Mr. Potts waited until Hannah left the room, then pressed a red button on his desk. A low-pitched humming sound filled his ears while a semi-translucent screen descended from the ceiling, separating the area around his desk from the rest of the room. Potts sat in his oversized swivel chair. “Our assumption was correct. Now we know where they went when they reached the pit and who the gatekeeper is.” He spun around to the empty corner behind his desk. “We finally have the missing piece to get the gemstones. Billy, how long until you are ready to go?”
A thin man sitting on a white leather chair appeared in the corner. His facial features were angular, sharp, and not quite human. His skin was dark, with a hint of burgundy, which would normally indicate a life lived outdoors, yet his skin was wrinkle free and supple. He wore dark orange suede shoes with matching orange socks, an ivory-colored blue pinstriped shirt with a navy necktie, pale blue pants, and jacket that had a small orange kerchief tucked in the chest pocket. His clothing shimmered slightly when he moved. He brushed his right hand through his short-cropped light-brown hair and spoke coolly. “You provide the patsy, and we’ll depart within the hour.”
“Same supplies as before?”
“Yes, the same.”
Mr. Potts spun back around to his desk and scribbled on a piece of paper. “After the last attempt I had everything stored. All the equipment is kitted and ready to go.” He pressed the red button on his desk a second time, the humming sound stopped, and the semi-translucent screens raised into invisible slots.
Billy walked past Mr. Potts, grasping the piece of paper from him without stopping. As he walked away, a man appeared next to him. “Basement,” he said. When the doors opened to the basement, Billy stepped into a small room with a plain door on the other side. Next to the door a man sat at a simple wooden desk.
At the sight of Billy, the man stood from his desk, adjusting his uniform. “Mr. Billy, your usual carriage today?”
“I need the Carriage of Modified Perceptions.”
“Very good sir, may I please have your order?”
Billy handed the man his order and exited the room. The Tramluddite brothers Grog and Brog waited for him. They followed him as he strode by. He walked down a stone walkway between dozens of carriages before reaching the last one on the left. When he stopped, workers moved the carriage forward then swept away a thick layer of dirt which revealed a plate on the ground. Grog and Brog walked to opposite sides of the plate and inserted tools into slots. They grunted with exertion as they pulled up the plate, revealing a set of stairs that led deeper into the ground. Billy descended on free floating stairs into a well-lit white painted room.
The room was adorned with crossbows, swords, leather armor, and staffs. Numerous glass cases held rings, necklaces, daggers, and gems. Freestanding spikes protruded from the ground near the cases holding various animal skulls and headdresses. The lifelike painted eyes on the headdresses moved around the room watching the activity. A single basic carriage occupied the middle of the room. The carriage was road-worn, made from unfinished wood that was damaged in several places. Six horses were hitched to the carriage and stood perfectly motionless.
A man wearing a wide brimmed hat waited for Billy and walked next to him. Long gray hair flowed down over his shoulders into his beard. His mouth was hidden as he spoke. “I checked the equipment, verified the charges, supplemented the horses, and the cargo is loaded. Your manifest,” Opal said as he handed Billy a rectangular paper.
“And my case?” Billy asked.
At hearing the word case, a portly man came running from the far corner of the room. When he reached Billy, he skittered to a stop. He read Billy’s reaction and a drip of sweat raced down his forehead. “Here sir,” he said as he held out the case, presenting the handle to Billy. His hands were shaking.
Billy took the case, strolled up to the carriage, and accepted a pen from a man who appeared next to the carriage door. The man who provided the pen opened a folio which he presented to Billy. As the man spoke, he turned the document through several pages. “By signing the final page of this document, you, Billy, hereafter mentioned as Signee, agree to accept responsibility for returning one-hundred percent of the attached manifest, see appendix C, in working order. Any items that are misplaced, lost, or damaged will be repaired, replaced, or refurbished at our discretion utilizing whatever means Potts Enterprises, hereafter mentioned as Company deem appropriate, and your compensation will be deducted in kind. You also agree that Company takes no responsibility for the appropriateness of the equipment you have requested, nor does Company provide training, or instruction. Nor does Company validate the equipment you are removing from inventory will provide any benefit whatsoever.”
