Skullcrusher Velm's killed many a man

                                He likes to crush them with his own two hands

                                He's wrestles with titans, and demons as well

                                He's larger than planets, and meaner than hell




                                                                                Chapter Ten




            Maybe he never actually wrestled with a titan, but Skullcrusher Velm had certainly broken a few ogres' backs.  He was undoubtably the largest, strongest, and worst-tempered giff that had ever roamed the spheres.

            Not that any of that species ever claimed him.  Velm didn't like the giff mentality, and they didn't particularily like him.  Velm preferred the more chaotic nature of humans, and kept company with members of that race.

            He stood about twelve feet in height and was about four feet wide, four-hundred and seventy pounds of pure fury.  And he enjoyed using it, too.  There weren't many things Velm liked better than breaking necks, bashing heads, and crushing windpipes.  It was a point of pride to him that he had killed over two-hundred and seventy-eight sentient beings, and never once used anything to do it other than his own two hands.

            Velm wanted to have his own verse from the very first time he heard about the Storyteller's saga.  He searched the Storyteller out, killed two men in front of him, and threatened to do the same to the Storyteller if he didn't sit down and write him into the song on the spot.

            He needn't have worried.  The Storyteller had been planning on giving him a verse for some time.

            The people dining at the surrounding tables were practically frozen, as awe-struck as if a basilisk had charged into the inn's main room.  (Indeed, a basilisk would have been less dangerous.)

            "I answer to that name," said Jack calmly.

            The giff turned to face him.  "Well, aren't you just a puny little thing!  I wonder what the Storyteller ever saw in you?  My name is Skullcrusher Velm!  I've crushed umber hulks to powder!  I've broken half-giants' backs like matchsticks!  I've killed over three-hundred men!  People of all species and races fear me!  And I've been written up by the Storyteller!  You have heard of me, haven't you, you puny little mortal?"

            "Yes," said Jack.  "I keep hearing about you.  It seems to be the only thing I'm hearing.  What exactly was it you wanted with me?"

            "Out of the way, runt," rumbled Velm, shoving Sandstar aside and taking his chair.  Sandstar scrambled to the side.  "I hear you're going after the Raver."

            Jack nodded.  "That's right."

            Velm jerked a thumb at himself.  "I'm going after the Raver!  I intend to be known as the person that killed the Raver.  I'm gonna wrap my fingers around his throat and crush him like jelly!"  The giff flexed his hands in anticipation.

            "Indeed."  Jack didn't sound particularily impressed.  "And?"

            "And I'm your new partner, that's what!"

            "You want to be my partner?"

            The giff shook his head.  "I'm willing to let you be mine.  You don't get to kill him, of course, but you'll be there to witness it, and spread my glory."

            "I see," said Jack dubiously.  "I have some leads as to how to find him.  What will you be bringing to this proposed partnership?"

            The big giff gave a bellowing laugh.  "What do I give?  How about I don't grab your puny body and squeeze until your funny little head pops off!"

            Jack stared at him flatly.  "If that's all you've got to offer, I'm not interested.  Go away."

            Velm's enormous jaw dropped in disbelief.  "What?  Are you turning me down?  Who do you think you are!  I'm Skullcrusher Velm, the most dangerous creature alive!"

            "You said that before.  It's starting to get annoying.  Go away now, and you might live to see another day."

            Velm gave an inarticulate roar and hurled the table away.  It crashed into the far wall, splintering.  "How dare you!  Don't you know who I am?  I'm Skullcrusher Velm!"

            Lightning quick, Jack lunged, his hand striking out.

            Surprised at the suddeness of the move, Velm reared backwards momentarily, his hand instinctively flying to his right cheek.  "Is that the best you can do, insect?" he asked, taking his hand away.  There was a tiny droplet of blood, indicating a small puncture wound.

            Velm grinned fearsomely.  "Now I will crush you into powder!  I'll enjoy hearing your tiny screams for mercy as I break your bones one by one!"

            Jack said nothing.  He waited calmly.

