Within the Wordsmiths' organisation the ranks, from lowest to highest, were:
Brother Troop was a wordmaster. As befitted his rank, he wore a multicoloured harlequin robe and felt slippers. He was a short, bouncing, jovial man with a ready smile which showed him to be both pleased with himself and pleased with the world. He wore much of his worldly wealth beneath his skin, but Togura, after his recent encounter with Slerma, could not bring himself to describe the Brother as fat.
"So you're the hero," said Brother Troop, rubbing his hands together.
"I suppose I am," said Togura, with some surprise.
He had been given a change of clothes and the chance to cleanse himself of monster muck, but he was still a little disorientated.
"Ahaha!" said Brother Troop, not quite laughing and not quite not. "You suppose you are. Of course you are! The vigour of the very young. Amazing, isn't it?" And he touched his nose. "Youth is a wonderful thing."
"You're not so old yourself," said Togura.
"Perhaps not, but I was never as wild as you. I was born sensible. And more's the pity. A great handicap, I think. All power to the brave and reckless, eh? Hey? Ahaha! Come, I'll show you around."
"Well, really, I'd - "
"Later," said Brother Troop, giving him to chance to say that he'd really like a little to eat, a little to drink and a lot to sleep. Instead, the good Brother swept him away on a whirlwind tour which took him through the kitchens - too quickly, alas - sleeping quarters, lecture rooms, study rooms, dungeons and cloisters, and then to the main courtyard of the Wordsmiths' stronghold.
"Here's where it all happens," said Brother Troop. "And that, my son, is the odex."
"Believe me. You stand in the Presence."
The odex was a thin grey disk; Togura could just have spanned its diameter with his outstretched arms. Seen side-on, it appeared to disappear entirely. Seen from an angle, it acted as a mirror, reflecting the surroundings.
"Stand in front of it," said Brother Troop.
Togura moved round in front of the odex, which hung in the air, standing knee-high off the ground without any apparent means of support. As he came directly in front of it, the mirror surface broke into discordant cascades of colour and light. These shimmered, swirled, stretched, contracted and pulsed.
"Is it angry?" said Togura warily.
At his words, a puff of red mist broke loose from the surface of the odex. It twirled lazily in the air.
"Who knows?" said Brother Troop.
At his question, the red mist broke apart with a sound like a breaking harp string; a dozen bubbles of bright light frolicked out of the odex and began chasing each other through the air. Similar manifestations and dispersions continued as the two spoke together.
"Where do these things come from?" said Togura.
"From the odex, of course. You can see that for yourself."
"Is it dreaming?" asked Togura.
"No," said Brother Troop, uncertainly; it had never occurred to him that the odex might dream. "We don't think it dreams. We don't really think it's alive. After years of study, we've come to think that it's like a knife. It means neither good nor ill. If it cuts, that's due to our clumsiness. We don't think it dreams - or gets angry."
"But it sent you the monster," said Togura. "Why did it do that?"
"It does nothing on its own," said Brother Troop. "Left to its own devices, it just sits there meditating. We speak. We summon. We call things from its infinite resources."
"Then how did you summon the monster?" said Togura.
"Could you summon another?"
"Only be another accident. You see - "
A tangle of spiderweb came floating out of the odex. Brother Troop knocked it aside with a casual sweep of his hand. It grabbed hold of him, battened onto his flesh and began to feed. It hurt. His senses demolished by pain, Brother Troop fell to the ground, flailing at the invader. Togura helped him destroy it. They succeeded, but there was a violent red rash on the wordmaster's hand where the web had been feeding.
"Look!" said Brother Troop.
Overhead floated an ilps. It was a large one, mostly teeth, horns and trailing tentacles. It had just escaped from the odex.
"Who are you?" shouted Brother Troop.
But the ilps was nimble. It floated fast and high, soaring up and over the roof and out of sight.
"Let's go inside," said Brother Troop. "We've endured the Presence quite enough for one day."
At his words, there was a roar. Both of them jumped. But, fortunately, the odex had not generated another monster. Just the roar of a monster.
Inside, Togura asked a question:
"Why does questioning destroy an ilps?"
"Because every ilps is anomalous," said Brother Troop. "They don't belong in our world. We don't think they belong anywhere. They're birthed at random by the odex every time we excite it. Make the anomalous question its own nature, and it destroys itself."
"How do we excite the odex?"
"By the use of words, young man. You should have guessed that much from what you've seen today."
"Then what words do what?"
"Different words do different things. That's for certain. But our real problem is that the same words also do different things every time they're used."
"Very much hummm! Marry a woman who doesn't speak your language, and you'll be chatting away merrily in less than a year. Our conversation with the odex began in my father's day. We still don't know how to say hello."
