OSR: The Mystery of Uriah Shambledrake Session 11 & 12 - Small Business Owners

 In the Previous Installment, the PCs:

  • Experienced The Same Day Twice
  • Thumbed Their Noses At The Universe
  • Discovered At Least One Vast Conspiracy

The PCs are:

Tom Shambledrake
Electric Wizard and heir to the bankrupt Shambledrake estate. Inventor of the Lightning Accumulator.

Jonty Earl
Dandy. Assistant Professor at Loxdon College, and accidental inventor of the Jonty Suit.

Dr. Augustus Hartwell

Biomancer. A foreign doctor and self-described "quack", currently employed at Blumsworth Hospital.

Lizzy Ramchander
Potion Wizard, former cook, former brewer, and current secretary to Doyle Wormsby. Saved from certain death by time travel.

Doyle Wormsby
Civic Wizard, Private Investigator. Motivated by truth, justice, and tobacco.

Igor Burlakov

he first thing we do," Jonty said, "let's hire all the lawyers."

"All the lawyers?" Tom said.

"Well, some of the lawyers. What we did in the river - the portal to another world, the monstrous entity that crawled through it, the property damage and mass panic, etc. - was arguably illegal."

"The paper said no persons of quality were killed or injured," Tom said.

"Nevertheless. Lawyers to the ramparts," Jonty said. "And then, to the College. I have no doubt the faculty will have questions for you."

Lizzy gasped. "They won't expel him, will they?"

Jonty sighed. "Knowing wizards, they'll want to determine what he did, how he did it, and why, and then give him a medal." 

"It wasn't even me!" Tom said. "Guffy, Jeremy, and Nedrick did most of it. I was merely present."

"You did blast the creature with a lightning bolt," Dr. Hartwell said. 

"Oh, yes, but I had nothing to do with summoning it," Tom said, unconvincingly. His new fiery eyes made any claims of magical innocence difficult to take seriously. Eyes like that suggested cackling and ultimatums were moments away.

The law firm of Dewey, Howe, and Nephew listened to Jonty's summary of the facts, accepted a generous retainer, and promised to shield the group from legal responsibility for the previous night's events. With a pocket full of business cards and an air of invincibility, Jonty lead Tom onto campus.

Dean Bradewort, the Dean of Magic, held court in the Tortoiseshell* Lecture Hall. The porters gently steered Tom and Jonty towards the hall, making it clear that they were the last of the experimental wizards to arrive, and that the Dean was in a fine temper. "He hates getting up early," the porter explained.

*pronounced "tortoises-hell" by waggish students.

"Mr. Shambledwake!", the Dean shouted as Tom entered. "We meet agwain. How mysterwious." He rapped his cane against the side of his wheelchair and pointed at an empty seat. "Sit!"

Tom obediently sat. Jeremy Golt, Guffy Chesterton, and Nedrick Bilgent, the other three wizards behind the Jonty Cage (as well as the eels it was meant to lure) sat next to him. They looked as if they hadn't got any sleep, while Tom, despite his time-travel caper, looked both refreshed and polished. He tried to speak a few encouraging words, but the Dean cut him off.

"Siwence! You! Shambledwake! What is your part in these pwoceedings? We have heard," he said, for the benefit of the crowd of students and faculty members in the hall, "of the cwircumstwances of the swummoning, but the twestimony so far weveals you called the whitening."

"I did," Tom said, after puzzling over the Dean's question for a few moments. "I freely admit it. The summoned creature was rampaging. As per Curwen's Law, what one raises up one must also put down, and so I put it down," he said, having brushed up on his magical customs on the cab ride to the College. Curwen's Law lacked legal force, but it was the sort of thing that impressed Summoners and other wizards. 

"With a witening bolt from a cwear sky? In the cwenter of Endon?" the Dean rasped.


"Fwashy," Dean Bradewort muttered. "You damme young spwellswingers. No sense of pwoportion."

Tom wisely decided to remain silent. The Dean, after a few more remarks on the state of young people these days, returned to the matter at hand. "So you did not cweate the dewice, Mr. Shambledwake?"

"I did not."

"Stwange. It seems no wizard here cweated it. It must have spwung from the aether," the Dean said sarcastically. "For you all saw it cweated, but did not put twool to mewtal, as it were."

"Ah!" Jonty said, from the back of the room. "If it is of any assistance, the design was mine. I drew it on a napkin."

Dean Bradewort goggled at Jonty for a few moments. Several other senior wizards turned. "You?" the Dean said. "And you are? Wait. I know that fwace."

