Dim Prisons and Drakes (Part 3)
Dim Prisons and Drakes
I didn't see an inn. I saw a hot meal that hopefully wasn't burned on one side, and a hot bath. Just a few days stewing in my own juices, even if I could keep both myself and my clothes clean with magic, was enough to swear me off camping forever. After all, it was a waste of power, and nothing beat a nice soak to clear your head.
“Do you need a moment to wax poetic or something there, princess?”
“Screw you, Phil.”
Jerk probably liked being dirty or something.
The building itself was humble but well kept, brick and stucco affair colored a light gray. It was nearly spotless, and a kid was currently washing some dirt stains off the wall facing us while grumbling; the horse that was no doubt responsible for the chore looking on innocently. That horse was one of two total, and well decked in barding and bright cloth. The other was still bearing an old cracked saddle and little else. Both had clean lines and good endurance, but the one in barding was clearly more strong than the plow horse.
And how did I know that?
The roof of the inn was thatch, but there wasn't a hint of the rotten odor one associated with old thatch, and the door was well fit to the frame, allowing little light to escape. The door opened into a well-lit lamp filled room; smoke infused, but clean. The was a sodden mat before an actual wooden floor which was somewhat clean, and the place was cheered by hangings and tapestries. Those too were somewhat less dingy than I would expect.
All in all, it was a pleasant surprise.
I had to whack the morons; only a few days, and they already forgot how to wipe their feet! I stared them all down until they did so, filing past me one by one. I followed suit and walked to the table Karl chose. It had a good view of the front door, and the door to the kitchen, and was next to the one that could only be the owner of the well-dressed horse outside.
He was middle-aged and lean, with some kind of roguish musketeer style uniform in bright reds and eye stinging whites. The broad floppy hat was off of course, and he was nursing an ale around his eloquently waxed mustache. A sword stood propped at his side... and it had seen use. His dagger, a fine yet dainty thing, was currently buried up to it's hilt in a haunch of mutton. The entire haunch. He was going to get fat, eating all that.
He watched us all go by, and I could swear he was grinning behind that mug of his when I passed.
Karl was rousting some poor dirt covered farmers out of their seats at the table. Well at least that's what I thought until I caught the glint of coinage pass hands. So he was paying them to move. That I could approve of at least. Being the conscience of a group of violence prone guys was pretty stressful. I had to be vigilant.
The two farmers left for the bar, smiles on their faces. No doubt to get beer or ale or whatever.
Randolf looked sour about it, but it wasn't his money. He would probably have bullied them out of the table though, something to watch. I was beginning to feel like a herder of cats, or a babysitter to troubled teens. Or something similar, since I didn't have experience with either. But for now Karl seemed to have things well in hand, so it was time to get to the important things. Before sitting down I had to find a waitress, or barmaid, or whatever I was supposed to call them now. I wasn't about to yell for one, as literally everyone else was doing. In a place this busy, that got noisy quickly.
“Be right back Karl.”
I waited by the door to the kitchen. And soon enough a barmaid I liked the look of strode confidently by. Long dark brown hair, and fresh face that still had some baby fat to it, and a figure that wouldn't have looked out of place in a magazine that no longer existed. She was wearing a white shirt chased with lace and cut to show as much of her cleavage as she could get away with, a pair of leather pants that she probably had to use mechanical aids to fit herself into every morning... and no bra.
She probably made tons of money in tips.
She stopped right away, clearly busy and flustered, but polite. The mark of a true service industry professional, and I was impressed.
“Do you have a bath on premises?”
“Of course we do! You go to that door there at the far wall. Walk right through that. It'll lead you outside. Go to the Shed on the right, and knock. A guy named Gar will answer. Don't let him frighten you, he's a pussycat. Anyway he let's you in and takes a position by the door. You go inside the inner door while he makes sure you aren't disturbed. No need to worry about him, that's his job and he takes it very seriously. Once there, it's all pretty self explanatory, and it's all self service at the moment. Once out, you pay Gar and you're done.”
Made sense that it would be self service; they seemed pretty shorthanded for the crowd. Besides I wasn't sure I'd be comfortable with another woman in a bath with me... or anyone else for that matter. I pointed back at my 'dauntless companions.'
“Alright, I'd like to rent a room, and pay for the first round for that table over there.”
“Alright I can do the round alright, but don't you want to see the room? I'm not sure I have the time....”
“No, You pick it. I trust your judgment already. Just don't hit me with a drafty one, please. I get cold easily.”
From the way her face brightened I think I just made her night. She was into the kitchen with a wave and a bounce in her step. I headed out the door indicated, noting Both Karl and Matt's eyes watching me go. I gave them a wave of my own, a subtle signal that all was well.
The yard behind the inn was a dirty mess, a large hundred feet enclosed space with free roaming chickens and a very fragrant pig pen off to the side. There was a stable parked at the other end, and I hoped it was in better condition. It shared the same whitewash stucco and was just as clean as the front. That poor kid must be running all over the place with his bucket every day.
The wall was a little warped but in good repair and about eight feet tall, and a smaller fence walled a garden off. There was a trail off into the forest. And there, right next to the stable and as far away from the pig stench as it was possible to get while still remaining in the yard, was my target. It was also coated in white. The fence did look sturdy enough in construction to at least slow a dinosaur down, and the building? Outhouse? Looked sturdy enough to hold out a siege in.
I had dinosaurs on the brain. I needed to work on that.
I knocked on the sturdy looking door, which gave a sturdy sounding echo.
“Hello, Gar?” I was told you have a bath in there?”
The door opened, and the largest humanoid bipedal thing I have ever seen to date hunched over to squint at me. He was green, and tusked, and his shoulders were so wide I half suspected that the building had been constructed around him; surely he couldn't fit those through the door? He was dressed in rough white cotton pants, had no shirt, and bore a club that I suspected weighed more than I did. To my credit I kept the flinch small. Orcs did not have the best reputation, and he was huge; large enough to give a dinosaur pause.
Yep, definitely needed to work on the dinosaur thing.
He nodded with a smile that, while menacing in a way, oddly enough did put me at ease as he stepped aside and gestured me in. Once inside even though the inside was a near match to the outside in cleanliness, it was still easy to tell it was a bathroom. There were benches with holes cut in intervals lining the room, and I could just make out the sound of running water underneath us through them. There were also buckets placed periodically around the room, with rags in them. I really hoped they didn't re-use those.
I sure as hell wasn't going to use those. That little spell I knew that cleaned me was looking more and more like the greatest thing since sliced bread. The smell could have been worse, though I suppose it could have been better as well. Gar motioned me towards the door in back and spoke, a voice like two rocks grinding into each other.
“The cost is two copper, paid when you get out. Since you're alone you know it's serve yourself?”
“Alright. There is a skylight in the chamber, but no windows. If you scream, I'll come running and hammer whatever frightened you into the dirt; though... if you scream because of a spider, please don't yell at me if I bust the door down. I'll not take that well.”
“I won't scream because of a spider.”
It was true, I had no issue with spiders. Corpse bugs were a different creature entirely.
“The small lock will keep most out, the bigger lock is to keep me out, in case you're worried about me. I won't barge in on you unless you scream, but some people like the extra security.”
His look said it all; he knew some people were wary of him because he was an Orc, and was not only used to it, but well past blaming anyone over it.
The next room had a door even more ponderous and sturdy than the outside door was. The small lock was a bolt lock as big as my middle finger that you engaged with your foot and went in the floor. The big lock was a wooden bar the size of my arm that was cradled by slots and slid into place. It looked like it could take a day's worth of pounding with a battering ram to get through it. I slid the smaller lock in place, but left the bigger one.
I wanted to trust.
The room itself had no less than 4 tubs, oblong hollowed out tree trunks... or possibly the same trunk, with tables next to each. There was a rack of clean towels, and a basket hamper for the dirty ones under it. The tables each held soap; the color suggested pine tar. At the far corner there was a trough, buckets floating in it. There was steam rising from it too. The floor was stone, and constructed at a slant so as to drain the water towards the back, where a grated drain sat. The floor itself was dry, indicating how much this room had been used today. The walls were painted a nice muted yellow, matching the light.
I checked the skylight before starting to disrobe. It was clear of lurkers... and clean, which was a nice touch. Someone should tip that poor kid. I wasted no time at all, then realized I probably should have dipped the water into the tub first. Oh well, no one was watching, so no one would know.
