The second adventure in the Illmoor Chronicles trilogy finds Illmoor in peril once again...but this new menace is more deadly than the rat infestation that plagued the city, and more diabolical than even the dark magic could imagine. The Yowler Brotherhood has existed for centuries in the alleyways and shadows of Illmoor. But now, with an evil new magic, they will emerge from the shadows, descend from their rooftop recluse, and destroy anyone that stands in the way of their complete domination of Illmoor.
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The Yowler Foul-Up
The Illmoor Chronicles
By David Lee Stone
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 2003 David Lee Stone
All rights reserved.
... SOMEWHERE IN THE NORTHEASTERN corner of the forest. A tiny sprite emerged from the gloomy depths of a tree hollow and listened, translucent wings fluttering in the midmorning breeze. A boot crushed it into the ground.
The thief was out of breath. He had run the length of Grinswood in just under three hours, which was a boastful feat for a man on horseback, let alone one with three broken toes, a limp, and advanced constipation. He staggered, muttered a few obscenities, and collapsed in a final wave of exhaustion, dropping his prize beside him. The sack wriggled as it hit the floor, and continued to do so for several minutes. Then it seemed to give up. The rest of the glade was still, with only the thief's heaving chest and slow, determined breaths punctuating the silence.
Presently, a barrowbird flew into the glade, landing on the gnarled lower branches of an ancient oak. It cocked its head to one side and considered the scene.
The thief, whose distinguishing features included one mechanical arm and a moon-shaped scar dissecting his chin, struggled to raise a charred eyebrow. The commotion inside the sack had started up again and even appeared to be building; yet he took no notice.
Still, the bird watched.
A few minutes later, the thief had taken to rolling around on the grass in a number of failed attempts to get to his feet. Finally, he made a desperate lunge at the oak, twisted around, and shouldered himself up. Blood rushed to his head as he fought to maintain his balance.
The barrowbird, completely nonplussed by the sudden display of energy, fixed its beady eyes on the sack.
Grinswood had become eerily silent. Shadows merged, and the trees seemed to move with them.
The thief took one last look around. "Time to move," he muttered, snatching up the sack and urging himself into a run.
When he'd disappeared from view, the barrowbird twitched and ruffled its feathers. Then it flew up onto a higher branch and cast a glance down the forest path, where a trail of disturbed foliage marked the thief's progress.
I'll take my time, it thought. This one looks like he's come a long way.CHAPTER 2
For the specific attention of Duke Vandre Modeset,
Fourth Kennel Along,
Fechit's Dog Sanctuary,
I was delighted to hear from the redoubtable Pegrand that you have decided to accept my offer of hospitality. It has been some months since the terms of your exile entitled you to return to Dullitch, albeit as a citizen!
I can assure you that the "rat catastrophe" is a long-forgotten piece of Dullitch history; people have moved on! I do so look forward to seeing you and, to this end, have taken the liberty of booking you four rooms at the Steeplejack Inn, a grand boardinghouse on Royal Road. I trust your visit, along with that of your staff, will be both enjoyable and relaxing.
Your cousin, Ravis Curfew, Lord of Dullitch
Duke modeset had read the letter many times, and was still of the opinion that it had probably been written by one of the palace's many scribes. As far as he was concerned, anyone who described Pegrand as redoubtable probably didn't have a royal bone in his body.
He sighed, folded the letter neatly in two, and looked around for somewhere to file it. His gaze eventually came to rest on something that he assumed was supposed to be a bureau. A curious piece of furniture, it looked as if the carpenter responsible had started out with high hopes but had evidently been sidetracked en route to perfection. Modeset reached down to open the drawer and scowled as the handle broke off. Shoddy. Oh well, at least the place felt like home. He tried and failed to replace the handle three times before letting it fall to the floor, where it clattered noisily on the wooden boards. He propped the parchment on the windowsill instead.
Despite the cracked plaster and crumbling beams, there could be little doubt that the Steeplejack Inn was indeed a five-star resort; the only problem being that a five-star resort in Dullitch was the equivalent of a mutant cesspool anywhere else on the continent. Modeset wasn't sure what the minimum requirements were for earning five stars, but Spittle Bridge had three, and there was water under that.
Modeset crossed to the bed, turned, and let himself fall back onto the mattress. The moment he did, there was an explosion of sound much like a dwarf war-hammer hitting a wardrobe door. Pain ricocheted through Modeset's back, and he sat up with a start. His eyes bulged.
A moment later, the duke's faithful manservant erupted through the bedroom door. His face was redder than a beetroot.
"You all right, milord?" he wheezed, leaning against the door frame for support.
The duke, still grasping his back, glared at him.
"Only, did you hear that almighty bang?"
"So did we. What was it, d'you reckon?"
"It was me, Pegrand," Modeset managed, suppressing a groan. "Go and tell the innkeeper that I want another bed. This mattress is thinner than your anorexic aunt."
"I'll have a word in his ear, milord."
"Good man. Where's your room?"