"I am Assistant Professor Jonty Earl," Jonty said.

"Yes!" the Dean shouted. "Fwaculty of Law. Why are you gowing about dewining magical dewices? Damme impertiwent of you!"

"I only meant to..."

"Be qwiet, Mr. Earwl!" the Dean bellowed, looking around for something to hurl at the Assistant Professor. "As you are no wizard,  you are neither welcome nor wequired at this inquwry. You are supwerfluwus."

Jonty fell back in his seat, chagrined. He'd expected some hostility, but to be  told he was irrelevant... Still, he noticed, several other senior wizards were eyeing him with keep interest, as if he was a particularly large frog in their salad. 

"Nowww," Dean Bradewort wobbled, "we must examine the wather stwange location of the summoning. You chwose the wiver Burwl," he said. "This pwesents some pwoblems. The laws of Endon which descwibe magical malfwesance in summoning mention the "soil of Endon". The wiver, by accident or design," he said, squinting at the students, "is not the 'soil of Endon'."

Guffy brightened up and elbowed Tom in the ribs. "He's right you know!"

"Siwence, Mr. Chesterton!" the Dean said. "I therefowre find no existing stwatute to puwnish you. For inadvisably applied magic, I fine you each 5 gold pieces. As the one holding the dewice at the time of the incurwsion, Mr. Golt is placed on academic pwobation, and must write a wery long essay on a twopic to be chosen later." He coughed loudly. "And as you wefuse to weveal why you conswucted the dewice, and why you tested it in the wiver, I feel that this inquiwy is at an end. That is aaawl. Dismiswed!"

The dismissal seemed to affect only Dean Bradewort, who, after hitting his assistant with a cane, was wheeled from the room, leaving the students and senior wizards to debate the results of the inquiry among themselves. 

"So you designed the device, eh? Professor Turnspit," the man said, extending a hand. "Don't believe we've met. I teach 'Things That Should and Should Not Be' on Tuesdays."

Jonty, who'd met the professor at least twice before, shook his hand and tried to speak, but Prof. Aster, the local specialist on rifts and thaumic convergence zones, intervened. 

"You seem to be shaking slightly. A side-effect of the device?" Prof. Aster asked.

"No, only of SpaceBeans coffee," Jonty joked. 

The wizards peered at him with concern. "You haven't been drinking that stuff, have you? Gods and devils. Well, best of luck. Now on to this device of yours. What did you say you made it from?"

After a few minutes of flattery, Jonty offered to hand over the Jonty Suit (which he kept in a carpet bag) for "academic research only", retaining all rights to patents and commercial applications. As Prof. Aster was known to shriek at the sight of lawyers and Prof. Turnspit thought banknotes were a device to lure the credulous away from the fiscal security of gold, he felt relatively safe leaving the device in their capable hands, especially since he left it in all four of their hands. Sharing knowledge did not come easily to wizards. 

Jeremy, Guffy, and Nedrick were delighted to be let off with a relatively light fine, even though they had, between them, three silver pieces and a dried beetle. Money was only money. The eels were dead (for Jonty hadn't mentioned the eel he'd stored in the Mandrake Room). Assuming no one found the money to sue them, all their problems were over.

Meanwhile, Tom was surrounded by what seemed like every elementalist on campus. His lightning accumulator had given him a reputation. His extremely public demonstration of his prowess - calling a massive lightning bolt from a clear sky - had spawned a legend. Lightning, formerly an unstable and unpredictable force, had been tamed. A new era of magic was dawning.

"With a lightning bolt like that, we could electrify all of Endon for thirty seconds," a wizard burbled. 

"And that would be... good?" Tom replied, slightly lost.

"Oh no, dreadful. Thousands would die. But still! Think of the power!" 

They decided to hold a conference on "New Discoveries in Lightning" in one month's time, on campus, for academic wizards and selected members of the public only. Anyone with a theory of lightning, a lightning-based machine, or a new type of burn cream was welcome to speak. Tom, of course, was assured of a warm reception. 

The next order of business was to collect Doyle, Lizzy, and Dr. Hartwell, and sort out this time travel business with Edward Konivov. 39A Obar St. was, they were pleased to see, intact. Edward slid open the door when they knocked, scowled, and ushered them inside.

"May I introduce Miss Ramchander," Jonty said. "She is the woman we saved using your machine. Err, it's all rather confusing, but..."

"Did Snedge go into the machine before us or after us?" Doyle asked sharply.