"At this rate you never will," said Togura. "So why bother?"
"Because of the treasure, my boy. The treasure!"
Brother Troop took him to the treasury so he could see. A day's conversation with the odex would usually produce at least one real, solid, genuine piece of treasure.
By the time they reached the treasury, Togura was eagerly expecting to see miracles. He was bitterly disappointed by the motley assortment of oddments which was actually on view.
"This is it?" he said.
"Won with great pain, my boy," said Brother Troop. "Won with great pain."
There were two lightweight diamond-shaped objects with holes in them - possibly buttons, and possibly not. There was a disk of think metal stamped with concentric circles; it had jagged edges, and was rusting. There was a pale, slightly translucent object, very thin and sharp, about the length of a finger, which Togura was almost certain was a fishbone.
Next there was a curious square box, blue in colour, which was riddled with holes. Togura was about to explore the holes with his fingers when Brother Troop slapped his hand down.
"No, my boy, don't do that. Brother Dorban lost a finger to that little box."
Togura stared into the holes and saw a wavering ever-changing light inside. The box was humming.
"I'll tell yo9u one thing for certain," he said. "You'll never find out what this is for."
"Ah, my boy," beamed Brother Troop. "We know already. It's an insect trap. It lures them and kills them - or, at least, they go inside and they're never seen again. Fleas, flies, cockroaches - it doesn't discriminate. Leave your clothes by the box overnight, and they'll be free of lice by daybreak."
There were more things. A pile of old rags. A curious stone globe which appeared to be filled with stars. Some objects made of lead which might have been said to imitate the shape of knucklebones. A length of strong, translucent green cord which appeared to be made all of one seamless piece; it was slippery, and difficult to knot. A stone adze, bearing cryptic markings in paint. A friable, lumpy grey object which Togura was far too polite to identify as a rather old and shabby dog turd.
"All this comes from the odex?"
"Yes," said Brother Troop, nodding. "And other things, too dangerous to keep. Today's monster was a case in point. Come, I'll show you the reading room."
They went to the reading room where there was a single very old and ancient book. Its cover, and its individual pages, were coated with a hard, transparent substance; thus protected, they did not seem to suffer decay.
"This is the Book of the Odex," said Brother Troop. "It was discovered together with the odex itself in the Old City in the Valley of Forgotten Dreams, in Penvash."
"There's no such place as the Old City," said Togura. "That's just a tale to frighten children with."
The Brother shook his head.
"No. There really is a city. Men went there seeking wealth. Many died. Even before they got to the city, one was turned into a monster after a flower swallowed him; they killed him after he killed five."
Togura nodded politely, though he scarcely believed a word of it, and the Brother continued.
"Of those who went, three returned alive. One was my father. They gained three things in the Old City: the Book, the odex, and their nightmares. Open the Book."
Togura did so. The patterns within, splattered across the pages as if at random, made a bewildering maze of angles, corners and stunted lines.
"Can you read, boy?"
"A little. But not this."
"That's scarcely surprising. It's written in two languages. Part is written in the Voice of Jade and Gold, which the scholars of former times used both before and after the Days of Wrath. A travelling wizard was able to translate it for my father. Thus he learnt that the odex was used in former times to store both knowledge and objects. There is vast wealth inside the odex, boy."
"But you can't get it out."
"Not unless we gain the index."
"We summon things forth from the odex by talking to it. The ancients of former times used the index instead. The Book tells us that the index speaks in the Universal Language, whatever that might be. For want of an index, we've been trying to make our own Universal Language. That's why we've been gathering together all the world's languages, trying to make them one."
"And does that promise you success?" said Togura, unalbe to conceal his doubts.
"Nothing gives us any guarantee of success," said Brother Troop. "But! Knowledge! Wealth! Power! It's worth striving for, boy, it's worth striving for."
"You said that the Book was written in two languages."
"That's right, my son. One's the Voice of Jade and Gold, which I've spoken of already. The other's the Cold Tongue, which even the wizards can't read. Back before the Devaluation, we paid the wizard of Drum to make the attempt, to see if he could succeed where others had failed. He couldn't. But he told us where we could find an index."
"He did. After consulting his Catalogues, he told us where we could find a number of them. After the wizards became a power in the world, they discovered many things left over from the Days of Wrath; they didn't understand most of them, but kept them nevertheless, for thousands and thousands of years."
"So where - "
"I'm coming to that, boy. Give me time, give me time. Over the years, the wizards acquired a number of small, flat boxes, each marked with the sign of a hand and a heart. They could never find out how to ope nthem, or what was inside. Now, thanks to the Book of the Odex, we know. Each contains an index. Each will open with a Word. That Word is Sholabarakosh."
