Read by Chatull Aventari
Chapter Ten. Where’s the Egg?
Central Brittany is the biggest city of them all. As we traveled north through the region of Midmaer, all roads led to Lady Arabella’s city of Central Brittany, right in the middle of Novia. Lady Arabella kept her castle well. All trade and commerce in the land flowed through its mighty stone walls, and one could become lost in the great city’s countless varied and twisting lanes and alleyways of shops and dwellings. Arabella took great care to educate and care for the teeming population in her city, and it showed in popularity as a destination. The road we followed crawled with farmers bringing their goods to the markets, travelers out for pleasure, and many who obviously travelled alone for other business. Whisking by at a quick pace, these strangers did not pause to exchange pleasantries. So, we put our backs into it, and joined the throng.
The journey to Central Britanny was a blur of grueling motion, unsettled sleep, quick bites of bread and cheese, and more walking than any of us liked. Kitty didn’t seem bothered by the pace nor the distance. She was tireless and focused. When the imposing heavy wooden Southwest Door of the city came in view, I breathed a sigh of relief. I didn’t enjoy walking this far and was fairly grumpy about it. A boat or a balloon would have been far easier on all of us except Zyrina. Since I had made a promise, we walked, because it was the only choice left.
So, we walked. And I kept my grumbling to myself. My feet hurt, and my pack didn’t seem to fit right anymore or get any lighter, but seeing the city getting closer and closer gave me a good boost of energy, and the last bit of the trip to the city flew by. We slid inside the door just as it was closing at the end of day, and didn’t even have to declare our business.
The darkness of the countryside was almost entirely missing from the brightly lit city and it was fairly easy to make our way over to the Byrd Boardinghouse. After settling into our rooms at the boardinghouse we met in the street outside the front door.
“Ready to go find Elnoth’s Cartage and Storage?” I asked pointing down the lane.
Elnoth’s was close to my family boardinghouse, just as I said it was.
“What’s that?” Zyrina’s keen hearing alerted us to the booming sound.
“I don’t know,” Lucy cocked her head. “Sounded like an explosion to me.”
Aslinne nodded in tense agreement. We headed toward what we’d heard.
As we drew nearer, we could hear other sounds of alarm. When we were almost to Elnoth’s, we saw a small group of guards coming out of the building and we heard them grumbling about miscreants and firecrackers. The last of them stomped away not looking pleased. They shouted at us to stay out of trouble and went on their way.
I looked up at the tall sturdy building and wondered what we would find here. Then I grinned because I had no idea what would happen next. Searching for this elusive magic book had become one of those illusive challenges of my life, and had consumed decades in Novia in the blink of an eye. As much as I longed for home, this adventure was exactly where I wanted to be.
“Come on,” I encouraged my wary friends.
Earlier that same evening…
Bellis the acolyte raked his thick greasy hair out of his eyes and looked up from his reading. He had been drawn reluctantly from the book he clutched protectively in his lap while he lay curled in his small, rumpled bed, tucked up with hot rocks in the bottom and a steaming blue mug of tea beside him. A pounding at the front door of the Cartage and Storage where Bellis was the night watch cut through the page of adventure that he did not want to stop reading. He knew he would have to answer it, but he did not hurry to the task.
There were some strange comings and goings from the secure storage area, and Bellis was not sure Elnoth knew that he was sheltering a small group of Obsidian sympathizers from the Southern Red Branch, who used the third floor of the building as their secret meeting place. No one else was allowed up there. That’s where the magic portal to the secure storage area was located, too.
Bellis may have overheard snatches of conversation from the Southern Red Branch, but he didn’t think it was his job to inform anybody, and the Branch gave him treats now and then to deliver messages or small packages over to another location in the city.
They called him an acolyte. It sounded important but wasn’t. Bellis liked the arrangement just fine. As much as he wanted to ignore the knocking until it went away, the pounding did not taper off and just would not end. He sighed heavily. Bellis, the only one there, finally got out of his bed, unhurriedly found his slippers and old cloak, then took the flickering lantern with him down the narrow stairs to open the barred wooden door.
Bellis didn’t recognize the mage who had knocked, but he would not soon forget him. The robed, tattooed stranger barged in and immediately demanded “What took you so long?” Without waiting for an answer, the mage headed straight for the third floor as he commanded, “Bring me candles, salt, and wine!” When Bellis gathered these things and brought them to him on the third floor, he was muttering to himself in runic as he poured over a tattered leather book of magic that looked ancient.
