Chapter 2


           "A lousy four hundred and fifty gold pieces is all you're offering?  Are you blind?  My God man this is the Eye of Chompek!  Look at it!  Have you ever seen a blood red ruby of its like?  Of course you haven't!  It's flawless!  Surrounded by all this low-quality junk you call jewelry for so long has caused your intelligence to head south for the winter!  Why I ought to take that ocular of yours and shove it up your ass because that's where your head is!"

          The old jeweler continued inspecting the ruby with his eyepiece firmly rooted in place by his wrinkled skin, without looking up.  He leaned against the corner of his dingy glass counter as if it were a crutch for his aching bones, ignoring all the insults being shouted at him.  A few minutes later, he cupped the ruby in his hands, and responded while he rolled it around to admire its facets.

          "Five hundred gold pieces is my final offer.  By now every Red Cleric in the vicinity will be looking for this stone.  You forget how much danger is involved in selling a religious icon on the black market.  The risk I take far outweighs the value of its worth."

          "Oh, save it for someone who cares you spineless bag of wind!  The only trouble you've ever gotten into is losing count of all the gold you've profited from thieves like me.  I'm the one who risks my neck to keep your sorry ass in business.  You know something?  No, I'm sure you don't!" 

          The old jeweler never looked up.  "Five hundred ... take it or leave it, Klown." 

          Klown spit. 

          "I'll take it you greedy bastard!"

          As the gold and jewel exchanged hands, Klown made an obscene gesture, then headed for the door.  The small gnome thief had been trading with the venerable jeweler for over fifty years, and this business transaction was no different than any of their previous encounters.  Before leaving, Klown turned around and spoke once more. 

          "Old man, I'm going to tell you everything good about yourself and this  establishment."  Without another word, Klown left the jewelry shoppe.

          It was dusk in the small town of Cachao as Klown cut through an alleyway with a scowl on his face.  Jewelers were the thief of thieves, he muttered under his breath.  He had ridden here in haste the day before, following a successful robbery of the temple of Chompek, an evil cult that worshipped a very malign greater demon known by many names, Chompek being the most common. 

          Klown was not religious, nor did he have a preference for the type of person or place he stole from.  He was purely self-motivated and only interested in bettering his skills and his lifestyle.  As a consequence, he had built quite a reputation for himself.  In many places his reputation preceded him.  Klown could care less.  To him: the greater the risk the higher the reward.

          Over three hundred years had passed in Klown's lifetime, half of the expected life span for a rock gnome.  Klown was typical of his race: short and stout, with dark gray skin and rough features.  He was a little under three feet tall, with coarse, dark hair he wore in a disheveled pony tail.  He had piercing gray eyes, eyes of an eagle that could see more detail than the average gnome, or anyone else for that matter.  It was part of the reason why he was so good at his profession. 

          Resembling nothing more than a dirty child, he was easily misjudged at first glance.  This stereotype was a boon to Klown, for he used it to his advantage in sticky situations.  He wore only a hooded cloak that enveloped his body with worn, leather boots on his feet. His outfit however, covered an arsenal of magical weapons and armor that he had been collecting for over two hundred years.

*   *   *   *   * 

          Klown had struck out on his own when he was young and brass, around the age of one hundred, seeking fame and fortune.  He realized the error of his ways shortly thereafter.  Too many times, his life was threatened due to his invulnerable attitude and foolish behavior.  A year later, he was out of funds and out of luck. 

          Bitter, dejected and bearing numerous scars of his ill-fated adventures, Klown returned to a civilized lifestyle in order to make ends meet.  Running from his past and the enemies he had made, he managed to land a job as one of many entertainers for the King of So Na. 

          His hand-eye coordination and quick wit inevitably molded him into the role of court jester, and he quickly rose through the ranks and became the King's favorite.  It was during this period of time that his name came to pass, a gift bestowed by the King in honor of his uncanny entertaining skills.

          Being subjected to his own humility was just what the little gnome needed in order to grow.  He had taken himself way too seriously in the past, and he needed to be able to laugh at himself from time to time.  In the end he came away with the last laugh though, because he robbed from the snobby royal guests whenever the opportunity presented itself.  

          Over the fifty years he was employed as a harlequin, he honed his hand-eye coordination, thieving and acrobatic skills, and his mental acuity to an extraordinary level.  About the only thing he couldn't improve upon was his temper, and that inevitably lead to his downfall.

