“Flummox, are you awake?” said Sareb.
“Do I look awake?” said the asura, popping open one eye.
The male sylvari watched the artificer sternly, as if suspecting a trap. At last he nodded. “Yes.”
“Then I must be awake.” Flummox let out a deep, frustrated sigh. “Why aren’t we moving?”
“There’s a problem.”
“The wagon is not moving, it is cold outside, and you’ve awoken me from my nap,” said Flummox, propping himself up on his elbows, one eye still closed in desperate hope. “I can guess there is some form of problem. Now tell me, my young sylvari, what is the problem?”
“Jotun,” said Sareb, his breath steaming in the chill air.
Flummox opened his other eye and looked at his assistant. “Jotun. Well, then, you were right to awake me,” he said, and slid off his makeshift bed of large pillows and blankets. It was cold in the wagon.
It was colder outside the wagon, and Flummox’s breath steamed around him like smoke from a chimney. Their small caravan, six wagons in all, was immobile, the yaks huffing and stomping in the thin mountain air. They were in a steep vale, and large ominous shapes loomed at the head of the valley.
“Never did like the Shiverpeaks,” muttered Flummox. He fished out a tablet and small chunk of charcoal. He wrote down a list of items and handed it to Sareb. “Check the other wagons, and see if you can get the items on this list. We’ll need them to get the apparatus operational.”
“The apparatus?” Sareb smiled knowingly and added, “You mean Mr. Sparkles?”
In a moment of weakness, Flummox had let the sylvari name his latest invention, and was now unsure if the sylvari had chosen the name out of innocence or amusement. “Yeah,” he said through gritted teeth, “I mean…Mr. Sparkles.”
Sareb began checking with the other wagon drivers while Flummox stomped forward in his fur-lined boots. He met the caravan leader about halfway to the front, flanked by the train’s only two guards—suspicious, nervous humans from Kryta.
The caravan leader was human as well. He had warm buttery skin and was sweating the way humans do when they are nervous, regardless of the temperature.
The human began, “We have a problem—”
“We have jotun,” answered Flummox, “I know. Since when is that a problem?”
“They are making demands,” burbled the human, “and we are not in any real position to refuse them.”
Flummox made a mental census of the caravan: his own wagon being driven by Sareb, two wagonloads of shoes from Ascalon with disinterested drivers, a furtive rare-commodities trader with what looked like a stone coffin in the bed of his wagon, a refugee family fleeing the charr about two centuries too late, and the caravan master’s own wagon, complete with his accountant and two guards.
Flummox weighed the relative intelligence of the various members of his involuntary company and sighed. This group would feel threatened by a band of voracious rabbits, so the lesser giants of the Shiverpeaks would definitely be a bad thing. “Is your accountant around?” he asked.
“He’s being bandaged up,” said the human. “The jotun leader tried to eat him.”
“Which is why you’re not talking to the jotun yourself, I suppose,” said Flummox.
The human made soft, bubbly noises and Flummox sighed, then stomped around him and headed for the jotun.
The jotun was a huge, corpulent beast, its heavy belt hanging over a woven belt, holding up a leather kilt of unknown provenance. It was lesser kin to the giants, and it towered over its surroundings, the muscles beneath its ruddy flesh bunching and spasming in the cold. It was generally humanoid, but its face was an abomination, a twisting of facial features dominated by a sharp-toothed, drooling, underslung jaw.
Flummox stomped up to the beast. Behind the jotun, in the swirling snow beyond the end of the steep valley, he could see large shadowy shapes, hunched over. Other jotun, kin or merely minions, trying to be sneaky.
“Who you?” said the jotun, its voice reminding Flummox of slush at the bottom of a mixer.
“The new negotiator,” said Flummox. “I understand you ate the last one.”
The jotun blinked at him and sounded almost hurt, “Only a little. We want toll.”
“I’ll stay out of arm’s reach, if you don’t mind,” said Flummox. “What do you want? Food? Gold? Paper lanterns?”
“Wagons,” slurred the giantkin.
“Everything?” said Flummox, his revulsion only partly theatrical. “You don’t understand how highway robbery works. If you take everything, there isn’t anything for the next band of sentient-eating jotun to demand.”
The jotun stood there, his lower jaw opening and closing in what passed for jotun thought. “Toll. Leave wagons. You can go.”
“And what keeps us from turning around, with our wagons, and sending back a couple divisions of Ebonhawke’s finest to clear the road?”
The jotun nodded enthusiastically, jiggling its entire body. “Think of that. Brother and his band on other end of valley.”
Flummox did not turn around, so honest was the jotun’s statement. Obviously the Norn campaigns against the creatures were weeding out all the stupider ones.
“We’ll give you a wagon,” he said simply. “The refugees will have to ride with the boots.”
“All,” said the jotun.
“Two,” said Flummox, “and we’ll throw in a cargo of boots as well. You can have two wagons.”
“All,” said the jotun, stronger, “or all die.”
Without the wagons we all die anyway thought Flummox. “It will take me a while to convince the others,” he said, trying to looking nervous. “Humans are a persnickety lot. I can’t expect them to cave in without a long night of talking.”
