The trip back from the devastated village was blessedly free of any further incidents of violence. I abhor violence, the crudest and least human of activities. And indeed the last several days had encompassed a wide variety of behaviors ill-suited to my desired station in life. But at least for the journey back to Adan the worst in store was additional wear and tear on my pantaloons from the rough hewn seat of a waggon clearly built by one self-taught in the cartwright's craft. Once again, however, my slight familiarity with handling a waggon obliged me to be the one at the reins of our new-found rustic conveyance.
Keeping the rescued children entertained was an enervating occupation at best. The lovely Katherine prevailed on me repeatedly to sing songs to them but I wisely demurred, pointing out that my performing talents clearly lay in the arcane and mystical. Uhmri gamely had a go at it and I was surprised to find that he knew no sea-chanties whatsoever. Perhaps singing aboard ship tended to scare the fish away. The young Merity continued her besotted advances, all fluttering lashes and wide eyes, which I deflected with a reasonable amount of aplomb. The massive odd-fellow Kull was all the gentle giant with the tykes and played with them whenever they were in the mood.
At the crossroads where we were to turn for Adan our odd-fellow Brute found two wagons headed for the city and suggested that we hand the children over to the waggon drovers for transport to the Temple of Light in Adan. He eagerly explained that this would enable us to return north for more savage bloodshed with as little delay as possible--apparently thinking that this reasoning would serve as some sort of positive incentive. I objected immediately in the hopes that I could cut him off before any of the others be caught up in the madness. I argued that the drovers were complete strangers and we could not be sure of their intentions. To my great relief Katherine and some of the others joined me in opposition. His notion failed to pass muster with the majority of the group and we resolved to push on to Adan.
Not long after, Katherine revealed yet another secret to us: she had some elementary ability in the arcane arts learned from the sorcerer Keith she had met in her past. To my delight she prevailed on me to help her practice and develop her spells. She suggested that she could ride on the waggon with me and work on her spellcraft on the way. How could I possibly refuse so gracious an offer? She decided to try her first spell with us that same day at a small pavilion near the crossroads. It would be our first spell together and I was determined to enjoy it to the fullest. She first attempted the sending of a whisper, a spell I'd used many a time to let intruding pickpockets at our carnival know that we'd twigged to their presence. I was quite keen to hear what sweet nothings she would whisper in mystical confidence. As Katherine began the hand gestures, the wind wafted her hair to let the sun glisten off her burnished tresses and her lips moved to form her first arcane poetry and then...nothing. She tried again, but alas all was interfered with by her armor which she had neglected to remove. She promptly doffed her mail and helmet and tried again. This time success, but apparently the confusion had distracted her from conveying the intimation I expected. Instead she simply inquired if it was successful. Crestfallen, I drew little enjoyment from watching her next success in magickally lifting Boomtock's dagger from its sheath. However, she then used another spell to determine that the gnome was wearing an enchanted item. We ascertained that it was a ring he'd pilfered earlier from the bandit's cart of loot. The ring was one which greatly enhanced the wearer's ability leap--alas, perfect for gnomes for whom jumping about comes as naturally as to fleas, rabbits, and similar creatures.
We arrived at Adan, veritable crucible of culture, early in the morning and went immediately to the Temple of Light. We quickly handed the rescued children over to the care of some clerics there. Their attitudes seemed a bit odd at the time but I was too eager to get back to the comforts of the mansion to take proper notice. The mansion looked much as before, still close-shuttered and quiet--except for a succession of military drill commands which wafted over the courtyard wall. I quickly recognized the voice as that of the young heir, Broderick Natal, my potential ticket to the life of ease to which I was eager to become accustomed. He was busy ordering his mute servant Kevin about on the cobbled yard like a toy soldier but upon spying Kull over the wall he let us in.
After an exchange of banal pleasantries, Broderick offered a bit of news which ran through me like a lightning bolt: he'd sold off some of the old paintings in the mansion. Not only was I shocked that the young jackanapes would so casually dispose of potentially priceless artwork (likely for pennies on the pound to some fool-skinner) but that the mysterious painting reappearing in my dreams might have been among them! I abruptly took my leave and rushed inside in rather unseemly haste, eager to survey the remaining treasures. The others, meanwhile each took to their own interests. Boomtock hurried off to the main bedchamber eager to resume his bed-jumping but this time with the added effect of the ring. (The question of who in our motley party would get the annular arcane appurtenance after he broke his neck would have to wait until later.) Kull went with him to enjoy the show. Uhmri scavenged up some tools and set about turning his collection of rancid wolf pelts into an item of apparel, which I hoped he would quickly donate to someone worthy of it, such as a leper.
