning upon the iron bars.
Mehzadapt called down to his injured followers. “You will hold the wall! You will make your ancestors proud! I will gain the evidence and the general will be prosecuted!”
“Open that portcullis, inspector!” called Varalam. “We have no chance against those weapons! We can guard as well behind that gate!”
“You will hold the wall!”
The others wailed. “That Cumulid holds above us! They ready another bullet! Please, Inspector!”
Through the smoke and fear, said the Earl with enthusiasm. “Deputies! Citizens! Please! This is not the first time your Inspector has been trapped by the army. He got out just fine. I am certain he will guide you well.”
Mehzadapt gasped at the more overt accusation and looked to the Earl. Downstairs, the cries turned to silent puzzling.
“What does he mean, Inspector? When was this?” called a deputy.
The Earl seized the Inspector’s arm, the jug in his other hand. “Follow, Inspector. We go to your evidence.”
“Yes!” stammered Mehzadapt. “Note, scouts, I go to the evidence! The General will pay for your injuries! He will pay!”
“We do not have much time. Hurry!”
Fazgood glanced back at the floor, and how the Inspector laid his blazer out, arms out and neck towards their destination, so that the Dropsy may know their location.
He led the Inspector to the guest room.
More shouts from downstairs: arguments; Varalam calling for the Inspector; and the one useful deputy shrieked in a most demoralizing way.
What a feeble lot! Back at the Earldom, my lot did not start shrieking until after the frontal assault!
The guest room had been emptied. The rolls of rich cloth had been placed downstairs. The bottles of perfumes and unguents had been poured out in the anteroom. The bottle of relish was in Fazgood’s blazer pocket.
Around the bed rest the three black wooden secretaries.
Fazgood went to the window. He could not see the mural from this side, but the police had pushed the crowd to shelter along the far buildings.
[Warren, are you following the Dropsy?]
[Yes. It makes a sick, sticky sound as it crawls along.]
The Earl perceived what Warren sensed. The Dropsy flowed along the ceiling around the corner and down the stairs. Its stench was like close rot, and its movements crackled like the sound of a bloody fist opening.
[When it approaches the guest room, get Calzhja and the others from the common room and take them upstairs.]
[But my liege, what of you?]
[I will be ready for --]
“What do you see?” the Inspector pressed.
People in the crowd pointed at their window. Soldiers scuttled across the square and peered.
Bellowed the Earl. “General Greatsergeant! General Greatsergeant!”
Mehzadapt started at the thunderous volume of the small man’s voice. In the square, in a knot of soldiers, a tall man with a high forehead directed the other soldiers’ attention.
“General Greatsergeant! Allow your wife and captain safe leave! Have compassion!”
The megaphone raised: “You seize them and call me for compassion!”
Hands trembling, Mehzadapt pulled the Earl away. “Stop! Stop! They will fire again! Where is the evidence?”
The bottle sloshed in the Earl’s hand as he pointed. “In one of those secretaries. I do not know which. Greatsergeant! You are foulness and we have your secret!”
A cry escaped Mehzadapt’s lips. He fumbled at a secretary and opened it.
Within was a bundled swatch of diaphene cloth, radiant like crumpled mother-of-pearl. The Inspector clawed at it. Within its folds, nothing.
Mehzadapt threw the box aside and clambered to seize another. He tore open the folds. Empty.
A stink of rotten eggs rose in the room.
Fazgood set the bottle beside the bed. His fingers tightened on the last box.
Now you decide not to shoot, Greatsergeant, you dawdling wretch!
Scrabbling fingers unfolded. Nothing.
A faint crackling permeated the room.
The Inspector saw what the Earl held close. “Give me that box!”
“Just take it,” Fazgood said slyly.
Eyes squinting, Merhizadapt sensed betrayal. “No! You! You open it!”
The Earl made himself brighten. “Very well!”
“No!” snarled the Inspector. “Give it to me!”
The Earl opened. Within the mask laid, copper-flecks sparkling. The Earl seized it by its edges and picked it up.
“This is the device. Do you want it?”
“Give it to me!”
The Earl flung the mask to the wall facing the Square.
Mehzadapt scrambled after it. The Earl sprang across to the door.
“How does it work?” asked the Inspector.
“You just put it on. Wait!”
“A sap then, and a sap still,” sneered the Inspector as he put the mask on his face. “Cornpudding, kill him.”
Something dark and stinking squirted from the top of the doorframe.
The Earl ducked.
From the window came the call. “Surrender, scouts! Surrender, Earl Fazgood!”
The demon-disease struck the wall by the window.
So shoot, you ill-met!