The jotun made a jiggling nod, “You give us wagons tomorrow morning. Or all die.” And with that, the great beast turned and disappeared among the snow-shrouded mounds that concealed other jotun.
Flummox let his breath out slowly and turned back to the caravan. The nervous human in charge touched the tips of his fingers together nervously and said, “Well?”
“It wants us to give up the wagons. All of them,” said the asura.
“We can’t do that,” wailed the human.
“I know,” said Flummox, “but I told him it would take all night for me to convince you to go along with the deal.”
The human got a slack-jawed look that afflicted so many of his race when dealing with asura. “You mean you surrendered?” he finally managed to spit out.
“No,” said Flummox, irritated, “I bought us time from now until daybreak. Sareb! You gather up the material?”
Sareb manifested at Flummox’s side. “Leather from the shoes was easy. Some chemicals from the caravan’s medicine stores, human blood from the wounded accountant’s bandages, an iron pot from the refugees, grave dirt— How did you know the rare-goods dealer had grave dirt?”
“The rare-goods dealer screams ’necromancer.’ He is moving a crypt out of Ascalon, likely purchased from charr tomb raiders. I’d be surprised if he didn’t have a couple asura skeletons and shrunken sylvari heads packed away somewhere on that wagon.”
Sareb visibly shuddered, and Flummox added, “Not that we need them for this.” But the addition did not seem to make the sylvari feel better. “And the last item?” Flummox asked.
“There is a…problem,” said Sareb.
Flummox cocked his head, “Another problem?”
“She is unwilling to give it up,” said Sareb.
“And you said?” Flummox raised an eyebrow.
“I was stern and forceful, as you have suggested in the past,” said Sareb proudly. Then he shrugged, “No luck.”
Flummox let out a sigh that seemed larger than himself. “Oh, for Vekk’s sake,” he said, and padded off toward the refugees.
The refugee in question was young—at least Flummox assumed she was young because of her slender form and smooth skin. Within the Eternal Alchemy, humans had the greatest range of variations on the basic theme. It was as if their gods had not settled on their final form, and kept changing their minds. Shows what happens when you do things by committee. It was hard to believe that the sweating caravan leader and this frail, almost sylvari-looking thing were members of the same species.
She was seated at the back of her wagon, lost in thought. Held against her, tight in her hand, was a bag hanging from a tether around her graceful throat. Flummox moved into her field of vision (had she been looking at anything) and began without preamble.
“I understand you want to kill us all,” he said.
The human blinked in the way humans do when their brains start functioning again. “Pardon?” she said.
“In case you have not noticed,” said Flummox, “we are not moving. We are not moving because we have been set upon by jotun bandits who want to take everything we have, including your wagon, and leave us stranded in the snow. I know of a way by which we can defeat these giants, but I need certain key materials from the others of this caravan. That includes the item you are carrying around in that bag. You don’t want to provide it, so I must assume you want me and everyone else dead. So, tell me: What did we do to earn your eternal ire?”
The human blinked again, and said, “You know about the cameo?”
“Everyone in the caravan knows about it, since you take it out every night by the campfire and sigh over it for five minutes, seven at most, before putting it back in its bag,” said Flummox, holding out a hand. “I need it, give it here.”
“Why?” she asked, the muscles in her hand tightening around the bag.
Flummox used his talking-to-humans voice. “You no give me, jotun smash us. Understand?”
The human hesitated for a moment, and Flummox let his features soften. “I understand. It probably holds dear memories of your lost home. But I have to point out that if the jotun kill us all—which is their plan, I believe, even if we give them the wagons—then all our memories will be lost. Yours is a sacrifice, but a smaller one in the bigger picture.”
Flummox managed to smile in what he thought was a warm and engaging manner. It must have worked, for the young human opened the bag and produced a cameo, an ivory carving of a lovely woman wearing older fashions, set against a circular block of black jet.
“My mother…” she began.
Flummox nodded. “I understand, and I appreciate your sacrifice. It will not be for naught, and I shall have my assistant protect it with his life!”
And, not waiting for her to respond, Flummox spun on his heels and padded back to his wagon.
The pair, both the asura and sylvari, worked through the night. The shoe drivers provided a lantern, and Flummox insisted that no one bother them. Now the other members of the caravan watched in the distance while the asura prepared a noxious mixture that glowed green from the iron pot.
Flummox rendered the shoes in the iron pot, added the bloody bandages and the caravan’s medicine, and reduced the whole mass to a thick, sticky syrup. He pulled the pot from the heat and poured it out on a board, like taffy, while Sareb refilled the pot with oil from Flummox’s own stores. The sylvari knew the asura’s way, and quickly and quietly set about his assigned tasks with a minimum of comment.
Flummox mixed the grave dirt into the syrup and formed small lumpy balls, which he then dropped in the hot oil. The balls sizzled and crackled, but after a few moments, they bobbed to the surface, shrunken now, their sides smooth and crystalline.
Sareb let out a low whistle. “Instant gemstones,” he said.
