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Late Bloomers
by Curtis Lyon
(Winner, 1st Place, 2013)

When a shipment of underwear goes missing, the troubleshooters hired to deal with the problem discover there's a far more nefarious force behind these wayward panties than the usual satyrs…


The wooden sign was bound in iron and proclaimed "402 River Road—Dark Wolf Services—est. 1375—'We get the job done!'." The sign was set on the stone building, next to an archway which housed stairs leading up, and was the only adornment for said archway… unless one counted the large black-clad man who leaned against it, smoking a long pipe.

A plump Celari woman stood in front of the sign and regarded it dubiously from beneath a plain gray wimple. The man with the pipe regarded the woman dubiously from beneath dark lank locks. She had a round and rosy face, but any of its potential pleasantness was crumpled beneath the furrowing of her brow as she reread the sign yet again and continued muttering to herself.

Finally, "Do you think they're worth it?" she asked, turning suddenly to look at the man.

He exhaled and quirked an eyebrow as the puff of smoke rose lazily to mingle with the bay's early-morning fog. "What…? Signs?"

The woman blinked and managed to furrow her brow even more. "Eh? No… These 'Dark Wolf Services' fellows," she explained before looking back at the sign. "I don't know that they sound very… Well… I just want to know if they really can get the job done."

"Ah," the man said, scratching idly at his goatee. "That's a bit different from being 'worth it', but I suppose it depends on the job." His dark eyes watched her steadily, and he took another draw from his pipe while he waited to see if she'd respond.

It took a while. First she fidgeted with her apron a lot, and her cheeks managed to flush even more. After a very long pause, she finally mumbled, "Well… You see… A shipment of bloomers has gone missing."

The man blinked. "Bloomers?"

There was more blushing and fidgeting as she began to explain, "Yes. Um… Madame Ona— "

"Madame Ona?" the man interrupted, suddenly pushing himself upright from the wall and straightening his doublet a bit.

"Yes. She— "

"The same 'Madame Ona' who runs the Girls' School?"

"Yes. She—"

"Well then," the man said brightly as he tapped the ash and embers from his pipe. "We should definitely go in and talk."

At the woman's confused expression, he bowed and said, "Allow me to introduce myself: Wolfson, senior partner of Dark Wolf Services, at your service." He turned and began climbing the stone steps. "If you'll follow me, we can discuss your case at more length… in private."

The woman blinked, startled, but slowly followed Wolfson up the stairs.

A single lantern hung from a hook at the top of the landing, although it was currently unlit. The gray morning light seeped in through a trio of loops set in the wall opposite a heavy oaken door, which Wolfson reached for. It protested a bit as Wolfson pulled, and yellow lamplight spilled onto the landing from inside. Wolfson motioned for the woman to enter, which she cautiously did. Then he followed, closing the door behind them.

The cluttered front room was filled with shelves and adventuring paraphernalia, but the only real activity came from a short, athletic-looking man of Boru heritage, who was clad only in baggy trousers. He was grinding some coffee beans, and looked up as Wolfson entered.

"Morning, Wolf… Want some— Um… Who's that?" The Boru gestured with his chin at the woman while he hastily grabbed a robe from over the back of a chair and donned it.

"This?" Wolfson glanced at the woman as well, who was staring goggle-eyed at the weapons and figurines and other gewgaws (if one could call the Boru's muscles 'gewgaws') adorning the chamber. "This is… um…" He blinked and turned to her. "Um… Yes… er… I'm sorry. I didn't get your name."

"Oh! Pardon me," she gasped in embarrassment. Then she curtsied slightly. "My name is Hildegard."

"That's a shocker," the Boru muttered.

"Excuse me?" Hildegard said.

"What Dark meant to say is that it's a very fitting name," Wolfson interjected. "Hildegard, allow me to introduce my partner, Darkling."

The Boru bowed slightly at Wolfson's gesture. "Please… Just call me 'Dark'." Then, as he straightened, he looked at Wolfson flatly and asked, "So… Is she a prospective client?"

Wolfson shook his head. "Not prospective at all. She is a client."

Darkling stared levelly at Wolfson for a few heartbeats as if to say, This isn't your usual fare.

"She works for Madame Ona," Wolfson continued, "and it seems they've lost a number of panties."

Darkling sighed and gave a resigned nod as Hildegard blushed again. "I see," he said.

"Why don't you finish up the coffee, while our guest has a seat," Wolfson said. He looked at Hildegard, as he pulled out a sturdy wooden chair. "Would you like some coffee?" he asked.

Hildegard shook her head and sat. The chair creaked ominously.

Wolfson pulled a stool over for himself, and Darkling resumed grinding the beans.

"So…" Wolfson said to the woman. "Why don't you start at the beginning?"

This time she nodded and proceeded to explain.

