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Beethro the Delver IV - Beethro Hears The Universal Song (By Erik Hermansen)

Leaving his house, Beethro caught sight of Gribbles Prutkin coming up the front walk. Gribbles looked more grim and burdened than the average pallbearer, but this was his usual expression.

"Are you going now to see the king?" Gribbles called out.

"No," answered Beethro, not wishing to pay much attention to Gribbles right then.

"You should first see Hallholder Bombus. He has important information for you."

"Bombus can wait. Dugan can wait. I'm off to see Mobley Inufgot now."

Gribbles stopped and caught his breath, hunched with hands on knees. Beethro's house sat atop a hill, and it had been a steep walk to reach it. Beethro strode past him, intent on his errand, but caught himself a moment later. Gribbles Prutkin had a four-decade career as a dungeon exterminator with many fine accomplishments that matched even Beethro's. Here was a man who deserved a little respect. Beethro fished in his pocket, and brought out a key.

"Uh, Prutkin," said Beethro, holding out the key. "I'm going now and can't stay to talk. Here, take this key, go in the house and fix yourself a sandwich. If you can wait a few hours, I should be back by then."

Gribbles ignored the invitation. "Hallholder Bombus has summoned you. You should go."

"Why is everyone summoning me these days? Why are you delivering messages for Bombus? If I give you a greckle, will you go tell Bombus that I summoned him to come to my house and tell me himself what the Jeebus he wants?"

Gribbles sighed painfully and turned to walk away. "We have our Smitemaster duties, Beethro, you and I both. I will see you in Hall."

"Sure." Beethro paused in a moment of doubt. "Hey there, Gribbles. I'm sorry that I'm busy now. Come by the house tonight, or maybe stop by the Grill later."

Gribbles nodded solemnly.

"I mean, if you feel like it. It's not like I'm summoning you. Enough with this summoning business! Who has time for it?"

Gribbles nodded solemnly a second time, and that was the end of their conversation.

Beethro lived on one of the several green hills that bubbled up at the base of a mountain. His particular hill was called "Throdinger Hill" and it was considered a suburb of the city-state Dugandy. The city proper was attached to the mountain, at the top of which lay King Dugan's castle with a great letter "D" of iron above its gate.

At the bottom of the mountain were the Low Spaces--canyons and depressions where squalid temporary dwellings were constructed by people who couldn't afford better. In the wet season, the Low Spaces flooded and its inhabitants found inconvenient accommodations elsewhere. It was better than living on the windy flatlands with the wraithwings.

Mobley Inufgot lived in the Low Spaces. He was a man who had learned many secrets, rumored even to have been a dungeon architect. Beethro hoped that Mobley could help with a particular problem.

Mobley's house was built of the same materials as his neighbors--rocks, saplings, brush, and hardened manure. Yet it had a strange grandeur that stated calmly that you dare not call it a "hovel" or even a "shack". Fine craftsmanship had been applied to every inch. There wasn't a single twig or dab of mud out of place. The structure was straight and sturdy, providing a confident shelter, but there was also an artistic whim in its details. Beethro reflected sadly that it would not be there in a few months after the floods washed through.

The front door was a tight weave of thin sticks coated with a sealing layer of mud. Beethro was admiring the door's clever hinges when it suddenly opened.

"Yes?" asked Mobley Inufgot. He was absently twisting a small beard with his finger, his eyes gazing at a point beyond Beethro. Clearly, he was spending small attention on his visitor.

"Mister Inufgot, hello. I'm Beethro Budkin."

"The accent," announced Inufgot, "is on the second syllable."

"What?"

"It's Ih-nuf-got."

"Ih-NUF-got," Beethro struggled.

"Good! But there's no need to shout the accented syllable; it merely has a slightly higher pitch. You can practice it."

Beethro grinned sheepishly. Inufgot continued twisting his beard. Beethro began to explain his business.

"Do you like music, Mister Budkin?" interrupted Inufgot.

"Everyone likes music. Sure."

"Everyone thinks they like music."

"Well, if I can't speak for everyone, then I'll speak for myself: I like music."

Inufgot's finger had become tangled, and he was now concentrating on freeing it from his beard.

"Mister In...Inufgot," said Beethro. "I need to get a door open, and I want you to make me a bomb. I heard you could do it."

"Why on Eighth would I ever be interested in doing that? Go bribe somebody at the Department of Confiscated Magics, but don't bother me about it. Would you ask a great artist to paint a fence, because he's good with brushes?"

"I'd pay you, of course," continued Beethro. "You could use the money."

"At this time, I am discovering the Universal Song. It has already been written by human nature, but I may require my entire life to find it. What if I waste a day on your silly little job, and die the day before I would have completed my journey?"

