The Clockwork Staff
Title: The Clockwork Staff
Author: Silvean Rashere
The Clockwork Staff
Part 1: The Swamp Witch
Charitable readers will tell themselves, “Walten has a curious mind,” and perhaps this is true. It is certain he loved to talk. During a brief yet valiant attempt at curing his illiteracy, a slightly less illiterate schoolmaster called him “Talkin’ Walten.” Never one to leave a question unasked or a complaint unvoiced, this is his special gift. Walten asked and complained, both at once, with a plaintive, “How much farther must we go?” “We will arrive soon enough,” Jelym replied.
“But you are not the one trudging through this swamp!”
“But I am the master, you are the squire, and my instruments must remain dry.”
Jelym sat on Walten’s shoulders the same way a merchant prince sails atop a prize yierka. His water-resistant pouches held water-resistant instruments and his boots remained happily dry.
“I am scouting,” said Jelym, “and this is the first rule: to know your enemy.”
“Are not all sorcerers the same?” asked Walten.
“They are all perfidious, but their greatest deception is worked against the natural order of things with highly variable results.”
Walten remained blessedly quiet while untangling the sentence and Jelym reflected. A Clockwork Knight by training, he had left the order to strike out on his own. He harbored doubts about their creed. He no longer cared for the work. But ridding Elanthia of sorcerers is all he knew and it brought him closer to his dream. A roaring fire. Hot mutton pies with endless mead. And the chance to polish stories of wonder and woe—“I’m scared!” Walten had a way of interrupting the most pleasant ruminations.
“Be not afraid. My gnomish ingenuity and your Fairport brawn will handle any difficulty.” Groaning and moving even more slowly through the muck, Walten was little comforted by the quip. “The second rule will keep us safe,” said Jelym, “We will have the combat advantage of a surprise attack.” “Promise me that we do,” begged the squire. “Walten, the great secret to killing a witch is to take her off guard. I have brought the perfect instrument for distraction and we will find ourselves safely home.”
An island soon came into view, surrounded by small tufts of land like courtiers around a queen. With one hand over Walten’s mouth, Jelym used the other to direct his steed toward a tall tree reaching upward from the water. The gnome climbed deftly onto a branch and wedged himself against the trunk for a secure position. With a purposeful whisper, he commanded his squire, “The witch sleeps defenseless on the island; I am certain of this. My distraction will draw her out, groggy and defenseless. Then you rend her in two with your broadsword!”
Jelym made a tearing motion with his hands and locked eyes confidently with his companion. Putting on similarly confident airs, Walten moved toward the island with what little stealth he could muster. As he moved onto the shore he saw a small hut with a cooking pot a few strides from its entrance. Gripping his sword in sweaty palms, he readied himself to make the fatal blow.
With an ear-splitting shriek, the witch soared from her hovel! Walten jerked backward in utter shock at the sight. Her leathery skin was broken like the binding of an old book. Maggots pooled within the visible tears in her flesh and her sunken eyes pierced the soul. Moving to swing his blade, Walten found it leaving his hands as he fell to the ground. Skeletal hands burst forth and held his limbs to the earth. Bony fingers closed around his throat with a grip absent compassion and fatigue. Darkness set in – THWAP!
A bolt pierced straight through the back of the witch and immediately loosed an arc of sizzling electricity across her frame. With her body flailing like a tangled puppet, Jelym made his advance. Surging through chest-deep water, he shouted for Walten to fight, to focus! In mortal peril, the squire struggled with his last ounce of strength to free an arm and crushed the hand crushing his windpipe. Jelym moved swiftly across the island without sparing a glance, his crossbow over his back and a clockwork staff in his hands. Triggering a lever as he ran, a wand at the tip of the staff activated and emitted a bolt of energy with steady aim. Where once there was a witch, a husk remained. Wide-eyed and pale as a ghost, Walten looked on in wonder.
Part 2: The Loping Leaper
Bearing a bizarre cross between a wolf and a frog on its sign, The Loping Leaper promised the high energy of its namesake. Music and raucous laughter poured through its windows, but the crowd went quiet when Jelym walked in. With one hand he gestured dramatically, with the other he raised a large satchel. And then, the reveal! The severed head of a swamp witch; a terror to behold, deadly to fight. Applause thundered through the room. Mugs beat on tables. Two waitresses grabbed hold of a blushing Walten and kissed him on both cheeks. The revelry began in earnest. Jelym told the perilous tale many times that evening and with each telling it became more exciting. He loved an audience and feeling slightly guilty over ill use of his friend, he made sure every woman in the room understood it was brave Squire Walten who first stepped foot on the dreaded island. It was a perfect evening. Jelym wanted every evening to be just so.
Drunk but ambulatory, Jelym opened the door of his room to find a well-dressed man seated in the corner. Glancing furtively around to find where the servants placed his weapons, the man sensed his concern and stood to reassure him.
“Stay your hand, Sir Gnome, and worry not. I am here to secure your services in a matter of some personal concern.”