The writhing blotch sprang.
A honking like that of an immense goose. Dust flew from the window.
The wall turned alabaster. A choking billow of white dust, and the wall thundered and separated from the floor.
The wall was ruined. From corner to corner was bright green-night and the crowd across the square. There was no sign of the Dropsy.
I will not, Fazgood blinked, even think of, or consider, or question, or name that turn of event.
From behind him came a voice, saying:
“Now comes the difficult part,” Fazgood whispered.
He turned around. In the green-night, surrounded by ruin, the swirls of choking white dust glowed, making Fazgood think of dawn would be like in the Hell of the Olivine Demon.
Mehzadapt stood in the doorway, stopped in mid-step, as if arrested by a realization. His fingers had stopped halfway from placing the mask on his face.
The copper gleam of that peaked mask cut through the green gloom, and spread. Mehzadapt’s human flesh took the metallic sheen of Harmonite. His blue blazer and colored cravat remained; a seeming mockery of what he had been. Mehzadapt’s eyes – sharp, watery – remained.
The Earl stood, waiting.
And all I have is an almost-empty bottle of condiment in my pocket, and a mostly-full bottle of tzeimprhoazk.
It was the calmest he had felt in months. His smile was so wide, it made his cheeks hurt.
The floor trembled again; somewhere another part of the keep crumbled further. Outside, across the square voices cried commands, pleas to stop, brash commands and counter-commands. Wind whipped the dust away.
A voice rang from the Inspector like a gong, his voice but not his:
The crowd heard this unnatural intonation, and silenced.
The mask has a sympathetic attachment to the Triumph.
The creature looked at Fazgood. The Earl considered options.
He pointed to the opening. “Out there.”
It asked again. “Where…”
The demon that Mehzadapt had become stepped with locked-knees, like an awkward toddler, across the bed.
The citizens saw what stood in the destroyed room. Across, members of the military, and the police, and the Public Works gathered. Only a minute before, the Earl supposed, they were debating who controlled the situation while the General ordered activated bullets into the keep, daring all to stop his august person. Behind them, even Booloobs hovered, their awesome wrath awaiting a mandate from an authority.
Then citizens screamed. “Demon! Demon!”
For who could not recognize a creature devoted to the Satirist! It was on the very mural behind them, the mural where they had seen Greatsergeant’s grandfather smite day after day.
From the knot of soldiers cried a voice: “No!”
Screamed a voice that used to be sonorous, but now cracked like that of a despairing child. “No! You are mine! You are to be mine!”
Without the mask, any claim the General could make would be mere controversy.
“I will! I will…”
Then Allotropic Greatsergeant looked around him to the Public Works masters and the constable captains, who had all heard him.
The creature looked right to glimpse the Triumph.
This demon said, its voice ringing. “There! I see it.”
It raised its right arm.
The ground shook.
To the right, the great Secure trembled. The center of it seemed to bend and flex, as it was a great neck.
The demon mask stretched and engulfed Mehzadapt’s body, becoming a giant face of the Inspector.
Fazgood seized the bottle of relish from his pocket, then picked up a broken brick. He stepped around the left of the demon and smashed the bottle upon its forehead. Searing relish trickled into its eyes.
It yowled. The trembling ceased.
Fazgood stepped behind, put his foot to the fiend’s rump and pushed. It flipped onto the pile of rubble one floor below.
Beyond, stunned soldiers and officials dropped their gaze to follow the creature down.
The Earl stepped carefully to the edge and looked over. On the stones and shards, the translated Inspector scoured at its eyes and squealed in pain. The neck of the Secure thrashed.
A graybeard in brown robes pointed to the demon, who had just staggered upright:
“See, all! Its eyes are flesh! Aim well!”
Five soldiers carrying a long device swept around to face the new foe. A row of rippling bubbles advanced from the citizenry, their trembles becoming tighter and more acute. The Cumulid flashed in its wispy depths.
Above even the Cumulid, the Earl saw a great sweeping in the mist, as if that of a great hand, the hand of the Temporary God revealed to him by Hrikinik. The sweep gathered into a great poking finger.
What used to be Mehzadapt heard and gave small shrieks.
The Earl leapt back and away into the hall. “Piss-flicking…!”
He turned back inside and sprang across the ruined bed.
“Almost lost you!”
He snatched up the rosebush-shaped bottle and dashed.
Behind, the doorway erupted. Lightning flashed and exploded. Activated energies sang and screamed and transformed. Piercing and interjecting, the most focused Booloob screams swept matter itself into an odorless, gagging wind. From the spirit realm, the Temporary God mashed with coruscating ectoplasm, obliterating even the demon’s soul.
