Following our late-night contretemps with the riverine child slavers who had posed as clerics of the Temple of Light we returned at length to the mansion, a place I was beginning to feel more and more at home in. Katherine slept in the same room as the rescued children so as to relieve their fears but a couple preferred to spend the night in the stable with the gentle giant Kull. Uhmri informed us that he planned to sleep up on the roof, but as I had earlier determined that he was in fact a druid I was little surprised. I was however very much taken aback to glance down a corridor on my way to a well-deserved feather bed and see Katherine happily embracing the odd-fellow Brute.
Katherine happily embracing the odd-fellow Brute?
I stopped, uncertain that I had seen what I had seen. But then it happened again...and again.
I quite literally did not know what to think. So with that I simply took myself off to bed and let the deep oblivion of the dreamlands take me away.
The sound of marching military boots awoke me with a jolt early the next morning. A raid! No stranger to the sudden arrival of the watch, I immediately dressed and mentally reviewed escape routes off the property. The troop halted outside the front gate and I heard the sargeant post two of his watchies and march the rest on. But they could be posting guards in a cordon all around and so speed was of the essence. I rushed downstairs post-haste to where Katherine already was gathering our troops, as it were. She was all business and brushed off my attempts to apologize for the fiasco with Veronica at dinner the previous evening.
For some minutes we waited in breathless anticipation of the assault, but none came. Apparently the house was simply being placed under closer guard. We soon continued discussing our next move. Katherine was determined to take young Broderick Natal to the city court and get him somehow recognized as the legitimate heir of his late councilman father Remi. I demurred, pointing out that the remainder of his family and apparently also the household staff had been mysteriously detained. If Broderick was presented as a surviving member of the family he might well be clapped in irons straightaway (and us with him, mind you). Katherine, however, was not entirely dissuaded. To mollify her I offered to make use of my not inconsiderable skills as a thespian to don a disguise and make inquiries at the court. I planned to pose as a distant cousin of Remi's innocently arriving in town for a visit and finding him missing. The group's reaction to my reasonably clever plan was mixed but in the end they were for it.
Katherine, Brute, and Kull gathered the children to head down to the temple once again. My K. was particularly concerned that young Merity be included--as was I, to be quite frank. However she was nowhere in sight. The mute servant Kevin, in typically semi-helpful fashion, tried to pantomime the situation for us. After a few moments of fruitlessly watching him we simply decided on our own that since she was not here she must be hiding inside somewhere. The gnome, too, was missing. This time Kevin was able to explain that the bearded little grasshopper was dead asleep somewhere inside. Clearly this Kevin fellow would have to be replaced as soon as Broderick and I got around to reopening the mansion.
So we went our separate ways for the day. Katherine, Brute, and Kull proceeded out the back with the children towards the temple. Uhmri set out for the market for something--mostly likely a new fishing pole. I went quietly back up to Remi's room to browse his wardrobe for a disguise. The contents were of reasonable quality materials but of a somewhat nouveau riche style. Clearly I should start planning for my own wardrobe once I was all settled in. Remi had been slightly taller and a bit thicker around the middle but I was able eventually to effect an ensemble suitable for the role I planned to play.
Suddenly it struck me that the mansion was very quiet indeed. Then I remembered: the secret treasure room behind the fireplace! It wouldn't take long to give it a look, and perhaps pocket a choice item or two, before heading out to the courts. I slipped down the corridors towards the study, the entire time dreading an encounter with Merity who was still on the loose somewhere. But luck was with me and I made it undetected.
|Trevor by the mosaic (image found on the internets, not mine)|
I paused, remembering that the houses of the wealthy often had secret back staircases. These allowed a way to get out of trouble if secret assassins arrived and a way to get into trouble if secret lovers arrived. This simple door likely opened into a bedroom--where Merity might be waiting. The hairs on the back of my neck stood up like a hedgehog's spines. I imagined her there in nothing more than a thin nightgown she was just trying on from Madam Natal's wardrobe, seeing me, and rushing over just in time for the gnome to walk in. I would never be able to explain my way out of it, secret staircase or no. But then, this might be just the hidden treasure-house of my dreams. I couldn't turn back now. I grasped the knob in authoritative fashion, took a breath, and made my entrance.
My rakish tilt of cap and well-executed grand sweep of cape were, alas, entirely wasted. The room was unoccupied--but by no means unfurnished. In fact the furnishings gave me more of a start than Merity in a nightgown. This was clearly a chamber of magick most foul. The room was hexagonal, the two walls to right and left each had a large mirror and the far wall a wardrobe. Mirrors again! Thankfully all the mirrors were covered with silk drapes to ensure that the viewer's soul could not be accidentally sucked from his heart and transported to the far nether regions of hell where cackling fiends would tear at it with cruel red hot claws and lash it with the tentacles of strange octopus-like creatures chained to the long rune-inscribed spinal columns of lich-werewolves which had been magicked by immersion in the caustic steaming oozes excreted from the bloated hind end of a...erm...I shook the visions from my head and focused once again on the intriguing wardrobe on the far wall.
