File GSB-042: Competition

“Good morning, Mr. Sprocket. I’ll get straight to the point. I’ve seen your line of water heaters, and I think they have potential. A lot of potential. With our financial aid and expertise behind them, they can go far.”

Marvin looked at Mr. Macehandle, an amused look on his face. Griggin was sitting next to him, and the old fart hadn’t as much as acknowledged his existence. Macehandle continued.

“Just think about it. Your units have proven to be extremely reliable, and with your idea of powering them with Un’goro crystals, you are sitting on a goldmine.”

Mr. Macehandle paused a moment, poured himself another cup of coffee, held up the jug. Marvin and Griggin both shook their heads.

“But still, your entire manufacturing plant seems to consist of your own four hands. Since you started, you have built maybe two hundred units in total. Everybody needs hot water, Gentlemen. Why isn’t there a unit in every home yet?”

“Well, we’re working on it,” said Marvin. “Got a bit of a backlog. Luckily, young Nix is lending a hand.”

Mr. Macehandle shook his head, smiling. “Just two and a half Gnomes working from a small workshop in the Lower Industrial Estate? Gentlemen, with our manufacturing capacity, we can double your entire output in a day. We could put an Optimal Prime in every home. You could be rich!”

Marvin laughed. “Mr. Macehandle, I am already rich. My father, may his soul be part of the Light Everlasting, left me his fortune that he earned with his own hands. He also earned it with a stomach ulcer and finally stopped earning it with a heart attack brought on by worries. He did that for me, so I would never have to. Worry, that is. The worst thing I worry about is one of my machines developing a sudden fault and going boom. And since my associate, Mr. Steambender, has worked for me, even that worry has largely been put to rest. In short, Mr. Macehandle, I don’t want to put an Optimal Prime in every home. I just want one in every home where I like the people.”

“But surely, you understand that the technology you have developed could be of benefit to all Gnomes? Would you withhold it from them simply because you can’t build units fast enough?”

Griggin sat back in his chair. It was not a cheap one, but at the same time, it wasn’t comfortable. Mr. Macehandle didn’t want people to be comfortable in his office. He wanted them to get in, give to him what he wanted of them and get out again. And what he wanted from Marvin, was his idea for extracting heat from Un’goro crystals. And no wonder. Marvin had explained to him, in broad terms, how it worked, but truth be told, Griggin still didn’t know exactly what made the unit glow. He could build one, but exactly how the radiation turned cold water into hot water was a secret only known to Marvin. Presumably, Mr. Macehandle’s people had obtained one of their units and taken it apart to see how it worked. And then, when they put it back together again, they’d found that it didn’t anymore. What a pity.

Griggin glanced at Marvin. In the last year or so, he’d learnt to read his expressions quite well. He was getting annoyed. Macehandle was circling like a fly round a sugarbowl. Griggin looked again. Or at least, he thought he was. He might be circling like a moth round a candleflame.

“Mr. Macehandle,” said Marvin, “Let’s stop avoiding the issue. I am aware of your attempts to reverse-engineer my technology. From our presence here, I deduce that your efforts were in vain, or we would be seeing Macehandle Everlasting Water Boilers by now. So now, you are trying to get the secret from me for money. Well, Sir, I don’t need your money, thank you very much.”

Marvin and Griggin were walking along one of the many passageways in Gnomeregan. Marvin was chuckling to himself. Griggin looked round.

“What?”

“Heh. He was going to make me rich beyond the dreams of avarice. Bastard.” He sighed. “So now I’m wondering. What if I hadn’t been sitting on Daddy’s fortune? Would I still have told him to get stuffed? And you know what? I think I would have. We’ve got enough money coming in from our boilers to keep me and your family clothed and warm. I don’t need any more. You seem to be happy. Stuff everything else.”

Griggin grinned, then stared ahead.

“I don’t know. I probably would have. A year ago, I was pretty much at the end of my tether. It’s one thing when you’re sure where your next meal is coming from. A nice big lump sum would have let me get out of this place.” He said nothing for a few steps. “Mind you. I don’t think Old Mr. Macehandle intended to make you rich. He wanted to get his hands on your designs. Once he knows how it works, you’ve outlived your usefulness.”

“Fat chance,” said Marvin. “It’s not exactly a commonly-known property of Un’goro crystals. I stumbled onto it purely by accident.”

“That’s traditional,” said Griggin. “Most useful things are invented looking for something else.”

“That’s true. I was looking for a place to hide from one of those Diemetradons. I’m lucky it couldn’t squeeze through the opening. Ye gods, I’m glad I was carrying an extra pair of trousers.”

They rounded the corner to their workshop. Marvin suddenly grabbed Griggin’s arm and pointed. They stopped.

“Did you leave the door open, or has that son of yours come in?”

“Nix wouldn’t leave a door open. He leaves things as he finds them. Second nature for Rogues.”

