Windwalker was a fresh-faced veteran of the Orc Wars. The only reason she was fresh-faced was that she was an Elf, and they always appeared that way. Windwalker was tired of war, tired of battles, tired of adventuring in general and tired of being tired. So what if she could kill an Orc at two hundred paces with an arrow through the aorta? Or surgically cut an enemy open with a sword so that his or her entrails spilled out neatly to form an exact replica of The Ministry of Helpfulness? A lithe, immensely agile and at times brutal warrior, Windwalker was sick of it all- only because she had a hangover. The Ministry of Helpfulness was an endless array of bureaucratic, bespectacled, nosy and annoyingly busy Gnomes who never stopped shuffling paper in a precision-guided attempt at keeping everything the same as it always was in: The Capital. Windwalker longed for The Capital, in the way a person might long to be fricasseed alive by the Lizard Men of Pontash, or forced to drink warm beer in the inns ofGarmesh where there were so many desserts that one was bound to end up in your drink.
Windwalker glanced over at the bed beside her. Sure enough, there it was. It was as if someone had thrown all 206 bones of the human body up into an Air Elemental’s path and when they came down again sewed them up in an old sack and painted a face on it. The sack groaned, its painted craggy face grimaced, it had one eye open, but then again this was normal; a habit the sack picked up from a guy who called himself a “private detective.” How this differed from a public detective, she did not know, and at the moment did not care. She gazed at the small mirror on her bedside table. She was still looking pretty good in an angular Elvish kind of way, her blonde hair still tied back in a ponytail, accusing her of not letting her hair down before she went to sleep. “OK, I was too drunk” she explained to it. Her features were still smooth, as Greystone knew how to heal scars with that odd concoction of his. “I thought only Priests and Monks knew about stuff like that?” she once asked him. That brought on a coughing fit, the old man’s sometime adjunct to lying or remaining silent on a subject. “Wizards are supposed to be eccentric,” he had replied.
Of all the things to drink, they had to drink Arphaxad’s Aid to Inebriation, the most potent drink – not counting the venom of the Rare Asp – known to sentient beings. The old man could sure put it away; he even wanted to challenge Grux to an arm wrestle. Grux knew better that that: he had worked with them long enough to know the old wizard could pull out any trick in the book when he was drunk, and so Grux had backed away from the bar slowly as if he expected the old man to pull a giant rabid rabbit out of his wizard hat (with the single red star on it) and force Grux to arm wrestle it. It had been a long night after the arm-wrestling challenge as they took turns in coaxing Grux back to what they lovingly referred to as “Headquarters” so they could all get some sleep.
It was a weary, bleary, blue-eyed and grumpy Elf warrior who eased herself out of a bed that was too comfortable to leave, a bed she had gotten oh so used to, despite the fact that Elves technically didn’t actually need to sleep. But it sure felt good after a night on the proverbial. Trying to avoid the disturbing fact that one of the wizard’s eyes was open she got up and surveyed the cottage. It was in pretty good condition, considering that Grux was the one who did the housework; for some strange reason the most feared Dwarf in the land simply loved little doilies and paintings of famous battles, and had liberally decorated their home/Headquarters with both. Funnily enough he greeted any talk of stealing doilies as anathema, whilst he had helped steal every single one of those wonderful, famous and expensive paintings. Their friends simply could not believe that the place was so tidy and at first asked if a maid came in. When Grux explained ebulliently that he was responsible for the beauty that was “Headquarters”, everyone nodded in encouragement – after that first time when Jimmy the Jobless had laughed. That time had become famous, not because as everyone suspected he would shove the Thief’s balls down his throat and pulled them out of another orifice, but because Grux had started weeping. A hulking bulk of a Dwarf, known across the seven seas, six deserts and five great forests to have a battle axe that could cleave a troll in twain, had wept. This sight was more frightening to onlookers and to those to whom the story was told in shady, morose inns by Men, Elves, Gnomes and Dwarves and other sundry races on the wrong edge of evolution, than if Grux had castrated everyone in the room; that fateful “first time.”
