Sunday, October 30, 2011

The Hagglesmith Rescue - Part I

Out of the Frying Pan

It was mid morning on the cobblestone street along Dunn’s Street Canal. The patchy fog shrouded the four towers of Dunn’s Bridge, though in the second story window of nearest one a dim green light could be seen. Ishcandar shivered with cold as he wrapped the cloak that Lido had given him around his wet body. His mind was still lingering on the ghostly fish that had attacked him in the dark swirling waters below. Everyone else in the group had focused on the tower window, staring at the silhouette of the figure there. The light blinked out. However, this detail was lost on Ishcandar as he stared downward back toward the swirling black waters to gaze absent mindedly at the ghostly white fish as they floated down stream, leaving trails of crimson streaks behind them. He felt the wounds that the fish bites caused as blazing fiery gashes along his arm, leg and throat, and though he was no longer in peril of his life, he nonetheless was keenly aware that his life still hung precariously in the balance. Or perhaps it was merely the feeling he had then due to his extraordinary effort in channeling his mystical energies into his body in order to keep himself from dying down there in the canal. He wasn’t quite sure. His mind was as foggy as Dunn’s Bridge, and he felt no energy for much of anything, let alone thinking difficult thoughts.

But he was aware that a small black sparrow had landed on the stonework next to his right hand. With a strange little ‘caw’ the tiny black sparrow jumped up and fluttered it’s way downward onto one of the floating ghostly fish carcasses and began pecking furiously away at it, splattering red droplets of blood onto the shiny white scales as it swirled slowly along the surface of the black waters. Then, another black sparrow landed, ‘cawed’, and leapt after the first one. Then another. Then a dozen. Then a small flock flying in unison, and then another somewhat larger flock descended into the canal with a flurry of black wings and beaks. As he watched with increasing dismay, the cloud of black sparrows grew into a large fluttering mass, a cacophony of wild ‘cawing’ echoing off the canal walls, all around the four dead ghostly fish, pecking at them with a fury he would scarcely have imagined in a nightmare. Within a minute or so the four dead fish were stripped clean of their flesh, and Ishcandar watched the pot-marked white bones descend, swirling slowly into the murky depths, as the birds fluttered off in every direction of the gloom-shrouded autumn sky. None of which was lost on the other members of the party who, having noticed the strange event, had one by one turned from the tower window to view the scene below with mixed reactions of surprise, incredulity and horror. Ishcandar, staring in a dazed and somewhat frightened awe, realized at that moment that what he really needed was another pint of ale.

“I don’t think I’ve ever seen a black sparrow before,” said Lido to no one in particular.

“I’ve heard of them before,” replied Hermel to no one else in particular, “but I thought they were just an old wives’ tale.”

“Hair of the dog,” murmured Ishcandar, to himself vacuously.

“White fish are bad, black birds are good,” said Hermel in conclusion. “A little bit out of the norm, I guess, but … ok.”

At any rate, Hermel, who was the least interested in the fate of ghostly fish, was busy being annoyed at the false starts on their adventure thus far, and took a quick glance at his young friend Jeremy. The boy had a scowl on his face, deeply frustrated that his agreement to bring along the others had resulted in ... this.

Chuckling from the Shadows

A low chuckle came to them through the fog. It was emanating from the alleyway behind the Five Crows Tavern across the street from the canal. As it happened the party discovered that it was Bernie, Jeremy’s older ‘brother’ from the Rat’s Den.

“You know, that was the funniest thing I’ve seen in a long time,” he said with a twisted smile as he peered out from under his leather hood. Bernie was not a handsome kid, with a long thin nose, greasy black hair, crooked yellow teeth, and a scar on his left cheek, but in this light he had a certain roguish charm. He gave a toothy grin.

“So, how long have you been standing there?” asked Lido, rather put out that anyone had actually seen their failed escapade.

“Oh I dunno, 15 minutes maybe? I couldn’t help noticing you when this poor slob fell into the brink... Hahaha… for a Hobbit you sure are clumsy,” said Bernie looking at Ishcandar with a wry smile. Ishcandar reached for his dagger in a sudden fit of Hobbit-wrath, but he lost focus quickly and went back into a fog, mumbling something unintelligible.