Inside I quickly located the large portrait of Broderick's illegitimate father, the recently deceased councilman Remi Natal. I was immensely relieved that this particular pigment-covered expanse of canvas was not among those liquidated. I also considered that if I could not unlock its secrets this time around then it would be wise to cache it somewhere for future consideration. As I pondered the portrait the lovely Katherine came up and requested that I accompany her back to the secret room. We returned to the main bedroom where Boomtock was fully enjoying the effects of his new toy, his neck impertinently intact. Kull was there as well, looking on in enjoyment. An image of the enormous Kull jumping about on the bed with the ring on briefly flickered through my mind; I resolved to not suggest any such thing to either of them.
Katherine lit a candle with her nascent arcane talent. The movements of her soft hands were deft and supple and, ah, the movements of her lips equally so...I shook off the enchanting vision and opened the secret wall panel concealing the small room beyond. Entering, we launched a thorough search of its contents in hopes of uncovering clues and information. It was immediately apparent that this was a chamber devoted to black magic. There was a classic pentagram circle on the floor, books of arcane lore including summoning and binding demons, ritual candles, and the small ritual "black mirror".
|Black Mirror (from Mirror by 7 Dragons)|
We rejoined the others and found that Uhmri had already completed his cloak. Bedecked in rough-tanned deceased lupine he now gave the impression of being some sort of druid. Well, a sort of half druid, half leper anyway. Perhaps he was less a fisherman than a riverine druid with a penchant for fishing. Only time would tell.
As supper time drew nigh I suggested to Katherine that we sample the gourmet delights of one of the city's dining establishments. A week of eating camp food which most trolls would refuse had left me pining for something, anything, more civilized. Katherine agreed, albeit slightly reluctantly, and I thought that at last we would have our evening together. My hopes were dashed immediately when she asked if the odd-fellow Brute wished to come along as well. He agreed and not wanting to appear uncouth I graciously acquiesced to the additional company. Katherine came downstairs dressed for dinner looking absolutely radiant in a long white gown.
|Katherine Radiant (fantasy_costume_2_by_colin_ashcroft; deviantart.com)|
|The dwarf girls will now dance for your pleasure (pic found on internet, not mine)|
|Veronica, My Biggest Fan Ever (pic found on the net, not mine)|
"Trevor, where have you been? It's been ages!"
"I, ah, I've been on a sort of tour across the country. Business, you know." I smiled, rather unconvincingly.
"We have so much to catch up on, don't we Trevor?", she said, in a tone rather too intimate for my present situation. I resisted the urge to glance at Katherine; it was absolute agony. "I haven't had dinner yet, why don't I join you?"
"Oh, well, my new business associates and I were just having a quick supper and then, had some business to, ah, take care of, you know." Pathetic--think you fool, think!
"Business. I see.", she said, her tone gaining a tinge of frost. She was looking daggers at Katherine. "So, Trevor", she continued, returning to her more sultry tone, "I'm free tomorrow. Let's do something then."
"Tomorrow, ah, well we have some things we're doing, and I'm not sure when I'll, ah, be free exactly, you see." I smiled unconvincingly again. It was hopeless. The best I could hope for now was to avoid an out-and-out actual slap in the face.
"Surely, you won't be busy in the evening Trevor", she countered, the frost creeping back over her words and her mouth hardening.
"Well, Veronica, I..."
"Well, nothing, Trevor!", she spat. "I thought we meant something to each other, but I see your new 'business' is more important to you now!", this time looking poisoned daggers at Katherine. "You haven't heard the last of this Trevor! You'll be sorry!" And with that she turned and made a decently dramatic exit, a woman scorned with murder in her eye.
Finally I could turn back around,and was peeved to see that Katherine and Brute seemed to have rather enjoyed our little show.
Dinner and the trip back to the mansion were a blur. What a fiasco! It would take all the ingenuity I could muster to salvage the battered remains of my already tenuous relationship with Katherine. A full bottle of wine before bed and perhaps something would come to me in the morning. The rest of our party was not at the mansion, having followed our example and set out to find victuals worthy of consumption.
As they related later, Kull and Uhmri made the egregious mistake of following Boomtock in search of a place to dine. Boomtock had no idea where he was going--which was the whole point of the exercise as far as the gnome was concerned. After uselessly thinning their shoe leather on the cobbles for an hour or more they ended up by a graveyard and the Temple of Light. They knocked and roused one of the temple staff to find out how the urchins were coming along. The confused cleric explained that the temple was not open on Tuesdays or Thursdays--and this was a Thursday. With a shock the trio realized that we had most likely handed the orphans over to some imposters that morning. Kull flew into a rage and kicked the temple door open. The three pushed their way in and searched for any signs of the missing orphans. Kull sent Boomtock back to the mansion for Brute, sensing that reinforcements were needed. Uhmri soon came across a backpack tucked away which contained sets of chains and manacles, something not at all typical of a Temple of Light. Alas, Kull had neglected to remember that Boomtock had found the temple entirely by accident and thus would have to rediscover the whereabouts of the mansion in similar fashion, and thus also return to the temple relying on chance.
