Dryst hung onto the edge of the wagon seat. The entire contraption had undergone a radical change shortly after they entered the jungle. The wagon in its previous state was gone, only the seat remained, and in its place a small contraption now carried the elf and goblin rapidly through the dense forest, narrowly missing trees and other obstacles at every rapid turn of the wheel that had popped out of the wooden floor. The two ponies had been left standing quietly when the wagon’s tongue separated from the main body of the vehicle. The strange mechanized craft literally ran along the ground faster than Dryst ever thought about traveling or ever wanted to travel again.
It took almost no time to cover the miles between Buteamore and Manticore Hill. The cries of the manticore colony rang out over the loud clanging of the changed wagon. Dryst looked up as the misshapen beasts roared down at the oddity that ran through their territory. Several of them charged the former cart, only to be scared away by blast for the exploding rod the goblin brandished about. The vehicle slid to a stop just inside one of the caves no longer in use by the manticores.
Dryst dropped to the ground on shaky legs. He stared at the thing he’d rode from town as a large number of gears, rods and sprockets dripped lubricant on the cave floor. It was beyond him how someone could have thought up such a device, could the genius that was Dr. Gnome extend even this far?
“Come on elf,” his goblin driver called. “The boss is this way.” He pointed a little green hand toward the large metallic door just beyond a massive pair of troll guards.
The professor pulled on the edge of his tunic, hoping to knock out any wrinkles, and make it look like he was calmer than he felt inside. He’d never actually been to Manticore Hill before, he’d always gone through various contacts of the boss. The door opened and a shiny metal corridor extended deep inside hill. The sheer number of people moving around the area surprised him. Trolls, goblins, brownies, gnomes and other species he couldn’t immediately put his finger on, all scurried about, most looking like they had something important to do.
A loud explosion shook the corridor as Dryst followed the goblin, his green guide didn’t seem to notice. The elf wanted to go back and see what had caused the noise. Somewhere nearby something screamed.
The goblin stopped at a short door. “In here elf,” he said, opening the door. “The boss will be with you shortly.”
The room was empty, save for a single chair sitting in the middle. Dryst wandered around, trying to see anything that might give him some answer to his many questions, but all he saw was blank metal walls. He tapped on one of the walls, and it gave a soft coppery ring.
“Professor Dryst,” a far away voice addressed him.
Looking around, the elf couldn’t see anything what might have accounted for the voice. “Who’s there?”
“You asked to speak with me?” the voice replied.
“Where are you?” Dryst asked.
“Somewhere nearby, please take a seat so we can talk like civilized beings.”
As instructed, Dryst walked over to the chair and sat. The chair was cold hard metal, not like the comfortable wood he was used to. “Why can’t I see you?”
“I have my reasons. So, you are concerned that Alchemy Pond is asking too many questions.”
Dryst nodded and then realized that the voice probably couldn’t see his nod. “That’s correct sir. He asked about the artifact that Berryman found near here.”
“And what did you tell him?”
“I told him it was nothing and that I threw it away.”
There was a pause “Very good. What do you know of this Pond?”
The elf shrugged. “Not much. He claims to be here on a hunting vacation. He’s just recently become a full-fledged wizard.”
“Yes, that’s what my other informants are finding too,” the voice sounded harsh. “But the elf is trouble. He’s cost me several good people so far.”
“He may cost you more if he keeps up his questions. I think he works for the Fragrance Guild. There’s just something about him. He smells a little too clean.”
“Can you remove him from the picture, Professor?”
Dryst paused for a moment, unsure how to answer. “My fighting skills are not what they used to be. I might be able to find something in one of my spell books that could take care of him.”
“No!” the voice snapped. “I will not have magic used in my name. Give me a moment.”
The elf sat in the cold uncomfortable chair. He hadn’t meant to anger the boss. Stories abounded about what happened to people who pissed off Dr. Gnome. Ending up missing in the jungle wasn’t on Dryst list of ways he wanted to die. He tried to think of what he could do to get rid of Alchemy Pond. If he couldn’t use magic, which he wasn’t very good at, he’d have to rely on cunning and intelligence. He was a professor of ancient magics because he was good with modern ones, and he didn’t have what it took to be a fighter.
A panel in the metal floor slid aside and something rose up. A black cloth draped a pedestal. Dryst watched as something under the cloth moved.
“Don’t be afraid professor.” The voice returned. “Please, go take a look under the cloth.”
Heart racing, and hands suddenly sweaty, the elf rose and walked to the cloth. His hands shook as he took hold of the edge and lifted it. The unseen lights in the room suddenly brightened. A snake with shiny metallic scales blinked tiny iris eyes at him. It rose up with the slight rustle of thin metal sheets sliding against one another. Dryst dropped the cloth and backed away.
“Now, now professor,” the voice scolded and the elf wondered how it knew what he did. “There’s nothing for you to be afraid of. My little pet here won’t harm you. She’s programmed to go after magic users. Please, go pick her up.”
Dryst tried to decide what scared him more, the disembodied voice of Dr. Gnome, or the mechanical snake on the pedestal. The stories of the gnome’s anger overcame the fear of the mechanized creature. He walked back to the pedestal. The tiny iris eyes clicked as they blinked at him. Cold metal scales touched his hand as he reached out for the thing.
Sweat ran into his eyes, but he didn’t dare wipe it away. He couldn’t appear weak. He held out a shaking hand and the snake creation slid from the pedestal up his arm. The tiny metallic scales of its belly pinched his skin as it moved upward. The professor wanted to throw the thing against the wall, smash every spring, gear, socket and tube to little bits, but he held his ground.
“So professor,” the voice sounded happy again, “please take my little pet here to The Lady’s Pleasure. You will meet with my contact there. She will handle the rest, her name is on the card laying on the pedestal.”
“Of course,” Dryst mumbled as the snake curled loosely around his neck.
The elf waited several minutes for another command before the door to the room opened, and revealed his goblin driver.
“Well come on elf,” the goblin sneered. “We need to get moving.”