Pegrand pointed skyward. "'Snot exactly Marble Heights, though," he confided, lowering his voice to a whisper. "There's a big leak in the roof. The innkeeper says it doesn't let much in, but I've been speaking to a few of the guests and they reckon the last bloke who stopped in the attic drowned. I dunno how the others're getting on."
Modeset put his head in his hands and tried to focus on the positives. Firstly, he was on holiday. That, generally speaking, was a good thing. He was accompanied by a full complement of personal staff, which was another. Negatively speaking, the inn was a dump; the city, a nightmare he'd spent the best part of seven years trying to forget; and the staff, a pair of depraved cultural dropouts from a depressing backwater he couldn't wait to forget. Then there was Pegrand. He imagined a series of public humiliations and disastrous misunderstandings festering on the horizon, and he determined to escape before they arrived. After all, fate was avoidable; it was destiny that caused trouble.CHAPTER 3
Modeset checked his pocket watch. there was still half an hour to go before dinner. Having already paced back and forth in his room for what seemed like a millennium, he decided to take a nap. He carefully lowered himself onto the bed, worked his body into a halfway comfortable position, and tried to drift off.
His eyes flicked open, and he sat bolt upright.
The inner shutters were devastated; one had been wrenched off its hinges and the other had slammed into the far wall with such velocity that it had spawned a network of cracks in the plaster.
For a moment the duke observed the rules of stunned silence and remained absolutely still. Then he leaped off the bed and hurried over to the window.
The street below was dark and shadowy, and the bleak light offered by the lamp wicks betrayed no obvious signs of an explosion.
And so it begins, he thought bitterly. Word of my arrival has got around and suddenly everyone's out wandering the streets with a brick in each hand. Ha! So much for moving on!
He peered cautiously out of the window, expecting at any second to be bombarded by the rest of someone's garden wall.
Nothing: the street was empty. Silence reigned. From what he could make out, the rest of Royal Road's crooked buildings were largely undisturbed. There was a fire blazing somewhere to the north, but nothing to account for the sudden, meteoric destruction of the shutters.
Modeset sighed and pulled the outer shutter closed. He was about to return to bed when he saw the rock on the floor beside the bureau. It was wrapped in parchment which, in turn, was fastened with string. For a moment he just stared at the rock, as if waiting for it to sprout legs and run under the door.
Then he sighed despondently, bent down, and tried to pick it up, groaning when it turned out to be a stone heavier than the average cannonball.
Puffing and panting with effort, he hefted the rock onto the bed, untied the string, and folded out the parchment. There was a note on the back.
Modeset squinted at the writing, which was crude and betrayed a certain loathing for punctuation. It certainly wasn't what he expected:
ToNiGht WAS a tASTer TherE iS MoRE tO coME StaY away frOm wareHouse six if You don't yOu Will wAke up FEEling NOt vEry well wiTh a cRosSboW bolT iN Your bAck yOu have beEN warned thEre are many ToRture instruMEnts whicH wE Are NOT aFraid to uSe in aN EmerGeNcY aNd we knoW yOuR arE A lOFtWing bECAuSe YOu ONly folloW at niGHT aNd We hAvE lots oF SiLvEr WhicH KiLLS YOu lOT So BE wArNEd
No More OuT of YOu aFTEr tHaT thEN MisTeR X lANd that'S NOT My ReAL naME SO DoN'T ThiNK YOU'VE GoT Me theRE.
Modeset looked from the rock to the note and back again, his attention finally diverting to the window. The remaining inward shutter broke off from its hinge and crashed onto the floorboards. He was about to hide the note under the bed when there was a heavy-handed knock on the bedroom door.
Modeset started, thrust the parchment under his pillow, and pulled the bedcovers over the cannon-ball rock.
"Yes?" he shouted testily. "What is it, Pegrand?"
"Dinner's in five minutes, milord. Thought you might like a quick reminder.
"Mmm? Oh, yes. Thank you."
"No problem. Just yell if you need anything else."
"Good show. I'll be along presently."
"Okay, milord. No worries, then. Everything all right in there, is it? Only, I thought I heard a noise."
"Yes, that was me, Pegrand. I ... tried to close the wardrobe."
"You've got a wardrobe in there now, milord? That's a first-class accommodation."
Modeset looked around frantically. "No!" he yelled. "It ... fell out of the window, I'm afraid. Look, I'll be out in a few moments."
"Right you are, milord."
When the manservant's footsteps had dissipated, Modeset snaked a hand under the pillow and retrieved the parchment. After a second reading, he rolled it up and stowed it away inside his tunic. He had a funny feeling that it was going to be one of those nights.CHAPTER 4
From the state of the room, you could tell it was part of a hovel in one of the seedier parts of the city. The furniture was threadbare, the walls were collapsing, and a dynasty of cockroaches fought terrible wars beneath the floorboards. The occupant of the room, a gnome with brass teeth and a network of terrible scars, was studying something of great importance.
