Thursday, January 26, 2012

Interlude - The Cantankerous Tutor

Master Greggin Stouthart
An Unexpected Guest

After a long night of dreamless sleep Hermel awoke at the edge of dawn to the sounds of loud banging on the door of his meager third floor apartment. As he had been through much lately he leaped up from his straw bed, banged his knee on the broken closet door, and scrambled for his sword. Pulling it out and standing ready, sweat forming on his forehead, his eyes not yet unglazed from sleep, he shouted, “Who is it?!”

“It’s Hornmel, cousin!” he heard from the other side of the door. Hornmel? His cousin from Yellow Clay Village?! What a surprise! He had not seen his cousin since he moved away to Hobbington. Delighted, he immediately went to work neatening up a corner of the straw bed, and placing the broken closet door against the hinge so it didn’t look quite so much like it was broken. It fell off the hinge, but he caught it, and placed it carefully against the doorframe. He then ran over to the cracked mirror spit on his hand and slicked his hair back neatly. Satisfied that he and his apartment now looked proper for an honored guest, he opened the door.

“Cousin Hornmel! What a delightful surprise to see you! Come in, come in!” he said pulling his cousin into his room by the arm. Hornmel for his part was largely covered in mud and sweat and was wearing the usual village garb; leather boots, a torn brown shirt, ragged bottomed black pants, an old worn out headband that once may have been green but was now gray, and a leather vest spotted with holes and peppered with tears. At his side he carried on old knife in a rough leather scabbard, probably the only sturdy piece of equipment he owned, other than his own hard body. He looked around the room with great appreciation and relish.

“Nice place, Hermel,” he said after a minute of admiration. “City life is treating you well. You’ve gained weight,” he said without a hint of mockery. “But cousin, I came to bring a message from Grandfather. He says all of the fighting men who left the village should return. Bandits have attacked and taken hostages. Their chief is demanding the spring seed for their return. I’m sorry, but I must add that your sister, Iliza, is one of the hostages,” said Hornmel.

“Well, then, we have no choice but to return. However, I have business in the town I need to wrap up before we go. In the meantime I will show you around a bit of the town. It is very impressive. I’m sure you’ve never seen anything this grand before,” offered Hermel enthusiastically. Hornmel for his part was quite happy to hear this arrangement as he’d never been to Hobbington proper before and was always curious to know what went on in such a teaming metropolis. Nevertheless, he kept his emotion to himself, and simply nodded affirmation that he understood and was willing. Such is the way of the Yellow Clay villagers that they seldom make an overt display of emotion.

Hermel thought about the old village he’d come from. It was a very small village, one of the smallest in fact. It had no wall but only a wide double ditch surrounding it, and a few mounds within that were shaped in circles or squares that had been chosen as locations for the larger barns and homesteads. Outside the ditch boundary were the farms, on which were hovels and ramshackle barns, whose families eked out the most meager livings imaginable. Nevertheless, no one thought village life was unbearable, and during planting season songs were sung, and in winter the old stories were told. Most years people had enough to eat, and enough wood from the surrounding forest to keep warm. He remembered his sister Iliza with her long straight black hair and proud young eyes. She had wanted to be married to Hruza Tangtao, one of the village wheat-monks, but she was as yet too young. If Hruza was still in the village then Hermel knew that he would have at least one additional warrior to rely on. The town was long famous for the kung fu of the wheat-monks who practiced there, but few were left since the town’s kung fu teacher was offered a better position teaching at Bear Claw Village on the far side of the forest. Many of the young men in the town went away then, some to follow the teacher, and some to Hobbington or elsewhere, since there was so little to keep anyone in Yellow Clay Village otherwise.

But now, it was time to return home, and see what could be done. But first there was business to attend to, and Hermel knew full well that given how life moves at snails pace in the villages no one would expect him to return immediately. Even if his own sister was a hostage, he felt sure that the bandits would not risk molesting her and so a few days more or less would make no difference. In all likelihood the bandits would not show up again for a few weeks while letting the village elders consider their terms.

“You need some iron to live in the big city,” said Hermel.

“I came with this,” said Hornmel emptying his pocket into his hand and show his three tin pieces proudly. That would be enough money to buy one chicken leg in Hobbington, thought Hermel to himself with a shrug.

Fruitful Visit to the Guild Hall

As it happened, Hermel still had Ishcandar’s pouch which had a large amount of iron pieces in it, but he had no intention of spending any of Ishcandar's money.  He just took it to teach the Hobbit a lesson. But he still planned to go to the Guild Hall and get his payment for the successful accomplishment of their last mission, which was to help Jeremy save the Hagglesmiths. That being done, he expected a handsome reward.

Meanwhile, Hornmel was looking out the narrow window to the courtyard below where the old walnut tree stood.  It had ice hanging from the branches, and was dusted with snow.  He was very impressed with the tall buildings and amenities like doors, closets, mirrors, and the like.

“Let’s go,” said Hermel intending to head to the Guild Hall first. Down they went to the street below, winding their way through the snow dappled ally ways, over bridges, up and down flights of stairs, and finally came to the Guild Hall. Hermel lead the way up to the red brick building and pushed the door open after knocking three times. Inside the entrance at a desk was a man sitting with a pen in one hand, peering into a large book and taking notes.  He pulled his collar close around him as the freezing wind from the open door swept into the hall.  Hermel closed the door quickly and stamped the snow off his boots, as did Hornmel.

“Greetings,” said the pepper haired man at the desk as the two walked in. He raised an eyebrow and tipped his glasses forward when he looked at Hornmel, who looked very much like the lowest sort of vagabond. But since he was with Hermel, the man said nothing about it. He just smiled and asked if there was anything he could do to help.

“I’ve come to settle affairs with Mr. Rothmon,” said Hermel.

“Why of course,” said the gentleman. He offered them a seat and went off to fetch Rothmon, who came downstairs in a few minutes, adjusting his cloths as he entered the library.

“Gentlemen,” he said politely, and ushered Hermel into his private study. Hermel instructed Hornmel to sit quietly and not go anywhere, which the lad agreed to do.

“Rothman, sir, I believe we have concluded the Hagglesmith mission, and so I would like to collect my reward, whatever it may be,” said Hermel politely.

“That’s fine, of course,” replied Rothmon, “but I do wonder… what became of your two Hobbit companions?”

Hermel looked momentarily uncomfortable, and then told the short tale of his return to Dunn’s Bridge with Ishcandar and Lido.

“Um, I’m not sure. I went with them and we got separated in the fog, I suppose. Ishcandar and I went to the secret passageway into the underground, and I waited there while he went in. After a while a man came out and demanded I return inside with him, which I was not inclined to do. He threatened me and so I fought him briefly and escaped. I’m not sure what became of either Ishcandar or Lido, frankly. To make matters worse, I have just received word from my hometown, Yellow Clay Village. My cousin Hornmel, who is sitting outside at the moment, has brought a message from the village elder, saying that all the fighting men must return, since there are bandits who have taken hostages, my sister Iliza being one of them. So I have no choice but to return and see what help I may be able to provide. That leaves me in an awkward position in regards to my friends of the AAA Group, I’m afraid. I do not have time to investigate their circumstances I don’t think. Our village is in peril, and my duty first of all must be to my family.”

“Understood, certainly,” said Rothmon stroking his long grizzled beard. “In fact perhaps the Adventure Guild can offer some assistance to you in this regard. There is a new group of adventurers who have recently signed on, and I believe at least some of them may be interested in joining you. Why don’t I arrange for a meeting between you and them for this afternoon, say at 3pm?”

“That would be very much appreciated,” exclaimed Hermel. “And as for our other business, then, I do not suppose I can ask you for payment now?”

“Certainly, of course,” replied Rothmon. “Now let me see… this was an unofficial mission as I recall,” he said talking mostly to himself as he pulled some papers from a drawer and began pouring over them while flipping beads on his abacus. “Yes, hmmm… at first I supposed it might be a 1st or 2nd level mission, but in the end I was compelled to believe it was 3rd level after all, given the dangers. And you did complete the rescue and all the children of the Hagglesmith Horde were rescued. And you uncovered a long standing mystery and brought new revelations regarding Doctor Lobe to light. And as well, you made some interesting discoveries regarding the underground layout of Dunn’s Bridge and its link to the Five Crows Tavern. And not least of all you managed to help break up a kidnapping ring, and bring those villains to justice, two of whom sit in jail at this time, and one of whom died what I believe was a very unnatural death indeed. He was withered with old age on his left side, if I get the story straight… is that correct?”

