The heroes found themselves on a rough, foot worn path which spiralled inexorably upwards. At different times the trail would traverse steep ridges, dark silent stands of conifers or narrow ledges teetering on the edge of ravines. Bessie plodded stolidly higher.
"The best Lustrian monster for combat is surely the carnosaur."
"Actually it has to be the ancient stegadon with sharpened horns"
"No, it's definitely the carnosaur."
"Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha!"
"No, but seriously now Mahtis....."
The trail finally led them to a hanging valley surrounded by unscaleable walls of granite. The remnants of a glacial moraine had trapped a sizable lake of dark, still water. As they picked around the rough path at the edge of the pool, the lizardmen could see an interesting scene unfold across the water.
A tall arch had been hewn from the mountain side. The arch framed a tunnel which disappeared back under the mountains. At the opening was a guard house which attended a flimsy orange and white barrier. The barrier was contrived to swing up and down to permit or deny passage.
At the barrier were a dwarf, an elf and a dragon. The dwarf was dressed for battle. The only parts visible under the matted hair, beard and gleaming armour were a pair of glittering eyes and a red, bulbous nose. He leaned casually on a tremendous war hammer which was embossed with a glowing golden rune on one face. His other hand he held out towards the elf, palm upwards.
The elf was clearly a elven princeling of great wealth and rank. His cloak was brocaded with platinum thread. On his brow he wore a circlet made of the same metal which was surmounted with an enormous ruby. Not one golden hair on his ageless head was out of place. On his face was an expression of unconcealed disgust.
The star dragon was also a splendid specimen. Its jeweled scales caught the light and reflected it back in dazzling rainbows. Around its mighty jaws was a glowing band sealed with a dwarfish rune. Muzzled in this way, the dragon could use neither its hypnotic voice, nor its fiery breath.
The elven prince dropped a heavy purse onto the dwarf's grubby hand. The contents of the purse clinked.
As the dwarf weighed the payment in his hand, the High Elf vented his displeasure. "This is wobbery, you wascally wogue! Now welease Bwian!"
The dwarf snorted in amusement as he hefted his hammer and tapped the rune which bound the dragon's snout. The band flashed briefly and disappeared in a puff of smoke. With an overly gracious bow, the dwarf lifted the barrier and swept his arm to indicate that the elf was welcome to go about his haughty business.
Eventually, the bastiladon completed its circumnavigation of the inky mere. The four lizardmen stowed their weapons and dismounted. The dwarf stood behind the barrier with his chin resting on the haft of the rune hammer. His eyes glinted greedily as he appraised the group and their beast.
Rychek stepped up to the boom gate. "We seek free passage through your mighty dwarf hold, to the lands beyond the mountains."
The Dwarf snorted again. "Free passage? Theere's naught free in Karrak Andstick. E'en the airre isn'ae free! Have ye means to pay?"
Mahtis went over to Bessie and returned with a wicker creel. From it, he withdrew two dried ixti grubs and a large beetle which he proffered to the dwarf.
The dwarf gasped and seized Mahtis' statuesque wrist. Upon Mahtis's it was a heavy gold bracelet inscribed with Lustrian glyphs. It was twin to the one on his other wrist. Snake like torques spiralled around the kroxigor's bulging biceps. He wore a broad collar of enamelled gold and bands of the same metal about his ankles. Gold also adorned every spike which ran in a glittering row from his neck to the tip of his tail.
Beyond its decorative appearance, gold has no particular value to the lizardmen. In Lustria it is too common to be considered precious, and too soft to be useful in making tools.
The dwarf recovered his breath.
"Yon'll ne'er doo! I'll need to smite a wee rune on yon magicky contraption. Wee'll have none such in Karak Andstick!"
"What? It's rather valuable, and the Old Ones might still need it for the Great Plan...." Rychek fussed.
"Doo Nae Fret. Did ye nae see the pointy eared laird's dragon beastie? I smite on a rune of magic binding wi' ma Rune Hammer o' Anti Magic heere, and on t'other side o' the peaks, Gathrin MacLevy o' Customs Anexcise (he's mae cousin) will smite it awa' wi' his Rune Hammer o' Anti Magic. After ye pays the fee. Ye'll hae yer magicky thingy working quicker than twae shakes o' a dwarfish whotsit. I'll send a wee rune to mae cousin to warrn him ye'll be coming."