            The giff stepped forward slowly, as if savoring the moment.  "I'll paint the walls red with your blood, gnat!  People will talk about the way you died for generations!  Prepare yourself for my great and terrible vengeance!  No-one talks to me like  that and lives!  No-one!" 

            Suddenly the giff stopped, a puzzled expression flickering across his face.  His eyes rolled back in their sockets, and his body went rigid.

            The giff toppled ponderously forward, crashing face first into the floor.

            And that was the end of Skullcrusher Velm.

            "Gods!" breathed Sandstar.  "What did you do to him?

            "I put him out of my misery," said Jack, as if he were explaining that rocks were hard or water was wet.  "I don't like bullies."

            "But he was huge!"

            "What does that have to do with anything?"  Jack was annoyed.  "Now, pull yourself together.  There's work to be done."


                                                                                                                                                                                                *                                                                                                                                              *          *


            After Jack left, Sandstar got to work.  First he paid for the damages to the inn and arranged for Velm's body to be disposed of.  There was no way to keep the affair of Velm's demise a secret - too many people had seen the huge giff's death - but Jack had said that it didn't matter much.  "I don't care much who knows I killed him," had been his exact words, "there's practically no law here on Bral anyway, and besides, it was the giff's own fault he died."

            "But won't it point directly at us?" Sandstar had argued.  "You don't want Andru to get wind that you're here, do you?"

            "He already knows.  It won't save him."

            So Sandstar had cleaned up the mess at the inn, and, with the help of some hard-bitten men from the lower quarter (and a generous amount of gold) he had seen to the disposal of Skullcrusher Velm's corpse (it was discreetly jettisoned with the city's trash that evening).

            Then, still following Jack's instructions, he bought a ship and a crew to sail it, and arranged for them to be standing by, ready to depart at a moment's notice.  (This, of course, took quite a bit of gold to arrange, especially since the old captain who finally agreed to the elf's terms was quite suspicious.  But in Bral, money is everything.)

            Then the elf returned to the inn to wait.  By the time he'd returned the mess had been cleared away and business was as usual.  A lively card game had started in his absence.  Sandstar smiled, flexed his fingers, and joined the five players already there.


                                                                                                                                                                                                 *                                                                                                                                              *          *


            Separated from the city proper by a natural chasm, the prince's estate (often referred to as the 'High City') was a verdant and rambling property, elegantly landscaped and surrounded by a twenty foot high marble wall.

            The royal enclosure was large, perhaps taking up one-sixth of the Topside's total ground area.  It is also the highest elevation, and from the prince's walls one may overlook the entire city.  Upon the highest point within the enclosure stood the royal palace, Starhaven.  Starhaven was a magnificent structure, a sprawling palace of elegant spires and beautiful masonry, all constructed from the whitest marble.

            To reach the High City, one must pass the Stonebridge, a slender parapeted stone arch which spans the chasm.  Two hundred feet below the bridge lay the surface of Lake Bral, deep within the crevice.  (Lake Bral was the Rock's main source of water.)

            At the end of the Stonebridge stood a gatehouse which was graceful yet strong, set in the walls which encircle the prince's domain.  Rules about who might pass beyond were very strict, and the walls were well-patroled.

            Jack had little trouble entering the estate.  He simply presented an ornate silver scepter to the guards, who allowed him to pass without comment.  (Silver and golden scepters were given to nobles and message-carriers by Andru, so that they might move within freely.  It had been a simple matter to locate a scepter and 'liberate' it from its owner.)

            Jack had never before laid eyes on the prince's estate, but he oriented himself quickly and made straight for the portico, the entrance to the palace proper.  (Extensive questioning of the scepter's late owner had given Jack a fairly good idea of the estate's layout.)

            The walls were heavily patroled by royal guardsmen, as were the grounds.  Jack passed easily, confidently.  He appeared to belong, so the guards took no note of him.

            The entrance to the palace was grand.  Marble steps led up to the splendid open porch.  Four towering columns supported a magnificent overhanging roof, which was finely worked with gold.  In front of the two huge doors (each was twelve feet in height) stood six royal guardsmen, at rigid attention.  Behind them waited three footmen.