Flummox let out a grunt. “Don’t be too pleased; these are as brittle as spun sugar. It’s a kludge, a jury-rig, a lash-up—repurposing design elements for features they were not created for. I can milk three, maybe four, minutes of energy out of these before they go. I hope it is enough.” He fished out the rough crystals and strode over to the inert form of the apparatus, of Mr. Sparkles, still sprawled out in the back of his wagon. With a chisel he began gouging the soft iron seals around the main enchantment emitter and slid the crystals into the jagged holes, packing them in place with the remainder of the damp grave dirt.
“There,” said Flummox, “it should work. Maybe. Don’t stand too close to it when you start it up, though.”
Sareb looked at the device, approvingly. “What about the jewelry?”
“The what?” said Flummox.
“The cameo you got from the human girl,” said the sylvari assistant.
“Ah, yes!” said the asura, patting his pockets and producing the ivory carving set against jet. He pressed it into Sareb’s hand, “Here you go. Hold on to it, and guard it with your life!”
“But if you didn’t need it,” said Sareb, “why did we take it?”
“Because,” Flummox looked up at the sylvari, “even if this works, it is going to screw up the ethanators something fierce, and probably fry out the abjuration circuits. That’s in addition to the damage done to the device already, which required this miserable trip in the first place.”
“So, you need the cameo?” questioned the sylvari, frowning slightly, seeing where this was going.
“So we have some ready money when we reach Lion’s Arch,” said Flummox.
“So you lied,” said Sareb, looking at the cameo in the same sad way the human girl looked at it.
“A small deception for the greater good,” said Flummox. “You should try it sometime. In the meantime, keep hold of it! I want to be able to tell the human that I no longer have it and tell the truth.”
Sareb’s slender fingers closed around the cameo.
“I will keep it safe,” he said flatly.
The pair continued their work through the night, and with the morning’s dawn, a haggard Flummox stomped out to meet the jotun leader. The jotun had obviously spent the previous evening discussing the proper way to make an asura aperitif, and the lead jotun was practically salivating.
“So,” said the jotun, “you give us wagons?”
“We have spent the evening in discussions and determined that it would not be in our best interests to acquiesce to your demands at the present time,” said Flummox.
“Whah?” said the giant.
“No,” translated the asura, “we want to keep our wagons.”
The jotun smiled, a terrible thing to see in a creature with such a prodigious lower jaw. “Then you all die,” he said, “starting with negotiator.”
Flummox took a step back and smiled, speaking quickly. “I thought as much, so I have resigned as negotiator. My replacement should be along—” He checked the chronometer hanging from his belt and hoped that Sareb had gotten the damned thing started up correctly. “Right about now.”
The golem heaved itself from among the wagons, rearing itself vertically to its full height, as tall as the jotun itself. Lightning crackled around its joints, and slender bolts played along its riveted hide. The apparatus was headless, but a single cyclopean eye dominated its chest, surrounded by small homemade gems that were already starting to smoke white-hot and steam in the cold air.
The golem towered behind Flummox and raised both hands to the sky. A mighty band of lightning surged between the golem’s articulated paws, and the thunder rolled back down through the valley. Far away, there was another roar, a distant avalanche responding to the challenge.
“Meet the new negotiator,” said Flummox. “We call him Mr. Sparkles.”
“I am sorry about your golem,” said the caravan master.
Flummox shrugged, “The apparatus did its job, which is all one can ask of a good tool.” Actually, the golem had exceeded all expectations, laying the jotun leader down with a single lightning-powered blow, then wading into a collection of its compatriots and detonating only when five of them were all trying to bring it down. The remainder of the jotun bandits disappeared into the falling snow, howling in despair.
“We salvaged what we could,” added the caravan master, and held out a small bag, “and took up a collection to help you with repairs.”
Flummox managed a smile, even though the coins within wouldn’t even pop for a secondhand ethanator. He would probably have to sell Mr. Sparkles to some younger golemancer. “It was my pleasure. But if it is all the same to you, I have been up all night saving our lives. I think I will now sleep for the rest of our trip.”
The human was more than happy to agree, and started bellowing for the wagons to move out.
Sareb was putting the last recognizable remains of Mr. Sparkles into the wagon, piling blankets and pillows over it. “We got most of it,” he said, “and while the upper armatures probably blew into the Sea of Sorrows, we did salvage the main housing. It probably can be saved and rebuilt.”
“Good,” said Flummox wearily, hauling himself up to his blankets and pillows among the sharded metal. “I am going to sleep for a couple days. Only wake me if it is something important. Really important. More important than jotun.”
“Of course,” said Sareb. “You did the right thing, you know, using Mr. Sparkles.”
“I always do the right thing. You should know that by now,” said Flummox, suddenly slapping his pockets. “The cameo. Ah! I gave it to you—you can give it back now.”
Sareb looked at Flummox blankly. “Since we didn’t need it after all, I returned it to the young lady. She was very appreciative.”
“You what?” said Flummox. “You assured me you would keep it safe!”
“It is safe with the girl,” said the sylvari. “I could think of no place safer.”
Flummox looked at his assistant for a long, stern moment, then managed a small smile and nodded. “So you lied.”
Sareb returned the smile. “A small deception for the greater good,” he said. “You should try it sometime.”