Bellis may have been an acolyte, but he was not a very ambitious one. After providing what was called for, the youngster was asked to hold the chalice while the mage ground yet another herb. Uneasily, Bellis shifted from foot to foot and impatiently held the full silver goblet as his arms ached from the weight of it while thinking about his warm bed and good book. Now he was certain that he would not get back to his reading tonight at all and he was feeling grumbly about it, too. He could hear the mage muttering as he ground the fragrant herbs. Bellis didn’t actually care for magic and had no patience for the slow creation and meticulous bindings necessary for the powerful forms of the art. He was more interested in the porridge that he was given at the end of the day, and the books that he was allowed to read when he wasn’t sweeping or wiping or mending or fetching. But tonight, he was the only one here, and he could not fade into the background and be ignored in the way he tended to do.
Even Bellis could see that this mage had no idea what he was doing. He had to reference the book he carried for every word of power he spoke. He spoke the magic words in a shaking voice; he was doing it anyway, but not very well either. The secure storage was not easy to get into and the spell took time to mature. Accessing the hidden entrance to the secure storage – via a large book that was not a book – was not for beginners. The storage was so far below the building in the dark of the earth that magic could not be detected, not even Obsidian magic. Bellis had overheard the others talking about how they would never be detected, and had the protection of “a dark shard of the moon.”
Opening portals to other places was not an easy spell to begin with. Then Bellis found himself in the sort of predicament that the Southern Red Branch had warned him about. With the portal only part way open, a translucent ghostly lich slipped out of the blue of the forming, shimmering portal. The lich caught the attention of the mage, who lost his train of thought partway through the last word of the spell he was incanting. The lich receded, disappearing back into the shimmering part opening in the large book-that-was-not-a-book-but-a-portal just as the misspoken magic word ignited an explosion. The building rocked. Bellis was thrown against the wall, the wind knocked out of him. The billowing smoke didn’t make that easy to get back, and his eyes streamed with tears. He could see the strange high-ranking mage had escaped the worst of the blast, and was hurriedly gathering all his belongings into his bag. Bellis had a headache, and the ringing in his ears had him fearful of deafness. He saw the mage had managed to conjure a newly opened magical entrance to the secure storage area. It wasn’t pretty – there were jagged bits of blue light glowing around the edges – but before he could call out, the mage jumped in, and was gone. The portal remained, and the tome behind the Chairman’s place in the secret meeting room now glowed blue with the light of magic. Happily, Bellis was not deaf; unhappily, he knew this because he could hear the city alarms. Barely over the shock of the explosion, his heart jolted again – here he was all alone, left to clean up the mess this strange mage had made – and where there were city alarms, there would soon be the city guards.
Bellis knew he couldn’t make it out the door before the city guards would stream into the building, armed, and looking for troublemakers. He flew downstairs and scurried into the clutter of boxes and barrels on the main level, looking for a good place to hide. He froze motionless as the guard came trooping in through the door that he had left unbarred after the strange mage’s entrance. He shifted his position from shadow to shadow as the city guard did a cursory search of the building from top to bottom. Bellis could taste terror; was sure it would have been easy for anyone to see the wildness in his eyes. Would he be caught? Could he lie his way clear? Should he go to the other location and tell the someone? Bellis was forlorn, and utterly certain of only one thing: no matter what or who, he would be blamed. Silent, in the shadows, the city guard missed him when they did their last search of the main floor on their way out. Having found nothing amiss, they began filing out of the building, grumbling about firecrackers, and griping about the miscreant youths that they assumed had played a joke on them. The last guard out the door left it wide open behind them.
Luckily for Bellis, the owner of the business, Elnoth, was out of town. There would be no further inquiry that night. The city guard was gone, and very unlikely to return. The street outside was quiet; folk generally gave the guard lots of elbow room to do their duty. What of the Southern Red Branch? Would they return? They had given him a manual that included When a Spell Backfires. Bellis could see the chapter heading in gold written in runes in his memory as clear as day but he had no recollection of what that chapter had contained. Fear knocked it clear out of him. Fear stalked him tonight. His eyes twitched, his fingers itched, and his nose ran. He kept trying to catch a breath that would not stay with him. He was cold, and felt faint, but he was ready to run. He shivered and pulled his scanty scratchy woolen cape closer around his thin shoulders. But run where? His heated impulse to run to the Southern Red Branch’s other location in the city began cooling as he brought to mind the rumors about Nestor, who headed the Southern Red Branch. Bellis was young, but he knew how the world worked: it was not the boss who paid for mistakes. He didn’t want to pay for the mage’s mistake with his own life! He knew enough about Nestor to know that someone would have to pay for the explosion in the secret meeting room, and Bellis staunched his rising tide of panic by grimly deciding it wasn’t going to be him. He would run alright. But no longer to. Bellis was now running away. Bitterly regretting ever letting that soaking wet mage with those high-ranking marks on his forehead into the building, he leapt up and dashed for the open door.
