November 20, 5086, Arustown
Roberta has been returned to her animated state by the wizard Feldspar (of Feldspar's Magical Services and Chocolates). A long time fan, he helped her free of charge.
She returned, grateful to us, and with news of a deeper plot. "I tracked the spread of the ear worm plague, and discovered a pattern. Each outbreak occurred after a performance by the new group Acoustic Hamburger. So I attended one of their concerts, and discovered that they were Foldable Puppy in disguise! (Cecil's fondness for arpeggiated half-diminished and minor ninth chords gave it away.) The ear worm was a magical construction in song form. Only their front man, Brettin, could have authored it, and that only with their help. But before I could let anyone know, the Lollipop Guild got me."
Jasper asked, "Did they get you because you knew about them, or because it was already part of the plan?"
"I'm not sure," Roberta admitted. "They may have recognized me at the café. I was stupidly not in disguise. The plan for my capture might have been made already; it makes sense for the profits. So the timetable might have sped up. Or they might have resolved to do what they otherwise dared not risk, once they saw me there."
"All right, so when do I get to kill them?" asked N-Guuk.
"You don't. It is forbidden to harm established musicians. But they're playing tonight, on their way through, and I think we should crash the concert."
So it was that the doors to the concert hall burst open, mid-song.
"Hey! Opening act!" shouted Roberta, eliciting an "Ooh!" from the crowd.
The song ceased. "Nobody interrupts our show. Get them!" cried the singer.
Their personal guards engaged us, led by a fierce, rotund gnome. Behind us, Buffered Analgesic played music that enhanced our combat abilities. Foldable Puppy started singing about their "Big Fat Road Manager," driving him into a vicious frenzy.
The parties split up into many separate fights: Some in the aisle, some near the stage, and one amid the audience (where Pheldran engaged a Lollipop Guild wizard who had attended the show). The combatants of each side might have been evenly matched, but our soundtrack was better than theirs, giving us the edge we needed. N-Guuk finally fought his way onto the stage where, in lieu of killing the band, he sundered most of their instruments and stomped the harmonica to bits. Wielding the dagger Gelfor, Delyra clove Brettin's guitar in two. That was the finishing touch, and our opponents were shortly beaten.
Roberta spoke with Foldable Puppy, explained that we all knew of their plot, and threatened to expose them. They agreed to abandon their evil ways forever. Huzzah!
They also ceded the stage to Buffered Analgesic, who proceeded to rock the house. Delyra sang with them.
That night, by way of thanks and celebration, there was a lavish and licentious party. It was a unique quest reward in my experience, and one not without merit.
This morning, Tinandel bestowed upon us some much needed hangover cures through His servant Tam. We then traveled to Arustown (past a sign warning of "flamulated weregazelles"), where Buffered Analgesic booked a series of concerts to dispel the ear worms. They also used their clout to get city officials to post notices asking Sertai to contact them.
None of them, by the way, has seen a flamulated weregazelle, though we have been assured that they are quite fearsome. When Jasper asked what "flamulated" means, Arla told him that it means they possess flamulations. When Jasper asked what flamulations are, she informed him that it was an adaptation that allowed them to live underground. "After all," she sensibly said, "you wouldn't expect to find a normal weregazelle underground."
We could be said to have overexerted ourselves yesterday, by one who wished to criminally understate the reality. I have arranged for a quiet room and look forward, with unseemly glee, to at least sixteen hours spent in a coma.
November 23, 5086, Rockport
We have moved on to the next infected city. Behind a gate labeled "Warning: Eupeptic Capybaradons," Dunbarton swears he saw a large, blue creature. We were all there with him, though, and nobody else saw it.
Meanwhile, I begin to tire of stooping in tunnels built for gnomes, and now understand the utility of the chiropractor just outside the entrance to the kingdom. The constant diet of fungus is wearing upon Pheldran and Delyra. I humbly suggested that it beats the insect dumplings at Li Xiang Monastery. (For some reason, this did not cause them to better enjoy their meal.)
November 24, 5086, Rockport
We have found the priest Sertai, Road Scholar of Tinandel. Or he has found us. His own quest bears chronicling.
"I am on a mission from God," he began, after the usual round of profuse and heartfelt thanks. "I needed to find out why our priests kept failing to produce or procure accurate maps of Cartref Coblyn. First, I confirmed that there are materials in the rock here that interfere with our ability to find true direction by any means. Next, after much — persuasion — I discovered that the names of the cities change. Each city has a constant true name, known to the residents, but they always call it by its temporary name. This name is chosen by popular vote each year. The city known earlier as Verania, then as Mura, and most recently as Arustown, is really Yusan. 'Rockport' is really Tatahe. The kingdom itself is named Gensanshi, but again, that name is rarely used, and never with outsiders."
We had a short discussion about whether the city name "Cream Pie" was more or less scary in the context of popular vote, and then he continued his tale.
"I had gathered all of the information I could about the seven cities which I could visit. But there are five 'old cities' which are forbidden to outsiders. Guards and magical wards enforce this. In Tomiha, currently known as Pickle, I finally met a wealthy recluse who agreed to a trade of information. He was an elf who had settled there long ago, and did not share the gnomes' caginess regarding their kingdom. He allowed me to copy a magical document that contains a map and a key of sorts. This is an exact duplicate."