“Then who?”

Griggin’s eyes narrowed.

“Let’s find out. Marvin Sprocket, meet Hurzag.”

He reached into his pocket, and took out a small crystal. Magic started to flow, and there was a weird, grinding sound. Then, a deep voice rang out.

“Why have you summoned me?”

Griggin turned to the giant blue creature and bowed his head.

“Hurzag, I have summoned you to protect me and mine. Please attack any who threaten me.”

“I obey.”

Marvin stood still, mouth open, looking at the demon.

“Who… what… is that?”

“This is Hurzag. I did tell you I was a Warlock didn’t I? This is a Voidwalker.”

“Is that safe?”

“Not in any way shape or form,” said Griggin. “Let’s see who’s inside, if any. Do you have any skills in fighting?”

“No!”

“Then stay back.”

Griggin sent the blue giant in first. It had no legs. instead, it floated on a cloud of blue smoke. Its massive claws opened and closed as it advanced. Griggin followed at a small distance, hands aglow with shadow magic. The demon somehow squeezed itself through the opening, and there was a noise inside of things falling over. Then, a big, burly Gnome came running out and ran into Griggin, bowling him over. He made a run for it. Griggin swore at himself.

“Hurzag!” he shouted.

The demon’s deep voice rang out. “I. Must feed,”

Hurzag floated after the burglar at a speed that needed no legs. He caught up and slammed a fist into the burglar’s back. The burglar fell down, and Hurzag pummeled him.

“Hurzag! Stop! Return to me.”

“Yes,” said Hurzag, and took his place beside Griggin, who ran towards the unfortunate burglar. One look was enough. Hurzag’s first attack had broken his back, and the following strokes had finished him off. There was a call from inside.

“Dad? Is that you?”

In a flash, Griggin jumped up and ran to the workshop. Nix was crouched on the floor. Next to him was the still body of another Gnome. Griggin looked at Nix, then at the body.

“He’s alive, dad. They were going through our papers, but there was two of them so I wasn’t going to come out of hiding. But then Big Blue came in and scared them off. So I persuaded one of them to stay.”

Griggin sighed. “You did better than I did, Son. Mine won’t talk anymore.”

Nix gave his father a look.

“Well, that’ll teach them not to break into our workshop. Don’t feel bad, Dad. These guys would have splatted me if they’d found me. They’re the types.”

Marvin came into the shop, pale as a sheet.

“That Gnome is dead,” he said. His eyes fell on the figure of the other Gnome, and he started to shake, looking at Nix as if with new eyes.

“He is not dead, but sleeping,” said Nix. “He is not dead at all.”

Griggin sighed, and turned to his Voidwalker.

“Return to your demesne in peace, Hurzag, with my thanks.”

“I am Void,” said Hurzag, “where prohibited.”

Hurzag’s form faded and disappeared. Griggin shook his head.

“That was a joke,” he said. “One thing Demonology teaches you is never to be surprised at anything.”

He bent down, picked up a chair and gently pushed it against the backs of Marvin’s knees. Marvin sat down, still shaking.

“You two are…” Marvin faltered.

Nix grinned. “Bloody scary. Don’t worry Mr. Sprocket. We’re the good guys.”

“Quiet Nix,” said Griggin, softly. “I think we’d better call in the guards. How long till this one wakes up?”

Nix looked. “Half an hour or so.”

“Should be enough.”

—=OOO=—

“So what you’re saying is this guy attacked you, and you defended yourself?”

“Precisely,” said Griggin.

“He’s got broken bones. You defended yourself pretty well. You seem to be unhurt.”

“I have some skills in the martial arts. Unfortunately, in the consternation, I hit him too hard.”

The guard gave Griggin a long hard look. The other thug had been blathering about big blue monsters. There was something this Gnome wasn’t saying.

“I remember you,” said the guard. “You were there a few months ago when we had to beat back those troggs. That little bugger of yours shot one of the troggs that was about to jump on me dad. Are you sure you didn’t make one of those big nasty demons?”

Griggin looked into the guard’s eyes.

“What would be the difference if I defended myself by means of a Voidwalker?”

There was a small, unpleasant pause. Technically, it didn’t make any difference whether this little demon-botherer hit that thug with his fists or not. Still, to a judge, there might be a significant difference between bravely fending off the blows of a larger opponent and setting a massive demon on him. The guard didn’t like warlocks. Not a little bit. But this particular warlock had probably saved his dad a beating from a big trogg. He gave Griggin a little nod, wrote something in his notebook and closed it.

“Right. That’s all, Mr. Steambender. Please don’t leave town. There may be more questions to answer.”

“Thank you,” said Griggin.

Marvin was sitting at the table in his workshop. His fright had passed, to be replaced by a slow burning anger.

“Bastards,” he said.

Griggin said nothing.