“Well if you saw me fall in, why didn’t you do anything to help?” asked Ishcandar suddenly perking up again, and then just as quickly fading back into la-la land.

“Well geeze, kid, what do you expect? Your friends seem to be taking care of it, and there didn’t seem anything much I could do. You think I should have jumped into Dunn’s Brook after you? Hahaha… that wouldn’t be too smart,” answered Bernie with a guffaw.

Ishcandar pulled the cloak tightly around himself and stomped his feet to shake some of the water off himself.  He was still shivering badly.  Dunn’s Brook, he noted vaguely, was awful damn cold. Lido then cut a piece of cloth from his shirt and attempted to tie it around the bleeding wound that the ghostly fish had bitten into Ishcandar’s leg. Unfortunately, the wound was jagged and when Ishcandar winced and gave a cry, Lido realized it was beyond his skill to bind this particular wound.

Bernie, nodding his head with a bit of contempt, said, “I could probably bind his wounds better than you can, you know.”

“Well, perhaps you should try then,” said Ishcandar, ignoring any other considerations than stilling the throbbing pain in his leg.

“Ok then. Hold still,” said Bernie as he pulled out a small leather bag, and extracted a fine white cotton cloth, and proceeded to expertly clean and bind the wound. It was painful, but once finished, Ishcandar decidedly felt better, and everyone noted what an efficient and expert job Bernie had done. He stood up, put weight on his leg, smiled vaguely, and then began to immediately look for a pub to head to. “Must restore mystic … life … force,” he murmured to himself. “Pint of ale,” he concluded and began to walk steadfastly in the direction of the Five Crows Tavern. Caught by surprise, Lido caught Ishcandar by the shoulders and helped to guide him towards Dunn’s Bridge, which was across the street from the Five Crows.

The Tower Bell Rings

Meanwhile Hermel had decided that the best thing to do would be for him to head back alone to the Tower on Dunn’s Bridge where they’d seen the silhouette in the window, and try to get help for Ishcandar. He thought that they might gain access to the tower that way, and then when opportunity arose, snoop around and try to find the Hagglesmiths, who’d last been seen having been captured in nets by some men down in a secret tunnel that lead out of the basement chamber at the root of the tower. It seemed worth a try, and so Hermel trooped through the fog to the tower door and banged on it loudly. No answer. He banged again. Nothing stirred. He banged again, with even greater effort. But still, there was no answer, and nothing stirred, except the sound of a bell from one of the bridge towers that rang eleven times, the echo ringing up and down the old streets and alleyways. After that Hermel decided that he wasn’t going to have any luck there, and so walked briskly off the bridge toward the party who happen to be marching up the road towards him being half dragged along by Ishcandar who was still trying to steer himself toward the Five Crows.

After discussing matters back and forth as to what to do next, and largely ignoring Ishcandar’s dreams of brew, they decided that the first order of business was to warm poor Ishcandar up by a cozy fire somewhere and get him some tea. They’d been talking this over as Hermel walked up. He knew the back streets of the Old Quarter pretty well, and was aware of a tea shop not far that might have Jarrow Root Tea, which he knew from his study of herb-lore might clear Ishcandar head. The poor hobbit was still looking longingly across the street with outstretched arm as Hermel took him by the arm and also picked his Iron Pieces Pouch from his belt and put it in his own pocket, as he commented to Lido that Ishcandar needed some “guidance”, and after all was going to be paying for the Jarrow Root Tea in any case. In fact, Hermel probably saved Ishcandar from spending all his money on his way toward a humongous hangover.

Lady Gray’s Tea House

So the gang trooped along the slick cobblestone street avoiding the puddles, skirted an alleyway, trotted down a long flight of stone stairs, across a dirt road, slid past an open iron gate, up a street, under two bridges, and came at last to “Lady Gray’s Tea House”. It was warm and cozy looking inside, with a bright fire in the hearth, and a number of tables, some of which were occupied by various sorts of elderly people, a young couple, and some bearded men playing chess.