In through the out door…
Unimpressed by the loutish city guards and the way they’d left Elnoth’s wide open, Lucy Featherbright stepped up to the open doorway just as a youth came running out, straight into her large unyielding form. The lad bounced back into the building and landed on his bottom with a loud groan. Lucy went in and picked the dazed fellow up off of the dusty floorboards.
“Well, hello there,” Lucy said, as she looked the lad over to see if he was damaged. But her words as she bent over him seemed to sting, and he flinched.
He did not look well treated. He said nothing in reply, just looked at the size of Lucy, saw the rest of us fill the doorway, and set his mouth.
“Seems to me, that right about now, you’d want to find a way to explain yourself,” Zyrina softly said, moving up closer to him.
“I don’t know nothing ‘bout nothin’.” He stubbornly set his jaw. Silence. Zyrina raised one quizzical eyebrow. He stammered, “T-the Cartage and S-Storage is closed for the evening! P-Please come back in the m-morning.” Then the silent jaw clamp.
“Getting anything else out of him,” said Zyrina, giving the fellow a deadly glare, “would take time. And I don’t think this little rabbit is worth the effort.” She put her knife back in her boot and dismissed him with, “Run, rabbit, run!” So we ignored him and moved on to search the premise. Because that explosion we had heard definitely came from Elnoth’s Cartage and Storage. The rabbit glanced sidelong at the open door and out into the street, but trailed after us, nonetheless.
“Perhaps he’s a sheep,” Lucy observed.
“Bellis,” he complained. “My name is Bellis.”
The mage we tracked had a habit of leaving explosions and fire in his wake, and the chance that somehow this address exploded just before we arrived didn’t seem all that much like a coincidence. We were rewarded with the capture of yet another scrap of paper, left at the top of the staircase where an old ladder leaned against the wall. It appeared to be a repeat of numbers we already had in our possession. This one was also shredded, as if ripped with sharp blades, but we could still read:
3 – 3 – 4 – 5
This was familiar. The old elaborate script was beautiful. It looked like it was something, or part of something, but what? Had we found something with meaning? Or is this some insane number game that has nothing to do with anything? Where on Novia could we find information about these number sequences? Was the Southern Red Branch part of something bigger? Something even more sinister? I wracked my brains and could come up with nothing. Phlebus might know, but since we hadn’t yet found him either, then the puzzle would have to remain. And where the heck were Torgin and Phlebus? My thoughts were turning and turning and there was no clear path to an answer. In the past I have found it useful to put a problem away and ignore it when I can’t immediately find a solution; often the answer just needs time to meet the question in the muddle of my mind. So, finally, with thoughtful confusion, I set the paper aside.
“Ah, another of those number sequences.” Zyrina placed it carefully it with the rest of the scraps we had found.
“Yes, we have seen that sequence before. This is getting tiresome. Until we find the key code those are useless to us.” Obviously, I was frustrated.
“Any more of these and we will be able to make a papier-mache dragon with them before the winter festivals at this rate.” Lucy quietly added.
Down on the main floor again, I looked toward the boy who had become slightly agitated and gave darting glances at the staircase. Perhaps there was something up there. So again, up I went. Storage. Not surprisingly at Elnoth’s Cartage and Storage. I smiled wryly. The boy’s little warren of sleeping pallet and squirrelled away food and books were tucked in behind the storage room. We’d been through that thoroughly. Then, in the shadows near the window at the top of the stairs I discovered the rickety ladder that I though had been leaning up against the wall for storage was not leaning; it was firmly attached, and there was a hatch in the ceiling. It led somewhere. There was a slight flicker of light from the ceiling and I realized there was an entrance to yet another floor in the building.
“Zyrina, Aslinne, Lucy,” I called. “I found something!”
The boy cried out, “Oh! Don’t go up there! They won’t like it!”
That sealed it. Up we went, one by one, Zyrina first and Lucy last. The dimly lit room had a somber appearance, tiled in black with a single black obsidian throne at the far end. Behind the throne we could all see the blue light of the tome that lay open on a pillar placed just behind the chair. It glowed. There were scorch marks all around it, but the entrance to somewhere else had been opened, and we were staring at the shimmering wonder of it.
“It’s a magical portal that looks like a book,” I concluded, looking around at the others. Lucy and Zyrina both understood, but Aslinne looked pale under the freckles that now stood out stark against the whiteness.
