The next part of Shining the Light.
Chapter five - Looking for answers
While the man was still busy retching up the contents of his lungs, and no doubt his stomach at this point as well, the three mages spoke quietly. Nathaniel made it clear that he would do the talking, and it was Jessa and Marcus’ job to simply look intimidating. Interrogations were not necessarily a part of a mages role, but Nathaniel had found that many mysteries required at least some simple persuasion of witnesses if not full blown interrogation and torture of enemies. It was best to leave your conscience at the door and focus on revealing the truth. Harsh words often loosen sealed mouths, he thought. Marcus stirred him from his thoughts by saying “How do we even know that he will know anything of value?”
Nathaniel answered simply “We don’t, that’s why it’s an interrogation. As long as we use simple words we might learn something. And that is better than blindly groping our way in the dark for a way out of the maze.” He turned to look at the man and then back at the others “We’ll wait until he can speak a little more clearly. He is an enemy, do not forget that.”
They waited until the man recovered a little, although he would be rather weak for a while yet. Nathaniel and the others stood around him, encircling the man. He had dirty-blond hair and a look of panic in his eyes, like a frightened child, thought Nathaniel. The mage, clad in the black hooded robes, held no pity for this man. And so he began his interrogation “We are looking for answers. You would do well to provide them, lest you suffer our wrath. Tell us what we want to know, or things will go badly for you. And I do mean badly.”
The man looked even more shocked now and mumbled “I don’t know anything.”
Nathaniel nodded and said “Why don’t you let us decide if you know anything or not. Who do you work for?” The man made no response, looking down at the ground where he sat. Nathaniel had little patience for non-compliance and did not bother to ask the question again without punishment. He slapped the man across the temple hard, quickly getting the man’s attention. Foolishly the man tried to tackle Nathaniel but was speedily kicked in the chest. Nathaniel spoke again, with a harsh tone “Who do you work for?”
The man replied “I worked for the guy you killed.” He pointed over to the body of the rider called Bram.
Nathaniel nodded, a look on his face which showed that his patience was wearing thin. He moved on though “Why were you coming here to attack us?”
The man said “Don’t know what you’re talking about. You attacked us.”
Nathaniel looked at Jessa and then at Marcus. They remained impassive, although there was still a twinkle in Marcus’ eye, and he struggled to keep a straight face. Nathaniel looked directly into the prisoner’s eyes and said in a low, chilling voice “If you don’t start telling me what I want to know, I’m going to make you pay. Talk, or I’ll nail your feet to that tree there” He nodded to no tree in particular, just the general direction “and then I’m going to grab you by the neck and stretch you all the way over to the other side of the road.”
The man was about to laugh out loud, but he saw the look on Nathaniel’s shadowed face and the laughter died in his throat. He stammered “You-you wouldn’t? You can’t, y-you’re a mage.”
Nathaniel smiled darkly, playing his part so well even his friends were unsure of his intentions. He replied matter-of-factly “Who said mages are all good. And even if they were, that doesn’t mean they are nice. One of three things will happen when I do this. Either you’ll tell me what I want to know, or I’ll stretch you so far that I’ll nail your head to a fence post. Or maybe the pressure will make your head pop off and land on a peasant twenty miles west of here.” The black-clad mage stood up and said “Maybe we should do this regardless just to see what happens.”
At this point the man was so scared by the apparent truth of Nathaniel’s threats that he was blubbering and saying “I’ll tell you, I’ll tell you. Just don’t hurt me.”
Nathaniel repeated “Why were you coming here to attack us?”
The man said “Our boss told us to ride up the north road looking for three mages going to Aunel. He wanted us to give you a beating, convince you to turn back.”
Nathaniel said calmly “Who is your boss?”
The man said, through tears “I don’t know I honestly don’t. We just get the orders and get paid for it. Only Bram knew the boss. Any time we dealt with him, it was through messengers. All I know is the boss is in Ataya. Don’t hurt me.”
Nathaniel thought for a moment about carrying out his threat, but laughed the notion off. The man clearly was telling the truth or at least all he knew of it. Nathaniel’s face softened slightly and he said “Fine, I’ll let you go this time. But if I ever see you again, ever, you are dead. Understood?”
The man nodded vigorously and scrabbled up to his feet before running off south. Marcus clapped a hand on Nathaniel’s shoulder and smiled saying “Boy Nathaniel, you really had me going for a minute there. I thought you’d lost it or something.”
Nathaniel nodded “I’m a better actor than I thought.”
Jessa parodied her friend’s line “land on a peasant twenty miles west of here.” The three mages cracked up laughing as they headed back to their horses to continue on their way.
They had travelled on for the rest of the day, but it had been uneventful. There had been no more riders, and traffic on the road had been light. As they got further north, the number of people on the road increased, as Aunel, and much more importantly the city of Adae. They had passed the fork in the road, taking the eastern route towards Adae, in the late afternoon. When night began to fall, they moved off the road into the wilderness to the eastern side of the road. They made camp, and Nathaniel could see the outline of Torcein Wood in the far distance.
This was not the safest place to rest, but it was likely safer than travelling on in the dark. Nathaniel spoke to the others as they set up the came “We’ll set a watch tonight. One of us keeps the fire going while the other two sleep. Two hours on, three hours off.” The camp was completed. They had gathered large amounts of firewood, so they would not need to stray from the camp if the fire went low. The three mages sat on sturdy logs and eat a simple meal. Then they began their watch. Nathaniel had elected to go on watch second, as this would mean he had only two hours of sleep before his watch began. Marcus went first, but his watch was uneventful. Thankfully, Marcus thought as he woke Nathaniel and lay down to sleep.
Nathaniel sat by the fire, watching for signs of movement, for stray sounds caught on the breeze. But the land was still and quiet, as if it was stifled by something which held sway over birds and animals and trees. An hour into his watch, he woke Jessa to begin her watch. As they sat, they talked quietly.
“Did you ever think your life would be like this?” Jessa Aeris asked.
Nathaniel frowned and replied “Well, no, but I wouldn’t change it for the world.”
Jessa questioned “So you like all this huddling round a fire, sleeping in ditches then?”
Nathaniel quipped “Beats being buried in them.” Then he raised his head and looked at his friend, seeing the light of the fire reflect on her pale skin and vibrant hair. He continued “Don’t you like being a mage Jessa?”
She answered “Of course. But I’d much rather be in a nice warm library reading, or practicing my magic. Or tucked up in my warm bed instead of sleeping on the ground.”
Nathaniel nodded and said without thinking “Well, I suppose if you’re used to luxury you would find this uncomfortable.” Even as he said the words he wished he could just die.
Jessa scowled and said “Luxury? Luxury? Just listen to Nathaniel Drakkon, man from the wilds. You lived in just as much luxury as I did growing up you hypocrite.”
Nathaniel tried to defend his words, but he knew it was a losing battle “I just meant--”
“You just meant that I’m a pampered little girl and you’re some sort of tough warrior just because you’re a man!” Jessa said angrily.
Nathaniel winced and said “But I--”
Jessa Aeris, noble daughter from Valoruin cut him off “Just for that you can do my shift on watch as well you bastard. Ooowh.” Her last words were simply an unintelligible noise of anger and annoyance. She moved off and found her own space to sleep, turning her back to the dumbstruck Nathaniel.
With a sigh he thought, sometimes you’re the eagle, sometimes you’re the mouse. Eagle got me again.
Chapter six - Finding more questions
The night trailed on, but it seemed that they were the only beings around. Nathaniel passed the watch to Marcus. They exchanged few words as Nathaniel shambled to his bedroll like some sort of undead thing. Sleep took him quickly and for a while he rested properly. Three hours later he was woken by a sharp kick in the back. As he was flung into wakefulness Nathaniel saw the form of Jessa standing over him, her arms folded. She said simply “You’re on watch.” Then she walked away to rest. She still had not forgiven his remarks, and Nathaniel knew it would be quite a while yet.