As tempted as I was, I didn't cheat. Moving the water one bucket at a time would save energy, and I saw no reason to waste it. The only thing I wouldn't compromise was setting my clothes to clean themselves, cloak included. I wasn't packing them away dirty. It only took about fifteen minutes of bailing to fill the tub with piping hot water. The table next to the water trough had a number of oils to make the water smell better (and by proxy, the person in the water) and I chose one made from cactus and melon. I pointed my eyes to the skylight and the sliver of sun.
And then I soaked.
Drifting along, I soaked in the water so long that I pruned, and there was a gentle knock on the door.
“Yes? Does someone need let in?”
“No Ma'am, I was simply checking to make sure you were alright. You've been in there some time.”
I blinked. Come to think of it, it had probably been about an hour.
“Ah, I'm sorry. I didn't mean to worry you, I was just soaking, and kind of zoned out. I'm on my way out.”
His voice came through again, slightly panicked.
“No! No, ma'am, you don't have to get out on my account. I just wanted to make sure everything was alright.”
“Don't worry Gar, you didn't disturb me or chase me out. I should just get out before my friends start looking for me.”
I got out and dried off with a towel that was so clean it glowed in the dying light. Taking my spare outfit out of my pack I threw it on. There was no mirror so I couldn't really check the results, but I brushed my hair anyway, mainly to help it dry. Putting my towel in the basket, put everything I used in its place. Then I put my boots on, shouldered my pack, shot the bolt and opened the door.
Gar, at his place by the other door, stared at me with his mouth open. What? Had I forgotten something? I took inventory; nope, all there. I was properly dressed. He closed it soon enough when I brought up a concern.
“Um, I wasn't sure how to empty the tub. I didn't want to try it by bucket, and....”
“Oh! It's no problem ma'am. I handle that job. Was everything to your liking?”
“Yes it was, thank you. So how much do I owe you?”
I handed him five. So odd that copper was now a viable medium of exchange again; I mean pennies looked like copper, but they weren't. And the nice pleasant experience was worth the copper. So I handed him five as I thanked him.
“Thank you for the nice bath.”
He actually blushed and stammered.
“Th-thank you ma'am.”
As soon as the door closed behind me I skipped a bit; I couldn't resist. The inn was just as loud as it was an hour ago, and even darker. Coming fresh from outside the pungent smoke odor of the tar soaked torches was even stronger.
The table was still full of my companions. There was also an earthenware pitcher of beer, and plenty of plates with bits and debris of some form of dinner no doubt. There was also a plate of some sort of bird; a grouse? And peas. Placed in front of an empty spot on a bench, complete with Phil staring longingly at it.
I settled right in with a smile. Matt started off the questioning.
“So where were you? You took quite a while. We've already been through dinner and a pitcher; we had to order for you.”
“Was taking a bath. I highly recommend the facilities for current company, by the way.”
“You saying I stink?”
“You saying you don't?”
Phil had to join in. It was clear they were all at least two sheets to the wind already. A bit odd, was it really beer in that pitcher?
“But don't you use that spell of yours to clean up every day?”
“Of course, but a good soak is a good soak. Haven't any of you ever wanted to just soak in a tub?”
They looked at each other, silent. Traitors. I knew they were holding out on me. Then Randolf, surprisingly, bailed me out.
“Sure. Especially after a game or a twelve hour shift. Eases the muscles.”
He took a drink, daring the others to contradict him. For my part I tried dinner; it was good. Almost five star good, considering the locale and background issues. The gourmet restaurant business must be suffering like no other under the current problems; it had to be hard to make great dishes out of monster guts.
The waitress was back and by my elbow before I noticed her, placing a large iron key and a silver goblet of wine on the table in front of me.
“Hey! Just heard from Gar you were back in, sorry about the dinner being cold. Your room is number four on the third floor. The wine is the best we have, let me know if you want something else instead, OK?”
And like a tornado she was gone again, with only the impression of a verbal smile lingering in the air. Just watching her made me tired, not that I saw where she had gone.
“Well, the good stuff. Somehow you rate the good stuff. Makes me wonder....”
I knew what he was wondering, and he could stew. Karl rescued him from my no doubt visible wrath.
“No, just something I ordered for Muse. She isn't getting comped, though the bit about the room was interesting.”
“I simply asked her to pick a room for me that wasn't too drafty. She should know what the bad rooms are, and I didn't want to get cold.”
“Makes sense to me. Kind of regretting I didn't do that while I had the chance.”
Weird, support from the dwarf.
“Thank you Ethan, but why can't you do it now?”
He burped before burying his face in his cup. Then he replied.
“Because I'm a bit too drunk to walk, darlin'.”
I rolled by eyes, taking in the soot stained ceiling. Oh well, guess that kid couldn't get everything.
“Did you all at least remember to get rooms?”
Nods all around. Good; I didn't want to share.
“Yep, we filled the place up; they could only stuff us in two at a time. Kind of jealous you get one to yourself.”
I knew how to fix that. I pasted on a nice serene face with a bland smile and attacked.
“Well I can always help you with that. All I'd have to do is make you female.”
Matt coughed as his beer went down the wrong pipe.
“Um, no, thanks, that won't be necessary.”
Success! Just that simple. Ethan was on to me though.
“You don't know how to do that, do you lass?”
I felt I had to answer truthfully.
“Nope. Not even a little. I can't do transformational magics.”
I did hope to learn though. I might be able to fix my own condition if I did, though I suspected it wouldn't be that simple. I hated that feeling, but couldn't quite deny it. The others didn't even seem to be entertaining the idea of going back to normal. Making the world go back to normal, yes, but not themselves. Not even the dwarf, though in his case I wasn't sure.
The wine was barely passable, from an obviously local vintage. But barely passable was passable, and it set off the meal perfectly. Now I needed a wet nap or something. Just as I was beginning to despair, the waitress came by again, this time with a damp but clean hot towel and another goblet of wine.
“Here you go! Can I time things or what?”
“You can, thanks.”
I wiped down and she took it and was gone again. I was very happy I didn't have to deal with a brindle dog or something similar. Rubbing greasy hands on a flea infested mongrel was shudder worthy. The others were staring at me.
“Nothing. Just good service here, you better tip the waitress.”
“I intend to, why wouldn't I?”
Randolf goggled at me, then smirked.
“No reason. Screw all this, we aren't drunk enough.”
Even pastor Collins was drinking, though his pace more closely matched my own. We were all going to be senseless by the end of the night though, by the looks of things. The wine was potent after all; I resolved to slow down. Drinking something other than water was nice though. I'd probably gladly murder a few people for a Coke.
Ethan Matt and Randolf were talking sports, something I never cared for. Karl was staring into his cup like it contained all the answers to life's questions, and pastor Collins was muttering prayers under his breath from the sounds of things by the time I finished my second cup. My ears were starting to heat up.
It was time to go do something. And unfortunately, that something involved going back out to the bath shed again. So I stood back up, just as Matt Karl and Phil did.
“Where are you going?”
“The can. Where are you going?”
“The same. “
Stupid biology. I was closer to the door, but they were more reckless, so we all made it outside together. Which of course meant that I would be waiting, since I wasn't about to risk them getting a peek... or peek myself. It took them less than three minutes while I watched the trees move in the breeze. Looked like the weather was going to turn foul again.
Then it was my turn, and Gar was at the door.
“Hello again ma'am. In the far right corner there is a screen, and a specially made seat. Next to those is a bucket and rags should you need to clean yourself. The rags are clean, I laundered them myself. The idea is to throw the rags down the hole too. I'm not supposed to leave, but I'll be right here but facing the door if you need anything.”
And out he went. I checked the walls... like the bath room itself, there were no convenient holes anywhere, and the screen was dark and covered everything. I pulled it across. The bucket full of rags was clean, they looked like the remains of old sheets or something, cut into strips.
I trusted Gar on maters of cleanliness after my earlier brush, but I still thanked my lucky stars that I didn't need them. The seat however, I did need, and it was clean too. It was made of oak, fit directly over the hole, and smelled of bleach, somehow. Evidently they had access to bleach still. Once finished I used my best spell, and made sure to hit the seat and surroundings with it too. Gar wouldn't have extra work on my account.
A quick retraction of the screen showed Gar right where I'd left him.
“So what do I owe you this time?”
“Nothing at all, only the baths are charged. Enjoy your stay Ma'am.”