Sertai showed us the map. It displayed the true names of the seven "New Cities," and showed winding paths between them. Tam triumphantly noted shortcuts between the long tunnels we had taken.
Sertai confirmed this, and showed us his notes on the tunnel connections: "Pygmy Dragons" connects to "Purple Gooseworms". "Woozles" connects to "Tortigidupians" (which was how the Lollipop Guild headed us off). "Yinks" connects to "Baboonigators". "Heffalumps" connects to "Flamulated Weregazelles". And "Eupeptic Capybaradons" connects to "Veracious Barristers". We now have no doubt that these creatures are fictitious.
"Can't you write those in, on the map?" asked Jasper.
"Sure. Watch." Sertai dipped his quill and placed a symbol both on the map and below, and followed the latter with "Baboonigators". The ink slowly vanished. "The map I saw is enchanted such that all copies are identical to the original. When I copied it, the enchantment copied itself. The map cannot be altered. Though it did at least accept my seal."
We noted that the two cities we had thought farthest from each other, currently known as Old Rockport and Emerald Falls, appear to be nearly on top of each other.
"Oh yes," said Sertai. "The residents of Old Rockport throw all kinds of garbage into the river there. The water turns green and slimy on its way down to Emerald Falls." Delyra looked a bit green herself.
We did not linger on that, but drew our attention to the puzzle of the five Old Cities, yet unlabeled. And I do mean "puzzle": I shall reproduce its text on the facing page.
Each of the five old cities grows a different type of mushroom as its staple crop. Each old city also has recently started a major mining operation for a different mineral. Use the following facts to derive the name and crop of each city, and to find the very model of a modern major mineral industry.
Each of the old cities has tunnels connecting to two of the others; together, they form a pentagonal loop. Only one of the old cities has a major access tunnel to the surface.
Traveling clockwise, there is one city between the city growing olivaceus mushrooms and the city of Asahi.
If you travel clockwise from the city of Kirin, you will pass through precisely two other cities before you reach the one that mines selenite.
The city of Happoshu does not mine pyrope.
The city with the selenite mine does not grow the stuntzii mushrooms.
There is one city between the city of Suntory (which does not grow the purpuratus mushrooms) and the one mining diopside, if you travel counterclockwise.
The city of Sapporo grows neither the rickenii mushrooms nor the stuntzii mushrooms.
The city that mines uvite and the city that grows the ater mushrooms are not the same, nor are they adjacent to each other.
The tunnel from the surface leads to the city with the sphalerite mine.
The city that grows the rickenii mushrooms (which isn't the city of Asahi) is surrounded by the one mining diopside and the city of Happoshu.
The gnomes keep their geographical knowledge so guarded that the only authentic record cannot be deciphered without passing a test of intellectual worthiness, it appears. I make no claim of worth, but will happily engage in a logic puzzle this evening.
November 25, 5086, southeast of Cartref Coblyn
Jasper has solved the puzzle. I shall not record his solution here, either because of a compulsion laid upon me by the map's enchantment, or because I wish to leave the solution as an exercise to the reader. I naturally prefer the latter explanation.
The chiropractor was worth every silver piece.
November 25, 5086, Metro Gnome Inn
Sunlight and fresh air are our greatest rewards for ending this quest (though we are also somehow in possession of a few magical protective devices formerly worn by the members of Foldable Puppy). I was starting to feel a bit "off" down there.
Kawg found the map (our new copy) and solution acceptable. As he prepared to leave, we remembered to tell him about the message from the dragon Argentiadna.
"She is a fool," he said dismissively.
"You know, I think her concerns are valid," Delyra challenged him.
"Oh, the Exalted Silver One," he sneered, "is very wise in some small ways. But her world view is black and white. Where I arrange business, she sees force and tribute."
"Well, how should we see it?" she asked.
"I can offer you many ways to view my actions. One: Dwarves and kobolds both have two good qualities. First, they are tasty and snack-sized. Second, they are excellent at mining. I simply allowed them to choose which of those qualities would avail me."
Delyra and N-Guuk scowled in distaste.
"Two. I boss the dwarves and kobolds around, and collect tribute from them, as is my due."
The scowls deepened.
"Three. I have gained the ears of the kobold leaders and the dwarven theocratic government, and I offer them sound strategic advice. For this service, I collect a consulting fee."
Tam raised an eyebrow incredulously.
"Four. I have encouraged the dwarves to not patrol their southern border, promising to take care of that myself. I have encouraged the kobolds to not patrol their northern border, promising to take care of that myself. I have thereby eliminated all meetings of the dwarves and kobolds, thus creating an unwitting peace between them. And I have also freed up some of their resources, by reducing the patrols needed, thus allowing both to focus more on survival and quality of life."
He left. Delyra looked stunned. "I didn't think he would answer that. He was more — respectful — to us than I expected. I wonder if he's changing."
I am left to wonder, uneasily, whether any of his presented viewpoints has merit. But I kept to myself the echo of what Kawg told us the first day we met: "Do not presume to judge the actions or the intentions of a dragon."