We further scrutinized the members of the Council and their chamber from our vantage point in the balcony but at length we became peckish and decided to repair to the inn for supper. The inn, which rejoiced in the lyrical appellation "The Taproom", was ready to receive us. We were just tucking into the cook's finest when we chanced to overhear a man and woman nearby. The woman was very upset because her brother and numerous other people, apparently mostly lower-class types, had gone missing of late. Her male companion cautioned her not to get involved. When he stepped away for a moment I went over and introduced myself. Upon inquiring about the missing persons she mentioned that there was a notice board at the park with notes about some of them. I assured her that we would do what we could.
Now, normally I'm not one for the gallant knight routine but in this case I suspected that these other disappearances might be related to the those of the Natal family. As we discussed this new bit of news we were interrupted by a pair of gnomes, with the typically improbable gnomish names of Bulb and Gimp. I glanced about and noted that our own gnome Boomtock had not returned from his perambulations. Careless coincidence or careful calculation? One could only speculate. The two fellows were most anxious to meet with Boomtock, much in the way that a professional loanshark's kneecappers are anxious to meet their clients. With little prompting they explained that the fellow had seduced a good many of the young lasses in their little gnomish enclave and his immediate return there was of the utmost importance in order that he begin his paternal responsibilities. This did at least help explain why he was currently pursuing the life of a gentleman of the road with such gusto. The two rushed off, allegedly to prepare a fun "surprise" for Boomtock.
Eager as I was to watch Boomtock enjoy his lovely "surprise" I went with the rest of our party to visit the notice board at the park mentioned by the distraught woman. On the way we came upon a delightfully well-appointed carriage. Glancing inside discreetly K espied a very fashionably dressed woman with light brown hair--and the young heir Broderick! Just at that moment the coachman whipped up the horses and the coach moved off smartly. I alerted my fellows and Uhmri, stout lad, volunteered to give chase.
The rest of us soon fell behind the Wolfskin Wonder and we decided to continue on to the park and rendezvous with Uhmri there. Arriving, we found that there was indeed a message board with numerous notes pleading for help finding missing friends and relatives. Several mentioned a place called Inspiration Point. We then surveyed the scene as we waited for Uhmri to return. A man in the tasteful attire of a wealthy gentleman-cavalier passed nearby with a small boy. We overheard some persons nearby refer to him as Lord Cayden, however they also remarked that he seemed to have a different young boy with him each time he took the air.
Now, normally I would take an immediate interest in any potential patron with a noble title, but this business about small boys gave me great pause. In my previous life with the carnival one of the clowns was found to be procuring young boys from panderers in the worst parts of town. After finding him with one of them in a state of undress we left him at the bottom of a canal. It's one thing to match wits with an adult, but quite another to exploit pathetic little urchins like I once was.
Boomtock then put in a surprise appearance. We informed him of the two fellows from his village who earnestly desired to meet with him. We also pressed him as to whether he did indeed have numerous offspring awaiting his fatherly attentions. The gnome quite freely admitted to his multiple indiscretions. However he then alternated between amusement and insouciance, interspersed with attempts to convince us that his pursuit of the adventuring life was a means to garner the funds necessary to support all the little tykes. The company was quite united in our disapproval. Boomtock then became distracted and dashed off.
Not long afterwards Uhmri arrived at the park, but immediately rushed off to join Boomtock who was chasing a squirrel around the park. We were puzzled by this behavior, his former calling of a man of the woods notwithstanding. Eventually K was able to persuade him to come away. He said he'd followed the carriage to a fine house by the river and we immediately set off. As we went along the tone of the neighborhood improved street by street until we found ourselves in a rather well-to-do area.
A reasonably well dressed bourgeois man passing by recognized me. How nice it is to be noticed by a fan! The countless hours of practice and rehearsal, the choreographed discipline of the performance--and all for the delight and edification of those rare few in the audience sophisticated enough to really appreciate it all. The fellow was positively gushing with praise. He'd apparently seen me perform a number of times and was quite impressed. I basked in the well-deserved glory for a few moments but we needed to move along. We took our leave and just as we were parting he said "I hope you'll be performing again soon so I can bring my son along to see you, Rovert!"