            One of the footmen stepped forward as Jack approached.  "Your name?"

            "Taragin Mirvat," responded Jack easily, "bearing a message for the Majordomo from House Kullek."  (The Majordomo had had recent dealings with House Kullek, and Jack was fairly certain his explanation would pass.  The name he had made up on the spur of the moment.)

            The servant consulted a list of appointments.  "You have not scheduled an appointment."

            "No," said Jack.  "There was no time to spare.  It is a matter of some urgency, and I was sent immediately."

            The servant frowned.  "You may wait," he said self-importantly.  "I shall consult the Majordomo.  If she wishes, you may see her."

            Jack bowed and stepped back.

            The man sniffed disapprovingly then turned and disappeared back through the slightly ajar doorway which led into the palace.

            Jack waited.

            Twenty minutes or so passed before the Majordomo bustled out.  She was a small woman with a sour face.  "I don't know you," she, frowning as she looked Jack up and down.

            Jack bowed.  "Private message for the Majordomo from House Kullek," he said, "to be delivered to her ears only."

            The woman considered.  "You," she commanded, pointing at one of the guardsmen, "accompany us."  She turned back to Jack.  "Follow me."

            Jack bowed again, then followed.  The guardsman fell in behind him.

            The Majordomo was brisk, leading them through the main hall and to the right, into the base of one of the palace's towers.  She led them up two flights, then turned to the left, opened a door there, and led them into the antechamber of her personal quarters.

            "Now, we're alone," she said, whirling on him as the door closed.  "I thought we had concluded our business.  What does the old badger want now?"

            Jack glanced at the guardsman.  "For your ears alone, mistress."

            "Stop playing games, fool.  Deliver your message."

            "Very well, mistress," said Jack with a bow.  "My message is simply this."  He extended one hand in front of him, unfolding his fingers so the palm was facing upwards.  He rounded his lips and blew.

            "Wha-!" the Majordomo started in surprise, then began coughing as a very fine dust flew off Jack's palm and into her face.

            Jack whirled, catching the guardsman by his helmet and jerking him forward.  Before the guardsman recovered his balance, Jack jerked him backwards.  His feet flew out from under him, and he went down heavily, landing on his back, his polearm flying to the side.  A quick kick to the man's forehead as he tried to rise put him back down.  The majordomo had collapsed by this time still coughing weakly.  The drug was taking effect; her eyes were barely open.

            A moment later and she was as unconscious as the guardsman.

            Jack darted to the door, opened it, and looked briefly out, making certain no-one had  heard anything.  Then he shut and locked it.

            Quickly he bound and gagged the woman, taking her into the nearby bedroom and placing her into her bed under the blankets.  He returned to the anteroom and stripped the guardsman of his armor.  He tied the man securely, then pulled him into the bedroom as well, and shoved him under the bed.

            Then he changed, donning the guardsman's armor.

            Two minutes later he left, locking the door from within and closing it behind him.

            Altering the gait of his walk to match that of the guardsman he was impersonating, he made his way quickly down the stairs to the base of the tower, and exited it, crossing the main hallway again.

            This was the tricky part.  There was no way to be certain exactly where Andru was at the moment, so he would have to cover all the obvious areas until he stumbled across the prince.

            He checked the great ballroom first.  A gigantic circular room with a glassteel dome seventy feet above the floor, through which the heavens were visible, it was indeed an imposing room.  It was empty, as Jack had expected, but it had been closest, and at least he knew the prince wasn't there.

            He made his way to the solarium, which was filled with tropical plants and exotic blooms.  there were several gardners attending to the plants, but, again, the prince was not in attendance.

            Jack made his way through several rooms in succession, careful to walk with confidence and purpose, and went unchallenged.

            At last he reached the door to the royal library.  When he opened it, he discovered it was occupied.

            Prince Andru glanced up from where he sat with three other men.  Two guardsmen stood behind them and one stood near the door.

            Quickly Jack entered and shut the door behind him.