“Magic entrance?” She looked very nervous. “To where?”
I nodded, then shrugged. Nothing I could say would sooth the fear in her eyes.
“Well, are we going to look closer or not?” Zyrina glared over at Aslinne.
Aslinne gulped. Then she took a deep breath and slowly nodded once as she drew her knives from their holsters where they were attached to the sturdy leather belt around her waist.
“Are we ready for this? There might be resistance to our presence.” I was not going to rush into anything I wasn’t prepared for, but Kitty shook off Lucy’s restraining hand and leapt into the opening.
Lucy nearly followed but little Aslinne grabbed her by the arm and shouted, “Not without preparing, Lucy! Don’t be daft, that cat can protect itself far better than we can, if you go off halfcocked.”
That sobered Lucy enough that she stopped struggling against Aslinne’s grasp.
“She’s right. We don’t know what’s through there.” Zyrina said, swiftly and carefully preparing her poison arrows. “But that’s where we’re going.”
I didn’t know what awaited us either, and I wasn’t really interested in walking into a trap. “Do you think they know we are coming?” I asked as I checked the shaft of one of my arrows for bent feathers.
Rina shrugged. Lucy shook her head. Aslinne looked suspiciously at the entrance. I could see Lucy getting her potions and bandages all sorted out. Aslinne ran her fingers on the edge of her knives but she already looked ready to go. I didn’t need to check with Zyrina; I knew she would be prepared. It was good to have Zyrina by my side when there might be trouble. I always felt far more secure than any other time. I confirmed “Ready” when everyone looked like they were finished with their snacks and preparations.
Zyrina looked over to Bellis. “Coming?”
At last, the rabbit ran. Bellis bolted to the trapdoor as quick as he could manage. “I’m not going like a lamb to slaughter with you crazy people,” he called back as he scrambled down the ladder, disappearing as the hatch door closed over his head behind him. The rabbit into the hat.
Lucy heaved with laughter.
After that, on the count of three, we entered the swirling blue glow of the magic tome.
Through the swirl of time and space…
I smelled burnt flesh before we found ourselves in a sizable dark square stone room, empty of anything except packed boxes and barrels. It was solid stone and plain. There was no indication of where we were now located, but I had the sensation of being far, far underground. There were no charred bodies anywhere in sight but that didn’t make me relax; that smell came from somewhere. Though we each visibly relaxed a little, and Zyrina released her drawn bow as we looked around in the flickering glow of the torch Aslinne carried, none of us put our weapons away again.
“Now what?” Lucy looked defeated. “I smell burnt bodies, but I don’t see any here.”
Aslinne muttered something about smashing boxes, and I think she was serious. Crates were stacked haphazardly amongst barrels and towering piles of boxes and she quickly was out of sight as she wandered around to see if there was anybody else in the room. Before she was gone long enough for us to worry about her, she called out, “Hey! Over here!”
We picked our way through the precariously stacked maze, keeping to the narrow path open, winding our way to the sound of Aslinne playing a sea shanty on her recorder while she waited for us to arrive; obviously she was in no pressing danger. We finally found the path between boxes that led to her position. “Look what I found,” she said. A tall black banner trimmed in pulsing deep red had been pulled back to reveal a small exit from the storage area. It connected to a rough passageway hollowed out of the bedrock. None of us could see past the glow of Aslinne’s torch fading into the unlighted tunnel, except that there appeared to be a bend not far along. No sounds came out of the dark. It was quiet on the threshold of this new strange entrance. From what I could make out, it looked like someone had tunneled from the secret secure storage room of Elnoth’s to somewhere even deeper below the city of New Brittany. I wondered if Elnoth knew about what was going on in his storage business. I doubted it. I could see I would have to tell him though. This wasn’t the sort of thing that Elnoth would approve of, and of that I was certain. The smell of charring had not dissipated; indeed, it was now far stronger here at the entrance to the tunnel. I was a racing turmoil of equal parts curiosity and revulsion.
“Well,” I blurted too loudly into the quiet, “I guess we go in the tunnel?” Then I made things worse by loudly whispering into the echo, “Bellis said, ‘they’ wouldn’t like us. And I don’t think he was talking about barrels and crates. ‘They’ would have to have gone somewhere.” I nodded at the dark opening in the stone.
I was a little annoyed at being shushed by Zyrina, and also by how much Aslinne seemed to enjoy my being shushed, but I was also deliciously scared with all this cloak and dagger business, so I immediately forgave them. Or at least Zyrina. This was the excitement I had said I craved when I was at home in my little cottage only a few weeks hence. I had to keep saying that over and over to myself. I wasn’t going to let this fear of the unknown stop me from learning more about the Southern Red Branch and what they have been up to. And I wanted to find that book. And figure out what all the coded numbers and sigils meant.