“They knew we’d be out of the shop, because Macehandle bloody invited us. That’s probably the only reason he invited you as well. He wanted the shop empty so he could have a good rummage in our plans.”

“For all the good it’d do them,” said Griggin. “All the piping around the heater is pretty much standard. The key bit is your radiation converter.”

“Yeah,” said Marvin. “Good luck finding the prints to that.”

Griggin looked at Marvin. unpleasant thoughts were occurring to him.

“Those only exist in your head,” he said. “Do you think they are safe there?”

Marvin wasn’t listening. He stared into his half-empty coffee cup, then up at Griggin again.

“Also, he didn’t know your boy would be in here. Luckily, young Nix was bright enough to hide himself. That could have gotten ugly.”

Griggin scowled.

“I know.”

“We may have to step up security in this place a bit.”

At that moment, there was a loud bang at the door, and it flew open. Silhouetted in the doorway was a female Gnome. She ran at Griggin, looked him up and down for injuries, then launched herself at him, arms tightly round him.

“Thank the Light you’re alright.”

“I am, love. I am.”

Lenna looked up into Griggin’s face.

“I just heard. Nix told me. What the blazes is going on?”

“Industrial espionage,” said Marvin, savouring the words as though they had an unpleasant taste. “Mr. Macehandle seems to think we’re not taking proper care of our inventions and wishes to use them to enrich himself. Even further.”

Lenna’s green eyes burned with anger.

“Wish I’d been there. I’d have given them something to make them feel sorry.”

Marvin stared at Lenna.

“Just tell me. Are you a warlock as well?”

Lenna grinned at Marvin.

“No. I’m nastier than that.”

—=OOO=—

Justin Macehandle was walking from the tavern back to his home, when he heard footsteps behind him. He looked over his shoulder, and laughed. Just a woman going in the same direction he was. That’s your conscience playing tricks on you again, Macehandle. Thought he’d managed to beat that into submission by now. He picked up his pace, and turned into one of his favourite shortcuts. Behind him, the woman also picked up the pace. Macehandle took bigger steps, though the sound of footsteps behind him did not fade into the distance. In fact, they came nearer and nearer. A chill ran up macehandle’s spine. You didn’t get to where he was by making a few enemies here and there. Resisting the temptation to look back, he tried to walk faster.

The temperature dropped, and Macehandle felt like he was frozen to the ground. He could not take another step. As he looked down… he blinked. A block of ice was round his legs. Cold. He struggled, but he could not free his legs. He looked round. The woman was standing behind him.

“Mr. Macehandle.”

“What do you want?”

“You have set your thugs on my husband. You have set them on my child. Nobody does that to my family. Nobody.”

The ice blocks round Macehandle’s feet faded, and he could turn round to face the woman.

“Is that supposed to be a threat?”

The woman took a few steps closer. She raised a hand, and out of nowhere, a light appeared, destroying his night vision until he could only see the blaze in the woman’s hand.

“I am a master fire mage, Mr. Macehandle. Your son has threatened my daughter with violence to get her money. Your employees have threatened my son, my husband and his employer. They might have killed them given the chance. I do not go in for idle threats. I am debating with myself whether to kill you now or not. Can you think of a good reason why I should not kill you now?”

“You… wouldn’t. The authorities.”

“The authorities would find only charred remains, Mr. Macehandle. They might recognise it as Gnomish, but not much beyond. In case you haven’t noticed, there’s a war on. The authorities have more important things to look into. They’d probably blame the Horde. I can see why the Horde might want to assassinate one of the major players in Gnomeregan’s industries.”

“You wouldn’t get away with it! They’d find you! You’d be thrown in jail. Murder is a capital offence! They’d hang you!”

“And I’m sure that would come as a great comfort to you, as you lie rolling on the floor, burning. I’m not afraid of death, Mr. Macehandle. Especially not if I die knowing I’ve defended my own.”

“You’re… mad!”

“Mad? You haven’t seen anything yet, Mr. Macehandle.”

The light grew brighter.

“If I ever have cause to think of you again, Mr. Macehandle, then I know where you live. I know where your son goes to school. I know where you sleep. Even if by some means you manage to get rid of me, you will not get rid of all my family. And if any of us suffers at your hands again, we will come rampaging in your home.” Lenna’s face was inches from Macehandle’s. “And that, Mr. Macehandle, is a threat.”

Before Macehandle could move or speak, magic flowed. With a sickening noise, he felt his body change. He tried to scream, but instead, he squealed.

The spell wore off a few minutes later, and Macehandle sat, back to the wall, taking shivering breaths, feeling his arms, his legs, his face. The hell-woman was nowhere to be seen.

“Warlocks. Wizards. Mages.”

He scowled.

“I’ll get them. I will.”
Copyright: © 2008,2009,2010 Menno Willemse. All rights reserved.

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