"Could you please repeat that, slowly?"
"Nae need, nae need!" the dwarf tapped the solar engine with his hammer and a glowing, runed band encircled it. The glow of the solar cube instantly faded, and Chotec's great treasure became an inert lump of metal and glass. The dwarf scampered down, raised the boom gate and waved them through.
"What is your name, that we may thank you" asked Rychek.
"Aye, it is Fergus MacTithe o' Border Control."
"May we call you Fergus for short?"
Fergus MacTithe o' Border Control suddenly glowered at Rychek. "Ye'll be wanting to avoid that naasty worrd while ye be our guest under yon peaks. Ye've been warrned." He turned and stomped back into the gatehouse.
Bessie proceeded up the tunnel and passed a garishly painted sign.
"Welcome to Karak Andstick. Let Cousin Balin's Gift Shop give you a kingly welcome! And they call this a Mine!" the sign declared.
As they rounded the next bend Rychek gasped in horror. "This is no Mine!" he declared, "It is a Mall!"
Karak Andstick was like a diabolical machine which was designed to extract gold, either from the bosom of the mountains or from unwitting visitors. The halls and galleries were of much greater scale than the scratchings of the Skaven Under Empire. Strip Malls alternated with Strip Mines to exploit visitors and the earth itself.
Every way the lizards turned, brightly lit booths beckoned them to spend their coin. A cloud of sales dwarves immediately descended on them to try to sell useless products.
Rychek decided that they should take the shortest route through the dwarven realm. The only map he could acquire, at a price, was of limited use, but it did show that the markets and entertainments were mostly clustered on this side of the hold. If they could escape this hotbed of exploitation they may make it to the far side of the mountains in relative peace.
As they passed the next bend, barely five minutes later, another tavern hove into view. "It's been thirty-seven dwarfish miles! Quench your Thirst!" screamed the placard.
Bessie grumbled to a halt beside a dwarf wearing a clean white coat and cap The cap bore the icon of a three legged stool. He was supervising two doors which had identical bearded images on them.
“Mahtis, give me some of the gold spine decorations.” Rychek debarked and approached the dwarf who was reading the latest edition of "Washrooms Monthly".
“I need a wee.”
The dwarf carefully closed the centerfold. “Ye need a wee what, laddie?”
“No, I need... to wee.”
“Aye,” said the dwarf slowly, “Ye need two wee…two wee what's, lad? Spit it oot.”
“I need to do a wee wee!”
“Och, I see ye noo! Hoowever, there is a wee fee….”
“That’s a relief! I thought it might be expensive.”
“Nae…weell, it is wee bit expensive, especially if ye need to do two, see?”
“And what if I need to do a number two, too?”
“Ach! If ye pay the wee number two fee, ye can wee for free!”
“Four? I don’t need to do a number four….”
“Nae, nae, nae laddie. Not four. FOR free.”
“One more time laddie. If ye pay the wee two fee, ye can wee for free, see?”
“I…I think so. What is the wee two fee?”
“Ye can two for three.”
“For free! That’s generous…”
"Nae, there’s naught in Karak Andstick that’s free. Ye can do a two for three pieces of gold.”
Gold exchanged hands.
“I’ll do ye up a wee too free receipt for two at three.” The dwarf tore a square of paper off a roll.
“It’s not a very wee two three receipt four two at three,” said Rychek holding up the square of paper. “It’s quite large.”
The dwarf was getting frustrated. “Nae, nae, laddie. It’s a Laarge wee too free receipt for two at three! When ye pay the fee of three and ye do a two ye're entitled to do a wee too, for free!”
The dwarf shook his head in aggravation and Rychek entered the stall.
A short time later he called, “Excuse me, there’s no paper in here!”
The dwarf exploded, “Did’nae ye keep the larrge wee too free receipt for two at three? That's what it’s FOR!”
“Four? No…..you only gave me the ONE large wee two three receipt four two at three, see?" Rychek posted the document back under the door.
The dwarf was still banging his head against the wall long after Rychek had finished his business, washed his hands, and ridden contentedly out of sight.