“So I was told by Drake Barnstormer, the constable who retrieved the body, yes. There was a very terrible black knight in armor who was reaching for the poor man as we were escaping, but I did not turn around to see what became of him. I just ran.”

“Well, fine then," said Rothmon after a long pause. "Taking these factors into account, and dividing the sum by the members of your group, I come to a total of 400 iron pieces for you. I hope it will suffice,” said Rothmon, taking out two leather pouches and placing them on the desk. Hormel was surprised to see so much money at one time. He’d never seen this amount before. He took the two pouches with a great show of gratitude and stuffed them into his vest.

Hermel exited the library with many thanks to Rothman. He then took Hormel with him through the winding streets and ally ways to the Rat’s Den where he hoped to meet Bernie in order to pay him the fee he had promised him. That came to one half of what he’d made from the mission, which in fact was quite a lot of money. But Hermel was an honorable man, and so he intended to pay what he owed.

Down the Rat Hole

There was a bitter wind, the sky dawned a dark gray, and it had begun to snow. Already there was an inch of snow covering the cobblestone as they walked through the alley ways and over the foot bridges. They arrived at the long tunnel stairs leading down into the 'Rat’s Den Underground Tavern', as the sign above the tunnel, edged with frost and ice, read in red letters.

“Stay close, Hornmel, these are people who live as they must, and not all that they do is right, but not all is wrong either,” said Hermel to his cousin as they walked down the stone steps toward the landing at the bottom. Hornmel nodded assent. When they got to the bottom they stopped at the heavy oak door. Hermel knocked three times.

The door opened into a broad wide and dark room in which there were a dozen tables and at the far end a long bar. A serving wench was scuttling to and fro bringing ales and food to the various groups of patrons at their tables. A fire roared in the hearth on the western wall. Behind the bar stood Hagan, the owner of the establishment, who seemed quite happy when he saw Hermel walk in.

“And so the hero returns!”, he said jovially. “Come in! Come in! Warm yourselves by the fire. Have an ale! I have heard that your mission was successful, and the Hagglesmiths are safely released from imprisonment. Very good, young man, very good.”

“Thank you, for your advice and generous provisions. It helped us tremendously,” replied Hermel a bit embarrassed by the praise. “I’ve come to see Bernie, frankly. Would he be here at this time?” he asked.

“I’m afraid he’s out and about at the moment. He said he had some business or other to attend to, but I’m sure he will be back by nightfall, as he usually is. I can leave a message for him if you wish,” said Hagan in good humor.

“I’d like to ask if you’ve heard anything of a man in yellow robes at any time along the way?” asked Hermel.

“Hmmm… yellow robed man? There was a rumor of such a man a few days ago making some sort of commotion at the Palace gate, but I have not heard anything more of him since then. Odd you should ask about such a stranger,” answered Hagan.

“Ah well, there were many strange events along the way of our adventure. In fact we met with a very frightening man in black platemale down in the tunnels beneath Dunn’s Bridge who … I know it sounds unbelievable… who sucked the time out of a man’s body. He crumpled into dust along his left side after that, I’m told”

“Oh my,” answered Hagan, looking alarmed. “But nevertheless, I heard you young heroes broke up a ring of kidnappers at the Five Crows Tavern.”

“To be honest, I don’t know much about that. All I saw at the time was that we came upon the Hagglesmiths, and there was a fight and we rescued them somehow. When the black knight came in it provided enough of a diversion for us to escape with the Hagglesmiths. Then the constables came and arrested some of the men there. That’s about it, really,” said Hermel modestly.

“Well, I’d like to tell you that I’m impressed. If you need a job at any time, money on the side, or that sort of thing, feel free to drop in. I can always find something for a man like you to do,” he said smiling.

“Thank you, I’ll keep that in mind. Now we must be off,” said Hermel, and taking his leave with a short bow, took Hornmel with him back up to the street. Hornmel was still finishing off a leg of chicken he’s purchased with his last three tin pieces as they walked.

“Mmmm… city food isn’t so bad as they say back home,” said Hornmel wiping his mouth on his sleeve. “Not as good as home cooked, maybe, but not too bad.”

The New Heroes Arrive

Hernmel nodded as he considered the options as they walked; his mind clouded by mysteries and unanswered questions. Most urgent were his thoughts regarding his Hobbit friends. He considered heading to The Heights to find Ischandar’s wealthy father and let him know what had happened to his son. The two young men walked back to the Guild Hall, shook off the snow, and took a seat outside the library waiting for Rothman to arrive with the new adventurers he’d mentioned. After a while Rothman did arrive and he brought with him a number of men.  They all stepped into the study to converse.

The first was a stocky red haired dwarf who carried an axe and a broad grin on his face. He seemed quite ready to leap into any adventure that came along, as one could tell by his swagger and boisterous laughter. Hermel commented to himself that the dwarf looked uncomfortably similar to Hobbits, though the latter never had beards, and this fellow had a large billowing one. Decidedly not a Hobbit, Hermel decided with satisfaction.

“I am Hermel, and this is my cousin, Hornmel,” said Hermel to the Dwarf extending his hand.

“I’m Arik Anvilbreaker, at your service, sir!” announced the Dwarf in a loud gravely voice and shaking his hand vigorously. “Good to meet you! I hear you need a hand vanquishing bandits down below in the farmlands. Is that so?”

“Yes, in fact,” said Hermel.

“Fine! Fine!” proclaimed Arik.

Next stepped forward a lanky somewhat sad looking man with his hair tied in a knot behind his head. He introduced himself as Garrison Graybolt. Next came Konar Wuldcarva who shook Hermel’s hand somewhat awkwardly. A thin man with a narrow face and light brown hair introduced himself as Selig Courtsman. He had frosty blue eyes and wore a wry smile. There was another man with an austere expression, close cropped hair, and wore a tunic on which was emblazoned the symbol of the Elkron of the Sun, Eldrik. He gave a courteous bow of the head, and indicated he was interested in listening to the proposed adventure.  This man was named Star of Justice, but he did not introduce himself.  He simply stood and listened intently.  Lastly, a redish metallic tinged grasshopper landed on Rothomon’s desk. Hermel looked over and thought to swat the insect before it leapt away. However, before he did so, Rothmon stayed his hand with a quick intercession of his hand on Hermel’s arm.

“That is not an ordinary grasshopper,” said Rothmon sternly. The grasshopper rubbed his legs together making the classic grasshopper chittering sound.  It sounded quite fierce, somehow.

“Hornmel,” said Hermel to his cousin, “Please tell us, how many bandits are there?”

“Perhaps thirty. They have spears and bows, daggers and swords,” answered his cousin. “Yellow Clay Village is the smallest of the six villages. We produce grains and chickens in good years. The bandits threaten all our lives, and none of the men in the village are heroes. We need what help we can get, but we can not afford to offer much in return, I’m afraid,” concluded Hornmel stoically.

“That’s nothing! We’ll make short work of them!” said Arik confidently.

“So you all accept the mission?” asked Rothmon.

However, not everyone did. The grasshopper, about whom little was said but much was thought, leapt onto Selig’s shoulder and the two of them left together. It was presumed that they did not join because the village offered too little to make it worth their while. The rest of the warriors were resolved to help the poor villagers.

“Perhaps we should take some time and leave tomorrow,” said Hermel to the group.

Enter Master Greggin Southart

Greggin Stouthart walked into the Library. He’d checked every tavern, pub and watering hole along his route to the Guild Hall. He was an orderly man. Elderly, firm, and distinguished by his intense bushy brow and beard, thin lips and fiery demeanor. Mr. Stouthart was in fact searching for Ishcandar, his wild and wayward student. Mr. Stouthart had been Ischcandar’s tutor since he was young, and so he knew the lad quite well. “He’s a good upstanding Hobbit, at heart… deep deep deep deep down somewhere inside,” he used to think to himself. Yet, the idea that Ishcandar had landed up on a bar stool was all too familiar a one. Having not found him in such a wise was in fact a bit of a surprise to him.

