You would have been able to see Mount Tenebrous from miles away, too, had it been visible.
At its peak sat a castle quite unlike any other. Its center was a glass and chrome cylinder perhaps six hundred feet tall and one hundred feet in diameter. Cantilevered out at 90 degree angles from this were many smaller cylinders of varying length, giving the whole the appearance of a denuded, robotic Christmas tree.
Inside, the Mysteriolith Three were having an argument.
"It is our duty as wizards to meddle with things, is it not, Darius?" said Lucretius the Infuriatingly Wise.
"Of course, and I still think we should back the Fairy Syndicate. They won't notice a little extra magic here and there," contended Darius the Crafty, turning a nearby lamp into a glowing iguana.
"But imagine the state of things when the Syndicate has had control for a couple of decades. Total giggling totalitarianism. Where would we find our foothold?" Lucretius countered beard-strokingly, turning the lamp back.
"Anybody seen my wand? " inquired Maxwell the Replacement.
"I agree. That would certainly be less than ideal. We would just make our move before things got to that point," said Darius, turning the lamp into a plate of brownies.
"Under a Dirty Forest Man regime, we would be able to take our time," Lucretius said, turning the lamp back again.
"Hey! I was eating those!" said Maxwell.
"Well, now would be a good time for you to practice transfiguration for yourself, wouldn't it?" Lucretius said primly.
"Aw, come on! Darius? Come on!"
Speaking over Max's noisy and muttery search for his wand, Lucretius continued. "We need a decision before the dwarf and the rogue fairy find a way to get Merbert involved. That would not be good for any of us. Our goal is to destabilize things long enough for the Mysteriolith Three to assume the seat of authority we lost years ago, at the breaking of our troika."
"Did one of you guys turn my wand into, like, a golden retriever or something? I can't find it anywh--oh! Here it is. In the wand rack. What the hell?"
"You already know my vote. Dirty Forest Man," Darius said, crossing his arms.
"Oh, yeah. Hold on." He went into a crouch and approached the lamp. "Egregious Peterbilt!" he said, and waved his wand. There was a puff of smoke and a flash of light, and the lamp turned into an eight-pack of tube socks.
"Maxwell, we need your input."
Max shot the socks a nasty look. "I'm starving, and I can't do that conjuring trick you guys can. All I've been able to do since you hired me is turn things into tube socks. You ever had to hike down the side of an invisible mountain to buy frozen burritos at Wal-Mart?"
"Nope," said Darius, turning himself into a giant duck and back again.
"Well, it sucks."
"Max. Tell you what. You make the tie-breaking vote, and we'll conjure you up all the burritos you can eat. Sound good?" said Darius, turning the socks back into a lamp. It changed back perfectly, except for the shade, which retained a corrugated appearance and had two red stripes circling it.
"And I'm going to ask again why we can't just hang out and turn stuff into other stuff. But if you guys want to get all political and slap a DFM or Fairy Power bumper sticker on your flying cars, why don't we just call them both up and go with whoever pays more? Which, I'd like to add, is another moot point since you can conjure up anything you need out of thin air. Me too, as long as all I need are tube socks."
The wizard brothers looked at each other and then at Maxwell, who eyed them back, nervously. "What?"
"That's actually a very good idea, Maxwell!" said Lucretius.
"Absolutely! The side who offers us the most money is the most desperate. Desperation makes a lousy foundation for any power. The higher the price, the more easily toppled!" Darius exlaimed.
Excitedly, he bounded from his chair and strode to the center of the room. He stretched his hands out and the air filled with the whistles and shrieks of a thousand tiny pieces of metal spinning into being. The vortex flattened out and the metal pieces assembled themselves into a what looked like a loom. The loom began to operate of its own accord, and rapidly wove four panes of glass. The glass panes stood themselves up on edge as the machine, spitting sparks and smoke, pounded out wrought-iron rods and plates. These joined the glass, and the whole assembly spun as the loom shot rivets into it. In a matter of seconds, a fully assembled phone booth stood between the flat-screen television and an end table, and the loom melted away like sand blowing off the top of a dune.
Darius stepped inside, shut the door, and put his hand up to the side of his head, thumb and pinky finger extended.