Hermel went in, and wound his way to the old wooden counter where an old crooked lady was measuring teas and putting spoonfuls into pouches. She had bright beady eyes and gave him a look that one might have expected from a hawk so intense was her gaze. Hermel was not in the least bit put off by her stare, but simply asked if she had any Jarrow Root Tea available. She gave him a blink. She cocked her old gray hairs to the side a bit, and then announced that Jarrow Root is very expensive, and wondered out loud if the young lad had nearly enough money for it. He asked how much one cup’s worth would be, and she said it was a startling ten iron pieces. Hermel was not fazed. He asked if he could examine it for it’s quality. She pulled out a small bit of Jarrow from a locked drawer and handed the hairy little bit of root to him. She inspected him while he inspected it carefully with a farm-boy’s knowledge of such things. Correct golden color. Hairs were fine with scarlet tips. Odor was sufficiently pungent, if not exceptionally so. They haggled briefly and she settled on eight Iron Pieces since she happened to like the lad’s forthright manner. And so Hermel paid her, thanked her, and took the root in a little bag outside to where Ishcandar, Lido and Jeremy were waiting. They thought about where they could take it to make a fire and boil the tea, but seeing as how the ground was wet from drizzle, and there was little wood or kindling to be seen, they decided to go back inside and pay the price for a cup of hot water for the tea. The old lady graciously offered them a table, and some biscuits which they downed with the rapid glee of kids who are really hungry, and everyone got a complimentary cup of (regular) tea as well. Old Lady Gray is a bit of a hawk, but she does have a heart deep down inside after all. The Jarrow Root Tea had the desired effect on Ishcandar. Soon he was not only out of his fog, but even more alert than usual.

“This is amazingly good tea,” he said after finishing the cup with a smile. He noticed everything around him in vivid detail, even noticing the fly that had buzzed behind Hermel’s head and vanished from view. “Hey, where’s my pouch?” he suddenly wanted to know.

“I see you’ve regained your presence of mind,” Hermel replied laughing as he handed Ishcandar his slightly less weighty pouch of Iron Pieces, and everyone had a chuckle over that.  All except Jeremy who was sitting glum as a stone looking out the window at the drizzle landing in puddles on the cobblestones.

“I’m very sorry about all this,” said Ishcandar to Jeremy quietly. The boy looked up at him and nodded acceptance of his apology. They decided it was time to go. Leaving the tea house they walked down the street where they could speak more freely. As they made there way through the gloom they assessed their options.

“I’m getting entirely fed up with this, myself,” said Lido impatiently. “If we’re going to do this thing, I think we should take a bold approach and … do something! What if I put a rock through the tower window to get their attention?”

“I don’t think the bold move would afford us much, at this point,” replied Hermel. “We could search the tavern where we think the tunnel leads to,” he continued. “But they’re on to us as well. Perhaps a diversion would help,” he thought out loud.

“How about a rock through their window,” offered Lido.

“If only Wuton had responded to my message!” said Ishcandar. They considered the possibility of using Wuton’s name as a kind of threat to the people in the Five Crows, but after further discussion found that there was not much hope in that plan either since they didn't think that very many people may have heard the rumors about Wuton in the Old Quarter.   News does not, it seems, flow all that readily to every part of Hobbington.

“I’m sure an Iron or two can bend a tongue,” offered Ishcandar.

“I’m afraid our options are very few at this point, and perhaps we are already too…” said Hermel, and then bit his tongue as he looked at Jeremy. He was thinking that perhaps they were already too late to save the Hagglesmiths, but he realized perhaps it was best not to complete the thought.

Return to Five Crows Tavern

“I say we have no time left for caution. We must take action,” said Ishcandar with conviction, as they arrived at the corner of Five Crows Tavern. There were various sorts of people milling around, conducting whatever business they may have had in the Old Quarter, shady or otherwise. A man entered the bar, causing the bell hung above the doorframe to tinkle as he went in.  An old man was begging for coins in a doorway next to the tavern.  A dog ran into an alley after a cat which screeched as it toppled a pile of old boxes.

