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Familiar Territory (Part 2)

A Tale of Laernon by Suzanne Campbell, copyright 2000

Chapter 1 - Back on the trail

Raven belched softly, and unconsciously wiped her greasy fingers on her pant legs, earning a glare of green-eyed disapproval from her friend Rel. The light from the celebratory bonfire played over their features, but threw the remains of their supper - roasted chicken and root vegetables into a shadowy jumble at their feet.

"Raven, did you really have to gnaw on those bones like that?" asked Rel, still frowning. "And do something, please, about the grease on your chin. No! Not with … that," Rel finished, too late, for Raven had already wiped it off with her sleeve. The beautiful and well-groomed elf sighed and shook her head at her friend's slovenly manner, then took another drink from her battered mug. Not speaking the local language, Mountain Tongue, she had quickly become bored during their stay in the village and had begun to sample their local spirits for something to do.

Raven was unconcerned with her friend's apparent dismay over her table manners. She was enjoying the warmth of the fire, sitting under the stars, and the music and dancing that were a part of the celebration. She had grown up in a village very much like this one, and while she would never admit it, Raven had missed the comforting feel of being part, albeit at the fringes, of a close-knit community. Her foot tapped to the music and a smile rounded her lips, softening for a moment from her usual feral grin. She was not beautiful, especially not when sitting beside the tall and elegant elf, but in the flickering firelight she had a certain wild appeal. The curls of her hair framed her face and cascaded down her back; a blue-black shadow playing hide and seek with the warm light. Her gray eyes shone golden with reflected light, and Rel was suddenly taken with the notion that here before her was a creature of the wild; curious about the fire but ready at any moment to return to the shadows with only moonlight to offer guidance. "I think I've had too much to drink," Rel said to herself.

Rel took her eyes off her friend and the flames to seek out the other members of her adventuring group. There, across the clearing, on the other side of the bonfire, was Amman. The light from the fire picked up the gold in his tousled blonde hair, and his blue eyes seemed even more vibrant than usual. He was talking animatedly with one of the villagers, and even from this distance Raven could tell he was pouring on the charm.

As usual, Cahli stood close at hand to Amman. Taller than the nomad, she calmly surveyed the clearing, ever alert to danger or the unusual. Her elven features showed none of Amman's vivaciousness, but her honey-blonde hair picked up the same golden glints from the fire as did her friend's, and her eyes were almost the same shade of blue. She smiled as her eyes met Rel's across the flames, then resumed her self-imposed watch.

Rel frowned once again as she spotted the girl from the necromancer's lair seated on a boulder not far away from Amman and Cahli. Rebecca, she had heard her name was. The girl had been led to the fire by her aunt, who sat beside her now, holding and stroking her limp and bandaged hand. She stared blankly into the fire, and seemed unaware of others around her. In the couple of days they had been in this remote mountain village, Rebecca had not improved from her catatonic state. The horror she had endured in that foul, evil place had shocked her deeply to her soul, and it would take much time and loving care to heal the mental wounds. They had been very lucky in that the girl had been recognized here, the first village the troll guide had taken them to after leaving that foul place. Her uncle and aunt had come forward to claim her, and had said that they had received word from her parents from another village that she had been missing for several months. They seemed like kindly folk, so the companions felt safe in leaving her to their care.

Several of the villagers had not been so lucky to have a loved-one returned to them that day. They were parents of some of the missing children, and the first night after they had brought word of the cairn had been a difficult one. There had been the usual suspicion of outsiders, not withstanding Rebecca's return, that had not been eased till hunters had returned from the location confirming that there was indeed a cairn located beside the sunken ruin of what once was a building. The troll guide was very helpful, verifying that Amman was a priest of Longstrider and that the tale he told was true. Luckily the villagers had met several guides from his organization before.

Amman had been made to stand before the council of elders and, in truth, the whole village, to tell the tale of what had happened. He spoke clearly and eloquently about the horror they had uncovered while traveling through the mountains, and that the villagers no longer had to fear for their children's safety as the obscene necromancer and his zombie minions had been justly destroyed, and his evil lair obliterated. There was silence when he had finished, broken only by the sobs of grieving parents, and there was no longer any doubt about the veracity of the story.

The mood in the village that night was understandably somber. The companions were invited to stay the night and had been given shelter in the meeting lodge, and some food. Scouts had been sent round to surrounding villages to pass on word of the fate of the missing children. First thing in the morning, a crew was sent with a wagon to recover the tiny corpses buried safely under the cairn. No one spoke much to the strangers until the wagon returned early afternoon with its pathetic cargo. At that time, a few of the council members formally asked them to tarry just a few days longer. Out of courtesy to the strangers, the village shaman requested that Amman say a few words of blessing at the burial service, even though Longstrider was not a religion they were familiar with. The service would be held later this evening. The next day they would be preparing a feast celebrating the destruction of the unknown menace which had haunted the area for years, and they would be honored if the companions would partake of it. Ever diplomatic, Amman agreed on behalf of the group.

Later, when Rel questioned the wisdom of staying any longer in this dreary mountain village, Amman reassured her that he had his reasons. While being questioned earlier by the elders about their purposes in travelling through the area, he had briefly mentioned they were on a quest to find the mysterious little dragons that were said to inhabit these mountains. Amman got the distinct impression these people knew something about the subject, although they had not yet said anything directly. He intended to put all the good will generated by bringing down the necromancer to use and squeeze every last drop of knowledge he could out of the villagers. His blue eyes gleamed with pleasure at the thought of exercising his verbal skills. In fact, he planned on performing a dramatic retelling of their adventure at the feast later. Rel and Raven secretly thought it amusing that Amman jumped at any chance to tell a tale; they thought he needed more practice, to be sure, but occasionally his loquaciousness had proven useful. They hoped this would be one of those times, again.

Rel's musings were rudely interrupted by a sharp jab in the ribs. "Wake up, Rel" Raven said in a voice tinged with laughter. "That's the third time I've called you; good thing we're not in a fight or you'd be dead!" The Werewolf mimed plunging a dagger into her own back, then sprawled in a heap on the dusty ground, tongue sticking out of one corner of her mouth for good effect, which was spoiled when she opened one eye to peek at Rel. Rel was not smiling. " Alright, alright! Some people around here have no sense of humor …" She agilely sprang to her feet, and gave a cursory dusting of her clothes. "Amman's been trying to get our attention for about a minute now, he looks excited about something. Come on …"

The pair headed over to Amman and Cahli on the other side of the fire. Amman saw them coming, and beckoned them to hurry up. He wasted no time and introduced them right away to an elderly woman. She was one of the council members, they believed. They bowed respectfully then looked at Amman, who looked as if he were about to burst. "Elder Sunee has some knowledge of the little dragons she has agreed to share with us ..."

Interests piqued, Raven, Amman and Cahli listened attentively as the villager spoke. "I know of the creatures you seek, the dragonettes. In my years in the mountains I have seen a few. They can be found in several areas south and southwest of here. You'd have to speak with one of the hunters to get a better idea of the exact area." Rel attempted to hide her frustration at not understanding a word the old woman spoke in the Mountain Tongue; she had to wait for Raven's whispered translation as the elder paused in her speech.

"What kind of dragonette do you seek?" At the blank look on everyone's faces, Elder Sunee sighed with disappointment and continued. "There are several different breeds of dragonettes. They tend to travel in family groups of two or more, and occasionally they will travel with others of a different breed. Let's see…" The old woman counted off on her fingers, "There are Reds, Blues, Golds, Silvers, Whites and Blacks. They are said to be a somewhat intelligent creature, and have some limited magic of their own; a few spells and minor breath weapons." At this, the friends glanced excitedly around at each other; it seemed as if the dragonettes would make perfect familiars. Elder Sunee continued in her lesson, "The Reds can breathe out elemental fire and Blues breathe elemental water. The Golds breathe magic and the Silvers breathe anti-magic. The Whites breathe elemental ice and the Blacks don't have any breath weapon at all. They are, however, the most dangerous of all the dragonettes, in my opinion. They are very intelligent, more so than the rest of their kind. They can cast more spells, many of which manipulate magic. It's best to steer as far away from the Blacks as you can."

In Raven's opinion, the news kept getting better and better. She wanted one of the Blacks; nothing else would do but that she have one. It would make a magnificent familiar! At Rel's impatient nudge, she quickly translated for her. Her friends all had equally excited looks on their faces now. It had to be luck, or some twist of fate, which led them to this particular village. They were back on the trail!

Seeing their faces, the council member spoke words of caution, "Do not think it is an easy matter to capture these creatures, should one wish to. First you have to get there, and the mountains have dangers of their own, as I'm sure you know. It can take a long time to spot a family as they are quite elusive. Then you have to capture them without killing them. Next, in order to bind them as familiars, as I assume you wish to do, there is a ritual you must complete after you have finished the Familiar spell. I would strongly advise you to abandon this idea and go home. I advised the same to the other two groups who came through here looking for them. Too bad they will never have the chance to return home again."

"Why, what happened?" queried Amman.

The elder shook her head, then replied, "As to that, you'll have to ask the hunters, and perhaps our shaman if he will consent to it. I will not speak of it any further. I have given you my advice, and it is now yours to do with as you will." Slowly, with the dignity afforded her by her rank in the council, Elder Sunee rose to her feet from the large rock she had been using as a seat. The companions hastily sprang to their feet as well in a show of respect.

"Good evening. May the good spirits watch over you and give you the success you deserve," Sunee said and then moved away past the firelight and into the shadows further into the village.

As soon as Rel believed her out of earshot, she blurted, "Why wouldn't she tell us what happened to those other people?"

Amman had a thoughtful look in his eyes, and he absentmindedly stroked his chin as he spoke, "I don't know. I'm very curious to hear more about this ritual she mentioned. Why would a ritual be needed after the familiar spell has been cast? Perhaps it has something to do with them being semi-intelligent creatures …" he hazarded, answering his own question. "Also, if these people can perform this ritual, why haven't we seen anyone around here with a dragonette familiar? Seems odd …"

"Yeah, whatever …" interjected Raven. "Maybe they know the ritual but don't have the actual familiar spell. Whatever the reason, I'm not about to let that stop me from getting one for myself. Those black dragonettes sound amazing! I just knew my idea would turn out to be great … Can't you just imagine me with one sitting on my shoulder …" Raven prattled on, entranced with the whole idea. She was oblivious to the others as they rolled their eyes at her ego-inflated reverie.

Amman thought it would be a good idea to find the shaman. "I would wager that he's the one who could tell us about this ritual," he said. They searched for him among the revelers around the bonfire, but he wasn't there. They did find a few of the hunters, however, amiably sharing a bottle of blackberry cordial. Amman, exercising his charm and offering his own bottle of spirits kept handy for just such purposes, managed to engage them in conversation.

Two of the hunters did recall previous expeditions passing through the village that were headed for the mountains. They were looking for the same dragonettes. One of the groups, made up of only three men, picked up some trail rations and departed soon thereafter. The hunters said they found their party, or rather the remains of their party, at the bottom of a cliff. It was assumed they had had an encounter with something that resented their intrusion into their territory …

The other group that had come through the village was larger, perhaps almost a dozen. They were well equipped and supplied, and had brought their own guide from Smashtown. They were arrogant and overconfident, and did not bother to talk to the locals about anything other than additional food supplies. Two of their party stumbled back to the village a few weeks later, wounded and frightened. Apparently, they had found and had attempted to capture a family of Reds. They had one Red knocked out, and were in the process of tying it up and stuffing it in a sack, when its mate attacked from behind and set one of the party afire. The third Red was darting about, delivering lightning-fast strikes with its claws, distracting the party from the real danger …a Black unexpectedly living amongst the Reds. It seemed to the weary survivors that it was the Black's intention to sow confusion as he mind controlled one of the expedition members into attacking his friends. Most of the expedition ended up killing each other, with help from the Black. The three survivors ran away, although one was killed in an attack by a bear during their retreat.

At this, one of the hunters, a particularly large and brawny fellow, grunted and said he would have made short work of that bear. The other hunters laughed, and introduced the companions to Hunts-Like-Bear. One spoke with sincere admiration, "While most of us hunters have the good sense to avoid some of the nastier inhabitants of these mountains, Hunts-Like-Bear here actually seeks them out! He's crazy, he is; has no fear. Been all over these mountains since he was old enough to carry his spear. He's probably seen just about every type of creature that lives on this part of The Wall." The big hunter only grinned at the kudos, and took another pull from the bottle, his biceps bulging as he raised the bottle to his lips. Both Raven and Rel looked on admiringly.

The more gregarious hunters finished their tale. The two survivors of the once-large expedition made it back to the village exhausted and weak from hunger and their wounds. They had some bronze coins with which they purchased a few days of rest in the travelers lodge. Then they bought some food supplies and went back whence they had come … Smashtown, or the plains beyond The Wall. The hunters couldn't restrain smirks. "Those flatlanders couldn't climb a pimple on their own saddle-sore behinds!" offered one. This comment elicited chuckles from all close enough to hear. Amman's brows narrowed to hear the nomads from the plains of Megsuria, his own countrymen, being the butt of their mountain humor. At his frown, the hunter who had come up with this jewel had the grace to mutter his apology.

"Perhaps," said Amman, "they should have invested in a local guide; one from this area. One who is familiar with the territory …" The two hunters looked interested enough that he continued. "Would you know of any hunters here who could be hired for just such an expedition?" They both volunteered their services, eager to make some coin from these strangers.

Raven stopped her whispered translation to Rel when Amman and the two hunters began preliminary negotiations. The two women wandered away a bit, not wanting to distract the priest. Raven noticed that Hunts-Like-Bear was listening intently to the haggling, even though he had not put his own name forward as a guide. During a break in the haggling in which Amman came over to tell his friends about the terms being discussed, Raven suggested he ask the brawny hunter if he would consider taking the job. Amman agreed that it was a good idea; this Hunts-Like-Bear fellow seemed to be respected in his comrades' eyes, and he certainly seemed competent enough with that spear he carried around with him.