The rest of the watches followed a similar pattern, unremarkable time, drifting sleep and little sound. Eventually morning came. Light, dull at first then brightening, appeared and soaked the colour back into the previously dark grey world. The three mages packed up their gear after they ate and fed the horses. Marcus made a point of getting the others to speak “So, how far to Aunel now?”
Nathaniel answered “Five miles or so. Not far at all.”
Marcus nodded a slight grin on his face “Well I for one cannot wait to get there. I’m anticipating a nice tavern, with some nice ale and some nice farmer’s daughters.”
Almost in unison Nathaniel and Jessa said “You’re hopeless.”
Marcus smiled wryly “Not so out of sync than you two thought you were. And actually I’m rather full of hope.” He looked to getting his horse ready, feeling very pleased with himself.
Nathaniel looked at Jessa and said “I’m sorry.”
Jessa Aeris was a proud woman, but her stern expression broke into a smile which was like the sun coming out from behind clouds. She accepted her friend’s apology “It is ok Nathaniel, we should get going.”
“Agreed.” He said, mounting up and turning towards the road. Nathaniel knew that the mystery awaiting him in Aunel would be trying, but he was glad this at least was behind him. They set off on the road again, riding hard so they would reach the town before noon.
Aunel was a small town, which had been formed around the homes of several farming families and a mill. Since then the town had developed with an Inn and some other businesses and homes. It still had a small population of roughly four hundred people. The town was also secluded, as there were many heavily wooded areas, remnants and offshoots of the Torcein Wood most likely. The land was flat around the town, but towards the northern edge the terrain rose into wooded hills, obscuring what lay beyond the north border of Aunel.
There was only one main route into Aunel and that was little more than a gravel track. It was the south road, which travelled roughly south-west to rejoin the road from Ataya to Adae. The other routes out of Aunel were simple dirt paths or natural paths through the wooded areas. The area around Aunel was certainly not spectacular, just a mixture of farmland, wood and scrub.
The sky was grey and overcast, giving the land a dull appearance, as the three mages rode into town, their hooded cloaks wrapped around them. It must have given them an air of mystery as the people on the street stared at them as they passed. If you could say such a small town had streets, Nathaniel thought bitterly. He was always spellbound by mysteries and puzzles, but he had little time for people, especially simple-minded individuals. Nathaniel, Marcus and Jessa rode towards the large building which was the Inn. It was near the centre of town, close to the town hall and some of the more advanced businesses and stores.
When they reached the Inn, they dismounted and tied their horses to the posts outside the building then walked inside. The Inn was mostly empty, bar a few patrons sitting at tables and a barmaid cleaning glasses. Nathaniel walked over to the bar and said quietly to the woman “Hello. We are looking for three rooms and stabling for three horses.”
The barmaid eyed the newcomers suspiciously, in a laid-back way which was made of equal amounts of curiosity and disapproval. She spoke “Fine. How long for?”
Nathaniel smiled slightly, but he doubted a smile would overcome the natural hostility of such people. He replied “A week at most.”
The woman nodded. Her hair was dark brown and tied back, making her expression seem stern or severe. The barmaid said “Five gold coins per night, drinks are extra. I’ll have the stable boy see to your horses.” She put the glass and cloth down on the bar and walked through into another room, to fetch the stable boy no doubt.
Nathaniel turned to the others and said quietly, not wishing to be overheard “We’ll see our rooms and then see what information we can gather round about. Perhaps the town hall first?”
Jessa nodded “Sounds like the best plan. Why have we not seen any sign of a garrison here though?”
Nathaniel raised an eyebrow. The thought had not occurred to him as they entered the town, but Jessa was right. He answered “I don’t know. Probably the town is too small to warrant a full-time garrison. They probably rely on the occasional patrol from Adae.”
They heard the shuffling of feet on the wooden floors and looked around to see the barmaid return with a stable boy scurrying before her. The boy looked to be only about twelve, wide-eyed with a face heavily covered in freckles. He rushed past the three mages, his stare caught like a fish-hook as he saw Jessa. The boy went outside to tend to the horses and Nathaniel turned his attention back to the barmaid. He said “Can you show us to our rooms now please?”
The woman replied with a sigh and a look of annoyance. She said “I’m busy now. Top of the stairs, turn left. The first three rooms on your right. I’m sure you can find them yourselves.”
Nathaniel said sarcastically “I’m sure such directions are not beyond us.” He headed for the stairs, bored of the conversation. It’s like sword practice with an armless opponent, no sport in it, he thought.
They walked up the dark wooden stairs, which creaked lazily under their weight. Each mage chose one of the rooms and entered, leaving their belongings behind for the most part. They took with them their weapons, and staffs. Something was wrong in Aunel, and it would be foolish not to be prepared for combat.
As Nathaniel left the Inn, he waited for Marcus and Jessa. He looked around the town, seeing the odd looks he received from the townsfolk. Perhaps it was to be expected, as mages would rarely visit a small and unimportant town, and with the recent disappearances their arrival would be even more worrying no doubt. But Nathaniel had more important things to think about than the concern of this gaggle of farmers. Something was wrong in Aunel; he could sense it like an oppressiveness in the air, a tingle down his spine. He would solve it; he would break it and discern its purpose.
Marcus walked out of the door to the Inn and stepped up beside Nathaniel. He looked around and said “A bit chilly around here don’t you think?”
Nathaniel replied with a snort “The weather or our welcome?”
Marcus grinned broadly “Both I’d say. Do you think people will be forthcoming when we start asking questions or will we see the return of Nathaniel, Lord of Darkness?”
Nathaniel chuckled but said in all seriousness “You shouldn’t joke about such things. We all harbour a dark side, and any mage is susceptible to falling to forbidden ways if they are not careful.”
Marcus nodded and responded calmly “You are right, but we are lucky the three of us. If one of us should falter, we always have the other two watching our back.”
Nathaniel nodded and clapped his friend on the shoulder “True enough Marcus. Sometimes I’m too pessimistic for my own good.”
Jessa finally left the Inn and nodded to them. Nathaniel nodded back and began to head towards the nearby town hall. Jessa waited for him to reach her and fell into step with him saying “Will the mayor grant us an audience do you think?”
Nathaniel Drakkon said grimly “I’ll make sure of it.”
He walked up to the town hall and stopped a short distance from the building. It was a building mostly of stone, with wooden beams criss-crossing its surface. There were four wide and shallow stone steps which led up to the double wooden doors. The doors themselves were painted a dark green and had large brass handles fashioned into the emblem of Weissland on either door. At the sides of the door, standing upon a stone landing were two men. Each carried a shield and a spear, but they were not soldiers of Weissland, merely two men from the town standing on guard. Clearly this was the only building in Aunel worth guarding. Nathaniel walked up the steps, Jessa and Marcus following a few paces behind. The guards watched him approach and as he reached them they nervously crossed their spears in front of the door. One of the men plucked up the courage to say “Wh-who goes there?”
Nathaniel’s hood obscured much of his face; all they could see clearly was his mouth, beard and jaw. He spoke clearly “I am Nathaniel Drakkon a mage of Weissland, as are my two associates.” Nathaniel indicated the others with a wave of the hand and continued “I want to see the mayor of Aunel.” When the men made no move he added “Now.”
The two men looked at each other and shuffled aside. Nathaniel waited as the men reached out and pulled the doors open for him. The three mages walked inside.