I waved and stepped outside, to find Matt Karl and Phil, enjoying the moonlight and swaying of the trees. Should I be breathing fire their direction, or touched? I settled for neither, even though I was sorely tempted.
“Pretty decent facilities.”
Phil nodded with some obvious relief.
“Yep! Better than what I have at home. Stupid outhouse.”
I could sympathize. We made it back in with the gentlemen leading the way, but I collected my key and went on to the stairs while they sat back down before the beer.
“I'm going to go study. You all should probably slow down. Hangovers will really suck tomorrow.”
Karl stepped in.
“Agreed. This is the last pitcher guys' we need to be sharp tomorrow.”
There were groans that Gar could probably hear. They were like children or something. The common room was still crowded, with waitresses flitting around like large dragonflies. So it took me a bit longer to navigate than I wanted. The stairs were narrow and high, but at least they didn't need a banister. I ignored the second floor and started up the next claustrophobia inducing flight.
At the third floor there were three rooms. I was in the last, the rather sturdy door directly across from the landing. The key opened the lock and I went in to discover a space a bit smaller than a modern hotel room, with a small scarred desk set next to the only and currently shuttered window and a rather large bed that looked a bit lumpy.
It felt a bit lumpy too, under the gray checkered comforter, but it felt soft and appeared free of any creepy crawlies. I used the spell to repel insect life anyway, and watched the result carefully; nothing. Very good.
The door also sported a small metal bar like the one in the bathroom as well as the standard lock, which was perfect. I closed the door and shot it, and only after realized I'd forgotten to light the lamp first. Stupid dark seeing eyes. I lit the lamp with another small application of magic because id of course forgotten to bring a candle or ember with me. I was burning through magic to do the mundane again, and it was annoying. I really had to get a handle on that.
I plunked down on the bed and opened my pack, grabbing my spell book. I needed to know much more about how this crazy stuff worked if I was to use it. I doubted I could use it to fix the problem we were sent to investigate since it was likely the cause, but I wouldn't discount it either. And anything that could be used to help save lives was a good thing.
Besides, how could I sleep with all that racket going on downstairs?
Well somehow I managed it. Because the next thing I knew I woke to a hand reaching past my drooling face to snag the spell book I was resting on. How the hell had someone gotten into my locked room?
I turned quickly, adrenalin spiking me awake and hand going for my dagger. The cloaked individual moved even faster than I, avoiding the slash I'd aimed in haste. Through the dim light of the dying lamp I could easily read the surprise. There was nothing in the individuals hands, but obviously they were a thief.
As I watched they turned to smoke, and filtered out the slots in the window. I opened it shortly after, spell of fire already formed in my mind, but the fog or mist was gone.
Well that was new.
Checking my belongings revealed nothing missing, not even my coin purse. A small spell would prevent any further incursions from the window. Only then did I allow my heart to slow. That hadn't felt like an attack on myself; it would have been easy to just stab me while I was asleep. It would have been just as easy to slash my coin purse and leave. My instinct was telling me whoever that was, had been after my book specifically.
Which made no sense at all, since only I could use the darn thing.
The real question was; should I tell the others? A quick glance revealed how late it was. I could tell by the light from the window slits that the moon was facing it; which meant it was close to setting. And the lamp, which had enough oil for several hours, was almost out. I didn't want to wake everyone else up, only to have them sit on me while I slept.
Then again, they might be targets themselves.
Then again, if the thief had already hit them, it was too late to worry about it. None of them had spell books, however. Well maybe pastor Collins did for some of the things his goddess asked of him, but I didn't think so. I was fairly sure the thief wouldn't be back tonight, for fear that I had the rabble roused against them.
I opened my door. The party down below was in full swing. I headed down the stairs; I didn't know which rooms my companions had, so I'd have to ask. Luckily enough no one was coming up said stairs, or it would have been a tight squeeze.
Just before the first floor landing I paused; the view laid out the entire common room. There were still old salts and farmers chatting merrily away at this hour. And there, right where I left them... were my companions. All of them still drinking merrily away, even Karl. And they were very loud, if not especially coherent. I think I heard three different stories at once, and all of them just as improbable. I'd have to remember the one about the bar room dancer the next time Randolf gave me crap. Even pastor Collins was still there, listening intently with his face beet red!
I turned around and marched back up without a word. It was 3 am, or thereabouts, and whatever the thief did to them was well deserved, as long as death wasn't involved. After all, death was too good for them at this point.
The morning dawned bright and clear. Birds were singing, insects chirping or buzzing, and I could almost hear the flowers opening up in response to the warming sun. I certainly wanted to. I opened the window, noting that the alarms I'd placed last night were still intact. Good.
The fresh morning breeze was sweetly scented with the aroma of flowers and pollen. It smelled like revenge. I dressed in my clean clothes as opposed to cleaning what I wore yesterday, and crept as silently as possible down the stairs to the common room. Which was apparently pretty darn silent; I couldn't hear me. Though that might have more to do with the humming barmaid, already up and sweeping broken crockery and assembled crap from the floor. She was even being thorough, lifting up and moving chairs and leaning down to get under tables.
There were no other people, slumped over a table or otherwise. So they had gotten upstairs to their rooms after all. Maybe they hadn't been as drunk? Oh well, time to startle the unsuspecting!
She jumped in a most satisfying way, then flushed and favored me with a broad grin.
“You got me good! Good morning. Would you like some breakfast? The right part of the common room is clean.”
“I would, yes. What do you have?”
“Well we have a choice of pancakes or ham and eggs, with bread. Though I suppose you could ask for a mix; you'd have to speak to the cook or something about that, I just work here.”
Were all the barmaids here cut from the same cloth? Perky, chipper and upbeat? Where did they find them? Even three or four was an awful lot of upbeat people. Maybe there was something in the water? Why was I always suspecting the water? It could be something else. It could even be that the change in the world itself was doing this somehow; there had been weirder clues to weird happenings in life.
“Just the pancakes are fine. Some syrup if you have it, a slice of bread, and some tea if you have that?”
“Sure do! Pancakes and maple syrup, coming right up. I have to continue cleaning, but I'll tell the cook and someone else will bring it out, OK?”
“Sure, that's fine.”
I found a seat while she ran off. She came back before I could get settled in, and picked up a rag to wash tables. She did good work, the side of the common room I was in gleamed. I could see my outline in the table wax, and while I wasn't sure I could eat off the floor, I could definitely walk barefoot on it without fear.
My new found friend from last night I didn't remember the name to; with some shame I realized I hadn't asked.
“Hey! Good morning, here you go. Sleep well?”
“Thank you. I did for the most part. I have something to tell you if you have a minute.”
She looked back at the kitchen.
“Just dishes, they can wait a few. What's up?”
“Um, first off, what's your name? I forgot to ask, and it's been bugging me.”
“Whoops, my bad. I forgot to introduce myself yesterday. I'm Caitlyn. So, what do you need?”
“Hi, I'm Muse.”
I took a bite, trying to think of how to play this. The pancake was good. IHOP worthy, or better. Best to play it straight I suppose, even if it started a very public search or worse, a panic. After all, having someone break into your supposedly secure place with ease using magic and up to no good... well I didn't feel good about it, and I could counter it.
“Well last night I was sleeping, and someone managed to enter my room using magic and try to steal from me. They didn't manage to, but it was a close thing. I was wondering if you had heard anything about prior incidents.”
I wasn't willing to call it an inside job just yet, but chances were the barmaids here might know the perpetrator; he was almost certainly a local; we had no cars anymore after all. No mass transit meant most people around here lived here.
“Oh no! Did they get anything? What were they after? Did you get a look at them? Maybe we can track them down or something. Get the guard involved, or something.”
Well, her reaction was a reassurance; I didn't think she could pull off innocent and perky and fool me, and she seemed pretty sincere about not knowing anything. I held my hands up; she was beginning to raise her voice and get a good head of steam; her coworker had paused in her broom-work to give a curious glance.
“No, they didn't get anything. They were after my spell book, oddly enough. I got a look, and I'm fairly sure it was a him, but he wore a mask so I can't identify him. However he used a spell to turn himself into a fog to get out of my room, and likely that's how he got in. Sound like anyone you know?”
She slowly shook her head.
“Sorry, I don't know anyone who can throw spells. Well, other than you. I can ask around, maybe one of the other girls has heard something. We have to try and get this creep off the streets! I'll go get the guard!”