Amman returned to the group of hunters, this time including Hunts-Like-Bear in the conversation. Rel and Raven grinned and nudged each other to see Amman turning his full charm on the big, impassive hunter. "Do you think Amman will be able to hire him for the same price as the others?" whispered Rel. Raven only continued to grin; she was excited at the prospect of finding the best guide to help them in their quest. As far as she was concerned, Hunts-Like-Bear seemed like the best. He certainly would be of more help than the others if they met one of the mountain nasties. Her grin slowly turned into a frown as she saw the hunter in question shake his head and cross his arms against his considerable chest. He did not have the look of one who had just struck a bargain. She saw Amman speak again, and heard his normally smooth, melodious voice change to a more wheedling tone. She couldn't believe her ears, it sounded as if Amman had resorted to whining! The large hunter gave one more definitive shake of his head, then turned on his heel and strode away. Amman excused himself from the other hunters, and came to join his friends.

"What happened?" asked Raven before Amman had a chance to speak. Rel was only now noticing that the big hunter was nowhere to be seen, and that Amman was coming over with a scowl on his face.

"He turned me down!" said Amman, with some heat.

"What did you say to him? Why did he go off like that?" drilled Raven mercilessly.

"I don't know! I don't know why he didn't go for it. I asked him if he would be interested in hiring on as our guide through the mountains. He didn't say 'no' so I kept on talking. I quoted what I thought were fair wages, explained what it was we wanted. I told him he would be a fool to pass this opportunity up, and that life here in the village must be boring; wouldn't he like to get out and be a part of our adventure? For some reason, he seemed to take exception to that … What?" questioned Amman, as the two women groaned.

"Amman! I can't believe you told him that. You insult him to his face then expect him to smile and nod?" said Raven with some asperity.

"Yes … I suppose it was a bit rude of me," acceded Amman reluctantly. "I even offered him more money, but he didn't seem to care." The nomad's skin flushed slightly, "I'm sorry I said the wrong thing. Longstrider knows I should have known better; I don't know what possessed me to phrase it like that. I was impatient. I should apologize but he probably wouldn't want to talk to me right now, and I don't want to make it worse by approaching him again. Did you want to try talking to him, Raven? You both being mountain folk, he might listen to you."

"Me? I couldn't … You know I'm no good with words, Amman. I say all the wrong things and make a fool of myself every time I try!"

Rel spoke up, "Raven, I think you should at least try. The worst he can say is 'No' again, right?"

* * *

"No," said Hunts-Like-Bear firmly, shaking his head to emphasize his refusal. "Thank you for the apology and the gift, but the answer is still 'No'". He set the small bottle of fine spirits - which Amman had dug out of his backpack for Raven to present as a conciliatory gesture - down on the tiny table in his hut. Seeing her stricken look, and her vain attempts to utter something vaguely intelligible, he shrugged and said, "Look, Raven, it's not that I'm angry at the nomad for looking down his nose at me and my village. I don't need the money. I don't need the 'adventure'. It's just that I'm not interested; I have better things to do than to hold your hands while you and your friends traipse around the mountains looking for these dragonettes, then have to bail out of trouble when you stumble into something mean."

"Wait just a damn minute, you wouldn't have to be holding my hand, Mr., Mr…" Raven groped for a suitably stinging name, "Mr. Stinks-Like-Bear!" Her eyes glared at the hunter, and she had apparently found her tongue at last. "Now who's looking down their nose at whom? I'll have you know I've been around mountains for as long as you have. Maybe I don't have your obvious brawn, but I can take care of myself just fine; in fact, better than you know! Rel and I could whip anything these mountains could care to throw at us. We just wanted someone who really knew what they were doing and where they were going. We mistakenly thought you were the man for the job, but obviously you're too busy doing whatever it is you hunters do while not hunting to give a rat's-ass about that!"

"Are you finished?" the large hunter asked, then before she could launch into another tirade he spoke again. "Good. I'm glad that's settled. If you come up with something really interesting, I might be of mind to listen. But if not … Good-night." And with that, he firmly put her out of his hut and fastened the cord that held the leather flap of his door closed.

Raven had no choice but to walk back to her friends at the lodge, muttering about rude mountain men the whole way. "I told you it wouldn't work," she snapped upon seeing their expectant looks. "Did you really think my sweet, honeyed tongue would get him to change his mind?" She slouched in her chair and tried not to pout as she retold the conversation she had had with Hunts-Like-Bear.

Amman was shaking his head, but was that a twinkle of laughter in Rel's eye? Raven scowled, and Rel's face quickly schooled itself to one of sympathy for her friend. "That's too bad, Raven. At least you tried. So, it looks like we have to either settle for one of the other hunters that were willing to hire on, or hope our troll friend knows where he is going."

"At the very least, we should try talking to the shaman tomorrow. Maybe he can guide us further as to the proper course to take," said Amman. "It's getting late, why don't we take our night's rest now? Let's agree to meet first thing in the morning, then we can track down this shaman, all right?"

* * *

True to their word, they were all gathered in the common room of the lodge for a quick meal. They wanted to break their fast before heading off to find the shaman. Rel, as usual, looked as if she had spent hours grooming herself to perfection, despite her overindulgence in the local spirits, while Raven was still rubbing sleep from her eyes and one side of her head had a rather outstanding cowlick that she had neglected to comb down. Cahli's eyes gleamed at the sight of the not-so-fierce werewolf looking like a child awakened from a deep sleep; all she needed was a doll clutched in her arms and the picture would be complete! Amman's eyes were gleaming as well, but in anticipation of the knowledge to be gained by talking to the shaman.

The troll guide was nowhere to be seen. He had been feeling restive while they dallied here in this no-where village, and had indulged a bit too much at the feast last night. He was still sleeping where they had left him; on the floor curled up near his bedroll as there was no pallet big enough for him. The group hoped to make a decision today about whether to retain his services even longer or to dismiss him and send him back to Smashtown.

Once all had eaten - and Rel had smoothed Raven's tuft with a few deft strokes of her comb dipped in water - the companions set out. At the shaman's hut, the door flap was already tied back, and the elder himself was waiting close beside it. "Come in, come in…" he said as he spied them approaching. "Welcome." He spoke in rusty Humani, presumably for Rel's benefit; it was the only language they all had in common. He was one of the few in the village who had some mastery of the tongue used primarily amongst traders and merchants, making it the most widespread of all the languages on the continent.

"How did…" began Raven, then she just shook her head, and ducked under the door flap and into the shaman's hut. Her friends filed in after her. They looked around the simple hut with interest, especially Amman. He had always been curious and eager to learn more about the different people and customs encountered in his travels. He loved to collect and retell stories and folklore gleaned from villages just like this one; stories illustrating the common bonds between all sentient folk. He saw it as a way to promote greater understanding between the different people populating the area, which served to widen the reach of civilization and thus ultimately serving Longstrider. Now, looking about the shaman's hut filled with the oddities and paraphernalia unique to his calling, Amman had the feeling that he could learn much from the elder if he only had the time.

They sat where the old man gestured, and waited respectfully while he settled upon a floor mat and nodded his permission to speak. It went without saying that Amman would do the talking …

"Thank-you, wise one, for honoring us with your time. We wished to speak with you regarding a matter of some importance to us. Elder Sunee mentioned last night at the feast that we would do well to speak with you. I had not realized she would send word to you to expect us …"

The shaman spoke, "Elder Sunee spoke not to me. The spirits of our ancestors were knowing of you and it was they who spoke. They are pleased at the service you made for our village. They wish my speaking to you."

Amman was somewhat taken aback but quickly recovered his aplomb. "Again, we are honored." He bowed his head to the shaman, then launched into the heart of the matter.

"We are in search of the dragonettes that live in the mountains north of here." At the first mention of the dragonettes, the shaman's face grew grave, but he said naught. Amman took his silence for a signal to go on. "We have heard somewhat of other groups who came through here on the same quest as ours, and of their unfortunate fate. We are not so arrogant that we would pass by the opportunity to learn anything you would be willing to give. Elder Sunee has already gifted us with some lore, but she mentioned a ritual needed to complete the dragonettes being bound as familiars …? His voice, normally confident, trailed off as he waited for the shaman to speak.

The elder looked at them all, measuring them with his level gaze. Finally his eyes returned to the nomad priest. "Your god blesses this quest?" he asked.

Amman had not expected the question and replied hastily, "Longstrider expects me to be his servant in all ways during my journeys, even if the quest be outside normal church duties. This venture is a personal quest my friends and I have undertaken."

The shaman considered his words, then spoke. "The creatures you be seeking are … difficult. After you have captured them and bound them with the spell, you must be bringing them to me. Immediately. I will then do what must be done. Do not be trusting them till I have spoken the words of the ritual, more care if one is a Black."

Raven broke in, "But after that ritual they'll make good familiars?" She ignored the annoyed I-thought-I-was-going-to-do-all-the-talking glance from Amman, and focused only on the shaman.

He pursed his lips and reluctantly, it seemed, nodded his assent. "I not be knowing about 'good'. I think they are not. They are very intelligent, for being such nasty lizzards, and it is what is making them so dangerous. They can, however, be controlled after the proper ritual."

Raven's eyes gleamed at his words. She was pleased the dragonettes were not docile and tame creatures. Rather, they seemed to have a fierce nature, something she understood all too well. She shared looks of excitement with her friends; all were imagining the good and important things they could accomplish with these kind of creatures aiding them. They all missed the look of concern and sorrow that momentarily passed over the elder's features.

Amman once more turned to speak with the shaman. "Wise One, we thank you for your help. We have one more matter to discuss with you before we leave. We wish to hire one of the local hunters as a guide in the mountains. What can you tell us about a hunter by name of Hunts-Like-Bear?"

Chapter 2 - Bargains

"Tell me again why we have to do this?" complained Rel, unhappily picking her way over the faint trail through the heavily forested mountains.

Amman sighed, "Rel, do you want Hunts-Like-Bear or not? Please, stop going over the same point. It's not going to get us to the dragonettes any faster."

"And exactly how is going off on this hair-brained detour going to work any better? I still say it's a mistake; we should have kept the troll with us and taken our chances!"

"Rel, come on… Give it a rest." Raven came to Amman's aid, "We've discussed this already, and you agreed it was the best way. Remember what the shaman told us? The only thing Hunts-Like-Bear cares about is getting his new spear. With that in hand we can approach him again to guide us. But in order to get the special metal the weaponsmith needs to craft the spear, we need to go to the source. I know… I know… this place sounds a little weird to me too. I mean, who ever heard of a way station that seems to disappear for years on end? But, the shaman couldn't think of any other place to get the metal we need other than there. They are the only ones he knows of who will trade away those special silver-tipped arrows."

"But what if we can't get a full dozen arrows? What if they don't want all this crap?" Rel gestured to the large packs of food and furs bought at the village and strapped to Amman's riding lizzard's scaly hide.

Amman replied, "Well, we don't know for sure if they want it. All we can go with is the fact that they seemed to be agreeable to trade for these type of goods before, even though it's been near forty years since the last group of villagers traded there. I guess we'll find out when we get there. It shouldn't be too much further."

"I wonder what we'll find …" muttered Rel, before lapsing into sullen silence. She had her mind on what little information they had been able to glean about this "way station" from the shaman and some of the elders. So, for that matter, did the other members of the party, with the exception, perhaps, of Cahli. She liked to range out ahead of the group with the troll while traveling outdoors, and had little interest in pondering the obscure while scouting.

As the larger and slower group slowly wound their way around full-grown trees that obscured the trail that they had been assured led to the area the trading post had last been seen at, they once again puzzled over the mysterious warnings associated with it. They wondered if the villagers were being superstitious, or if there was some truth to their claims. This place was supposed to be found in a valley further up on the mountain, and they said that sometimes they could see an eerie orange glow from the area. Some people had gone there and had not been able to find it, and on other expeditions some had never come back at all. It had been close to forty years since the last expedition, and the only villager alive to remember it was an old crone. She had been a young lady at the time, eager and excited to see the fabled place where you could make trades for the wondrous arrows with the strangers who lived there.

She said she had heard the denizens of the way station were humans, like from the southern part of the empire. But her group never made it to their destination; they were too badly frightened by what they had found and had turned back. When pressed, she had spoken of it, although she made a sign against evil spirits first, and her voice had sunk down to a whisper. She spoke of the advance party of hunters they had sent ahead, and how only two were found the next morning by the larger group bearing the trading goods. One hunter was insensible, babbling nonsense like "Hidden ash" and "The water couldn't put out the fire". There was no fire to be seen in the area they found him in, however. He apparently had attempted to understand what he had seen at the way station and had become insane in the process. The other hunter they found dead. He looked bloated, as if he had drowned and had been soaking in a pool of water, but again, there was no evidence of water around.

Try as the companions could, they couldn't make sense of the few clues either. Bolstered by the fact that some expeditions had returned after having successfully traded for the arrows, they resolved to make the attempt themselves. All agreed it was prudent to keep the troll around a little longer, especially if they were going into a dangerous situation, and they arranged to pay him extra coin if they saw combat. They were determined that Hunts-Like-Bear should be their guide into the mountains. So with that in mind Amman had carefully quizzed the old woman about what sort of trade goods had previously been bartered, and had loaded up on as much of the high quality furs and local produce that Thunder could carry on his back. Needless to say, although the villagers were concerned that they might not return from this quest, they were pleased to have their coin!

Now, however, after two days of toiling up the rocky trail, it seemed to some more of a fool's errand than ever. Even Amman was having second thoughts. Fortuitously enough, Cahli's voice could be heard from ahead, "We've found the valley!"

Chapter 3 - Hotel Gambovissi

"Well, what do you see, Raven?" Rel called impatiently, peering up at her friend perched perilously high above her on a slender tree branch on a strange tree. It measured over a hundred feet and had no branches for the first thirty feet. Rel had to be nearly sixty feet up. How did she climb up there? And where did this tree come from? It seemed similar to what Rel had heard about the Canop Trees of the far south. That was impossible, of course, at this altitude and this far north.

