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Old 06-13-2004, 06:40 AM   #187
The Squatter of Amon Rdh
Spectre of Decay
 
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A piercing shriek, painful and uncouth, cut across the deliberations of Muddled-Mirth's mightiest heroes and heroines. It began like a tin whistle played with inexpert enthusiasm, but quickly rose to a deafening volume that caused hands to be raised to any ears that lacked supernatural protection. The gradually rising din was accompanied by a rhythm section of cursing and frenzied activity that is so often a by-product of invention. Faces turned white; eyes rolled in agony; knees buckled and Earnur's sword demanded instant retirement for the fiftieth time that day. The screaming rose in pitch and volume until finally it died away apologetically into an uneasy silence.

The Fellowship of the Things continued to stand with their fingers in their ears, looking decidedly unseaworthy. Those eyes that were attached to wiser brains began to scan their surroundings for the largest bird of prey in the universe, but most of the mighty band of warriors simply whimpered quietly and nursed their throbbing eardrums.

Suddenly Vogonw spake those mighty words that yet are remembered in the realm of Workmud: 'Um... that squirrel's looking at us'.

Indeed it was. As all heads turned to follow his outstretched nose, they saw a creature stranger than any they had encountered in their travels thus far. In most respects it resembled an ordinary grey squirrel: it had the regulation bushy tail, the same beady eyes and the same slightly impudent bearing. Unlike a normal grey squirrel, however, this one was wearing a tiny steel helmet decorated with silver stars and a short khaki tunic emblazoned with brightly coloured ribbons. It was standing on its hind legs with a highly polished miniature swagger-stick tucked under one foreleg, but the most unusual thing about it was its choice of vantage point: it stood atop a veritable mountain of shining metal and tangled wires covered in sparkling lights and, they noticed with horror, numerous dents and repairs. Just as they were beginning to take in the flash of pearl and shining metal at the rodent's waist and the squat black tubes on a strap about its neck, the apparition spoke.

'I think I've found the source of that unusual behaviour, Doctor Tenant,' it observed calmly. 'You might want to have a look at this.'

'In a moment, Overdale,' answered a disembodied voice from behind the monstrosity. 'I've still not finished shutting down the SONAR array, and we don't want a repetition of last Thursday.'

Predictably, painfully, the Fellowship answered; and thus spake these mighty beings as one: 'Eh?'

The military mammal motioned at them to remove their fingers from their ears, managing to imply in so doing that they looked completely ridiculous. After five minutes of this and finally a brief and inept game of charades, their diminutive acquaintance spoke.

'I'm sorry about that, ladies and gentlemen, but something about you appears to have upset the Travestometer.'

The creature indicated the machine on which it stood with a sweep of a forepaw.

'My colleague, Dr. Tenant and I are researchers in the field of canonicity,' continued the squirrel. 'I am Doctor Overdale; my colleague, Doctor Tenant, will be with us shortly, and this is the fruit of our labour; the Travestometer: the most advanced device for the detection of adverse auctorial opinion that has ever been created. Sadly it's also the most temperamental, and your unexpected appearance has upset its sensors.'

'Look at this! Will you look at this?' came the voice from the machine again. 'This is the third RPM counter we've burned out today! What's happening around here?'

A silver object, stained black in places, described a delicate arc before neatly excising the first letter of a dearly beloved name.

'I told you,' said their new acquaintance. 'You really should come and have a look at this.'

'All right, all right! I'm coming, but it had better be good.'

A wild-eyed, wild-haired figure, clad in a long, stained white coat over some dusty black clothes that had seen better days, stepped into view from behind the tangle of machinery. It took one glance at the It-ship and swore colourfully.

'Yes, I think that might be the problem too,' agreed the squirrel suavely. 'The funny thing is that it's never reacted that way to physical people before. There's always been some literary connection.'

'Could it be them?'

The man's face was paper white, and his hand was moving towards a large switch on the side of the machine.

'What manner of man art thou, who maketh beasts to talk, and to conduct scientific experiments?' demanded Earnur manfully. 'Mayhap thou art a sorceror come to entrap us in this strange place.'

Another shriek began to emanate from the machine, although this time it had a more urgent and terrifying note. Dr. Tenant leaped behind it again and began to make feverish adjustments. Dr. Overdale sprang just as nimbly to a flat point before another panel and began to flick switches with practiced skill. Gradually the noise abated somewhat and the squirrel reappeared.

'He's not magic, he's my colleague,' explained the miniature scientist. 'Let's just say that if you're going to test experimental matter transporters, make sure that all the lab animals are locked up first.'

'My shieldmaidenly Elven intuition tells me that you are a soldier, Doctor,' quoth the fair Merisuwyniel. 'Perhaps you would care to join my group of heroic foils and I as we battle for the future of Muddled-mirth.'

This time the scream was like nothing that had ever been heard before. Glass objects shattered, pieces fell from the older stones and members of the Gallowship ran around in confused circles. Dr. Tenant's worried face appeared above a piece of the machine's casing.

'I think this is it, old boy,' he announced gravely. 'That woman looks to have Hobbit-blood, and one of those heroes looks like a reformed Wraith. The governing circuit for the cooling system just melted and I can't shut it down.'

The squirrel considered this for a moment before speaking. 'Run?' he suggested, and deserted.

The heroic instincts of the Gallowship took over at this moment, sending them sprawling behind the more solid monuments as the warning siren grew louder and yet more violent. Just as it reached the very limits of audible sound, half of the cemetary exploded.

Earth and debris flew hundreds of feet into the air, propelled upwards by a mighty gout of flame and vapour. Shrapnel peppered the entire area, smashing ancient monuments and breaking the tiles on the chapel's roof. One huge piece of ironmongery crashed right through one of its walls, causing the small building to collapse in a welter of noise and falling masonry. Just as silence fell, a massive section of casing slammed into the ground between Earnur's feet and stuck there, quivering like a giant spear. 'Eeeep,' he commented in a manly falsetto.

As the dust settled, a huge crater became visible that took up most of the area. Bones were scattered everywhere along with pieces of the Travestometer and lumps of stonework. The little chapel was reduced to one forlorn Gothic window, precariously balanced on a cracked section of wall that looked fit to collapse at the first provocation. A ghostly figure coughed its way out of the mirk, white coat flapping in tatters, a dog-eared roll-up clenched in its teeth. Doctor Overdale was sitting on his shoulder and the two were holding a muttered conversation that seemed to revolve around weapons, maiming and some sort of noble prize. Merisuwyniel took in the situation at a glance and gave the order that is remembered even to this day in the annals of Muddled-Mirth.

'Scarper!' she cried; and the intrepid band beat a hasty retreat towards the cemetary gates.
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