Thursday, September 3, 2015

The Sweet Rewards of Skullduggery by Mike Phillips

A little something different for wanderers into the Ruins today, an original short story from Mike Phillips, taking place between The World Below and Hazard of Shadows . . .


The Sweet Rewards of Skullduggery
Chronicles of the Goblin King

For all the boasting and bluster, the goblins didn’t know their way around the World Below half as well as they thought they did. They might know where to find great trash heaps to hide behind while consuming a stolen meal. They might know where to answer the call of nature without having some angry property owner crack them on the skull. They might even know where to find a pen or pencil any time they needed it, as near a thing to magic as fairy dust and dragon fire. But for all that, the rapidity in which they became lost in their own back yard was boggling to the mind.
“Maybe we should go back,” Mitch Hardy suggested to his goblin friends as he looked for any sign of the familiar. The comment brought a hush as profound as the grave. “Come on, I was just thinking it might be quicker.”
The clarification did little to bring favor from the crew, four of the oddest little monsters in all of creation. They were goblins, one of the few enchanted creatures of any kind left on earth, what they referred to as the World of Men. The goblins were possessed with magical talents both strange and terrible. Unfortunately, a good sense of direction wasn’t one of them.
The biggest and angriest of the group, a goblin named Thudrott, opened his exceptionally wide mouth but failed to speak, so reflective was his disgust. Instead, he bit his lip and stamped first one foot then the other, looking more peeved by the second. He and the others assumed Mitch was going to suggest they ask for directions, a sinful act to their way of thinking.
All the goblins were about knee high. When not disguising themselves as stray cats or other small, more socially acceptable creatures, they looked like overgrown toads. They had big ears and long noses, squat little bodies that would have landed somewhere between a daydream and a nightmare for any toy maker. At that moment, their annoyance rising, the effect was anything but cute.
“Unlike you guys, I haven’t had anything to eat since lunch,” Mitch answered the silent question. His best human friend sold hotdogs from a cart on the street and always shared the leftovers with Mitch.
“Snakes in a drainpipe,” Thudrott grumbled. “That’s because you’re so darn pickity-packity all the blazin’ time. Hold your nose and belly up is what I say.”
“Yeah, those eggrolls weren’t really all that bad, huh,” Gullysack said. He wore cargo shorts and a Hawaiian shirt that featured three naked ladies and a dead kangaroo on the back. “Only a little mushy on the underside and must be three days fresh, huh. Don’t get much better than that, huh, not for my money.”
“You ain’t got two pennies to throw at cockroach,” Thudrott growled. “So what’s all this talk about cash on the pin-head anyway?”
“Two for one night at Pasano’s,” Mitch replied, shutting them up. It was without argument the best pizza for miles –and goblins like to argue more than they like to eat.
“Well, why’s it you’re standin’ around, gaping like some half dead elephant?” Thudrott roared. He turned abruptly on his heel and stamped off, crashing right into Glitch and knocking the littlest goblin flat on the ground.
“Ah, now look what ya’ did.” Thudrott held out a hand in an offer to aid his fallen comrade. “Sorry, Glitch, I was in such a head of steam I ain’t seen you there.”
Glitch favored flannel shirts in plaid. Sometimes he even wore pants. He always had an old rucksack slung over a shoulder and any number of gadgets hung from his belt. He held out a hand so Thudrott could help him to his feet.
The moment their hands touched, Thudrott screamed in pain. What little hair there was on his body stood on end. He continued making desperate, pained noises as bright sparks arced between Glitch’s palm and his own.
Smoke rolled out of Thudrott’s ears and nose before Glitch finally let him go. The little goblin adjusted a metal object in his palm, what looked to Mitch like a standard joy buzzer, and stood, properly avenged for the insult done to his honor.
Shaking it off, Thudrott hocked a handful of slime green snot into his palm and slicked back his hair, not forgetting where it stuck up in back. “So you ninny-hammers gonna stand around all night or what?”
****
A change in direction did little to improve their fortunes. The World Below was one of the few remaining refuges for enchanted creatures of all kinds. As such, it was a labyrinthine mess of tunnels and caverns, little villages and homesteads built under the human city and Traverse Bay. The people of the World Below survived as best they could on what they produced themselves and on what human society threw away, which if not luxurious, was comfortable for most.
Mitch became romantically involved with one of the Elder Race, a young princess of the Faerie Folk. By happenstance, he made friends with a crew of goblins in the process, an accident that saved his life on more than one occasion. With the goblins behind him and lots of new friends, Mitch led a revolt against the despotic ruler of the World Below, the Dragon of Worms, Baron Finkbeiner, and was now in charge of keeping law and order for the citizens he liberated.
The five of them were on their way back to Mitch’s apartment after holding court. It had been a long evening of listening to complaints and rendering decisions, but Mitch felt good about bringing some fairness into the lives of the citizens. He was hungry and tired and missed out on a whole evening of making money, but proud of what he accomplished.
Mitch and the crew found themselves in a small cavern, the walls covered in a thin veneer that gave off a soft glow. There were a few dozen homes and storage barns, hardly better than shacks, organized into what passed as a neighborhood. A barrier of rusted car parts and scrap iron was arranged at the perimeter of the village as a defense, but the gate was open and no guard was posted.