It appeared ordinary enough--but as an experienced illusionologist I knew just how deceiving looks could be. A bit of prestidigitation from a safe distance opened the door, revealing an assortment of women's clothing and two wooden boxes. I gently lifted one box out with an additional bit of weirding and tossed it on the ground. It shattered and out tumbled a tome of the most obvious evil. I left it where it lay and brought out the second box. Removing the lid I discovered two cloth bags lying inside. Throwing caution to the wind I opened one and then the other. The first contained four rings, fitted with a gem of red, dark blue, green, and white respectively. The second held three items of mildly interesting jewelry. I was quite chuffed. Finally, things were looking up in the wealth department. But I had stayed in this room of arcane devilry long enough--perhaps too long. I descended the staircase, my spirits buoyed by the lovely twinkly bits of jewelry tucked snug in my purse.
As I learned later, the trio of Beauty and the Odd-Beasts had arrived in due time at the Temple of Light. They met a priest there, apparently a genuine one this time, and discussed placing the orphans as apprentices at farms and other rural places with a lot of animals and poop. Kull assisted the temple with repositioning a particularly large bit of ornamental stonework and they were rewarded with permission to arm themselves from an old crusader trove in the cellars. Kull found a superb greatsword, Brute a greataxe and massive bow, and Katherine a shortsword, mace, rapier, and spear--almost as good a haul as two bags of jewelry, one might say.
Umhri, meanwhile, was browsing the market stalls. He spotted the sneak-thief gnome we'd dealt with before who apparently made an entire career of posing as a child. The little blighter was helping himself to purses right and left. Failing to engage the interest of nearby guards he pursued the cutpurse on a merry chase about the market and finally cornered him in a woman's stall. Awkwardly, the scamp concealed himself under her enormous skirt. Uhmri seized the gnome's legs under her skirt and was almost arrested by the watch--who only now took an interest--for attempting improprieties with her nether regions. To Uhmri's satisfaction the gnome was apprehended and marched off. The young druid resumed his shopping and eventually purchased a rather decent set of protective bracers.
Back at the mansion I paused behind the fireplace and was annoyed to hear the gnome and Merity outside in the study. Merity had apparently seen me entering the study. For a tense few moments I listened to them search about the fireplace but they were unsuccessful. With my exit temporarily encumbered with their presence I decided to descend the stone steps to whatever lay below. A simple flourish of the wrist produced a quotidian arcane light to guide my way. The steps wound down into a small room with a heavy iron-bound door with a small barred window. The question was whether this door was to keep intruders out or something in. After viewing the witch's playroom upstairs I was on my guard. There could be any manner of creature penned in here. Then I spotted a key on a hook on the wall--proof that this was indeed for containment. Cautiously I peered through the bars of the small window...and something stirred within! Indeed there were two, one lying on the ground the other straining at chains set into the wall. They wore ragged-looking clothing and the active one made unnatural croaking and moaning sounds as it attempted to break free and feast on my flesh.
I leapt back. What manner of creature were these? The mansion had been unoccupied for some time and these hidden rooms did not appear frequently used. How long had they been down here? Then it struck me: they must be ghouls, unliving creatures kept here by the witch to dispose of the bodies of her victims. The unliving did not need food or drink and could be kept in such a place indefinitely. The view into the shadowed chamber through the small opening was poor but what else could they be? Ghouls were accounted to be extremely dangerous. Even thus chained they might use the necrotic weirding power in their eyes to compel me to place myself in their cruel grasp. But I knew that the unliving recoiled from the Light and quickly resolved to find Katherine at once to aid in dispatching the foul creatures.
Katherine, meanwhile, was enduring an awkward interview with the head of the temple, a certain Brother Lore. The trio described him later as freshly barbered, uncommonly fastidious, and smelling strongly of soap. Lore did reveal that the temple was closed on certain days because most of his people were away up north opposing the goblin menace. He also mentioned that he had not heard from them in weeks. Lore promised to ask the L&Os to station a paladin on days the temple was closed to prevent bogus priests from operating there.
Hurrying up from the cell level I paused behind the fireplace to ascertain whether Merity or Boomtock the gnome were still there. Merity babbled on for a bit as young girls do and then left to find more interesting pursuits. There were some indeterminate noises and then I heard some unpleasant grunting noises from the gnome. I was just blanking my mind to avoid imagining what Boomtock might be doing to himself after spending a time in unrequited proximity to the young maiden when the fireplace swung open. Damn! Damn gnomes and their annoying cleverness with mechanisms!
