Chapter Nine, Part Three
On his third day in ASU, Melias spots a fountain and joins the line to drink from the stream of water squirting from the cupped hands of a white marble sculpture of a nymph. A well-dressed merchant saunters up to Melias and covers his mouth as if suppressing a yawn, but whispers, “The one-eyed-jack is dealing you a hand if you wish to ante up.” When Melias nods, he continues, again covering his mouth. “The game will commence in Jarla’s room plus three at midnight. Only you are invited to play. West until you see The Green Bard, she plays a tune that will interest you.” He walks away and disappears into the crowd.
Just before midnight, Melias makes his way west down the winding streets, until he sees a female Half-Elf Bard dressed all in green. He recognizes her as the one with green eyes and hair who he saw while shopping with Orjulun. When she spots him, she flows her current tune into a slightly different one and starts singing.
“Queen is in the kitchen, bitchin’ at all the cooks,
King is in the den, when out the window ‘e looks,
Joker’s on the street, feet takin’ ‘im to the inn,
Jack’s waitin’ in the forest, poorest place ‘e’s been!”
Then she breaks into an extended solo.
Looking around, Melias spots a path into the forest, an unnamed eatery, a nice inn called The Merchant’s Den, and a run-down inn called The Forest Inn. The sign for both of the last two has the business’ name painted in Common, Dwarf, and Elf, as is customary in ASU.
Melias grins at the cleverness and intrigue involved. He looks at the eatery, “Queen is in the kitchen.” He turns to face the Merchant’s Den and checks the windows for a face. “King is in the den.” Continuing his slow spin, he whispers, “And if I’m supposed to ante up to one-eyed Jack, he’ll be in the forest.” Facing the forest path he shakes his head. “How can a forest be poor? Wait. What if I’m the Joker? That means my feet are taking me to that run-down, sad excuse for an inn,” he says, then turns toward the Forest Inn.
As soon as Melias takes three steps toward the Forest Inn, eight adolescent boys run into the street setting off excessively smokey fireworks near him. Melias chuckles. Through the smoke, he locates the door and enters. The bar is empty, as is the front desk. A staircase to his right leads up to the rooms. At the top of the steps, he sees each room has marks scratched into the door as a numbering system. Melias moves to the one with 12 marks and stops in front of it. Listening at the door, he hears nothing. He lifts his fist to knock, then thinks better of it and checks the handle. The door is unlocked and opens easily.
Sitting in the center of the room is Fino. An empty chair waits across from his and there is a large bag on the floor to his side. “Quickly, close the door!” he demands.
Once the door is closed, Melias can hear a large, hidden lock fall into place.
Fino asks him to sit and explains, “This place is . . . safe. We can speak freely here and no one short of a god can hear us . . . as long as the door is closed.”
While Melias glances around at the otherwise empty room, Fino begins, “I may know more about the party you seek than anyone in this city . . . and I have been given permission to tell you much. We have been watching each of you since you have been here and feel you are legitimately what you appear. A couple of you were harder to keep tabs on than others. Rastorn Bloodwielder suddenly popped up out of nowhere the first morning, but Wizards are a crafty bunch. As for Lil, I didn’t really put that much emphasis on watching her and I’m afraid that was an unfortunate error on my part. I promise we lost track of her that very morning. She ducked us somehow and we didn’t learn of her fate until the next afternoon. I’m very sorry for your loss.”
Melias’ jaw drops. “She . . . she’s dead? What happened?” He sits down and leans back with his palm on his forehead. “This is terrible, and is likely to prolong our travel plans just a tad.”