"Not much, there are too many trees in the way. I did see what looked to be a sentry tower relatively close to us, maybe five to ten minutes away, as well as what I think is a large clearing. No people. Flying no standard." Raven nimbly began to climb back down the tree, her werewolf claws giving her a sure grip on the rough bark. She let go for the last ten feet, absorbed the impact by dropping and rolling into a backwards summersault and then smoothly vaulted to her feet. "Tah-dah!! Perfect landing, wouldn't you say, Rel?" The Werewolf absently began to pick gravelly dirt out of her fur, which were stuck in daubs of sticky resin here and there from her climb. She grinned at her friend, "I haven't had a good tree-climb in a long while; lots of fun. I should teach you, Rel … What do you say, elfie-girl? Wanna get good and dirty?"

The elf in question looked slightly horrified at the prospect of getting dirt in her hair or resin on her hands and clothes. Raven shook her head, "I don't understand it … You have no problem being covered in blood and gore, but the thought of good, honest dirt is enough to make you shudder!"

Rel smiled down at her begrimed friend. "I don't have to look a fright to have fun." One slender brow arched, and her look turned sly and mischievous. "In fact, why don't we have some fun right now?" At Raven's puzzled look, Rel elaborated. "Amman did say we should scout out the area and watch for goings on, didn't he? How can we do a proper surveillance with all these trees in the way? We should get closer to get a better look. You said yourself there's no one around … It should be safe."

"I don't think we should…" began Raven, but Rel overrode any objections.

"Why not? There really isn't much to see from here. And besides, who made Amman the leader of our group? We're certainly capable of judging if the situation calls for a change in plan!" Raven still looked indecisive. Rel wheedled, "Please, Raven? Come on … If you say yes, I'll comb your fur extra-long tonight, all right?"

Raven sighed. "All right. I guess it won't hurt to go a bit closer. We're not due back at camp till sunset anyway, so we have time."

"Oh good!" The elf beamed at the Werewolf, and immediately set about gathering their backpacks. Raven gave up on her fur, and accepted her pack without comment. In truth, the idea of finding out more about this strange place was exciting. It would be nice to have some real information to share with the others back at camp tonight; that way they could go in tomorrow morning better prepared.

The friends began to carefully make their way through the trees, approaching the clearing that had been spotted from the climb, Raven leading and Rel following. The trees began to thin, and Raven could see the clearing just ahead. It looked larger than she expected.

She could make out a wide crushed-gravel path leading up to a large building set deep in the clearing. No, it wasn't just a building, it looked like a mansion! Its stately lines were built of a gray stone, roofed in clay tile, and there were two towers anchoring the east and west sides. There was a formal garden and even a fountain gracing the front. Imagine, your own fountain for no apparent purpose other than decoration! To the left Raven could make out the straight and orderly lines of an orchard ending at a hill, and ahead and to the right she could see the top of the sentry tower she had spotted earlier. Could this possibly be the way-station they were looking for? If so, this was no ordinary way-station. She had never seen the like of this building in all the years she had lived in The Wall.

Beside her, peering from behind the safety of a tree trunk, Rel whispered, "It reminds me of home, of Kordar. Same style in the Regal district on the older mansions, except this is fairly new."

The two women watched for about half an hour, but there was no movement on the grounds or in any of the many windows. "There must be someone around," mused Rel, "the place looks too well-tended."

"I'm going in there," she stated suddenly, and began to stride towards the clearing.

"Rel, wait!" hissed Raven, catching hold of the elf's arm and holding her back. "We can't just walk in there! We have to wait for Amman and the others; it could be dangerous."

"Look at this place!" replied Rel. "There's nothing out here beyond an ordinary civilized country estate. What harm could there be in meeting whoever lives in there? We can go in, take a look around then go back and meet Amman and the others."

Raven let go of her friend's arm and nodded. "This could very well be the most idiotic thing we've ever done, but …"

Rel agreed to wait till they had carefully gone over their options. Raven ruled out stealth almost immediately. It was still daylight, and the clearing was too large to attempt to sneak closer to the building without being seen by someone in the sentry tower or from the many windows in the main building. Not to mention the fact that Rel couldn't be sneaky if her life depended on it. As they were here on an honest trading mission, they finally decided the best tactic would be to approach boldly from the path.

Raven took the time to change back to her human form, and had Rel help her become somewhat presentable. They both took a deep breath, then broke from the cover of the trees and towards the path. The rough gravel of the walkway crunched under their boots as they approached, with what they hoped were confident strides. All of their weapons were carefully sheathed, and their hands were studiously kept in the open where anyone watching could see they were empty.

As they walked past the carefully maintained shrubs, ferns and ornamental flower beds closer to the house, Raven spotted what she thought were rose bushes, although she couldn't be sure as they didn't often grow this far north in the Wall. Also, the few times she had seen roses, they had not been this large or quite so brilliant in hue. She estimated the open blossoms were as wide across as her palm! The fragrance of the gardens was delightful, however, as was the sound from the fountain set amidst the flowers.

They both felt a chill as they stepped into the house's shadow approaching the front doors. These were ten foot double doors of a dark carved wood. There was intricate stonework framing the doors, and to one side they could see a large, rope bell-pull. This close up to the doors, they were able to see that the stone of the building was really a gray granite shot through with black and white. It looked dull, however, and when Raven touched it with her finger, it came away slightly blackened, as if with soot. Raven frowned, had there been a fire here? The two women were working up the nerve to pull on the rope, when they were startled by the doors being swung open.

In the doorway they could see an older man, human, in sober but elegant clothes. He opened the doors wide, stepped to one side and ushered them in. "Welcome to the Hotel Gambovissi," he said in a deep but slightly bored tone.

Rel and Raven hesitantly stepped over the threshold, and looked around in awe. They had entered a large foyer, with many doorways leading off it. Ahead and to the right and left were two gracefully curving stairways up to the second and third levels of the house. The floor was polished white marble, and a disconcerted Raven could faintly make out her reflection in its gleaming surface. She suddenly felt terribly out of place; she ran her hand self-consciously through her thick hair and was mortified when a couple of leaves and a small clod of dirt were dislodged and fell onto the spotless surface. The butler, or so they assumed, looked at the formerly immaculate floor and visibly suppressed a sigh. Raven's face flamed red.

"I'll show you to your room now, or would you prefer separate rooms? Just one? Very well. I assume you will be needing to … freshen up after your travels. Your room has an adjoining bathroom with everything provided for your comfort. Would you prefer plain bath water or the scented milk bath favored by Lady Gambovissi? The milk bath? Very well. Follow me, please."

The butler led the slightly dazed women up the stairs to the third level, then guided them to a room located in the East tower. It was spacious and brightly lit, with several oil lamps set into sconces, although at the moment most of the light came streaming in through the window facing south. There was a large four poster bed and an armoire, as well as a dressing table with a large mirror. A fireplace faced in white marble dominated one wall, with a large mirror set upon its mantel. The floor was carpeted in an extravagantly plush rug; its subtle patterns and tones complementing the exquisite bedding and draperies. There was a door on one wall, and through the opening Raven could catch a glimpse of a marble tub and a sink on a pedestal. Just as the butler had said; their own bathroom!! Everything bespoke of excellent quality and taste. Even Rel seemed impressed by the fine furnishings. She spoke up, "I'm sorry, this room is beautiful, but I don't think my friend and I could afford the rate. Do you have anything … more economical?"

The butler looked them over before speaking, "Ah, well … I'm afraid all the rooms are furnished the same way. As for rates, you can speak with Lord Gambovissi during dinner. It will be served in an hour's time in the dining room, the second door on the left from the foyer. Please don't be late. A serving girl will be up right away with the things for your bath. Enjoy your stay at the Hotel Gambovissi." With that, he withdrew from the room and shut the door, leaving the two friends alone.

As soon as the door closed and they could hear footsteps receding down the hall, they jumped up and down and hugged each other in girlish glee. Rel raced to look at the bathroom while Raven, pausing only long enough to kick off her boots, leaped up on the bed and flopped down on the downy softness of the covers. "Raven, you've got to come in here!" called Rel from the bathroom, "You'll never believe the stuff they have in here!"

Raven rolled off the side of the bed reluctantly and padded into the bathroom, and stopped at the doorway in disbelief. The room was almost as large as the bedroom, and like the foyer, it was floored in white marble. The main feature dominating the room was the tub. It had three steps leading up to it, with a wide ledge perfect for sitting or lounging on. It, too, was carved out of marble, and it was easily the biggest tub they had ever seen, with room for two or three people. Within reach of the tub was a bewildering assortment of vials and bottles, soaps and creams. On one wall was a porcelain pedestal sink with a gilt mirror hung above it, and a large shelf nearby held piles of snowy white towels and cloths. Raven took a couple of steps into the room and then stopped in surprise; she had been expecting the marble to feel chill against her feet, but it was comfortably warm instead. She continued her exploration of the wondrous room. At the far end of the room was a low wall, and behind it was a funny-looking chair with a hole in the middle and a large lever on the wall above it … how strange! "You're right, Rel, I can't believe this … This is incredible!" The two women began to investigate the contents of the various bottles on the tub ledge.

Their explorations were cut short by a soft knock. Hurriedly answering the door, they saw a young serving girl with an armful of supplies for the milk bath they had requested. Shyly slipping by them she busied herself in the bathroom for a few minutes. They heard the sounds of running water and the clinking of glass bottles. The two women could barely suppress their grins of excited anticipation at the thought of the unheard-of luxury awaiting them. The girl finally slipped out of the bathroom with a nod and a whispered, "I hope it's to your liking, ladies," before scurrying out. The two ladies in question dashed to the bathroom to survey what had been prepared for them.

The fragrance that arose from the tub was intoxicating; Raven's sensitive nose picked out roses and jasmine, as well as subtler warm and spicy undertones. What they could see of the water beneath the mounds of bubbles was milky white, with gentle curls of steam rising from the surface. There was not even a question of taking turns. As one they began to undress, but Raven (having had years of practice stripping off before changing into her Were form, as well as not having to deal with removing bulky armor) shrugged out of her clothes and jumped into the bath ahead of her friend with much gusto.

"Oh Rel, hurry up! The water is so warm. Much better than a mountain stream!" Raven immersed herself completely in the opaque water, then came up again with a crown of bubbles on her hair. She began to languidly paddle about in the water, then rolled over and floated on the surface, her long hair spreading out about her like some strange black sea-weed. The dusky skin of her arms, breasts and thighs was startlingly dark against the milky white water.

Rel finally finished undressing, and, leaving her clothes and armor in a haphazard pile in the middle of the floor, joined her friend in the tub. "Ahhh …" sighed Rel, sinking down into the fragrant depths, "Now this is a bath!"

The two friends soaked in silence for a few minutes, eyes closed, enjoying the unaccustomed warmth of the water. Then, before the heat could lull them to sleep, they took full advantage of the assortment of scrubbers and soaps available and busied themselves with washing away several days worth of travel grime. The procedure took longer than expected; they would be expected for dinner soon and they did not want to be late.

They hurriedly changed into their one spare set of clothes. Rel wrinkled her nose in distaste; they were wrinkled quite badly but at least they were clean. After attacking Raven's new tangles and clumps, Rel barely had time to run her comb through her own hair. They did not have time, either, to be nervous about how they were going to pay for the room. They had some small change on them, but most of the money was back with Amman at camp. They shrugged, it was too late to do anything about it now. The only thing to do was to go downstairs and meet with the master and begin the negotiations.

It was with some trepidation that they descended the curving staircase and made their way to the dining room indicated by the butler. Just outside the large carved wood entryway, Raven could make out several voices murmuring in somewhat heated tones. The elf and the were glanced nervously at each other, took a deep breath, and stepped through the entryway. Immediately, all conversation stopped, and they were the center of attention.

Chapter 4 - Dinner lies

It was a large, elegantly appointed room. It was brightly lit by two crystal chandeliers suspended from the ceiling. The bright light sparkled on the gleaming porcelain dishes and crystal glasses set upon a snowy white linen table cloth; it covered the long table at which were seated several well-dressed individuals, all of whom were now looking expectantly at the two women. Raven gulped and paused slightly behind Rel, certainly not hiding but not stepping forward, either.

The man seated at the head of the table stood up and spoke, "Ah, our guests … Please, be welcome. Come in, come in." His deep and cultured voice spoke with an accent very much like Rel's. He looked much like the Kordarians Rel had described, as well: short-cropped curly black hair, olive skin, dark eyes. A very attractive man, Rel mused to herself, quickly appraising his well-built frame under his fine and fastidiously folded toga, formal wear among the Kordarian rich. From seemingly out of nowhere the butler who had welcomed them earlier appeared behind the two women and escorted them to their seats close to Lord Gambovissi. Raven attempted to hide the relief she felt at being seated next to her friend; she felt very much out of place among all this finery.

When they were all settled, Lord Gambovissi continued, "May I present my lady wife, Namina Gambovissi?" The lady in question, also attired in a complexly folded silken toga with a golden torque clasped around her neck, nodded her head in their direction politely, but her dark eyes seemed aloof. Raven's eyes were immediately captivated by the gleaming torque; even from across the table she could tell the quality of workmanship was exceptional.

She forced her eyes away as the lord introduced the next person, "My eldest, Meriella." Meriella was a younger copy of her mother, slim and darkly beautiful, but her eyes held curiosity instead of reserve. She, too, was dressed in a toga, but it seemed to be folded in a much more casual manner, and one side seemed dangerously close to exposing a breast! She seemed to be in her early to mid twenties, of an age with Raven and Rel. She smiled at them in a friendly manner.

Lord Gambovissi continued in his introductions around the table, "My middle son, Gabo. Gabo, please do try not to scowl at our guests." The young man in question was indeed scowling, but it seemed to be directed at the entire room and not just to the two strangers. He would have been a younger, equally handsome version of his father had it not been for his sullen expression. After a quick glance at the two women he kept his eyes down towards his plate. Unlike the others, he was dressed in a long-sleeve silk shirt tucked into trousers. Raven noticed his hands fiddling with the buttons at his cuffs; he seemed upset about something. Perhaps he was the one they had overheard arguing as they were approaching the dining room.

