Monday, September 03, 2012

Interlude: The Little Brass Box

It was just after dark in the snow-shrouded wilderness east of the Dragon Bridge. The adventurers had successfully departed the Prancing Unicorn Vale without incident by evading the Bridge Guards. The wind howled through the trees, and moaned among the crags of the cliffs high above them, as the party made their way slowly to the road through the snow.

Once on the road Lanna and her husband Ben decided to return to the Gray Serpent Cave in the hopes of discovering the whereabouts of their friends, and after considerable back and forth negotiations, left Praymar to continue to journey with the AAA Group, since it was what he wished to do. That the members of the AAA Group seemed rather reluctant to have him tag along did not seem to make any impression on the young albino. Hermel in particular tried to dissuade him, but even after trying an illusionary shuffle-the-dragon-stone trick, failed to do so. Praymar was immune to trickery. And so it was that they said their farewells to Ben and Lanna, and began to make their way southward along the road toward Hobbington.

They had traveled less than a mile when Praymar, whose night vision was superior to the others, noticed the reflection of firelight on the pine trees below the cliff to the east. Hermel wished to avoid any unnecessary entanglements, and so they quietly stole into the woods to the west and made their way southward, skirting the foot of the shale hills trough the forest. The moon poked through the clouds and a wolf howled in the distance. Everyone was tired and hungry, but there was not much choice except to keep trudging along until they made Hobbington.

After a suitable distance they decided to head east back to the road. Again Praymar's night vision gave him an advanced alert; he spotted a wolf moving silently across the road in the darkness. They waited. He spotted a second wolf heading across the road to the east. Suddenly they heard a cry. A man shouted, and then there was a scream, perhaps a woman that time. Then they heard another shout and the sounds of fighting.

The party, with Hermel in the lead, against his better judgment, again, ran to the place where the battle was raging. By the time they arrived numerous men lay in pools of blood outside an elegant purple tent with golden fringe. There were two braziers outside the tent illuminating the scene in the flickering firelight. Among the dead they found Senior Borge’s four lawyerly assistants, and two guardsmen who looked like the same thugs they had encountered earlier at the Prancing Unicorn Inn; rough men with grizzled beards, now splattered in their own blood.

Hermel, having heard a sound within, stepped into the tent. There he found, to his surprise, the pretty young lady with the black cloak they had met earlier that day at the bridge, holding a long dagger to the throat of Senior Borge, who was prostrate in front of her. Her left hand gripped his hair as she stood behind him with a nasty glare in her eyes.

“Well, well, well," said Hermel as he gazed with raised eyebrows at the girl. "What’s going on?” he asked as some of the adventurers stepped inside while the remainder kept a look out for the wolves.

“He tried to take advantage of me,” said the young woman sternly. She seemed ready to slit the Senior Borge's wide bulging throat every time he tried to speak, causing a thin trickle of red blood to drip down into his white silk shirt. As the AAA Group had taken the pretty young lady's side of the story immediately, the corpulent and sweating Senior Borge, who it should be said was having a pretty bad day, was in no position to escape her clutches, or speak in his own defense.

Meanwhile, Praymar, who had been peeping at the young woman while investigating the tent, had found a little brass box on a small three legged table, which he thought looked like it might contain something of value. He inspected it for traps. He found none. He picked it up and his finger was immediately pricked with a silver needle.

“It is the poison of the black lotus, you little fool,” said Senior Borge, evidently quite smugly satisfied before being silenced by a press of the dagger. Hermel and the others knew what that meant. Soon the hideously wicked poison would go to poor Praymar’s bizarre brain and make it even more bizarre, and then he would die horribly. Without scruple Hermel negotiated with Senior Borge for the antidote, in exchange for which they would convince the young lady to spare his life. She was not especially thrilled by this suggestion, but eventually complied with their wishes, though why exactly was not quite clear. After all, she had nothing to gain by letting the fat swine live. Yet, oddly enough, for Praymar's sake, she agreed. Meanwhile, since the poison was slow acting, Praymar opened the brass box and found inside twenty silver pieces, which he put in his pocket with no shortage of glee.