Mr. Stouthart walked into the room, looking around briefly spotted Rothmon and immediately said, “I heard you were corrupting my charge!”

“Corrupting?” said Rothmon indignantly.

“I won’t hear anything of it! Where is he?” cut in Greggan firmly. Rothmon was not one who you found often taken aback, but in this case he seemed quite taken aback indeed.

“My dear sir, he isn’t here, I’m afraid,” replied Rothmon after a pause.

“And you, you there,” he said pointing to Hermel, “I understand you are one of the members of the so-called AAA Adventurer’s Group, here at the Guild, am I not mistaken. Come come, take me to where Ischandar is. Let’s go.”

“Well, um, there’s a village that needs saving,” Hermel said without much conviction.

“No, no, there’s a young Hobbit or two that need saving right now. I won’t hear of such nonsense as your running off!” exclaimed the elder putting his hand significantly on his sun-patterned jade and bronze amulet.

“And who is this Ishcandar?” demanded Arik in a booming voice.

“He’s my charge,” replied the tutor cantankerously.

“Well, you don’t seem to have been taking much charge of him so far then,” commented Arik dryly.

“We’re going to amend that situation immediately,” insisted Mr. Stouthart.

“I say we go forward then, and get something done,” answered Arik with a firm clout of his hand on the top of his axe hilt.

“Look," interjected Hermel, "the Hobbits voluntarily went to see some people. So don’t just go in there bashing the place up. We don’t know what is going on down there.”

“Pardon me, but you’ve been talking as if the Hobbits are in some kind of danger,” said Star of Justice. “And yet now you say that they went to this place voluntarily.   Are you saying that they may not be in danger after all?”

“Well, the fact is we don’t know if they are in danger or not, but I suspect it,” replied Hermel. “Their wills are not very good, and they have a habit of wandering into trouble,” he added.

“These are the people whom you want to have help us with the bandits?” asked Arik incredulously.

“Well, they tend to cause trouble for everyone around them, if you know what I mean,” said Hermel.

“I see,” replied Star of Justice.

“Well, we ought to do something, anyway,” Hermel concluded finally.

“Indeed, you must!” stated Mr. Stouthart.

“Ok! Lets go,” said Arik, and with that the party left the Guild Hall and headed down the freezing cobblestone streets toward Dunn’s Bridge. Hermel stopped to buy two new wool cloaks in a shop along the way.  He gave one to Hornmel who accepted it with a nod of thanks.  Hermel was delighted.  It was nice and new and clean! Along the way he’d even observed himself in a glass window and thought it looked rather majestic as it billowed behind him in the wind.  Eventually they came to the iron grate on Dunn’ Street along the side of the canal where Hermel had last seen Ishcandar.  Arik lifted the grate with two hands and threw it down into a snow bank with a dull thud-clang.

Hermel went down the ladder into the dark sewer tunnel first with a torch, gathering his nice new cloak around him to keep it from getting dirty.

“Can somebody come down with me and hold a torch?” he called up from the bottom of the ladder. Everyone climbed down, walked the twenty feet south to where the secret door was located, holding torches. Hermel reached in and began looking for the hidden mechanism that would open the secret door. As he felt around he reflected on the fact that once the door is open he had no idea at all where within the dungeon Ishcandar was. All he know was that he’d heard that there was a red and gold sign above a red door with bronze studs that read “Five Animals Hall”. He figured, however, that he knew roughly where the iron gate was located as Jeremy had told him about that spot. From there, he didn’t have a good idea where to go, but he’d manage somehow he figured.

Hermel searched diligently for the secret door, but to no avail. He could not find any kind of latch to open the door.

“You know, I can’t find it,” said Hermel. “Why don’t some of you guys try,” he said. Everyone took their turn but no one could find it. And so Hermel decided there was no way except to find Bernie, who had opened the secret door for them the first time. Back up the ladder they all went. Back to the Rat’s Den went Hermel with Hornmel. Everyone else warmed up by the fireplace at the Guild Hall and waited.

A Debt Paid

When he got to the Rat’s Den Hermel found Bernie sitting in a corner booth by himself eating a bowl of tater soup. When Hermel said he’d come to pay Bernie what he’d promised, and dropped a bag of iron pieces on the table, Bernie commented that he’d not expected Hermel to honor his word on that. But he had, and Bernie looked at him a little bit differently after that.

“You know, I didn’t expect you to follow through on that,” said Bernie with a note of respect.

“Well, I try to keep my word,” replied Hermel. After a brief conversation Bernie agreed to head back with Hermel to show him how to open the secret door, and give some advice if necessary. He wasn’t going to go further than that for him, but he’d do that much.

Along the way Hermel’s mind was on the fate of his sister, Iliza. On the one hand he felt compelled to hurry back to the village, but he also knew that there was no real need to rush. While it was possible that she might be molested, Hermel thought it was not likely. What the bandits wanted was the ‘spring seed’ from the Commons Barn probably with the intent to sell it to a wealthier village.  If the bandits defiled the women then their fathers would not accept them back into the family, and so as bargaining chips they’d be rendered useless.  Life in rural Hobbington was harsh, and this was one of the realities.  Defiled daughters could not be married, and would prove a deadly liability.  Therefore, he expected that the bandit chief would keep discipline among his rogues. It would be unnatural and hasty, in fact, if he rushed back too quickly, for in his time, unlike ours today, no one expected anything to happen immediately. Things moved according, not to the minute, or the day, or the week, but most generally by season... slowly.

Meanwhile back at the Guild Hall, the adventurers had convened downstairs in the Bar and Grill. Arik was singing a drinking song over a steel banded goblet of ale, while the others drank their fill of beers and wines.

“You know,” Bernie was saying as they trudged through snowdrifts towards the Guild Hall, “I guess I like you after all, kid, so I got to tell you… If I were you, I’d be laying real low around town, if you know what I mean.”

“What do you mean?” replied Hermel.

“What I mean is that you and your little group… well, let me ask you, what do you think those people who Barnstormer didn’t catch are probably doing at this moment?” Bernie asked pointedly.

“Umm…” said Hermel.

“Drinking to your good health, happiness and long life, maybe?” added Bernie.

“Ummm… no, I don’t think so,” said Hermel thoughtfully.

“I’d be laying real low, if I was you,” concluded Bernie.

“Oh,” replied Hermel, “that’s a good idea.”

Bernie took Hermel to the secret door in the tunnel along the side of Dunn Street Canal where Ishcandar was last seen. He showed Hermel the secret of how to open the door and warned him about not doing so the wrong way. There was a trick, and if you didn’t know it, there was a trap. And then he took himself up the ladder and vanished down the snow-fogged street. Hermel headed back to the Guild Hall to get his new friends together.

When he got to the Bar and Grill he found the group being badgered about money by the host, and Arik was saying, “Well, you’re not going to kick me out, I can tell you!” and he noticed a nearby tablecloth was on fire, and several chairs broken. A patron he didn’t recognized shuffled past him with a limp and a black eye.

“Shades of Ischandar!” Hermel swore to himself under his breath.

“Why my uncle Arlok Iron-Whiskers once stopped a sharp saber from slicing off his head with his beard!” exclaimed Arik with relish to the barmaid and the waiter who laughed at his wiggling eyebrows as much as at the story. The owner had come out and after a brief negotiation over tab that was settled amiably, the group ascended the stairway and held a conversation in Rothmon's study. Hermel expressed his misgivings regarding going down into the sewer and dungeon, now that he was given to understand by Bernie the nature of the threat he faced in Hobbington from now on.  In fact he was quite inclined to head off sooner rather than later to the village and see what they could do down there about the bandits. He offered to Mr. Stouthart another plan.

“Why don’t you take a message back to Ischandar’s father and tell him you know down which sewer and into which doorway his son has lost himself. He’s sure to hire strong fighting men and rescue the boy from whatever trouble he’s gotten himself into. I will explain how to open the secret door to you, and the trick is simple once you know it. Just don’t do it the wrong way, that’s all I can say.”