That’s when we felt and heard another explosion.
“What was that?” Lucy looked around, startled.
“Aslinne’s exploding boyfriend?” Zyrina cocked her head to listen intently. “I hear nothing further.”
Aslinne’s torch lead the way into the tunnel at a rapid pace.
Lucy and Zyrina picked up their stride, and I found myself scrambling to stay within the circle of light that the torch threw in the dark hallway. It had lit our way through the storage room maze, and now down the dark tunnel. I didn’t want to be too far from the safety of the women who walked together confidently into the unknown.
Of course, as I kept watch to the rear, I didn’t see the trip line ahead of me, I accidentally activated a device that nearly burnt me to a crisp. I gave Lucy a dirty look as I tamped out the last of the fire on my cloak. “You could have warned me!”
Lucy ignored me. She was collecting some sort of fungus growing on the wall of the tunnel as she waited patiently for me to extinguish myself. “Hmmm?” she eventually turned around while stuffing some plant into her bag.
“Never mind,” I wasn’t very annoyed at her because I was busy being mad at myself. I sure would be more careful about where I stepped from now on though.
“So, someone else unfamiliar with the tunnel has been down this way, and they have caught themselves on fire, too. That’s what that smell is, the same as Lily smells like now. There will be someone ahead. Be wary.” Zyrina softly spoke.
She caught on the quickest of all of us, making the connection between the charred smell we had been smelling, and the burning surprise I accidently triggered.
Kitty hadn’t followed us into the rough-hewn tunnel. As Aslinne dashed ahead, the great snowy lynx had sniffed the air down the passage, wiggled her whiskers, and with one quick turn-around, Kitty bounced into the dark cluttered maze of the storage hall and disappeared from sight. I assumed she’d wait for us outside, as she had done when we went into various places in the city on the way to this building but of course I was wrong, which I would find out later.
The bend turned out to not be one. It was a steep path that led deeper and deeper underground. Down and around twisty bends in the rough tunneled hallway, we found an entrance to another stone room. I had no idea what part of the city we were under now and was considering trying to figure it out when we got back out of here. If we got back out of here.
It bothered me that Kitty had not come into the tunnel with us. What did she sense before she turned to leave? We had walked a long way to get to this spot. I was hungry and thirsty and didn’t much care for dirty tunnels that were probably full of spiders and other creatures of the night. Of course, we wandered through the door to a hall blithely having become accustomed to being alone in the dark. That was a mistake. A bad one.
Too many liches appeared out of nowhere in two fierce attack waves. They struck with fervor. Hollering, Aslinne ran heedlessly in the middle of them, slashing then dancing away, taunting them to follow. And they followed. They chased her with a singlemindedness that made it easier for Zyrina and I to get our weapons out and start picking them off one by one. Aslinne led them in a circle around the room. I was caught with my bow tucked away and struggled to even get a few shots into the nearest lich. Since Zyrina was peltering them with arrows I decided that some of that magic I’d been practicing and studying would come in handy and started saying the words for a spell that would slow the liches movements, using the water all around us in the damp cold room. It gave us precious time to arm ourselves properly. Eventually the strength of Aslinne’s flying knives and the arrows that Zyrina and I shot into the skirmish overtook the liches and we fought until the last ones stopped arriving. With Lucy there sending healing spells into each of us we had managed to stay alive, but just barely. I had sunk to my knees panting. I needed several moments to recover. There were minor injuries to my arms, but overall, I didn’t have any gashing wounds, and that seemed like a success. Zyrina had a small nasty tear in her shoulder, and Aslinne had a few cuts and bruises as well. Lucy plied us with potions and lotions until we begged her to stop. There was no going back now. I know I was curious before this fight, but now I was determined, and curious. I needed to find out what was going on. What are liches doing this close to Central Brittany?
“Well, that was exhilarating,” Zyrina wryly stated. “I wonder what else is in store for us.”
Lucy meanwhile was searching the entire area meticulously. “No egg here, Lily. No mage, either.”
Her report didn’t surprise me. I didn’t see anything but liches in that battle either. “I didn’t see the mage either, so maybe he is through that exit over there?” I gestured up the stairs to my left.
“What are liches doing under a cartage and storage anyway,” mused Aslinne, grumpily gulping one of the health potions that Lucy was handing out to each of us as she continued to treat our lacerations. “What are they protecting? There isn’t anything in here except some rubble. It just doesn’t make sense. What was this building before it was a cartage and storage?”