I managed to stop her in time, I almost wasn't fast enough to snag her arm.
“Quietly, Caitlyn. Quietly. We don't want to call too much attention to this and scare the perpetrator away.”
Even if chances were he was long gone by now.
“Oh, right. Low key.”
She dashed off to the kitchen, leaving me to ponder. Keys would probably be a good start to fix the problem for this inn in the future; it wouldn't be that much different for what I had for my own home. But could I do it for an inn? I wasn't sure, the traffic would be immense. I'd have to modify the spell, and I really wasn't sure in what way.
I'd have to think on it. But while I was thinking, I could be eating and drinking tea. I have to give the other barmaid present her due; she actually did finish her job before rushing into the kitchen to see what was going on. She didn't stop to ask me either, which might be a point against her; I was approachable! Even nice! Maybe she was under orders not to bug guests? Whatever. I knew my little bit of excitement would be all over town by noon; between all the people currently learning the news, there had to be at least one incurable gossip. I just hoped that the guard would hear first.
I wish I'd managed to get a hold of a scrap of cloth, or mark the intruder. I could trace him myself in that case, then ask him what the heck he thought he was doing. It wasn't like he could actually use my spell book; it had it's own lock, keyed to me. And it was in old elvish, a nearly dead language. I didn't know how I knew that, but I did.
There were spells that could force the lock of course, and spells to allow one to read any language, so maybe it wasn't as secure as I first thought. But the thief would have to know those spells, and I didn't even know what spells I knew for sure until I needed them. So why go to all the effort and take the chance? Hopefully I'd get the chance to ask.
But for now, I had the more fun task of my morning to complete. And I really was an idiot; I forgot to ask Caitlyn some crucial questions. So I had to go to the kitchen first. I managed to catch Caitlyn in mid story, regaling the kitchen staff with my daring fight against the midnight intruder. I was pretty good in a fight, to hear someone who never saw me fight tell it.
“Excuse me, Caitlyn?”
She had the good grace to look embarrassed, but I wasn't here to call her out so I didn't.
“Could you tell me the room numbers my friends are staying in? I need to wake them up.”
“Oh, sure. Though they probably won't be ready to travel. Even Gar had trouble carrying them up last night.”
“And when was that?”
“Oh about 4 am, maybe a bit later.”
And they had had their gear downstairs with them until then. Maybe I was worrying over nothing. I hoped I was. Guilt sucked, I should have told them about the break in earlier. Caitlyn rattled the numbers off; rooms 2, 3, and 4 on the second floor. They were sleeping two to a room, apparently in order to save money. They had apparently drunk up quite the tab last night. This was also perfect. I crept back upstairs, silent as a mouse. After all, I didn't want to wake anyone else up. Just my targets.
So how was I going to do that? The inn was full, and pounding on the door would disturb the other guests. Yelling would most definitely disturb the other guests. But I didn't want to just leave this one alone and wait a year for them to get up. I wanted to see what happened to the nearest actual city. Oh, I could have simply asked travelers last night, but I wanted to see it with fresh eyes.
Polite knocking got me nowhere, except in room four. I could hear Ethan grumbling about the noise, but I didn't hear him get up, so he probably just rolled over. Famed Dwarven constitution for you. With a shrug I headed back downstairs. And the guard captain from yesterday was just walking in, shaking the road dust off his cloak.
“Good morning, Captain.”
“Good morning lady Muse. Glad to see you here, I was hoping to discuss the situation at Georgetown with you.”
“Well we can try, Though I'm not sure what help I can be. We can also discuss a small event that happened last night since you're here. After all, you're responsible for crimes along your patrol route, aren't you?”
He nodded warily.
“Then since you're here, I'd like to report a thief on the loose. A person broke into my room last night and tried to steal my spellbook. They used magic in the attempt, a spell to turn one's self into fog or mist, and wore a mask and dark clothes. Gray to be precise, and under that a male. I really can't offer you anything else except when I woke and confronted them, they ran instead of simply trying to kill me and take it; so it is unlikely they are a murderer.”
He sighed as we sat down. He seemed tired. One of the barmaids, a pleasant looking blonde, came out and handed him some wine. He quaffed a good dose of it before answering.
“I'll see what I can do, though I hope you don't expect much. There is no DNA analysis, and though we could do fingerprints, we have nothing to compare it to anymore. Without a good description we are left hoping to catch such criminals in the act. Spells and books of spells are important; some people are looking to magic for the answer to why the world changed.”
“Not surprising; I also think magic might hold the answer, or the tools for getting it. I just didn't expect someone trying to steal it. I don't think it would do them much good in any event, it's written in a dead language.”
His return look was cryptic, to say the least.
“Some people like to work fast, and cover all the angles. Were I you, I wouldn't trust many. Your companions perhaps... and me, of course. One minute.”
He levered himself up and went to the door, calling someone named Grim over. Grim turned out to be his sergeant or second in command, and whispers were exchanged along with loaded glances shot ym way. My ears were very good however, and I knew he was simply filling the man in and telling him to make quiet inquiries. I sipped and waited; I had nothing else to do really. I wanted to be reading my book, but that was rude. He came back and downed the rest of his wine, gesturing for a refill. Apparently someone was watching, because one of the other barmaids was at our table so fast she might have used magic, blushing and refilling the Captain's cup. She gave me one and filled it. I took it even though it was a bit early for me to be drinking.
“Alright, your turn. My men and I went down the road, found the trail, and eventually your campsite. It was late in the day, and I left one squad there, and took another with me into the outskirts of Georgetown. I'm not sure how you made it into the town itself, but we didn't venture that close. It was obvious something was wrong with the place.”
I didn't blame them their possible cowardice. I certainly wouldn't want to go back there, even though I knew I'd have to at least head back that way in order to get home. Maybe I could take the really long way around... as if that likely wouldn't prove to be more dangerous. The Captain's trip down recently made memory lane was cause him no small amount of stress; he looked gray.
“We started back, but night fell before we could reach the campsite. Lady Muse, what came out of those woods... well they were ghosts. Just having them get close sucked the heat from your bones, and the WAILING; that gods-awful wailing. Well, we didn't stay; your wards stopped them, but we decided we really didn't want to be there; to listen to... that. So we packed up and marched, and here we are.”
They hard marched all night, probably without rest. Their experience had to have been much worse than ours. After all, some of us had been able to sleep through the noise. Or was that the truth? Might be more to it, but I was no expert on spooks.
“Everyone made it out alright though, right?”
He nodded and grabbed my hands in his.
“All thanks to your wards, and on behalf of my men, I thank you.”
I reclaimed my hands. He was too busy looking deeply into my eyes to notice, or if he did, he did not take offense.
“No problem, think nothing of it. Do you of the guard have a mage handy? One on the payroll?”
“We do. And I'm way ahead of you. I will request those more of those wards from him, or whatever similar ward he can make. Everyone in the area is currently being warned about the town as we speak; I sent our fastest runners with the news.”
I could find no flaw in that.
“Good. Sorry about the harrowing experience.”
He grinned, seemingly recovered.
“All part of the hazards of a cop's life.”
An opening to change the subject if ever I heard one.
“Oh? You were a cop before?”
“Nope, I was military. But I was taking military police training, and was going to become a cop after I got out. Now I'm drafted all over again, and Ohio is part of a kingdom.”
Ohio was part of a kingdom? Now that I heard it said, that gem fit in my head, much in the way magic did. Ohio wasn't really Ohio any more, but was a duchy. The duchy of Orrus? Named after the family. Though why they ruled I didn't know. Maybe I would eventually; and that prospect only mildly scared the crap out of me. Just having information randomly appear in my head was never something I wanted to get used to.
“So now you do the state cop thing, sort of.”
As a guard member he would work directly for the king, or emperor, or whatever was around. He would know, but I didn't feel like asking. Maybe I should, for the information and mystery solving, but I just couldn't bring myself to do it. Time to take both our minds off things with another handy subject change.
“So where do you need to report to now? What new area do you need to patrol?”
“About that. I don't. It's time for my squad to report in, and part of that is heading to the city. And I'm glad you stayed here last night. I'd like to offer to escort your team to the city. I'd hate for something to happen to you in my patrol area, and that thief may try again. You might be the one to solve this mess, and get reality back to, well, reality.”