Thinking about Grux led to the thought of “Where was Grux?” which led to the inevitable walk outside to where he surely would be exercising his already bulbous and overgrown muscles. Windwalker found herself squinting in the light. “Surely it must be noon already,” she thought, “and damned hot as well.” Fortunately, the cottage was magically cooled by one of Greystone’s wondrous and luxurious permanent spells that kept the three of them in such unnatural comfort and safety when on their own property. Something that contrasted so obviously with the rest of their dangerous, crazy, death-filled adventuring life that it jarred the brain to even think about it. Which is exactly what it was doing now; either that or the hangover. The property was small, with no trimmings; just an outhouse, a shower that Far-Out the Gnome had rigged up, a shed, a practice area and of course a weight-training field, which Grux was busy sweating over in the noonday sun at this very moment.
“How ya be fairin’ luv?” Grux grunted between lifts, his armour-like body and even his scraggly brown hair fully engaged with sweat. He was always nice to her in a big brother kind of way; though being an Elf technically she was older than him or Greystone. Grux was a mountain that had been compressed into a brawling mauling hillock and then tipped over, so that he was seemingly wider than he was tall. Loyal to his friends, lover of doilies and tidiness, but grumpy as a matter of pride and able to kill a man with his pinkie; a conglomerate of contradictions.
Grux took a swig of water from the well the Earth Elemental had dug for them, courtesy of the old man, who, undoubtedly, Grux mused, was still asleep with one eye open. Windwalker was firmly settled in the outhouse, reading the latest gossip from the “Real World.” Greystone arranged for stuff from the Real World to come through regularly, including the wondrous weights he was gazing at in admiration. He sat down, waiting for Windwalker. He could have gone in the bushes but Greystone had explained that if ever they went back to the Real World, they would have to learn to use the “Public Conveniences” and therefore needed to start practicing at home. Grux could not see how having to wait your turn to go to the toilet was convenient in any way. Having a spare battle axe, especially a magical one; now that was convenient. The Real World had been an odd place – even to call it the “Real World” seemed odd; after all, what was this world then, a bloomin’ fairy story? Still, that’s what the detective had called it, and so the name stuck. Besides, Greystone had started calling it that, and he seemed to know just about everything, which was very handy in a tight spot – and also extremely annoying.
“Don’t get me started on annoyin’”, he said to himself. Couldn’t hold their liquor, that was their problem, he’d only had twelve yards of the Hack and Slash’s finest ale and a bucket of Arphaxad’s Aid to Inebriation when they had both called it a night. With that and the arm-wrestling nonsense it was no wonder he was aggravated. Still, he had to look after the two of them; they were so intelligent that they had no common sense, and they couldn’t hold their drink. Still, the old man would probably be getting up soon and heading off to The Capital with the aid of some spell. “Better him than me,” Grux thought. The old man had heard that there was now a ban on traveling to the Real World. He recalled the look on the wizard’s face when Pinwheel had casually mentioned it to them while pouring their drinks. Immediately he had gone from drunken old man to a terrifying strident Wizard of the First Order, his face struggling to contain his rage. He vowed then and there to go to The Capital first thing in the morning and sort out the bureaucratic Gnomes by turning all of them into cat food – gradually. A feat only ever performed once before in known history, and that by the Red Wizards of Thargan. He remembered the Red Wizards well. When he was in the Real World, Grux had seen a therapist once, just for a lark, and he had said that Grux needed to get in touch with his rage toward the Red Wizards of Thargan in a more healthy way. Grux had replied that feeding the balls of the one he had just killed to the one Greystone was magically holding rigid had done just that; and it was only last year, therefore he had expressed his rage in a healthy way quite recently. Nearly all the people Grux had met in the Real World were like that: living in a violent world whilst all pretending to be shocked by any form of violence. It was all down to common sense, and being a Dwarf he had more than his fair share. He couldn’t see the point in getting weepy over a murder on their magic box with the moving pictures whilst hundreds of thousands were dying in wars or through starvation. This world was bloodier in an in-your-face kind o’ way, but it was better by miles than the Real World. “Too much pretending goes on over there,” he grumbled to himself as he headed to the outhouse, as Windwalker emerged to take a shower.
Greystone had been awake for a while now. He had been in the study for two hours; he had just left an apparition of himself on the bed for a joke. It was due to explode as soon as they both came within two feet of it simultaneously. Not only that, but he would be away all day and they would have to live with the consequences of his little joke until he got back. He chuckled to himself aloud. This only brought a reminder of the seriousness of the situation. He recalled his conversation with the Barkeep the previous night. “The Emperor has just issued a decree stating that all travel to ‘The World Which Thinks it’s the Only World’ is banned.”