I shrugged. “This looks older than Central Brittany even, I bet it’s part of an older Obsidian city. I wonder how many old Obsidian rooms are down here?”
It wasn’t something any of us knew. I chugged the small potion that Lucy handed me without even looking at what it was then grimaced, “What in the name of anything was that?”
Lucy shushed me. “It’s going to keep your insides healthy. Don’t be a baby.”
Aslinne chortled, having just drunk her potion and gotten the same response from Lucy.
Zyrina ruminated, “The Obsidians had buildings and businesses everywhere in the realm for hundreds of years before they fell. It could have been anything. Phlebus would know, but that will have to wait until we find him. I want to know who made that tunnel from the cartage and storage to this room, and what else is down here.”
I got up and nodded over to one of the other exits. “Well let’s find out, shall we?” I didn’t feel as brave as I sounded but the others didn’t seem to notice; they each quietly readied their weapons and followed me into the dark passage. None of us needed to say anything at all. We knew the stakes were high.
But of course, the passage we tried lead nowhere. Dead end. When Zyrina discovered another passage out of the room up the other set of stairs we were still a little more than cautious about entering. It was a tiled hallway this time and not simply tunneled from the very earth and stone like the other ones that led to this spot. I assumed it would be another dead end, but followed with our remaining torch. It wasn’t a dead end, but it didn’t lead anywhere interesting either, only a small clerk’s office.
Zyrina thought the office we stood in must be a junior clerk’s because of the stacks and boxes of correspondence and files, and old half-eaten food items we found inside. Lucy started giggling then and had a hard time stopping.
“Whoever it is, they sure like to eat,” Lucy remarked when she had control of herself again. She looked with fascination at the remains of an apple smeared with peanut butter that was molding right on the middle of the desk near a stack of papers.
“What’s the smell?” asked Aslinne, her cook’s nose wrinkling as she sniffed the air suspiciously.
“We’re not alone,” said Zyrina. Weapons in hand, she reached out with her foot and flipped a short stack of boxes away from the wall shadow, exposing the eavesdropper hiding there. It was a faun. A trembling little faun, with a broom and dustpan.
With our drawn weapons and battle-ready faces, we were more than a match for the cleaning staff. The poor faun squeaked and dropped to its knees, the broom clattering to the ground.
“Don’t kill me,” it begged. “I’m just a slave! I’ll tell you anything you want to know!”
“Where is your satyr?” I asked, looking around the room, and into the hall in case we had missed a concealed satyr. The satyrs were generally far more dangerous and intolerant of humans than their fauns were. They were most often found in pairs: satyr Master and faun Slave. Only this Faun seemed alone. I tried not to, but I still found myself staring. I had not often encountered one of these creatures in Novia, but I had read about their creation by the Obsidians over 300 years before even I had appeared in Novia.
Lucy walked over to the trembling creature and gave her a helping hand to rise again from her now prone position at our feet. Groveling was something that fauns did very well. Lucy also checked for weapons, of course. Only when she was sure there were no weapons, and nodded all clear, did Zyrina then lower her bow. I noticed, however, that she kept her arrow notched and her hunting knife unlatched.
We had found the housekeeper. Or at least that’s what I thought when I first saw the broom and dustpan.
“Hello.” Lucy smiled at the frightened faun. “Who are you?”
“Who are you?” the faun echoed, before blurting, “what’s going on here?”
Lucy questions seemed to only puzzle the faun, who then puzzled Lucy with more simple questions in return. It looked like that game might go on for a bit. Aslinne and Zyrina walked around and looked at everything in the room, while I searched the contents of the desk. So far, we had found nothing interesting. I decided to try a turn to get some answers from this faun in we had found. Direct questions didn’t seem to work, so I’d try another tactic.
Using my talking-calmly-to-scared-creatures voice, I told the faun, “We lost our friends. We are looking for our friends. We followed them here. We don’t know where we are, or what this place is. We don’t know who you are. That’s Zyrina, and Lucy, and Aslinne. I’m Lily.” Then I quietly waited.
The faun did not answer right away. I could see her calculating which course of action would or would not most likely get her killed, or not killed. I did not cajole, but also, I did not threaten. It’s possible that is what caused the most confusion in her face.
Mazi the faun needed to stall for time. She needed time to think before speaking with these strangers who had barged into the room. Never before had the housekeeping routine been interrupted not just once, but twice in the same day! A deep breath in and hold it for a few counts. It was something learned from watching the mages work in the cathedral. Breath evenly. Take time to think before speaking. This bunch was heavily armed, but these newcomers didn’t look very dangerous compared to her satyr. The last intruder was far angrier, especially when he discovered that his egg had been moved to the Cathedral. However, none of this lot flinched, like Mazi did, when more rocks fell from the roof.