"And lastly, my youngest son, Ventusio." Lord Gambovissi gestured towards the handsome young man seated directly across from Raven. He looked to be about seventeen, slim and dark, with sparkling dark eyes and a roguish grin on his face. He was dressed in some type of uniform, but neither Raven nor Rel could identify it. His eyes flicked between the two women, and he seemed to find them both extremely interesting. Raven blushed a bit under his scrutiny, but also found herself surprisingly pleased by it. She ventured a smile back at him, which only served to widen his own.

"And may we have the pleasure of knowing your names?" the lord asked, smiling pleasantly. They hastened to reply, Rel giving only her assumed name, and Raven supplying her full name. " Raven Stark, you say? Curious … And where did you say you hail from? From The Wall? How … interesting." His eyes shifted to Rel, apparently deciding that the human was anything but interesting. "And you, dear creature, from your accent I would say you are Kordarian?" At her affirmation that, indeed, she had lived in Kordar City most her life, Lord Gambovissi smoothly drew her into a conversation about life back in the capital.

Somewhat relieved to have been summarily dismissed, Raven relaxed slightly and looked around the table as Belfin, the butler they had met earlier, and Zella, an older woman bringing covered dishes in from an adjoining door - presumably leading to the kitchen - began to serve dinner. Raven covertly watched Lady Gambovissi for guidance as to which of the bewildering array of cutlery she should use. Namina, in turn, was watching the exchange between her lord husband and the elf, a slight frown marring her smooth brow.

At the far end of the table Gabo and Meriella were having a whispered discussion about something, apparently nothing to improve Gabo's disposition judging from the sour looks he continued to fling at everyone. Across from Raven, Ventusio was still watching her avidly. Catching her glance he rolled his eyes in Gabo and Meriella's direction, then made the most spectacularly horrible face she had ever seen. She coughed to cover up the snort of laughter she accidentally let slip.

"Are you quite alright, my dear?" inquired Lady Gambovissi.

"Yes, Lady, thank-you. It just that I'm not accustomed to this fine food …" Raven finished lamely. She was very careful not to look at the young scoundrel across from her. In fact, the food was very fine, perhaps the best she had ever tasted. She had been amazed when Zella had presented the fish course; it was a common lake trout, but of a size she had never seen before, large enough to feed all seated at the table. Lady Gambovissi had noticed her astonishment and commented that it had been caught in their own lake. It was cooked to perfection, however uncommon its size. Raven ate enthusiastically of all that was set before her.

Between bites, she attempted to listen in to her friend's conversation with the Lord, but it was all about things Kordarian, and she quickly lost interest. Indeed, the lord was doing most of the talking, with Rel or his wife occasionally putting in a word or two. During a brief lull in their conversation Rel leaned over to Raven and whispered, "I just can't seem to find the right time to bring up the matter of trading, much less room rates. Let's wait till after dinner." Raven nodded her agreement, she wasn't looking forward to broaching the subject and bringing the lord's attention upon herself once more.

Finally, during dessert of frozen strawberry sorbet served in bowls of hollowed-out strawberries the size of small melons, Rel managed to work into the conversation the fact that they had come to trade for their specialty arrows, and also to inquire about how much the room rates were. The lord brushed off this attempt to change the subject, saying that he would meet them at dusk in the trophy room to discuss payment of the room. He would have continued in his ruminations about the Empire, but his wife signaled that dinner was over. He sighed, and beckoned for Belfin to begin to clear the last of the dessert dishes. Just as everyone was pushing back their chairs to leave, he spoke to his youngest son.

"Ventusio, I will be having a word with you right away. The charm of our guests has not made me overlook the fact that you went into the West Tower again without permission. I see I shall have to be more forceful in my discipline." Was that a quick start of fear Raven spotted in the young man's eyes? Whatever it was, it was quickly hidden by a rueful smile and a studiously nonchalant shrug as Ventusio caught her gaze upon him. His father then turned a dazzling smile upon his two guests. "And as for you two, feel free to explore the grounds, or even our library if you are so inclined. I look forward to meeting with you later." His eyes lingered over Rel's lithe form before returning to his youngest.

They hurriedly left the dining room. Ahead of them, they could see Lady Namina gliding gracefully up the stairs. Gabo and Meriella were disappearing around a corner that they had learned led to the stables. Belfin and Zella were nowhere to be seen. They were alone in the large foyer. Behind them, Raven could hear Lord Gambovissi's deep voice, cold with disapproval, and Ventusio's softer, more hesitant replies. Then, shockingly, she heard the unmistakable sound of a hand striking flesh, and the Lord's voice again, this time harsh. She looked at Rel to see if her friend had heard as well, but the elf seemed to be lost in her own world, a little frown upon her face as she walked towards the closest stairway. Raven hurried to catch up.

It was only when they reached the privacy of their given room that Rel seemed to notice Raven's presence. She looked nervous, and a little guilty. At the Were's questioning look, she said sheepishly, "Raven, I think I just did something really stupid." She began to pace, and Raven hopped up onto the bed to get out of her way. "During dinner, it was so good to talk to someone about life back in the Empire again; I really miss it sometimes. I think it must be very hard for Lord Gambovissi stuck out here in the Wall; he's such a cultured man … very attractive." Rel paused, and a faint blush colored her cheeks. "He seemed so eager to hear all about my life. He was asking me all these questions, and from out of nowhere he jumped to the conclusion that I must be one of the Emperor's Favorites! The way he put it, it sounded like a title or position. I … I was so caught up in the conversation that I didn't correct him. I guess I wanted him to admire me a little. Anyway, now I'm stuck being one of these "Favorites" and I don't have a clue about what he's talking about. What am I going to do?" she wailed.

Raven thought for a space, then replied, "Well, it seems to me you have made a really good impression with him so far. If you tell him now that you aren't one of these so-called 'Emperor's Favorites', then you risk harming our trade negotiations later on. I think you should just continue on the way you have been, try to gloss over the favorite part, and I would definitely watch your back judging by the way his wife was looking at you!"

"Oh, right … his wife." Rel sighed. "Why do I get myself into these situations? I really didn't mean to lie. It just sounded really good so I went along with it." She frowned once again. "It really must have been a long time since he was back home. His toga, while splendid, was dreadfully old-fashioned. I don't recall seeing anything like it. All of them, as a matter of fact, seemed to be out of touch with modern Kordar. I guess it's hard to buy the latest fashions way out here, in the middle of nowhere …"

"I'm sorry," admitted Raven. "I wasn't really paying attention to what you were talking about during dinner. But did you catch what he said after? That Ventusio was in trouble for going in the West Tower again? I wonder what's in there … Maybe that's where they keep all their arrows! Poor kid, I sure wouldn't want to be him right about now, his dad was pretty pissed and trying not to show it in front of us."

Rel wandered over to the window. "So, what do you want to do now? He suggested going over the grounds, or perhaps the library." From the window she could see the lake that had previously been obscured as they had walked up to the hotel. It was rather large, with reeds growing around its edges, and a pier at the end closest to the house. To the left of the lake they could see the orchard. "Hey, who's that?" She was looking at a figure who had walked down to the pier. Raven came over to have a look herself. She saw a tall, skinny figure kneeling down at the end of the pier, leaning over and fishing around in the water with his hand. Unsuccessfully, as he apparently gave up and stood once more, water dripping from his fingers.

"I think he's an elf," opinioned Raven, watching the figure walk off the pier and towards the orchards. There was something bothering her about the elf, though. Even from this distance, he looked rumpled, and he did not walk so much as skitter, head turning constantly to watch every direction. He stopped for a moment and turned his head back to look unerringly up at the two watching from their window, staring for a long moment before continuing on his way.

"That was weird," commented Rel, "How could he have seen us from way over there?"

Raven shrugged. "Rel, just because you wouldn't notice a porcupine until it walked up and stuck you in the ass doesn't mean that other people aren't observant. We weren't exactly making it hard for him to see us." She continued before Rel could object to her comment, "Why don't we just look around the hotel tonight. It is getting late, we wouldn't have time to see much outside anyway."

Rel agreed, and they carefully locked up the door to their room before heading towards the hallway out of the East Tower. Halfway there, Raven slowed her step, then stopped. "Rel," she said quietly, "did you notice that door being open before?" She pointed to the door to one of the other bedrooms in this tower. It was open about a couple of hand-spans. There was a soft glow coming from the crack. "I was under the impression we were the only guests here, as no-one else came down for dinner. I wonder …" mused Raven.

Chapter 5 - Curiosity killed the the …Were?

She walked across the floor, unconsciously minimizing the noise her boot heels made on the hard marble. She paused at the open door, listening, then knocked softly. "Hello? Is anyone there?" Raven listened again, but there was no response. She peeked through the open door but couldn't see anyone. She gently pushed it open a bit further, "Hello?"

"Raven, what are you doing?" whispered Rel, looking around for any observers to her friend's breech of privacy.

Raven whispered back, "You were the one wanting some fun on this venture, weren't you? I just want to see if this room is the same as ours, like the butler said. I'll be careful, don't worry!" She slipped in through the widened crack.

The room was softly illuminated by dozens of white candles set on every available flat surface: the dressing table, fireplace mantel, small bedside tables and some even on the floor. The room indeed looked just like their own. Raven quietly came all the way into the room, confirming that despite the candles, it was indeed empty. On the floor beside the bed, however, she spotted more signs of recent usage: a blanket spread out with a basket, an empty wine bottle, and two wine glasses. She heard the sound of water dripping at the same time as she noticed the light coming from the bathroom.

Slowly, she moved closer to the bathroom, a strange feeling of dread overcome by compelling curiosity. Listening, she only heard again the slow dripping sound. She peered through the open door, and caught a glimpse of something green. Ever so carefully nudging it wider, Raven went in. Hung on a hook on the wall was a long emerald green dress, of a silky fabric. Her eyes moved to the tub, and she saw …

Blackness slammed down upon Raven's world, and she knew no more …

* * *

Rel's face, pale and strained, swam into view. "Raven! Raven, can you hear me?"

Raven nodded, feeling oddly woozy. She wiped her eyes with her hand, and was startled to see talons and fur instead of her human skin. A quick check proved that she was indeed in her Were form. Her throat hurt. She took in Rel's bedraggled appearance, and then, more slowly, the wreck of the once-elegant room. The picnic basket lay smashed and bottle of wine was halfway under the bed, the glasses shattered. The linens upon the bed were rumpled and torn, one of the bedside tables was tipped over, several of the candles had fallen from their places and some looked to have been trodden on, their soft wax ground into the plush rug. There was still a hint of smoke in the air. Her eyes refused to move in the direction of the bathroom, somehow not wanting to see inside.

"What … What happened?" the Werewolf rasped. She clumsily lurched to her feet, and waited for the feeling of disorientation to pass. She carefully leaned over and pulled a large sliver of glass from one of her hind feet, noticing now a few splotches of bright red blood on the rug and linens.

"Why don't you tell me what happened?" replied Rel. "All I know is that I heard a horrible growling sound, I ran into the room and found you trashing the place as a Werewolf. You were totally out of it! You wouldn't respond when I called you, just kept up this bestial growling, frothing at the mouth, your eyes rolled up. I've never seen anything like it, it scared the shit out of me! I didn't know what to do so I just grabbed you and held on as tight as I could and just kept talking to you until you finally seemed to come to your senses."

"I don’t remember any of that …" Raven noticed a long deep scratch on one of her friend's arms. "Oh Rel, did I do that? I'm so sorry!" She gently raised the wounded arm up and licked it with her tongue, an instinctual response to injury. Rel, startled at the unfamiliar warm wetness, jerked it away. Raven's hand went to her muzzle, "Oh! I don't know why I just did that. I'm sorry, you must think that was pretty gross …"

"Would you stop apologizing, please? It's ok. I'm fine. I'm just worried about what happened here, that's all? Can't you try to remember?"

Raven frowned, "I looked around in here, it looked as if someone had recently been in here for an intimate picnic with a friend. I noticed a light and a sound from the bathroom, I went in to have a look. I saw a green dress … and that's all I can remember! It wasn't like I had been knocked unconscious," her hand subconsciously felt her head for any lumps delivered in ambush. "It was more like everything went black; I think I knew I was seeing and doing things, but it was like I was completely cut off from my senses … I don't know; I just can't remember!" Raven ruthlessly quelled the strange sensation buzzing around the perimeters of her awareness, banishing the panic that threatened to rise. The need to get out of the room suddenly became overwhelming. "Let's just get out of here, please?"

Rel took another look around the room, then nodded. She waited and watched in fascination for a few moments as her friend concentrated on changing back into her human form, her body shuddering and convulsing with the effort. When she was done, and had adjusted her strained and torn clothes to a semblance of order, they approached the door. There was no question of attempting to clean up the shambles of the room. If they were questioned about it, they would attempt to pay for the damage. By mutual agreement, they carefully closed the door behind them and went back to their room.

Rel freshened up in the bathroom, while Raven searched for something to wear. She was looking for her old travel-stained clothes, and was surprised to find them neatly folded on a chair, along with Rel's, washed and mended. "If nothing else, they have excellent service in this place." She quickly shrugged out of her ripped clothing and donned the fresh set. She surveyed her image in the mirror over the mantel: a tanned young woman with a thick, bedraggled braid over her shoulder, gray eyes with a slightly feverish intensity. As her hands rose to attempt to smooth the stray ends escaping from the braid, she could see they were trembling; she quickly clenched them into fists then opened them again. The shaking was gone. The woman in the mirror stared, her eyes ablaze. She mouthed "Raven, you are fine. There's nothing to be afraid of …"

Raven spun with a smile pasted on her face as she heard Rel emerge from the bathroom. "Are you ready, then?"

Rel crossed the room to hold her friend at arms length, scrutinizing her expression. "Are you sure you want to go out again? We could just wait here till dusk, then go see Lord Gambovissi."

Raven shook her head, "No, I need some distraction right now." She paused, then added, "Rel, I miss Amman right now, and Cahli. I wish they were here. I'd even be happy to see that troll!"

