“Put your considerable girth between me and the crowd, else it will look as though we are breaking in,” Ivka said slyly as his nimble, scaly hands furiously worked a set of picks. Gremmel, twice his height and four times as thick, glared at him, glanced over her shoulder and did the best she could to mask the kobold’s efforts from the Zobecki throng making its way down the busy market street.
“Aren’t we?” she replied huskily. Knowing Ivka’s dislike of cramped spaces, she pressed in close to rebuke his casual insult. Ivka’s eyes widened in alarm at his imminent envelopment.
“Well no, Haradus invited us. Three bells after high sun. The old wizard never let us down before, something must be wrong. Yes, what kind of friends would we be if we didn’t check in on him, duty to our good and dear friend is all.”
“Do you always practice your lies before you need to use them, Ivka?”
“Only with you!” he replied.
“I hate to admit it, but you are right, Haradus has never missed an appointment.”
“Like clockwork!,” Ivka couldn’t resist the pun even if Gremmel was too thick to appreciate it. He imagined the gearforged mage’s strange copper brow furling angrily at him. “Okay Gremmel, stand back. The lock is vanquished, I will now remove the wards.”
“Are you madder than the Ruby Despot? Your lute against the wizard’s spells? If I’d known I never would have…” Before Gremmel could finish, Ivka made several quick motions and barked out a few unintelligible words. The door creaked open.
He scowled, “You know we are always underestimated, always forgotten. How many times did I watch him arm and disarm those wards? We listen.” They quickly slipped inside.
“Dead!” Ivka cried. The wizard’s study was a mess of overturned shelves. Pungent liquids spilt from their shattered containers slicked the floor upon which the twisted body of a gearforged man rested, stripped naked, encircled by his beloved feline companions. Gremmel revealed a small holy symbol, a sword crossed with a spear, and began a prayer to Mavros, reaching out to Haradus with a flicker of her god’s power. “There is no life here, there is nothing I can do,” she said solemnly.
Ivka suddenly realized how dire things had become. “To die alone like this. Well not alone, without Haradus the Kariv will kill us and we will join him, our naked corpses resting forever in a pool of mystical unguents and worse, surrounded by cats. This is bleaker than a Morgauan bedtime story, you know where the starving child cuts off his hand for a loaf of bread then starves to death because he cannot work. Only there is no moral to this story!”
“Quiet, save your squealing dramatics for an audience that’s interested. We don’t even know if it was the Kariv that killed him. Do you think those hairy thugs could get past his wards? Why didn’t they steal anything?”
Ivka perked up instantly, his narrow reptilian eyes flicking back and forth. “I am loathe to admit it, but you are right. This is the attack of a rival, an old enemy.”
“Still without Haradus backing us the Kariv will never honor their deal. They will just slay us and take this damned thing!” Reaching beneath her breastplate, Gremmel produced a small, golden, rune-inscribed music box. “Haradus said it was cursed along with the House of Stross. Maybe if we just give it to them they will let us live.”
“No!” Ivka blurted, “We figured out how to break into the Council Hall, we stole the keys required to enter the treasury, and we pilfered the box for them! We will be compensated!”
Gremmel knew that kobolds, an often-enslaved race, take particular umbrage at being used, but she saw in Ivka’s eyes something else, a yearning. “You want the council to know it was us that did it! You want the fame!” Ivka’s smile unnerved her. “Listen Ivka, I don’t want to be famous.”
He closed his eyes and imagined the nobles cursing his name, his fellow kobolds cheering it, the guilds begging him to join, and the commissions he could charge. “Yes I want to be known.” He gave Gremmel a regretful look, knowing that it would mean their parting. He would take all the credit to protect her anonymity, but at the cost of their friendship. Still, he was determined.
“Gremmel, I have an idea.” Ivka leaned in close and whispered into her ear.
“You are madder than the Ruby Despot, you rascal, it’s sacrilege!” she gasped.
“It’s honoring Haradus’s memory, he would have wanted us to succeed.”
“What if it doesn’t work?”
“Well perhaps you could dazzle them with your ample bosom while I slip a knife in their backs?” Ivka had long noticed that human men were drawn to Gemmel’s suppleness, her passionate eyes, and raven hair. It had been his good fortune this woman lusted for adventure and had no plans to settle down.
The kobold felt a mailed glove connect with the back of his skull and just barely had time to deflect a second blow to the gut before scurrying out to put his plan in motion.
Gremmel had just finished cleaning up the study when Ivka returned with a friend. The broken glass swept aside, shelves righted, and floor mopped, the place looked like a reasonable approximation of a useable study, except for the corpse.
“Gremmel this is Zentio, master puppeteer!” Ivka announced with great pomposity. Zentio stared at Gremmel as if waiting. Another sharp glance from Ivka told her she needed to applaud.
“I am honored,” she forced out. Gremmel pulled Ivka aside, “You should have warned me. You know how I feel about gnomes.”
Zentio bowed, and then quickly set to work, his pack a seemingly bottomless reservoir of tools, wires, and gears. Haradus was propped-up onto a chair and draped in a long and elaborate robe. Better to hide the rigging. The gnome laughed and giggled with glee, speaking to himself as he set up the ingenious pulley system that would allow him to control the dead wizard’s movements.