Across the foggy street Ishcandar noticed a fellow sitting in the shaded doorway of an closed store front lighting a cigarette.  He appeared to Ishcandar to have eyes and ears on them.  The party approached the figure, who’d been sitting there rolling a cigarette watching them out of the corner of his eye. Ishcandar’s senses had apparently been heightened enough by the Jarrow Root Tea for him to have noticed this, and he felt pleased to realize it. As they approached Bernie turned his head toward them with a slightly mocking smile.

“Oh it’s the boy who helped me,” said Ishcandar with genuine surprise.

“Oh hey,” said Bernie, “how are you feeling?”

“Much better, thanks to you,” replied Ishcandar.

Hermel took the opportunity to scrutinize Bernie carefully, noting that he was an older kid, probably around sixteen or seventeen, and from the slight bulge on the left side of his waste also discerned that he was carrying a concealed dagger stuffed in his belt.

“Why are you following us?” he asked pointedly.

“Following you? I’m not following you! I just happen to be sitting here rolling a cigarette and if you care to notice, you just walked over to me,” said Bernie with a puff of smoke billowing out of his mouth.

“Or at least, why were you listening in on our conversation?” interjected Lido.

“How could I help it?” said Bernie, “You’re standing right there talking, after all.”

“Why are you following us?” repeated Hermel dryly.

“Goodness gracious, you are bad news, man. To think I tried to actually help you guys out,” said Bernie mockingly.

“Do you happen to know where the Hagglesmiths are?” asked Lido pointedly.

“What? Hey, wow, you know I only met the Hagglesmiths one time. Jeremy brought them into the Rat’s Den, I said Hi, they said Hi, and that’s it. They went off on their adventure and that’s the last thing I ever saw of them,” said Bernie in a louder voice.

Hermel began walking up the flight of stairs that Bernie was sitting on, and Bernie stood up. He was taller than Hermel.

“Have you heard of Dr. Lobe?” asked Lido, again pointedly.

“Dr. Lobe? Dr. Lobe?” repeated Bernie, now clearly annoyed. “How would I know a Dr. Lobe? Why are you asking me? What are you doing, ...interrogating me? I’m on your side!”

“Which side are we on?” asked Hermel now standing next to him.

“Ok, alright guys, guys, leave him alone,” said Ishcandar now deciding that the guy who had helped heal his leg probably wasn’t a bad guy perhaps after all.

“I’m with Jeremy. He’s my friend,” said Bernie pointing to the kid.

“He’s a fine gentleman,” said Ishcandar. “He healed my leg. In fact here’s an Iron for being so kind,” concluded Ishcandar as he pulled an Iron piece out of his bag and handed it to Bernie.

“Oh, wow, that’s cool, thanks a lot,” replied Bernie looking at the coin with appreciation, taking a bite on it, and put it approvingly in his vest pocket. “See? Now that’s proper hospitality, if you ask me,” he said slapping Ishcandar on the shoulder with a grin.

“Well, that’s more like it then. Look there’s a pub across the street. What say you we go over and have a drink together?” said Ishcandar pointing to the Five Crows.

“Oh yea, well now that’s more like it. I’m going over here with my friend. We’re getting a pint,” said Bernie blowing smoke in Hermel's face as he walked down the steps of the ancient stoop.

“Please,” said Ishcandar as they walked across the street, “forgive my friends. They can be a little bit abrupt at times.”

“Sure sure, don’t mention it,” replied Bernie as they entered the tavern. The other members of the party followed along behind, and so they found themselves back at the Five Crows Tavern again.

The Rat Evades

As they were crossing the street Lido almost tripped over a rat. It was an unusual rat with black fur, and a white spot over one eye. Lido and Hermel both took their slings out and hurled stones at the creature, but it dodged the stones and scurried into a hole along the edge of the building.

Meanwhile, inside the tavern, Ishcandar was apologizing for his friends behavior again, and ordering the best ale in the house. The pepper haired bartender remembered Ishcandar and greeted him in a friendly manner.
“Well, now, if it isn't the Hobbit from before.  How are you, son? I was wondering where you fellows dashed off to.”