"Yes. Well… The School has certain uniform requirements…" Hildegard paused and looked at Wolfson, who nodded. "… and The Madame does her utmost to ensure the students have access to the best possible options: woolen skirts from Rinden; linen blouses from Sindra; silken—"

She stopped momentarily and glanced back and forth between the two men a couple of times before she blushed and said, "Well, the silk comes from Boru, of course."

"Of course," Wolfson agreed.

Darkling simply grunted. He'd finished grinding the coffee beans and set them on the stove to boil, and now he leaned against the wall to finish listening to the story while the tangy aroma of coffee began to permeate the room.

"Go on," Wolfson prompted Hildegard.

She nodded again. "So for bloomers, it simply has to be cotton. From Winnow," she added.

"From Winnow, you say?"

"Yes," said Hildegard. "It's very soft and durable, and breathes very well."

"I see," said Wolfson. He glanced at Darkling, who was now glowering, and suggested, "How about if we skip ahead to the ones that went missing?"

"Oh! Yes… Of course. I-I'm so sorry," Hildegard stammered.

"No worries. So…?"

"Well," she said, "we'd been told that a shipment of fresh bloomers had arrived in port two days ago, aboard a ship called the Crotchety Bastard—"

"Hmmm. Must be under Sindran registry," Wolfson observed.

"How would you know that?" Darkling asked.

"Sounds like someone who knows Chief Councilor Graff," Wolfson explained.

Darkling blinked. "Ah."

"Um… Could that be important?" Hildegard asked.

"Probably not," admitted Wolfson. "Carry on with your story, Miss Hildegard."

"Oh. Yes. Uh… When the delivery failed to arrive in a timely manner, Madame Ona sent me to the docks to inquire after them."

"By yourself?" Darkling interjected incredulously.

"Yes…" Hildegard replied slowly, looking a little confused.

"But, you're a—"

"Celari," Wolfson interrupted. "I daresay she can hold her own in a brawl, and I doubt Madame Ona would have sent her out on her own if she couldn't."

Darkling looked down and mumbled something approaching an apology, while Hildegard blushed. But, "Sorry… Please continue," Wolfson said to the woman.

"Yes. Anyway, I found the Crotchety Bastard and spoke with the quartermaster. He checked his logs and said, according to him, the trunk with the garments had been delivered. So I returned to the School, and Madame Ona sent me here."

"A trunk? I see," Wolfson said, stroking his goatee thoughtfully. Then he looked directly at Hildegard and said, "You can tell Madame Ona we'll gladly take the case… We should have her panties back by tomorrow."

"T-Tomorrow!" Darkling sputtered as he straightened up.

"Absolutely."

"How can you be so sure we'll wrap this up so quickly?" the southerner cried.

"Simple… We don't have the word count for it to take any longer," Wolfson explained calmly as he stood up and extended a hand to help Hildegard from her seat.

"Ah." Darkling sighed and rolled his eyes. "Sometimes I don't understand you."

"Thank you…" Hildegard said, accepting Wolfson's proffered assistance. "Um… How much will it—"

"Not to worry," Wolfson said, cutting her off. "Tell Madame Ona that this time she owes me one."

"Wait," Darkling interjected again. "You mean you know Madame Ona?"

"Absolutely. You don't think it's coincidence that brought Hildegard here, do you?"

"Well, actually… Yes. I figured it was because we're just down the street."

Wolfson cast his partner an arch look. "You don't think it's coincidence that we're just down the street, do you?"

Darkling regarded the older man dryly, and grumbled, "No… I figured that was entirely intentional."

Ignoring the disparaging comments, Wolfson quickly showed Hildegard out the door – pausing only to find out which pier the Crotchety Bastard was moored at. Then he turned back to smile at his partner. "Come on, Dark! Let's get moving," he said cheerfully.

Darkling glanced at the stove. "But the coffee—"

"Will taste like crap, as always," Wolfson finished. He'd already grabbed his cloak and sword belt, and was headed for the door. "Besides, we don't have any time to waste; we can grab something along the way. Come along, Darkling… the game is a footlocker."

"I hate it when you do that," Darkling grumbled. But he frantically doffed his robe, donned a tunic, shoved the pan of coffee off the burner, grabbed his katana and ran to catch up with his partner.

*****

Wolfson and Darkling crossed the Bell Bridge and began following Doru Road along the bank of the river. The morning fog began to burn away as they walked, and the city of Shadow River came alive around them. To their right and above them, the Citadel's gold and white towers gleamed brightly against the sky, while lap dragons cavorted between the green minarets, feasting on the occasional small bird that strayed too close.