“This looks familiar,” announced the fourth goblin. He wasn’t even scratching his backside as if to think. This fact gave Mitch hope.
The goblin’s name was Puttygut. He was a doctor and apothecary and sorcerer and, if not exactly wise, had much better sense than the others. Mitch trusted his judgment in all matters that didn’t have to do with food, morality, business, music, women, police and other governmental officials, or common sense.
“Finding your way out of a place is always harder than finding a way in, especially to a bad place.”
“Ain’t that the truth,” Thudrott agreed.
“Year or two maybe it was when I passed here last.” He picked his long nose in thoughtful consideration.
“Think it’s the only way what we ain’t tried.”
“Some rotten finks in this place, though. Look out. That’s why they don’t need to post a watch, I’d be willing to bet.”
“Trouble?” Mitch asked, thinking about the magical gifts of protection his girlfriend, the Lady Elizabeth, had given him. “Something we need to take care of, like those orcs?”
“Naw, I don’t think they cause any trouble on their own, not if folk don’t come bringing it to their door.”
“As fine and friendly a folk as we are,” Thudrott agreed.
“That bad, huh?” Mitch asked, and he meant it. Goblins had a terrible reputation, his crew the worst of the lot. From what he was able to gather, the reputation was deserved. Why they had ever decided to befriend him and change their ways was beyond his ability to comprehend. “Nothing to mess with, but they don’t cause trouble.”
Puttygut said, “Don’t rightly know. They’re a quiet bunch, keep to themselves, mostly. Can’t say exactly what sort of folk they are. But the way home leads shortest through their town. Might be a tunnel on the other end. I was thinking we should be headed back about now.”
“Seems safe enough if we’re quick and quiet. Let’s try it.”
“Right, what’s the worst that could happen?”
****
Into the village they went. There seemed an undercurrent of noise, an indefinable hubbub, generally behind closed doors and out of sight, but enough to have the goblins on edge. Mitch felt it too, but to him it was encouraging. If the folk were busy inside, it was all the more likely he and the goblins could pass through town unnoticed.
 The road made a sweeping turn around the largest of the shacks, a place that looked the most defensible of the structures he had seen, like a holdfast or small keep. Currently, the place was cold as ice, but Mitch knew there must be any number of secret ways inside if trouble arose.
Half way around the keep, a footpath went by a fenced yard holding a pair of goats. On the far side of the fence, two dark figures stood, deep in conversation. Mitch and the goblins traded glances. It would be best to slip by unnoticed. Even the friendliest of monsters could be defensive in the late hours of the night.
Without warning, one of the figures looked up. It pointed toward the crew and squealed in fear. The two sped off in opposite directions.
“Jig is up,” Puttygut announced, stirring Mitch into action. “Let’s go.”
“Got the big one,” Thudrott said, leading Gullysack and Glitch around the backside of the goat pen.
“Got the basket,” Puttygut confirmed, meaning the other person who was carrying a rather large basket.
As Mitch ran after Puttygut, he lost sight of the others as they turned down some dark alley. “What are we chasing them for?” Mitch asked between labored breaths, though his stride gave him a distinct advantage over the goblins.
“Because they’re running,” Puttygut replied.
“What? That’s stupid.”
“Need to find out why,” he pumped his legs in his awkward gate, zipping round a fence post. A sleeping goat was tied with a short rope. “Could be nothing, but could be trouble. Best to do it to them before they do it to us.”
“Yes, that makes perfect sense,” Mitch said dryly.
“Who better than goblins to know when folk are up to no good?”
“Can’t argue with logic like that.”
Another turn brought them between two buildings, candlelight flickering behind the fabric covered windows. Having lost sight of the person with the basket, they walked slowly and carefully, searching as they went.
“Smells like blasted goats all over,” Puttygut complained, sniffing. “Can’t smell nothing but stupid goats.”
“Shut up!” a gruff voice shouted from one of the dark windows, the unmistakable pump of a shell into the chamber of a twelve gage shotgun punctuating his request.
“Could be silver,” Puttygut said, thoughtfully brushing a grotesque scar on the back of his thigh. “It’s been known to happen from time to time.”
“Sorry,” Mitch whispered to the man, “wrong turn. We’re going.”
The man grumbled something unintelligible as Mitch and Puttygut slipped around the corner. Of all things, they met Thudrott and the others. They were on an avenue wide enough to allow a single automobile to pass, if it was a slick European model and not some big, American SUV.
The avenue was quiet, but even Mitch could feel eyes upon him. This was a protected place, as safe for its inhabitants as a military complex. Any sort of creature could, at that moment, be preparing a magic spell or aiming a weapon. The thought chilled him. They kept moving, all but forgetting their pursuit.
****
Another wrong turn brought them into a dark alley between long sheds. A large house was at the far end. It had a front yard and a broad porch. A picket fence surrounded the property. The place might have fit nicely into any suburban neighborhood. Every window was lit with electric light. Sounds of conversation and laughter escaped from inside. Muddy footprints were on the steps.
“Wipe your little feeties clean before swing-set dancin’ into a swanky, swanky pad like that,” Thudrott said in a low voice, confirming the intuition of all. “Let’s see what’s round back.”