“Oh hi, it’s my friend! I’m doing well, thank you!” chortled Ishcandar and brought himself up on a stool. Hobbits, if you don’t happen to know, are quite short, and so for Ishcandar, bringing himself up on a stool was a matter of climbing up one side and seating himself with legs dangling over the edge.

“Well, I don’t believe I caught your name last time, son,” said the grizzly bartender.

“Oh, why sure, of course. My name is Ishcandar, and this is my friend Bernie,” he said with his usual gregariousness.

“Well nice to meet you, then. My name is John,” said the man with a grin.

“Great. Nice to see you John. Now me and Bernie here would like a drink. We’ll take two pints of the best ale you have in the house, my good man!”

“Well, now, really? Why that’s a tall order then. Are you sure? It’s rather a pretty price, I should warn you,” said John jovially.

“I’m quite sure, quite sure!”

And so Bernie and Ishcandar enjoyed one of the best ales they’d ever had, and were enjoying themselves tremendously. “Golden Emperor Ale! I’ve been around the block a few times, but I’ve never seen this before! You sure have a fine selection, John!” said Ishcandar merrily.

At that time Hermel and Lido had made their way cautiously to the bar, looking around carefully to see who all was there as they went. The bar had a number of patrons, most notably at the same table as before were the two men they’d encountered the first time. One was tall and brawny with a vacuous look, while the other was short and thin with a blond beard and moustache whom the two young adventurers studiously avoided making eye contact with. They caught John’s attention at the bar, and the bearish man moved over to serve them.

“We would have words with you, sir,” said Lido, trying his best to sound as though he were speaking in some sort of official capacity.

“Words?” asked John, puzzled.

“Well, yes… words. Private words, if you get my meaning, sir,” said Lido with a hint of impatience in his voice.

“I see. Well, why don’t you boys step into my office then,” replied John, and ushered them to a room beyond the bar.

“You look like you’re quite knowledgeable about things that go on in these parts,” said Lido inquisitively after they had settled into the other room.   He  paced a little bit nervously as he spoke.  Hermel stood impassively to the side and stared at John intensely.

“You don’t say,” said John.

“I represent the distinguished and generous Hobbit sitting at the bar. He’s of good family, but perhaps not of the best brained stock, shall we say,” said Lido. “His family is looking for a certain boon in their business, but we prefer to keep it vague as to what exactly that is. We have reason to believe that a group of children by the name of … Hagglesmith … may have some information of importance to us. My associate here, and my generous friend outside, are looking for these, uh, Hagglesmiths, and we were wondering if you knew anything of their whereabouts?”

“Well, I don’t mean to disappoint you, son, but what makes you think I know anything about any Hagglesmiths. I have a lot of people pass through my bar.”

“How about under it?” asked Hermel with a certain edge to his voice.

John gave him a sudden serious glare and there was an awkward pause.

“Are you trying to cause trouble in here, boy?” asked John gravely. Well, things took a turn south at that point. The boys tried a direct approach, and in their attempt to confront the bartender they gained little information, and only served to get themselves kicked out of the bar. John was a grizzly old salt, and one young man and a boy Hobbit found themselves unable to persuade him to talk about anything he didn’t feel like talking about. And so they found themselves outside the Five Crows Tavern again, with no more information than they had when they entered.

“It seems the winds have changed course,” commented Ishcandar as they stepped outside. “What happened?”

“He definitely reacted when we asked him about what is going on under the bar”, said Lido.

Hermel then tried to persuade Bernie to join forces with them to find the Hagglesmiths.

“I’d rather you watch with us, rather than watch over us from afar, frankly,” said Hermel to Bernie. “But before I offer you anything, I want to know what you know, and why you’ve been watching us.”

“Ok, ok, I’m not watching you. I’m watching over Jeremy, see? He’s a member of the Rat’s Den Gang, and our boss, Hagen sent me out to watch over him, and since he’s with you…”

“I see. So are the Hagglesmiths part of your gang, too?”