He was smooth. I'm betting he really wanted to escort us to make sure we didn't cause trouble. But maybe I was just being paranoid. Then again, I doubted that we were the only ones running around and doing this. And it might look really bad for the Captain to have casualties or thefts in his patrol area. Then again, I was pretty surprised that the places we had been weren't all rioting; there was something to be said for societal inertia after all.
Or did any of that judgmental crap even apply yet? It might apply to us all if we were actually part of a medieval era world or whatever era it was ripped from, but surely even without the trappings of our modern society, we were more enlightened than that? I could hope, right?
My gut spawned butterflies. I really hoped my cynicism was misplaced. Time would of course, tell. Karl was going to be pissed at me, but he was just as drunk as the rest. Together collectively they would be unable to beat the group of kobolds we encountered before.
“We'd be delighted of course, Captain. It may be some time before my companions wake however, so you have time to rest up and get some food in you. This inn is first rate, just as you said yesterday.”
“A good plan. The inn has a check out time of noon; I'll meet you all outside then, or shortly after?”
“Sure. See you then. Where are you headed now?”
It didn't seem like sleep was something the good Captain would be getting any time soon.
“There aren't any rooms. So I think I'll pick a spot where my men are, out in the shade, and sleep until it's time to go. Well that or until the locals ask my help. They should be able to handle the search for your thief until the next patrol comes along, and in all honesty I'm too tired to think straight. See you soon.”
I waved as he made his way out the door. The sun was nice and bright; I wanted to be out there myself. Weren't the locals around here the innkeeper, his staff, and the local farmers? Would they have anyone around who could handle an investigation for a thief? On the other hand, they would know who the magic users were; after all, my own townspeople had known at a glance.
The real question is, should I investigate myself while I had the time. Would these people even talk to an outsider? They seemed pretty close minded yesterday. It would be best to harness another approach. But which approach? The human nature one or the magic one? I decided on the human route, which took me back to the kitchen.
The cook was a small man, dressed in an almost immaculately clean white tunic and pants. The apron he wore over them was mostly spotless too; I only saw a few flour stains. He was not a handsome man, his face was far to hatchet-like for that, and he seemed to hold an aura of command that brooked no nonsense. There wasn't anyone else present.
“Yes, may I help you?”
He was as least polite to guests. Another plus.
“Yes, could I speak to you in private for a moment?”
He wiped his hands on the apron and came forward.
“Come in; none will disturb us here for the moment. What do you need? Was there a problem with the breakfast?”
Another point in his favor. I was quick to assure him no.
“No, nothing like that. I'd just like you to do a favor for me. You know about the incident this morning, I'm guessing?”
He shifted from solicitous to wary. I took that as a yes.
“What can I do for you?”
I couldn't resist the grin that came to my face; It seemed I was 100% right in the gossipy nature of the staff.
“Well, when your help comes back from their rounds, I'd appreciate it if any juicy tidbits they uncover regarding the identity of the would be thief were relayed to me. I'd really like to get a few leads, but I'm unsure the people around here will talk to me much.”
He conceded the point without actually conceding the point.
“I can do that. Is there anything else you need?”
As close to a dismissal as he could get politely; I heard it loud and clear.
“Another pot of that tea would be excellent, thank you.”
“I'll bring one out.”
I didn't know why he was in such a hurry to get rid of me; he ran a nice clean kitchen. No chance I'd complain, at least on that score. I sat back down and opening my pack; Since I kept my book, and no one was here to annoy me, might as well read it.
Five minutes later I barely noticed the tea the cook brought out himself; it was tasty, but so was the discourse on elementals, as animate essences of an idea. Like a fire elemental wasn't just fire; it was representative of fire itself. And there was more than one. Countless numbers, somehow. Another concept that they represented; that of numbers beyond counting, though they were hardly the only creature (or was it concept) to reinforce that idea.
The entire explanation introduced a cosmology I found vaguely disturbing; the book seemed to claim that elementals backed those elemental forces which drove the world, and that was how the entire process worked. If I wasn't just reading too much into this, then what was next? The four humors of the body? Some sort of half-hearted Kabbalah?
An hour later my tea was cold and I was sick of waiting. The morning crowd was wafting in, and the barmaids were back to deal with them. No one had sat down close to me, however; the nearest person was two tables away and eying me warily over coffee. Conversation was muted... but at least it existed. It was eleven.
“Caitlyn, are most of the guests out of their rooms by now?”
She stopped and turned.
“Yes, most. Why, what are you planning?”
“To roust my companions of course. We need to get moving; the mysteries of the world won't solve themselves.”
“Hmm, should be fine. We usually have Gar start things off about now anyway.”
Well, that's pretty kind, letting the drunks sleep in late. So there won't be any problems with me going upstairs and knocking on a few doors?”
She shook her head with a grin.
“Pound away, anyone not up yet should be. Anyone who complains, well they can complain to Gar.”
I handed the tea pot to her as she moved to leave, and stuffed my book back in my bag.
“That's a pretty sound customer service decision. Happen often?”
“Only twice so far!”
And then she was gone. Hmm, in a week, twice seemed often. Oh well, back upstairs with no need to creep this time. I knocked at a polite volume on the door of room number 2, Karl and Matt's. I was greeted with silence. So I knocked a little louder. Then louder still, and there was still no response.
So it was time to take the kid gloves off.
My sword would make a good conductor, as well as offering me some control over the direction of the sound, and possibly even distance. I'd never done this before, but it should work. It was a mild worry that I seemed to keep resorting to magic for the most mundane things, but it is what it is. I was going to be kinder than Gar, I was sure. The rooms were all next to each other, which definitely helped the next step.
Some concentration, some focus on my blade, and a good whack on the door with it were all that was required to get the ball rolling. At my urging my blade acting like a tuning fork, spreading a low, persistent, and absolutely nagging sound directly into the rooms I was targeting. It took less than a minute to get results, though they weren't the results I was expecting.
I almost lost my breakfast as multiple sounds of others upchucking hit my ears over the resonant tone I had made. Whoops, looks like I had found one of THOSE sounds. It hadn't affected me that way... but they were drunk after all. Ugh, I had just made more work for the staff here; they were not going to be fond of us. I hoped they'd let us stay on our way back home... if we came back this way that is.
The door in front of me opened, and Karl stared blearily out. He had some vomit running down his chin. He did not look at all pleased, but responded calmly enough.
“Morning. Could you please stop that noise?”
I stopped, just as the next door opened and Thomas roared through it.
“Someone stop that infernal racket before I kill them!”
He promptly bounced his shoulder off the door jamb. He couldn't kill a fly, as uncoordinated as he was. Well maybe by falling on it; he was a huge guy, after all. I decided to ignore him; looking further into the room I saw Matt staring at the puddle of puke on his bedding, he looked out of it, and that made me feel guilty... at least a little. After all none of them looked in any way near sober, even after seven hours.
“Morning. Almost check out time, so I came to wake you all. Sorry about the results.”
“Why would you pick that way, you witch?”
Did I hear correctly? Did Thomas just call me a witch?
“Well it was me or Gar you neanderthal. Which would you have preferred?”
He shut up as heavy footprints sounded up the stairs. Well, speak of the devil and he shall appear; there was Gar. He looked less than unhappy, though he wasn't looking at me. In fact, he looked downright terrifying at the moment.
“Lady Muse, these drunks bothering you?”
“No, just needed to wake them up. Can you help them get cleaned up, please?”
They needed a good dunk to clear their heads. And maybe some pharmaceutical help with their inevitable headaches. I could handle that end, if they asked nicely. I couldn't help carry them all, after all. Gar probably could, if they left their armor off. Then again, it looked like I didn't have to; I finally noticed the stable hands behind Gar on the stair way. The last room, the one with Phil and pastor Collins, hadn't even been opened yet.
“Sure I can do that.”
Then he bellowed, startling me.
“Alright you lot, get up! You had your fun, now it's time to pay for it!”
He put an arm around Thomas and guided him down the stairs; he wasn't gentle, but he did keep him from tumbling headfirst and breaking something he might need. There were enough stable hands to grab everyone, and they did so, quickly and quietly. I wanted to help, but there was no one left to help... and I wasn't cleaning up all that vomit. Caitlyn was waiting at the bottom of the stairs.
“Sorry; there is an awful lot of... mess up there.”
Her cheer slipped a bit.
“It's OK, it's not your fault.”
“Actually I think it was. The magic didn't work as I expected.”