Rovert! By the gods! The imbecile had mistaken for that cheap charlatan Rovert. I was of a mind to chastise the fellow but decided it was better to have a fan of the stage remain enthusiastic for future opportunities.
After a bit more walking we came to the house where the carriage had led Uhmri. It was a fine house, three stories but smaller overall than the Natal mansion. It had some lovely landscaped gardens around it and a high wrought iron fence. Then, to our surprise, Uhmri approached the gatekeeper and said he'd brought his friends back as the Lady had requested. Uhmri then calmly mentioned to us that the Lady was quite nice and they are friends. We were rather taken aback. The former druid had not said anything about speaking to anyone at the house, let alone agreeing to lure us back here. I began to surmise that our rustic rambler might be under an enchantment--which was quite possible if we were indeed dealing with a witch.
Despite some misgivings we entered and followed a footman around to the rear of the house, which was along the river. In back was a small, tastefully built plaza with a table and chairs set for guests. A small pleasure barge was tied up by the bank nearby. The lady we had glimpsed in the carriage awaited us there. She was of very fair countenance but wearing a surprisingly casual dayrobe for meeting strangers. I notice that there were a couple of servants but no armed guards in sight. She was either a bit naive or more powerful than she appeared. I decide that it is better to assume the latter.
We introduce ourselves and she confirms that she is indeed Lady Caldwell. We are seated and served a rather decent wine. The conversation is polite but a bit stiff on our part. Lady Caldwell confirms that she has taken Broderick under her wing and earlier had her people move some of the furniture from the old mansion to her house here. We inquire about the servant Kevin and she claims no knowledge of his whereabouts. We then mention the two servants imprisoned in the house, one dead the other surviving. At this she takes a sudden keen interest in the fate of the survivor. To protect the poor woman we assure Lady Caldwell that the woman remembers nothing and is not likely to recover. The Lady seemed very relieved to here this, which heightened our suspicions.
Later Broderick was brought out and Brute went off with him, under the pretext of seeing how the young chap's fencing practice was coming along. As we continued to converse with the very charming Lady, some of us espied a rather shifty looking fellow with a strange leather mask or hood on slipping into the house. From his demeanor it appeared that he was no stranger to the place and quite used to letting himself in. After a bit more polite conversation we took our leave and she personally saw us out to the main gate.
Outside we traded theories and ideas. It occurs to us that she does not look like the woman in the portrait with Broderick, which is reassuring, but it is still all a bit unsettling. Uhmri is still far too pleased, and in a strange manner, to be her very good friend. Then we spot the fellow with the mask just down the street, apparently having just departed the house. The game is afoot! He heads down a street and we follow as discreetly as a group consisting of a well-armed priestess of the Light, two hulking odd-fellows, a chap wearing a pile of dead wolves, and fashionable man-about-town is able.
To our relief he is too intent on his business to notice. We follow him into a decidedly low-rent area of town. On the way Uhmri suddenly buys a roasted rat-on-a-stick from some questionable cobble-griller. For a man who enjoys his food fresh, particularly after catching it himself, this was most odd. And rather disgusting. Even the odd-fellows disapproved, which is saying something. And not long afterwards he suddenly acquiesced to the blandishments of a common street tart. To our astonishment he immediately went behind a nearby tree with her and copulated with the utmost gusto. What had gotten into the man? Had the sights, sounds, and smells of the urban scene been too much for his sylvan sensibilities? His behavior in the out-of-doors was rather rough hewn, as one would expect of his former profession, but he at least had some standards. K suggested that perhaps he's been replaced by a changeling, like the one we met that evening in the woods. I agree and suggest we should monitor his behavior more closely going forward.