"Who? Oh, that horrible man. He ran in after you. I didn't have time to say anything. And then he came out before you - which is terribly interesting, by the by, and implies several unexpected aspects about the nature of the time funnel - and threatened my life. I felt it inadvisable to mention him to you when we met before," Edward said.

"Ah. And is the machine still operating?" Jonty said. Edward glanced at the twisted mass of fused metal, shattered gems, and tangled wire that filled most of the workshop, then gave Jonty a withering look.

"No. It collapsed shortly after you entered. Still, these things can't be helped," he said. "With another 30,000gp in materials I should have a much better machine working within a few years." The group wasn't sure whether or not the sum seemed too high or too low. It was certainly more than they could raise.

Edward seemed to snap back to reality. "But all of this is irrelevant. You!" he said, pointing at Tom and rattling with rage. "Deceived me!"

"I did not," Tom said, mildly aghast. He was, at heart, an honest fellow. 

"You said you were Mr. Shambledrake!"

"I am Mr. Shambledrake," Tom protested.

"But not the Mr. Shambledrake that funded my research," Edward said. "Not the right Mr. Shambledrake at all. Tallerand came to see me. Said I was a fool for letting you in at all, and that I've probably spoiled The Project."

Jonty felt his world wobble on its axis. "You know Professor Tallerand?" he gurgled.

"Of course I know him! You know him too! He said... well I won't repeat what he said about you. What is your opinion on the Project? At first, I thought you must be on the other side, but now I'm not so sure."

"What is the Project?" Lizzy asked.

Edward stared at the group. "You mean you don't know? Oh my."

"Mr. Kovinov, we know almost nothing about almost everything," Dr. Hartwell said dejectedly.

"Ah. Well, then, in brief, the Project involves the conquest of death. Gentlemen," he said, ignoring Lizzy, "if we can travel back in time to the moment a person dies, we can save them. We can - and we will - save everyone. We will build a heaven here on earth. A rational heaven of just laws and eternal freedom."

Jonty frowned. "Switching bodies? That seems impractical at best. We tried it with a flesh golem and it was a very touchy operation."

"I'm dead!" Lizzy added helpfully. Doyle sighed and, once again, gently explained how Lizzy was very much alive, thanks to time travel and a teleport spell.

"That's Tallerand's portion. Not crude substitutions, but extractions of mind and soul, and transference to imperishable and improved bodies, bodies fit for paradise. Want and hunger, disease and death, banished forever." Edward raised his hands. The group considered Tallerand's research in a new and disturbing light.

"And you think this is possible?" Jonty said. "Here and now? Your machine is broken. Tallerand is a fugitive. You have..."

"We have begun," Edward said. "Others may fill our places, but we owe the future an honest attempt, with all our strength. Someone must lay the first stone. And we have proven - you have proven, even - that our plan is possible. Every human who has ever lived, gentlemen! Not revived as some gruesome spirit or faded echo, but alive again, renewed, and free. The past, all our pasts, is merely prologue."


"Right, so he's mad," Jonty said, in the cab. "Mad as an unventilated alchemist."

"I don't know, he seemed very nice," Lizzy said quietly.

"Do you think my late uncle Uriah, or my, err, cousin Uriah Ess Dot Jay Dot R Dot," Tom said, remembering that saying 'Uriah Shambledrake Jr.' seemed to summon ominous sound effects, "actually funded his research, or is this a front for Lord Tarrigan-on-Burl?"

"I'm not sure," Doyle said, adding a new card to his mental conspiracy web. 

"We seem to know less than when we began," Dr. Hartwell said. "Why does this always happen?"

"What now? Should we find Professor Tallerand and ask him about this Project?" Tom said. Having recently met Tallerand on both sides of their time jump, Dr. Hartwell and Jonty suggested that they avoid the biomancer-turned-necromancer for the time being. 

"I should speak with my sister and return to work," Dr. Hartwell said. "And Jonty should rest."

"I'm fine," Jonty said. "I feel good! I feel great! This SpaceBeans coffee is wonderful stuff!"

"I am a doctor and I say you must rest."


Late that night, Doyle Wormsby heard someone tap at his office door. It was Alfonso the Hydra, the allegedly kidnapped illusionist, still disguised as a foreigner. Theatrical makeup, a thick robe, a turban, sandals, a smell of tinned spices formed a disguise impenetrable to most credulous Endoners. 

Alfonso hinted at a threat to his safety that had to be resolved before he could drop his disguise and join Doyle and company to talk investments and industrial applications. "They are still after me," he said knowingly.