“I’m sorry, but this can’t prolong your travel plans. The life of one woman, though a woman I was quite fond of, cannot take precedence over the fate of the world entire. I don’t think you understand the stakes, here,” Fino says, with a stern voice. He places his fingertips to his temples and looks at the floor between them, then continues with a calm tone as he again makes eye contact with Melias. “I really thought you would have heard the news by now. I’m sorry to be the one to tell you this, but Lil Forestdweller was slain during the first morning you arrived. Her throat was slit in the temple of Raim, while she waited to meet with their High Priest. She was alone in a waiting room which was locked to anyone except two Priests, the High Priest she was to meet with, and another who was outside at the time. The room was somewhat guarded and no one saw anyone come or go and both Priests were with others at the time of the murder. The apparent motive was theft since the backpack she walked in with was missing.”
Melias shakes his head, then squints his eyes and scratches the back of his neck.
After a deep breath, Fino continues, “Our people have been investigating it and have come up with nothing so far, but we will continue to work on the case. The Priests cast a Speak With Dead on her, but she never heard nor saw her assailant, nor did she know of anyone who would want to kill her. Don’t worry, we will work on this while you are on your mission. We’ll let you know as soon as we know anything.”
Fino adjusts his weight in his seat, then leans closer. “You want to know where the wanted group is, right? Well, no one knows where they went, for certain, but I have a theory. You must not share this with anyone. You are likely under surveillance by several different forces, so don’t even speak aloud when you think you are in a private place.”
“About a week before that party left ASU, I gave them a paper with an old poem on it that a drunkard in Darkuth had transcribed for me. I don’t remember it exactly, but it was something to the effect of, ‘Take the Eastern Tradeway until it ends and then some more, at low tide – when stone faces cry – three jumps and a leap of faith’, then something about paying more than less or going back and at the end of it all are a king’s riches. Damn, I wish I would have put it to song – then I would have remembered it! This was directions of a sort to Taber’s Keep. I thought little of it at the time. I only gave it to them because they were interested in Taber the Entertainer, Backus, Anna, Copa, and their whole Taber’s Keep scam.”
Melias does not know what scam he is talking about, but says nothing.
“That would take them to the end of the eastern shore north of Dumas. A locale they were reportedly spotted at the night they Teleported out of ASU.” Fino pauses, searching for the right words, then softly and intently says, “Listen, Anna and Backus would both hold rights to the keep, so if this means what I think it does, then you may end up going toe-to-toe with Adviser Stetic or The Eight or even Lord Darkoth himself. ASU cannot be connected to that. Understand?” He lowers his eyes and says, “If you are caught or even killed, you can’t speak about who led you there. I think it best if you lead the group there without them knowing where they are going. Do you agree? I can arrange to have you secretly Teleported there.”
He looks up and deep into Melias’ eyes and says, “The wanted party believed The Cube of Power was about to be used for evil purposes, perhaps even another Undead War. If they were right, then the whole of The Realms is in danger of complete annihilation. If you believe the Clerics, the gods gain power through their worshipers and if enough worshipers die . . . even the gods may perish. As independent bounty hunters you are free to chase them down with amnesty, but once found, they must be allowed to complete the quest that they were destined for. Only they can oppose Lord Darkoth, since they have been forsaken by every city-state of The Realms. They have allegiance to no city, so no city or organization can be held accountable by Darkuth if they are caught. Understand?”
“There is someone I want you to take with you, though. Things like this have to be recorded, preferably in verse, so I’d like to send one of our Bards with you. She is a talented spell-caster and better than average with a sword and she should be of benefit to you. More importantly – I need to get her out of ASU as soon as I can. She tends to ruffle feathers with her political song-writing and that is something we just can’t have this close to the election. If we are to get Lincont re-elected we can’t have her around giving ammunition to Howges’ camp. For the good of the city and your quest, would you please take her with you?” Fino pleads.
“This isn’t quite what I had expected when I woke up this morning,” Melias says, as he stands. “I can’t be sure if anyone else has mentioned Lil’s death to any of the others. Hopefully not. There’s a few of the party who wouldn’t rest well knowing they were to do nothing about it. So, we should act fast before anyone else finds out.” Melias has started pacing, and he has to look over his shoulder to see Fino’s nodding response. He turns to face Fino and says, “If you want this done your way, then I need something from you in return.”