          His temper was explosive.  It seemed as though his temper grew more and more unstable with every improvement he gained in his skills.  Part of the blame was placed on his popularity.  No one took him seriously and over time, that really contributed to his negative attitude.  He couldn't carry on a normal conversation with anyone who knew him because even though the jester suit came off, people still viewed him as such – waiting in anticipation to hear him say something funny.  Out of spite, he would pick their pocket, insult them, and then leave them there standing in shock.

          One day he unknowingly did this to the King's nephew, Prince Jing, who was visiting his uncle and happened to take in one of his performances.  As he left a nearby tavern later that same evening, four royal guards assigned to the Prince lay in wait and attacked Klown by surprise, intent upon teaching him a lesson. 

          Since Klown had no idea who these men were or why they were attacking him, he ferociously defended himself, unleashing his vicious temper upon them in a fit of pent-up hostility and rage.  His speed, agility and acrobatic skills overwhelmed the trained guards, leaving them in disarray as he danced around their flat-bladed attacks like a crackling ball of lightning.  Moments later, they all lay dead in the street, with daggers sticking out of their eyes and throat. 

          Klown's attack didn't stop there.  The berserk gnome continued cursing, spitting and kicking the dead guards, allowing his temper to get the best of him before reigning it in.  After a few more minutes of this reckless abandon, he calmed down enough to begin the grim process of retrieving his weapons.

          He didn't stay calm for long however, for he noticed each corpse bore royal insignias on their cloaks. 

          How could he have overlooked this? 

          In any event, he knew at that moment his life as a court jester had come to an end.  That same night he gathered up his belongings and left town, never to be seen or heard from again.  Fifty years of training had adequately prepared him for his return to the adventures he had left behind so long ago.  He was ready to prove that this time he would prevail.


*   *   *   *   *


          Klown made his way down the cobblestone street, cautious to avoid drawing attention to himself.  He moved without a sound and hid in the shadows without thinking as he went from building to building, his eyes alert for any signs of danger.  He accepted this level of precaution without concern, for it was a necessary part of his profession and something he had grown accustomed to through a century of practice. 

          Enhancing his personal abilities in this area were the magic of his cloak and boots, which made him nearly invisible and silent without effort.  Having visited Cachao on dozens of occasions, he was familiar with the layout of the town and headed for his favorite watering hole with a pocket full of gold and a growing appetite to spend it on.  A home-cooked meal was one of the many things he missed the most when forced to travel so often because of his craft.

          The Last Hand tavern was run by a burly old man named Bub.  Bub retired from the Royal Guard some twenty years ago, having served honorably for twenty-five years, and rising to the rank of Sergeant of Arms.  During one of the many excursions he fought in he got his left hand cut off, lending some truth behind the name of his pub. 

          Bub was a well-liked citizen and ran a reputable establishment that catered to most of the town.  His pub consisted of a long bar up front with stools, and then a bunch of square oaken tables scattered about seating four to six patrons a piece. A large stone hearth was at the pub’s center.  It was a simple tavern with the basic necessities, but the atmosphere was always festive.  People came to eat, drink, talk, mingle and gamble the night away.  About the only thing that wasn't permitted was fighting, so Bub felt a little uneasy when Klown ambled in and made his way over to the end of the bar.

          Hopping up onto the man-sized barstool, Klown removed his hood and greeted Bub who was eyeing him from behind the bar. 

          "Hello fat man!  Got any food worth eating today?" 

          Bub, used to Klown's abuse over the years, shot back, "Ah, the little gnome with the big mouth returns.  To what do I owe this displeasure?" 

          "None of the other taverns around here are open, so I followed my nose to  the stench you're cooking up!" Klown retorted, pinching his nose. 

          "It must be hard for you to eat Klown.  It takes time out from your insults.   The usual?" Bub asked as he polished off another glass. 

          "Yeah, along with the best ale you got, in order to wash down the nasty taste.”

          Bub disappeared behind the kitchen door and returned a few moments later with a pitcher of ale.  Setting up a glass in front of Klown, he filled it up and watched as the small gnome downed it in a few seconds.  Klown sighed in satisfaction.

          "Absolutely horrible, Bub.  Pour me another,” he smirked, as he wiped the corner of his mouth on his sleeve.