Back at the manse, Katherine settled into bed to read one of the books discovered in the secret room. Downstairs I uncorked a bottle of something with "vinyard" on the label, little caring, and wandered down to the study to ponder the mysterious portrait and my equally cryptic future. I found the study in a shocking state and was at first concerned that persons unknown had ransacked it in search of the secret treasure cache. A cursory examination of the scene, however, revealed scuff marks high up on the walls undoubtedly left by the vertical peregrinations a certain gnome wearing a certain ring. Relieved but still peeved I draped my tired frame over a comfortable chair and set my mind to determining the original position of Remi's portrait. The cad had already gone to his hellish reward in a wretched little village in the back of beyond but he might yet lead me to my earthly rewards here. The walls had numerous light rectangles in the paint where the various paintings had hung. If I could but match the councilman's framed visage to its original location it would indicate where to start my search. And just half a glass of wine later the decidedly mediocre bit of brushwork was back where it belonged--with Remi's hand gesturing towards the fireplace! I set to work examining it with gusto. If I could just have half an hour to myself then all would be revealed.
Upstairs Katherine finished reviewing the arcane tome. It did indeed contain spells which might be learned but as a beginner she was unsure of the true nature of many of them. She put it aside for the night and was about to lay her head down when she heard whispering. The whispering was her name, repeated softy and suggestively, and it came from the Black Mirror which was still covered. Perturbed, Katherine rushed out to find me.
Uhmri, in the meantime, exited the temple to survey the area around it. In a corner by the steps was a sleeping beggar. Uhmri recognized the pathetic fellow from that morning when we had relinquished possession of the little snot-noses to the bogus temple priests. The fellow greeted him cheerfully, probably assuming from his canine-pelt overgarment that he was a fellow beggar. The beggar informed the former fisherman that a group of men had in fact taken the children away and that those same men had also been at the temple on the preceding Tuesday. Not long after, Boomtock returned to the temple. Alas, his surprisingly rapid return was because he had lost his way and circled back quite by accident. Being a gnome, he simply transmogrified the facts into something more enjoyable and claimed that he had returned to the mansion but found none of us there. Being a sensible fellow, Uhmri disbelieved the explanation immedately and set off for the mansion himself.
As a matter of fact we were all still very much at the old pile. Brute had gone in search of an armory in order to better equip himself. With some difficulty he was able to communicate his interest to the mute servant Kevin who then took him down deep into a series of cellars. At last Kevin stopped at the end of a hallway by a heavy padlocked door set with a small window. Brute was suspicious and inquired of the servant if there were any traps but Kevin was evasive. It was difficult to determine if the mute was indeed unsure or held back for reasons of his own. Kevin left silently, taking his candle with him. Brute peered through the window and in the pitch dark his unnatural odd-fellow eyes made out what appeared to be a crypt beyond. With that he left off his explorations and returned to the main part of the house.
All this while I was poring over every aspect of the old fireplace. The craftsmanship of the mantle and surround was excellent--which was exactly the problem. There were indeed many nooks, crannies, seams, protuberances, and bas-reliefs which might conceal a hidden lever or catch. Testing the multitudinous possibilities would clearly take some time. Just then I heard Katherine calling and by luck--or inspiration by my golden-tressed muse--I pressed the eye of a gargoyle crafted into a bit of mosaic. The back of the fireplace swung open! I was overjoyed, but closed the concealed panel and went off to join my my other secret treasure as she came down the hallway. As she related the disturbing whispers from the mirror, we were startled to find Uhmri creeping silently up the stairs in the darkness like some wolf-garbed assassin. He said he had returned to report the situation at the temple but I found his oddly stealthy approach suspicious. Was it because he'd heard my Katherine's voice hoped to find her alone? Druid or no, I would have to keep a closer eye on his whereabouts in future. But gathering Brute we hurried back with him to join Kull and Boomtock.
Our small band was soon reunited, both in body and purpose, at the temple. We lacked, however, any idea on where to find the kidnappers. They could be hiding out nearby or already in a lair outside the city. It was possible the charlatans would return to the temple on Tuesday, continuing their modus operandi of appropriating it on days when it was closed, but we dared not wait that long. Brute suggested we start searching down at the river docks. Lacking other direction we rushed down the darkened streets to the waterway. Emerging from a narrow street we came across the docks quite suddenly. Katherine was saved from a tumble into the dark waters only by a quick bit of magic by the gnome. There were several boats and barges quietly tied up but little else in view. Then the beggar from the temple showed up. I thought it odd that he happened to be here of all places, but then there few other people about on the streets from whom he could wheedle the odd copper or two.
