Grimestoke watched the Lord Baltrog enter the trance. Baltrog’s left hand was on the stone, his right hand held in the air, his fingers contorted into an arcane sign. As he entered the trance his eyes rolled back until only the whites could be seen. His face, usually so calm, took on a worried appearance as his lips twisted into a grimace. He could stand in this position for hours.
The gnome had only a passing interest in magic. Certainly he appreciated Baltrog’s extraordinary gifts but only for the results they produced. The actual processes, the techniques, the arcane knowledge that the practice entailed, well, that was all stuff and nonsense. Not like a good machine, a well-balanced ledger book, or even a meticulously ordered city. Now those were things that made sense, that had internal logic, that yielded quantifiable output from calibrated techniques. But magic, well, sometimes it worked and sometimes it fizzled.
Grimestoke was aware of the degrees of powers that Baltrog commanded. He understood that besides obvious spells the Lord had extraordinary psionic powers. But those powers were limited in ways that gnome could not comprehend. Some people and creatures Baltrog could control completely, taking over their minds and using their bodies as second selves. But to do that he had to have visual contact with the victim, either directly or through a surrogate. The surrogates themselves were a different type of link. Baltrog was able to see through the eyes and plumb the thoughts of certain people and creatures even over vast distances. But he could not make them do anything except observe and, perhaps, move to certain locations. What determined the difference in the two types of links Grimestoke did not know and had never cared to ask. None of his business, really.
No, his business was real business. Keeping the books, maintaining the maps, checking inventory, running Tzanasport. He was paymaster, factotum, and mayor, trusted advisor and henchman. It was a job he loved.
He had not always been so happy. Years ago – how many now? – he had been a social outcast in his village. While the other gnomes had gone about their business tinkering, inventing elaborate clocks, crafting jewelry, Grimestoke had shown an interest in less wholesome pastimes. He invented small machines that mangled fingers and he had set traps that broke ankles. The jewelry that he made was in shape of miniature skulls. He had shown an unhealthy interest in the slaughter of animals and was once caught preparing to dissect a neighbor’s cat with a fiendishly sharp knife of his own creation. His village, tired of the trouble he brought, finally banished him and, truth be told, his exhausted parents had not argued against the decree.
On his own, he had turned to theft. There was no lock he could not pick, no trap he could not disable. Once he had established himself and taken a small neat cabin outside of Luganton, he was able to pursue his esoteric hobbies in private.
But then he had heard of the Lord Baltrog, a sorcerer who had purchased an empty castle on the edge of the town. He was reputed to be in possession of a sizable treasure. The temptation had been too much and he had set out to rob Baltrog even as he was moving into his new home. The job had gone very well. He had slipped by the guards, disabled an arrow trap, and had stolen an exquisite music box crafted of gold and precious stones. He had carried it home giggling with joy.
The Baltrog had been waiting for him inside his cabin.
“Congratulations,” he had said. “You’re the first one to make it.”
Baltrog flicked a finger and Grimestoke found himself frozen in place, barely able to draw a breath. While he stood there Baltrog had gone through every corner of his cabin. He had found the gnome’s special machines and sadistic traps; he found the ledger books he had kept of thefts (stupid, but who can resist such accounting?); he found the maps he had made of local treasure houses and castles. Baltrog even found the remains of one of the gnome’s little animal experiments. This in particular seemed to interest him.
Eventually Baltrog was satisfied. He took a seat and snapped his fingers. The spell broke and Grimestoke fell to the floor.
“I have been looking for someone with your talents,” said Baltrog. “I’m not a details person. I need an assistant. No, an associate.”
Grimestoke climbed to his feet. “What does it pay?” he asked.
“Money?!” laughed Baltrog. “Oh there’ll be all sorts of money. But I’m offering something much better than money.”
He leaned forward in his chair. “Fun,” he said.
That had been almost seven years ago and Baltrog had kept his word. Grimestoke spent his days having fun: the fun of building machines, of keeping meticulous records, of giving orders and making plans. It was everything a gnome of his inclinations could ask for and it just kept getting better as their little empire expanded.
The Lord Baltrog gave a cry of surprise and jumped backwards as though hit by an arrow in the chest. He fell on the ground.
Grimestoke ran over to him and helped him up to a sitting position. Baltrog, shaking his head, ran one hand over his chest as though he were looking for a wound. Finding nothing he turned to look at the worried gnome.
“Oh, she’s being a very bad girl,” he said. He grabbed the gnome by the collar and pulled his face close. “Find out everything you can about the dwarf.”