Probably they were more dangerous than they looked then. Reevaluation of safety didn’t bring any clarity. The little faun didn’t know if these intruders were ready to kill to get answers. She also didn’t know how long her master would be away. She would have to do her best.
The one asking questions looked the least likely to be dangerous, but that one with the sleek grey pine bow and the narrowed eyes looked like she was positively lethal. The big one moved with a dangerous grace that made her seem like a caged animal, and the littlest one with the red hair and the two knives was obviously trained to kill too. Mazi took another gulp of air.
“Mazi,” the faun quickly, then repeated, “Mazi. Mazi is me.”
There were no protocols for this sort of intrusion, and Mazi was not certain what she was allowed to divulge to these intruders without some show of paperwork; but these didn’t seem the waiting-for-the-offical-paperwork sort of people.
“Can I help? Can I help you?” That seemed a prudent stall. Offer them assistance; perhaps they might be reasonable.
“Mazi! Hello, Mazi! So nice to meet you. Yes, Mazi. Yes please, maybe you can help us,” I answered cordially. I could see the play of conflicting emotions wrestling with themselves flicker across the faun’s features. “Mazi, what caused the explosion – the loud bang – that we heard?”
Mazi feigned shock. “Splosion?” she innocently asked as she started raising her arm.
This was no helpless slave! I quickly spoke the spell for an air shield, in the nick of time too. The wand and scroll were whipped out from an undetected hiding spot in her coat of fur. If Lucy hadn’t knocked the travel scroll out of Mazi’s hands just then, we might have lost track of the faun, too. As Lucy bent over to pick up the scroll, Aslinne already had the faun one tied up with her leather thong, and seated on one of the two chairs in the room. She placed the other chair facing it.
“Try that again and it will be your life,” Zyrina sneered right into the faun’s frightened face.
This time I leaned in close, too. “Explosion?” I asked again.
Mazi seemed to slump into herself and faded into a pasty white colour that matched the small pearl horns just above her ears.
“Oh, that explosion.” The feeble smile through blackened and missing teeth was truly rank, both to see and to smell. “Maybe it was a traveler? Who exploded a shipment of fireworks when he lit his pipe too close to a crate?”
This was not the truth! I was in shock. Everyone knew that fauns could not tell a lie. That explosion had had the rank odor of Obsidian magic, not market firecrackers. Zyrina gave our prisoner the stink eye then, and because I really didn’t want to strike a faun I quietly and clearly spoke again:
“That is a lie. I’ll give you that one chance, but if you lie again, I’ll let Aslinne strike you.” The faun looked over at Aslinne who struck a menacing pose with her knives out and added a leering grin before waggling her eyebrows aggressively. Mazi looked alarmed.
“Okay, okay, okay, okay!” Mazi certainly didn’t want to help us, or tell us anything useful, but her life obviously had value to her, because she finally stammered out, “Hu Nam tried to use a spell in the storage area where his box was, and his skill was not good enough. My master would not have failed. But that pale human failed. He also blew a hole into the tome, and now the secret portal won’t close or lock.”
“Is he still here?” I wanted to know.
“No,” said Mazi, sounding resigned. “He used magic to travel somewhere else.”
Then she added, “His incompetence roused the liches, and they wouldn’t let anyone through the storage room, friend or foe. I got stuck in here and was waiting for someone to rescue me. I didn’t think it would be intruders.”
The final sulky answer shone light on why there were liches down here. To protect valuable packages. In a twisted way it made sense.
“Who is Hu Nam?” Lucy asked.
“He’s a mage from The Southern Red Branch on Elysium Island,” Mazi mumbled.
I could hear Aslinne gasp, “THAT’S his name!”
“What was he doing here?” I asked.
“Something in storage.”
Mazi shrugged. “He didn’t open the box here, just collected it and used magic to leave. Well, after he nearly blew himself up in the lich storage room, that is. He left a big mess, too. My master is going to be angry when he sees the mess.” Mazi looked terrified at the prospect.
“How is it that a faun has been taught to use magic, and possesses a wand?” Zyrina’s question was one I wanted answered also.
“My master taught me some basic spells to entertain himself and to see if fauns could be taught to use magic to protect themselves and their master’s belongings.” Mazi almost glared when she added proudly, “I am one of the only ones who can say a travel spell and not die.”
“Oh great, fauns with wands.” Zyrina did not look impressed, rather she looked sick to her stomach. “What next?”