Down at ground level, where the pair of adventurers quickly strolled (well… Wolfson quickly strolled—Darkling was forced into more of a jog to keep up with his taller partner's long gait), merchants and their proxies ran back and forth between the Market District and Beacon Hill. Profit was the order of the day, and although the city was often called "The City of Adventure", Wolfson often thought it could more accurately be called "The City of Watch Your Back and Your Purse Because Everyone Wants Something From You". He privately figured that appellation never caught on only because it was too much of a mouthful and bad for tourism.

"So…" Darkling said, interrupting Wolfson's musings. "Are we headed for the Crotchety Bastard?"

"If you mean the ship," Wolfson replied, "then yes." He threaded his way through a small crowd that was watching a Heltish half-fox hawk a bottle of… something. Wolfson guessed it was probably rubbing alcohol mixed with ink, and probably wasn't good for much more than what the Helt was currently doing with it.

Darkling deftly followed and asked, "Do you think you can learn anything new?"

"Perhaps. At least we can find out who actually delivered the trunk, or if someone simply nicked the knickers."

"Who would steal a steamer full of panties?" Darkling asked incredulously.

Wolfson shrugged. "When someone says, 'Panty Thief', what's the first thing that comes to mind?"

"Satyrs."

"Exactly."

"But doesn't that seem a little… well… obvious?"

"Absolutely," Wolfson replied. "Which is why the question isn't necessarily one of who would steal a trunk full of underwear, but rather why would someone steal a trunk full of underwear."

The pair continued on in relative silence for a time, winding their way between other pedestrians and the occasional cart, until eventually Doru Road became Bayside Way. By then, the more genteel traffic had given way to the seedier offerings of Pork Hill – Shadow River's port district: sailors, stevedores, cutthroats and worse.

Eventually, Darkling said, "Okay… I'll bite. Why would someone steal a trunk full of underwear."

"That's what I intend to find out," Wolfson replied cryptically, and Darkling had to fight down the sudden urge to nudge his partner gently into the bay.

Fortunately for Darkling's sanity and Wolfson's dignity, they arrived at the appropriate pier a few minutes later, and were rewarded with the sight of the Crotchety Bastard still docked at the wharf. She was a sturdy-looking caravel, and it was to Darkling's slight consternation that he noted the ship was indeed flying Sindran colors.

Wolfson hailed the sailor – a grizzled old Temphisian – who was standing (well… sitting) on watch duty. "Ahoy, Crotchety Bastard!"

"Garrr!" the sailor growled, glaring down the gangplank at the pair of adventurers. "I hates this here duty fer just that reason. Whaddaya be wantin', lubber?"

Darkling leaned in toward Wolfson and whispered, "Maybe the ship's simply named for her crew."

"Hush," Wolfson chided. Then he called out, "Permission to speak with your quartermaster."

"What's yer business?" The deckhand demanded.

"We're just trying to track down a missing delivery."

"Garrr!" the sailor growled again. "Second time today. Someone's gonna get flayed." Then he yelled, "Gar!" and the duo thought he was just growling louder until a small troll came lumbering over.

"Aye," said the troll.

"Go an' fetch Roscoe," the watchman told him.

"Aye," the troll repeated and scrambled back out of view.

A few minutes later, a satyr strolled out, festooned in a lavender coat with a matching wide-brimmed hat. After a brief exchange, the old sailor gestured toward where Wolfson and Darkling stood, and the satyr proceeded down the gangplank. He bowed slightly when he reached the bottom and said, "I am Roscoe Fresco, quartermaster aboard the Crotchety Bastard. How may I help you two?"

Darkling glared suspiciously at the satyr and said, "We're looking for some missing panties."

Roscoe quirked an eyebrow. "Which ones?" he asked.

"Which…?" Darkling's voice trailed off and he blinked in confusion.

The satyr smiled roguishly, and said, "Aye. I have several pair I'm holding for ransom. Which ones have you come for?"

"Actually," Wolfson interrupted, "we're looking for a trunk full of them that went missing."

Roscoe looked up at Wolfson and frowned slightly. "Ah… You must be here on behalf of that lovely little Celari dumpling who was here earlier."

Wolfson ignored Darkling's snort and said, "Actually, we're here on behalf of her mistress. Apparently the trunk went missing somewhere between here and there, and we'd like to sort it out."

"I see," said Roscoe.

"Unless you've got them," Darkling stated, glowering accusingly at the satyr.

It was Roscoe's turn to blink. "Why in Heaven's Grave would I keep a trunk full of panties?" he asked.

Darkling sputtered. "Be— Because they're panties!"

"Yes… But they don't belong to anyone," the satyr said, looking a little annoyed.

"What?" Darkling asked, looking a little confused.

Roscoe sighed, and explained, "They don't belong to anyone. Stealing them would be as pointless as… well… as pointless as stealing a blank canvas under the pretense of it being artwork."