She nodded to the two girls that went by, headed upstairs with soapy water filled buckets and some kind of gloves on their hands. While the two passed me they weren't smiling, but they weren't frowning either.
“Nah, that's not your fault. Really! The drink around here makes people puke all the time! We're used to it.”
She leaned in close.
“We just charge them for the clean up.”
She smiled, and I couldn't help it; I smiled back. The service of this inn was excellent.
Toledo looked quite different from the last time I was here. It could have been the buildings, none of them over four stories and all of them made of wood or cut stone. It could have been the sprawl of it, with the winding and narrow cobbled streets. It could even have been the market with unrefrigerated meats, butchers nearby watching with naked cleavers in their hands, or the loud farmers selling vegetables out of carts, many of them small and wilted looking. Maybe the obvious open drainage was a clue, or the smells that were ranging from faintly rotten to absolutely disgusting.
It could also be the fully moated castle on the obviously man-made hill overlooking everything. It was sort of rough to tell.
We went through the gate with our escort, the esteemed Captain and his merry men. Who actually had been merry, and nice company for the trip. He waved at me with a wide grin when we split up; he had to report in and we had to find rooms for the night.
“Sheesh, finally. Thought that guy would never shut up.”
Matt did not appreciate the good Captain, or his small talk.
“At least he made things easier.”
The escort had cleared us from any further harassment by other patrols, gotten us in the gate of Toledo with ease, and had kept us from getting attacked on the road. Of course, I wasn't sure about the last part, but with thieves in my room last night, I wasn't about to deny the chance, no matter how tame this area looked. Monsters had nothing on mankind sometimes, after all, and the thief hadn't been a Kobold.
Or if he was, he was a very tall one.
The inn recommended by the Captain was called the “Sword sheath”, and was probably only recommended because the military or cops or whatever they wanted to call themselves had an eye on it already – but that suited me right down to the ground. Some of us had other ideas though.
“We shouldn't be where any organized military can watch or find us.”
Some of them wanted to give me a headache.
“Phil, if we vanish they will just look for us until they find us, and then trust us less because we vanished in the first place. We need to work within any official channels left for now, we need the information they are likely to have.”
Your average mugger or murderer isn't likely to have ideas on what happened to the world, after all. Or if they did, they were unlikely to be useful. There would be plenty of time to check whatever dark underbelly this city had (and I had no doubt at all that it had one) after we had exhausted the side of the street with actual paid spies.
The inn itself was down the main street (I didn't catch the name, road signs seemed to be missing) and near the market. It was not all that different from the road in we'd stayed the night before. Smaller, less sprawling, and without a barn for animals, it still managed to leave the impression with me – probably because it was clean and looked well cared for. I could smell food inside, meat roasting vegetables frying, and they didn't smell as if they were burning.
I missed the lack of trees around it though; even this main street felt a little claustrophobic to me.
The inside was brightly lit thanks to the use of actual skylights made of glass colored a washed out blue set into the slat roof. The place looked clean and smelled of mint – and unwashed people of course. There was a sizable crowd, mostly Men in uniforms and clad in steel; Phil's hands were already twitching, and Thomas looked a little green.
Karl and I, on the other hand, strode up to the bar as if we owned the place; after we all wiped our feet of course. I didn't even have to remind them this time. Aside from a few curious glances, mainly at Ethan, our party was ignored. The bartender was old, graying, and had long since run mostly to fat; though he was in that curious not quite overweight stage. He smiled as we approached, showing some bright shiny teeth.
“Can I help you?”
Alright, so it was polite, but it seemed a bit less so than one would expect. Karl answered while I kept my mouth shut, per our agreement.
“Yes, we'd like rooms if possible.”
“Of course sir! How many?”
“Four.” That was 2 of us per room. I wonder who Karl wanted me to room with. I wasn't sure if I should object after my last inn experience…..
“Of course sir, that will be eight gold.”
Eight gold!?! Per night? Was this place the Ritz or something? Karl handed over the money with a raised eyebrow. The bartender just shrugged and handed him four crude keys. Thinking back, eight gold was around a thousand dollars in my head; I knew what I guess were something like exchange rates. I also knew that while I could afford it easily, staying here for long would probably bankrupt my companions. We needed to find our answers quick or we'd be in back washing dishes or worse.
Karl handed me a key on the walk back to the group. “You'll be with Pastor Collins.”
That made sense – Pastor Collins wouldn't try anything, and he as ex-military, he was better in a physical fight than I was, or even than the robes he wore suggested. So if we wanted to bait a repeat performance, then squash it, he was the perfect choice. He was even a lighter sleeper than I was.
I wasn't in any hurry to dump my stuff in the rooms for obvious reasons, so I took a chair while the others went on up; not that I blamed them, they didn't have bags like mine. I passed the Key to Pastor Collins and flagged down the barmaid as they made their noisy way up the stairs.
The barmaid was less young than the last example, and less pretty, with limp stringy dirt colored hair and a disinterested attitude. Then again, getting groped all day by men with metal gloves while wearing crappy wooden shoes might have something to do with it.
“I'd like a bottle of good wine, and a pitcher of beer for my companions, please.”
“hm, We've some Sigalan red if you want.”
Sigalan red jogged another memory I didn't know I had. Sigalan was an elven kingdom, in Idaho, or what used to be Idaho. On the border of Oregon, or what used to be Oregon, they grew some surprisingly good grapes, somehow. There was some sort of trade secret there that I could almost tease out of my head… but all in all it made for a mid to high quality wine; just short of the truly expensive vintages.
“That will be perfect, thank you.”
She flounced off, literally avoiding a grabby hand by less than an inch. The guardsman the hand belonged to looked amused. Maybe this was a game the two played or something; she didn't seem all that upset either.
I had a book pulled out (my bestiary) and was taking my first sip when the guys came back down. They were pretty noisy and much more relaxed. Phil wasted no time in telling me why as they all sat down, almost fighting over the pitcher like starving dogs over a piece of meat.
“The windows have bars in them; all of them. They are pretty sturdy, too. You'd need a pry bar or hammer to take them out, and it's make a lot of noise. The locks are terrible, but no absolutely awful. Makes things a bit harder for any mystery guests.”
That combined with the military presence the place had, off duty or not, will definitely help. Still, there were other ways, especially with spells. It would be nice if the esteemed Captain had this in mind when he recommended the place, rather than the watching thing. But he could probably manage both thoughts.
“Ah, lass, you read my mind!” Ethan effused at me, blowing froth from his beard.
I managed to keep any of his froth from hitting me; why he'd sat next to me I didn't know.
“Not all that hard really, Ethan. There is only one thought on it, after all.”
He laughed so loudly everyone turned to look; I hid in my cloak hood.
“You've got the right of things there! A day of walking and a cool beer is the only thing I want. Makes the hot dusty day worth it.”
Well at least he didn't take offense and yell at me.
Karl was too busy drinking to comment though Matt was grinning. Thomas was staring into his own half full mug as if it contained something dead – which it may, I didn't actually specify any quality for the beer. An oversight caused by the fact that I wasn't drinking that swill. The others didn't seem to mind, at least.
Randolf had a different take on things. “You should drink this instead of that fruity smelling wine; it'll put hair on your chest.”
I looked down with an arched brow. He shrugged back at me.
“Drink enough, maybe the hair will replace those?”
“Surprisingly tempting, but I think I'll pass. This stuffs pretty good.”
Karl looked relieved to not have a fight on his hands. He really should have more faith,
I'm not that touchy.
“So did you order food too?”
“Of course not, I didn't know what any of you wanted.”
Phil finished draining his tankard and stood up. “None for me, thanks. Got things to do.”
So he was going to prowl for information. “You sure? The meal is included in the inn price.”
For as much as the room cost, it had better be. He visibly waffled for a moment before shaking his head.
“Nah, I'll get something along the way. Got to see a man about a horse.”
Karl waved the barmaid back, and she avoided another pinch from the same guy with a grin on her face that matched his; apparently it was a joke after all.
“What can I get for you?” She didn't have a notepad or a menu, I realized. In fact, there wasn't a menu posted anywhere. She also didn't have a name tag.
“Whats' today's special?” Karl asked her.
“Roasted pork and butter beans, with summer squash, or grilled vegetable medley, which is green beans, carrots, mushrooms, grilled and then put in a salad with some tomatoes and radishes.”
So, a vegetarian option, huh?