And so the plan was agreed upon. With a determined face and no small heap of frustration Mr. Stouthart hustled himself off through the snow toward The Heights where Ishcandar’s father’s mansion was. Everyone else began their preparations for departure from Hobbington. Hermel wondered if the Hobbits would survive whatever ordeal they might have landed themselves in. And then he wondered if he’d be able to rescue his sister somehow. He even wondered if he'd ever see Hobbington again.

Lastly before he and Hornmel fell asleep that night he wondered if he’d ever fulfill his ambition of the Dragon's Eye as he had hoped.  He felt in his pocket for the comforting hardness of the strange green stone he kept there. It was hard, and warm, and gave him some comfort as he slipped away into dreamland.

Previous Episode: The Hapless Hobbits
Next Episode: The Descent from Hobbington

Thursday, January 12, 2012

The Happless Hobbits

The Master of Five Animals Hall

The two hapless Hobbits, Lido and Ishcandar were ushered down the hall by the three young men in the black uniforms. They were taken down the stairs, down the long corridor and to the great red double doors with the bronze studs. Above the door they saw the red and gold sign reading “Five Animals Hall”, and stopped. One of the young men knocked three times. Then a voice said “Enter”, and the young men swung the doors open.

Inside was a huge square hall at the center of which was a white marble statue of a tiger leaping. The four corners of the room were covered with large red drapes with golden tassels fringed along the bottoms, concealing additional entrances. There was a tall man with long white hair wearing a red robe with golden dragon designs looking at them.  He was holding a sword in resting position behind his left arm, and a book in his right hand.

“Master we found these intruders in the dungeon. They have burned the Polyvizus,” said one of the young men.

“Really,” said the master coolly.

“Might I say, sir, this is a spectacular establishment. The artwork is beautiful! I should know, as I come from an area of the town where artwork like this is all around, and I have to say that this surmounts all of that by so many,” said Ishcandar, practically falling over himself with effusive praise. “Its much! Its beautiful! Wouldn’t you agree?!” he blurted to Lido.

“Oh yes,” said Lido emphatically, “very very beautiful!”

“Thank you for mentioning it,” said the master.

“Do you have any more like this around? I’d love to see it!” said Ishcandar quickly.

“Might I ask… who are you?” said the master raising an eyebrow.

“Well, I’m Ishcandar! You may have heard of me, of course.”

“I see. And you?” he asked looking at Lido.

“Lido Shorebuck, sir,” replied the young Hobbit as bravely as he could.

“And what brings you to my dungeon?” asked the master.

“Well, you see, we were in the tavern basement playing cards, when we all heard a great ruckus, and so our employer sent us to check it out. In so doing we noticed that the gate was open, and then we were attacked by that huge creature, the Polyvizazis, you called it? Anyway, we had no choice but to throw some sticky oil down and burn the horror to high heaven," blurted Ishcandar.

“I don’t think that’s where the creature wound up, somehow,” said the master thoughtfully to himself.

“Well, anyway, thank heaven’s you found us. We had been wandering around the dungeon lost! So we are very very happy you found us.”

The master made a fast and expert twirl of his sword swishing through the air, the blade entering smoothly into its scabbard with a very efficient sounding ‘thwiiiick”.

Tears of the Black Lotus

“Gentlemen,” said the master, “may I offer you some wine?”

“Wine?! Did you say wine?!” exclaimed Ishcandar with a combination of relief and relish. “Why yes, yes you may,” he said laughing.

The master waved to one of the young men in the black uniforms, who immediately walked toward a corner of the chamber and swept aside a billowing tapestry. The fragrant aroma of delicious food, roast chickens, bowls of fruits, trays of cheeses, and the fragrance of incense filled the hall.

They were seated. Ischandar marveled at the beauty of this next large chamber, with its gorgeous stonework, high arched ceiling, and in particular the incredibly wrought green jade dragon in the center of the room on a marble pedestal.

“After your ordeal, you ought to refresh yourselves,” said the master in a serene voice.

“Why thank, sir, thank you very much!” said Ishcandar who immediately began quaffing red wine from a silver goblet as soon the the young man in the black uniform set it down. Lido, on the other hand, was more circumspect. He realized that they didn’t know anything about this man. Perhaps, he thought, there might be poison in the food, after all. Or a drug, perhaps. He picked up a cube of cheese and smelled it, trying to look as though he were savoring it’s aroma, but in fact he was trying to tell if he could sense anything amiss about it. He had a bad feeling about the situation, generally, and perhaps that made him imagine that something about the cheese smelled strange. But the master was looking at him with a raised eyebrow as he took overly long to “appreciate” the fine quality of the delectable morsel. He looked over at Ischandar who was chugging down his second glass of wine.

“Mmmm… so delicious!” burbled Ishcandar delightedly.

The master was still observing with a raised eyebrow as Lido awkwardly continued to “savor” the smell of the cube of cheese.

“My goodness, its most excellent… its almost a shame to eat it,” commented Lido, placing the cheese on the top of a tray with delicate appreciation. The master frowned, and turned his attention back to Ishcandar, who was clearly enjoying the libations without any reservations whatsoever.

“Young fellow, whatever happened to your finger…,” said the master to Ishcandar, pointing to the Hobbit’s right index finger, which had turned black up to the top knuckle.

“Oh, what? My finger?” asked Ishcandar, perplexed for a moment. Then he remembered that he’d been struck with a poison needle what must have been less than a half hour before in Doctor Lobe’s study, which he also recalled was probably still engulfed in flames, not far away up the hall. This gave him a moment’s twinge.  This all brought back to mind the recent events in the study, from his stealing of the letter after breaking open the desk drawer the first time, and his subsequent attempt to open the desk a second time, which lead to his receiving a poison needle in his finger.  Fortunately, Johan had been present to stay the poison with his mystic power.

“Why perhaps I banged it while I was adventuring about down here! Things of that sort happen all the time,” he exclaimed taking another long draw from his cup and looking around the room to see where the young men in uniforms were standing.

“Might I take a look? Perhaps I can help,” said the master. Ishcandar offered him his finger. The master took his hand, held it by the wrist, poked here and there, and then gave it back.

“I’ve some dreadful news, I’m afraid. It seems your finger has been poisoned,” he said with both eyebrows raised.

“Poisoned!? Why that’s amazing! How can it be?” exclaimed Ishcandar, now quite a bit more drunk than when they had walked in. He felt, in fact, quite cozy. And even so much so that he began to feel that the master of Five Animals Hall was really very trustworthy gentleman, and no less than a dear old friend, or maybe like his father. He certainly felt the man could be trusted with whatever information he wished to know, and so he looked at his finger and was quite amused. “Poisoned?” he repeated happily.

“I’m afraid so. In fact, if I don’t miss my guess, that is a very rare poison. I believe it is named, “Tears of the Black Lotus”.

“What a lovely name!” replied Ishcandar.

“I do not suppose, sir, that you happen to know of the cure?” asked Lido, now deeply concerned.

“In fact, I do,” answered the master. “However, in order to administer any antidote safely, I must ascertain if I am correct about my diagnosis. And so I’m afraid I must pry… and ask you, where did you come by the injury. If you tell me the truth, I’m sure I will be able to help you. But I must say if I misdiagnose it, and administer the wrong antitode, I’m afraid it could be as fatal as the poison itself to you. So we must be careful, and I must be sure.”

Ishcandar, who no matter how drunk and drugged with truth serum was nevertheless still a Hobbit, and they, as we all know, have uncannily strong will power… and so he continued to obfuscate on the topic, until finally the master said, “I must put it to you plainly then, in the hopes to get a straight answer and therefore be able to help you. I am wondering if you might have been stabbed in the figure with a needle recently?”

“A needle! Why yes, indeed!” blurted out Ishcandar before he realized it.

“Ah, it is as I thought then,” went on the master. “May I ask if the needle was in a desk drawer?”

“A desk drawer, of course!” blurted out Ishcandar again.

“And that desk drawer was in a study up the hall, was it not?” asked the master.