“No, not yet, anyway. Jeremy brought them in a couple of days ago since they had no place to stay, and they’d gotten him out of a scrape in town one night. They went on a mission for Hagen, and did quite well. I thought they were a shoe-in, but then they got some mission or other from that damn Guild Hall, and took Jeremy with them. Don’t ask me why he went with them, but he did. Anyway, a few hours later Jeremy came running back in telling Hagen about how the Hagglesmiths got themselves captured or some such nonsense and Hagen shrugged it off. They got themselves into trouble, and ol Hagen didn’t feel obliged to get them back out of it, and I don't blame him none, either. Anyway, that’s when Jeremy went running off in a fit, and Hagen sent me to watch over him and make sure he didn’t get himself into too much trouble, see?”

“Oh. Well, then. I think we can work together after all,” replied Hermel. And so it was that they decided the best thing to do at that point was to head back to the Rat’s Den and get some advice from ol Hagen himself.

Down the Rat Hole

The Rat’s Den wasn’t all that far, and they wound their way through the Old Quarter to get there by about noon or so. There above the tunnel leading down the long flight of stairs to the Rat’s Den was a red sign with black lettering. It read “The Rat’s Den Pub”, though none of the boys could actually read it since none of them had been educated for reading or writing. The closest was Lido, who at least had gotten training on rudimentary map making. The Adventurer’s Guild is a practical organization, training members for what is most needed, and not necessarily for what is most illuminating, and so members wind up with sets of pragmatic skills, if not comprehensive, generally speaking.  A formal education in Hobbington is a rare and precious thing, as it happens.

Down the flight they went, and it was a long way down indeed. Finally at the bottom Bernie knocked three times at the solid wooden door with the iron bands and bolts, and a slat opened.

“Password?” came a gravelly voice from the other side.

“It’s me,” said Bernie, and the door unbolted and opened into the main area of the bar, dimly lit with lamps, and a fire in a corner.  At the far end of the bar was a long blackwood counter with a bartender cleaning glasses, while fluttering around through the customers with a tray of beers and food was a young waitress delivering fare and taking money.

“Oh there you are,” said Hagen when he saw Bernie walk in. He eyed Jeremy disapprovingly. “Where the hell have you been?”

“Oh out and about. No troubles, so don’t worry yourself to death,’ replied Bernie coolly.

“It’ll be a cold day in hell before I worry myself to death over the likes of you,” said Hagen with a grim smile, which Bernie returned in kind. “And whose these you got with you, then?” he asked nodding toward the new comers.

Everyone was introduced, and the situation was laid out on the table nice and plain. Hagen listened intently to everything the new comers had to say. He scratched his head, tugged his beard, and thrummed his fingers on the worn black wood of the bar. Finally, he decided to help them out after all, partially because poor Jeremy had the worst lost-puppy look ever in the whole wide world (of Hagen’s bar, anyway), but mostly because of their determination to help rescue the Hagglesmiths after Hagen warned them that the folks who captured them, in all likelihood were rough men, and not going to be easily fooled, or overcome.

“Well, I’m determined to go and rescue them, whether it’s dangerous or not,” had replied Lido bravely, and that had turned the tide with Hagen.

And so, to show that he was a stand up guy he opened his storeroom to the young adventurers and let them take their pick of ropes, torches, iron spikes, and the like, and they bundled the items up into knapsacks with great cheer and enthusiasm. He even tossed in, at their request, a couple of special items, such as a barrel of sticky oil.  He also advised them that they ought not to delay, but get about the business of rescuing the Hagglesmiths right away, and not wait until the next morning as they had been discussing amongst themselves. Otherwise, he warned, who knows what might become of those poor kids.

Hagen then set about helping them to shore up their plan. As it turned out Bernie was familiar with the sewer system near Dunn’s Bridge, and said that he knew of a tunnel in which he had once found a secret passage that lead into the chambers beneath Dunn’s Brook. They decided at once to head there and invade the premises via the secret passage in the hopes that they might locate the Hagglesmiths.