Billy stood calmly and listened while the man spoke. When the man ceased speaking, Billy signed a solid black line on the last page of the document and stepped into the carriage. Upon entering, recessed linear beams of white light blanketed the interior in a soft glow that accentuated the texture of the plush upholstered seats. He sat across from a young man who was sprawled out, sleeping on the bench seat. The young man had a placard dangling from a thin chain around his neck which read simply: Leonard, age 15. Billy studied Leonard for a long moment, noticing his hands were rough, his fingernails chewed, he was dressed in plain clothes, had a tangled mop of curly black hair on his head, and had several small, poorly sewn patches of mismatched fabric on his pants. Leonard’s handlers had cleaned him thoroughly before loading him into the carriage, but the lingering scent of horse manure clung to him. Billy didn’t care for using someone so young as his patsy, but age matching was required for his plan to work. He hoped that Leonard would survive, but there were no guarantees, this was a risky venture.
Outside the Carriage of Modified Perceptions, Opal climbed into the driver’s seat while Grog and Brog occupied the rear-facing seat at the back. Opal smoothed his mustache, snapped his fingers, and the horses grunted. He nodded at several men who pulled a set of double doors open, exposing a dark tunnel. Opal removed his hat, pulled black lensed enchanted goggles over his eyes, and snapped the reins. The horses took off with a jolt, propelling them into the darkness. To Opal, the trip was perfectly illuminated as the square-cut dirt sides of the tunnel rushed by only inches away from the top of his head and the sides of the carriage. Opal preferred to wear his hat at all times, but the low ceiling didn’t provide enough clearance. His long hair and beard danced in the wind as they traveled.
Nearly a half mile of tunnel provided discreet travel out of Potts Luck before reaching a ramp to the surface. Enchantments to the horses and carriage would allow them to travel quickly over the swamp without being bogged down in the wet ground. By Opal’s estimate they would reach the pit in a few hours, roughly an hour before sunrise.
Inside the carriage, Billy jolted forward with the initial movement, then perfect stillness and silence as the carriage’s enchantments engaged. He pulled his case to his lap. He ran his hands over the smooth brown leather and dragged his fingertips along the seams that held it together. With both hands on the handle, he dialed in codes for the mechanical device that engaged the internal clasps. Four clicks and a pop came from inside the case before it sprang open, revealing a red velvet interior lining. The bottom of the case was empty, except for a small bracelet. The bracelet was made from a silver-colored substance that had dozens of intricately carved claws extending from its circumference. Inside each claw was a small crystal. Billy grasped the bracelet and inspected it, rotating it slowly in front of his eyes. When he touched a crystal the small claw opened, releasing it. He removed several crystals and replaced them with one of the crystals embedded in the interior lid of his case. Once satisfied with the bracelet he slipped it over his left hand and secured the bracelet on his wrist. He closed the case and slid it under his seat, securing the case with a strap that seemed to have been custom designed for it.
Billy flipped down a console that was concealed in his seat’s backrest. The console was an array of glowing buttons and dials. He pulled two small disks out of the console. Each disk was tethered to the carriage with a thin wire. He placed one disk on Leonard’s forehead and placed the other on his own forehead. Billy put his finger on a switch and paused. He thought, Leonard may be a simpleton, but the storyline must be believable.
Billy was in the room with Mr. Potts two weeks earlier when Peter, Sam, and Rodger visited. He was the ever present, silent, invisible partner in the corner, ensuring his employer’s wellbeing. With the additional details that Hannah provided, he crafted a storyline in his mind. If he was successful, Leonard would be the perfect lure to finally snare Scrumpletini, but he had to get Leonard to willingly go down into the pit and gain Scrumpletini’s trust. If Leonard’s intentions were less than genuine, the trick wouldn’t work. As with all illusions, I’ll have to improvise as it develops.
With the flip of a switch the modified perceptual enchantments engaged. The interior of the carriage disappeared, and Billy entered Leonard’s mind. He was in Leonard’s memories. Billy stood in the center of a small village. He found Leonard inside a hut sleeping. Early morning sunlight had just crested the horizon. He would remain invisible to Leonard for the duration of the illusion. He was the director behind the curtain, pulling the strings of his marionette. Billy generated images of Peter, Rodger, and Sam. Nothing moved in the village. Even the specs of windblown dust were idle and still. Billy snapped his fingers, setting his contrived artificial scene into motion.