“Indeed, it was, now that you mention it!” exclaimed Ishcandar as though he had only just now recalled what had happened.

“I see,” said the master.

“You seem to know quite a bit about it,” commented Lido. “I don’t supposed you placed the needle there?” he asked.

“Indeed, I did,” replied the master with some satisfaction. “You see, yesterday morning someone, or some people, broke into the study and broke the desk drawer open with a blunt instrument and stole the contents therein. It is my job to get the letter back as soon as possible. Since no one comes down this way very often, my guess was that whomever did so would return.  The criminal, as they say, always returns to the scene of the crime.  So I booby trapped the desk, and the room, as I believe you have discovered, judging by the charred fringes I detect on your clothing,” he concluded looking at the black soot and burn holes on Lido’s shirt that were caused when he had accidentally triggered the fire trap in the Doctor’s study.

“Indeed,” said Lido, looking down at his shirt and unconsciously covering some of the burn holes with one hand.

“I have to mention the only thing that confuses me now is why the poison has not afflicted your friend more than it has. It is only up to the knuckle, but I would say that it ought to be, if it were behaving normally, up to the wrist. Eventually, a black streak would be found going from the finger through the wrist, past the elbow and shoulder and eventually climbing up the neck, ending as it were in the brain where I’m afraid the poison causes dreadful effects. I’m told it is a painful, and horrifying death, really,” said the master calmly.

“Well, perhaps it is because Hobbits have very stout bodies, and strong constitutions,” said Lido hopefully.

“That I can believe,” said the master. “However, as far as I know, while the poison may be resisted, it can not be stopped. If it is not treated… your friend will soon die.”

“Well, what can be done? You mentioned you could help him? I suppose you mean that you have the antidote?” asked Lido as Ishcandar quaffed yet another goblet of wine, and happily popped a chunck of roast chicken in his mouth and chewed enthusiastically.

“I do, yes. However, as I mentioned before, this is a bit awkward for me, but you see, I must obtain the letter that was taken from the desk. I suppose now that it was you who took it after all… am I right in assuming so?”

“Well, yes, of course,” said Ishcandar dreamily, feeling very warm, and cozy and trusting of the white haired master. At this the master raised his famous eyebrow, and then narrowed his eyes once again. He was evidently satisfied.

“In this case, I will make a very simple proposal to you, my young Ishcandar. If you will agree to return the letter to me, then I will agree to give you the antidote.”

This sounded really quite reasonable to Ishcandar and so he readily agreed, though he wondered to himself just how easily he could get it back from Rothman’s desk where it had been secreted.

“Fine then,” said the master. “In this case I will send you with one of my students to show you the way out. But I must tell you, at the current rate I would say you have one hour or so before the poison will seep up toward your brain, and if the antidote is not administered by then, I’m afraid a very unpleasant things await you. So do hurry.”

With that Ishcandar stood up drunkenly and followed one of the uniformed young men, who lead him, he remembered not how, back to the street. In a trice he meandered with every good intention in the world toward the Guild Hall. But as he passed the Five Crows Tavern it reminded him that he was parched and one more drink would be just the thing to help him find his way back. But it seemed, to his great annoyance, that there had been some sort of commotion at the Five Crows, and though he never remembered it afterwards he wandered up a side street, down an alleyway, over a small stone bridge that spanned a small canal (into which he fortunately did not stumble and fall), and came upon another tavern, somehow. It was warm and cozy inside, and the fireplace was roaring cheerfully, and so he staggered in, sat down at the bar and promptly plunked his coin purse on the bar and ordered himself the finest ale in the house.

Descent Into Darkness

Meanwhile, back in the Five Animals Hall, Lido had taken an assignment of quite a different sort. This one, he was told, could be quite perilous, but the master felt that it was something that was suited just for a person like he, and he mentioned that there might be a worthwhile reward in the end.

“If you are willing to undertake a small mission for me, I can assure you that it may prove as rewarding to you as it might prove perilous.”

“On what would that distinction depend, good sir?” asked Lido politely.

“It would depend, of course, on your conduct, and your luck, I should imagine.”

“And what would this mission be, exactly?” asked Lido, now intrigued.

“The mission is quite simple really. I need someone to quickly go to a room in a lower chamber and over turn an hourglass,” replied the master.

“That’s all?” asked Lido incredulously.

“Yes, that’s all,” said the master concluding solemnly.

“Well that does not sound so difficult really,” commented Lido, mostly to himself.

“Then you accept the mission, young sir?”

“I do,” replied Lido, suddenly feeling braver than usual. “However,” he added, “I do not suppose you would be willing to supply me with a dagger for the perils of the journey?”

“This is not he sort of peril in which I think a dagger would do you very much good, I’m afraid,” said the master. “However, if you return and still wish to have one, I will be glad to provide a very nice one for you.”

“That sounds grand, then,” said Lido. “When to I begin?”

“Right away, in fact,” said the master, delighted. He stood up and lead Lido through the hall through another room, and another, and yet another until they came to an archway in which was set a solid oaken door, bound with iron, and metal studs. It looked quite old, and unused. The floor around the room was covered with a thick layer of dust. 

“Through there,” said the master pointing to the door. “You will find a spiral stairway going down a ways. At the bottom will be another door like this one. When you go through that door you will find a room in which there should be a round wooden table, on which you will find, if all goes well and there are no unforeseen complications, an hourglass within a bronze ring-work. Please go to it, waste no time, and turn the hourglass over. You may then return...”

“That’s it?” asked Lido incredulously.

“Yes, that’s it,” replied the white haired master handing him a small brass oil lantern.

“This sounds just a tad bit too easy,” thought Lido to himself. The young Hobbit, none too sure that he ever was going to return, unlatched the door, and wound his way down the ancient spiral stairway. He lost count of the number of steps, and eventually came to a landing at the bottom where indeed he found a door, exactly like the one above. Had he noticed it, which he did not, there was an inscription written lightly into the woodwork of the door that read, “As above, so below”, but had he read it he most probably would have scarcely grasped its significance. In any event, Lido, after looking about and seeing nothing there except the door, and the dust covering the stone floor, decided to bravely proceed.

As he reached for the door handle, however, he felt something. Or sensed something, really, for no sound was made, and the light being cast by his lantern had not wavered particularly. Yet, turning around and looking upward he sensed a shadow on the wall slowly creeping minutely downward toward him. He stared at it for a moment, and then, plucking up his courage, turned about and opened the door.

The Voices in the Dark

Holding up the lantern he saw a wide circular room with an arched ceiling, at the center of which was an old round wooden table with three legs, on top of which was a contraption of sorts. It was made of bronze, semi-circular in shape, and at the center of it was a large hourglass, pouring white sand from the upper portion to the bottom. It had more sand at the top, and so he conjectured that it must have been turned over rather recently, but when he looked at the floor to see if there were footprints, he saw only a thick layer of dust. Mystified, and frankly quite frightened, he entered the room as quickly as he could and practically ran to the hour glass to put his hand on it, intending to turn it over and complete his mission without wasting any time at all. As he ran he thought he heard a voice whispering out of the shadows saying “There is no time left… There is no time left… left… left….” Not pausing or slowing down in the least Lido courageously continued at the same pace to the wooden table and when he got to it he put his hand on the bonze contraption. As soon as he did, he heard a loud whoosh from behind him as the door slammed itself shut with a tremendous thud… and his lantern just as suddenly blew out. There he stood in absolute pitch black darkness.

“Oh my goodness,” he said. His hand was on the bronze circle, and so he began to turn it over, hoping to complete the task and somehow escape the terrifying chamber.

“There’s no time left… left… left…” he heard as the hair on the back of his neck stood up. Resolved as only a Hobbit can be, he put his weight into it and began to turn the bronze circle over. But something else happened in that moment. He heard a different voice coming from behind him. It was the voice of a man, sober, determined, and brave. And then he heard another voice, this time of a woman, passionate, quizzical, and insistent. The voices were very faint. He could barely make out what they said. So, as anyone would, he took a quick peek behind to see who it was. There along the wall not far from he door he saw a man and a woman standing at a table filled with silver platters of food and golden goblets of wine, and they were bathed in an ethereal blue light. The voices grew louder until he could hear what they were saying.