Rel laughed, pulled the shorter woman in for a quick hug, and said, "Me too. No doubt we'll see Amman in the morning, mad as hell. I can't wait!"

The two women squared their shoulders and left their room. They studiously avoiding even looking at the door to the other room, moving instead directly to the stairway and heading downstairs. They wandered through some of the rooms, marveling at the quality and beauty of the furnishings. They stopped in at the library which boasted an impressively large collection, but didn't stay long as Rel discovered most of the books were written in Kordarian, which, despite it being her native tongue she could not read! They wandered into the kitchens, and were relieved to finally encounter someone else. The scullery maid was timid at first, but then more enthusiastic in telling them about the hotel.

She mentioned that the hotel had been in Lord Gambovissi's family for three generations. She was very proud and lucky to be working for such a distinguished family. They had even garnered the attention of the Secate! A while ago, perhaps some seventy years or so, the Secate himself stayed with them to oversee some building done here. They had needed to bring in Builders. She wondered what had happened to all those Builders, they seemed to have disappeared right after construction was completed on the Mound. People still come to the hotel wanting to get into the Mound, especially nobles, but she didn't know why. She seemed surprised that Raven and Rel hadn't seen it yet. She assured them that if they went for a walk around the grounds in the morning, that they couldn't miss it, it looked like a huge hill northwest of the orchard.

At that moment Zella returned to the kitchen, and after being given a withering stare and a sharp reprimand, the maid hurriedly returned to her duties. The women attempted to engage the older servant in conversation about the hotel, but she refused to be drawn in and they soon gave up. Raven took advantage of being in the kitchens to ask for a snack before they left, however. Zella quickly arranged a plate of biscuits and sliced fruit for them which they happily took to the trophy room.

On route, they oversaw something mildly interesting; a man dressed in some sort of uniform was being escorted by Belfin into the library. The man looked dusty and tired, and he carried a large satchel across his back. He disappeared into the library with the butler.

"That guy looks familiar," observed Raven quietly. "Or rather, his uniform does. It reminds me of a Longstrider uniform I once saw, but it's not quite right; I can't place the symbols."

"He did look like some sort of messenger," agreed Rel.

Turning to continue on their way to the trophy room, they were startled by another figure peering at them from around the corner towards the stables. It was the strange elf they had seen down by the lake! Nervously he looked around, then motioned for them to come near. As they approached him, they both silently thought that their previous appraisal of him was perfect; everything about him was rumpled and in dire need of attention. There were smears of dirt on his hands and face, as well as on his ragged and much-patched clothes. His hair stood out in wild tufts; it was difficult to tell just what color it was beneath the grime. His eyes darted around furtively, as if expecting someone or something to jump out of nowhere.

"Don't trust anyone!" he hissed.

"Pardon me?" replied a startled Rel.

"Don't trust anyone around here," he repeated, glancing over his shoulder and peering around the two women. "Strange things happen … bad things!" His eyes fell on the plate of snacks that Raven carried in her hands.

"Would you like some?" the Were asked politely, not really wanting to share but deciding that she could not afford to offend anyone either. To their surprise, the elf almost hissed in revulsion, and without saying a word more turned to slink down towards the stables. Rel and Raven just looked at each other, not knowing what to say about the strange encounter. Rel shrugged and resumed her walk towards the trophy room. Just before reaching their destination, the two friends saw Zella bustle into the library carrying a tray of refreshments, supposedly for the new arrival with the pouch.

Raven snagged a slice of melon from the plate and settled into a comfortable leather armchair. "What do you suppose was his problem?" she asked Rel around a mouthful of very juicy melon, referring to the very strange elf they had just met in the hallway.

Rel, too, helped herself to the contents of the plate. "He sure didn't sound completely rational, did he? But then again, remember that the villagers did warn us that some of their hunters came back insane. I don't know … It won't hurt us to be careful."

Raven nodded her agreement, looking as thoughtful as is possible with melon juice dripping down her chin. Together they nibbled on the rest of the delicious morsels while awaiting the arrival of the Lord.

They did not have long to wait. Lord Gambovissi strode briskly into the room, nodding politely to both women. He had changed from this formal toga into a more practical linen shirt and pants combination, although there was no doubt they were of the utmost quality.

"Good-evening, ladies." He spoke warmly, but his dark eyes were mostly on Rel. Rel's eyes, in turn, had not left him since he had first entered. "I trust you have had a chance to look around since dinner? Tell me, what do you think of my home? Is it as fine as others you've seen in the Empire?"

Rel was quick to compliment him on the beauty of his home. "Truthfully, Lord Gambovissi, it is the finest estate I've yet seen." She added as an afterthought, "With the exception of the Palace, of course …"

"Of course," he agreed, pleased at the favorable assessment. "I regret that I will be unable to dally with you ladies this evening as I had hoped. A messenger has arrived from the capital that I must see to right away. I hope I am forgiven?" He smiled charmingly.

"Certainly," spoke up Rel, "although I do admit to being a little anxious to settle the matter of the room rate tonight."

"Not to worry. For friends of the Empire, and one of the Emperor's Favorites, I would not charge more than a gold. At any rate, you mentioned your friends will probably be arriving in the morning? Well, we can do all our business then. Agreed?" At their nods, the Lord wished them a good evening and a restful sleep, and strode out. They could hear a door shut further down, supposedly the library door where the messenger awaited.

"Well," commented Raven, "a gold piece will not break us. It's expensive, but not horribly so. I wonder what he would have charged if we were not lucky enough to have one of the Emperor's Favorites with us!"

"I'd hate to think about that! Come on, Raven. Let's head upstairs; I don’t know about you but I've had quite enough excitement for the day. I'm ready to just curl up in that great big bed and go to sleep. How about you?"

Raven readily assented and followed her friend out of the trophy room. In truth, she wouldn't have wanted to dally here longer than they had to. All the animal heads mounted on the dark paneled walls gave her the shivers, especially the large silver-gray wolf that seemed to stare accusingly down at her with its glass amber eyes. Once out in the hallway they could hear voices murmuring behind the library door, but decided not to press their luck by eavesdropping; Raven's curiosity had already gotten her in serious trouble. Instead, they went directly up to their room.

They were already yawning as they got ready for bed. A single candle provided enough light to find their way amongst the unfamiliar furnishings, and they eagerly climbed up onto the huge bed. Once settled, however, they found they could not sleep right away. The luxury of the bedding was proving distracting instead of soothing; the sheets felt sinfully silky against their skin, and the feather pillows like a cloud under their heads. They were twin mounds huddled under the covers with only the tops of their heads showing. Their eyes and teeth gleamed in the darkness as they grinned at one another.

"Do you really think Amman will come in the morning?" asked Raven in a whisper.

"Yeah, if only to find us so he can lecture us on how irresponsible it was to split up like this!"

The women giggled softly, finding humor in the situation, then turned the hushed conversation to a more speculative nature. They mused over what they had seen and the strange things they had observed but didn't feel those oddities were enough to warrant the reputation of danger held by the villagers. For good measure, they gossiped about the Gambovissi family as well, remarking on Lady Namina's coolness in contrast to her husbands apparent heightened interest. They wondered why Gabo seemed so angry, and what exactly Ventusio had done in the West Wing to earn his father's displeasure.

The conversation finally wound down a couple of hours later, and they slept. Once, Raven awoke with a start, her skin clammy and heart beating. It took a few seconds to register where she was, to calm the panicked feeling in her stomach. She looked over to where Rel was sleeping; the elf lay still but a frown was etched across her face, and her mouth was twisted into a grimace. Carefully, so as not to further disturb her friends sleep, Raven slid out of bed and padded to the bathroom for some water. At the doorway she paused, feeling a moment's dread, but then shook her head and entered. She felt slightly foolish but relieved when nothing out of the ordinary happened; just regular water coming out of the tap. Nothing to fear here.

She silently crept back to the bed and was about to get back in when she noticed an orange glow peeping out from behind the drawn drapes. "It can't be morning yet," she thought to herself, and went to the window to peer out. It was still dark outside, but there was an eerie orange glow much further up the mountain that silhouetted the treeline against the night sky. Frowning, Raven wondered, "What is that? Fire? No, I don't see any smoke …" She remembered that the villagers had warned them about seeing orange lights above the valley. She didn't think it presented an immediate threat, and decided to go back to bed.

She awoke once more to a hand gently shaking her shoulder. "Raven, wake up; it's morning." A slow opening of eyelids showed Rel lying on top of the covers, her head propped up by one hand. Sunlight was streaming into the room as someone had drawn back the drapes, and danced over the silken strands of the elf's ebony hair. Rel smiled to see her friend's bleary gaze, "Good morning! I hope you didn't mind my waking you; you didn't look like you were particularly enjoying your dreams this morning."

Raven stretched and shook her head to clear away the cobwebs. She did not feel very rested, and the beginnings of a headache were starting to form. Upon closer examination, Rel didn't look so good either. Her usual smooth elven features were slightly drawn and tired-looking. She nodded her head when Raven asked her if she had had trouble sleeping, too. "I have the feeling I had bad dreams," she replied, "but I just can't remember any of them."

"Come on, let's get dressed and ready. Maybe breakfast will help us feel better. If I know Amman, he'll be here soon, if he's not already waiting for us downstairs at this very moment." Raven pushed back the covers and leaped towards the bathroom. "Last one to wash up is a dirty, smelly goat!"

Chapter 6 - Bargains upon bargains

Amman, Cahli and the troll had indeed arrived at the hotel by early morning, just as Raven and Rel had emerged from their room for breakfast. Belfin was ascending the stairs, heading towards the East Tower, the new arrivals trailing after. The two women leaned over the rail and excitedly called down to their friends. At the sight of Amman's familiar face lifted towards her, Raven's headache began to recede and she felt some unknown tension melt away. Belfin led the new guests to a room beside theirs and gave them the "Welcome to Hotel Gambovissi" speech before announcing to everyone that breakfast would be served shortly in the dining room.

Amman had the restraint to wait till Raven and Rel had come into the room and shut the door before launching into a lecture on the importance of communication. Did they know how worried he had been? It was only Cahli's prudence that had prevented him from attempting to find them after they were late from returning from their surveillance mission, even though it was already dark. He imagined they were hurt or captured, or worse!

Rel and Raven were genuinely penitent; they admitted they had been thoughtless as well as careless. They had no excuse for their behavior.

Amman was a little surprised by their contrite words; he had been expecting more defensive arguments from them, from Raven at least. He became suspicious, Why were they being so agreeable?

Rel replied, "We're just glad to see you guys, that's all. This place is a little strange, but we just can't put our finger on it … Amman, are we forgiven? Please?"

The nomad priest rolled his eyes, then grinned. "Of course … Just don't ever do it again!" Raven squealed and jumped up to hug her friend, which he returned a little less forcefully when he could catch his breath.

While the troll found the perfect spot for the huge sacks he had been carrying - one wedged into the armoire with the other propped up beside it - and Cahli investigated the bathroom, Raven and Rel gave Amman an abbreviated version of all that had happened. By far, he was most troubled by Raven's psychotic break (as he termed it) in the other bathroom. He questioned Raven carefully about what she had seen, and was disappointed that Rel had not gone to see for herself what had been the cause of Raven's rampage.

He was also somewhat troubled about the false assumption Rel had allowed to continue, that she was some sort of favorite of the emperor's. He did, however, agree that it would look worse to recant the story at this point, and it would certainly hurt their trading efforts. With that in mind, most everyone trooped downstairs to eat and to begin negotiations. Amman lagged behind a bit. He stopped at the door Raven had said she had gone through the day before. He reached out and turned the door knob … It was locked. With a thoughtful look he walked on to catch up with his friends.

* * *

Lord Gambovissi shook hands with Amman, Rel and Raven to seal the bargains. The nomad looked weary; the negotiations had been tough, and he was not used to doing business under a stone roof. He much preferred the Megsurian way of bargaining under the open sky, signifying honest dealings for all to see. All the furs and food-stuffs they had brought in the sacks had only garnered them four special arrows. Raven had offered to do some repair work on Lady Namina's gold jewelry for another arrow. Surprisingly, the Lord offered to throw in a half dozen arrows for the pleasure of Rel's company for the day. A slight blush on her cheeks and a nod showed the elf was amenable to the offer. That made eleven arrows in total; they were short one to fulfill the bargain they had made with the weaponsmith back in the village. They would try to think of something between now and when they left.

Amman agreed to assist Raven in doing her repairs. He was not as skilled as she was in the intricacies of gold work, but he knew enough to help out. After a quick run upstairs to her room to gather her goldsmith's kit from her backpack, they sought out Lady Namina in her sitting room, a graciously appointed room with plenty of sunlight streaming through the tall windows. The lady was rather surprised to see them, and even more so upon hearing their request, then she shrugged and disappeared into her bedroom for a minute. When she emerged, she was sliding something out of a pink silken pouch, something that gleamed like golden thread.

Lady Namina spread it out on a pillow for them to see. It was a snood, designed to cleverly hold a woman's hair in the back of her neck. It was made up of tiny golden chains linked together to form a shimmering net. Raven breathed out an excited "Ohhh …" to see a creation of such delicacy and beauty. She saw immediately the area that needed repair. Several of the tiny chains had broken, leaving a rent in the net and quite spoiling the whole effect. "May I?" she questioned the lady. At her nod, she reverently picked up the snood and draped it over her hand. She examined how the chains were linked together, the exact thickness of the links, and the flow of the piece. "This is wonderful work," she commented. "I've never seen its like before."

Lady Namina again shrugged, "It was a gift from my husband; an anniversary, I think. Can you fix it?"

Raven took a moment before answering. It was more complex than anything she had ever worked on before, but if she broke it down into separate tasks - one problem at a time - she thought she could do it. She was very glad Amman had agreed to help her, she would need it. She nodded assertively. "Yes. I can do this. It might take a while; the delicacy of the work, you understand?"

"Yes, of course. Will this room be adequate for you?"

Raven quickly located the fireplace in the room, gauged the level of light to be adequate, and noted a table that could be used to spread out her equipment and as a work surface. "This is fine. I'll need to light a fire. It might take till afternoon if we start right away, would it be possible to have a bite of lunch sent up so we don't have to interrupt our work?"