Zentio called out, “Almost done, two more guide wires for the jaw and that’s that. Shall I fix the cats too?”
“The cats are alive, they don’t need to be fixed,” Gremmel gasped.
“Pity, they are a lot friendlier dead, and more obedient to boot!” Zentio cackled. Gremmel shivered.
Ivka quickly went over the plan with Zentio and Gremmel, like a master director coaching his troupe. The Kariv gang was none too smart, but the deal would have to conclude quickly for the plan to work. Zentio will be beneath Haradus’s robes to control the wizard’s movements. Ivka, a preternatural ventriloquist, would mimic with the wizard’s voice. A fast exchange, a few words of agreement, and a speedy conclusion. It was time.
Five dagger-studded Kariv thugs stood before them in the candlelit study. “Welcome friends!” Ivka beamed. On queue, the gnome began to work the pulleys beneath the seat, and poor Haradus sprung to life. The pulley wires connected directly to mechanisms within the gearforged, providing such lifelike movement Gemmel was stunned. The wizard’s arm expertly gestured to an open carafe of wine and he spoke, “Gemmel, offer our guests some refreshment.”
Torush, the Kariv leader, took a glass of wine and finished it just as quickly. “I am refreshed, now where is the music box?”
“And where are the diamonds we were promised in return?” Gemmel demanded. Again on queue Zentio went to work and Haradus pounded the table with his bronze fist as if to reinforce her question.
“Do you not trust the Kariv?” Torush asked tersely, hand moving toward his scimitar.
“We know the Kariv value open negotiation. The music box is on the shelf. We kindly ask you return our courtesy,” Gemmel replied stiffly. The parlay was going to script as Ivka had expertly guessed, but she was no actress. Haradus’s head turned and tilted toward the shelf in acknowledgement. “The other shelf!” Gemmel blurted nervously. Haradus’s head swung around and Zentio managed to put a bizarre smile on the wizard’s face. Ivka’s heart almost stopped.
“I don’t know what kind of game you are playing, but we return your courtesy.” Torush emptied a small satchel onto the table in front of Haradus, revealing a fortune in diamonds. “Thank you, the deal is done,” the wizard replied, nodding oddly. One of Torush’s men moved toward the shelf to retrieve the box.
Zentio felt a light pressure on his thigh, and a severe tickle in his nose. One of the damned cats! He smiled wildly, as he knew everything was about to go to hell.
Sneezing uncontrollably he rolled out from under the wizard, who slumped over, face-down on the table. Gemmel grabbed the diamonds and Torush howled, “Deceivers, you will not lie to a Kariv and live!” Zentio sprung out of his roll and silently pulled a garrote wire around the neck of the nearest thug. Gemmel easily deflected the blows of two Kariv, their scimitars a poor match for her thick breastplate. She spied Ivka in the corner, lute in hand. “Less lute-playing and more Kariv-stabbing, little bard!” she barked. Torush kicked the gnome off of his dead compatriot, grabbed the music box, pulled out a short sword slick with poison, and lunged for Gemmel. She twisted aside avoiding his first blow but end up pinned between him and the wall.
Just as Torush prepared to run Gemmel through, Ivka’s song came to a head. Gemmel’s breastplate slid down, three buttons exploded off of her tunic, and Torush gasped at the sight of her partially exposed bust, pausing just long enough for Gemmel to bat the poisoned blade out of his hand. She wanted to strangle the kobold, but the Kariv would do for now. Her hands wrapped taught around his neck, Torush fell flat backward onto Haradus, the pair writhing on top of his corpse. And then Haradus’s eyes opened.
“What is going on!” the wizard bellowed. Torush and Gemmel scrambled as Haradus wreathed his body in flame. The Kariv froze. Ivka walked over coolly to Torush, “Take your cursed music box and your dead friend, and tell everyone the tale of Ivka Moonscale.” Four slightly singed Kariv carrying a large sack were later seen exiting Haradus’s residence. Ivka pushed a portion of the diamonds over to Haradus, “Your cut my dear friend, though I suspect you had other motives. Also, how is it you were dead and now you are alive?”
“Explain it to me again,” Gremmel said to Ivka.
“I don’t know, astral projection, claims his soul was weeping at the foot of Yggdrasil. Said we were lucky he didn’t immolate his expergefactors on the spot. Wizards… You know Gremmel, since we probably won’t work together for awhile, tell me how it is a warmaid with the breath of a Canton drunk, who was kicked out of her order, raids treasuries, and cavorts with thieves still carries the blessings of Mavros?”
“Well Ivka, to Mavros victory is everything. I am victorious in living my life how I want to. I defeat my foes and celebrate. Others in the faith confuse influence, notoriety, and power with victory.” Unable to bear the serious turn of their rapport, Gemmel’s mailed fist again found the back of Ivka’s head. “One last time, for the breastplate.”
“I’ve been working on that one for years!” Ivka beamed.
“I should have returned the favor and removed your trousers. Paralyze our enemies with laughter,” she quipped. Gemmel slowly divvied up the remaining diamonds. “After all this time, we have made the fortune we dreamed of,”
“Don’t you holy warrior types take vows of poverty?”
“You know Ivka, you are right, I’d better find a tavern and start drinking and gambling before Mavros notices!” They laughed, and headed out for one last, long night together.