“My lady, I must convince the council.  We must launch the expedition.  It is of the utmost importance,” the man was saying as shadows from the blue light played across the surface of the table.

Lido, however, was not one to let circumstances turn him aside from what he’d chosen to do, so he threw his weight behind it, and turned the bronze circle completely over. And so the hourglass began to pour the sand back the other way. Had he not been quite so preoccupied, and standing in near-utter darkness, he might have noticed that on the surface of the table various symbols that had been revealed from beneath the dust. He might have noticed the faint outlines of a goat with the lower body of a fish, and other of a priestess carrying a sheaf of wheat. And there was a circle with a cross within it that seemed almost to hover on the surface of the table, and beneath it was a glyph that looked like a winged dragon. Yet, none of these things did Lido notice.  Instead he turned about and took a flask of sticky oil from his pocket in preparation for he knew not what. Who were these two people? How did they get in the chamber? What were their intentions? He was afraid, and alone, and most certainly not prepared to assume the best.

There was a horrible screech that echoed wildly throughout the chamber for what seemed like hours or days or years, he could not tell. The blue light faded. He could see the two people at the edge of the room. The man was unfurling a parchment on the table and pointing to it. The woman was leaning over and looking at it carefully. But the entire seen was fading with the blue light. Lido tried his best to catch a glimpse of what was on the parchment, but the light faded too quickly, and he could only make out that the man was pointing to a circle which had been segmented by several triangles, before he could no longer make out anything.

“The expedition is critical. We must discover the golden pyramid in the west…,” the man was saying, his voice fading into oblivion.

“My Lord, Dunn… it will be too dangerous…,” the lady replied… and then the scene went dark, and Lido found himself standing alone in the inky blackness.

Lido waited for a while, but nothing changed.  He walked very slowly hoping he was heading in the correct direction toward the door, but when he came to the wall he did not feel the door. He moved to the right and continued feeling along the wall. He came to an open space that seemed to be the corner of an open corridor.  He could not be sure. He felt along it up and down until he felt sure that it was indeed a corner. He found a corridor and decided that the room had somehow the ability to change shape, since he had not seen a corridor there before, and he noted the appearance and disappearance of the table and the people within the chamber earlier. So he decided to follow the corridor, remarking to himself that this might very well be the “unforeseen complication” the white haired master had alluded to.  He wished, not for the last time, that he had had a dagger after all.

Down the long corridor he walked, very slowly, very gingerly, for he could not see his hand in front of his face. The floor became rough, as did the walls, and he sensed that the corridor had become a tunnel. There were dripping noises that echoed, and he felt a hot breeze cross his face at one point. It was very slow going. Eventually he began to sense that the the air had changed, and after a while up ahead he could see there was indeed a light in the tunnel. He slowly crept towards it, as quietly as a Hobbit could. He stopped when he heard voices. It seemed there were men up ahead, and they were arguing over something. The voices sounded rough, and angry.

“You roll the dice now,” demanded a voice harshly rasping.

“I roll and you lose!” said another fiercely.

“I will drink him next!” said a third with grim relish.

Lido crept forward until he came to the edge of the corridor and peered into a small chamber the size of an ordinary man’s living room. On the far wall was a single torch sputtering with red and yellow flames. There he saw three men sitting at a stone table leaning over a tray in which they were throwing bone colored dice. On the table were three flagons of ale, and each man would take a huge drought of it when it was his turn. The thing about these men that gave Lido pause was their very odd shapes. They were tall and very thin, and had very tiny legs and feet and very small stubby little arms and hands. But their heads were huge, flat and wide and filled with rows of sharply pointed yellow teeth like daggers. And when one turned his head toward him fully, Lido was terrified to see that the man’s eyes were glowing like red embers in a fire.

“That’s probably bad,” he thought. Fortunately the men did not take immediate notice of him, so caught up in what they were doing were they. This gave him time to think about what to do. He took a vial of sticky oil and held it in his left hand.

“That was a miserable meal,” said one. “I can’t stand it anymore.”

“Oh shut up and roll the dice!” yelled another.

“My Lady was quite peeved today!” exclaimed the first as he rolled the dice. “Very angry!”

“No meal today!” said another. “All the fatties escaped!”

“Very angry!” said the third as he took out his gleaming sharp dagger and used it to pick his teeth.

“Oh crap,” said Lido to himself. He then decided that he would be better to try to forge ahead and see if there was any way to escape through this room than to try to return back the way he came. After all, he reasoned, the room he left behind changed its shape, and who knows whether he could get back to it at all. So he made a leap and dashed into the room with the three men. As soon as he rounded the corner however he saw that there was another short fat headed man with tiny stubby legs and tiny arms, and a tiny body to go with it. He also had sharp jagged yellow teeth and glowing red eyes.

The little man shrieked and began waddling towards Lido, as did the other three men. Their bodies, however, were so mis-shapen that they could not run nearly as fast as a Hobbit (which is saying a lot), and so Lido had no problem out running them. But just the same, now that he saw another one, and not knowing how many of these characters there might be, or what the cave might lead to, he changed his mind and ran back into the tunnel. He threw behind him a vial of sticky oil and without turning back ran all the way down the tunnel until he was once again immersed in complete darkness. Eventually after a long slow walk he found that came to the corner again and was once more back in the circular chamber.  He was not sure if the stick men had followed behind or not, but if they had they would have been far behind him indeed, he thought.  He could not hear anything of them.  He rounded the corner and felt is way left this time, and after a few long torturous minutes he located the door. He opened it, and made his way up the long spiraling flight of stairs.

Time Was On His Side

Out into the room he emerged, and there was the white haired master stroking his moustache as raised his eyebrows with evident surprise.

“You made it!’ he said.

“Yes, though I have to admit, I did run into a complication down there,” answered Lido, “and I think you want to know that some very strange fellows may be heading up this way. The last I saw the little jagged teeth stick men with the glowing red eyes were in hot pursuit… though they were really quite slow. In fact, I haven’t a clue what became of them. I just ran and ran, and finally made my way here,” he concluded.

“Very good!” said the master extracting the lantern from his clutching left hand. “You’ve done well, and it would seem that time was on your side after all.”

“How long has it been since I went down?” asked Lido, profoundly disoriented in terms of the passage of time.

“Only a minute or so,” answered the master.

“Oh, then I supposed Ishcandar is still on his way to the Guild Hall to get the letter. I think I should like to try to catch up with him, and perhaps help him out, you know. I mean if I recall correctly he was rather a bit tipsy when he left, wasn’t he?”

The master agreed with that, and to Lido’s surprise he gave him permission to pursue is friend, reminding him that they had less than an hour; otherwise the poison would very likely to have a fatal effect on his friend. Lido said he understood and so he was shown out to the street.

Unfortunately his luck was not so great, and he could not find Ishcandar, though he poked his head into several taverns along the way. The drunken little Hobbit, of course, was sitting on a bar stool somewhere downing another ale. Lido reflected coolly that it was probable that Ishcandar would not have a chance to die of the Tears of the Black Lotus before the alcohol poisoning did him in, as he trudged along the foggy cobblestone streets toward the Guild Hall.

And so Lido found himself sitting in the Guild Library in front of a puzzled looking Rothman, while he explained all of the events to date in a sudden gush. For his part Rothmon listened with furrowed eyebrows and considerable perplexity at the very complicated story – especially the part about the strange stick men with the dagger-teeth and red-ember eyes. When it was done he expressed some satisfaction that at least  the young members of the AAA Group were indeed quite great adventurers after all… something apparently he had had some doubts about earlier.Nevertheless the situation was dire. Lido asked for the letter so he could return it to the white haired Master of Five Animals Hall.

“What do you intend to do?” asked Rothmon.

“The white haired master spoke of opportunities to me, and if possible I could join forces with him, and likely be privy to information that might be of interest to the Guild,” offered Lido hesitantly.

“Wait here, I will return momentarily,” said Rothmon. He left the room and returned in a few minutes with an elegant wooden box, in which were six silver rings with small gems on each. He took one of the rings and put it on his right index finger. He offered another ring to Lido, who put it on his own right index finger. The ring was a silver band with three strands braded and crowned with a small blue sapphire.