Lady Namina murmured her assent. "Was there anything else you needed?"

Amman answered politely, "No, thank you," as Raven was already reaching into her kit to pull out the various implements of her trade, seemingly lost in thought. She did not notice as Lady Namina left; she was too busy moving the table under the window for the best light and arranging her things on it to her liking. "Amman, could you build the fire, please?"

Raven dove into her work, approaching the piece with the same fierce concentration and passion that had led to her being trained under a widely renowned master goldsmith. They worked steadily for hours, stopping only briefly to stretch cramped muscles. They had to open the window for some fresh air as well, the heat from the fireplace was making the room stiflingly hot. Despite all this, they made very good progress. Lady Namina came to check on them occasionally, inquiring if they needed anything, and to make sure they were indeed working at all possible speed. The lady seemed impatient to have her sitting room returned to her.

They were almost finished in the early afternoon when disaster struck. Raven somehow managed to tear another hole in the golden snood, albeit a very tiny hole, hardly noticeable, except that it would add several more hours to what had already been a very long day. Amman groaned while Raven cursed softly. Lady Namina chose that moment for another one of her visits. Raven immediately bent back over the piece, appearing to be deep in concentration over a particularly difficult section, having shifted her body minutely so as to obscure the lady's vision. The Kordarian lady seemed displeased that they were still hard at work; she had hoped to find them cleaning up. Amman assured her that with a piece as delicate, fine, and valuable as this one, they were being extra cautious to not leave evidence of a repair. He managed to soothe her while skillfully steering her out of the room, saying that it should take no more than an hour or two to finish.

"Thanks for getting rid of her, Amman," said Raven as soon as they were sure the Lady had retreated down the hallway. "I owe you a big one. On top of what I already owe you, of course!"

"It's not a problem. Let's just work on getting this bloody thing done, all right?" Amman smiled down at his friend.

Raven's nimble fingers actually managed to complete the job within the two hours Amman had thrown out to Lady Namina. She ran her eyes critically over the repaired snood, and smiled in satisfaction. It was not as fine as her master would have done, but certainly good enough that those untrained in the art wouldn't be able to tell where the newly attached links were, or that there were two sections of repair. She stretched and looked out the window. From the position of the sun she could tell it was late afternoon, at most two hours till dinner.

"I think I need a drink," she announced to the nomad, who was busy extinguishing the fire. "A stiff drink to match my stiff neck." She, too, began to tidy up the signs of their work; packing away her tiny scales, pliers, and the rest of her tools into the kit.

"I wonder how Rel's doing on her outing with Lord Gambovissi," said Amman. "I mistrust the way he looked at her, but I suppose she's perfectly capable of fending off any unwanted advances. Assuming, of course, that she wanted to fend them off …"

Raven grinned. Judging by her friends' blushes and babble about how handsome the Lord was, she didn't think fending the Master off would be foremost in Rel's mind. Her keen ears heard footsteps approaching. "Shhh … Here comes the lady." she warned Amman.

Lady Namina was visibly relieved to see them packing up. She examined the snood, and curtly nodded her head in approval. If Raven was hoping for a bit more praise, or thanks, for her hard work, she was to be sadly disappointed. The lady almost carelessly slid the golden confection back into its silken pouch and returned it to her bedroom. When she returned, she seemed almost startled to see them still there. She said, "I trust my husband will see to your payment? Good. I will see you at dinner, then."

It was clearly a dismissal. The companions took the hint and left quickly. Once out of earshot, Raven said in a huff, "What's her problem? You'd think we were her servants the way she treated us."

Amman smiled wryly. "I've heard that the Kordarians keep slaves …Maybe the Lady momentarily forgot we were not her property."

The two friends headed back to their rooms to dump Raven's kit and to check on the status of the rest of the group. They found the troll sleeping in the corner, as usual when not on active duty. Of Cahli there was no sign. Neither was Rel in her room. That didn't surprise Raven; the Master had said he wanted her all day. She didn't expect to see the elf till dinner.

Together, Amman and Raven decided to go for a walk around the hotel, to get some air after a whole day of being cooped up in the lady's sitting room. Amman wanted to go to the stables first, to check on Thunder. He was giving his riding lizzard a treat - a pressed grain and mealworm cake - when the big doors opened and two riders on lizzards entered: Rel and Lord Gambovissi. Why were they back early? Why was the lord shirtless? Why did he have a scowl on his face while Rel was positively smirking?

The stable boy scurried to assist his Master while Amman moved to help Rel dismount from her lizzard.

"I'll tell you what happened later," whispered Rel. Aloud, she spoke to the lord of the estate, who was rather stiffly dismounting from his lizzard, "Again, I regret that we had to cut our day together short, Lord Gambovissi. I was enjoying our outing immensely; it's been too long since I spent time with a charming fellow Kordarian. I must thank you once again for coming to my aid."

Lord Gambovissi had a rather strained smile on his handsome face, but he answered courteously enough. "Not at all, my dear Rel. It was the least I could do. I feel rather responsible that our, ah … outing was disrupted by those nasty pests. I hope that they did not cause you undue concern. As your host, my only concern is that your stay at the Hotel Gambovissi be a pleasant one."

He approached the friends as he moved towards the entrance to the house. They could see a few long bloody scratches on his well-muscled torso. "Now, if you'll please excuse me, I think it would be a good idea to clean up and change before dinner. I shall see everyone then."

Chapter 7 - Flings and Frays

Raven waited till the lord was well and gone before whispering, "Rel, what did you do to him?"

Amman broke in, "We were just about to head outside for some living air; we've been trapped in the lady's stone room all day. Why don’t you come with us and tell us what happened; less chance of 'rabbits' catching our words in their long ears that way."

Rel agreed; although she had been outside for most of the day, she welcomed the chance to stretch out her saddle-weary muscles. While she could sit a lizzard, she was not born to it as Amman was. As they walked around the grounds, she told them of her day.

The lord had shown her some of the land that belonged to their family. He had ridden his lizzard close to hers so they could converse; he had been very attentive. Zella had provided a basket with lunch, so they stopped at a picturesque little meadow to eat. He had spread a blanket down for them to sit on, providentially small so they had to sit close together. Rel giggled as she recalled how Lord Gambovissi had flirted with her. After a rather drawn-out lunch, they had continued their ride.

He took her to a small cottage, half hidden from view by large thickets of brambles. Ostensibly, it was a place to rest up before starting the ride back to the estate, but it soon became perfectly clear why Lord Gambovissi had brought her here. The quick tour of the modest cottage - in Raven's opinion, it sounded rather like a house only one of the wealthier members of her village back home could own - ended in the bedroom, which was surprisingly well-furnished for being only a rustic retreat. She was not surprised, however, when the handsome lord came up behind her, his fingers gently gliding over her hips to pull her close, and began to nuzzle her neck…

Amman broke in at this point, looking a little embarrassed, saying that it was not necessary to go into each intimate detail, to just get to the point of why Lord Gambovissi came back looking like a bedraggled cat. Raven, on the other hand, seemed to be drinking in each detail avidly.

Rel stated firmly, "Do you want to hear this story or not? If so, please be quiet and let me tell it my own way! Where was I? Oh yes… His lips were nuzzling my neck; little kisses and gentle bites. His hands were growing bolder; moving upward to stroke …"

"Oh, yes!" breathed Raven, eyes alight with delighted interest. Amman, on the other hand, his face flushed scarlet, seemed about to spontaneously combust at any moment.

Rel continued in her description of her seduction, relishing each caress and kiss. She went over how he had picked her up - no mean feat considering her size - and carried her to the bed. She assisted him in unbuttoning his shirt, which he casually threw into the corner of the room. He was in the middle of taking care of her buttons, his face buried between her breasts, when Rel noticed something odd outside the window.

She saw a little face, a strange furry monkey-like face, peering at her upside-down through the dusty glass with large golden eyes. Another one popped up beneath it, its movements quick and squirrel-like. It seemed to be about three feet tall, with a short furry tail. She smiled; they looked so cute! They "smiled" back at her, revealing two rows of rather large needle-sharp fangs. Their little paws that scratched at the window panes had sharp claws as well. Rel sat up, interrupting the lord's investigations, and pointed out their watchers. He seemed quite concerned when he caught sight of the strange little creatures, saying that he had thought their nest had been exterminated, or else he never would have come out here. He advised her to run round the cottage and make sure all the windows and doors were shut tight. He cursed as he looked for his sword, which had been hastily discarded somewhere in the bedroom.

Rel prudently caught up her weapon's belt and hurriedly buckled it on while she moved to check the windows. She gave a little gasp at seeing more of the little things peering at her from the other windows, she counted five, no … seven. Their clawed paws were scrabbling at the windows, attempting to find entrance. She no longer found them cute … rather some sort of demonic monkey-squirrel things with real menace in their grins.

One enterprising little fellow found a weak pane, and managed to break it sufficiently that he was able to agilely squirm through. He ran straight at Rel, fangs bared. She drew her broadsword and cleaved it just as it sprang at her. More were following the leader, however, and Rel moved back towards the kitchen where she knew the lord had gone to check the back door. They could hear scrabbling and chittering above them on the roof, and inside the chimney flue. One soot-covered creature landed on the kitchen hearth at the same time as several charged from the dining room. There were more behind those, and soon Rel and Lord Gambovissi were surrounded by the vicious creatures.

Rel dealt with hers quickly and efficiently, one swing with her sword was generally enough to incapacitate them, and her natural quickness helped her evade their teeth and claws. The lord wasn't quite so lucky, however. He was not even remotely as quick as the elf, and without his armor to protect him he had received several nasty scratches and bites. He did not seem to swing his sword with as much precision and skill as the elf, either, and had only managed to kill one of the creatures. Rel set herself upon the four still swarming about the unfortunate lord, and within a minute the floor was littered with the gory bits and pieces of her work, some of which were still twitching.

Rel was very pleased with her handiwork, but the lord found his previous ardor much diminished in light of his inadequacies as a protector;. He was mortified that she had had to protect him! He tried to be polite, but it was obvious that he was uncomfortable with her; he kept staring at her sword. Rel was a little disappointed there wouldn't be any further intimate moments with the darkly handsome lord. He hastened to assure her that he would still keep his bargain of six arrows for her time, and that made Rel feel better. She supposed he was one of those men who - mistakenly - thought that fighting was a man's work. Well, what did he suppose she did with the sword on her hip … Peel vegetables with it?

There really wasn't any reason to dally any further at the cottage, and it wouldn't do for more of the creatures to find them there. They dressed, gathered their belongings and their lizzard mounts and headed back to the estate. Rel tried to engage him in conversation, asking about the creatures and why they were so vicious, but Lord Gambovissi was withdrawn and didn't answer her questions. He did mutter something about his wife wondering where they had been so long, and what she would say when, despite the fact that his shirt bore no evidence of the fight, his wounds would say otherwise.

Rel sighed in exasperation, pulled her mount to a stop and walked over to where the lord had reigned up as well in puzzlement. She demanded his shirt, which he reluctantly unbuttoned and gave over. She promptly slashed it with a dagger, in the areas that had soaked up blood from the fresh wounds. She wadded it up and threw it in a bramble patch. She explained to the lord that if anyone were to find it now, they would assume he had thrown it away as useless after being ruined in the fight where he bravely defended her from vicious animals. She assured him that she would not tell anyone anything to contradict the story, least of all his wife. He seemed mollified, and they continued the trip back to the estate in silence.

"…And that's how the lord came to be riding back without his shirt, his dalliance, or his pride!" She chuckled; not maliciously, just amused at how prickly some humans were.

"Well, it seems as if you've had quite the adventure today, then," said Amman, with some envy in his voice. He hastened to add, "I mean, it sounds like it would have been interesting to have seen the land around the estate, and to have seen those monkey-squirrel things. Did he ever tell you more about them other than that they were considered a nuisance?"

Rel shook her head, "He didn't seem to want to talk about them at all. Maybe he was just too embarrassed about the whole incident."

"Maybe," agreed Amman. His curiosity still niggled at him, however.

They were approaching the orchard now in their walk. Raven's keen eyes caught movement among the apple trees. It was the strange elf they had met the day before. He was moving crouched over, looking at something at the base of a tree. He caught sight of them and froze behind a tree trunk, peering out with one eye. Raven approached, hand raised in a friendly wave. "Hello again!" she called. Rel and Amman followed her into the orchard.

The elf cautiously stepped out from behind the tree, looking suspiciously at Amman. He looked just as ragged and disheveled as the day before, only this time there were small leaves and twigs entangled in his wild hair. A dead rabbit hung by its legs from his belt.

Raven spoke again, "I'm sorry we didn't have a chance to introduce ourselves yesterday. I'm Raven, that's Rel and our friend Amman, who only arrived this morning." Rel and Amman nodded in greeting.

The elf's eyes darted between the friends before he spoke, "Me is Nub."

Amman said warmly, "It's a pleasure to meet you, Nub." The wild elf seemed startled by the courtesy.

"What are you looking for? Maybe we could help you …" Raven offered in a friendly manner.

Nub smiled, and crouched down so he could show them the snare set up at the base of the tree. "Nub catch rabbit. Good!" He rubbed his stomach with relish. "You want Nub catch rabbit for you? Eat?"

"Um… No thank-you," said Rel hastily, "We're expected for dinner back at the hotel shortly."

Nub recoiled, disgust plain on his face. He said, with some agitation, "No eat bad food! Nub no eat it. Nub eat what Nub catch." He caught up the rabbit hanging from his belt and thrust it at the group. "Rabbit good, you eat!"

When they still wouldn't take the proffered rabbit, he shrugged and seemed to lose all interest in them. Raven assured him that they would be careful, but he didn't respond. He moved away down the row of trees and bent to check a different snare. Raven called a goodbye to him before they moved out of the orchard. It was getting late; they would have no time to investigate the Mound before dinner. They walked together towards the estate house, pondering the meaning behind Nub's words.

"I think it has to do with the fact that the food here seems bigger than normal; it's different," opinioned Raven.