Inside they found a large room with many chairs and benches around its walls. The stone floor was clear but for a raised dais at the far end where three individuals sat. A few people sat around the room, clearly waiting to speak with the three people on the dais. Nathaniel could see a man speaking to those on the dais even now, but he had little time to waste waiting in a queue. Boldly the three mages walked into the room, straight towards the three people sitting at the wooden table which rested on the dais. Two were men, the third a woman. One of the men was sitting in the centre and was raised up on a taller seat than the man and woman who flanked him. This was obviously the mayor. The man to the mayor’s left stood slightly and said “Who do you think you are to interrupt these proceedings?”
Nathaniel raised his staff slightly then slammed the butt of the staff onto the stone ground, magical energy flaring off with the sound of a thunderclap. All eyes turned to the mage clad in close-fitting black robes which made him seem tall and thin. He spoke loudly and clearly “I am a mage of Weissland and by the authority that grants me I am interrupting these proceedings. Sit down before I put you down!”
The man sat, and the townsman who had been standing before them crept aside and headed for a seat as well. The mayor clearly did not take the hint and said “I don’t care if you’re a mage or the Archmage himself, there are protocols to follow, and there is an order which everyone must adhere to. You cannot just march in here and expect to be heard before the others.”
Nathaniel turned his head in the direction of the mayor, even though his face was shrouded by his hood. He said “You dare to place your meetings beyond the priority of the Archmage himself? I would not be so quick to act superior mayor. There have been a number of disappearances in this town and I learn of it only through rumour. Why have you not contacted Ataya?”
The mayor replied “It is not Ataya’s concern.”
Nathaniel laughed “Not Ataya’s concern? Since when did trouble of an unnatural kind in Weissland not concern the capital, or the concern of the mages for that matter? Has there been a coup and nobody told us perhaps? We are here to investigate, and you had better start co-operating or I will flay your fat hide for incompetence and failure to protect your own town!”
The mayor said through gritted teeth seeing he could not win this exchange “Very well, what do you want to know?”
Nathaniel narrowed his eyes at the mayor and said “Tell me everything about the disappearances, starting with the first victim.”
The woman sitting to the mayor’s right said with dismay “Victim? You think they are dead then mage?”
Nathaniel sighed “It is possible that they are not dead, but I will not allow false hopes to cloud the investigation. I must be objective in this. And my name is Nathaniel Drakkon, may I ask who you are milady?”
The woman seemed to blush slightly at the title Nathaniel used to address her. She answered “My name is Silvia Mayfield. I am the leader of the farmer’s union here in Aunel.”
Nathaniel nodded and said “My two companions are both mages as well, Jessa Aeris and Marcus Krandor.”
The mayor spoke “My name is Obadiah Brunton and the man to my left is Samuel Whitley, the mayor’s aide. Now that introductions are out of the way I’ll tell you all we know, which unfortunately is not much.”
“Please continue Mayor Brunton.” Nathaniel replied.
The mayor took a deep breath and began speaking “Eight days ago the first of our townsfolk disappeared. Byron Galvar is a farmer whose land lies to the west of the town. He simply vanished from one of his fields. His wife came to the town worried half to death the next morning because he had not returned to their homestead. That was when it was first brought to our attention but one missing man was not a high priority.”
Nathaniel nodded “Understandable. Sometimes people do just decide to up and leave without warning. Continue.”
The mayor was appeased by Nathaniel’s understanding manor, more content that the mage was simply passionate about the troubles of Weissland. Mayor Brunton cleared his throat and began again “Two days later a young lad by the name of Toral Krae was lost. His parents were quick to inform us, as he was on the back of their property at the northern edge of the town doing his chores. They say he was there one minute and gone the next--”
Jessa interrupted “--Did they see anything at all?”
The mayor shook his head “No, milady Aeris. His mother checked from a window that he was not shirking his work and he was there. Half an hour later when she checked again he was gone.”
Nathaniel shared a glance with Jessa and nodded. She said what both of them were thinking “A lot can happen in half an hour.”
The mayor nodded slowly and said “That is true, but there was no sign of the boy. No struggle, no sounds of an attack or kidnapping and the tools he had been using for his chores had been neatly put away in their correct place. During the same day a woman travelling south from Adae who was staying in the Inn disappeared. From what little the townsfolk noticed she was in the north-eastern fields. Many people go there for picnics and the like, so nobody took much notice of where she was going.”
Nathaniel thought about this and said “Do you know the woman’s name?”
The mayor’s aide answered “Travellers are not required to leave a name with the Innkeeper and unfortunately this woman did not.”
Nathaniel replied “A shame. That covers three of those lost, but from what I heard six people have disappeared.”
Silvia said sadly “I’m afraid seven people have disappeared now. Some time late last night the seventh person was taken.”
Nathaniel frowned “Damn. I should have been here sooner; perhaps I could have prevented the seventh person from disappearing.”
Obadiah said “It can’t be helped, and you are here now. The other four then, let me think. Five days ago we lost Bill Talday, but we only learned of his disappearance a day later. He’s a notorious drunk in this town so nobody paid much attention. Four days ago though, young Sarah Leranii vanished, from her bedroom no less. It was then that we realised something was truly wrong and Bill’s presence was missed at the Inn.”
Nathaniel raised an eyebrow and said “It seems that bad fortune has aided in the limited evidence of the disappearances then. What of the last two people then?”
The mayor continued “Three days ago the town was wary of the trouble and people travelled in groups for the most part. Nobody disappeared and we vainly hoped that the darkness had passed over our town. On the morn of the next day though, one of the few elves to live in the town, Alarron Dreivas disappeared to the north of the town. He had been very concerned about the disappearances and was searching for clues from what I have heard. And last night Helena Farris disappeared.”
Nathaniel asked “What can you tell me about her?”
Mayor Brunton answered “Very little. She moved here a few years ago and owned a small shop selling books. She kept to herself mostly although I do know that she moved here from Adae where she had some family.”
Nathaniel sighed “It is a shame that Alarron was taken, he could have been very helpful to our investigation. Perhaps that is why he was taken, if we are dealing with a sentient creature of some kind. Is there any other trouble in the town, anything which could point to the cause of the problem?”
Mayor Brunton said “No, I can’t think of anything--”
But before the mayor could continue the man who had been speaking before the mages had arrived shouted out “--You should speak to that damned money lender. This town has had nothing but trouble since he arrived!”
The mayor looked annoyed at the outburst and Whitley the aide slammed a wooden hammer on the table and said “Order, keep that to yourself Jacob.”
Nathaniel raised his hand and said “No, I want to hear this, go on Jacob.”
The man stood up and said “About a year ago this money lender turned up. Set up shop and now he’s got an iron grip on this town. Farmers don’t earn a lot of money, but they need a lot to start new fields, buy equipment and hire more farm hands, or set up a new herd of animals. So many of the farmers have taken out loans from the bastard and most can’t pay him back because his rates are so steep. And his thugs are getting bolder every damn day.”
Nathaniel nodded “This man sounds like he might be worth questioning. What is his name Jacob?”
Jacob replied “His name is...”
Chapter seven - Messages and meanings
Vanel Rathalie walked through the halls quickly, almost seeming to float along with his Elven grace and poise. Once again night had fallen over Ataya, two nights since he had spoken with the young mage Nathaniel Drakkon. Vanel was very busy in Ataya, and rarely had the chance to leave like the adventuring Nathaniel. In some ways he envied the man, and in others he was glad that he could remain in the tower of Ataya to continue his work. He was heading to his study when he heard a quiet voice call to him “Mage lord Rathalie.”
Turning Vanel looked at the face which was illuminated by the torches arrayed along the stone walls and said “Ah, mage lord Boralays. It’s good to see you my friend.”
The second mage lord, a human with short grey hair and a kindly smile said “And you Vanel. How is your wife?”
Vanel kept his face passive, showing little emotion “She is well, although it has been a while since I could visit her. Our work in the tower keeps me so busy. Perhaps I should request a leave of absence from the Archmage?”