Darkling opened and closed his mouth a couple of times, but couldn't find a response to that.

Wolfson used the opportunity to get the conversation back on track. "So if you sent the trunk out, do you have any idea what might have happened to it?"

The satyr frowned. "Actually… No. We've got a contract with a local company, Mama Cross's Hauling, to move private deliveries. If anything, you should be speaking with them."

"And indeed we shall," Wolfson replied. "Where can we find them?"

"They're on Bayside Way," Roscoe said, pointing up the road, "where it meets Caravel Street."

"Thank you, Quartermaster. Come on, Darkling."

Wolfson began walking, and Darkling once again rushed to follow.

"Do you believe him?" Darkling asked Wolfson.

"Why not? As you noted earlier, a satyr seems a little too obvious for this."

"Whatever," Darkling grumbled, but continued walking.

Five minutes later, the pair was at the convergence of Caravel Street and Bayside Way, looking at a ramshackle warehouse. It sat at the north base of Pork Hill, and were it not for it being on the near side of the road, the adventurers could have been forgiven for thinking the building had actually slid down the hill to its current position. The place seemed to lean at a precarious angle, and Darkling was sure if the warehouse doors were closed, it would fall over. However, the sign hanging overhead proclaimed it to be the right place: "Mama Cross's Hauling & Storage".

A smaller doorway had a sign nailed above it (somewhat askew) that indicated it led to the office. Wolfson opened the rickety door, jarring a cowbell that clanked loudly, and stepped through. Darkling followed.

A small Boru girl with startling blue eyes, sitting behind a cluttered desk, looked up as soon as the bell went off and verbally ambushed the adventurers.

"Welcome to Mama Cross's. We're here to meet all your hauling and storing needs. We have reasonable rates and can be sublet to handle a variety of situations, although certain contractual obligations may require filling out a waiver to prevent—"

"Actually," Wolfson interrupted, "we're here on an investigation."

The girl blinked a couple of times, then tried again. "Um… We can handle storage by the pallet, and have three sizes of carts and wagons to haul loads of—"

"We don't need anything stored or hauled," Darkling broke in impatiently. "We just want some answers."

The girl blinked again. "Um… If you could just let me finish, I'm sure all of your questions would be—"

"We're looking for some missing panties," Wolfson interjected, bending over and leaning on the desk. "Perhaps you'd like to help us look for them?"

The girl leaned back a little, wide-eyed, a blush rising through her cheeks and ears. "Um…"

"Or is there someone else we could talk to?" Wolfson suggested.

"Master Glover!" The girl yelled. "There's some men here to see you!"

After a moment, a large Celari man stepped in from the warehouse and pulled off a pair of sturdy work gloves. He frowned at Wolfson and Darkling beneath his thick mustache, but he directed his question at the girl behind the desk. "Why are you bothering me, Lynn?"

The girl pointed at Wolfson and wailed, "These men said they want my panties!"

Glover glared darkly at Wolfson, who raised his hand to forestall what might happen next.

"Actually," Wolfson explained, "we said we're looking for some missing panties. Your company made a delivery to Madame Ona's School for Girls from a ship, the Crotchety Bastard. But the delivery never arrived."

"What are you talking about?" Glover growled. He stormed over to a cabinet and started rifling through some files. "The Crotchety Bastard, you say?"

"Yes," said Wolfson.

The large Celari pulled out a sheaf of papers and flipped through them. Then his eyes narrowed. "Focker! Yeager! Get in here!" he bellowed.

Two more Celari men rushed in from the warehouse – a tall blond and a shorter dark-haired one – and the tiny office began to feel a little cramped.

"What's up, boss?" the blond asked.

Glover held the papers in front of him and stabbed a finger at it. "You made this delivery, Focker?"

Focker looked confused and asked, "What delivery?" but as his eyes scanned where Glover was pointing, he paled and gave a wan smile. "Oh… That delivery."

"Yes… That delivery," Glover growled mockingly. "Who signed for it?"

"Er… Well…" Focker glanced at the paper again and said, "Like it says there: 'Madame Ona'." His wan smile broke into a cheesy grin.

There was a dangerous pause while Glover inhaled.

"Madame Ona would no more sign for her own deliveries than Gottle Vantoya or the Duke himself!" he bellowed. The bellow rattled the office so much that dust tumbled from the rafters, and Wolfson began to suspect why the entire building leaned so precariously. Everyone in the room flinched.

"She wouldn't?" Focker asked sheepishly.

"No!"

"Oh."

"I told you we just shoulda come clean," the shorter one, Yeager, suddenly said to Focker.

"Come clean about what?" Glover asked, still scowling.

"Well…" Focker said, fidgeting slightly. "You see… we were making the deliveries, and were down near the Bells. We unloaded a couple of small boxes and all of a sudden that trunk ran off."