"Give me the Dirty Forest Man," he said into his pinky.
"That was an awful lot of fanfare for an awful lot of nothing," the Writer's wife told him kindly, caressing his cheek with a tungsten arc welder. "You're going to give yourself a hernia, dear."
"That's kind of the point, though," the Writer said defensively.
"To herniate yourself? I think you need a nap, my suave keyboard jockey."
"Foolish wife! It's a well known area of humorosity that dictates an ironic buildup's hilarious effect. I have a book that--"
"Sorry dear. Telephone. Hello? Yes, he's right here. It's your father." She handed him the receiver.
"I'd also like to point out that ridiculous opening paragraph. Throat of a giant? Pah! Ghostly tatters? Pooh! And who ever heard of something 'rearing defiantly'? It's frogwash is what that is. Rearing ominously, maybe. You been reading Stephen King again? Huh? Well, you shouldn't. Stuff'll give you brain rot." There were some muted thumps and crashes and a "Lousy turkeys! Yer scarin' away the rabbits!" and the line went dead.
"What did he say?"
"Highly ignorable literary criticism," the Writer sniffed, chin rearing defiantly up out of his face.
"You'll probably go back and change whatever he told you to change later, once you've thought about it. You usually do."
"This time," the Writer said, tearing some granola into ghostly tatters with his teeth, "I'm going to leave it the way I have it now. I like it."
"What manner of reply did you receive?" Lucretius asked, displaying an almost unseemly level of excitement by raising one eyebrow.
Darius waved his hand in a complicated and precise gesture and disconnected the call to the Dirty Forest Man. He leaned out of his phone booth. "He told us to go boil our bums."
"You just made a phone call without using a phone! That's awesome! You gotta teach me that trick. Sprint gets such lousy reception in cloaked areas," said an impressed Maxwell.
"So that leaves us with the Syndicate," sighed Lucretius. "Evidently the Forest Man does not need our help."
"Or he ain't admitting it," interjected Maxwell, turning an eight-pack of tube socks into a thirteen-pack. "Dammit!"
"Let's test the water over in Whimsidor. Perhaps we'll get a bite there." He ducked back into the phone booth and performed the dialing gesture. Adopting an impressively deep voice, he said into his pinky, "Tell Crapulent Fartwing I can save him a lot of time, ma'am."
* * *
"I have heard of them, yes. If all you called to do was test my knowledge of local lore, I'm going to bid you a horrible afternoon and feed this telephone to one of my minions."
"Yay!" said the minion.
"Then you know what we're capable of."
Fartwing's eyes widened ever so slightly, and some of the impatience left his face. "Am I to believe I am speaking with one of the Three?"
"You are indeed. The legends are true, my friend."
"Even the one about one Darius the Crafty's habit of covering himself with mayonnaise and talking to pickles?"
"...Most of the legends are true."
Crapulent Fartwing laughed. It was a mean, dirty laugh. It was the kind of laugh that was made out of the lies of holy men and minced puppies. "So what makes you think I need your help?"
Darius' tone became colder and his voice deeper. "Because your aerial assault has failed. The dwarf and the wingless one have captured your bird."
Impossible! Nobody could even hope to lay hands on Aspartame without some pretty fancy magic. The bird was wily, resourceful, and above all, very oily. She also crapped mind-control taffy, which was pretty handy.
"Shake your telephone handset."
Fartwing did. Something was rattling around inside. He unscrewed one of the endcaps, and an infrared Skittle fell out. No bag of Skittles had ever contained that color.
"Okay. You have my attention. Let's hear your offer."
* * *
Across the windswept wastes, Becky and Stubs trudged. They were down to their last leftover swine wad, their canteens were empty, and the battery in Stubs' iPod had been dead for hours.
"We're going to need a miracle," gasped the dwarf.
"This is a start. Teehee," rasped Becky.
Stubs looked up and wiped the grit from his watering eyes. He squinted. Becky was standing next to a door. It was wooden, set impossibly into the side of a cliff, and had the words "Tiberius Airways: Dirigibibble Rides!" painted on it.
"That's a start," agreed Stubs.