Boralays nodded and said “I think that would be wise. You have worked hard Vanel; surely the Archmage would not keep you from your wife’s side? She resides in your estate somewhere to the north does she not?”
Vanel nodded, his thin Elven features calm although his eyes seemed watery at the subject. He spoke “Yes, and I would like to spend time with her, if we are ever to conceive a child.” Changing the subject he said “How goes your training of some of the new arrivals?” A few weeks previously several young people from across Weissland had arrived to begin their training as mages. As a mage lord Boralays and in fact any mage lord could be assigned to train them.
Boralays replied with a sigh “Slowly I’m afraid. Those under my tutelage only have limited magical aptitude so I am taking them through the lessons much slower than I would normally. Although I have heard that there are some very powerful young individuals being trained by some of the other trainers.” Boralays was human, in his fifties and he had focussed on being a mage over his personal life, but he understood others wished to have both. He did not ask anything further about Vanel and his wife. They had married a few years ago in a private ceremony. He knew that she was human and they had had trouble having a child and she had miscarried at least once. Boralays was worried for Vanel, whom he considered a friend. But he also respected that Vanel would only speak of such private things if he thought the time was right.
Vanel smiled slightly and said “It is good that they are not all powerful. We can always find uses for mages regardless of power or skill. There is always so much to be done.”
Boralays responded “Yes, that is true. In fact I really should be going Vanel, checking on the dorms to make sure nobody is doing anything they should not be. I’m sure you remember what it was like when you were training, always wanting to try things without supervision.”
Vanel nodded “I can remember the urge to test one’s limits, but it has been a very long time since I was just training.”
Boralays laughed slightly “Of course, sometimes I forget how long-lived your kind is. Well, I must be going. Goodbye for now mage lord Rathalie.” He bowed slightly and Vanel did the same in return. Then Jarroth Boralays turned into the passageway he had been heading for when he first saw his friend.
Vanel Rathalie continued on his way and arrived shortly at his study. He entered and closed the door behind him. Lighting several candles with a mere wave of his hand he sat down before a wide desk. Before he could do anything though he heard a loud knock at the door and he said “Enter” as he stood up again.
The door creaked open and a cloaked man entered. He did not wear robes of a mage, but the garb of a Weissland military scout. The man was clearly a messenger and he saluted saying “I have an urgent message for you mage lord Rathalie.”
Vanel sighed, folding his arms in front of him, his robes fluttering slightly at the motion. His outer robes were grey and un-adorned, but with his arms held up like this with the long sleeves trailing slightly, the messenger could see that his inner robes were made out of many differently coloured materials which reflected the light with every movement no matter how slight. Vanel prompted “What message do you bring me?”
The man replied “Two men wish to meet with you at the Crossroads Tavern as soon as you are able my lord. They say that they have important information which will be most useful to your project.”
Vanel thought about this for a moment and then replied “Return to them and tell them that I will meet them in three hours time. Go quickly and deliver your new message. Speak to no-one else in the tower.”
The man saluted again and said “Of course my lord.” He turned and walked out of the room quickly.
Vanel closed the door and called his staff to his hand. It was an ornate metal staff, faced with gold markings and topped with a large blue gemstone. Vanel had never bore any other weapon other than his staff and his formidable magic and he found swords uncouth, refusing to wield one even in battle. The rumour around the tower of Ataya was that Vanel was working on a secret project. He was one of the foremost masters in the use of elemental magic, surpassing virtually every other mage in Weissland. Many suspected that his project was some unique elemental spell of great power, and in many respects it was. But Vanel would not be drawn on the subject, even in the presence of the other mage lords. Vanel was one of the senior mage lords, although he had been prevented from joining the council because of his outspoken attitude in his youth. He had strong opinions, and while that perhaps might have been useful on the council and useful to the Archmage, Vanel was also considered arrogant, refusing to accept that others were right. Sixteen years he had been a mage lord, and the fact that he had never been given a seat on the council of Weissland was a bitter pill to swallow, made worse by the knowledge that he would never gain such a position regardless of how much he achieved.
He spoke the words of a spell and he seemed to disappear into mist, floating down quickly through the levels of the tower until he arrived at the ground just in front of the tower. He made his way quickly towards the city of Ataya and the Crossroads Tavern.
As Vanel Rathalie stood in front of the door to the Crossroads Tavern, seeing the half broken sign swing languidly in the cool breeze, he looked around the street. It was empty at this time of night, as one would expect, but one could never be careless in his position of power. He spoke a single word and opened the door by raising his free hand, not wishing to touch anything in a place such as this. He stepped into the gloomy tavern and he could see at once that the place was empty except for the slovenly barkeep and the two men sitting at the back of the room waiting. Vanel had conjured a cloak as he left the tower, and the dark green folds of it were wrapped around him, concealing his appearance. He strode confidently over to the two men and said “I am here. But I am greatly angered that you have contacted me. Where is your leader? He knows that only he should meet with me.”
One of the men said nervously “I’m so-sorry my lord, but our leader is dead. He was attacked and slain. We thought it best to inform you quickly.”
Vanel’s eyes flashed with anger, his face remaining still as stone. He spoke in hushed but annoyed tones “Dead? Tell me how this happened, you fools, speak!”
The second man said worriedly “We followed your instructions. We trailed them north but they ambushed us, killed all of the others. We didn’t stand a chance against them, how could we have beaten them even if they hadn’t gotten the drop on us?”
Vanel scowled slightly “Beat them? Where did you get the idea that you were to engage them in combat?”
The first man stammered as he tried to avoid the mage lord’s gaze “We-w-we got told by the b-boss. He said, he said that you wanted them scared off.”
Vanel hit the man across the jaw with the back of his hand and turned fiercely on the second man “You fools, you idiots. Imbeciles, every last one, I never told him that. I said that I wanted them tailed on their journey so I could keep an eye on them. I want them steered away from danger, not killed. I should have simply gone after the three of them myself.”
The first man whimpered in pain and said “I’m sorry my lord. We could ride after them again, perhaps pick up their trail and just watch them this time. We thought they were your enemies, truly we did.”
Vanel fumed with anger, but calmed himself to speak “No, it is too late. They are alone in this now, I cannot interject. I only hope they will turn aside before they are destroyed. For this failure you will only receive your portion of the fee and you will not be called upon to serve me again. Count yourselves lucky that I do not simply crush you for your incompetence.”
Vanel Rathalie turned on his heel and marched from the tavern back towards the tower of Ataya. He thought to himself, it is too late now. Nothing can be done to prevent this coming to pass, but I must be prepared for whatever happens. There is such a divergence between messages and meanings.
Chapter eight - Lending a hand
Nathaniel walked out of the town hall with his jaw set grimly, heading towards the building of this money lender. His name was Holferd Fisk. At least there was now something to investigate and Nathaniel hoped that it could lead to some substantial information on what was happening here.
Jessa and Marcus followed him, and Marcus was the first to speak “Should we not split up and question others in the town?”
Nathaniel stopped and turned around. He nodded “Yes that would be a good idea. Marcus, head to the market area and asked around. Jessa, try some of the shops. I’ll handle the money lender.”
Jessa seemed to bite her lip and hold back from speaking, but then said “I’m not sure I like this idea of splitting up, I’ve read too many books where people ended badly because someone decided splitting up would get the job done quicker. But if both of you are set on this, I’ll agree for now.” She turned and headed to the nearest shop.
Marcus grinned and said “Always has to say her piece, kind of reminds me of another mage I know.”
Nathaniel narrowed his eyes and smiled thinly, then said “Go find the market Marcus.” Marcus headed off with that never-ending, cheerful grin on his face and Nathaniel rolled his eyes as he turned around and walked towards the building owned by the money lender. Standing around in front of the building were four men, each one easily taller and stronger than Nathaniel. These would be the thugs I’ve heard about, he thought, intimidating... if you didn’t train while being battered by elementals or have never faced down an Orc raiding force. He stopped in front of the door to the building as the four thugs gathered around him trying to look as tough as they could. He said calmly “I want to speak to your boss, step aside.”