I was about to tell him to sod off when a couple of my companions heard suspicious sounds from one of the boats tied up at the bank. Uhmri slipped aboard with surprising stealth, even for a druid of the rivers. He found quite a few barrels about the deck, which would not be unusual for a merchant cargo, then sought to ascertain the source of the sounds. But Kull, with typical disregard for caution, took the direct approach and called out for the children. Then, not waiting for an answer he leaped aboard and made for the cabin door. For a moment I was worried that he might be creating an awkward situation with some innocent boat owners, but far be it from me to get between the massive odd-fellow and whatever he was after. Instead I made note of the nearest dark alleyways in case I might have to depart via one with alacrity. This wouldn't be the first time I'd made an expeditious withdrawal from a potentially embarrassing affair. Smashing in the door Kull immediately encountered three ruffians. Two were menacing a group of the orphans with swords and a third stuffing a small child into a barrel.
With that discovery no further caution or niceties needed observing. The beast within Kull took over and he became a storm of axe blades, roaring like a tornado. The rest of us leaped into action as well. I jumped across to the deck with a decent show of bravado but Boomtock crept across with strange caution. I looked askance at him and he pointed to his ring and explained, with gnome logic, "This isn't a play situation". Uhmri opened one of the barrels on deck and was surprised to find a small child within. Katherine opened another by applying her budding arcane talents and also discovered a child. Not to be outdone I quickly considered the set of barrels in my vicinity. If Uhmri was rescuing pitiful trapped urchins in front of Katherine then I would have to do likewise, preferably with a great deal more heroic panache.
But oh, fateful choice. I pried the wooden lid from one oaken cylinder and who should emerge but young Merity. "Trevor!" she exclaimed with glee, "my hero!" And with that she flung her arms about me with abandon. "Ah, Merity", I replied with difficulty, "I'm so glad you are...all right". "Oh Trevor, I just knew you'd come rescue me!" she gushed breathlessly. She hung from my neck, her young arms squeezing my like a hangman's noose, clearly with no intention of ever letting go. I glanced sideways at Katherine and was relieved to see her and the others focused on extracting more children and passing them over to Brute on the docks. "Yes, well, we really must be going now Merity" I tried to explain in as casual a manner as I could muster. I struggled to devise a way to pry her away without actually laying hands on her. From the cabin I could hear the clash of steel and someone screaming, but it all seemed so far away. "Oh Trevor, my Trevor, how ever can I thank you? You've saved my life again. This must be fate. We must never, ever be parted again!" she vowed with the utmost conviction. There was some sort of activity on the deck behind me involving urchins and axes or something or other. "Um, look, Merity, there might be more of your little friends in this barrel here", I offered hopefully. Merity went even more doe-eyed at the suggestion. "Sweet Trevor, how so like you to think of others before yourself even amidst the worst of dangers. No wonder everyone calls you amazing!" She hugged my neck even tighter and laid her head on my shoulder. A bead of cold sweat trickled down my temple.
Katherine and the others had just about finished freeing the encapsulated young captives and would soon be looking around. I cast about wildly for some way to divest myself of my much-too-young admirer before anyone could notice our rather inappropriate-looking situation. Suddenly several of the released children rushed over and began hugging Merity. To my great relief she let go and exchanged hugs and words of affection with them. I stepped quickly away, noting the faces of my rescuers. I would have to remember to slip them each a shilling later as reward.
Kull staggered up the stairs from the cabin, barely able to keep to his feet. His axes were red with blood and the crimson liquid was spattered all about his person. Uhmri dragged one of the ruffians from the cabin alive but cowed with fear, the others presumably slain. Kull said something like "Yes, mother, I'll try", taking deep breath after deep breath to ease his savage energies. Boomtock helped calm the children with a deft casting of illusory fascination.. Brute stayed with Kull while he recovered; later the massive one plunged into the river for a cleansing bath. The rest of us returned to the mansion with the children. Merity kept trying to hold my hand the entire way back, repeatedly assuring me that now we would always be happy together. I resorted to entertaining the urchins with some stage magic as we walked in order to provide me with an excuse to need both hands unencumbered.
Back at the house Uhmri and I accompanied Katherine to her room in case the shrouded mirror began whispering her name again. As we entered the room I realized that this mirror was the same one which had appeared in my earlier dream. I decided that despite my misgivings I would have to explore its secrets before long.