          Bub smiled and did so.  Klown slid a gold piece over and motioned for him to lean in. 

          "So what's the word on the streets?" 

          The gold disappeared with a quick swipe across the bar. 

          "Word is that someone stole from the Blood Brotherhood, and they're not  amused." 

          Now it was Klown's turn to smile. 

          "Seen any of those red bastards around?" 

          Bub leaned forward. "Not yet, but trouble always seems to follow you.  How do you manage to stay one step ahead of it Klown?" 

          Klown shrugged.  "I can't take credit for being so smart.  It is the relative ignorance of everyone else which makes it so."

          Rolling his eyes, Bub stepped away from the bar and disappeared once more behind the kitchen door. He returned with a couple of steaming plates of food and set them down in front of the hungry thief. 

          After a couple of bites, Klown piped up with a mouthful of food, "Your grub tastes like one."  That didn't stop him from continuing to eat though.  Klown finished off the meal in record time and leaned back on the stool with his shoulder propped up against the wall.

          "That was a real swill meal, Bub," Klown said as he picked through his teeth with his fingernails.

          Bub, shaking his head at yet another insult, replied, "I envy you Klown.  I know you'll never have an ulcer because all the acid from your stomach is on your tongue!"

          They both laughed at the remark, for each enjoyed the battle of wits that ensued whenever they got together.  The old soldier was no match for Klown though, who had about two hundred years worth of knowledge to draw from over his own.

          The meal cost no more than a silver, but Klown slid another gold piece across the bar. 

          "Keep working on your rhetoric fat man.  Use this money for lessons."  With that, Klown back-flipped off the stool and landed on his feet, bowing as if on stage again. 

          "If you're looking for applause, you're wasting your time," Bub said as he held up his stump.  That prompted both of them to break into laughter once again.

          "So where should I tell your fans you're off to next, little gnome?" 

          Klown smiled and pulled his hood back over his head.  "Just between you and me, I got a date with a mountain.  But for my fans, tell them to peregrinate to the nether realms of which the devil is a denizen." 

          Bub’s eyebrows raised up questioningly.  "In other words, tell them to go to Hell?" 

          Without looking back Klown replied, "Exactly,” and headed out the door.

          Klown left the Last Hand shortly after midnight on a full stomach, slightly inebriated.  He used to enjoy the effects alcohol had on him, but over the course of a few centuries had built up a tolerance that kept his mental and physical faculties functioning without impairment. 

          This little known fact was unfortunate not only to Klown – who missed those days long gone when his judgment, balance and speech were all impaired beyond belief – it was also unfortunate to the four Red Clerics of Chompek who were waiting outside to destroy what they thought would be an easy target: a drunken little thief who was unaware of the trap he was walking into.


*   *   *   *   *


          The theft of the Eye had caused three of their brethren to perish under the lethal assault of their leader, Absolom.  He punished the whole Red Cleric sect unmercifully with Hellfire for their utter failure in protecting the sacred jewel.  How the thief had gotten past all the magical wards, traps and priests on guard was unfathomable, but the audacity to leave a mocking note was beyond belief.  It read: 


          Magical scrying was initially used to identify the perpetrator, but in the end the lengthy process revealed nothing, infuriating Absolom even further.  It seemed as though the thief in question was immune to all of their attempts of identification.  These failures caused rumors to spread like wildfire throughout the Blood Brotherhood about the supernatural opponent they seemed to face, lending some credibility to the defenses in place at the time which were not well equipped to handle something of this magnitude. 

          In reality though, rock gnomes were naturally resistant to all forms of magic.  On top of that, Klown had enhanced his resistance with various magical items he had discovered and then wore over the years, for he absolutely despised wizards and priests and did everything he could to limit their effects on him.  This magic resistance was yet another reason why he was so successful as a thief.

          Absolom was afraid to ask for demonic aid.  He didn’t want Chompek to discover what had happened.  After all magical attempts were exhausted, it was decreed that the Brotherhood would fan out and search nonstop for the mysterious thief and the Eye.  They were not to return unless they brought back one or the other, preferably both.  Absolom had spoken out of frustration, knowing that he was doomed unless the Eye was returned to its proper place in their inner sanctum.  Without it, the Red Clerics' powers were weakened, leaving them vulnerable to their enemies.