To behold such a fright, and have it so disabled so quickly, this thunderstruck even the screaming populace. Silence dropped upon the thousands.
Came the cry of a citizen:
“Hurray for the Mad Earl!”
The crowd roared its relief and approval! Fazgood crept back to the doorway, now opening onto a pile of rubble facing the square.
The populace of the Kingdom cheered Fazgood. Textured Fabri, feathered Exult, rippling Booloob, Adactoid of all shapes and sizes, humans Theirhe and Rahsic; when all realized who had dispatched the grotesque, all cheered their acclaim.
Fazgood waved, Today it is ‘Hurray for the Mad Earl!’ Tomorrow it will be go-risk-your-life-fetching-my-cat-out-of-the-Pit-of-the-Unnamed.
Then the Earl looked to the General.
The General stood surrounded by officials darkened by dismay and disgust. All had heard Allotropic Greatsergeant’s suspicious exclamation of ownership for that vileness just slain.
Fazgood turned. At the top of the stairs, Varalam and two scouts had lifted and secured the gate. But now they stood in shock.
The Exult said. “I know my eyes. It was the Inspector I saw through the crack in the wall. The Inspector was…changed!”
The scouts shook their heads and protested.
“Believe, deputies!” said the Earl. “You heard them outside! I just pushed him from the room just down the hall, and I tell you! Your boss was a demon!”
They roused enough to be appalled.
Coughed a young, scratched Therihe. “But how could he have been? He has been in service for years!”
“Obviously, he had the ability confound sophisticated determinations! And he out wiled all deductions!”
Another bruised smart-his-betters looked to his peers. “But surely someone would have noticed something foul! Did anyone?”
Fluxion, you give some a path to an excuse, and still they expect you to draw a map!
The Earl thrust his finger through the bars at the churls. “Listen, you! The Inspector led you here!”
He thumped the iron bars of the portcullis. “Into a charge of high treason on false pretenses! He obviously had the power to muddle minds! Unless…you committed high treason while thinking clearly?”
They looked to each other in astonishment. “A demon!” “It explains so much about him!” “Muddled, I was! Muddled!”
“Then scour your memories! I am sure there were many times you suspected he was foul! When Public Works questions you, present even your suspicions with confidence! It is that way that you help your nation! Now speak among yourselves to get your details straight!”
So passed Mehzadapt, and his reputation.
The deputies staggered back down the stairs.
Said the Earl. “Get you gone, citizens!”
“They may still try to shoot us or –“
“If there were a fire, would you flee?”
All whining louts looked around the dark room. “Are we on fire?”
Muck up my plans, will you!
Tucking the precious bottle under his arm, the Earl growled and walked back to the ruined common room. He found a lantern still lit, dusted the rubble from it, and still growling walked back to the top of the stairs. He cranked at the pulleys and raised the gate. Whereupon, he raised the lantern and threw it down in the farthest, still-oil-soaked corner.
Orange flame burst as tall as a man!
Said the Earl. “Indeed! There is a fire! Get you gone, citizens!”
“He is mad!” they cried as one. “The portcullis is raised! He may be at us again!”
The deputies scurried to the front walls. The pickpocket Bookwright was dragged by a stretcher made from blazers and shards of wood; his legs were startlingly askew, showing the end to his bump-and-theft career.
Flickering orange shining upon their backs, they gathered at the chinks of green-night and crawled away:
“We surrender! Have mercy! Do not shoot us!”
Last to leave was Varalam, who pulled bricks and rocks from the top to widen the hole enough to crawl out. Before he made to crawl, he turned back, the scars on his face loose from perplexion. He looked back to the Earl, looked to ask a question.
“Deputy,” Fazgood said while dusting off the bottle. “never let questions get in the way of living a happy life.”
The Adactoid took note of those words, and the scars tightened again. He tucked his hat upon his brow and clambered out.
The flames spread across the floor as if to follow the deputy. Black smoke added to the dust and tingling ozone and heady fumes from the assault. The Earl walked upstairs. He pulled the wax stopper from the Birqmuir spirit and took a breath.
How would a dusk thicket tale write such an end?
He muttered to himself: “She is gone! My love! My Respiration! No. No. She is dead! My love! My Respiration! Greatsergeant, you have killed her…yes. That will do. Wait! What of the captain? Crushed! Yes, that works well.”
Fazgood flung himself to the doorway and cried to the square: “She is dead! My love! My Respiration! Greatsergeant, you have killed her!”
The populace, who had been chastising the deputies with words and thrown objects, looked to the window and pointed and gasped!