Everyone else ordered the pork, and the barmaid just nodded as if she expected it. But
I just wasn't feeling it today.
“I'll take the grilled vegetable medley.”
Of course everyone but Pastor Collins stared at me as if I had said I'd murder everyone in the room.
“What? Some day's you just feel like a salad.”
Randolf immediately barked out: “I don't.”
“Well, I do.” Philistines. It wasn't like I didn't eat meat; I'd eaten deer jerky on the trip, and rabbit. I just didn't feel like it right now. Hm, was philistines even an accurate term anymore? I was willing to bet the books we now had no longer mentioned the culture. Another thing to check on….
The barmaid skipped off again, taking a few more orders from memory before skipping off into the kitchen. It was mildly impressive, actually, even if most people probably ordered the same thing.
“So, how do we go about finding our answers, lady Muse?” Matt asked, obviously trying to needle me.
“I've got to wait on the good Captain to find time to escort me to the castle, so I can see the wizard in residence. A guy by the name of 'Stick.'” From what the Captain said, he's the one co-coordinating the 'what the hell happened' efforts here.”
“Well that sounds like a whole lot of useless waiting.”
Pastor Collins spoke up: “I believe I can help with that. There are bound to be churches here, with other men of the cloth, whatever cloth that may be now. If I get in touch with them, we might get some answers.”
It seemed unlikely it would be that easy, but it was worth a shot. Karl seemed to agree.
“Alright, but take Thomas with you. It might be dangerous alone.”
Randolf grumbled but stood up when Pastor Collins did, and followed him out the door. Of course, he still had the tankard in his hand, and it was full, but I doubted there were public drunkenness laws on the books anymore. It certainly wouldn't hurt his disposition any, so there was less chance of scaring off any clergy.
Ethan took his cue. “On that note, I'll see if I can contact any Dwarves. There should be some here, and they may know things we don't.”
He stumped out, leaving his own tankard while I looked on. Karl hadn't assigned him a buddy; he'd just waved as he left. Was it just that he was a fighter and Pastor Collins wasn't, or were there maybe some trust issues there? I mean, I didn't trust him, he was a dick. But I thought he and Karl were getting along.
Thomas stood up a mere beer later, wiping the foam from his mouth with a hand.
“Screw this. It's too annoying in here; I'm going outside.”
With a shrug I returned to my book. And then there were three; at least Karl and Matt didn't seem to want to go anywhere. They both looked pretty bored though, so I reached into my bag and pulled out my spellbook and another bestiary edition.
“Do something useful, don't just drink.”
Matt shrugged. “Well, it's better than tiddlywinks or dice.”
Karl just started flipping the pages, no doubt looking at the illustrations. I knew he could read, and I wasn't letting him off that easy. I had to admit the illustrations were very well done however; very lifelike. I didn't really want to know how the artist had gotten some of the creatures depicted in it to hold still in such poses long enough to draw or paint them… that way lay madness.
It was probably magic anyway; the games always made stopping time seem like child's play.
I was done with my wine and the section on elemental contracts when the Captain walked up to our table. The sun had to be setting outside, judging by the light.
“You're late Captain.” I don't think he ever had told me his last name; if he had, I didn't remember it, and I wasn't going to call him Captain Harry.
“Sorry, got held up when making a report to all the assorted brains trying to figure out what happened. You'll be pleased to know that they add Solace and Shrewsberry to the map of affected areas, and the grilled me for an hour on Georgetown for answers I didn't have. Then of course, they sent me to find you, because you'd have an eyewitness account and a much better understanding of what went on there, and never mind that they had delayed me from going back to get you in the first place.”
I grinned and pushed a clean tankard his way. It was going to be his anyway, I'd ordered for him too. That the boys had gone through the first pitcher didn't change that.
“Stay the extra five for a drink? You look parched.”
He sat with a clatter and a sigh. “You read my mind, Lady Muse. Though I really shouldn't here. Word might get back to my superiors regarding my prompt service or lack thereof.”
Karl gave an amused look. “Their fault for wasting time as much as yours. I doubt anyone here is going to rat you out, and if the information is that time sensitive then we should have been there already.”
He nodded but drained his beer in one gulp, so fast he almost choked, then stood up. With a shrug I stood up too. Karl and Matt both stood up a moment later, at the same time.
“If you'll follow me, Lady Muse.”
He led the way out, to where two of his own men were waiting in the street while Karl and Matt both followed me. Somehow I rated two buddies in our system, when Pastor Collins only rated one? The Captain had probably not wanted to spook us, which explained how many men and why for him, but I had to work to stave off the anger.
Mildly insulting it may be, it was also accurate that I was one of the weaker members of us, and going into what could be a lion's den.
Karl had to come anyway, as he was our expedition leader; Matt was just being a concerned friend. Nothing to set their hair on fire for.
The streets were more open in the burgeoning darkness; the merchants and stall vendors had closed up shop and most of the people out seemed to be rushing home.
There were torch brackets on the walls here and there, but no torches lit, and it was probably going to get very dark very quickly.
“Not paying the torch guy?”
The Captain smirked. “Nope, city is still busy getting lumberjacks to cut the wood. There is a nice convenient forest that popped up not far from the city though, so it's not all bad.”
I thought about it; that would be an awful lot of wood. They needed to switch to natural gas… or magic. Made me wonder, though; shouldn't this city have something like that already, considering the changes everywhere else I'd seen? I could see small towns closing up at night, but cities, even bronze age cities, tended to sleep late. Something else for the book.
One of the escorts was fumbling a torch; I kept forgetting human eyes were worse than mine.
“Well I'll do my part. You all can save your own torches.”
A slight hum and light bloomed, bright and warm as the sun. The captain whistled in appreciation while the guard just shrugged. I sent the ball on ahead of us and the captain led the way. He led all the way up the hill at the edge of town, and to grounds of the castle I was admiring earlier: it was much easier to admire from this range.
The pile of stones was literal, made of local granite blocks big enough to use as a table. It was gray and shot through with bands of dirty yellow. The cobbled road led right to the moat, which was about 20 feet across, and a drawbridge to go over it. There were soldiers all over, and more than a few were carefully watching my ball as it floated up. The rest were watching us – almost as if who would be watching whom was scripted.
“The lady Muse to see the Explorer's council.”
“Of course, Captain Sark, they are expecting you. One moment.” The guy, a tough and grizzled looker who could probably give Randolf a run for his money waved at the guards behind him, and the drawbridge started lowering with a screech.
It took a moment while each group politely pretended we didn't exist to the other for the thing to finally lower. This close I could see the cracks in the treated but obviously aged wood, and the rust in the iron bands holding it together. It didn't even creak as we walked over it, but that kind of lack of maintenance probably said something about the minds of past occupants – or current ones.
The inner courtyard seemed to echo my thoughts. there were the usual outbuildings; the smithy, the stable and farrier, a covered well and a grain silo, barracks and a garden… but the smithy was ramshackle for all it's large size, the stable was unpainted and the wood slats were beginning to warp, and the garden was overgrown. Only the castle itself and the barracks looked cared for, for all that the other buildings were occupied. Cheap candles glowing through windows gave that game away.
There wasn't any sort of chapel, and I couldn't help feeling that there should be one. Didn't all castles used to have one as a standard? Maybe it was in the castle proper or something, but that didn't seem right.
We were quickly led past a truly massive banded iron gate and into the castle proper. I snuffed my light as I walked in; I did not want to cause any misunderstandings. Here things were obviously cared for, with vibrant tapestries dusted fresh flowers placed strategically for color. I suspected if I lifted up one of the corners of the rugs in the receiving hall however, there would be dirt under it. I could see staff working on cleaning, but they were listless; uninterested. The only good news was they seemed even less interested in us than they were in cleaning.
They didn't lack for delicate looking glass and tin lanterns, placed everywhere with an oil and wick burning merrily away.
We were led around the front and to the tallest tower because of course the wizards and wise men would be holed up there. Never mind that the tallest tower was easiest to shell or nuke and visible from great range than the rest of the castle.
There had been plenty of soldiers outside, but there seemed to be precious few in here. Just two in the receiving hall, and two in front of the tower door proper. They stiffened and waved us through, looking at me the entire time.
The ground floor looked like a war room, with a large round table and several people, a few in armor, and many in a multitude of civilian dress, hunched over what looked like maps and reports… most on paper, but some on parchment. Unless I missed my guess that one in the upper right corner was on badly cured sheepskin.