Leonard’s eyes snapped open as Peter, Rodger, and Sam broke through the door and collapsed inside his hut. He was in his bed and fully clothed, including his shoes.
Leonard reflexively cried out. “Waaaa. Don’t hurt me!”
A second later, a loud rumbling vibration caused dust to fall from the dirt ceiling, then a crash, a wall of fire rolled down the alleyway outside his dirt hut. Peter, Rodger, and Sam scrambled to their feet. Rodger stuck his head out of the hut and nodded at the others.
“We’re not here to hurt you, follow us, this place is about to be destroyed,” Peter said as he grabbed Leonard’s shirt and dragged him into the alley.
The last thing Leonard remembered before waking up in his bed, was cleaning out a horse stall. Now he was following three unknown people down an alley, running for his life. He glanced back. Behind them, his entire village was aflame. Soldiers ran through the streets, advancing in their direction. A small person floated above the ground covered in fire from head to toe. Fire shot out of the floating man’s hands.
Sweat beaded on Leonard’s face as they ran. His small farming village was nothing more than a few streets of dirt homes situated between a series of rolling hills and a small stream. Everyone in his village farmed or raised livestock they traded with other nearby towns. Within a minute, they exited the village and ran across a field headed for the nearest hillside.
When they reached a rock outcropping Peter, Rodger, and Sam got to the ground. Rodger reached up and pulled Leonard down behind the rock.
Rodger shouted at Leonard. “Stay down.”
“What’s going on, who are you guys?” Leonard said.
“I’m Peter, this is Sam, and that’s Rodger. We don’t have time to explain. The magician back there wants the Dextera sword.” Peter held up a golden sword that shimmered and glowed on its own. “If he gets it, he will enslave everyone. We can’t let him do that.” Peter glanced up over the rock. “He’s coming this way. We need to move. C’mon.”
Leonard was terrified. He was immobilized and stiff when Rodger yanked him back to his feet. He started moving in a stiff-legged run, his body didn’t want to cooperate with his mind. Peter, Sam, and Rodger ran ahead, he was falling behind. Thoughts of his own doom sank his spirit. Light flashed on the ground in front of him and fire burned his back. His legs began to work, he caught up to the others. As they crested the hilltop, Leonard glanced back. Fire covered everything. People screamed.
Peter was in the lead and headed toward the next hill fifty yards away. He shouted back to them. “Dextera says he’s this way.”
Halfway across the valley between the hills Leonard slowed. “I have to go back. I have to help my people.”
Sam turned around and yanked on Leonard, pulling him forward again. “You are helping your people. We need to reach Scrumpletini. He’ll help us. Dextera is leading us to him. We don’t have much farther to go. You must keep going.”
Leonard nodded and kept running across the valley and up the next hill before they stopped at a series of boulders on the hillside. Peter stopped at an oblong-shaped boulder dug into the hill, directed his golden sword at it, and rolled the boulder to the side, revealing a dark opening into the side of the hill. A fireball hit near Peter, he was knocked to the ground, Leonard spun around the direction the fire came from. Fifty men marched across the valley toward them with the floating man above them.
Rodger and Sam produced bows and launched arrows at their attackers. The soldiers dove for cover to avoid the arrows. Peter used the sword, a blast of magic launched from its tip. The floating magician swerved.
Peter yelled at Leonard. “This is it, go down there. We’ll hold them off while you find Scrumpletini.”
“You have to go down there, into that hole. That’s where Scrumpletini is. He’s the only one that can stop them.”
“You want me to go in there and find someone named Scrumpletini?”
“Yes, go now,” Peter said.
Leonard crouched behind one of the boulders, he stared at the dark hole in the side of the hill, he was unarmed. He stuck his head up above the boulder. Reinforcements crested the hilltop on the other side of the valley. Another hundred soldiers were joining the fight. An arrow grazed his right shoulder. “Ahh!” He turned left, then right, watching Rodger and Sam shoot arrows at their attackers. Another fireball landed near Peter.
“Now Leonard. You have to help us. Go down there, tell Scrumpletini we have Dextera, tell him Peter needs his help to fight the evil magician. Hurry.”