"Wait," Darkling interjected. "It ran off?"

Yeager nodded, "I swear by the Three Sisters, it just sprouted legs and waddled off… Down Old Bridge Road."

"And you didn't chase it?" Glover asked.

"I'm pretty sure that's not in our contract," Focker replied with a shrug.

"Bloody unions," the old Celari grumbled.

"I feel your pain," Darkling commiserated.

"Old Bridge Road, you say," Wolfson asked Yeager.

"Yeah."

Wolfson turned to Darkling. "Come on, Dark… We'd better get moving – we've got a lot of ground to cover."

"Fine," Darkling said, turning toward the door. "Just don't give me that game's a footlocker thing again."

"Fair enough. Oh," Wolfson paused to address the girl. "Sorry about the confusion."

She smiled brightly and said, "No problem! And if you ever need any storage or hauling done, feel free to look us up. We have excellent rates and everything you might need for moving or…"

Wolfson followed Darkling out the door, leaving Lynn behind to recite her spiel.

*****

"Shouldn't we be searching the Bells?" Darkling asked.

The two adventurers had left Pork Hill by way of the North Market Bridge, and now Darkling was following Wolfson through the narrow streets and alleys of the Market District as the larger man wove his way through the many people who thronged the area shopping for bargains.

"For what?" Wolfson asked.

"The missing trunk," Darkling replied.

"Ah," said Wolfson. He stopped and looked at his younger partner. "Are you adept at tracking wayward steamer trunks?"

"Um… Huh?"

"Where did the trunk go?" Wolfson asked.

"Down Old Bridge Road, according to that guy at Mama Cross's," Darkling answered.

"And then?"

"Er…" Darkling paused and frowned, looking off into the distance.

"Exactly," said Wolfson with a nod. "While I'd imagine a trunk might leave a unique set of tracks in the dirt, I doubt they'd show up on cobblestone – and certainly not after two days."

"So what are we going to do?" Darkling asked.

"Get a drink," Wolfson answered as he resumed walking.

"G—" Darkling sputtered, but noting he was about to lose Wolfson in the crowed, he bit off his remark and quickly followed.

The Boru caught up to his partner in front of a small stone building with a shingle proclaiming it to be the Demon Horn tavern.

"How is a drink going to help us?" Darkling finally managed to ask.

"It's not," Wolfson answered. "But there's someone here who can help us find our prey."

Darkling tilted his head slightly. "Someone actually knows how to track footlockers?"

Wolfson shook his head. "You're on the wrong track, if you'll pardon the turn of phrase. You and I both know trunks aren't usually in the habit of sprouting legs and taking an evening constitutional."

"So what do you think really happened?" Darkling asked with a frown.

"Actually," Wolfson said with a gleam in his eye, "It's elemental, Darkling."

"I hate it when you say that sort of thing, you know."

"Ah… But, in this case, I think it is," Wolfson said. "Probably an earth elemental."

"What? You mean like fire and water and earth and stuff?" Darkling's expression was incredulous. "But the trunk wasn't made of dirt."

Wolfson shook his head again. "Those are the base forms, but everything tied to those things also has an elemental form."

"Everything?" A sour look began spreading across Darkling's face.

"I sense where you're going with this, but the answer is pretty much 'yes'. In this particular case, I'm thinking it was a wood elemental."

Wolfson opened the tavern door and went inside. After a moment of disgusted contemplation, Darkling followed.

It was early afternoon, and the small common room was bustling and buzzing with activity. That didn't stop a small Heltish missile from launching itself at the pair.

"Master Wolf!" the cat girl squealed as she impacted the larger of the two.

"Ooph!" Wolfson replied.

She looked up with sparkling gold eyes and grinned. "C'mon! I can find you a good place to sit, and I'll take real good care of you!"

"Not this time, Annie," a sultry voice interrupted. A willowy Winnowite woman glided up to the group and put her hand on the cat girl's shoulder.

"Awww!" Annie cried. "Master Wolf hardly ever shows up, and I never get to take care of him!"

"That's because Wolfie only comes here when he wants something special." The Winnowite glanced at Wolfson with a mischievous twinkle in her lavender eyes. "Isn't that right, Wolfie?"

"I could give him something special," Annie pouted. Then she glared up at Wolfson. "What's Roxie got that I don't?" she asked.

Wolfson leaned down and whispered in her ear. "Magic."

Annie grinned at Wolfson again with a wicked gleam in her eyes. "I could show you some magic," she purred.

"I daresay," Wolfson replied as he stood back up. "But I need Miss Roxella's particular brand right now."

"Follow me," Roxie said, turning to walk away, her long purple tresses flowing behind her. Wolfson and Darkling (who'd been watching the whole exchange with a lot of eye rolling) followed after.