Wrist to his eyes, the Earl called. “The captain is crushed! Vile pride has caused such a tragedy!”
People never look so honest as when they are in dismay.
So were the countenances in this throng. They pointed and clung to each other in compassion and dissolution over the Earl’s declaration. Fazgood did not see the General; indeed other soldiers looked about then in confusion.
Fluxion! He got ahead of me again! I have to end the play quick!
“Our love was never meant to be! How cruel to learn this lesson! On the bier of my life, on this pyre of my love, I declare to you, citizens!”
I must be quicker!
It struck the Earl at that moment that up until a few days ago, he did begrudge this city depriving him of those very virtues. Now he felt the most gratifying sneer building. He summed up:
He had almost lost the crowd through the smoke pouring from the second floor, but he could hear their dismay and…Was that weeping?
The sobbing built. “Long stay the Concord!”
Not a bad death speech this time, he took a drink, I’m getting better at them.
That satisfaction did him in.
It just slipped from his lips.
He put the wax stopper back in the bottle, turned back to the secret door and declared this:
“Everything is sorted out.”
His hand was on the door. He groaned and grimaced and spat and wiped to ward off Zhazh, but he knew it was too late. He looked back at the window, at the thickening smoke and the hallway brightening with orange. He sucked his lip, head down and nodded.
He huffed. “Ah just go ahead!”
A dark shape like a wet, prickling blanket swung from the ceiling. It slapped him back to the window. Tucking and rolling, Fazgood protected the green bottle in his grip. He recovered to his feet. The Dropsy arched onto the floor between the Earl and the secret door.
“Did you not hear, you earless snot? Your boss is dead!”
Its oozing was slow, careful, crafty. It feinted to the left.
Fazgood realized: “Ah! You want to brag to all the other phlegm that you ate the Mad Earl!”
It hopped forward, looking to press the Earl into the far corner. Fazgood’s eyes stung from the thickening smoke. He crouched low to breath clearer.
“You snot-bubble! I have dodged assassins of more shapes than you can imagine!”
He hid his hands as he wrested the stopper from the bottle. It gurgled.
I’d just pour the tzeimprhoazk on myself and tackle the Dropsy! But if I miss, it would just slip out the window and into the city!
It feinted to the right.
Fazgood shook the bottle’s neck at the Dropsy. A glistening stream sprayed. The formless thing cowered. Fazgood sprang after the stream to flank the Dropsy away from the window.
He shook again! Again! He backed the Dropsy away from the window and against the bed!
Choking from the thickening smoke, the Earl wiped the sweat from his eyes.
The cunning germ leapt between the shakes. It swung from the right. It knocked the Earl onto his back beside the bed. The Dropsy collapsed upon his legs.
His flesh seared.
Fazgood screamed and flung the bottle at the ceiling above them, intending to break it and have the liquor shower upon the monster.
As it arced, drops sparkled from the bottle, but not many.
The bottle made a sharp thump against the ceiling! Then it fell upon the bed, intact, far from his reach.
The creature writhed and shuddered as the few drops fell on it. But it crushed Fazgood in its digestive grip.
All this, he thought, just to be brought down by flu!
A sharp cry! The crack of wood! The heap of Dropsy rose from his legs and swung around backward. The pain in his legs dimmed.
He opened his eyes.
Calzhja stood over him. She wore simple workman’s clothes, and held a shattered piece of furnishing, her face lit by a lantern she held. “What do I do?”
“Kill the god-poxied thing!”
She sprang into the room out of Fazgood’s view. The Dropsy hurled itself against the secret door, and bounded in pursuit.
Fazgood seized the mattress and pulled himself up. In the center of the room, Calzhja had gotten close to the Dropsy and bashed it with the lantern. Its fuel trickled out upon it. The disease swung around again.
“What kills it? I thought alcohol! It is a disease!”
The Earl gasped in pain. “Does that…look like ordinary flu? Get the god-poxied bottle of tzeimprhoazk! It’s from holy springs!”
The demon-germ struck Calzhja in the hip and flung her away from the bed.
She crumbled against the wall. “Where is the bottle? Where?”
“It is on the bed!”
Again! I have to draw maps!
He pulled himself onto the bed and saw the bottle. Its contents surged from the neck. The sheets were wet with the liquor.
His left thigh found the puddle. Every nerve and muscle scorched with pain.
He screamed, grabbed the bottle and rolled off the bed toward the fight.
The Earl struck the floor and found the pain paralyzed him.
The Dropsy lunged. Calzhja sprang out of the way to the door. She caught a gout of smoke in her lungs and fell to her knees choking.