          Once the quad of clerics reached Cachao, it was a relatively simple process to ferret out leads on the Eye's whereabouts.  People were naturally afraid of the priests, and rightly so, for they were aligned with great evil and wielded dark sorcery.  The Brotherhood capitalized on this fear when questioning an old jewelry shoppe owner.  Magic revealed that he had actually come in contact with the Eye, so it was just a matter of torture before the old man submitted to their demands in order to save his own skin.  It was of little consequence though, for now his skin reinforced the bindings of their spell books and added to their volumes.  All Red Clerics wrote their spells on human or demi-human skin.


 *   *   *   *   *


          As Klown headed off down the cobblestone street intent upon finding a place to sleep, a ring on his finger alerted him to the presence of the priests by warming his skin.  He was walking into an ambush, with two of them lying in wait ahead of him, and two approaching from behind. 

          He began staggering his step a bit in order to fool the would-be attackers into thinking that he was intoxicated and oblivious to their presence.  A few steps later he tripped, stumbled forward and fell to the ground, curling up into a tight ball with his cloak enveloping him entirely.

          The Red Clerics smiled at their good fortune as they simultaneously pointed their fingers at the felled gnome, casting vicious spells intent upon causing torture, pain and death.  The first shock came as two of their members had their spells reflected back at them, suffering the same fate they had wished upon the little thief.  They cried out in agony as their bodies were enveloped in black flame, shredding their skin and exploding their internal organs. 

          Moments later, they both crumpled to the street in a smoldering pile of bones.  The other two were powerful enough to shield themselves from the same fate, turning their reflected spells away at the last moment.

          Clasping a wicked-looking iron mace, one of them cautiously approached the still form of the cloaked thief.  With a mighty swing, the spiked metal head crashed through the cloak and careened off the cobblestone street, almost causing the mace to ricochet back into the face of the priest wielding it.  Startled, the priest pushed aside the cloak to reveal nothing but a small jack-in-the-box. 

          As the rage begin to build inside the priests, one picked up the toy and turned its crank.  A childhood melody, "Pop Goes The Weasel", emanated from somewhere within the box at a pace equal to the rate the crank was being turned, which was rapidly increasing as the priest's patience expired.  As the tune culminated with its theme sounding out, the box exploded in a searing fireball that engulfed the unsuspecting clerics, and everything else for that matter, within a ten-foot radius.

          Klown detached himself from his hiding place on the nearby wall and watched as the fire burned itself out in a blaze of intense red and orange flames.  He walked over to the blackened area to retrieve his cloak and his toy, both magical and unaffected by the energies that they were exposed to just moments ago.  All that remained of the priests were two piles of ash being blown away by the wind as he shook out his cloak and donned it once again.  Out of spite, he spat on both piles of ash and then began stomping and kicking through them, shouting obscenities with every step.

          The blast, along with his antics, began to draw a crowd of onlookers, so he figured he better move along before the guards showed up.  Klown pulled his hood up over his head and glanced back at the crowd once more, where he saw Bub staring back.

          "Former fans of yours, Klown?"

          "Yeah, we got into a heated debate and they couldn't handle it."

          "Remind me not to debate you anymore."

          "When have you ever?"

          With that, Klown took off down the street and into the darkness.  Out of sight and clear of danger, Klown pulled out his jack-in-the-box and hugged it tightly to his chest, as though he was giving it affection.  After a few minutes of this, he sat it down and began turning its crank. 

          The simple melody played again, and as it ended with its theme, the lid popped open and out sprang a grotesque harlequin puppet wearing a jester hat, mask and brightly colored clothing in a pattern of diamond shapes, similar to Klown's own underneath his magical dwarven chainmail. 

 Klown and Kook

          The puppet looked around, brushed itself off, grinned, then spoke to Klown in an impish voice.

          "Ah, if it isn't the renegade clown who gets around!  The know-it-all  gnome who knows no wrong.  The harlequin has-been hotheaded hellraiser!  The always arguing, acrobatic assh..." 

          Klown cut him off, his patience waning. 

          "That's enough Kook!  Now get on with the riddle so we can get down to business."

          "Ok Mr. Madcap Mental Giant, try this on for size: A convicted man was told  he could make one last statement.  If the statement happened to be true, he would be hanged.  But if the statement was false, he would be beheaded.  What statement could he make to keep himself from being executed?"