The men looked at each other and Nathaniel as if sizing him up. Reluctantly they stood aside and one of them said “He’s inside.”
Nathaniel walked passed them and entered the door. Inside he found a small stone room, dark and musty from the large stacks of parchment which were piled on bookcases and tables. At one such table in the centre of the room he saw a man leaning over a scroll, checking things off of a second scroll. The man looked up as Nathaniel entered. Nathaniel walked towards him and said “Are you Holferd Fisk?”
The man said cautiously “I am. Who are you?”
The mage spoke calmly “I am Nathaniel Drakkon, mage of Weissland. I am investigating the disappearances here and I want to ask you some questions.”
Fisk swallowed and replied “Very well, but I don’t really know anything about the disappearances.”
Nathaniel smiled slyly “Why don’t you just let me be the judge of that? I understand that you are a money lender. Have you ever lent money to any of the people who have disappeared?”
Holferd Fisk wiped his brow with a cloth and answered “I’m afraid that would be confidential between me and my clients.”
Nathaniel regarded the man with narrow eyes much like a predator would look at its prey before pouncing and said “I’m afraid that is simply unacceptable. Answer the question.”
The man frowned, sniffed and said “I don’t recognise your authority to look at private business dealings just because there have been disappearances in this town.”
Nathaniel slowly rested his staff against a bookcase and carefully, in a very practiced and deliberate fashion drew his sword. The money lender looked at the weapon and his jaw dropped, he could not utter a word to call for the thugs outside. Nathaniel looked along the length of the outstretched blade pointing at the money lender until he caught the man’s gaze. Then the mage said “This is my authority. Can’t you see it?”
Holferd Fisk was utterly stunned. His mouth made gnawing motions as he tried and failed to speak, his eyes bulged in fear. He finally managed to say “This is insane; you can’t threaten me just because I don’t want to answer your questions.”
Nathaniel took two steps forward and responded “Oh but I can, and this isn’t a threat. I am more than prepared to follow through, which makes this a promise really. Now, answer, or you will die before the first one of your bully-boys makes it through that door.”
The money lender shifted nervously in his chair and said “Some of them did take out loans from me, most folks round here are farmers and they need a lot of money to expand. Its just business, but that doesn’t mean I’ve got anything to do with any of their disappearances. Several of the people that are gone I’ve never dealt with before. One of them was a young lad, like some child would take out a loan.”
Nathaniel lowered the sword and the man relaxed a little. Then the mage quickly raised the sword again, just to play with him. The man arched his back and held his breath, before Nathaniel lowered the sword and smirked slightly. The black-clad mage spoke “The boy, Toral Krae, did his parents take out a loan?”
Fisk shook his head “No, his father works at the mill, although I am their accountant.”
Nathaniel truly despised this man. He was worse than any Orc or beast. He cheats and scams and convinces simple townsfolk that they actually need his ‘services’. At least an Orc is upfront about its intentions to kill, eat or defile you and everything you possess, he thought. Drakkon asked the next question which came to mind “So which people have disappeared which you do not have any business connection to, directly or indirectly?”
Fisk’s eyes moved rapidly from side to side as he tried to think, clearly showing that he was not being entirely truthful “The woman from Adae and that drunkard. Like I’d let him take out a loan, he’s got no collateral and he’d never pay it back.”
Nathaniel motioned with his thumb to the thugs who would be outside and said dryly “No blood from a stone?”
The money lender chuckled and nodded “That’s right. I’m running a busin--”
Before he finished the sentence Nathaniel had punched him in the face, just hard enough to bust his lip. A thin trace of blood seeped from the cut and the man whimpered in pain and fear. Nathaniel punched him again in the same spot just to make sure. He held up his fist, and it was clear that there was some of Fisk’s blood on the edges of his knuckles. The mage replied “Well, would you look at that, blood from a stone! I’ve got more questions, and I really don’t think you are being as honest with me as you could be. Now, the woman who was just travelling through the town, do you know anything about her?”
Holferd Fisk said simply “She was from Adae.”
Nathaniel raised the sword again and the man cringed away from it. The mage was growing impatient “You’re lying. Bad idea really so tell me what you know.”
The man sighed “I’ve dealt with her before, before I moved here. I used to run a similar business in Adae but I was driven off by competition, so moved here instead. The woman, Annabella Rivers, used to work for me as a clerk. And I used her to spy on my competitors in Adae.”
Nathaniel leant over the table, ignoring the smell of sweat and said “So you have actually had dealings with everyone who has disappeared. Even Bill Talday attempted to gain money from you, whether you gave it to him or not. This does not bode well for you Fisk.”
The money lender put his head in his hands and said “But I’ve done nothing wrong, not really.”
Nathaniel had been about to turn away and leave, but then he stopped suddenly and spun around again. He slammed the flat of his blade against the table and shouted “Not really? What do you mean by not really Fisk? Just what have you done? Speak!” Even as he finished speaking Nathaniel turned towards the door and pointed at it, saying quietly a few words of magic. The door became held shut with magical power, even though one of the thugs tried desperately to open it. Nathaniel turned back to the money lender again, fire in his eyes.
The man looked at Nathaniel with worried and frightened eyes; he spoke haltingly “I... I get paid to pass on information to a business associate. He pays me money and I give him information about everyone I deal with. He never told me how he planned to use it, I assumed he would make investments, buy from my clients, or simply buy them out cheap to increase his holdings. I don’t know if he’s involved in this though.”
“And who is this business associate?” Nathaniel asked coldly. He flexed his sword arm, adding just a last hint of menace to the question.
Fisk replied honestly “I don’t know who he is, we kept it anonymous.”
Nathaniel smirked “You mean he was smart enough to remain anonymous while he took everything he wanted from you. He knows who you are or he wouldn’t be able to deal with you.”
Holferd Fisk nodded sheepishly “I suppose you’re right. But like I said, I don’t know who he is, which is what you want.”
“What do you know?” Nathaniel replied.
The man thought for a moment, mopping his brow again to slow the torrent of sweat his fear was producing. He answered “They are from Ataya, or at least that is where they operate. I send a courier to a meeting point. Each courier returns with a new meeting point and any other instructions. A different courier each time as well, and from what they’ve told me it’s a courier they meet.”
Nathaniel prodded further “Anything else?”
Fisk shook his head solemnly. Nathaniel took a deep breath and said “Well then, there isn’t much left to say...”
Fisk interrupted “So you’ll let me g--”
“Shut up!” Nathaniel shouted. He continued “I don’t like you. I don’t like what you do, how you do it, and I don’t like what you represent. Its greed and its avarice and I don’t like it! I won’t stand for it! Not here, not in my homeland, not in my world! You are going to make yourself scarce or I will make you very dead. Leave these people alone, give back their money and get out. If you leave, I will overlook your part in this.”
The money lender tried to argue “You can’t just throw me out, I deserve a life.”
Nathaniel said incredulously “You deserve a life? You deserve to hang you little bastard. Start packing. I want you gone before I leave town or I’ll drag you off to Ataya to face judgement.” Nathaniel turned and headed for the door. He called his staff to his hand and lifted the spell on the door. Nathaniel walked outside as the thugs crowded him. He said grimly “Step aside or die.”
Marcus Krandor walked towards the group although they did not notice him. He drew his sword slightly, leaving it in the scabbard enough to avoid noise. He said loudly “I’d tend to listen to him, he’s never wrong.” The thugs turned and began to disperse.
Nathaniel taunted “Your boss is out of business. Be gone, lest my boot finds your backside.” The thugs gave harsh looks, but skulked away.