“This ring has power. It will allow you to communicate by your thoughts with any other ring bearer once per day for one minute. It will then need to rest for a day to refill its power.”

Lido looked at the ring with great interest, but not quite believing that it could possibly do such a thing, though he didn’t have any reason to doubt Rothmon’s word.

Meanwhile Ishcandar, sitting in a bar not terribly far away, was complaining to the bartender that he had a terrible problem.

“It seems, my good sir, that my glass is empty,” he said looking down into the flagon with a hiccup and dejected gaze.  Just then Hermel happen walked into the tavern with his new friend Drake Barnstormer. After the events at the Five Crows they decided to share a drink to celebrate the victory over the kidnapper ring, and Drake wanted to find out anything else that Hermel might know.  So they had wandered around until they came to the pub.

“The Dancing Minotaur is one of my favorite taverns in the area,” Drake was saying as they walked in. Hermel took a look around appreciating the fine woodwork, booths, candle lamps… when he saw Ishcandar sitting at the bar, his feet dangling in the air, an ale in one hand, three empties in front of him. Hermel stopped. He looked around for an enclosed booth or other place to hide. Drake stopped too.

“Is something the matter young friend?” he asked.

Hermel was looking for Lido, but he didn’t see him. Drake looked at his young friend with a raised eyebrow.

“No drink?” he asked in his big husky voice.

“Noooo…,” answered Hermel somewhat miserably.

Hermel brushed himself off, shook the bad feeling away. That didn’t work. He walked out of the bar into the street. Drake followed. Hermel then walked back into the bar, and took a look at Ishcandar who had started singing an old Hobbit bar song. He turned around and walked back out again. Then he went back in. Drake was deeply puzzled at this point though he sensed his young friend’s odd behavior had something to do with the Hobbit at the bar who Hermel kept glancing at with crestfallen looks. Finally, Hermel walked straight over and slapped the glass of ale out of Ishcandar’s hand.

“What part of ‘We have something important to do’ didn’t you understand?!” demanded Hermel of the drunken Hobbit.

“Buddy!!” cried Ishcandar upon seeing, blearily, Hermel’s face and acquired a huge drunken smile.

“Hobbits are without a doubt are the worst creatures on two feet,” decried Hermel with untold annoyance.

“I love you, man,” replied Ishcandar trying to hug his buddy.

“What the hell are you doing?” demanded Hermel angrily as Drake came walking over with a puzzled expression on his broad handsome face.  The two men listened intently as Ishcandar blurted out the entire story of his adventure since parting form Hermel in the corridor (which wasn’t really very long ago at all, actually).

“And when I thought, ‘I must get to the Guild Hall for the parchment’, I realized that I was parched … and needed a drink! So I happen to find myself at this bar with this very capable bar tender who has very kindly been filling my glass!” he conclude with great satisfaction and a loud belch.

“And I have an hour to live,” added Ishcandar laughing as he remembered and looked down at his blackened finger.  In fact the blackness he noticed vaguely, had moved up past his wrist and he followed the black line to his elbow unhappily.

“What’s that?” asked Hermel looking suddenly at the Hobbit’s black finger.

“Oh, it will kill me, of course... oh… oh yeah… if I don’t get the parchment back to the master of the hall in an hour I’ll be dead I think,” he concluded with another hiccup.

“Ok,” said Hermel, “I’m tired of helping you and getting nothing in return. From now on it’s going to cost you,” he said as he took Ishcandar’s purse from his belt and hefted it in his hand a few times. He paid for all of the drinks, and the broken glass, and grabbing Ishcandar by the collar walked him outside, and down the street back to the Guild Hall. On the way out he said a curt goodbye to Drake, and mumbled something about meeting up with him again sometime soon.

“No problem, young feller. You can find me any time at the Precinct Headquarters north of the Market District on High Street.”

Hermel ushered Ishcandar into the Guild Hall and there they found Rothmon and Lido finishing their conversation in the Library. There was a brief discussion and they decided to take Ishcandar to see Johan, who looking at the black hand, and seeing that there was nothing he could do, suggested they bring Ishcandar to Doctor Sniloc. The Doctor could only offer that the poison was indeed the very deadly Tears of the Black Lotus, and that there was little chance of making an antidote in time as the necrotic effects were already taking hold. He did, however, happen to have Jarrow Root Tea and he gave a steaming cup of it to Ishcandar, which once again cleared his mind of drunkenness, and even made him more alert than usual. They then decided there was nothing else to do but for Rothmon to give Ishcandar one of the six rings, and a stern warning to the two Hobbits to be very careful with the mysterious white haired master. The AAA Group hurried off to Dunn’s Bridge.

Return to Five Animals Hall

“Well, I do have to admit, you did one thing right,” said Hermel to Ischandar as they trotted through the darkness down the cobblestone streets on their way to Dunn’s Bridge.

“Really?  What’s that?” asked Ishcandar incredulously.

“I am sure that the letter you left for Wutan at the hotel is what saved me from the villains in the bar. In fact, according to Drake Barnstormer, the police Captain who rescued us from the Five Crows Tavern, Wutan in his yellow robes had showed up at Police Headquarters and told Drake that kidnapped children were in the basement of the Tavern. And that’s why the police showed up at the same time.”

“Oh well!” exclaimed Ishcandar quite pleased with himself… “I do draft a mean letter, you know!”

They found themselves across the street from Dunn’s Bridge. It was quite dark out, and the fog shrouded the bridge in a dark haze. The Five Crows Tavern was sealed up, and no one was around. It must have been two in the morning or so at that time. There were no lights on anywhere.

As they stood wondering if they should simply go to the front door, or try a more devious route, they heard the sound of drums. The sound was accompanied by a large crowd of people carrying candles through the fog and weeping copiously. At the head of the crowd was a man in green robes with a black headdress who was waving a wand in various directions and chanting. Behind him six men carried a coffin, and the procession of mourners was following behind.

Ishcandar decided this would be a fine time to practice his pick pocket skill, and so he made out a mark, and approached along the edge of the crowd. Without a hitch he had pilfered the old man’s purse, and was looking around for another victim when Hermel, seeing this, became indignant. He went after the old man, and thinking to return the stolen money to him without causing a riot, took Ishcandar's coin purse from his pocket where he’d put it, and removed 20 iron pieces and placed them on the ground not far from where the man was passing by. He then made his way to the man and asked if he’d dropped money on the ground. The man, who was copiously weeping, looked around, and saw the iron pieces on the ground.

“How could that be my money?” he asked, “I only carry silver. What kind of trick are you trying to play?”

“None at all sir, but I thought I noticed that you dropped that money on the ground”, replied Hermel, frustrated by this turn of events.

“I saw him put the iron pieces on the ground, though,” said a young dull looking boy who was also passing by.  The old man, reaching around his side, and found that his purse was missing after all.

“Hey! What’s this!? My purse has been swiped! What are you up to?!” he cried. All of the people in the procession stopped and gathered around Hermel, who was thinking that the Hobbit had finally done him in after all. There were shouts, and cursing, and people raising their fists. But in the end the old man, seeing as there were 20 iron pieces on the ground, which was in fact the amount that Ishcandar had stolen, grabbed up the iron, and with a huff and scowl at Hermel, went back to following after the priest and the coffin along with the rest of the crowd.

“I hope you’re happy,” said Hermel.

“Why yes, of course I am. I made enough to get another round of ale!” said Ishcandar cheerfully. After all this they found themselves next to the iron grate that lead down the ladder into the sewer that lead to Doctor Lobe’s study, which was quite near Five Animals Hall. Meanwhile Lido had pressed on across Dunn Street to Dunn’s Bridge.

“This tower is filled with more strange mysteries than I care to think about,” said Lido as he knocked on the tower door. The door opened. There was one of the young men in the black uniform who ushered him in.

Lido followed the young man through the door, down the stairs, through the two secret doors, down the long corridor, past the iron gate, down the flight of stairs, and down the next long corridor until the came to the great red double doors of the Five Animals Hall. The young man knocked, and they heard a voice beckoning them to enter. Lido mentally took note of every step of the way, for the purpose of mapping everything later when he had a chance.