Fino stands and waits to hear the request, his eyes wide and arms relaxed.
“We have some people following us. Lickmer from Dumas is chasing down Orjulun. We are not sure why, but he intends harm, we believe. Secondly, we have my sister Evenliir, a capable Elf witch, er, Wizardess. Be careful with her. She’s deadly. She’s trying to either take me back or make me pay for leaving . . . I’m thinking she likes the later choice.” Melias pauses and lifts an eyebrow. “I need you to try to mislead them, if possible. They pose a threat not only for us, but as you put it, the fate of the world.”
Fino answers matter-of-factly, “We can do that. Lickmer is known to me. He was, or is, a part of King Ian Zane of Dumas’ court of Wizards, right? That one will be simple, but what does your sister look like?”
An image of his sister came to Melias’ mind clearly. Far too often had he looked upon her lovely Elven features and shivered in fear of the evil that lurked beneath such a beautiful facade. He describes her well, from the colorful and sheer silk gowns she likes to wear to her violet eyes, platinum blonde hair, and milky-white skin. He even mentions the flowery perfumes she wears.
“Alright. Then you will take The Green Bard with you?”
Melias nods and shrugs.
“Actually, it would be helpful if you kept one trusted member of your group here, someone who could recognize Evenliir and help us in our investigation of Lil’s death. Who could you spare?”
“One trusted member?” Melias contemplates aloud. “Well, I guess that leaves Rastorn out. I don’t really know who I’d leave behind. It would be up to them, you know? I’m not their leader or anything.”
Fino shakes his head. “I feel so badly about Lil. Now none of her party will be returning to the world of the living.” After a moment he says, “Unless you have any more questions, I will finalize arrangements. You will leave in two hours. We can return you to the inn, secretly, whenever you are ready.”
“There are just a few other loose ends, Fino. There is an owl, a rather smart and chatty character too, waiting at the foot of the Metava volcano where Lil’s party was stored, awaiting her return with appropriate spells. I feel guilty just leaving him there waiting for Lil to return. Do you think it might be possible to send him word that she won’t be returning?”
“We could certainly send a message to this Talking Owl you speak of, but I think we will do you one better and have the bodies brought to ASU. I would like to have a Speak With Dead performed on them to find out exactly how they had planned on getting the entire group raised from death, as Lil had claimed. Perhaps they still can be. I will have to act fast before the Druids come for her body.”
“The last thing . . . it would behoove us all if Lincont could be reelected. Orjulun had a vision – black swelling from the great swamp outward, indicating perhaps the Undead grip on the land again. The winner of the election threatened to do away with threats against free trade, particularly by disbanding the Thieves’ Guild. I assume this wasn’t Lincont because it sounded more like someone who was just elected. Orjulun saw the entire map go black, entrapped in corruption. We can only guess what it means, but it can’t be good. It ended with eyes opening from the mass of black, a symbol of Darkuth, no doubt. So, my gut says to try to get Lincont reelected, for everyone’s sake.”
Fino waits until Melias completely finishes with his request concerning the upcoming election and the dream, then he answers thoughtfully. “Believe me, we are doing everything we can to get him re-elected, but – to tell you the truth – I don’t think it will work.” He shakes his head sadly, then explains, “When The Little Big Man’s party, that’s what we called the Hobbit in the group ‘Little Big Man’, his real name was Linus, but, anyway, when they came here they were seen with me often and I am a known friend and supporter of Guildmaster Lincont. So, when their name was smeared so totally by Darkoth and his people, well, Lincont was guilty by association. Howges jumped all over that!” He sighs. “Lincont may not get reelected . . . and it’s mostly my fault.” He tips the back of his chair onto the seat of Melias’, then says, “Listen, I have to get things finalized. Just gather your people together in your room and a Transmuter in black and red robes will come for you in two hours.”