The demonic disease rose to engulf her.
Fazgood cried out. His legs gathered under him and he stumbled forward.
Calzjha staggered forward and seized the wet bedsheet. The Dropsy sprang. She spun and pulled the sheet. The Dropsy lunged into the cloth.
Wrapped in the cloth soaked with blessed alcohol, the Dropsy cringed and wrestled away across the room. The creature’s back melted. Stinking slime sprayed the room.
Its insides spilled; objects tumbled. A shriveled and broken bone, a pitted and slimed metal scabbard for a dagger, the eroded bowl of a human skull; anything that was too large for Cornpudding to cough or eliminate from years of victims.
Laying beside the bed, Fazgood looked at his legs.
The cloth of his pants was eaten away under his thighs, and his shoes were smoking tatters. His flesh was raw, wet and bleeding. He tried to sit up, and skin on his right thigh sloughed away. His face grew cold.
I cannot go into shock!
Fazgood cursed and took a breath, so that he would not pass out.
Calzhja crawled to his side.
The Earl gritted his teeth in pain. “I accept your petition for employment.”
She shook her head and wiped tears from her eyes. Her voice was hoarse: “Up!”
She tore the shoes away and eased him to his feet.
The Earl clenched his jaw and screamed. “I paid good money for those shoes!”
“I will buy you another pair!”
“With my money!”
They staggered into the secret room, past the disjoint vault, dark and dead.
“Close the door! To delay the smoke!”
Calzhja wrestled to do so while carrying the Earl, but did so, and pitched the room into darkness.
Calzjha climbed down first, with the Earl’s feet upon her shoulders. Fazgood supported his weight in the handholds.
He cast his mind, [Squire! Is our escape ready?]
[It is, my Earl! They have been waiting! Calzhja insisted on going to get you! Did she get the way again?]
The Earl’s grip slipped on the ladrail. Pain shot up his legs. Calzhja’s shoulders kept him steady.
[She is actually proving quite useful.]
[Are you well?]
His grip tightened within the next limbhold, [I have seen better health.]
[I will have all prepared.]
Calzhja reached the bottom of the ladrail. With a warning to the Earl, she dropped to the sewer floor. The Earl mustered all of his strength to lower himself by his hands and drop. Calzhja and another set of hands caught him. The water splashed his feet and seared as if it was boiling. He gasped and cried out again.
Beside them sat a mass of skin, trembling, eyes rolling in consciousness. Only the ascot and moustache told that it was Cornpudding. The entire of Cornpudding’s insides comprised the Dropsy and now the deputy was dying.
Hands grabbed Fazgood.
Helping him to his feet was a dark, frail Rahsic. He was bald, with a sharp nose and a thin, greying goatee.
Growled the Earl. “Greetings, brother-in-law. What a story will this make in your book.”
Fazgood’s brother-in-law, Yet-More-Muscular whimpered, but held his grip on the Earl’s arm. “I did not want to cause you a bother! Did I cause you a bother? I am sorry!”
“Take me along, wretch. Obviously your wife got my note.”
Calzjha lifted Fazgood’s other arm. She and the brother-in-law carried the Earl.
“What do you mean ‘what a story?’” she asked.
The Earl grunted. “You look upon Fazcelestial’s ink-stained husband, … the god-poxied writer of ‘The Nimblest Man’.”
The man cringed and nodded. “Yet-More Muscular Claimant. I believe you have met my wife. But I presume! Or perhaps you did not meet her and that was someone else who did.”
“Oh! That was me!”
The Earl cried. “Hurry, you two! We do not have time for introductions!”
They struggled up the side of the canal. Greatsergeant Keep was engulfed.
The smoke was dark slate above, swirling with flames. Fire jetted from its murderholes and windows, like hellish vents in the Black Cliffs. As in the square, arcs of water sprang and twinkled into the flames, raising gouts of steam.
They carried the Earl through the backyards.
In Cliffside-Bastles, the residents crowded the street.
The brother-in-law produced a towel, which was placed over the Earl’s head. The street was thick with gawkers.
Said Yet-More-Muscular. “Ple – please! St- stand aside! Please!”
The Earl bellowed. “Burned man, damn you! Burned man needing access, you heartless louts! Stand aside! Aside or I’ll punch your souls!”
People sprang away. Fazgood peeked enough to glimpse brown robed figures around a corner fountain, beseeching and wrestling a column of water from within to fly at the keep. Yet-More-Muscular led them down a street away from the crowd and to a covered rickshaw.
Calzhja whispered. “Was this your plan?”
“It is close enough,” the Earl said. “There lays one last step. Keep alert.”