I stood nonplussed for a moment, then hit upon an idea. "I say, Boomtock, you're just the man I was looking for. I've found the treasure room. It's downstairs. It's desperately stuffy down there and I just had to come up for air. Do have a look won't you, there's a good chap." I went over and opened the window. He took the hint and disappeared down the steps. I edged over towards the door so I could run and get Katherine as soon as I heard the heavy door open. Alas, the annoyingly clever little monkey-man reappeared almost immediately. He reported finding no treasure, just some "people" in a room.
Back in town Uhmri continued his perambulations and by ill chance encountered Veronica, a woman who until last night had been my Biggest Fan Ever. In typical fashion, she immediately took a fancy to his wiry physique (apparently despite the home-made wolf pelt overgarment which he insisted on wearing). She was just moving in to take possession of her new toy when Kull, Brute, and Katherine arrived. As the two champions of womanhood took the measure of one another, Uhmri took advantage of the distraction to make his escape. But Katherine had no intention of shouldering his burden and helpfully showed Veronica the direction he had taken.
The three continued their shopping. Kull purchased some footwear, possibly his first ever personal experience with that particular item of apparel. Brute, stout fellow, found himself in the unenviable situation of holding Katherine's belongings while she examined several gowns. Bored and chagrined at his well-meaning but somewhat unmanly situation he made a terrible miscalculation. Turning to Kull he whispered in jest, "Run". Alas, he had entirely forgotten what a steadfastly literally minded fellow was our Kull.
Kull naturally assumed that Brute was warning him of some hidden danger and immediately began a one-man stampede through the crowded marketplace. His massive bulk went through the crowd like a plow down a furrow. The watchies on guard nearby made the mistake of taking up the chase. Awnings and baskets flew up like geese disturbed by a naughty child as Kull followed his new orders to the best of his ability. The pursuing agents of law and order struggled to match the raw power of his heroic thighs, each one possessing individually the might of a raging bull. He was unstoppable.
Katherine, after an extended period of careful consideration, finally decided on a truly lovely gown of finely woven deep sapphire blue wool with a lining of the fairest silk. Embroidery sewn by the most patient grannies in the city graced the hem and collar in delightful fashion. It was absolutely worth every last gold coin she had (which is exactly what she paid for it). But the romantic music of harps in her mind faded suddenly as Brute dragged her off to find Kull.
By now the largest of our odd-fellows was down by the cemetery. Kull stood, looking about with deeply furrowed brow. He rummaged about in the echoing caverns of his skull for the reason he was in this place but came up empty handed. It was a hard question. Kull wasn't good at hard questions. His friend Brute was good at questions. Perhaps Brute would know. So he set off to find his friend and ask why he was at the cemetery.
Brute, Katherine, and their shopping bundles followed the trail of sweaty, exhausted town watchmen scattered in the streets in the wake of the bipedal leviathan. They caught up with him at a small smithy. The massive odd-fellow had happened on it and asked to work on his newly acquired sword. Thus was he at his work, the very picture of controlled might. His childhood skills came back to him easily as he worked the steel. And he sang. He sang with a voice uncountably pure for one so misshapen. He sang with passion and feeling unleashed as his mind was concerned with hammer and fire. Nearby the teenaged daughters of the smith secretly enjoyed watching his glistening, rippling, shirtless skills as he worked. Brute and Kull had a joyful reunion like long-lost brothers then returned with Katherine to the mansion.
Uhmri made his way to the river bank just outside of town. He intended to relax after his rather unnerving encounter with Veronica, the Ravenous She-Wolf of Adan, with a bit of fishing. There was nothing quite so enjoyable as a bank, a stream, and a baited line. The sun was warm and the grass soft. Soon he was accompanied on the bank by several decently sized fish. He was just starting to really relax when he was suddenly accosted by two oafish watchies who claimed that fishing was illegal here. It was then that the young druid noticed the inconvenient sign nearby to that effect. The two demanded he pay a fine--in cash. Uhmri refused and after some roughhousing he dived in and swam quickly to the safety of the far bank. The pair bantered with him a bit then confiscated his fish. Squeezing the water from his assemblage of wolf pelts the soggy druid headed back to the mansion.
I, meanwhile, tracked down the servant Kevin. The fellow always seemed to know more than he let on and it was possible he knew all about the horrors in the secret cellars. However he seemed genuinely amazed at the secret room behind the fireplace when I revealed it to him. Then I led him downstairs to gauge his reaction to the ghouls. The poor fellow leapt back in abject terror, then fled with a silent scream curiously framed on his voiceless mouth. Needing time to think all this over I headed to a nearby tavern in search of a much needed strong drink.