Roxie led the adventurers to a small back room, and closed the door.

"You know," she said, casting an accusing look at Wolfson, "you do only come here when you want something. You should visit just for fun sometimes."

"As soon as I've got some free time," Wolfson promised.

"So what is it you need this time."

"I want to see where there might be some practicing Elementalists in the city," Wolfson said, placing a few silver Rundles on a table that was there.

Roxella smiled. "At least your coin is good."

She went over to a cabinet and pulled out a large map of Shadow River, which she rolled out on the table. Then she took a half-sphere of crystal from a velvet pouch at her hip and began mumbling an incantation over it.

"What's she doing?" Darkling quietly asked Wolfson.

"Setting the crystal for a locating spell," Wolfson replied.

"Wait… She can just magically find things?"

Wolfson nodded, still watching Roxella work.

"Then why don't we just have her locate the panties?" Darkling demanded.

Wolfson turned to give Darkling an arch look. "Do you have any idea how many hits we'd get with that question?"

"Pretty much every place in Shadow River but here," Roxie said with a smirk. She had finished her spell and was now placing the crystal on the map.

Darkling blushed. "That's a little too much information, but I see what you mean. Then why not ask for the trunk with the panties?"

"That's too specific. The spell only works in generalities," Roxie answered.

Wolfson walked over to the table and was watching the crystal, which Roxie was now slowly moving around the map with her finger tips. Every once in a while, it would glow brightly.

"A couple of hits," Wolfson said. "Try focusing on the Bells."

Roxella nodded and slowly slid the crystal across the river and over the southern portion of the city. For a long while there was no response, but then the crystal suddenly glowed as she moved it over a section.

"There!" Wolfson said, leaning in to get a closer look. "Just off of Dim Street, it looks like." He turned and gave Roxella a kiss on the cheek. "Thanks," he said, "You're an angel."

Roxella smiled faintly as the pair was leaving and murmured, "Actually, I'm a devil. If you'd only hang around for a bit, I'd prove it to you."

*****

The sun was beginning its long slide into the west by the time Wolfson and Darkling made it back to the Bells, and while they still had plenty of daylight to work with, they knew it wouldn't be long before the shadow of Beacon Hill plunged Dim Street into an even deeper gloom. As it was, old crates and bundles of rags littered the edges of the street, and stray religious pamphlets were occasionally nudged by a light breeze.

It didn't help matters that the pair of adventurers weren't really sure of what they were looking for. At the spot where Wolfson figured the crystal had been pointing, they found a narrow old building of granite blocks with the worn inscription "Polypalpus" engraved over the arch of the doorway. However, the door and the windows flanking it looked as if they had long ago been bricked up and sealed… and those appeared to be the only way into the structure.

"What now?" Darkling asked, looking around the quiet street.

Wolfson stroked his goatee thoughtfully. "Well… We could just start asking passers by if they've seen a footlocker wandering around here in the last couple of days."

Darkling grunted. "Yeah. Like that's gonna—"

"Yep," said a gravelly voice from behind them. "It went down the alley."

Both adventurers whirled around to see who'd spoken. It took them a few moments, but they finally realized one of the bundles of rags was actually a withered old man huddled behind a crate. A clay bowl sat on the crate next to a crudely scrawled sign that read, "Give to the Retired Artist Fun."

Darkling already had his katana halfway pulled. "Who are you?" he demanded.

The old man chuckled. "The name's Jenks," he croaked. "I used to be a minstrel and a priest of Lyrica… But I've gotten old, and she ain't as popular here as she is in Rinden."

Darkling thrust his chin toward the sign. "Shouldn't that read 'Retired Artist Fund'?" he asked.

"Nope. When I make enough coin, I head down to Nectar's Garden and have some fun." Jenks winked and chuckled again.

Darkling grunted and then asked, "So why are you parked here?"

Jenks frowned. "Are you kidding? It's a pain in the ass to sit on Old Bridge Road—most the folks there are far holier than thou ('thou' being me in this case), and by the time I get halfway through my spiel, some nubile young thing has usually lured my mark away. Besides… I don't get caught in all the fallout when a bunch of the temples get to brawling. I'd rather sit here, where it's quiet, and while away my time."

Wolfson cleared his throat and interjected, "You said you saw a footlocker come this way?"

"Yep," Jenks replied. "Hard to miss it. Ain't every day a trunk comes strolling down the road."

Wolfson nodded, then gestured toward the alley. "And it went that way?"

"Yep. Then the grate at the end lifted itself up, and the trunk just jumped into the sewers."

"Wonderful," Darkling grumbled, but Wolfson pulled out a gold coin and dropped it in the clay bowl.

"That ought to cover a night at the Garden," he said.

Jenks gave a gap-toothed grin and picked up the coin. "Now that's a good Omen."