Greystone had said, “How do you know it’s from the Emperor?”
“All decrees come from the Emperor.”
“Oh I know that but what if the Emperor isn’t alive anymore?”
“Have you ever seen him lately?”
“Do you know anyone who has?”
“Well, there it is; maybe there is no Emperor anymore.”
“Well who rules the place?”
Everyone in earshot started laughing heartily at the very idea of the little Gnomes running the entire Empire. They all appreciated Greystone’s jest immensely. Greystone had not laughed.
Now he needed to do something about it. It was time to put the spell in motion that would transport him to The Capital. Everyone was required by law to appear about a hundred paces outside the front Gatehouse when traveling to the hallowed capital by magic. He said the appropriate spell and The Capital loomed up before him, caught in the grip of a haze of heat, “undoubtedly exacerbated by the hot air produced by the bureaucrats,” Greystone grumbled aloud. The wizard strode up purposefully to the gate, knowing there was no one else around but the guards, and set off to the Central Endless Paperwork Unit. That’s what Windwalker had christened it, after hearing stories of those who had been there before. Elves religiously avoided big cities if possible and Grux, well… he’d probably end up producing a trail of paper mixed with blood a mile long. So it was up to Greystone. “It’s up to me to go into the lines’ den; a good pun if I do say so myself. Lions would be so much easier.” The Ministry of Helpfulness (its real name) was built in such a way as to give it the appearance of a stack of important papers teetering on the brink, held up only by the steady and noble hand of The Emperor in the form of a statue that stood almost as tall as the building and slightly to its left. The wizard dragged his bones up the steps and through the front doors as they opened automatically before him (a Gnomic contrivance, he had heard). He had to bend slightly under the door frame; Gnomes did not design buildings for six-foot-five humans. The lines were not that long, possibly due to the time of day and the searing heat. Inside the building it was cool, again thanks to the Gnomes; though why the Official Twelve White Wizards couldn’t have stopped twirling their collective moustaches long enough to cool it magically was beyond him.
There would not be a long wait but Greystone was not in the mood for waiting. “Well, there’s always a way to pass the time,” he thought. “I’ll just have a look at what’s going on at home.” His hand opened his pack wide so he could glimpse the crystal ball inside. Magic wasn’t allowed in The Capital, but any that was used could be detected by type and by user, and he knew he could get away with this small infringement. As the clouds cleared from inside the device he could see inside the cottage.
Windwalker sat on her bed, wondering if they should wake the old man. “He must be getting old,” she thought. Grux entered the cottage noisily. “Can’t hold your drink anymore, hey! Rise and sh…” Grux had stepped forward a pace and a half when the room seemed to wobble like an oversized jelly doing the Rhumba. He gripped the bed for support, which shielded Windwalker from the blast of red ooze that erupted from where the old wizard had been. He was reaching for the axe on his bed before he realised it was strawberry jam and that Windwalker was rolling on her own bed laughing. “I’m going to kill him, wizard or not!” he cried.
The old lady in front of him eyed him suspiciously as he guffawed into his pack. “Would you care to look inside?” he quizzed. She looked back to the front of the line and straightened her neck ever so slightly. “I’ll have another look in a few minutes,” thought Greystone. “This is so much better than chess,” he mused. Chess – now there was an interesting conundrum; developed independently in both the Real World and this one. He wondered how that was possible; a perfect research project for his old age. He had played chess with the courtesan in that inn, which the denizens referred to as a “pub” in the Real World. They called courtesans other things as well; part of the pretence of looking aghast at some small matter whilst ignoring the main problems. A bit like playing chess while being unaware of where the opponent’s queen was, he decided.
He was nearing the front of the line. The old lady was complaining about a rat infestation. Didn’t she realise that any new adventurer type worth his weight would have loved such an opportunity as this, to earn a few pieces? Rats were probably bred by the Fighters’ Guild and released into the ordinary folks’ cellars for that very purpose. “Yes, that’s the way of it,” he said quietly to himself. Greystone was very proud of himself for not getting angry in this goddamn place; the therapy of a practical joke, he mused. “Oh, I almost forgot,” he thought. “Time for another peek at my two companions.”
“It won’t come off. No matter how many times I rub it or use water on it, it stays put. Blast him!”
“It’s the same with the floor and furniture. I’m afraid we’re going to have to wait till he comes back.”
