by Trevor Hopkins

Much to my surprise, there was no sign of anybody following me once I had left the border station. This didn't stop me applying a few basic techniques to shake off a tail I hadn't detected. PI Class 101 stuff. Child's play.

I needed assistance in this case: individuals I could trust - at least, somewhat - as long as I paid them well and, for that matter, I didn't tell them anything of the slightest importance. Nether's cash advance gave me a certain amount of leeway in the matter of expenses and I didn't feel the need to stint unreasonably just at the moment.

My destination was in one of the less salubrious caverns, a back-street shop which did not, as far as I knew, have a proper name. Even in my own mind, it was always just "that funny little shop in the backstreets." I had been here dozens of times and I had never come away empty-handed, usually with exactly what I needed. Oh, sometimes I had to return to collect some very special item which had to be acquired, although exactly how or from where these were sourced I have always carefully avoided enquiring.

I stood outside the shop front in the deserted alley, looking up at the shuttered windows at every level to the roofline. From long experience, I knew this place never looked open, or even occupied. A dusty "closed" sign was just visible through the security bars that covered the glass of the worn wooden door, the glass itself reinforced by numerous self-adhesive signs advertising long-forgotten products and dubious services.

I banged on the door with the flat of my hand and then, anticipating a long wait, I stepped back and leaned on the wall opposite, then lit a cigarette. There was no sound or movement behind the glass, although I strongly suspected I was being carefully scrutinised by hidden eyes or magical methods. I affected a pose of nonchalant distain, the stance of one confident that in a short time he will be permitted to enter, and blew smoke with a casual disregard for personal or public safety.

When my cigarette had burned down to the filter, I flicked away the stub and banged again on the door. Seconds later, I could hear the distinctive sound of locks being undone, bolts being slid back and chains being. This went on for quite some time; somebody within clearly valued their privacy. No doubt a number of less mundane protections were being deactivated simultaneously.

Eventually, the door creaked open and I stepped forward confidently. The inside was dark enough for even a Goblin to stop and blink. While my eyes were adjusting, the outer door closed softly behind me. "Come in," a voice said in front of me, quiet and level, "This way, if you please."

There was a slight movement in the gloom and the light level went up marginally. An inner door had been opened. I edged my way forward through the doorway, which was again shut behind me. Then the light was turned up, bright enough to make me blink again, and I could finally see my host.

The proprietor was Gaur, a tiny and ancient Goblin who had run this place forever, or possibly longer. His arms and legs and face were all wizened and dried-up, while his rotund body was so nearly spherical that his limbs stuck out like twigs in a mud-ball. He had a particularly obsequious manner, his permanently bowed head reducing his statue still further. He was encased in an old-fashioned leather jerkin and matching kilt, the join between the two - more-or-less at the equator - marked by a wide leather belt to which was attached so many heavy objects of dubious purpose that it was a surprise he could move at all.

"Mister Gask," the obsequious little Goblin purred, rubbing his hands together, "May I say what a pleasure it is to see you again."

"Mister Gaur," I acknowledged, "And how is business?"

"Well enough," he replied, "A few regular customers like your good self. And what is it you seek this time?"

I told him what I wanted in a few words. I ordered a glamour, a very special magic; one which was, shall we say, in restricted circulation and not available to the general public, although not actually illegal in itself. I had expected a certain amount of haggling at this point and I wasn't disappointed. I managed to persuade Gaur to acquire for me the glamour I needed, at a price only slightly above the maximum budget I had set myself. I presented him with a small deposit to secure the deal, again taken from the advance that Nether had pressed on me. I would return later with the remainder of the money – in hard cash, of course.

The uncontrolled use of magic - there is no other adequate human word for these scientific phenomena - is gently but firmly discouraged by the authorities in the Lower Realms, even though it is a part of the authentic Goblin heritage. Many of us remember how to make home-grown glamours and charms – sadly, a skill now on the decline - simple magics which are amusing enough for children but essentially harmless. The glamour I had just requested was a magic of another order: infinitely more powerful, subtly and carefully crafted and, in the wrong hands, capable of world-altering effects. Frankly, I hoped I would never have to use it.

Part 15 Part 17