"I sure hope so," Wolfson replied.

Wolfson started to move toward the alley, but then paused and turned back. Jenks had grabbed a cane and his bowl, and was preparing to hobble off. "Excuse me… Do you know what that building is?" Wolfson asked, pointing to the bricked-up granite structure next to the alley.

Jenks frowned. "I ain't rightly sure," he said. "Some old temple, but apparently whatever they worshiped there offended folks."

Wolfson nodded. "I was afraid of that. Come on, Dark." He and Darkling made their way to the back end of the alley.

There they found the grate in question – a rusty tangle of iron that was large and heavy, and which made no move to graciously open for the two adventurers like it had apparently done for the wayward trunk. In the end, Wolfson and Darkling were reduced to a lot of sweaty lifting and prying, but were rewarded with the grate finally sliding out of the way with a metallic scrape and a heavy clank as they dropped it to the ground. Beneath them, where the grate had been, they could see old rungs leading down into darkness.

"Maybe we should go get a torch or a lantern," Darkling suggested.

"Are you joking?" Wolfson asked. "Take a whiff… That's definitely a sewer down there. We'd be lucky if we didn't bake ourselves in a methane fireball."

Darkling sighed. "Fine. So have you got a trick up your sleeve?"

"In a manner of speaking," Wolfson replied. He opened his belt pouch and pulled out a leather thong from which depended a whitish stone about the size of his thumb. Holding the stone close to his lips, he whispered something and the stone began to glow with a soft blue light. Then he draped the thong over his head and around his neck. "Shall we?" he asked, and began descending down the shaft.

Darkling sighed again and followed.

Both adventurers drew their blades when they reached the bottom. The stink of effluvium was ripe in their noses, and it was deathly quiet compared to the noise of the city above. The only sounds were the the rustling of their own movements, and the occasional 'plop' of a large drop of water falling from above. At least Darkling hoped it was water.

By the eerie light of Wolfson's amulet, they could see the sewer tunnel heading away in both directions, but the stone ledge on which they stood was covered in semi-dried muck, and in the muck they could see the distinctive tracks made by what could only have been a walking trunk… or a very large rat with four peg legs. Wolfson was betting it was the former.

"This way, then," he said, his voice echoing in the tunnel, and he started slowly walking.

Darkling followed, occasionally looking over his shoulder to check behind them. "Where did you get that thing, anyway?" he asked.

"The light? It was a gift from a grateful Orgaltish maiden."

Darkling made a face. "You… and a dwarf?"

"Not that I said we did anything, but why not?" Wolfson asked, stooping to peer at the ground again.

"Well… They're kind of ugly, aren't they?"

"Only the ones the dwarves want you to see," Wolfson replied. "Actually, many of them are quite cute until they hit the age of about sixty. Unfortunately, most dwarven girls aren't allowed to travel until after they've hit the age of about sixty."

"Oh."

Wolfson stood and turned to Darkling. "Well, the tracks end here rather abruptly, so there's probably a hidden door."

"Gotcha," Darkling said stepping forward. He began carefully examining the walls and prodding the stonework delicately with his fingers, and was finally rewarded with a soft 'click', followed by a dull grinding sound as a portion of the wall slid back.

The pair pushed against the stone until it revealed a recess in the darkness with a narrow flight of stairs going up.

"That's what I was afraid of," Wolfson said with a sigh. "That'll be going into the sealed off temple."

"Great," Darkling said, and the two of them began to ascend the stairs.

As they neared the top, they could make out torchlight ahead. Cautiously, they peered around the corner to see what was waiting for them.

It was a chamber that apparently filled most of the building. Granite pillars supported the ceiling and circled a wide pit, and stray bits of furnishings had been shoved back against the walls. Torches burned in sconces set into the pillars, and around the pit was laid out a runic circle – only the runes had been formed from many pairs of cotton panties.

"That's a new one on me," Wolfson admitted.

"It's sympathy," a voice cackled, and a tall, skinny bald man dressed in the robes of a Sindran wizard stepped out of the darkness.

"Sympathy? Sympathy for who?" asked Darkling.

"No, fool!" shrieked the wizard. "'Sympathy' as in sympathetic magic!" He gestured around at the panties. "Each pair of fresh bloomers is representative of a single virginal girl. Using them, I can send out the Hound of Polypalpus, who will go forth and devour enough virgins to summon forth his master – I shall raise up one of the Gods of Old!" He laughed maniacally.

The two adventurers looked at each other.

"Nut job," Darkling observed.

"Needs to go," Wolfson agreed.

"That's just what the Council said!" the wizard screamed. "Og! Negg! Destroy them!" he cried, pointing at the adventurers.