"They?" Doyle asked, lighting what was either his thirtieth or first cigarette of the day.

"The... Small Business Owners. But I have a plan to mollify them."

"Ah," Doyle said. "Who are the small business owners?"

Alfonso started to speak, then shook his head. "You wouldn't believe me. You have to see them."

Half an hour later, Doyle performed the strangest burglary of his life. At Alfonso's instruction, he broke into a very expensive cheese shop, pilfered a 10lb wheel, and, with trembling fingers, left exact payment on the counter. "Why?" he said.

"I'm not a thief," Alfonso whispered, "and the shop is closed."

"But why cheese?"

"You'll see." 

Half an hour after that, Alfonso lead Doyle to a burned tenement house in Hasselby Court. They slipped into the basement. Alfonso placed the cheese on the remains of a table and stood back. Doyle eyed him with keen interest. 

"Ah. It's me, Alfonso," the illusionist said to the air. "I'm very sorry about our, ah, our previous dealings. I've brought you a cheese. This is Doyle Wormsby. He's a friend of mine," he said, looking pleadingly at Doyle, "and a working man."

Slowly, without a sound, dozens of rats emerged from holes in the soot-stained brickwork. Some of them wore little waistcoats. Others carried green banners. One of them, to Doyle's mild surprise, wore spectacles. Ever since he'd spotted a remarkably intelligent-looking rat listening to a Copper's address to a crowd, Doyle had considered the possibility of a society of sapient rats in Endon, and factored them into his conspiracies. A card marked "RATS?!?" held a place of prominence on his wall. He could cross off those two question marks now. The rats - very small business owners indeed - were real. 

"Ah." Doyle said. "Hello."

A knot of rats formed, debated in squeaks, then managed a passable "hello" in reply. Their combined voice was difficult to interpret, like stuck door or a creaking floor. Other lines of rats were carving neat slices off the wheel of cheese using a wire and pulley system.

"We'll just.. be going then," Alfonso said. "All is squared away. I'm going to be working with Doyle now. None of that business with the snakes anymore."

As Alfonso backed out of the room, a swarm of other rats with blue banners and blue waistcoats burst into the room. They fell upon the green-clad rats with astonishing fury. The floor was a carpet of fur, teeth, tails, blood, fabric, tiny scraps of paper, and lumps of cheese. "Run!" Alfonso said, and Doyle didn't hesitate.

"What?" he said, when they reached the street, and waited for Alfonso to fill in the most facts.

"They're... rats. Thinking, talking rats. They form revolutionary factions, though I can't tell them apart. They're always changing. Rats don't live very long, two to three years, probably less in Endon," Alfonso burbled. "Barely enough time to train the next generation in basic political theory when pop, dead, and the whole process starts over. But they're organizing."

"What do they want?" Doyle said. "Apart from cheese."

"Some of them want to kill all the humans. Some of them want to redistribute property, then kill all the humans. Some of them want to kill just the nobility. They're generally mad about how the world is organized and they want to do something about it. Can you blame them?" 

"How do you know all this?" 

"The rats sometimes came to the theater," Alfonso said. "Who could we tell? Nobody believes actors."

"And you made enemies of the rats?"

"I thought I'd go into the ratcatching business. I made an illusionary snake that could capture and spit out rats. Very intelligent, perfectly obedient. A good spell. But some of the rats were the thinking kind, and they declared me an enemy of the revolution."

"Did you make an illusionary rat-catching snake before or after learning that there are organized intelligent rats in Endon?" Doyle said. Alfonso looked sheepish. "Oh no."

"I needed the money!"

Tooth and Tail Concept Art

Doyle took Alfonso to the group's townhouse on Endon's western edge, reasoning that it was the safest place to store him until morning. The illusionist was so tired that he slept upright on the sitting room couch, while Doyle slept in an armchair in the hall. As the sun rose, every middle-class neighbor found some excuse to pass by the house and glance inside, sometimes recoiling in shock.

As the group breakfasted, Doyle relate the unbelievable truth behind the "small business owners". Jonty immediately decided to recruit the rats as spies, or, at the very least, see if they knew anything about the group's nebulous collection of enemies. Dr. Hartwell, on the other hand, was genuinely intrigued. He secretly empathized with the revolutionary aims of the rats, and decided that he could help. 

"Try to sneak Alfonso out the back door," Lizzy said. "And take him to Krahlhammer's. Wash that ridiculous paint off his face first. In the light of day he looks like a wilted carrot."