"What are you talking about? The Universal Song?"

"The Universal Song!" agreed Inufgot, raising his two thin arms triumphantly.

"But what is it?"

"Come inside. I will explain."

Beethro considered leaving, but he judged there might be a small chance of convincing Inufgot to help him. So he followed the man. Inufgot disappeared inside his home without a backward glance. Clearly, he expected an audience.

"Now that I have brought you into my house, we must use first names. You shall call me 'Mobley', and I will call you 'Beethro', until one of us seriously offends the other."

"Whatever you like, Mobley."

"Can I interest you in a cup of leafjuice?"

Beethro surveyed the room. It was the chamber of a mad scholar. Everywhere, were books and papers, charts and diagrams, much like his own cluttered home, but in an intellectual style. A massive pipe organ commanded the far end of the room. A small bed and stove were found in a corner, taking as little space as possible. Apparently, the majority of Mobley's space was needed for his project.

"Oh, I'll pass on the leafjuice," said Beethro. "Thanks, but I don't have much time."

Beethro spied a plaque on the wall. Upon its surface were familiar words:

"Within our halls, great knowledge grows.
Outside the walls, there wait our foes
To steal all thought that we compose.
Let each speak not that which he knows."


These were the words of the Architects' Oath. On more than one famous occasion, an exterminator had cornered a Dungeon Architect and asked him for information. Exterminators spent their lives working in the tangled subterranean constructions of the Architects, so naturally, they wondered about a great many things that only an Architect could answer. However, no Architects would speak of their craft. When pressed, they would ignore all questions, close their eyes, and repeat the oath aloud, over and over again. You could offer, plead, cajole, threaten, torture, or drug them--it didn't matter. You might convince an Architect to admit to adulterous affairs, bedwetting, schemes to murder, and the most extreme perversions involving turnips, but that same one wouldn't breathe a syllable about his work.

So this truly was a Dungeon Architect, thought Beethro. This one had built the strange, confounding rooms that Beethro walked in. The plaque also implied Mobley considered himself a fraternity member in good standing, and did not intend to part with his secrets. Beethro became less hopeful about receiving help.

Mobley brought back two cups of leafjuice from his stove, and gave one to Beethro.

"Now then, what sort of music do you like?" asked Mobley.

"I like lots of stuff--Mumpa waltzes, new stage croon, anything south of Blome sounds good. But not those droners in Orthton."

"Blah! That's not music. None of it!"

"Then what is it?"

"That's culture. You hear familiar rhythms and note progressions. It makes you happy, because it comfortably confirms your identity."

"Hmm. Maybe, but it's still music."

"What I'm talking about is pure music that a mind free of culture can appreciate."

"Well, that might be okay," allowed Beethro, "but you should come up to the Roasted Roach Grill on Thursdays when Jumbo Krood and his band play. I don't know if it's music, but he sounds great!"

Mobley shook his head. "Beethro, I cannot. If I leave my house, I will be infected with culture, and my mind will not perceive the Universal Song."

"Yeah, there's a lot of culture down at the Grill. You'd get it all over you."

Mobley pulled the drawstring of a rolldown chart to reveal a complex multi-colored diagram. He pointed at various parts of it while talking to Beethro.

"There are rules. If one note is played in combination with another, it will either harmonize or not. I have generated a list of all possible harmonic combinations in the octaves our ears can detect. Also, if one note is played, there is a long list of notes which may acceptably follow. If two notes are played, there is a second list of notes, a subset of the first, which may acceptably follow. Again, with three notes, and further. I have catalogued all possibilities for producing music acceptable to the human ear."

"Good job," said Beethro, clapping Mobley on the back. "Somebody had to do it!"

"But clearly it is not enough to create correct, but mediocre music. There must be a formula that provides the inspiration for the music. This too, I have discovered!"

Beethro took the extra cup of leafjuice and resignedly sat down. It seemed that Mobley had been waiting years to share this with someone, and finally he had found his victim.

"It's only a matter of refining this mathematical formula, and I will have the perfect song--the Universal Song. It is the collection of notes most pleasing to a mind free of culture."

"Now why are you so down on culture?"

"Culture pollutes the musical senses. You become biased towards certain signals. You want to hear the drums. You want to be in a pub. You want to dance with the women. You forget the music. This is culture!"

"But that's fun!" protested Beethro. "You can enjoy all those things and music at the same time."

"You have your fun, and I will have my glorious Universal Song!" resolved Mobley.

"Do you hear the Universal Song on that beast over there?" Beethro pointed to the pipe organ.