The book stood open on the table. It was a heavy tome, more than five times the size of a regular book, and its pages were inked with bold script and elaborate illustrations. The turning of each leaf was accompanied by a dull crackle, and the gnome spent several moments smoothing the pages down so that the book would close properly. It had to close properly. Otherwise it wouldn't fit in the gap in the wall, and some filthy thief would sneak in and steal it. Such was the norm in Dullitch.
Eventually, when the Ultimate Goal was achieved, he'd move somewhere smaller. Still, that was a long way off, and many parts of the mistress's plan still needed to be realized. Nobody had heard from the lizard thief, yet, and he'd been gone for weeks! Oh well ... that was definitely not his problem.
The gnome closed the book and stowed it away in the wall, pulling the old, half-rotted dresser in front to conceal it. Then he returned to his little stool and gazed down at an area of the table containing an inkwell, a feathered quill, and a box. This, he reflected, shouldn't be too difficult.
He was certain that Obegarde, the loftwing who'd been following him for two, maybe three days was either from or employed by the palace. Unfortunately, his research hadn't turned up much more than a name, but then, an official palace employee wouldn't be shacked up at a coaching inn.
Hmm ... a freelancer, then; some sort of investigator. He grimaced at the thought. This was disastrous! How could they possibly have found out? Mistress Lark had worked at the palace, but it wouldn't have been her, surely? She was much too smart, far too careful. Well, whatever, someone had let slip. Ha! And they'd had the nerve to call him stupid. All things considered, it was a miracle the group had managed to keep their little secret at all.
Still, the threat should suffice. He certainly hoped it would, because the loftwing was no minor irritant. If the creature found out enough to make a report, he had the potential to ruin everything. It just wasn't fair; he'd been so careful!
What to do, what to do ...?
First things first: the old inventor. Mistress Lark had been very definite about that; he knew too much and was the most immediate threat to the group. Besides, he was long past being useful; the machine was built and it wasn't likely to go wrong. Even so, assassination was a little harsh. Perhaps he should give the old boy a scare, instead. Then he might leave town of his own accord....
Muttering under his breath, the gnome took up the quill and, dipping it into the inkwell, began to write. He folded the parchment into segments, tore neatly along all the edges, and placed a number of blank pieces inside the pockets of a dark cloak he'd stolen, keeping hold of the original piece he'd written on. Then he took the quill and its grimy inkwell.
There, he thought. That's just about everything.
Fastening his cloak about him, the gnome hurried from the hovel. It was going to be a busy night....CHAPTER 5
When modeset reached the first-floor landing, most of his staff was already out in force.
Pegrand was dressed in the standard leather britches and scruffy doublet he always wore, hair spilling out from behind his ears while managing to avoid the top of his head completely. Flicka, Hopkirk's daughter, and the only member of Modeset's staff still enjoying her twenties, had settled for a pure white robe that made her look more like a sacrifice for Druids than a royal aide. Her long dark hair, pale skin, and delicate elfin features were somewhat marred by the quizzical expression that had camped out on her face since the day she was born.
The two of them constituted quite a picture. Modeset didn't think much of the presentation, but then, judging by their collective stare, they were just as disgusted by his choice of formal dress. He couldn't for the life of him understand why; the armored suit might be old, but at least it wasn't paid for.
"Now, this evening represents my first experience of Dullitch hospitality for some time," he said. "I want everyone to make a conscious effort, and that includes you, Pegrand."
"Yes, milord. Got some impressive jokes lined up for the after-dinner discussions."
"None of your sledgehammer wit, please."
"No, milord. Right you are, then. I'll keep a zip on the monkey gag until the crockery's collected. Do we know how many other guests are coming?"
"Not many, I fear. It's just us, the landlord, and supposedly one other gentleman. We're getting special treatment by order of the throne. As I understood it, most of the guests are confined to their rooms until after the meal."
"Should be okay, then, as long as they don't try to dig themselves out. Who's the jailer?"
"I don't find that even remotely amusing, Pegrand."
"And how about you, Flicka?" said Modeset. "All ready for your first dinner in Dullitch?"
Flicka swept back a lock of her long, ebony hair and fixed Modeset with her sparkly blue eyes. "Do I have any choice?" she said.
"Good, good." Modeset beamed. "We'll descend the stairs in single file. Ladies first," he said. "That's you, Flicka, just in case there's any doubt. I noticed Pegrand took a step forward then and, while he undoubtedly has the tongue of a washerwoman, he is by no means a lady."
Flicka rolled her eyes and took to the stairs.
"Mind your head on that candelabra as you go," the duke called out. "Very tasteful, isn't it?"
"Yes, okay, Pegrand. Down you go, then. Be sure to announce me as soon as you get to the dining hall ... and no silly voices this time, I implore you."
Excerpted from The Yowler Foul-Up by David Lee Stone. Copyright © 2003 David Lee Stone. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
ContentsSELECTED DRAMATIS PERSONAE,
PART ONE: THE GREAT RETURNING,
PART TWO: THE DUKE AND THE DETECTIVE,
PART THREE: THE FIGHT FOR PLUNGE,
Preview: The Shadewell Shenanigans,