Nathaniel walked over to Marcus as his friend said “Thirsty work all this talking and fighting.”
“Aye, let’s get a drink.” Nathaniel added.
The tavern was warm, warmer than the cool air outside. The numerous candles and larger torches around the walls added to the warmth and there was a sizable fireplace at the far end of the common room, although in late spring the fire was not needed. There were a few patrons in the tavern, mostly near the bar. The three mages sat quietly at a table in the corner. Marcus and Jessa had gathered some information, but they were still no further forward. Perhaps we should speak with the families, Nathaniel thought. That presented two problems as far as he could see. One, they would have to speak with weeping relatives who could not answer a straight question and they would not be able to push like with a suspect. And two, some of those missing had no family or they lived elsewhere. Nathaniel could not leave unless the investigation led away. But it did not, it led here to Aunel, only Nathaniel had to discern where in Aunel.
They each had a tankard of mead, and it was not the best mead Nathaniel had tasted. But it was cheap and served its purpose. Pushed to the centre of the table were three plates which had contained a passable meal of steak and vegetables covered in rich, thick gravy. All three had devoured the meal in short order, as they were so hungry from their travel. Nathaniel said “The evidence is leading us somewhere, like a path. It is up to us to determine where the path leads and go there.”
Jessa nodded with a smile “Ok, and where is it leading Nathaniel?”
The man sighed and ran his hand over his mouth and chin, smoothing his beard as he did so. He replied “A lot of the information leads back to Ataya. But in a city of a hundred thousand people finding one person is impossible. The rest of what we know is centred on Aunel or at least its outskirts. Even that is a lot of ground to cover.”
Marcus had just begun to speak when everyone was silenced “What I don’t understa-”
They all heard the screams, followed by shouts outside in the street. Like a bolt from a crossbow, Nathaniel leapt up, knocking his chair flying. He ran to the door, Jessa and Marcus in fast pursuit and others were following behind them.
Nathaniel ran outside into the cool night air and drew his sword, looking around as his eyes tried to adjust to the sudden change in light. He saw many people spread around, all in a commotion and he shouted “What has happened?”
Mayor Brunton appeared looking none too calm and said “Another disappearance sir, we’ve lost another! The parents are here.” The portly man indicated a man and woman. The woman was wailing and crying into her husband’s chest and the man looked utterly distraught as well.
Nathaniel carefully motioned to Jessa to speak with them, a practiced signal which none but the sharpest eyed individual would notice. While Jessa went over to them, he pulled the mayor to a discreet distance. He said “This is the best chance we have, callous as that sounds. Sort people to begin searching around the town and outside the town as well.”
The mayor nodded and quickly started gathering people and telling them to fetch torches and fan out. As Nathaniel turned around Jessa stepped up and gripped his arm lightly but firmly. She said with her eyes wide “It’s a fifteen year old girl who is missing Nathaniel--”
Not taking Jessa’s expression to mind he said “Its bad, but who is less important than where--”
Jessa spoke over him in a hushed but urgent tone “She’s blind Nathaniel!”
Nathaniel gasped slightly as he said “Oh hell. What is going on in this town? We’ve got to find her or these people’s grief will turn to anger and the situation will spiral out of control.”
Mayor Brunton jogged over and handed a flaming torch to Nathaniel and held a second one himself. He grunted, out of breath “I’ll go with you.”
Nathaniel nodded “Fine. Let’s--” He was cut off by a faint scream. He looked around and said distractedly “Where did that...” He started to walk, as he heard a girl shouting and screaming. Nathaniel followed the sound caught on the air, picking up speed as each second passed. Realising that the sound was coming from the northeast Nathaniel said “Looks like we won’t need those search parties after all.” He held up the torch and his sword as he turned around and shouted “Everyone stay here and stay calm. Mayor, bring Miss Mayfield and two able men, not the father and follow us!” With that he turned and ran after the shouts which grew louder and clearer as he approached. He could hear the footfalls as Jessa, Marcus and those few others followed.
Marcus called out “Nathaniel, slow down.”
Nathaniel shouted “There’s no time, keep moving. And stay quiet.” He ran on, trying to focus on the girl’s voice. He could ill afford to fail to save this girl, he would not fail. He barely noticed the first tree, but gradually he saw a multitude of trees, growing closer, denser as he moved further into the woods. The shouts of the girl were much closer now, he could hear her clearly. He heard her shouting “Help, help, someone help!”
Nathaniel slowed slightly peering into the distance while using the torch to light the way. The others were catching up. He shouted out “Where are you? We are coming to help you!”
As he walked forward, looking around, the girl called back “Who, wh-who are you? I’m here, over here.”
Nathaniel saw the figure just at the edge of his vision; he ran towards her and stopped when he was sure it was the girl. He said in a powerful tone “My name is Nathaniel Drakkon; I’m here with mayor Brunton and others.” He walked forward, nearer to the girl who was standing still, probably petrified with fear and worry. Nathaniel said “Stay calm and tell us what happened? Are you hurt?”
The girl had shoulder-length blond hair, and she put both hands on the sides of her head as she said “They took him, they, they took him! Those monsters took Jimmy! He’s gone, oh Jimmy, they took him!”
The others gathered around as Silvia Mayfield went over and held the girl, comforting her. Nathaniel thought for a moment and said “What is your name girl?”
Between sobbing cries she answered “Lisa.”
Nathaniel passed his sword and torch to Marcus before placing a hand reassuringly on the poor girl’s shoulder. He spoke softly but firmly “Lisa, please tell me, what did you mean by monsters? And who is Jimmy?”
Lisa breathed fitfully, still crying slightly and said “Monsters, those evil men, they ju-just took him. They dragged him away!”
Nathaniel nodded and responded “I think I’m beginning to understand. Mayor, do you know a boy in Aunel called Jimmy?”
Mayor Brunton replied “Yes, yes there is a lad around Lisa’s age. Jimmy Brogan.”
Nathaniel looked back at the young girl and said “I’m going to get Jimmy back Lisa, you have my word. On my honour I’ll find him, I’ll find all of them.”
Lisa was too upset to speak anymore and Silvia held her close and kept saying “Shush, shush child, it will be alright.”
Nathaniel took the torch from Marcus and began to look at the ground. In the mud he could make out several tracks. Tracking was not something he was skilled in, but old Barnabas Graves had taught him enough. It looked like several people, at least three dragging a fourth, which was clearly struggling given the depth of the drag marks and occasional scuffled where tracks overlapped madly. But it was clear to Nathaniel that they led further northeast. He said over his shoulder “Silvia, take Lisa back to her family. You two men go with them, guard them with your lives.”
The four townsfolk began to walk away and Jessa said quietly “What is it Nathaniel?”
The bearded mage replied “Tracks going northeast. Mayor, what lies northeast of here, those fields?”
Brunton replied “No, the northeast fields are more to the east. You can’t see in the dark, but they are beyond those trees to the right.” He pointed a stubby finger at the trees. Obadiah continued “To the direct northeast followin’ those tracks there ain’t much. Lots more woodland, eventually the river, but about a mile off there’s a mansion owned by some noble.”
Nathaniel arched an eyebrow “A noble? Who?”
The mayor said “I don’t rightly know. It’s out of the town so out of my jurisdiction. They have servants, folk have seen them. But they keep to themselves; don’t come in to town for nought. Seen supplies come from Adae and come up here. Folks round Aunel stay clear, they don’t like nobility and the like, beggin’ your pardon milords and lady.”
Nathaniel waved the man off “No need for that mayor, nobility, mages, we’re just people and nobody is above or better than the law. But it seems apparent that this is our next destination. If these nobles are involved or worse behind this, we’ll sort it out. If not perhaps they’ll have seen or heard something, have some information. The only other possibilities are a camp out in this wilderness, or they are crossing the river somewhere, to get further into the Torcein Woods. They must be staying near to the town though, or they would not return so quickly. Go back to town mayor, we will go on.”