Then Fino walks to the door and knocks on it three times. “While we’re waiting,” he says, “you said the darkness spread from The Swamp? Now, that is interesting. We will look into that. Maybe it will lead us to something else.”
Three knocks are heard from the other side of the door, so Fino opens it. Standing in the hall is The Green Bard.
Fino tips his head and waves his hand toward her. “This is Claire. Claire, this is Melias. He’s been welcomed to our table. Believe me, he will take you on an adventure that will give you enough material for forty songs. Yes, he’s a full-blooded Elf.”
Melias and Claire exchange quick bows.
Fino has Melias drink a potion that shrinks him down small enough to fit into Claire’s bag and she takes him with her on a winding route to The Hot Spring Inn. Once in his hallway, she dumps him out of the bag and they wait for him to grow back to full height.
“I’m sorry,” Claire says, squatting down on the hallway floor and folding her hands on her lap, “I can’t seem to shake the feeling that I’ve seen you before. Have you been in the city long?”
Melias is enjoying his new Halfling height perspective on life and doesn’t realize she has spoken to him right away. “Um, no, I don’t think so. I haven’t really left The Nation before a couple of weeks ago. Plus, I’ve heard all us Elves look alike.” He smiles.
When he is almost full height, he says, “Let me tell you about our group before you meet them. Orjulun is an Invoker, Human, who has left Dumas, and may have someone chasing after him. Arturus is another full-blooded Elf, though, with his height, you might disagree. He was a bandit in the Dumas area, initially. SeLiem is a Half-Elf Cleric we found in a ransacked caravan between Dumas and Darkuth. He was left for dead after an Ogre attack, but we took him in and kept him busy. Percy is a human Paladin, I think, or a Cavalier. Really, I haven’t figured that out. But, he is a nice enough person who we met on the road. He’s from Homeland. Red is a Dwarven Cleric – don’t seem too shocked by her facial hair. Apparently, they like their women hairy. We found her alone, the last one of her group alive, and let her join. Finally, there is Rastorn. Watch this Human Wizard if you will. I don’t trust his motives. He has turned a new leaf recently, acting all kind and sweet, but his heart is as black as his Necromantic practices, believe me.”
Melias grows to full height and straightens his clothes. “Well, I guess that’s our ticket. Let’s go wake up the group and introduce you . . . and our urgency.”
“Oooh. Disturbance of the peace. I approve,” Claire says as she stands, eyes wide. “Let’s go, then.”
Melias asks everyone to pack and meet in his room. Considering all the people hunting them and the information revealed at the meeting earlier, the party does as requested without question.
While packing his own belongings, Melias introduces them to Claire.
“Good day and night to you all,” Claire says, with an exaggerated bow.
“You’re the Bard who we saw singing about Howges on the street, right? Why are you interested in joining us, and how did you even come to know about our group?” Orjulun asks, gripping the Wand of Fire hidden in his pocket.
Melias steps between them and announces, “I’m sorry to have awakened you all so early in the morning. We’re off on an important errand, and I’ll fill you all in more later this morning when you’re more awake. Just trust me on this, please.” He turns to face Orjulun, holds his palms toward him, and tells him, “I understand your trepidation. She comes from a trusted source. I feel we can rely on her to hold to our best interests.” Turning toward Claire, he says, “We’ve all learned some lessons along the way. Trust isn’t easy to gain, so don’t let that dissuade you. It takes time.”
“I’m used to it by now,” she says, then answers Orjulun. “Yes, that was me. I’ve been assigned to you by Fino.”
“It’s a pleasure to meet you, Claire,” SeLiem says. “Our party seems to grow bigger every day.”
“Well, I’m still not sure about this Fino person, but if Melias will vouch for you, welcome to the group,” Orjulun says. “Let me grab my pack and we can be off.”
Continued next week in CHAPTER TEN!
Follow The Realms: A World Apart
Get new content delivered directly to your inbox.