"Shola - "
Later, boy. You'll have plenty of time to memorise it before we send you seeking."
The Brother's words gave Togura something of a shock. They gave him a hint of what was in store for him. He thought of protesting, but held his tongue. As the old saying goes, it's best to hear out the bargain before you break it.
"Thanks to the wizard of Drum," said the Brother, "we know where to find these boxes. The nearest is at the bottom of the green bottle in Prince Comedo's Castle Vaunting, in Estar. A monster protects the bottle from those who would acquire it. The box itself lies at the very bottom of the bottle and is Guarded."
"I don't know what is meant by that, and neither did the wizard of Drum. However, his Catalogue says it, emphatically, which means there's death waiting nearby."
"Charming," mutttered Togura.
"What's that?" said the Brother.
"I said, that would be a real challenge. Something I could get my teeth into."
"Yes - or something which could get its teeth into you. Anyway, to continue. There's also a box in the Secret Store in Tormstarj Castle in the Ironband Mountains. That's south of Estar, as you know."
"Yes," said Togura, who didn't, but didn't like to say.
"There may possibly be a third box in the Castle of Controlling Power. There is definitely one in the possession of the Silver Emperor in Dalar ken Halvar. But that, of course, is a step and a way."
"Yes," said Togura, from habit.
"Galsh Ebrek may hold another box."
"It is not a who, it's a where. It's the High City in Yestron. You know where Yestron is, of course."
"Yes," said Togura. "It's west of here."
"No! East! Beyond Argan. Beyond Ashmolea. Beyond Quilth. The west has nothing of interest, not to us. Unless there's a box in Chi'ash-lan, which is problematical. You know where Chi'ash-lan is, I hope."
"Yes," said Togura, who had a vague inkling.
He feared he had disappointed Brother Troop already, and that he would shortly have to disappoint the wordmaster again. For he suspected that he was about to be offered a job fit for a hero, and he had no intention whatsoever of accepting. He would rather stay alive.
"Well, boy," said Brother Troop, beaming. "I expect you know by now precisely what we want of you."
"Yes," said Togura. "You want me to go to Estar to get the bottle which holds the box which holds the index."
"Excellent!" said Brother Troop, slapping him on the back. "I thought you'd accept. Let's celebrate with some bread and wine, hey?"
"Tai-ho!" said Togura, using a local idiom which meant something similar to "whoa!" or "wait" or "stop."
"What is it?" said Brother Troop. "You're not going to decline the honour of questing for the index, are you?"
Togura hesitated. He meant to say "yes," but did not want to leave without indulging in the bread and wine that he had been offered. With a swiftly-developing survivor's cunning, he equivocated:
"The question of payment arises."
"Payment? But, my boy - the glory! Isn't that enough? No? If not ... no, this is neither the time nor the place. Come, let us eat and drink. The dinner table, my lad, is the civilised place for prolonged discussion."
Togura was gratified by the success of his stratagem. Over their meal, he rewarded Brother Troop for his hospitality by showing an eager interest in the odex, the index and related matters.
Precisely what markings identified the box which held the index? Brother Troop sketched the heart and the hand for him.
What was the Word which opened the box? Brother Troop gave him the Word once again, and he memorised it: Sholabarakosh.
What did the index inside look like?
"Ahaha," said Brother Troop. "An astute question, truly. When you open the box, you'll know. Remember, it speaks the Universal Language."
"Whatever that is."
"Yes," said Brother Troop, with an unfamiliar hint of sadness and defeat in his voice. "Whatever that is." Then, brightening: "Ah, the chicken! They've brought us the chicken! Beautiful. Come on, eat, eat. You're not full already, are you?"
"No," said Togura, who was, but thought it wise to stock up a little. He started on a chicken wing. "What," he said, "happened to everyone else who went questing for the odex?"
"An intersting question."
"Interesting indeed, as the chicken said to the chopper. Come on, I'll know the truth sooner or later. It might as well be now."
"Then, young man, since you insist, I must tell you that the truth is that we don't know. Five have been sent out so far. None have returned."
"Hmmm," said Togura, thinking.
He was trying to calculate how many more meals he could get out of the Wordmiths before they forced him to make a decision to commit himself.
"I see the quest takes your fancy, hey?" said Brother Troop. "Your young blood boils with hot excitement! Horizons call you! Oh, you'll be a hit with the girls when you come back, young man. Every damsel loves a hero."
"Give me a day to think it over," said Togura.
And, after some further discussion, the good Brother did.
However, Togura did not get the chance to spend that day in rest, relfection and decision-making. Events were moving swiftly now; unbeknownst to him, he was well and truly embroiled in the world's turmoil. As he would soon find out.