“Could be a party, huh?” Gullysack said. He sniffed. “Smells sweet, like they’re cooking up some potion, huh. What do you think, huh? Some potion?”
“They’re cooking up something all right,” Puttygut agreed. Rubbing his long nose, he suggested to Mitch, “Might be something we should look into, if we were on the clock and all.”
“You think, huh,” Mitch replied, knowing he answer. It was clear the person with the basket had gone this way and something suspicious was going on. “Me too.”
Using the goblin gift of magic, they turned themselves invisible. When he was with the crew, using their aid and support, Mitch was able to do it too. Each time, the process got easier and easier. Focusing on his intent, what he wanted to accomplish, was more important than the trivial problems of bending light waves and altering matter. He marveled as he could no longer see his hand in front of his face, but there was no time to waste, they needed to find out what was going on.
Splitting up, Mitch and Puttygut went around the left side of the house while the others went to the right. Gullysack found a wooden trellis and quickly shimmied up to the roof before Mitch lost track of him. A path led over a moss covered side lawn. Mitch and Puttygut followed the path, ducking down to pass unnoticed under a bathroom window as someone flushed the toilet.
Out back, the picket fence continued along the property line. Perhaps twenty people were milling about, all shapes and sizes, some big and some little, but what sort of creatures they were looking at was hard to tell in the flickering light and bustling activity. The commotion was centered around a huge bonfire, a pot big enough to boil two full grown men into soup was frothing and bubbling on a metal grate atop the flames.
With the speed and efficiency of any covert operations team, Mitch and the goblins spread out around the fence, taking positon and trying to get a handle on what was happening. The backdoor swung open and out stepped a small figure holding a basket, the same person they had chased through the streets.
She was a pretty girl with a great mane of long, brown hair and softly rounded features. Fur covered legs flashed demurely from under the cover of a brightly printed sundress. She was a faun, not more than in her teens if Mitch were any judge, but the magical creatures were often deceiving in that way. She could be hundreds of years old.
“There you are darling,” called a voice from near the pot.
To call the voice gravelly would have been to call a quarry a clay pit. The woman’s voice cracked and rolled like an avalanche; but for all that, Mitch thought he sensed kindness and concern. She had more than a little troll blood, which was readily apparent, for she was tall as a house with scaly skin and scraggly hair. What else might lie within her ancestry was hard to figure.
“What took you so long?” Her voice dropped. “Oh, dear, you’re crying. What’s the matter? That little shyster didn’t try to cheat you, did he?”
“No, Grums,” the girl sweetly replied. “Some men chased me.”
“Oooooh, some men,” she wondered, “bad men?”
“Don’t know,” she sniffed, holding back tears.
The troll woman put a thick hand on the girl’s shoulder. Straightening the natural hunch in her back, when she stood tall she easily looked over the crowd. Her eyes shone with a blue light as she scanned the area. Mitch panicked, feeling not only that he was fully visible under the goblin magic but that she was seeing him naked. Her glance only rested on him for seconds before turning away.
“Was it them?” she asked, snapping her fingers.
In that instant, Mitch was no longer invisible. Neither was Puttygut. They were surrounded by guards before they could react, big men that might have been Grums’ grandsons. Across the yard, Thudrott and Glitch were putting up a fight, but they were quickly overwhelmed by the size and numbers of the guards.
“Snakes in a drainpipe!” Thudrott shouted. “Run you idiots!”
There was nowhere to run. There was no escape. They were caught.
“Get that little one off my roof before he puts a hole in it,” Grums rumbled.
The sneakiest of them all, even Gullysack was no match for her conjuring. He was as visible as the rest and frozen like a statue as he clung to a brick chimney, waiting for a handful of the more wiry guards to collect him.
“Now, what’s this all about?” Grums wondered as Mitch and the crew were assembled around her. “Chasing after my favorite girlie and busting up my party.”
“Madam, please accept my apologies, but my friends and I thought we witnessed some illegal act and were in pursuit of this young lady.”
“What’s that? Lawyer speak? Ain’t havin’ none of that. Talk plainer or you can go into the pot right now.”
Swallowing hard, Mitch contemplated the deadliest weapon in his arsenal, the mysterious Blade of Caro. With the Blade he would have no difficulties dealing with this woman and the entire town. Something held him back.
He said, “We thought something bad was going on so we checked it out.”
“Oh, and what gives you the right?”
“Well,” Mitch began slowly, not sure of his place in the World Below, “I am lord and protector of these parts.”
“Well, well, then.” A spark lit in her eyes, considering. “Ah ha, you’re that Mitch fella what kilt the Baron, ain’t cha?”
The goblins, less than subtle at the best of times, were emphatically shaking their heads and mouthing the word “No!” over and over again. It was a sign of how much time they were spending together that Mitch considered telling a lie. Knife edged fate was set in the balance. A wrong answer might mean death on both sides.
Instead, he admitted, “Yes.”
“Why didn’t you say so!” Grumma laughed, clapping her hands together. “Glad you could join the party.”
Taking the basket from the girl, she pulled out stalks of fresh rhubarb. She dropped the stalks into the pot. With a wooden spoon the size of a boat oar, she stirred the mix, saying, “Come, sit down, the harvest is in and we’re making jam, the best you ever et or I’m a garden lizard in a prom dress. I insist you stay and have a bite.”