Brunton said “Wait. Shouldn’t you wait for daylight? You could walk right past a camp in this dark.”
Nathaniel took his sword back from Marcus and sheathed it. Speaking words of magic he conjured his staff into his hand, teleporting it from the Inn. The others did the same. He said angrily, almost growling “These bastards didn’t wait for daylight, I’ll be damned if I’ll let this wait.”
The three mages headed off at a steady pace, leaving the mayor to find his own way back to town. The stars seemed covered by a veil and the moon was weak, the darkness clung like a heavy cloak of black and an oppressive feeling loomed. Nathaniel thought grimly, if I lay hands on those behind this they will be sorry. But I might find only the chance to lend a hand to those who are in trouble. If those missing are injured or worse, I will wreak unforgettable vengeance upon whoever is to blame.
Chapter nine - A noble’s house haunted
They moved at speed. They could not afford not to. They kept their weapons at the ready. They could not afford not to. Rushing through the woods, the flickering lights from the stars and the pale half-moon danced and darted between and around trees, leaves and branches. The wind caught the leaves, on the trees and those which littered the soft earthen ground. It made them rustle, like whispers just beyond your understanding of the words. It made the leaves jump, spin, twist and writhe, like some overly complex ritualistic dance. Creating additional light from magic held at the tip of their staffs, the three mages made their way towards the mansion of some unknown noble. Nathaniel, Jessa, and Marcus were not new mages. They had served for around fifteen years. Even discounting training and working alongside mage lords they had been acting as mages alone for ten years or more. All of their adventures, all of their experience, prepared them to face any peril, any foe. But still, it could not prepare them for the unknown. Their knowledge, intelligence, and experience could only teach them to be cautious, wary, keep their wits about them and let nothing escape their attention. There was always risk when going into the unknown, whether it was entering a mansion belonging to a reclusive and secretive noble or an un-mapped cave network full of unknown enemies. Much must be risked to solve the puzzle, to safeguard the people. Even their lives had to be risked when the lives of the citizens hung in the balance. For Nathaniel Drakkon the risk was more than worthwhile. One life, ten, a thousand, the numbers did not matter. All that mattered was that if he could lay down his life to save another then his life was worthy, his life had meaning. It was a part of him, it was in his blood. So many of his ancestors had fallen in battle serving Weissland and Nathaniel did not want to disappoint. But Nathaniel was hungry, possessed of an internal fire. Whenever his life came to an end, Nathaniel was sure he would make the enemies of Weissland rue the day they had ever crossed his path.
The terrain was relatively easy to navigate. The trees were not thick, growing in haphazard rows which led roughly in the direction they were going. The ground was soft, earthen, with a thin covering of dry leaves. This meant being quiet was a moot point. It took a while, but as they cleared a denser clump of trees, the mansion was brought into sharp, shocking view. The mansion was four or five stories tall, and very wide. There were a couple of smaller stone buildings off to the left. They were clearly stables and stores. Surrounding the mansion was a stone wall with a wrought-iron gate. They could see the whole building only because the ground just beyond the tree line sloped gently around three metres to the lower ground the mansion was built on. They stopped for a moment and Nathaniel Drakkon tried to get a sense of the layout. He could see no sign of the kidnappers or any guards. Pointing his sword forward he said “Come on!” With that he rushed down the slope and began running towards the mansion’s gate.
Marcus and Jessa ran after him, and as they went Jessa called out, the wind making her shout to be heard “Don’t you think we should have some sort of plan? Something beyond run up and break into the place waving weapons around would be quite good!”
Nathaniel slowed, and replied “We check the front grounds. Then we put the swords away, knock politely and ask questions. We don’t know if they are involved, they are only potential witnesses for the moment. Sound good enough Jessa?”
The redhead flashed that stunning smile of hers and responded “That’s fine Nathaniel. Just wanted to know you had a plan dear.”
Nathaniel rolled his eyes, although he was smart enough to do it facing away from Jessa Aeris. He kept moving and said “Let’s get this gate open.” As he stood in front of the gate, he looked through it at the mansion. In this light the stone seemed to take on a strange, pale green luminance. And at the corners, around the windows and other architectural features Nathaniel could see vines of ivy or some other creeping plant tracing and trailing where they could find purchase in the stone. The windows were dark, strips of wood criss-crossing the glass. They were like dozens of hooded eyes regarding the trio of mages with contempt and scorn. The atmosphere seemed just as harsh and unwelcoming. It was positively unnerving. Nathaniel said “Creepy.”
Marcus shivered visibly, as if something had just crawled down his spine. He spoke “I was just about to mention that. I don’t suppose those kidnappers turned around and went to the tavern? No, thought not.” Marcus was generally bold as brass, ready to get involved regardless of the risks. But he also needed to vocalise his worry. It was part of his process, voice concern, speak your fears, and then just get stuck in with facing them. Nathaniel found it quite a unique way of dealing with things, and he had never had need to doubt Marcus Krandor or his courage and fortitude.
Jessa said impatiently “It’s not getting any warmer out here.”
Nathaniel sheathed his sword and checked the gate. To his surprise, and perhaps the others too, he found the gate was unlocked, pushing open easily. The metal groaned and squeaked as it swung inwards. The three mages stepped inside quickly, feeling the change from soft ground to paved stone instantly. Moving his staff lower Nathaniel could see a stone path leading to the front door of the mansion “Let’s go knock. See who answers.”
As they walked the others put away their swords, keeping only their staffs at the ready. There was a harsh chill in the air. When they reached the end of the path, they waited before the door. It was suitably large and made of a light coloured wood. There were some carvings running down both sides of the surface, but they were not familiar to Nathaniel. He reached up and gripped the brass door knocker, pulling it back and knocking three times. Silently they waited. Nathaniel did not want to knock again; it might make getting answers more difficult if the owners were annoyed. Still they were turning up in the middle of the night, perhaps only a few hours before midnight. With no light coming from within, it was quite likely that they were waking the household. Two minutes past and there was no answer. Nathaniel glanced at Marcus, who had been making faces, but now intently avoided eye contact by looking at the moon. Nathaniel shuffled his feet and looked at Jessa, noting the twinkle and sparkle in her eyes as she smiled back. He cleared his throat, sighed and knocked again, more urgently this time.
Finally the door opened to reveal an older man standing there with a candle in hand. He was wearing smart, tidy, formal, but common clothing. He was clearly a servant, yet he had an air of uptight snobbery about him. He seemed to look at them through eyes permanently narrowed in disdain and pomposity. He had white hair, which had receded from much of his head, covering only the sides and back. He had well-groomed mutton-chops which went into a tidy moustache. It seemed to make it look like he was puffing out his cheeks and his mouth flexed and pouted several times before he spoke “I am the butler of his mansion. We will not have ruffians on the grounds or visitors at such an hour.”
Nathaniel was certainly not going to be spoken to in such a manner and said “I want to speak with your masters and I want to speak to them now. We are mages of Weissland and we are on a matter of utmost importance. Those who are loyal to Weissland would do well to not hinder us.” The butler could puff up his cheeks or his chest as much as he wanted, for all Nathaniel cared he could burst. There was no way they would be talked down to or ignored. He would not stand for it.
The butler backed down “Well, if it is so important, you had better come inside.” He stepped aside and motioned towards the lobby. As the three mages entered, the butler closed the door behind them with a creak. He continued talking “But if you want to speak to those I serve you cannot.”
Nathaniel said sharply “Why not? Do you think you can ignore our authority?”
The man said “No. I am merely stating a fact. You cannot speak with them because they are not here.”