          The riddles were always difficult. 

          Klown stood in silence as he pondered this one, attacking it quickly with logic and deduction knowing he had just a few minutes to solve it. 

          Kook was one of Klown's greatest finds: a magical artifact of unknown power with an intelligence of its own.  He had found him deep within a wizard's labyrinth over fifty years ago while searching for a magic wand, which he had also found.

          Bearing intelligence, Kook actually chose who it wanted to align itself with.  It was only natural that the magical entity allowed Klown to possess him, for a kindred spirit was found in the gnome's former life as a harlequin, with a matching personality to boot.

          In Kook, Klown had met a formidable ally.  Not only was Kook a powerful weapon, but the puppet was a wealth of knowledge that Klown tapped as often as possible.  Kook created opportunities, and Klown capitalized on them. 

          The only requirement Kook demanded of their relationship was an answer to a riddle every time his assistance was needed.  In the fifty years he had been answering Kook's riddles, Klown had never failed to come up with the correct answer. 

          Although he knew not what failure would bring, he wasn't about to find out if he didn't have too.  Besides that, he had more important things to worry about, like a fifty-year-old streak to keep alive.  Klown's ego wasn't about to let a smart-aleck little puppet get the best of him.

          "Time's up, oh thankless thinking thief!" exclaimed Kook as he shadowboxed Klown's kneecaps, breaking his concentration and causing him to stir. 

          Klown looked down at the brazen little jester bouncing around in the box and answered, "I am going to be beheaded."

          Kook's reaction was typical of all their previous encounters when Klown answered correctly.

          He threw a temper tantrum. 

          As Kook sprang around in his box, a stream of unending profanity issued forth from the puppet's mouth, directed at Klown for guessing correctly, and at itself for failing to ask a more challenging riddle.  The tirade finally ended when the little jester sprang down into its box and slammed the lid shut, causing Klown to break into roaring laughter at the antics of the temperamental puppet.  He hated to lose, and Klown could relate.

          A few minutes later the lid opened and Kook popped back out.  He was pouting.  His arms were folded across his chest.  He had a scowl on his face and he stared down at the ground, refusing to look at Klown.

          "It's good to see you again, Kook.  You drive all the shadows away.  Even your own can't stand you!" 

          "If you have something to say, just do what comes naturally and bray it!"  Kook shot back.

          Klown laughed. 

          "Alright now, let's get down to business.  Tell me what you see."

          Kook reluctantly disappeared into his box and came out a few moments later wearing a turban and a long robe.  He crossed his arms and closed his eyes, then began to hum a Hindu chant. 

          Klown tapped his foot impatiently, waiting for Kook to get on with it.  None of Kook's antics were necessary for him to tell the future, but he always began this way, just to annoy Klown.

          After Kook's butchering of the Hindu chant, he communicated his "vision."  "The Red Clerics of Chompek know who you are now.  Absolom, their leader,  will stop at nothing to kill you.  Congratulations on adding yet another group of religious fanatics to your list of enemies."

          "Who cares,” Klown replied.  “The biggest cross they bear are the chips on their shoulders.   What else?" 

          Kook smirked, then motioned for Klown to lean in closer by using his middle finger.  "Your next adventure might be your last."

          Klown swatted away Kook's finger and replied, "That's nothing new.  They all have that potential." 

          The swat prompted Kook to start shadow boxing with Klown again.  "It's not called it the 'Mountain of Death' without reason, oh gnarly gnome."

          Ignoring Kook's antics, Klown continued his questioning. "So what's to fear this time?" 

          "It will render your magical aid useless, causing you to face it alone.   Keep your wits about you or you're doomed."

          "Oh, I'm SO scared," Klown remarked sarcastically, biting his nails.  "Magic only enhances my natural abilities.  It is not a crutch I lean on you pesky puppet!   Besides  that, I look out for myself ... I want only the very best to look after me."

          That prompted Kook to land a solid left jab to Klown's big nose.  "Yeah, you're looking out for yourself alright!" 

          "Ow!  You sorry jumping jackass!  You'll pay for that one!" 

          With that, Klown began to pummel Kook. 

          "Tell me again what the mountain guards!"