Alfonso and Doyle snuck out via the back garden, to avoid the suspicious number of dog-walkers, window-washers, and houseplant-waterers in the front street. As they passed the gate, a frost-covered and ill-omened figure rose from the dustbins and tackled Alfonso. "Snedge!" Doyle shouted, and leapt onto the pile, just as Snedge activated a teleport spell. All three vanished with a thunderclap of displaced air.

Johan Egerkrans

Doyle hit the ground with enough force to knock the wind out of him. His mind raced. Floorboards. Diffuse sunlight. Chalk marks? He rolled, saw Snedge trying to rise to his feet, and fired a light spell at the nefarious minion's face. Snedge recoiled, screaming and covering his eyes. Doyle yanked the teleporter amulet off his neck, snapping the leather cord, then gave him a solid blow on the nose. Snedge backed away, fists raised, uttering foul oaths.

With a sense of foreboding, Doyle then turned to survey the room. It looked like an old dining hall. A long table and chairs rested under oilcloths. Two doors, presumably to the stairs or passageways. And, sitting on a chair, a small round-headed man in a dark brown suit watched Doyle with mild amusement.

"Ah. And you are? Snedge, be still a moment."

"Doyle Wormsby. Private Investigator," Doyle said automatically. 

"Ah. I am Morgan, of Morgan and Trent, Solicitors and Barristers. My card." Doyle examined it, then handed over a card of his own.

"Congratulations, Mr. Wormsby," Morgan said. "You have completed a kidnapping case."

"I use the term 'solved'," Doyle said. 

"Solved a kidnapping case, then. You have restored Mr. Alfonso to us." Morgan said, his smile stopping just short of his cheeks. Deep madness glittered in his eyes, the madness of compound interest and convoluted contracts.

"Yes, and we should all go to the Coppers immediately," Doyle said. 

"Of course. Incidentally, the debts Mr. Alfonso owes to our, ah, patron, Lord Tarrigan-on-Burl, are entirely legal and well documented. Which member of the Metropolitan Police did you have in mind? Victus Crane, was it?"

"He's been taken off this case," Doyle said, then added with a flash of insight. "As you are no doubt aware." He was pleased to see Morgan blink. 

"If you say so. Oh, that reminds me. You are an... associate of Mr. Shambledrake and Mr. Earl, are you not? I have a letter for them," Morgan said, producing an envelope and holding it just out of reach. "I was going to post it, but it simply slipped my mind. Would you mind delivering it to them?"

"What sort of letter?" Doyle said.

"Quite an ordinary one. It says, in so many words, that the debts owed by a certain John Huffman to Lord Tarrigan-on-Burl are cancelled, and that any business interests Lord Tarrigan-on-Burl has in this John Huffman's works are equally cancelled. His Lordship is feeling magnanimous today, as Mr. Alfonso has been restored to us," the lawyer said.

Doyle stared at the letter and tried to think. If Morgan had the letter prepared, did he anticipate the teleport kidnapping going awry? Was this future sight or merely excessive caution? Was the letter a bluff? 

"Horse trading," Doyle said.

"Just so," Morgan replied. "I am pleased to see that you have grasped the essence of the matter."

"May I read the letter?"

"It is not addressed to you, so no, I am afraid not. But I am a lawyer of some repute in Endon. My word is my bond," Morgan said. Snedge, with his handkerchief over his nose, chuckled.

Doyle considered the matter. Despite everything, he liked Alfonso, and delivering him to the minions of Lord Tarrigan-on-Burl was a fate few deserved. He examined the room. Grab Alfonso and dive out the window? They were at least one floor above the street. And what street? Stick the teleporter amulet around his neck and stab him, hoping the amulet activated and whisks him away? But range, not to mention the stab wound. Go for the stairs? And then what? They had the law on their side.

"Done," Doyle said. He helped Alfonso to his feet and slipped Snedge's teleporter amulet into his pocket. It wasn't much, but it was a possible escape route. He took the letter from Morgan's hands and, with a final glance at Snedge, walked out the door and down the stairs, entering the dusty Pie and Anchor tavern in Hasselby Court. Half expecting an ambush at any moment, he got his bearings, bought a newspaper, and wedged himself into a doorway to watch the tavern. 

Ten minutes after he'd departed, Snedge, Morgan, and Alfonso entered the street and hailed a cab. Doyle hired another cab and followed them to the gates of Lord Tarrigan-on-Burl's mansion in Grenville Court, then drove on. Alfonso, it seemed, had not escaped on the journey, and Doyle felt he could not offer any further assistance.