Nathaniel felt slightly foolish for snapping but he was tired, irritable and getting nowhere fast in this investigation. He asked “Where are they then?”
The butler walked to a nearby table and used his candle to light an ornate lamp. The lobby became much brighter and they could see it led off to two corridors in either direction, with two alcoves where ornamentation sat flanking those corridors. Behind them the door was in an alcove of its own, a very short section of hallway before the lobby opened up. At the other side was a large, wide sweeping staircase. As Nathaniel looked around waiting for an answer, he noticed a doorway at this end of the corridor to the right when entering the main door. There were wet footprints on the carpet leading from the door. He almost thought nothing of it, but then it dawned on him; it had not rained in this part of the country for about two days. The butler answered, pulling the mages’ attention “The master has important business in Ataya and spends much of his time there. The mistress lives here but is currently away visiting friends in Ledek.”
Nathaniel was beginning to get a sinking feeling about this. Every time he gained new information half of it pointed to Ataya. How many people in Ataya were involved or connected with these disappearances? No, he thought, kidnappings, not disappearances. That was clear now. He needed to find out why these people were taken, and where. He continued with his questions “When will the master and mistress return?”
As the butler answered he looked down to his left. It was a small motion, just for a brief second, but Drakkon was good enough to detect it. The butler said “The master is always very busy, he only returns here when time allows and that is rarely. The mistress is scheduled to return in a week’s time.” He was lying, Nathaniel just did not know about what.
The mage of secrets pursued it “So your master is in Ataya?”
Nathaniel said “And the mistress returns in a week’s time from Raquil?”
The butler shook his head “No, from Ledek.”
Nathaniel was trying to trip him up “Really? But you said Raquil earlier.”
The man stumbled over his words “Ah, no, no, I am sure I said Ledek.”
Nathaniel shook his head. He looked to the others. Marcus shook his head. Jessa said “You definitely said Raquil.”
The butler was confused. To have several people tell you are wrong, especially when you are tired and caught off guard, you begin to doubt yourself. Even more so if your resolve is weak. He said “Oh of course. She is in Raquil. The mistress takes so many trips; it’s sometimes hard to keep up.”
Nathaniel said “Yes. We have the same problem, always off here and there.” Rule two when it comes to questioning a potential accomplice or perpetrator, ingratiate yourself with them. If you can get them to believe you are on the same page, they will become malleable, more receptive to revealing information. Even better if you can make them think you do not have a clue what they are up to. Arrogance is a brilliant tool when properly used. Everyone wants to feel superior to others and a good interrogator knows how to act inferior to gain an advantage. Nathaniel asked “Are there any other servants in the mansion? You seem to be rather alone.”
Without batting an eyelid the butler replied “The master only maintains a small staff, the mansion is not as large as many noble’s estates. There is a cook, two kitchen maids, four maids working under the housekeeper, a stable hand and four men to... ah, tend to the grounds.”
Nathaniel smiled and nodded along. He said “Well, I suppose we should get to the point. We are investigating several disappearances in Aunel. Have you or any of the other staff seen anyone suspicious lately? Or heard anything which could be of help to us?”
The butler was clearly being evasive “I had not heard about any disappearances.”
Jessa joined in “But have you seen anything out of the ordinary? Perhaps which now seems odd or out of place now that you have heard?”
The butler replied “Not that I can think of Lady. We do not have much contact with the people of Aunel. For the most part only supplies and their couriers come to the mansion and they are not from Aunel but from Adae.”
Nathaniel asked “What is your master’s name? What is his business in Ataya?”
The butler stiffened, his feathers ruffled “I am not at liberty to give that information without permission from my master.”
Marcus said “Isn’t that rather impolite given that we are investigating a serious crime? Your master could have information we require.”
The butler said sternly “I cannot reveal that information. My master’s privacy should be respected.”
Nathaniel spoke, a cold edge to his voice “I want to speak with the other servants, now.”
The butler held up his hands in protest “You cannot! I want you to vacate the mansion you have outstayed your welcome.”
Nathaniel was about to push past the butler when they heard a noise. It seemed to come from further into the mansion and perhaps below. There was a repeated clanging sound of metal striking metal. Just as suddenly as it started it was silenced. The mage asked with a glare “What was that?”
The butler said “Nothing. It is just an old noisy house.”
Marcus responded “That was no bloody noisy house. What do you take us for?”
Nathaniel quickly said “I’m going to search this mansion. Something isn’t right here.” Almost at once things changed. They could feel it like a crawling sensation in their skin. The butler produced a concealed club and swung violently at Nathaniel. The mage was not expected the attack and only his quick reflexes saved him. He ducked as the butler continued his sudden onslaught. His eyes were blank and his motions stilted. It was as if he was possessed. The quickly realised he was.
As he swung round again Nathaniel ducked under the blow, and Jessa was forced to dodge back as well. Marcus was out of reach. The butler swiped back-handed and caught Nathaniel in the chest. The hit knocked the mage back, sending him crashing and rolling over the nearby table. The lamp fell to the floor, the glass breaking, the flame extinguished. The strength of the hit was beyond what a mortal man could dish out in such tight quarters. Nathaniel knew that was unnatural strength. Jessa smacked the man with her staff, rocking him, but he regained balance and continued to attack. It had virtually no effect. Marcus weighed in; thrusting his staff to the gut, but it seemed to rebound like it had struck stone. The butler clubbed him in the shoulder as Jessa cracked her staff off the side of his head. Blood flowed from a wound there but the butler simply turned to attack her.
Leaping up Nathaniel drew his sword and thrust without hesitation. The blade went clean through the abdomen, but to little effect. He pulled out the sword and received a club to the gut for his trouble. There was little choice left. Jessa drew her katana and taking aim, brought the weapon down in an arc. It severed the club arm with a spray of arterial blood. Still the butler refused to stop. Turning to Jessa, she was knocked aside even as the jetting blood hit her, covering one side of her clothing. Both Nathaniel and Marcus slashed at the butler but he hammered Marcus away and advanced on Nathaniel. With shocking power he knocked the arming sword away and with his one arm grabbed the mage by the throat and lifted him two feet clear of the ground. No easy feat given Nathaniel’s tall height. Blood still pumped from the lost arm as the butler choked Nathaniel. Jessa drew one of her throwing daggers, standing behind him, stabbing it several times into his kidneys. Nathaniel used what strength he could muster to reach past his foe, grasping at Jessa and pulling another of her daggers into his hand. He punched it into the heart of the butler, then into the arm. Dropping free, Nathaniel barged the butler to the ground. Jessa was knocked down as well. As the arm reached for her throat, Nathaniel wrestled with it. Jessa stabbed at the arm. Nathaniel turned his blade downwards and with a shout of desperation and anger proceeded to stab the butler dozens of times in the chest. Nathaniel roared as blood splashed up at him “Aaarrrh.” Pulling the gore covered weapon free he sat back, stunned by what he had had to do to stop the possessed butler. Suddenly the man sat up again, seemingly unstoppable. Before Nathaniel could react there was a flash of metal. He looked up to see Jessa standing with her katana as the butler’s head bounced away and the body fell back. Both them looked like they had been through a bloodbath. The three mages staggered away from the body, which was finally dead and still.
Nathaniel supported Jessa, neither of them able to speak. Marcus managed to say “He was possessed. It must have been a spirit.”
Nathaniel nodded slackly “Haunted... got to be. We need... we need to check the mansion, in case there are more. Get the staff away hopefully.”
Jessa shook her head, holding him steady “No, can’t you sense it? It wasn’t a spirit; it was something already in him. There is corruption here, a taint of some kind, but I can’t feel the taint of necromancy for some reason. The servants are probably tainted as well.”
Nathaniel brushed her cheek with his clean hand “We can’t be certain. Jessa, we can’t just assume. We need to conduct a proper search. And I know where to start.”