A wooden cabinet to Darkling's left rose up on knobby legs and sprouted several claw-like limbs, while a stone bench to Wolfson's right reared up on a trio of stumps and raised a pair of club-like appendages.

Darkling deftly rolled out of the way of the slashing cabinet and brought his katana down on it, severing one of the limbs. "This must be the wood elemental you were talking about," he noted.

"Thunder Slash!" Wolfson yelled, swinging his sword in a wide arc in front of him. A crackle of blue energy issued from the blade and slammed into the wizard, knocking him backward.

"Aieee!" cried the wizard as he tumbled into the pit.

"Ooph!" grunted Wolfson as the bench slammed into him and sent him sprawling. His sword clattered across the floor.

"Wolf!" Darkling cried.

The cabinet whirled on him, preparing for another assault.

"It's all good," Wolfson croaked.

A moment later, the cabinet crumbled into splinters and the bench into rubble.

Wolfson sat up, gasping. "The wizard… hit bottom… banished… the elementals."

The pit suddenly emitted a loud, rumbling belch that echoed around the chamber. both adventurers looked in that direction.

"Uh oh," Darkling said.

Wolfson nodded. "Um… Dark… Get the panties." He rolled to his knees and scrambled after his sword.

Darkling paused. "The panties?" he asked.

"Yes! Quickly!" Wolfson replied grabbing his sword and standing up. "Aside from the fact they're what we're being paid to recover, there's no telling how far along that maniac got with his ritual – and he's correct about the laws of sympathetic magic."

"Ah." Darkling sheathed his katana and rushed forward to start quickly scooping up the errant undergarments.

Meanwhile, Wolfson edged cautiously closer to the edge of the pit. He could clearly hear a rumbling and clattering sound from within it, growing closer and louder.

Just before Wolfson leaned over the pit to take a look, a colossal figure burst up from the opening. It was long, slimy, gray, and covered with appendages that resembled nothing so much as the mouth of an insect – each one composed of dozens of segments and covered with fine hairs. Some seemed to be for locomotion, but a bundle at the front surrounded a sphincter-like opening, and probably served to shovel food into that maw.

"Holy crap!" Darkling exclaimed, reeling back in shock.

"Keep grabbing the panties!" Wolfson commanded. He dove in and struck the creature using both hands to drive his blade.

The sword bit deep, and a brackish ichor oozed from the wound. The monster made a gargling sound and several nearby appendages swatted at Wolfson, knocking him backward.

Blood welled up from several slashes on his chest, and Wolfson cursed as he realized each of the filaments on those limbs was like a razor-sharp thread.

"Watch the limbs!" he called to Darkling. "They're sharp."

"Swell," Darkling replied. The Boru had an armful of underwear, and shoved them into an open trunk that was nearby. "I've almost got all of the panties! Just buy me a few more seconds."

"Thunder Slash!" Wolfson yelled, sending out another surge of electrical energy, this time to slam into the creature.

It made another belching sound and lunged after Wolfson again, this time slamming into one of the chamber's support pillars which crumbled and tumbled around the adventurer. Wolfson managed to avoid the deadly spines, but got pummeled by several granite chunks.

He rolled over, and realizing the thing was looming above him, he continued rolling, trying to stay out of its way. This time he felt it graze his leg as it slammed into another pillar, which cracked dangerously.

"I've got 'em all!" Darkling yelled.

"Great!" Wolfson yelled back. "Make for the way we came in!" Then he scrabbled in what he hoped was the right direction, the 'Hound of Polypalpus' lunging after him.

The beast struck another pillar, which collapsed, causing the cracked pillar to also tumble over as well. At that moment, the structural integrity of the entire ceiling gave way, and a half-ton of granite plunged to the ground.

Wolfson and Darkling huddled in the little secret alcove, panting and choking as the dust settled.

"You okay?" Darkling was finally able to gasp.

Wolfson nodded. "Yeah, I'll live. You manage to get the panties out?"

Darkling smiled, patting the trunk wedged next to him.

Beyond the rubble, they could hear the sounds of nearby residents gathering and chattering about what was going on.

"What happened?"

"That old temple collapsed!"

"Look! There's some sort of dead monster in there!"

"Goodness! It must be some sort of sign!"

Wolfson crawled to his feet and grabbed one end of the trunk. "Come on," he said. "We can probably go out the way we came while everyone's gawking at the wreckage."

Darkling nodded and got to his feet as well. "Let's not do this again any time soon."

He grabbed the other end of the trunk, and they started down the stairs to the muck below.

Wolfson smiled. "I owe you some coffee," he said, as he limped along. The bloomers were late, but Madame Ona would have them. He was battered and cut, but it was the end of the day and he was still alive.

And in Shadow River, that was about as good as one could ask.



Copyright 2013 by Curtis Lyon. Appears here by permission.

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