“Ah, my good man, how fortunate you are that I am in such fine fettle. There’s nothing like a good practical joke, is there?”
The gnome behind the counter raised an eyebrow; this was not how people normally addressed him. Usually they said things like, “When is the new cart track going through (insert small obscure town’s name here)?” Or, “Hurry up, four eyes!” And of course the creative jest, “I ought to gnome me own business better than you.”
“I’m here about the law regarding The World Which Thinks it’s the Only World, or as some call it, the Real World.”
“Which law is that sir?” the gnome enquired.
The gnome behind the counter could have been any Gnome as far as Greystone was concerned, they all looked so alike; or at least the ones working in the Bureaucracy did. Efficient bearing, cocky jaunt of a walk, eyes lapping up the details, and always thinking about how each separate thing and person in the Empire could be reproduced in written form, so as to be shuffled, collated, abridged, unabridged and set into subsections and by-laws.
Greystone pushed back his wispy white hair and cleared his throat, aware that in spite of killing seventeen Lichs in his vast rambling career, he was nervous being in this paper kingdom. Here, one couldn’t just use the Marko’s Malice spell and solve the problem. Here the rules were different. “The new rule about not been allowed to travel there.”
The gnome, who, now that Greystone looked closely, had a badge stating that he was gnome 212B pinned to his green overcoat, said nothing for a while. Greystone coughed. “What about it, sir?” 212B asked.
“Well, I don’t like it, not one bit.”
“So I would like an exception to be made.”
212B stared ahead, not moving.
“There isn’t a Gorgon behind me, is there?”
“You know – the things that turn one to stone.”
“Mm? Oh no, no. It’s just that…”
221B straightened his collar; his mouth seemed to be unaccustomed to forming words all of a sudden.
“Out with it man.”
“It’s just that if there were exceptions then it wouldn’t be a law.” He breathed a sigh of relief, as if this self-evident piece of legal surety was a mountain no one could jump over.
Greystone paused. “I’m not just anybody; my friends and I were the ones who travelled to the Real World and brought back all the information you have on it in this place.” He lifted his arms and indicated the four corners of the monstrous building, hoping this simple non-verbal communication would be the clincher with 221B, who was obviously not the brightest gnome to walk The Empire.
“I see, well we are all in your debt now, but the Emperor’s advisers obviously believe that the banning of travel to The World Which Thinks it’s the Only World was most propitious, or they would not have suggested such a thing to the Emperor. Also… the line is getting longer.”
“Damn the line man, I need to talk to someone in authority.”
The gnome seemed to weigh up all possible variants in a few breaths.
“I’ll just get 123A for you.” He jumped off his seat and hurried off down the internal corridor. Greystone was itching to use magic to see where he had gone but instead chose to look around. There were now ten people behind him, all wearing the same thing: scowls directed at him. He cleared his throat and turned to address them in his most solemn voice and backwoods accent.
“I’m just here in this here place ’cause we’s got an outbreak of Mullygumbel disease in my village. I’ve never seen so many people with blue putrid festering private parts afore.”
Soon after, 221B arrived back with the good news. “My supervisor will see you. If you look to your left you’ll see a statue of Gimpus the Gregarious Gnome. Just behind that is a door with the words “Difficult Customers” written on it. Go in, 123A is waiting for you… hey, where did everybody go?”
Greystone strode across the room and turned the handle of the small door, to be greeted by a ceiling that came up to his chest. He ducked down and proceeded to find a chair amidst the flotsam of paperwork that made up the surface area of the room. He set it down near the huge desk that separated him from 123A. This Gnome, Greystone mused, wore glasses that could be used as a paperweight, and possessed a beard that for the most part lay on the table in front of him. Despite all this and the reams of paper that threatened to topple over and kill them both at any moment, the most disconcerting thing about the room was 123A’s ear trumpet. If you were that deaf that you needed an ear trumpet, why would you be dealing with difficult customers... then he understood.
The Gnome at last looked up and proceeded to look around for his ear trumpet, which he eventually found right in front of him. Greystone cleared his throat and began. “It’s about the Real World.”
The Gnome replied “Who’s got a bout of the sneeze and hurled?”
Greystone enunciated each word carefully and shouted “The law about traveling to it.”
“You saw me unravelling my kit?”
Greystone paused for a long while and the thought came to him that he could do a harmless spell without getting into too much trouble other than a fine. It would be worth it. “Do you like strawberry jam?” he asked.