Instead, Doyle went to the offices of Nero Krahlhammer, the gel knight manufacturer, and helped himself to coffee and boiled sweets. The front office was full of irate homeowners or their servants, presenting letters demanding Krahlhammer pay for their broken windows. Tom's lightning accumulator on the roof had, during their recent time travel escapade, sent a bolt of lighting upwards, and every house in the neighborhood wished to complain about real or imagined damages. 

Doyle sent a messenger to inform the rest of the group of his narrow escape and current location. Then, with the aid of a hot knife, he cut the seal on the letter from Lord Tarrigan-on-Burl to Tom and Jonty. The contents were more-or-less as Morgan had described. Doyle carefully resealed the envelope.

The rest of the group spent the morning in a state of mild agitation. Jonty dispatched a messenger to Tom on campus, but Tom decided that Doyle could handle his own affairs, and that he'd stop in after his morning classes. Lizzy made a huge pot of very strong tea. Anna Hartwell, Dr. Hartwell's sister who was staying in the house temporarily, was very amused to hear of Alfonso's misadventures, and assumed this sort of thing happened every day in Endon.

When Doyle's note arrived, Jonty had just finished a letter to Angelica Hopewell, the newspaper reporter. It was a long and slightly incoherent letter which summarized the group's fears, named several crucial players, and asked Angelica for her help and advice. It was designed to pique the reporter's interest without revealing too much. Some of the more ridiculous aspects - the time funnel, the intelligent rats, the eels - were alluded to in vague terms, if at all.

Relieved that Doyle was still alive, but annoyed that he was on the other end of the city, the group set off to get the full story. Jonty and Tom debated the contents of Lord Tarrigan-on-Burl's letter, but decided, on the whole, that it was a positive development. They now had a clear field to turn John Huffman and his calculating golem into a profitable concern. 


Early that evening, at Jonty's insistence, Doyle lead the group to the burned building where he and Alfonso had encountered the Small Business Owners. Jonty had purchased a wheel of expensive cheese and a bottle of wine.

"I'm not sure this will work," Doyle said. "Or that we'll encounter the same rats as last time. I think one faction was in green, and the other one was in blue."

"Which faction won?" Dr. Hartwell asked. Doyle shrugged. "Well, for what were they fighting?" Doyle shrugged again. 

"There's no sign of a fight," Lizzy said, checking the floor. "No banners or papers. No blood."

"And no rats. Well, let's wait." Jonty uncorked the wine and cut a delicate slice of cheese. 

Half an hour later, a solitary rat poked its head from the wall to stare at Doyle. The Private Investigator nodded politely. "We're just here to talk," he said.

Rats emerged from the ashen shadows as if by magic. Lizzy whispered, "little waistcoats!" and bent to coo at the well-dressed swarm. 

"Hello, I am Mr Jonty Earl," he said, dropping the "assistant professor" for once to mask his position in society. "I believe we - that is, you and I, are equals, as thinking beings, and I wish to extend my greetings, offer you this wine and cheese, and speak with you - if you are so inclined - on matters of mutual importance."

"Bourgeoisie! Scum!" a knot of rats squeaked in chorus. Jonty nodded gravely. Dr. Hartwell, not for the first time that evening, wondered if Jonty knew what he looked like to the working people of Endon. With his silk coat, perfect stockings, carefully polished boots, and flawless teeth, Jonty presented a picture of refinement... and a caricature of all that the rats seemed to wish to devour. 

"Do you have a summary of your aims?" Jonty asked. A group of rats presented a scrap of paper on which, with considerable effort, the rats had written a manifesto of sorts. It read:

4. Deth to All Terrierz

1. Redistribution of Moveadle Proberty 

2. Deth to Nobilty and Rich Humans an Bankers

4. Rats and Humans The Same

4. Deth To Al Teriers

Dr. Hartwell peered at it. As manifestos went, it lacked refinement, but the aims were admirable. Jonty glanced at it and, unruffled, continued.

"You must know a great deal of the secret life of Endon's elite. We understand you held some antipathy for Alfonso the Hydra," Jonty said.

"Rat killer! Traitor!" the rats squeaked.

"He has been captured, or perhaps recruited is the better word, by Lord Tarrigan-on-Burl. A fate, perhaps, worse than death. Can you offer any insight into Lord Tarrigan-on-Burl's plans?"

After some debate, a group of rats whispered "Replace! You!"