"Yes, I use that to test my formula, since I can't reliably produce a note in my mind which matches one on paper."

"Can you play anything good on it?"

"At the moment I can't play anything, because the organ isn't wound."

Beethro inspected the machinery, starting at a set of bellows, and systematically working his way down the connecting levers, gears, and pulleys. A pulley chain disappeared through a hole in the wall. It went outside. Beethro knew what that meant.

"You've got a clockweight outside. You have to lift that sucker up yourself because there's no Clockwinding Service or connections in the Low Spaces."

Mobley nodded grimly. "Once or twice a week. It takes me three hours each time."

"That's too bad. I was hoping you'd play 'Kooley Got a New Brick'."

Glaring at Beethro, Mobley spoke slowly and quietly, "I do not know how to play 'Kooley Got a New Brick'."

"Well, maybe that other thing then."

"What other thing?"

"The Universal Song, I mean if you think it's worth hearing."

Mobley reddened at the casual insult. "Get out! Get out of my house, Budkin!"

Beethro shrugged and left. He was getting tired of listening to crazy lectures, anyhow. There was a fine line between being polite and being dishonest, and to stay with Mobley much longer would mean crossing it. He decided he would try one more thing and, if it didn't work, give up on getting help from Mobley. He went outside and around to the back of the house. The clockweight was a huge metal ball that weighed about two hundred pounds. It lay on the ground with a slack chain connected to it. The chain ran through a geared pulley suspended from a ten foot post. There was a winch on the ground, which could be used to pull the clockweight to the top. Once there, its downward pull could animate all sorts of different machinery connected to the gears.

In central Dugandy, there was a much larger version of Mobley's clockweight. The energies of that massive weight powered the entire city. As the Great Clockweight slowly lowered, a vast system of gears, pulleys, and pneumatics distributed the strength of 512 men such that it opened doors, pumped water through pipes, churned butter, spun looms, and set in motion many important things. Those 512 men, called the "Clockwinders", spent their days yoked to gears that would lift the Great Clockweight. During the day, by walking in countless circles they slowed the constant descent of the weight. In late evening, as the demands of the city lessened, they would reach a happy moment where the weight held steady, falling no further. With a hearty cheer, the winders would press harder against their yokes and the weight would begin moving upward. A gradual rise would continue, and several hours after sunfall, they would bring the weight to the topmost point where it could be wound no further. Finally, the 512 men would unyoke themselves and go to sleep.

If Mobley lived higher up, his smaller clockweight could be connected to the Great Clockweight. As long as he payed his taxes, the Clockwinders would keep it freshly hoisted by the sweat of their backs. But in the Low Spaces, seasonal floods and criminal activity made building and maintaining connections impossible, plus nobody down here had money to pay for it. So it was not surprising that Mobley's clockweight required a local winding.

Beethro figured the winding winch would take a long time to raise the weight, but he knew another trick. He lifted free the ratchet that the winch used to keep the weight from falling down. Then he gripped the giant metal ball and threw it mightily into the air. Thankfully, the slack chain snaked through the top gear and caught in place. Beethro kicked the winch, which caused the ratchet to fall back. Cautiously, he stepped out from underneath the clockweight. The chain slipped a few inches then caught firmly in the gear's teeth, holding the weight up in the air. "Ugh," thought Beethro, "that felt like three hours work, even if it wasn't." He stood back a moment to admire the clockweight with satisfaction. "It's good when things are working," he thought. The ball was in its correct place, machinery standing ready to serve. Here was one simple thing he could set right.

Beethro walked back into Mobley's house without reannouncing himself at the door. Mobley apparently hadn't expected Beethro's return. "You!" He jabbed at Beethro with his finger. "I meant what I said. Get out of my house!"

"Now listen," said Beethro. "Your organ works now. I would like it if you would just play this Universal Song without telling me about why it is so great. I just want to hear it and make up my own mind. You could talk for hours about it, but that won't convince anybody!"

"I am not trying to convince you of anything. Obviously, you wouldn't be able to appreciate it."

Beethro sighed. "Please. The organ works. Could you just play the song?"

"Well, I..." Mobley trailed off. Beethro looked up at him expectantly. He really was curious about the song. If Mobley played it, he would try to hear it the right way, although he wasn't sure which way that was.

"Well," Mobley repeated. "I'm not really done with it. It doesn't sound as it should. The permutations created by the formula, you see, they don't place notes in a--"

"Courage, my friend! Courage! The first rule of good showmanship is that when someone asks for a performance, make no excuses and get to the task! You will show your best, and that should never begin with an apology."