“I clean up the mess, I suppose?” The faun sounded confused by Zyrina’s musing.
“Hey, I found something.” It was the first time Aslinne had spoken in a while and I had almost forgotten others were in the room. She had been going through the bookcase behind the desk and came over to where we were standing around Mazi bound in the chair. The papers in her hands looked like letters. She handed me the pile.
“Are you kidding me?” I looked up and brandished one of the sheets. “Finn Beanna AGAIN.”
It was a letter from Finn to someone called Krato. I scanned it and growled, “So, it looks as if Finn is the one who sent the mage to Sister Golden Hair in the first place! That Beanna fella has his fingers in far too many pies.” I handed Finn’s letter over to Zyrina to read aloud.
I sent that mage you told me to look out for over to Darkshire Hills. I passed the message to him that Nestor wants to meet with him at Ordanis Mortis too. Let Nestor know that the eggs are secure and have been sent where the mage requested, one in Darkshire Hills and one to secure storage in Central Brittany.
That mage is unstable if you ask me. If he weren’t the only one left who knows how to say the spells from that book, I’d say leave him out of all this.
“Mazi, describe Hu Nam to me,” Zyrina demanded.
Mazi stared into space for a bit then hesitantly started, “Wears black robes. Has blue and green tattoos. He’s quiet. Carries a little book everywhere.” Here Aslinne gasped.
“That’s HIM,” Aslinne breathed.
“SHHH,” Lucy shushed Aslinne, who gave her a dirty look.
“Doesn’t talk much, but mutters to himself all the time.” Mazi added as an afterthought, “Absentminded. Answers back to his superiors.” Said that in an awed tone as if that was unthinkable. “He was hopping mad at Nestor for having to move his box.”
Zyrina was quick to ask the question all of us wanted the answer to. “Was it a box with an egg in it?”
It was the faun’s turn to gasp. “How did you know that?”
“Where did he have to move it to?” I asked while starting to peruse the second letter.
Mazi shrugged, “Over to the poison shop, I think. That’s where the ceremony is tonight.”
The rapid-fire questions made Mazi blink several times in rapid succession. Then, she answered, “The Cathedral’s under Kal’s magic shop here in Central Britanny, The Unfortunate Apothecary owned by Kal. It’s a ceremony to quicken a dragon egg. I’ve never even heard of that kind of magic before. Hu Nam thought this up from something he read in that book of his. Have you heard of that spell before?” The faun seemed nervous. Then Mazi realized that she had told us about a secret location and ceremony and started weeping and shaking with fear.
“So that’s who Kal is,” Lucy nodded.
“I should not have told you that. I definitely should not have told you that.” she kept muttering to herself while bashing her head into her hands repeatedly. “My master is not going to like this at all.”
“What ceremony?” I asked, curious. The faun looked startled, “Only the biggest experiment ever attempted in Central Britanny. Haven’t you heard? Nestor is arranging everything.” Then Mazi blanched while muttering to herself over and over and rocking back and forth in pain, “Oh no, I did it again! I should not have told you that either.”
After that she just sort of started babbling and we could not stop the flow.
The amount of gossip that faun had stored in its brain was truly astonishing. Although Mazi had become talkative about the things she knew from her work here at the storage and cartage, she would not budge on telling us anything more about the secret meeting spot, or where to find it, which we sorely needed to.
This mage we have been following is called Hu Nam. Somewhere tonight, or tomorrow, was going to be ‘the biggest experiment ever attempted.’ This was definitely something we wanted to attend, and obviously stop if we could. Whatever the experiment was going to be, I was certain Central Britanny was not ready for Hu Nam to unleash a dragon upon its citizens, whether it was a newly hatched baby or not.
I turned the second paper over to see both sides. “This one is about that meeting in Ordanis Mortis at the place where we found that cloak. Nothing new here either.”
“I know how to find this secret meeting,” Lucy spoke up. “We know it’s at Kal’s poison shop, thanks to Mazi here. There is a town crier down at the docks that I know. I bet he will be able to tell us where Kal has his Unfortunate Apothecary, or at least direct us to another town crier who might know.”
I could have kissed her. “Of course, why didn’t I think of that!!”
“What about the faun?” Aslinne asked as we were all gathering up our belongings and got ready to head over to the docks.
“Oh. Yeah. I forgot about that.” I looked at the pitiful creature, not knowing what to do.
Zyrina took that decision out of my hands when she knocked Mazi out with the hilt of her hunting knife before tucking the knife back into her boot. She grunted something about dreaming of dancing fauns into her ear as she gently lay her out flat on the rug. “Let’s go!” said Zyrina, and we did.