“I wonder why he would protect a mere twenty silver with such a rare and hideous poison,” the young lady questioned, mostly to herself. Hermel had wondered the same thing, and intended to obtain possession of the box, thinking there was more to it than met the eye. At the time, however, everyone was focused on healing Praymar, which even with the antidote took considerable effort, and much prayer.

The wolves outside began to howl again, and the group thought it prudent to have some stand ready at the door in case they should return. Bantum and Star of Justice were stationed outside to keep an eye on the forest. The three braziers were still blazing with firelight, and around them the fallen still lay prostrate on the ground. Only one of the thugs was still alive, gasping for air, gurgling in his own blood. His throat had been slashed by the fangs of a wolf, and it did not seem he would have long to live.

Hermel, always ready to lend a healing hand to the underdog, called upon Minvar’s wondrous power to heal the villain. It did little good. Minvar is not inclined to do much for those who do not have any intention of using their precious lives to pursue goodness. Loyal to his intentions, however, Hermel tried again, and again Minvar barely heeded the call. The thug, not impressed with the efforts to save his miserable life, had no thanks for Minvar, nor for Hermel, and lay on the ground expecting to go to hell where he belonged. Hermel was not pleased. Star of Justice was called over to perform a medical surgery on the villain. It did more good than the miracles preceding it, but the fellow nevertheless seemed more intent on joining his fallen comrades in the blazing torments of hell than remaining among the living. It is difficult to heal such people, frankly, regardless of what one does. So the man lay in the blood drenched snow, gurgling and writhing in agony.

Inside the tent, the young lady in the black cape, having released Senior Borge from her fierce little grip, was examining the brass box. She began to sing a nursery rhyme of sorts. There was a bewitching quality of her voice, but she was ever so pretty, and none complained. So she sang another little rhyme, and put the box down on the table.

Star of Justice finally felt he had the time to search through his bag and find the object that the dying miner had given him back at the Prancing Unicorn Inn.

"He said, to give this to 'Ahhhhaaahhhhhaaahhh...', and then the poor fellow died. It's strange. Who in the world could 'Ahhhhaaahhhhhaaahhh...' be?" he wondered out loud as he opened the small but heavy leather kerchief.

"What's that?" asked Hermel looking over Star's shoulder.

"A dying miner back at the inn handed it to me, asking me to give it to ... 'Ahhhhaaahhhhhaaahhh...', but I never discovered who 'Ahhhhaaahhhhhaaahhh...' is," he replied, a bit bewildered. Inside the kerchief they found something even more puzzling. It was a lump of rough ore where one side seemed to be a dull redish looking metal, perhaps.

"Hmmm... well... that's odd. I wonder if 'Ahhhhaaahhhhhaaahhh...' lives in Hobbington?"

"Perhaps, perhaps," replied Star as he turned to lump of ore over a few times.

"Funny, though, that our group is named the 'AAA Group'," Hermel continued. "And if I recall correctly, didn't Rothmon say that he used to think the name of our group was pronounced 'Ahhhhaaahhhhhaaahhh...'?"

"Why that's true!" said Star, putting two plus two together. "Perhaps he intended to give it to us after all. But how would he have known to pronounce our group's name that way ... unless he were ... somehow connected to ... Rothmon...?"

"Perhaps you best put that away until we can meet with Rothmon again in Hobbington. Who knows what mystery this lump of ore may uncover," suggested Hermel.

"Well, it could just be coincidence, of course, but still, I suppose you're right. So now I have two strange artifacts from the mine. And I haven't a clue as to what either one of them is," said Star quietly putting the lump of ore in the kerchief and placing it back in his satchel. What he didn't know was that Arik, who happen to be outside standing guard, would have found that particular lump of ore quite fascinating indeed! But such is life. Often times major clues pass right under our noses, and we're never the wiser for it.