By this time the masked ruffian had arrived at a small, run-down house. At his knock four equally low-class types joined him, and all carrying sacks. With the paid help of a street urchin we followed them to a Inspiration Point, a small beach backed by woods frequented by young lovers and other youthful types. The ruffians were apparently there looking for someone to snatch. And evetually they did, a young girl named Jill. But we were too late to stop them. Brute noticed the wheel marks of a cart on the far side of the woods and Uhmri rushed off ahead. A chase after a pair of carts in the dark proved fruitless so we headed right back to the Caldwell house, assuming that was the destination.
At the house we met Uhmri waiting outside. He told us he'd seen a carriage with Lord Cayden arrive. Lady Caldwell came out to greet him in person and told him something like "I have something to show you I think you'll enjoy." It was all rather circumstantial but we were sure we were on to something. After a bit of hard consideration I put on the magic ring which made me invisible and had Kull lift me over the fence. I hoped that my lovely Katherine would be able to remove it as before, but that would have to wait.
I began walking to the house. With the influence of the ring everything went a bit gray and blurry in addition to the dark of night. I made it to the house without being noticed and slipped inside. There were a few servants bustling about, most likely preparing for the Lady's entertainment of her guest, the loathesome Lord Cayden. Slipping upstairs I found the room where the two were conversing. The Lord stood before a mirror, stretching in an odd fashion and remarking "This is wonderful". He didn't appear any different than when he'd come in so it wasn't clear what he was getting at. The Lady seemed quite pleased that he was enjoying whatever it was.
I tiptoed quietly around more of the house but it was unoccupied save for the occasional servant. In one room I found a small boy, obviously Lord Cayden's latest victim. Then I heard dogs barking outside. My heart froze. The ring might protect me from being seen but I doubted it would cover my scent. I heard the Lady call out, apparently to the dog handlers, to find out what was the matter. They shouted back that it was nothing. I wondered if the dogs had caught wind of my companions outside.
Things were getting rather tight but I hadn't looked for a cellar yet. One last quick look around and then back out to the fence I decided. Slipping down to the kitchen I almost ran into the masked chap and one of his henchmen carrying in large sacks which appeared to have people in them. This was it! I followed them into the cellar and down a long corridor. At the far end was a large, massive door fit for a fortress. They went in and locked it behind them. Clearly I had a bit of a wait ahead of me. I had a quick look around the other rooms but they were quite ordinary. I did, however, happen across a bottle of a decent red from the wine cellar; sneaking about in stately homes of the aristocracy can be thirsty work, as I am sure you are aware.
Finally the huge door opened a bit and the masked chap came out. I figured that with me invisible I could probably finish him here in the cellar without anyone hearing. "Come Dark Chaos!" I intoned, and two long, tentactular whips of pure dark chaos stuff shot from my palms and struck the villain smarty. He panicked a bit then swung wildly about him with a sword. I tried to dodge but as a civilized man I was unused to such exertions and he wounded me in the side. To my surprise my blood was visible even while the rest of me remained unseen! This calmed his nerves and he said that whoever or whatever I was, if I could bleed then he could kill me. I told him that I was a ghost and that this was his blood and soon he would die. I lashed at him twice more with my dark, shadowy tendrils and he fled back into the fortified room. I followed.
The sight inside was not quite what I was expecting. There were cages with wretched prisoners, a large pile of strangely dessiccated corpses, and a dark room off to one side with an open archway. My quarry dashed for the archway and I unleashed a pair of my best illusionary hounds on him. They engaged him nicely and I started to take a second look around at the room. But then my attention was drawn to movement in the darkness through the archway. An even darker figure emerged--it was the black stone statue from the secret chamber of sorcery by the crypt in the mansion! My illusions would be useless against a thing with no mind, including my state of invisibility. Then I heard a noise behind me. The huge door was closing, turning the room into a deathtrap. I lunged for the narrowing opening and slipped through with nothing to spare.
The others needed to know so I dashed back up the stairs to the kitchen, clutching my side. Emerging suddenly into the kitchen I found my companions there, just finishing a bit of a dust-up with some of the Lady's retainers.