Kull, Brute, and Katherine were nearing the house when they beheld the spectacle of Boomtock bouncing down the street like some large, bearded rabbit. He was pursued by an enraged watchie intent on his capture. The escapade was occasioned by Boomtock needing an entertaining diversion after the disappointment of not finding any treasure in the secret cellar. Looking out the window he'd spotted the two guards posted at the mansion gate that morning. The watchies were always a handy source of entertainment. He had quickly activated his magic boots and engaged them in a game of tag. After Boomtock disappeared off down the street, Kevin rushed up to the trio and wildly pantomimed something about "Trevor in prison".
At the tavern I ordered a drink. The barmaid began chatting me up, apparently taking a fancy to me. She asked me what I did. Confident in my well-chosen set of fine garments, with cap and cape adjusted to best affect, I looked into her eyes and said "I'm an illusionologist". Now, women love a well-dressed man. And when one combines that with a profession of significant status the effect is irresistible. She would be the moth to my flame. She looked back at me, clearly appraising my strong jaw and perfectly trimmed moustache. Then she said, "Oh", and wandered off to take some dirty glasses in the back for washing.
Back at the mansion, Katherine, Brute, and Kull followed Kevin down into the cellar. Entering the cell with little regard for their own safety they found a woman and man in servant's clothing chained to the wall. The man was already dead but the woman was barely alive. She struggled to speak but they saw that her tongue had been cut out. Also in the room were whips, some odd devices for drawing blood, and several brass goblets with dried blood in them. They brought the surviving victim up and made her comfortable.
Then they went upstairs to the witch's hex room. Entering to explore, Kull accidentally knocked one of the coverings off a mirror. Instead of reflecting him there in the room it showed him standing in a green forest. They quickly pulled all the coverings off and found that the other three mirrors showed scenes of a sea coast, a winter landscape, and a desert. The frames of the four mirrors were painted in colors suggesting the scenes: green, blue, white, and red. Noticing the arcane tome on the floor where I left it, Brute considered destroying it with his ax. Katherine prevailed on him to leave it, suggesting that the magic within could be used for good.
On my way back to the mansion I was almost trampled by Boomtock. He bounded down the street with a wild grin on his face, clearly enjoying the effects of his new boots. The two watchies pursuing him, however, were clearly not enjoying the effects of his new boots at all. Entering the house I encountered my three companions downstairs. I quickly warned them that there was a secret area with chamber of black witchery in the attic and ghouls chained in the basement. In turn they quickly explained to me all that they had uncovered in those very same rooms.
I was devastated. My mind reeled in consternation. How could I have been so blind? That poor woman in the cellar! How many times had one of us gone down there, looked in with a light, then departed leaving her still chained in darkness? Katherine challenged me on why I had not rescued the prisoner. She was incredulous. Her eyes blazed with passion. She was magnificent while I was nothing. Crushed, I attempted to explain how it all had seemed, the strange sounds the woman made, the darkness, and my plan to bring Katherine to use the Light. She would hear none of it. "Trevor, grow some balls!", she exclaimed. It was like being stuck in the face with a hard-thrown snowball.
I was spared further devastation by the sudden arrival of Uhmri, still dripping. We informed him of the recent important events. I showed the group the four rings I had discovered in the wardrobe with colored gems corresponding to the colors of the mirror frames. Then Kull finally remembered that he had a question for his friend Brute. "Why Brute say run?", he asked. That led to mention of the shopping in the market and only then did I notice all the weapons, armor, clothing, bracers, and shoes which my companions had acquired. I found that a bit annoying. I asked if they'd really spent the entire afternoon just shopping and flitting about town while I heroically braved dangerous secret rooms alone. They countered with a query on whether I'd actually gone to the courts as agreed. I counter-countered with the explanation that once I'd found a chamber of witchery and an apparent ghoul in the house the clandestine visit to the courts became of secondary importance.
We bickered and traded counter-counter-counter accusations for a while, then I left to make what apologies I could to the unfortunate woman from the cellar. She was resting in bed but seemed to not recognize her surroundings at all. Apparently the horrifying experience in the cell had driven her senseless. Humbled, I fed her some soup and tucked in the bedcovers.
Afterwards I returned to my room. Exhausted and rather demoralized I dumped my borrowed finery on a chair and crawled under the covers. The fragments of my shattered relationship with Katherine were now completely ground down into dust. How could things possibly get any worse? At length I drifted off into an uneasy sleep and had a dream wherein I stepped through a mirror into a bright, fantastical meadow...