To The Hidden Chambers

Off to Dunn’s Bridge they went, taking side alleys, old footpaths, and hidden passageways between the tall old brick buildings. Eventually they came to the head of an alley that overlooked the spot where Ishcandar was pulled out of the Dunn’s Brook which is where they first encountered Bernie. As it happened, right at that spot was a drain cover made of wrought iron. They looked left, they looked right. No one was to be seen, and so he used a crowbar and hefted the cover to the side. They then climbed down a long ladder into a dark tunnel that paralleled the canal. The tunnel was not very wide, but it was very long, and dark, and there was a stream of water tricking down the center of the floor. It smelled awful. Hermel and Jeremy lit torches and by the flickering light they marched roughly twenty feet along the tunnel until they came to a section of wall between two posts that formed an archway. Just beyond that spot Bernie stopped. He felt along the wall, fiddled with something, and suddenly there was a loud click. A door slid ajar slightly. Bernie used his crowbar to open it enough to get his fingers through, and then with a little huff he slid the door aside. Inside was darkness. Everyone waited and listened intently. No sounds.

Bernie then pulled out a pocket from his vest and up popped a furry little head. It was a rat. A rat with black fur, and a white spot around it’s right eye.

“Wow,” said Lido.

The rat climbed up onto Bernie’s arm, and Bernie whispered something to him.  And then jumped down and vanished into the dark opening before them.

“Yup. He’s my pal,” said Bernie proudly. “Best thing about him is that he can smell out the Hagglesmiths. He met them, too, when they came down into the Rat’s Den. So he has their scent,” he explained.

“Really,” said Hermel, remembering the rat from earlier and now being somewhat relieved that neither he nor Lido actually managed to kill the thing. After a short time it came back, and Bernie took him up into his vest pocket again. “Nothing there,” he said.

And so they took a torch and pushed it into the opening. Inside they saw a large square room, with furnishings. Very fancy furnishings. And a fine woven carpet on the floor. A beautiful inlaid desk, a cabinet with a glass door and bottles inside. And two floor to ceiling bookshelves, filled with books. The walls were made of stone, but covered over by tapestries of animals dancing through forests. Protruding from the walls were several glass lamps with bronze bases.  There were two doors in the room. One was a beautiful double wooden door, with a fine bronze handles and a skeleton key lock. The other was a huge solid iron door with a heavy iron bolt with two handles. Overall the room was very elegant, and seemed to be a study. But everyone stared at the iron door.

“um… this is a nice room,” said Lido, “but I have to say, I sure do wonder what is behind that door.”

“Or rather… what is that door keeping at bay?’ said Hermel rhetorically.

They entered the room and began to search it. They tried the wooden doors but they were locked. They looked in the cabinet and found that the bottles, to Ishcandar’s delight, were filled with various fine liquors. Ishcandar tried searching the desk, and found that one of the drawers was locked. He attempted to open it with his lock picking tools, but the lock proved a little too tricky for him. So, not wishing to waste much time on niceties, he took out his small crowbar and broke the lock, prying the drawer open. Inside was an envelope which was sealed with an insignia in red wax. He broke the seal and found inside what appeared to be a letter in fine calligraphy. Ishcandar however was not yet trained to read, even though he was a wealthy boy from the High Ridge area of Hobbington. So he took the letter and shoved it into his shirt.

Meanwhile Hermel was forming a plan of action. He took several bottles of brandy from the cabinet and had Bernie move the desk in front of the wooden double doors. He balanced the brandy bottles on the edge of the desk so that should anyone force their way in, the brandy would fall.   Around the desk he emptied another bottle of brandy onto the carpet explaining that they might need to ignite a quick fire in the room in case of emergency.  Ishcandar was aghast at the horrid waste of excellent liquor, and took a big nip from one of the remaining brandy bottles, least that too might go to waste somehow.

While he was doing this, Lido was checking the brass lanterns. He turned a small knob, and as he somewhat expected, a hissing noise came from the top of a small metal wick. He shut the valve, commenting that the lanterns were piped with gas, but they decided to leave the lamps off just the same.  They had seen piped gas lanterns in some establishments around Hobbington before, but they were rare.  No one knew how they were created, though, as the town itself was much older than it's present occupants.  In any case, they felt it was safer to leave them alone for the time being.