"Mutated," differentiated Amman. "Like the flowers out front. Maybe Nub thinks it's tainted in some way …"

"It sure tasted good," broke in Rel. "Dinner last night was unbelievable, some of the best I've ever had. I didn't care if it looked strange or not!"

Still discussing the possibilities in subdued voices, the group headed upstairs to freshen up before dinner. Dinner was a subdued affair. Master Gambovissi was there in a fresh toga, one that was carefully arranged to hide his scratches. From his slightly stiff movements, it was evident that they were bothering him. He was not as effusive as he had been during the previous dinner, and once everyone had finished eating there was no lingering small-talk over desert. After agreeing to meet in the morning for a settling of accounts, he quickly departed. Once the intimidating presence of their father had left, Rel was the subject of several curious glances from his children, but none approached her to ask how her outing had gone.

The group of friends gathered in the foyer to discuss what to do for the rest of the evening. Raven wanted to go check out the Mound, but agreed when Amman pointed out that, with the lord in a bad mood, it would be wise not to do anything to anger him; perhaps the Mound should be just left alone. They decided to just talk in Amman's room for a while before going to bed. The bed was more than big enough for them all to sit, or sprawl, comfortably, with the exception of the troll, who preferred to sit on the floor, anyway.

They discussed several theories about this place, but the only one they could agree on that might be right was that the Hotel Gambovissi was somehow caught in a pocket of reality/time different from the present one. Based on what he had been told plus what he had been able to glean from the Gambovissi family's conversation, Amman proposed that they must be from the old Kordarian Empire. How far into the past, however, he was not sure; his Kordarian history was rather shaky. Rel agreed with the priest, she thought that would explain why their clothing was so dreadfully old-fashioned. Rel also brought up the point that she thought the Hotel still existed in Kordar. She mentioned the plants in the garden, especially the roses, thrived in the more southern climate. As well, when she was out with the lord, they were definitely not riding in just any old valley of The Wall; the plants and even the temperature struck her as being from the south, surely even further south than Kordar City. They could make no sense of the strange glowing in the sky, however, nor account for the oversized food. Equally puzzling was what could have happened to Raven to cause her psychotic rampage yesterday.

They eventually gave up attempting to figure out the puzzle. Cahli rather pointedly kicked Raven and Rel out of the room so she could get some sleep. The two women went back to their room and readied themselves for bed. Raven felt comforted by the fact that the others were only one room away if there was trouble in the night; she fell asleep almost immediately.

Chapter 8 - Night Wanderings

Raven and Rel both woke with a start, hearts hammering. Before they knew it, they were out in the hall, attempting escape from the nightmare that had gripped them. They were surprised to find Amman, Cahli, and the troll out of their room, as well. They, too, looked frightened and drawn. None of them could remember the dream, however, nor why they were so unsettled by it.

"I'm too wound up to go back to bed," said Raven, even though it must have been close to three in the morning. "Anyone want to go for a little walk with me?" Rel and Amman agreed, but Cahli and the troll decided to try to get back to sleep. The three companions quickly ducked into their rooms to grab their clothes, then wandered down the hall.

"There were balconies facing the lake, remember? Let's try to find one." Raven led the way out of the tower and down the dimly lit hallway. Not too far down the hallway, past one of the staircases, she found a corridor heading in the right direction. They followed the corridor to its end; it looked like a lounge. There were chairs with cushions, couches, a low table. At the far wall were large double-doors opening onto a balcony. Moonlight streamed in through their glass panes, helping to illuminate the room.

Rel moved to open the balcony doors right away, with Amman close behind. Raven lagged behind. She smelled something that niggled at her; something akin to smoke. It had a slightly sulphurous tinge to it. She wandered around the room trying to pinpoint the source of the smell, but with no luck. She was bent over a chair sniffing at the cushions, when a voice spoke up from behind her.

"Hello there, Raven. What are you doing up at this hour?"

Raven whirled, startled. It was Ventusio, the youngest. He was leaning casually up against the doorway, hands behind his back, with an amused look on his face.

"Um… Hi. I couldn't sleep. I mean, we all couldn't sleep." Raven gestured to the balcony where they could see Amman and Rel leaning over the rail.

"I'm very glad to find you awake, then. Care to join me for a drink?" He straightened gracefully and smoothly brought out a wine bottle and two glasses from behind his back. Moonbeams and shadows played across his smooth cheeks and in his hair as he walked over to where Raven still stood beside the chair, frozen as if mesmerized. He handed her a crystal wineglass and poured her a good measure of a red wine; it looked almost black in the dark room. His equally dark eyes regarded her playfully over the rim of his own glass as he took a sip.

"Mmm … Good. Dad stocks a good cellar, wouldn't you agree?"

Raven nodded after her first tentative sip. It was indeed a good wine, as far as her unschooled palate could tell.

Ventusio took another sip, then leaned against the back of Raven's chair. "So … Tell me. What are you and your friends really doing here? Are you here for The Key?" The way he emphasized it it was obviously more than just an ordinary key he was referring to. At Raven's blank look he continued, "Which one of you is the noble? It can't be Rel; she's the Elf. It can't be you; you're the Werewolf, although you must be of the right bloodline, of course!"

Raven gaped. How had he known she was a werewolf? Had he somehow seen her psychotic transformation yesterday? "What are you talking about?" she managed to get out.

The young man sighed, as if in exasperation. "You know … There has to be a Noble, an Elf and a Werewolf to own a Key. Secate Forius gave it to my father for safekeeping till the right time. I've heard that it's magical. Maybe it opens something between the Secate and the Emperor! At any rate, my father has been waiting almost a year for the right noble to come for it."

Raven shrugged. "I'm sorry, Ventusio, but I don't know anything about that. And I'm pretty sure that none of us are of noble blood! No, we're just here to do some trading with your father. That's all."

Ventusio looked disappointed. "Oh … That's too bad. It would have been exciting if the Noble had finally come …" He shrugged. "Nothing interesting ever happens around here." His eyes gleamed, and his mouth curved into a smile over his wineglass. "Except for you, that is. You, I find very interesting …" His dark eyes roved over her face, and his fingers casually reached out to twine gently around one of her errant curls. "I haven't met very many werewolves before."

Raven's breath caught in her throat, and her heart began to pound for a very different reason altogether than the nightmare that had awakened her earlier. This boy had to be at least five years younger than her; why was she reacting like a giddy young girl at his flirtations? Nevertheless, she found her body responding to his frank appraisal. This was no callow, inexperienced boy, but a very attractive, self-assured young man who, for some reason, seemed to find her desirable. She smiled invitingly. "Let me guess," she said teasingly, "You'd like to get to know me better, right?"

Ventusio grinned back at her, thoroughly charming, and his eyes sparkled as he leaned closer to whisper in her ear, his warm breath stirring her black curls, "Much, much better, in fact!"

Raven threw caution to the wind. Her only response to his whisper was to turn her head and meet his lips with her own in a kiss; a long, wine-moistened caress with mouth and tongue. "Will that do as a proper introduction?" she asked when they could breathe again.

Ventusio laughed softly, his eyes still focused on her mouth. "I don't know. I might have to try it again to make up my mind …" He drew her in again, entangling his hands in her hair to hold her captive. His kisses were soft at first, then more insistent as his passions heightened. Raven moaned with the pleasure his lips and tongue elicited in her; she responded with artless abandon, giving as good as she got. Their hands caressed and roved even as their mouths remained locked together. Ventusio held her back for a moment for a breath. "Raven, I want you … I want you very badly," he whispered unsteadily into her hair.

"I want you too …" she admitted, her breath coming fast.

"Raven, I've never done it with a werewolf before. Would you … Do you think you would Change for me?"

Raven drew back to look at him in astonishment, and also a bit of amusement. They must really be precocious in the glorious Empire, she guessed, or else they're all a little twisted! She was also a little shocked at herself that she would be willing to go along with his desires. In a flash of inspiration, or madness perhaps, she saw a way to both satisfy her curiosity about the mysteries of the Hotel Gambovissi as well as her lustful urges with this delicious young man before her. Improvising, she said coaxingly, "You know what really turns me on, Ventusio? I like danger; I like taking risks. I would certainly Change for you if you were to take me someplace forbidden, like up to the West Tower …"

It was Ventusio's turn to look startled, and a look of unease flickered briefly behind his eyes. "The West Tower? I don't know … My father would kill me if he found out I had been nosing around in there again!" He groaned when Raven's hands slowly slid down from around his neck to below his belt, a most unfair method of persuasion! She leaned in close for another deep kiss, and when they both came up for air he capitulated, "All right! All right. I just need to grab a key. I know where my dad hides it so I won't be long. Don't go anywhere, I'll be right back!" He almost tipped the chair over in his haste to be away on his mission; all previous poise gone in youthful exuberance.

Rel grinned to herself, straightened her shirt where hands had gone wandering, and strolled out to the balcony where Amman and Rel were still looking around. They seemed to be engaged in a discussion of whether the stars they saw in the night sky were the same ones as above The Wall.

"Well, where have you been?" asked Rel when she finally noticed the werewolf's quiet presence. She took in Raven's slightly swollen lips and flushed countenance, and her eyes narrowed in speculation. "More importantly, what have you been doing, or should I say who?"

Raven blushed furiously, but admitted the truth with a smile. "I was with Ventusio. We seem to be um … getting along quite well. He's going to show me the West Tower; he just went to get the key."

"Raven! You cradle-robber! How naughty of you … really. You'll have to tell us everything when you get back; I mean everything! If the son kisses half as well as the father does, you'll certainly have fun."

"Raven, do you really think you should be doing this?" cautioned Amman. "It strikes me as awfully dangerous. Didn't you tell me the young man got disciplined for going to the West Tower? What if you get caught? Do you trust him enough to be alone with him?"

"Don't worry so much, Amman. I'll be fine. I can take care of myself; I'm a big girl!" Raven laughed.

He still looked worried, "Well, just please be careful, all right?"

The Were smiled. Out here on the balcony the moonlight turned her gray eyes silvery; they glittered unnervingly. "No Amman. I think it is he who should be careful of me!" She waggled her brows suggestively, then laughed at his shocked expression. "Don't worry. I promise I'll be careful." She caught movement out of the corner of her eye. It looked like her eager young tour guide was back already. She moved back into the darkened lounge while speaking over her shoulder, "It might take a while for him to show me around, so don't wait up for me, all right?"

Ventusio was waiting for her at the doorway. His face looked slightly flushed as if he had run the whole way. He flashed her a brilliant smile when he saw her emerge from the balcony doors. He had a blanket tucked under one arm, and he showed her the large steel key in his other hand. "No problem, dad has no imagination when it comes to hiding places. Are you ready?"

She caught his hand and squeezed in reply. Still holding fast to her hand he led her through the hallways and corridors leading towards the West Tower. Once, as they began to climb the stairs inside the tower, they had to freeze with their backs to the wall. They could hear loud, angry voices on the landing below. Dreading to hear them ascending the stairs they waited with their hearts in their mouths. They let their breath out slowly in relief when they heard the slam of a door and footsteps rapidly running down the stairs. Raven gave Ventusio a little nudge to keep going.

They continued to climb, right to the top of the tower. Before them was a large solid steel door, very imposing. Ventusio hesitated as he looked at it. He would be in very deep trouble if he were found here. He took a look at Raven, who smiled her encouragement, and he found his resolve. He put the key in the lock, turned it firmly, and gave the door a push. It swung open silently and heavily. Ventusio slipped out two candles from his pocket he had thoughtfully picked up while retrieving the key, and lit them from the candle burning in a sconce in the stairwell.

They entered the tower room, and set the candles down upon a block of black and white marble close to the door. The candles' soft glow illuminated the large room. It was mostly empty, except for various things hung up on the walls. The floor was the same cold white marble found in other areas of the house. Their footsteps echoed slightly in the open space as did the sound of the heavy door closing behind them. Raven shivered slightly; the place felt unsettling to her. She smiled as Ventusio came up behind her and enfolded her in his arms; his chest felt warm and solid under her head. She turned and embraced him; their lips met and, surrendering to their passions, they sank to the floor.

Almost two hours later the young lord lay satiated upon the blanket he had spread on the floor. He hovered on the edge of sleep, a satisfied smile upon his lips. Raven, on the other hand, found sleep to be the furthest thing from her mind, despite the intense bout of lovemaking and the late hour. She Changed back into her human form, not bothering to dress, and wandered around the room exploring the strange objects hung on the walls.

She saw a silver-tipped arrow and wondered if it was the same kind of arrow they had come here to trade for. She had to squash an impulse to take it down from the small display shelf it was set upon. She moved on to the next object; some sort of diploma set in a frame. Not being able to read, Raven only gave it a cursory glance. Next she inspected a portrait of two men in togas, neither of whom she recognized. Perhaps they were that Secate they talked about and the Emperor; it seemed as good a guess as any. Hanging from its handle, she next came across a shovel. It seemed a very odd choice of object to display to Raven, but then again, these Kordarians seemed to be an odd people. She resolved to ask Ventusio about it later when he was more awake. Next on the wall was a sketch of a statue, very realistically done. It seemed to be a metallic, male warrior type with a shortsword, javelin and net. Perhaps it was some sort of gladiator; Rel had told her that the gladiatorial arenas were very popular in the Empire.

Raven approached the last item hung on the walls; a key in a frame. It was a large bronze key in a very unusual design. Raven felt drawn to inspect its intricacies closely. The end was a flat circle, empty in the middle. The shaft had something inscribed upon it and it ended in a very sharp point; so sharp it could draw blood. The shaft had several projections sticking out from different angles around it; Raven saw a tiny double-bladed axe, a five-leaf clover, the haft of a cuutuer - an unusual defensive dagger more commonly found in the Kordarian Empire - and a strangely misshapen skull. She got the feeling it was not a human skull.