An arrow struck Rodger in his thigh. He screamed out and cursed the soldiers who were advancing on them. Rodger fell to his knees behind the boulder. “Leonard, go, we don’t have much time.”
Sweat ran down Leonard’s forehead as he sat behind a boulder. His heart pounded. He got up and leapt, feet first, into the dark hole. The moment his feet cleared the threshold, the scene in front of him changed. Instead of falling into a cave, he was weightless, floating in a sea of black.
Billy pulled the metal disk off his head and exited the illusion. He left Leonard suspended in mid-air in the illusion. He hoped that his efforts were convincing enough for Leonard to do the rest. Billy stepped out of the carriage onto a barren landscape a few feet from the edge of the Pit. Grog and Brog worked together to removed Leonard from the carriage. They took special care to ensure that the metal disk stayed on his forehead until Billy gave the signal. Leonard had a blank expression, his eyes were open, but his mind was still trapped inside the illusion. Billy strapped a harness over Leonard’s shoulders and retrieved a glowing device from his jacket pocket.
“Do it,” Billy said.
Grog and Brog tossed Leonard forward, popping the metal disk off his head. Leonard snapped out of the illusion as he flew over the edge of the pit. He slid down a steep slope that was dimly lit by dark gray skies above. A horrendous odor of death and decay penetrated his nose. Leonard panicked as he accelerated out of control. He was on his back and tried to sit up. He just managed to pull up his head enough to see over his torso. Wind stung his eyes, tears streamed down his face as he struggled to see. He was heading straight toward a dark gray mass of rock hidden in the pre-dawn light. He braced himself for impact, but something pushed him sideways. Skeletonized body parts and shredded clothing adorned javelin shaped points of the rock. Turning his head back, there were three figures far away at the top of the slope.
For two full minutes, Leonard slid downhill. Each time he neared a rock, something pushed him to the side. He believed Peter was at the top of the slope using his magic Dextera sword to help. When Leonard reached the bottom, he tumbled across hard ground. The stench of rotting flesh was intolerable. Dark gray skies above provided just enough light to navigate. All around him, the scattered remains of bodies littered the perimeter of the slope. Nearly two hundred yards away a white wall rose out of ground. Leonard pushed himself to his feet and approached the wall.
“Scrumpletini?” Leonard asked. He tried again as he walked. “Scrumpletini, are you down here?”
Leonard thought about the fight on the hillside with Peter. He did not want his people to be enslaved by the floating man that attacked his village. He jogged forward as he called out repeatedly, turning his head left and right, hoping for a response. “Scrumpletini.” He approached a wall that something big had crashed into, scattering fragments of it across the ground. The fragments of the wall were made of animal bones. He thought that they must have been fake because they were so oversized that they could not be from a real animal. Inside the wall, the ground seemed to be covered in black tar. He called out again. “Scrumpletini.”
A bass-filled voice came rolling up out of the black ground. “What now?”
Leonard froze in place. “P-P-P-Peter said to come find you. He said he needs your help.”
“Oh, good grief. I already helped him the other day.”
“He told me to tell you he has Dextera, and he needs your help fighting the evil magician. He’s at the top of the slope up there.”
“The magician’s here?” A long moment passed. Scratching sounds came from the tar-colored ground. A hundred-foot-long black dragon hopped up out of the ground and crashed haphazardly into the wall of bones near him.
Scrumpletini’s features were indiscernible to Leonard. Just a lengthy mass with wings, a tail, and white teeth that landed on the ground in front of him. He trembled and tried to run when he spotted Scrumpletini, but his legs wouldn’t work. He fell, screamed, and put his arms over his head.
“Lying there on the ground isn’t going to help anything,” Scrumpletini said.
Inch thick ropes of pure golden netting shot over the back of Scrumpletini and landed on him, covering his entire body. Scrumpletini felt the netting before it touched him. The heavy magic imbued in the threads gave its presence away. He thrashed and shredded a section of the netting before his muscles jerked and he struggled to move. His head was too heavy to lift, he darted his eyes about to see his attacker. His eyes drooped, and sleep was inevitable. Orange shoes came into focus that stopped a few feet away from his head.
“Hello Scrumpletini, good to see you again,” Billy said.
Scrumpletini’s eyelids closed as he muttered. “Oh no.”