The End

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About the Author

Mike Phillips grew up on a small farm in West Michigan, living much the way people did at the turn of the century. Whether it was growing fruits and vegetables or raising livestock, Mike learned the value of hard work and responsibility at a young age.

While his friends spent their summers watching reruns of bad sitcoms, Mike’s father gave him a very special gift. He turned off the television. With what was affectionately referred to as “the idiot box” no longer a distraction, Mike was left to discover the fantastic worlds that only exist in books. When not tending sheep, gardening, building furniture, chopping wood, or just goofing off, Mike spent his time reading.

With all that hard work at home, Mike was always eager to go to school. He excelled as a student and went on to pursue a career in the sciences. Working as a Safety Engineer in the Insurance Industry, Mike soon became bored with the corporate grind. Writing engaged him like nothing else. After a few novels and numerous short stories, he thought getting published would be a pretty neat idea. And so, here it goes…


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About the Book

Hazard of Shadows                
by Mike Phillips                                                

The enchanted creatures of legend still exist, hidden away in the secret places of the world. They take refuge from an age of camera phones and government labs, from people who won’t let them live in peace. One of these last places of safety is known as the World Below.

Ancient powers are at work. The Lords of Faerie seek to revenge the death of Baron Finkbeiner and recover the mysterious Blade of Caro. Hidden in the shadows, they await a chance to strike. The chance arises when an old enemy escapes the splinter realm in which he is imprisoned. Anxious to settle the debt, the Faerie Lords send him to finish the Lady Elizabeth and her Champion once and for all.

After leading the revolution against the despotic ruler of the World Below, Mitch Hardy has taken the throne. He never wanted to be king. The whole idea of a government by right of combat sits poorly with him. Growing evermore uneasy with his new position, he begins laying the framework for self-rule. The enchanted peoples have known nothing but kings, but are adapting quickly to this new idea of governing their own affairs. It goes well, but Mitch’s plans are interrupted by the arrival of old enemies. Soon he is fighting for his life against a hellish enemy, the likes of which he never imagined.

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