          Covering up to avoid the blows, Kook bobbed and weaved as he answered.  "Forgotten artifacts of tremendous power, widowed by the warriors who lost their lives to the mountain."

          Now this was what Klown wanted to hear.  He continued his line of questioning along with his assault on the magical puppet.

          "Where should I look for these artifacts?" 

          Kook answered while getting in a few jabs of his own.  "Beyond the ring of gray, stupid!"

          Sensing the end of the conversation, Klown swatted Kook's small fists aside and asked a final question.  "Anything else I should know?" 

          With that, Kook stopped his antics and extended himself outward towards the thief, so that his final words were made eye-to-eye. 

          "Just one thing: out of death there will come peace and life.  Align yourself with it or perish."

          "Kook, why do you always end with a riddle?  I got news for you: I don't plan on dying." 

          Kook sank back down into his box with the final word.

          “No one ever plans on dying.”


 *   *   *   *   *


          It would take a full two weeks for Klown to reach the mountain range from Cachao.  On horseback however, the same trip would take well over a month. Klown's mode of travel was that of a magic carpet. 

          The moiré carpet was three feet wide by five feet long, embroidered with magical sigils on bright primary colors.  He had stolen it long ago from the King of So Na while still employed as a court jester.  A royal guest, rich beyond belief, had offered it to the King as a token of appreciation.  In reality though, it was merely a payoff for some future political favors.  Unable to ride it, the King soon tired of it and placed it in the royal treasury.  To this day he probably didn't even know it was missing.

          Klown has mastered the carpet's maneuvers through years of trial and error.  It had taken him that long to decipher its magical sigils, for each one controlled certain carpet movements, elevation and speed. 

          In the beginning he traveled at a slow rate close to the ground in order to avoid serious injuries due to numerous crashes.  Through all the cuts, scrapes, broken bones and profanity however, he persevered in piloting the unusual mode of transportation.  Presently, he was a master at flying it around. 

          He preferred flying above the clouds, out of sight from anyone on the ground, again trying not to draw attention to himself.  He flew fast too, faster than any bird native to the region he passed over.  For fun he sometimes would chase a nearby bird, mocking its movements whether it involved climbing, diving, or banking hard and sharp. 

          About the only limitation he had was flying upside-down, since gravity sent him plummeting to the ground whenever he failed to hold on during a such a stunt.  All in all, he thoroughly enjoyed the experience the carpet provided him, although he would never admit it.

          On the fourteenth day of his journey, Klown sighted the mountain.  Dansu rose up ominously from the rest of the mountain range, like a rusty knife jutting out from a piece of rotten meat.  For the last five miles of the journey, the land was covered in jagged stone. 

          Great rugged boulders and bleached bones peppered the ground, creating a treacherous path to the derelict mountain.  Klown had never seen anything quite like it, and the closer he came to Dansu the more he reflected on Kook's warnings.  A mile out, he began his ascent of the mountain.

          The ring of gray Kook mentioned could only refer to the hazy shade of gray clouds that ringed Dansu about halfway up, and his carpet climbed quickly to that end.  Not knowing what to expect once inside the gray ring, Klown slowed his speed and cautiously entered the clouds. 

          That decision saved his life, for Dansu's gray ring stole the magic from his carpet, causing him to plummet towards the mountainside like a rock.  The closer he came to impact, the faster the temperature dropped.  It was as if the ring of clouds was a translucent glacier that gripped Klown in an icy embrace. 

The free fall lasted about fifty feet before Klown thudded into the snowy mountainside.  The snow helped to break his fall, leaving the small gnome deeply embedded beneath the frozen surface.  Klown suddenly found himself having to dig his way out from an icy tomb before it quickly became one.

          Klown reached the snowy surface with considerable effort.  He lay there for an ample amount of time just breathing in the frigid air.  Once he had enough of it in his lungs – the profanity started. 

He began cursing the carpet, for he didn't realize that the mountain was to blame for the crash.  He dug around in the snow like a madman until he found the rug, partially buried about ten feet away from where he had fallen.  He wanted more than anything to stomp all over it, but the surface wouldn't allow it, infuriating him even further.  So, he held it in one hand and punched it with the other, shouting obscenities all the while. 

When he got tired of this, he continued his tirade by pulling down his trousers and urinating all over the carpet.  The hotheaded thief was quite literally caught with his pants down as the snow beast attacked.