“What now?” asked Bernie looking around with a bit of consternation.  He did not appear to approve of the rifling and vandalism, though one might have supposed that strange, given Bernie's attitude about things generally.

“We try the metal door,” said Hermel, and without much ado, they slid the bolt open. It was a remarkably well crafted door and the bolt slid along the metal slot. When they pulled the door, it moved very easily, despite its enormous weight, without any sound at all, except for a slight hiss when the door’s rubber seal was opened.  Ishcandar noticed a slight aroma of chemicals wafted into the room.

“Bernie, you stay here and guard the rear. If anyone comes shout down and we’ll come up,” said Hermel, as the others stared into the darkness ahead. Hermel brought a torch up and they saw a flight of stairs going down.

“I wonder, really wonder, why this door is so… solid. What are they keeping in down there?” asked Lido. But no one answered.

They took a step onto the stairs. The corridor down was made of smooth gray stone, and the steps were made of single slabs of the same. The air was cold. And they noticed a strange chemical odor.

“Jeremy, you stay here and make sure that the door doesn’t close on us. If anything happens, shout,” said Hermel. And they then proceeded to slowly creep down the stairs toward a landing at the bottom of which was another metal door exactly like the one upstairs, and bolted shut in the same fashion.

“Two strong iron doors?” asked Lido, more to himself than anyone else. There was no answer. They slid the bolt, and opened the door. There was a strong chemical smell as the door hissed open. Again they faced darkness. Hermel pushed his torch into the opening, and they saw a large square room filled with shelves on which were many glass jars filled with different colored liquids. There was a table in the center of the room with a cloth draped over a large lump. They slowly entered the room, and went to the table. Hermel pulled the cloth away, and beneath they found the body of a boy. His face was bloated, and there were circular blue welts on his arms and chest. They quickly looked away and covered him again.

 Lido and Ishcandar went to examine the shelves. They found that some of the jars had strange blobs in them. Several had clumps of hair, or teeth, or a tentacle, or all three. But none of them resembled anything like an animal. They were only lumps of flesh, with … features.

On the far side of the room was a wooden door. They went to it and found that it was unlocked. Opening it they peered again into darkness. This time they found a corridor going to the right and the left into darkness. On the ceiling Ishcandar noticed that there was a circular grate, like a drain pipe, made of metal.

“A drain pipe on the ceiling? That’s odd, … isn’t it?” he asked, but no one answered.

They decided to go right and see what else was there in the hopes that they would come upon the Hagglesmiths soon. Creeping quietly down the hall they came upon a heavy wooden door with iron bands, and a lock. Ishcandar took his lock picking kit out, and after a few moments they heard a click. The door swung open, and on the other side they found a cave. The floor was rough and had pools of water, and the walls were covered with gray lichen and patches of slimy moss. There was the sound of burbling water echoing from an open corridor that led out of the cave on the other side of the rough hewn room.

They walked in, thinking to explore further, when Hermel stopped. On the ground was a green toad with yellow spots and red eyes, about the size of a man’s fist sitting on a dry patch of ground. Suddenly it leaped up and smacked Hermel on his right arm with a slimy splat, dropped to the ground, and began hopping away. Ishcandar quickly flung his knife at it, and pinned the thing to the ground so that it croaked and died.

Hermel began to feel woosy, and a circular blue welt began to form on his arm. He suddenly felt a chill, and shivered and his arm grew numb. Ishcandar noted that Hermel began to break out in a sweat, and everyone became quite concerned, darting eyes all over the chamber looking for any other toads.

“I think we had better go back,” said Hermel swatting at a fly with his good arm.  Behind them, in the darkness, Ishcandar could hear the sounds of croaking toads as the Adventurers retreated from the cave chamber. And so they began to make their way back the way they came, having discovered quite a few mysteries, but not a hint regarding the whereabouts of the Hagglesmiths.

Previous Episode: The Ghost Fish of Dunn's Brook
Next Episode: The Hagglesmith Rescue - Part II

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