Relaxing slightly, Jelym replied, “As a policy, I never kill more than one sorcerer in a day. Breakfast with me tomorrow and we will discuss the matter.”
“Sir, I am servant to a Count of Turamzzyr and have no time to tarry.”
Moving to the edge of the bed, Jelym worked at taking his boots off. Trying first with force and then surrendering to the work of loosening buckles. Answering his lack of response, a sizeable pouch landed on the floor in front of him. His annoyance slightly outweighed by curiosity, Jelym leaned down to investigate.
“These are star-of-Tamzzyr diamonds?”
“These, sir, are one tenth of your payment.”
Visions of the perfect inn flickered through Jelym’s mind. Never again to face down witches in putrid swamps. An entire life changed by a pouch of diamonds. Sensing a change in mood, the visitor continued. “The sorcerer has written shameful and scurrilous screeds against your would-be benefactor. The count wishes to make a quick end to this menace. He wishes the man’s death to serve as a warning to others.” Coming to his senses, Jelym replied, “You are undoubtedly aware I abandoned my knighthood proper, but my trade is still to rid the world of wickedness.”
Jelym sent his second boot flying across the floor with a final pull, “I do not kill sorcerers for writing essays.”
“He blasphemes the gods. He traffics with demons. He denounces all but the Faendryl and spreads poisonous lies. You think your swamp hag more dangerous!”
“I think my swamp hag did not have the ill fortune to insult your master.”
With a substantive thud, another pouch of gems landed at Jelym’s feet. “This is now ten percent of your reward, Sir Gnome. Have you reconsidered?” Looking down at the stones glistening in the candlelight, Jelym not only reconsidered but rationalized as well. The deal was struck, he would leave in the morning to find his target in Ta’Illistim.
Dawn had not yet turned when Jelym crept down the stairs of the inn. Carefully he peeked into another room to spy Walten passed out with one of the waitresses in his arms. Jelym prepared his own horse and set out alone after a cold breakfast. As the trail merged into a larger merchant’s road, he pulled a slip of paper from an inner pocket to read the name once more--Silvean Rashere.
Part 3: The Curtain
Standing on a stool behind the bar, Rhymos tinkered with a vinification device of his own design. No amount of staring at the schematics revealed why his new stabilization process failed to improve results. He made a note to reflect on the relationship between quantitative and qualitative properties at the next tasting. When he looked up from his scratch paper, Jelym was in the doorway.
“You made excellent time, Jelym.”
“I was here last night, camped outside of the city to keep my head clear.”
“I received your message four days ago and I am always happy to be of service,” said Rhymos while loosening a bolt on his device. Jelym preferred the worst ale to the best wine, but he always appreciated information and Rhymos knew everything that went on in Ta’Illistim through methods fantastic and mundane. Ties of friendship kept the intelligence flowing even after Jelym had his falling out with the Clockwork Knights. Rhymos slid an envelope across the countertop. Slowly and deliberately, the winemaker explained, “Ticket to the opera. Your dread warlock is here to see the new soprano.” Jelym looked on quietly as Rhymos continued, “This one concerns me. It feels different.”
“It is different. This is the last time; I’m building the inn we’ve talked about,” replied Jelym.
“No. I mean this feels dangerous somehow. It feels rushed, like the pieces do not fit properly together.”
Jelym’s quick reply swept over his own uncertainty, “The dark bastard I’m after is public danger and bookish fop all at once. Pour me a real drink and we’ll toast his ashes by midnight.”
After a long pause, Rhymos leaned over the counter to look his friend in the eyes, “This warlock of yours has traveled on foot between here and Wehnimer’s Landing hundreds of times. I have spent my whole life around bookish fops and they struggle with the library stairs.”
“I am the knight; you are the vintner,” said Jelym and he held up the ticket with a sly grin, “have my drink ready.” He left without another word.
Jelym arrived early for the performance and slipped unseen into a storage area for a fleet of make-believe dragons and ships. He used the time to test fire the tools of his trade and pored over a theater diagram supplied by Rhymos. Examining the rafters and rigging, he lamented his inability to send a greased-up Walten swinging over the crowd as a distraction. Jelym grinned at the thought while making his way past the ushers and up the grand staircase. With the beginning of the signature aria, he entered the corridor for the balcony boxes and stepped through the curtain.
Shadows clung to a cushioned seat at the edge of the balcony. The sorcerer faced forward with rapt attention and Jelym hesitated for a moment to consider his action before pulling the trigger—THWAP! The bolt pierced clean through and webbing leapt out to bind victim and chair. The shadows evaporated and Jelym surged forward with clockwork staff in hand. The bloodied corpse of a small, grey humanoid occupied the web and Jelym looked on in horror as its once Dark Elven features melted away to reveal no face at all. Spinning around, the gnome tried to shout but blood burst forth instead. Frantically, he moved to staunch the flow of his jugular only to discover tattered wounds where hands once were. Emerging from behind a curtain, the sorcerer stepped carefully around the pooling blood and picked up the staff to examine its mechanism. “How clever,” he whispered as he pressed the wand at the tip into Jelym’s eye socket and activated the device.