In fact, she was getting the feeling that something strange was happening to her when once more darkness descended abruptly and Raven knew no more …

* * *

Rel and Amman lingered for a space after Raven left the balcony. In truth, the nomad was loath to go back into the building, or the "stone tent" as he referred to them. He would have preferred to sleep out here if he could have, but he didn't like the idea of being too far away from the rest of his friends. They were about to head back inside when he noticed movement down below on the grounds. He nudged Rel and they both looked over the rail in curiosity.

The figure gliding over the lawn towards the lake was none other than Lady Namina, in a long green dress. She walked steadily towards the water, and onto the pier. When she reached the dock, she paused briefly before jumping in! To Amman and Rel's open astonishment, she swam out towards the middle of the lake, then disappeared under the water. They waited for her to re-appear, but after almost a minute she still hadn't resurfaced.

"By the gods!" Amman swore, "She's drowned! Rel, we have to do something!"

Rel quickly considered jumping off the balcony to the turf below, but just as quickly discarded that thought. Who did she think she was, a cocky werewolf who could make the jump and land on her feet? She caught Amman by the hand and pulled him after her into the dark lounge and the corridor beyond. They ran down the stairs, and towards the corridor leading to the stables, which was the fastest route to the lake. Amman shouted for help as they ran, but the house remained silent behind them.

Up ahead they could see that the doors to the stable were slightly ajar. Rel pushed them open hastily and they ran through the maze of stalls, their footsteps muffled by the thick layer of straw strewn upon the ground. Rel abruptly skidded to a stop at a most unusual sight: the stable boy dangling from the rafters, trussed up in what looked to be some sort of harness. He looked bored, almost as if this had happened to him many times before. When he noticed their disbelieving stares, he shrugged and pointed with his chin to one of the nearby stalls, from which they could hear odd sounds.

Amman signaled that he was going to continue onwards. Rel, however, couldn't restrain her curiosity. She quickly peeked into the stall, then heartily wished she hadn't. There, in the mounded straw at the back of the stall were two nude figures in the throes of passion: Gabo and Meriella! Meriella clutched at her brother's wide, muscular shoulders as he moved inside of her, her eyes closed in enjoyment. Even as Rel recoiled in disgust at the incestuous sight, a small part of her awareness noted the scars upon Gabo's back, like deep gouging claw marks. What could have attacked the man to leave such horrible scars? Perhaps they were partly to blame for his horrible disposition - although he didn't seem terribly out of sorts at the moment …

Rel shook her head to dispel the twisted vision even as she turned to catch up with Amman, who was continuing his hue and cry for help. "I knew the Empire had a history of excess and debauchery, but this is ridiculous!" she thought to herself as she ran. She easily caught the priest and together they ran down to the lake. It had only taken about one minute in total to reach the lake; there was still hope they would find the Lady Namina alive. Amman called out for her, his eyes scanning the water.

Without hesitating, Rel pelted down the pier and dove noisily in. She swam out towards where they had seen the lady go under. The further out she swam, the warmer the water got. The reeds and water-weeds were absent here in the middle of the small lake, and under the moonlight the waters were crystal-clear. She took a deep breath and dove under, looking to catch sight of the lady's green dress. In this light and with such clear water it would glow like a beacon. Nothing. She rose to the surface and called out to Amman, who was carefully making his way around the perimeter of the lake, searching the reeds to see if Lady Namina had by chance washed up on the banks.

Rel dove under again, swimming further towards the center of the lake. The water was very warm by now, and its heat brought with it a sudden sense of lassitude, an overwhelming desire to let go and sink to the bottom. For a moment she began to sink, and a thin trickle of bubbles arose as breath escaped her mouth, but then she started violently as she came to her senses and kicked strongly up to the surface. It seemed impossibly far away and her lungs were burning when she finally broke the surface. Gasping for air, she realized that she had narrowly escaped the clutches of some sort of water spirit seeking to draw her down to its watery abode.

She wasted no further time searching for the lady after that. She swam as fast as she could back to the pier and hauled herself out. She was shivering from the sudden change in water temperature; by the pier the water was positively frigid. Amman came splashing through the shallows to help her and find out why she had come back so rapidly. She told him in an unsteady voice what had happened. "I would bet anything that that's what happened to Lady Namina. For some reason she decided to go swimming, in the middle of the night, in a dress, and was pulled down by the water-spirit's call."

Amman hugged his friend to ward off her chills. "Why isn't anyone coming to help? I shouted loud enough to wake the dead; what's the matter with them!" Frustrated, he bellowed for help yet again, but still no stirring from the house, or from the stables. "Where were Gabo and Meriella," Rel wondered to herself. "They had to have heard the commotion …"

Amman shook his head, baffled. "You don't think we hallucinated the whole thing, do you? That it was just a specter of our overactive imaginations?"

Seemingly materializing from thin air, Nub stepped onto the pier. The two friends gave a nervous start as his footsteps echoed hollowly towards them.

"Oh, Nub!" Amman cried in relief, "Thanks be to Longstrider that you heard me! Something terrible has happened; Lady Namina has drowned in the lake! We saw her go in from our window, and she has not come out."

Nub was silent, but he strode past them to kneel at the end of the pier to peer into the lake waters. He leaned far over, and fished with his hand under the wooden planks. Rel had a dizzying sense of déjà vu as she watched him; it was the same pose as when she and Raven first spied him through their window the first day.

She shook her head, and walked closer to the other elf. "What is it? Do you think she might have drifted under the pier?" She took a deep breath to steel herself against the cold water, and jumped in. She swam close to the wooden pilings and peered into the underbelly of the pier, but she couldn't see anything. Curious, from where she was in the water she could feel a slight tug, as if in the middle of a current. She swam to the next piling, but still couldn't make out anything unusual; it was too dark under the walkway. Again, she hauled herself out, streaming water onto the rough planks of the pier.

"I'm sorry, Nub, but I couldn't see anything; it was pretty dark. There was a bit of a current, though, so perhaps her body will drift this way. We should get lanterns or torches to have a better look …" Rel's voice died off as Nub, shrugging, ambled off the pier without so much as a word. He didn't seem to be heading to the house to get help, however. Instead, he looked to be wandering towards the orchard.

"What is wrong with these people?" demanded Amman in exasperation. "No one except one loopy elf comes to help out, and even he can't be bothered to do more than fish around in the water with one hand? This is too strange. Perhaps we really did imagine the whole thing …"

Rel shook her head. "I know what I saw. I'll tell you something else that wasn't a figment of my imagination …" She told the priest what she had seen in the stables.

"Bah!" he snorted in disgust. "So … That's what comes from living in a stone tent all your life; hiding away from the wind and the sky. How can you expect a sapling to grow into a proud straight tree if it's deprived of the nourishing earth and the bounty of the heavens? I don't understand. Longstrider give me tolerance …" he pleaded.

They decided to do one more search around the perimeter of the lake, just in case. They felt dispirited, sick at heart at the apparent callousness of the Gambovissi's. They walked in silence for a while, scanning the reed-choked shallows for a tell-tale flash of green, but to no avail.

At one point in their search, Rel gave a cry of delight as she spotted something altogether different from the green dress. On a dry bank overlooking the lake she saw a stand of rose bushes. The blossoms were opened to drink in the moonlight, and their velvety petals were of darkest ebony.

"Black Roses!" she enthused. "I never thought I'd see any of these. Amman, do you know how rare these flowers are? Fantastic …" She touched the delicate petals reverently. "Now I know for sure this place is not in The Wall; Black Roses would never grow this far north. Say … Amman, do you think it would be all right if I picked one? There's so many of them, they shouldn't mind just one, don't you think?" At the nomad's shrug, she carefully searched for the perfect flower, one just beginning to unfurl its midnight petals, plucked it and tucked the stem into her décolletage. "Oh, what the hell!" she said, and before she could change her mind quickly knelt and uprooted a small specimen growing beside the main stand of roses. She carefully kept the roots intact inside a ball of soil.

"Come on, Amman. Let's just go back to our rooms. Its perfectly clear that no-one is going to bother to bestir themselves tonight. We might as well get a few hours of sleep ourselves before heading out in the morning." Cradling her little rose plant in her hands, Rel turned her back on the lake, and on all the insanity of the night. They walked back to the house together. "I wonder what adventures Raven's been having tonight. Hopefully better than ours …"

Chapter 9 - Hasty retreats

Raven woke up, bleary eyed and sticky mouthed. She was cradling something in her hands … A head! She dropped the thing in shock and it rolled over onto its side before she realized with sick relief that it was only a deer head. It's dead, glass eyes stared at her vacantly. "Wait a minute," she thought. "A deer head? What's going on? Where am I?" She took a quick look around and finally caught her bearings. She was huddled behind a chair in the trophy room, hastily dressed and in her human form. There seemed to be no one else around, thanks be to Longstrider! She stood up slowly from her hiding place, this time looking carefully around the room. She located the place on the wall where she must have ripped the head from its mounting; there was no way she could reattach it. She settled for kicking the poor dead beast's head behind the chair, out of sight.

Raven made her cautious way to the door and listened. Not hearing anything suspicious, she opened it and slipped into the hallway, then scurried upstairs as fast as she could go. She went straight to the room she shared with Rel. When she opened it, she saw Rel awake and packing up their belongings into their backpacks.

She gave a cry of relief upon seeing Raven. "Thank the gods you're back! I was really beginning to get worried when I woke up and you weren't here. So, how was your … tour? Where is your guide this morning?"

Raven looked almost sick then, and Rel stopped stuffing things into the backpack to really examine her friend critically. "What happened? What's wrong, Raven?"

"I'm not sure … I had a really great time with Ventusio. He was great; he showed me up to the West Tower and things got really friendly, you know? But after that, I can't remember anything. I think I might have had another one of those 'psychotic breaks' again, like Amman said. I'm afraid I might have done something to Ventusio …" The Were looked absolutely miserable.

"Hang on," said the elf, "I'm going to get Amman. You can tell us both everything you remember, all right?"

Raven nodded her head dejectedly, and sat slumped on the bed till the door opened and a concerned-looking Amman bustled in followed by Rel. They sat on the bed with her, Rel stroking her brown hand, and asked her to tell them what had happened. She proceeded to tell them everything that she could remember, although - mercifully as far as Amman was concerned - she skipped over most of the lovemaking details with Ventusio. She described the room at the top of the West Tower, and it's contents as best as she could, and that the last thing she could remember looking at was the strange bronze key on the wall, till she woke up in the trophy room later this morning.

Amman looked troubled. "We need to get you out of here, Raven. This is not good. Between what's been happening to you and what went on with us while you were gone, I think we need to get out of here as soon as possible!"

"Why, what happened to you guys?" questioned Raven.

"It's a rather long story," replied Rel, "We'll fill you in when we travel. Let's just concentrate on getting rid of this accursed place for now. Come on, let's get you cleaned up a bit before we head downstairs to collect our arrows."

"The arrows!" exclaimed Raven. "What are we going to do? We only have eleven of the twelve we need! I saw one on the wall in the tower, but there's no way I'm going back up there. What if I've killed Ventusio? What if they're finding the evidence even as we speak?" Her voice sank into a horrified whisper, "What if I've eaten the evidence!"

Rel spoke sternly. "Raven, get a grip! Come on, just focus on one thing at a time. We're going to wash up, head downstairs, meet with the master like nothing strange has happened, get our arrows and get out. We'll deal with not having enough arrows later. One thing at a time."

Raven nodded woodenly, and allowed Rel to propel her into the bathroom to clean up. Behind them, Amman headed back to his room to finish packing up his gear. While standing still as Rel combed out her tangled hair and drew it back from her pale face in a hasty braid, she was aware of an unfamiliar weight in the pocket of her trousers. Wonderingly, she put her hand in and drew out the heavy object: the bronze key from the tower room! She stared at it in amazement, how could she have not noticed it before? Why had she taken it?

"Oh gods!" she heard Rel exclaim behind her, comb forgotten in her hand. "Raven, did you steal that from the tower? Did you take anything else you've forgotten about?"

Raven checked her clothes carefully. No; there didn't seem to be anything else hidden in her pockets. She shook her head in anticipation of Rel's question, "No, I'm not going to take it back up to the tower room. No way. The only decision is to either leave it here in this room or to take it with us." After a moment's thought, she went to her backpack, carefully wrapped the key in her spare clothes, and placed it inside. "There. Let's not mention this to Amman till we are well away from this place, all right Rel?"

Rel nodded. Walking to her own pack, she carefully tucked her golden comb away for safekeeping, beside the carefully watered and wrapped little rose plant. Shouldering her burden, she said, "Let's get out of here …"

* * *

The group of companions and travelers picked their way over the rocky mountain trail, the hotel long behind. The troll went first, as was his wont, to scout out any possible danger. For once, Cahli elected to stay behind with the group; she wanted to catch up on all of the adventures she had missed while sleeping. She walked at Amman's side as he rode Thunder, retelling the tale of their search by the lake. Rel and Raven walked slightly ahead, chipping in now and then. Rel was speaking …

"Did you see the look on his face when he saw the Black Rose in my shirt? I had forgotten that a Black Rose tucked into a woman's décolletage means seduction in Kordarian Culture, till his eyes almost popped out of his head when he saw it. He looked like he wanted to run far, far away, fast! And for a change, Gabo didn't look like he wanted to hit someone. I would almost swear he was smiling." She laughed. "I think that Lord Gambovissi was more than happy to rid himself of his guests this time."

Amman commented, "Too bad that he wouldn't allow us to buy the twelfth arrow from him. We'll figure something out with the weaponsmith, I'm sure. At any rate, I'm not sure we could have afforded the price. Even with Rel's 'Favorite of the Emperor' discount, we spent a whole lot of our coin on this venture. I hope Hunts-Like-Bear appreciates what we went through for him …"

"I only wish we had found out if Ventusio was all right," said Raven quietly. "When he didn't show up at breakfast, or during the final exchange of arrows, I got really worried. But his father didn't say anything …"

"Don't worry, Raven," soothed Amman. "I'm sure he's fine. He didn't mention anything about his wife or son being missing, did he? Any way, I'm sure he would have been far more upset if anything from his precious West Tower had gone missing."

Raven choked. "Um … Amman? About the West Tower … there's something I have to tell you. Remember that key …?"

Editor's Note

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