"Replace us? Us personally, or all people? And why? And for what purpose? You have many ears to the ground - I hope that phrase is not offensive - and we have many questions. We can work together! An alliance!"

"You would! Corrupt! Revolution! Subvert! Goal! Tool of system!" the rats frothed, even as they cut planks of cheese and carried it to their holes. 

"No! Wait! We have much to offer each other," Jonty said, as the rats departed.

"We will! Not! Return! Here!" they squeaked. 

"Damnation," Jonty said, as the group climbed out of the burned wreck. "I had high hopes for those rats." 

The next few day, Doyle decided to return to his office to get some proper detective work done, while the other four went to Loxdon College on separate but related errands. Tom attended classes and sketched some plans for the Lightning Conference. Dr. Hartwell searched the libraries for tales of rat-based experiments, searching partly for the origin of the intelligent rats, but mostly for spells and side-effects that put the rats to a more equitable footing with humankind. He discovered that some wizards believed that rats have similarly shaped souls to humans, though far smaller, and were therefore ideal candidates for experimental magic.

Jonty invited Lizzy to the Mandrake Room, partially to check on the eel, but with one eye towards the extremely racy etchings stored on its shelves. In his mind (and possibly in Lizzy's) mere proximity to industrial strength pornography could lead to an amusing half-hour. But alas, his hopes were shattered when he beheld an empty tank. The thaumovoric eel was gone, and in its place hundreds of fist-sized snails crawled over the walls, shelves, and books of the Mandrake Room, nibbling on spell scrolls and soaking in the diffuse magic. A constellation of shining shells dotted the ceiling.

"Eee," Jonty said, pointing. "EeeeeeEeeee!"

"Oh, snails!" Lizzy said, and picked one up. Jonty's eyes bulged. The snail did not do anything unusual... at first. "Ooh, it's getting heavier," Lizzy said, then dropped the snail onto the flagstones. It hit like a cannonball, shattering one of the stones, then slowly righted itself and began the long and slimy journey towards the nearest wall.

"Ah. Don't... touch anything," Jonty said. "I will go and fetch Nedrick Bilgent." Nedrick was one of the original members of the Eel Summoning Club, which became the Eel Hunting Club, and could probably explain why one eel had become many snails. Jonty vaguely remembered some mention of the "Snail Method". He hit Nedalward Hall like a cyclone, dragged Nedrick out of bed, and hauled him to the Mandrake Room while explaining the nature of the issue.

"Aaaaah!" Nedrick said, pointing at the snails. "Aaaaah! Ooooh!"

"Words!" Jonty said.

"That shouldn't have happened! It's very exciting, of course, but also alarming. We used the Snail Method on the eels, originally, to make them breed. If you have a species that doesn't breed well in captivity, you can polymorph it into a snail, because snails breed quickly and lay lots of eggs. But they shouldn't turn back into snails!" Nedrick paused, carefully picked up a snail, and lowered it into a canvas bag.

"Are they supposed to get heavier?" said Lizzy, while prodding a snail with a bar of soap from one of her many pockets. Jonty and Nedrick stared at her and the snail with undisguised terror. The flagstone under the snail snapped in half, and then the snail and the bar of soap imploded into an eye-watering vortex of folded light and space. A fraction of a second later, the snail reappeared in a dish-shaped depression in the stone. 

"My skin feels all tingly," Lizzy said. "Do you feel warm? I feel warm."

"Aaah!" Jonty said, patting himself all over. "Nedrick, what was that?" But Nedrick was already running, snail-sack in hand. Above, the distant peal of thaumic alarms sounded across campus, as sensitive magical devices (frequently sewn into the hats of senior wizards) sensed a sudden wobble in the order of things. Across campus, Dr. Hartwell heard the alarms and saw a few curious students wander out of the library, but decided whatever was happening was not his concern. If the wizards started running, he'd of course run with them, provided they were running away from danger and not towards it.

"Ooh, that's not good," Jonty said thoughtfully.

"I can kill everything in this room," Lizzy said cheerfully. 

Ever since Lizzy had accidentally developed a cloudkill spell while trying to make lemon-flavoured hypergin, she'd taken to announcing that she could kill everything in a given room at regular intervals. For once, Jonty was happy to hear it.

"Unleash the spell, shut the door, and run," he said. "Ready?" Lizzy nodded, aimed her finger, squinted, and filled the Mandrake Room with thick yellow fog. The snails began to rattle. A few fell from the ceiling with colossal thumps.

"Faster!" Jonty yelled, dragging Lizzy along.

"Why," she said. "We're perfectly safe from cloudkill with the door shut."