There was a second table, just under the open window, full of food and drink of all kinds. It took full advantage of the breeze and flies, but those grazing on it didn't seem to mind too much. I resolved not to touch anything; I'd eat my ration mix before I touched that mess.
The first person to look up and notice us had to be the mage Sticks. Mainly because, well, he was a collection of sticks. I could see his arm bones, his cheek bones, and if not for the none too clean white robe made of cheap cotton, I would probably be able to count ribs. Worse, he had a large mustache that looked like a caterpillar bristling on his hatchet face; it almost seemed alive. I guess it was making up for the fact that it was the only hair he could grow anymore.
“Lady Muse, thank you for your timely report on the villages and sights you've seen.
We've been expecting you, and have a few questions…?”
“Why yes, I am Lady Muse. And you are, sir? Who are your companions?”
“Ah, I apologize. I've not slept in a very long time. I am of course Sticks.' he glared at the Captain as he gave the moniker, there had to be a story there, 'and I'll go around the table for you.”
He started pointing. “From the left, we have Salamander, Pile, and Crone, and Sir Finley Surrat, Sir Dennis Barrington, and Captain Howell, our captain of the guard.”
The first three were obviously magic users: Salamander was a small handsome man with orange hair dressed in oranges and reds; all his clothes had a sort of flame pattern, and he was smoking. More of a dead giveaway could not be given. Pile was the groups Pigpen, in a dirty black robe made of burlap; he even had smudges on his crude featured face. The Crone was a rather ugly looking middle aged human woman, all bony planes and edges, but far from looking witch-like. Almost like a female sticks; She was still glaring at sticks.
“Katerine is my given name. Please call me by it, and don't be like these other assholes.”
Sir Finley Surrat coughed.
“I'm Muse, and I'm pleased to meet you. These are my friends, Matt, and Karl.”
“Pleased to meet you all.' Captain Howell drawled back at us – was he southern, and if so how did that translate so well? 'Now, if you'll come over here, we will try to answer your questions so that you may take the answers back to your patch of the world.
They led us to the table, where a map rested. The map was new and showed the castle we were in. A significant portion of the map around Toledo was covered in a faded pink color. I recognized it as having come from a type of pigment from crushed rocks, and rubbed into the parchment. Shrewsberry was newly colored.
“The colored region is the one we know for sure is like the surrounding area. We were going to mark suspected areas too, but Cro – err Katerine correctly mentioned that it would hamper later marking efforts on a now very expensive map, so we decided not to.”
Katerine elbowed him. “They didn't need to know that, you dolt.”
I focused on the map while they argued.
The area colored in was large in square miles, but there were very few areas marked out from farther out than Shrewsberry – which I'd sort of expect, given the state of travel now. What was less than reassuring were the two small areas marked with a skull and crossbones. I doubted Johnny Depp had found some friends and set up shop, which meant they were marking danger. A third sported the same symbol, but I knew all about it – Georgetown.
“What about these spots?” Karl had noticed, and didn't hesitate; his finger was tapping the skull closest to him.
“Well, that one is the old quarry. It used to be an old coal mine but reconverted itself when everything else did. The only reason we know that is because of old maps; to date, only one scout sent into the area has returned, and he said he some really large people there… giants.
The other spot is the town of Normal, which isn't anymore.' he grinned, but the rest of us failed to laugh, so he stopped. 'A day after whatever happened, happened, the town was taken over by rioting orcs, who have been there ever since. Talks are currently ongoing to resolve the issue peacefully, but that's all I really know. We've been a little busy looking for the root cause, rather than dealing with symptoms.”
“Find anything interesting?” I'm an idiot; I shouldn't have interrupted. Sticks didn't seem to mind though, or even notice. His eyes were bright as he replied.
“No, although your own report does lead us into some interesting territory in that regard.”
Matt did it this time. “How so?”
“Well, Georgetown wasn't a ghost town in any sense of the word. Now it is. But it's more than that – according to the report that captain Sark gave us, you stated that time worked differently there, and at different locations within the town?”
“From what I observed, yes. It seemed too risky to stay and observe the process, but that is what I – what we all saw.”
“Right, well it's more than we had to go on. With that sort of phenomenon happening, it's not that big a stretch to say that whatever happened was dimensionally related.
Katerine snorted. “Says you. I think it's a large stretch, especially considering that we only have one incident to go on, and that only on the word of some people we don't know – no offense, dear.”
Dear, huh? “None taken.”
Sticks almost slapped her with a waving arm.
“But it's not just one incident! There are other reports, dozens, all stating the same kinds of things!”
“All even less substantiated than this one, and on a much smaller scale! We haven't proven anything with this!” Katerine fired back.
Clearly this was an argument they had argued before.
“But this is a fully substantiated report, witnessed and signed by several people, and investigated by our own troops!”
Katerine huffed and crossed her arms. “It's a start, is what it is. And that's all it is.”
Sir Surrat coughed again.
“So, Lady Muse. Do you have anything to add to your observations as reported to us?”
The implications of the event being some sort of time effect we all suffered were staggering; if these people had other reports, no matter how unsubstantiated they were, it didn't look good.
“Just that I'm not sure those ghosts there were ghosts, after all. At least now. If time was affecting them differently they probably died, but if it was another sort of dimensional interaction, then they might just be – trapped. And unable to do anything.”
Something which in my opinion was far more horrifying. Sticks broke that train of thought as it was leaving the station.
“You mean like the town and everything in it was out of phase, or similar?”
“That's exactly what I mean, but I don't see how it would work. It seems pinned to a locale, but if it's fixed then why doesn't it stay put when the Earth moves, or even move to another location? Having it fixed in one place, on one town, seems suspicious.”
Katerine shook her finger at us both. “It's all unfounded speculation, and that's enough of that.' She put a hand in Stick's face, forestalling his retort. 'I'm not saying you're wrong, I'm saying we don't have enough information to know, and it may be detrimental to pursue one avenue of thought when there might be others we never consider as a result.”
I actually agreed. “Another thing to consider is that what happened in Georgetown and other places, may be a symptom of something else related to the cause we're looking for but not related to the cause itself. It's not likely, but it's something we can't ignore.”
They both stared at me, mouths open. Salamander face-palmed in the background, muttering something I heard clearly: “Not another one.”
Sticks recovered first. “True, it wouldn't do to get ahead of ourselves. More expeditions will need to be sent, and our current ones informed of the possibility of more Georgetowns. Captain Sark, please send more runners.”
Salamander face palmed again, while Captain Howell paled.
“We cannot send any more runners; the last group we sent haven't returned yet. We simply don't have anyone to spare.”
That was a lie, I was sure of it. There were plenty of people around if you weren't paranoid. What did the guy in charge, this Duke Oher, think was going to happen? Was it Duke Oher? I was pretty sure Captain Sark had told me it was, at one point. At any rate, the man seemed a little too fixated on security.
I was pretty sure Captain Howell knew what I was thinking; he didn't call me on it though. Captain Sark went the table and snagged a drink; he was a very brave man, there were probably flies in it or something.
“So, Lady Muse, your report says you've seen dinosaurs and kobolds in your travels?”
I nodded. “Yes. The dinosaur actually attacked Solace. I don't mean to sound arrogant, but it was only quick spell-work that saved lives. In fact, if there are other towns that are not covered the way Solace was, troops should be dispatched to serve there.”
I wouldn't say Solace 'is' covered since I'm not there and I didn't trust the magical backup they had in my stead.
Sir Surrat coughed. “We do in fact have troops on their way, even to the borders of the kingdom, in order to protect the populace. Those that need the help, that is.”
And also to secure the borders against invasion no doubt. The lord here was definitely on the paranoid side. Whatever, it worked for us. The more people flooding areas, the more information we got. I wasn't even sure it was a bad thing.
“So, since we shared, mind if you return the favor, so we can do our due diligence?”
Katerine looked at me sourly, while Sticks just shook his head.
“The cribs notes version is we are just as lost as you are. No idea what happened or why, though it's beginning to look like it had something to do with time or other dimensions, somehow.”
“Well then, can I read your reports and dispatches? Would you mind?”
Captain Howell gestured expansively. “Not all all; be our guest.”
I took a seat and a stack of parchment… and then the Captain slapped down a much larger stack next to me with a grin. “I'd take it as a favor if you'd organize them by region, according to the map there.”
It was going to be a long night.