There stood the white haired master, who was supervising two of the young men while they practiced their sword technique beside the statue of the white tiger.  Lido handed the letter to the White Haired master.

“Hmmm… the seal has been broken,” said the master.

“I believe Ishcandar broke it when he took the letter,” said Lido. “I can’t really account for what exactly became of it afterwards,” he added carefully.

“I see,” said the master looking at the letter carefully. “Well there is nothing to be done about that at the moment. I should like to reward you for your honest work, young Lido,” he said. “I will, when the mission is concluded, give you something that you’ve expressed a wish for – a fine dagger which will suit you well.”

“Why thank you, I should like that very much,” said Lido.

At that moment Ishcandar, who had made his way down the ladder and through the secret door into the study, and down the long corridor arrived at the red door of the Five Animals Hall, having parted company with Hermel who remained at the top of the ladder, and not ventured any further. He wished instead to wait outside to see if anything else might happen so that he could go get help if necessary.  Ishcandar knocked, and was admitted to the great stone chamber. They stood together in front of the statue of the white tiger. It seemed that matters had almost come to a conclusion.

“Well we’d better take care of Ishcandar’s wound, I should say,” said the master.

He walked with them back to a far room in which they saw a great number of books, and bottles, and diagrams of bodies and candles, and boiling liquids in ceramic pots with very peculiar smells. He had Ishcandar sit on a bench and administered the antidote to his finger, which once injected caused his wrist and hand to return to their normal color and feeling. Ishcandar was quite grateful for that, and took the attitude that the master was indeed a great man with vast knowledge and powers.

“Since you have accomplished the task, my young Hobbit,” he said to Lido, “I will give you the gift as I promised earlier,” said the master as he withdrew a fine silver bladed dagger.

“I wonder if he will sheath that in my heart now?” thought Lido to himself, but instead the master handed it to him by the hilt. It hefted very nicely in his hand and was the perfect size for him.   The master gave him the sheaf and Lido stuck that in his belt and sheathed the dagger with great satisfaction.

“As for you,” he said to Ishcandar, “you received a second chance at life, and I should say that is a good enough reward for returning the letter to it’s proper owner.” The master then asked them if there were anyone else who might have been involved with their dealings over the past two days in and around the dungeon. Ishcandar then mentioned his friend Hermel who was waiting outside. The master suggested that he send one of his students to go to invite him in, and Ishcandar, telling where Hermel was, added that the young man should not take no for an answer, and implied that Hermel was his servant. The young student took his sword and went out of the chamber to find Hermel.

When he came to Hermel the young adventurer was standing outside the secret door listening. He’d become perhaps a bit impatient and climbed down to see if he could hear any news of Ishcandar and Lido. The young man, finding Hermel there, asked him to follow him to the Five Animals Hall, but Hermel refused. There was a brief struggle during which Hermel gained the upper hand and climbed the ladder ahead of the student. The student followed him intending to force Hermel, but as both were armed, and Hermel had the commanding position, he was able to dislodge the student with a kick, and so he fell down the ladder, leaving Hermel free to exit to the street and make his escape.

Meanwhile below, no one knew what had become of the student until he returned limping and the worse for wear. The incident was noted but not discussed.  The white haired master then invited the two Hobbits to remain with him for the night, telling them that he had numerous adventurous missions in store for them if they were daring enough to risk them, and that they could start right away in the morning after breakfast. He mentioned rich rewards, fine foods and plenty of wine and ale, at which point Ishcandar was entirely sold, of course.  Lido agreed to remain the night and discuss the details in the morning. And so the two Hobbits were lead by a black uniformed student to bed chambers and given warm blankets and provisioned very well for the night. A flask of wine was on both night tables, and the two Hobbits expressed their gratitude as the student bowed, and closed the door shut behind him.

And that may well be the last anyone ever heard of the two Hobbits in the town of Hobbington. Very possibly indeed!

Previous Episode: The Hagglesmith Rescue - Part V
Next Episode: Interlude - The Cantakerous Tutor

Wednesday, January 04, 2012

RPG Carnival Jan 2012: Fantastic Locations

This month's RPG Carnival is on the topic of Fantastic Locations, sponsored by Keith J Davies, and since I have a few of those, I thought I'd drum up a little post about one that I particularly liked.

The place is called Weeleena's Tea House, and is located somewhere between the Realm of the Earth Kingdom and a certain ancient Tower of the Black Hill Ruins.

When the Bellowick children needed an escape route from the top of the tower (they were being rather viciously attacked by shadow wolves and a fey warlock riding on the back of one, iirc), a certain hedge witch by the name of Old Biddy Mable, was able to help them through a stone-sealed archway in the wall on the spiral stairs going between the top of the tower and the bottom.  They passed through the wall, and inadvertently also passed through the rather interesting outskirts of the Earth Kingdom Realm of Minvar.  Since the Earth Realm is shaped somewhat like a funnel, from the outskirts you can, if you manage to peek over the edge, see pretty far down... and since some members of the party happen to be priests and priestesses of Minvar, the Elkron of the Earth, they could see further than the ordinary person who only sees shades of darkness, blurred brown and black shapes, and the occassional flashinng of glowering red-orange.  But for the Minvarians it is quite a different view... they could see the actual Kingdom itself with its vast monolithic architectures, huge underworld vaults filled with secret troves of rare minerals and gigantic gemstones, and the great rivers of magma flowing with the "Blood of Minvar".  It's quite an astonishing view, even from the outer precincts...

"Only the three Minvarians could see what was happening, as they are all disciples of the Elkron of the Earth. They all felt as they walked into the stone a deep and abiding cold, a thickness and solitude that is very hard for humans to describe. And what they saw shocked and amazed them. For inside the stone they could see downward through the tower into the earth itself, all of the different kinds of stones as rivers and veins one might see standing on the shoulder of a great earth giant. Down further into the depths they could make out distant lava pools like beating hearts, and rivers of magma far down below them like great veins. It was an incredible sight. At least it was for the Minvarians, as the others could only make out dim shadows in the darkness as they walked through the menacing cold, and nothing more."  - From 'The Ladybug at Weeleena's'

Suddenly, they found themselves passing through a doorway into a bright and spacious room...

"Into a brightly lit room they suddenly entered. It was an elegant and charming room with white lace table cloths, and teak woods, and glass lanterns with golden candles, but no windows, only doorways large and small, some open, most closed. Tinkling and the strains of flute music could be heard everywhere, and at that the place was abuzz with sounds of conversation at different tables. No one seemed to take any notice of the strangers who were being lead to a table by Biddy Mable. There was one table with men wearing extremely audacious finery, and at another some lowly peasants in burlap drinking ales. There were numerous people about chittering away over drinks, and all the while buzzing among them was a lovely young woman with tiny flowers in her hair, and green leaves making up her cloak, and she carried a tray of tea and decanters for her guests."

What is most fascinating about Weeleena's Tea House, aside from the utterly beautiful and delicate flute music, delicious aromas, and strange buzzing of the guests, are the guests themselves, who by and large mostly happen to be the Royalty and Nobles of the Insect Kingdom, trussed up in their Humanoid forms.  In their finery and splendor one might think they'd entered the halls of some Absolute Monarch from an age of incomparable opulence.   And indeed one would be quite correct in thinking so.  A great deal of gossip and news passes through that strange ethereal place! But of course, one must understand the Insect Languages to make heads or tails of it all amid the great buzzing that permeates that splendid tea house.   Weeleena, the elegant and talented hostess, is always to be seen, carrying a silver tray of delectables hither and thither, when she is not entertaining the guests with her wondrously subtle flute serenades.

From there the Bellowicks made their escape back to their own world... but tiny-sized, and so spent a good deal of the remainder of that adventure the size of rice grains, riding around on the backs of aphids, fighting in the Insect Wars, and saving their own land of Glendale from a threat that no one but they had any clue about.  It was really great.  And Weeleena's Tea House, though briefly seen, was one of the more fantastical and enjoyable locations in the Campaign.   The Bellowicks did not have a chance to return there, but perhaps someday they shall.