Mobley took a moment to judge this statement, and then strode to the organ without speaking another word. He sat firmly on a stool, facing rows of carved goblin bones that were the keys of his organ. From his front pocket, he withdrew a piece of paper, unfolded it, and set it upon a shelf before him. He cracked his knuckles violently above his head.

"There is just one thing I must make clear before I begin, and it is not an excuse. I did not write this song. Human nature wrote the Universal Song, and I am only discovering it. Someone else on a different continent could discover the same song if they followed my path."

And then Mobley played the Universal Song.


The song finished and Mobley and Beethro quietly looked at each other. Mobley was nervous and unsettled, like a man waiting to hear news from a doctor. After several moments, Beethro finally spoke.

"Sir, thank you very much for playing your song. You've worked very hard on it, and I don't think it is right for me to speak my opinions, because I don't fully understand what it is. I'll just say that I have never experienced anything like it, and I hope you will continue your work."

Mobley nodded urgently. "Yes, but there's so little time, don't you see? You're going to ask me to do something. I don't know exactly what it is you want, but I certainly can't waste my time on it. The Song must come before everything! I am old and I might not last long enough to finish it."

"Sure, sure. We're all running out of time for the things we want to do. Believe me, I know what that's like."

"Even now, I've spent precious time talking to you out of self-indulgence, and I fear I will pay for it."

"Okay, we are both in a hurry to get things done. Maybe you more than me--let's leave it at that. I can help you with your problem. There's a really obvious thing to do. You are spending five or six hours every week on clockwinding. Clockwinding! Let's not be grubble-wise and greckle-foolish; here is where your life energy is being wasted!"

"So you're going to come down here every week and wind my weight?"

"Naw, not me--I'm too busy. But I'll send a few of my nephews to do it. That's no problem at all, and they're good kids. They won't bug you either."

Mobley's expression was doubtful and he took some time to consider this offer, but Beethro knew Mobley had already come around. A person doesn't want to be fickle about decisions, but internally they are made in an instant. Judgment turns suddenly, and the rest of the mind dawdles behind with worries and justifications.

"So what is it that you are trying to do then?" asked Mobley.

"There is a door in Dugan's dungeon. It can be opened using an orb on the side I can't reach. There's no way to get over there. So I want to blow up the door with a bomb."

Mobley jumped from his stool, gesturing wildly with his arms. "There are so many things wrong with what you just said. Firstly, it shows incredible disrespect to those that made the door. You want to destroy what one of my brothers constructed. Architecture is sacred. We do not destroy our own works, or lend aide to those who would.

"Secondly, bombs are illegal. As you know, the materials needed to make them have been classified as 'magic' along with some very helpful combustibles that would make our silly clockweight system obsolete if put into use. It's rather stupid, but that's the law of the land, and I can't do my work from prison.

"Thirdly, do you know how much explosive force you would need to blast a door open? Well, of course you don't, because you're here asking for me to do this. There's absolutely no way one person, or even ten, could carry it all to the door in one trip. And as stated previously, this is all illegal, so shortly after everyone sees you and your friends trudging up the hill with this gear, you'd be arrested and/or killed." Mobley shook his head. "Dumb, dumb, very dumb."

"But what about blasting the walls on either side of the door?" asked Beethro. "Surely that would take a much smaller explosion to break through stone instead of metal."

"Do you think we build these things so any old fool can waltz up and smash them down? It won't work, I tell you. Now fourthly, if I may continue, there is a much better way to open the door."

"Why didn't you say that to begin with? You could have just said, 'Firstly, I know how to get past the door,' and we wouldn't have to do all this counting."

"I didn't want to get your hopes up, because it won't work either. And Fifthly--"

"Wait! Hold up on the fifthlies and sixthlies. What is this 'better way' and why won't it work?"

"You would need to describe the exact location of the orb on the unreachable side of the door, including its position relative to the level entrance and other orbs in the vicinity. You don't have that kind of information, and other Architects certainly won't give it to you or even me."

"I got all that. I'm a Smitemaster, and it's my business. I drew up maps of Dugan's on my last trip beneath. I've got my own copy, plus they're all on file at the Guild Hall. Standard stuff, really."

"Oh, I didn't know you fellows did anything down there besides chopping up roaches. Well then... bring me the maps."

Beethro unshouldered his pack and opened it. He quickly found the scroll he was looking for and gave it to Mobley, who spread the paper flat on a table and studied it.

"This will do. There's only one more thing I need."

"Sure. What?"

"You to leave, so I can begin working."

Beethro happily left and walked back up into the hills. He had no idea what Mobley had planned, but he had made a deal with a Dungeon Architect and that was worth something.

Odor to Joy performed by Alan Reid. Thanks Alan and also Ludwig.

Beethro the Delver: Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5

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