"It's not the spell I'm worried about," Jonty replied, as they passed Nedrick on the stairs. Jonty grabbed the wizard with his other arm. Behind them, the snails collectively imploded. 

The trio emerged onto campus just in time to witness Tortoiseshell Hall folld gently in the middle. The building's wings remained intact, but the centre of the hall subsided and took the roof with it. Jonty sighed.

"Yoooou!" Prof. Bazzard bellowed as he trundled across campus. A senior wizard specializing in Abjuration, he held a thick shield of force in front of him, carving a furrow through the falling dust and debris. The magnificence of his beard and the fury in his eyes was somewhat diminished by his fuzzy slippers and his threadbare sleeping trousers.

"It wasn't me!" Nedrick shrieked, sealing his fate. 

Nikolai Lockertse

The next few weeks were a blur of diverse activities.

Doyle took a case to find a certain Sir Truckle's lost peacock. He didn't usually take lost pet cases, but business was slack. The case took an unexpected turn that left Jonty dueling a banknote forger above his vats of molten lead (for peacock blood, it transpired, was used by the Bank of Endon to proof the new bills against forgery).

Lizzy started work on a project to be in two places at once, using a duplicate self spell and a specially trained ooze template.

The group attended the public introduction of SpaceBeans Coffee's revolutionary Exhaustion Transfer System, which (so the founder Zeverance Revelstan claimed) would allow anyone to stay awake indefinitely, provided they hired a servant to receive excess exhaustion. Against the advice of Dr. Hartwell, Jonty paid 250gp for a wand, a tasteful case, and some instructional literature. 

Tom, after several feverish nights of effort, created a prototype Lightning Inverter, which could turn a very small amount of lightning into a slightly smaller amount of raw magic. A lightning bolt spell turns raw magic into lightning (just as a cow produces milk), but the free lightning drawn from the atmosphere by Tom's Lightning Accumulator was now, in theory, free magic. A storm-drawn bolt easily contained twenty or more charges, or a few hundred megathaums of magic. A full-scale Lightning Inverter connected to a Lightning Accumulator could beat even the largest standard magic accumulators for speed and efficiency. 

Angelica Hopwell contacted Jonty. The intrepid reporter believed Jonty was thoroughly mad and equally deceitful, but was able to confirm a few rumours. She'd heard rumours of a Shambledrake stalking the dark streets of Endon "with an axe of black glass, making deals with unsavory wizards", and assumed it was Tom. Tom denied it, of course, but nevertheless fascinated. The group demonstrated the mysterious omens that always seemed to follow the name "Uriah Shambledrake Junior" (thunder crashing, chimney pots falling, neighbors falling off ladders, etc.). Angelica said that the rumours surrounding Lord Tarrigan-on-Burl were "no better and no worse than any gentleman of his set", and refused to believe Tallerand was still alive, but the name Edward Konivov caused a reaction. 

She reported that Konivov occasionally placed cryptic advertisements in major newspapers, and sometimes lectured at Mechanics Associations, little libraries and lecture halls that were sprouting in Endon like mushrooms after the rain, funded by voluntary contributions and unseen donors. Doyle had investiated them idly, in his eternal quest for truth, and was delighted to find a link connecting them to the other factions at work in Endon. His web developed a third dimension, unfolding into a tangle of hanging cards and looped string.

And finally, Dr. Hartwell's search for experts in polymorphing rats lead him to the Leonine Cartel and Bartelby Spuggs, founding member of the Endon Whale Oil refinery. His team of wizards unreliably polymorphed pigeons, rats, cats, and stray dogs into whales, then slaughtered and boiled them for increasingly cheap whale oil.

Lizzy, informed of this later, announced that "every home in Endon will soon have its own whale abattoir!" 

For 1,000gp in hard cash (secretly obtained via a loan from the First Commercial Bank) Dr. Hartwell bought a stake in the Leonine Cartel, and promised to lend both his reputation and expertise to their future exploits. Cheap and abundant meat could solve many of the problems plaguing Endon's poor.

"Just stop using rats," he said. "They carry diseases."

Then Dr. Hatwell paused and smiled to himself. "Use terriers instead."

Joseph Wright

What is the true nature of The Project? How will the group fund all their endeavours? What is Lord Tarrigan-on-Burl's objective? Of all the fuses they have lit, which will be the first to reach a powder keg?

Find out next time.

1 comment:

  1. I want you to know that I get the terriers joke. And that this whole series is magnificent. Publishably magnificent.