"One thing, though," added Star as he threw the satchel over his shoulder, "I do feel something strange inside this tent. Something... but I can't place it. Ever since I walked in, I've had this troublesome feeling that we're standing in a bad spot here somehow," he concluded.

"It could be," said Hermel looking around with a raise eyebrow.

It was then that the wolves returned. There was a howl in the wind, and then a commotion outside the tent as the band of wolves swept into the campsite, leaping from the shadows. But the assault was brief, and no one was injured. Only one of the dead lawyers had been dragged off into the dark forest, undoubtedly to be devoured by the slathering beasts. They waited for a while, but the wolves, having apparently achieved their aim, vanished into the distance, a single howl yet being heard far to the north. And then silence.

And so the party decided to leave that place and let the dead look after themselves. The thug, having failed to enter hell, moped as he hobbled back toward the bridge where his comrades among the living were stationed. The young lady in the black cape had decided to make her own way home, not liking much the company of Hermel and his companions after all. They had not been entirely nice to her while she had held Senior Borge by the throat, and prohibited her from slicing the blubbering, fat slob of a lawyer open. She was a tough little thing, and hoofed it off through the snow northward by herself to her family farm which she said was terribly far from there. Praymar was the only one who felt a pang of disappointment as she strode away. He had hoped to peep at her some more, but it was not meant to be, and so he resigned himself to visiting her at her farm one day in the future, if fate and destiny would allow it. It wasn't until then that Star noticed that the strange feeling he had about that place had dissipated. He looked around the tent carefully but nothing appeared to have changed. It was strange, he thought. Strange indeed.

When all was said and done, Hermel went to the box in the tent, and very gingerly picked it up. But to his surprise and amazement as soon as he touched it the box vanished in thin air. It was, he realized, just the very sort of mirage that he himself was skilled at making. Then he slapped his forehead in annoyance.

“I should have known! Why that little hussy! While she was singing those rhymes she enchanted us all! Oh how it irks me to have been tricked by her!” He was so annoyed in fact, that he contemplated following after her, but in the end decided that whatever was in the box was not quite so important as continuing on their quest to rescue his sister from Black Patch and the Bandits who had invaded Yellow Clay Village.

And so they departed the tent, and headed south on the road. Just before dawn they passed the stone circle that they had camped at the first night of their adventure into the provinces. By the time the sun rose above the hills they had made it to the bottom of the Long Stair that lead up to Hobbington. And there they stood, contemplating what they intended to do. Hermel, who had developed a master plan of sorts that would, he hoped, rescue his sister and the other villagers from Black Patch’s Bandits without causing unnecessary casualties, felt for the precious dragon stone in his pocket that was the lynch pin of his plan. It was cool to the touch and hard. He traced the dragon design with his thumb. Yes, it would be worth a great deal to the right sort of person, he thought, and the money he got for it would go a long way toward enabling him to perform the rescue. And he believed he knew who just such a person would be. None other than Ishcandar's father. With a certain amount of relish he looked up the long flight of stone stairs that traced a thin path next to the waterfalls up the mountainside to the upper Gate of Hobbington. The only thing troubling him was how to avoid the sinister Five Animals Society along the way through the town while he carried out his business. For this he had not yet developed what anyone considered a perfectly suitably foolproof plan.

And so there they stood at the base of the Long Stair. Arik was eager to get to where he might enjoy some ale and vittles. Star of Justice was eager to visit the Twelve Harmonies Pagoda and tell his masters the urgent news of the recent discoveries from the salt mine beneath the Prancing Unicorn Vale. Praymar, who was always eager to see new things and be on any sort of adventure grinned broadly as he stood next to Bantum who also stood grinning with his bandoleer of chickens all clucking happily to finally be back home where they came from. Dr. Chickenhiemer sat on Bantam’s head thinking… “I wonder whatever became of those sinister fellows, Ibis and Korfu…”

Previous Episode: Return of the Hapless Hobbits - Part II
Next Episode: A Little Business in Hobbington

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