The silence between them was not broken again until they came upon an opportunity for Owl to do his job.
“The first rule is to look for anything out of place,” the thief explained after carefully shepherding them around a stretch of the hallway marked by several slightly protruding floorboards. “Anything that should be flat or flush with another surface but inexplicably isn’t might be concealing a mechanism you don’t wanna disturb. We’re pretty lucky this is such an old place and hasn’t updated its décor, in fact. You get into modern environments and this is a lot harder. Lots of finicky little decorative touches that can conceal devices, and the gadgets themselves are engineered a lot more precisely. Small enough to hide better. This, though, all the heavy timber and rough stone, simple ironwork… Much easier to spot traps.”
“What d’you suppose might’ve happened if we stepped on those floorboards?” Admestus asked innocently.
“If you’re real curious you can go back and try it,” Owl drawled. “Given our job here I didn’t reckon it was worth the trouble.”
“Quite so,” Lord Rhadid agreed. “We have all seen how dangerous the Manor can be. Let us not tempt fate.”
“On that, a word of warning,” Owl added. “A really clever or devious trap-maker who’s expecting skilled intruders might hide a sneaky trap close to an obvious one to make you blunder into it. Or get you used to avoiding easily-spotted mechanisms and then spring something really subtle on you. I get the impression Manor Dire, or Diristaan’s ghost, or whatever the intelligence around here is doesn’t lack for cleverness. It’s definitely used to meeting skilled intruders. So keep your eyes peeled, don’t make assumptions and don’t ever get cocky.”
“Good advice for all situations,” said Rhadid, nodding approvingly. “Let’s proceed, everyone. Without dawdling, but also without excessive haste.”
“About how many yards per second would you say is the sweet spot, eh?” Admestus asked, jabbing Eric’s shoulder with his elbow.
“I will make it known if my expectations are not being met,” Lord Rhadid answered for him, with an even and pointed stare at the alchemist.
That killed the conversation again.
Their next encounter came upon them by surprise, and quite suddenly. The group slowed by unspoken consensus as they neared an intersection of halls, wary of the Manor’s tricks. As it happened, what came around the corner at them without warning was no device of Manor dire. Fresh from the memory of their last debacle, Owl and Eric both came to a stop, throwing their arms wide to prevent any reflexive actions by those behind them. It was unnecessary, as neither Rhadid nor Admestus were that twitchy or that rash. The alchemist did pretend to trip over Eric, though.
Up ahead, the group of half a dozen soldiers in Imperial uniforms likewise stopped. They had instinctively brought staves to bear on Rhadid’s group, but just as quickly raised them upon assessing the situation.
“What in the hell?” exclaimed the woman in the front, who had a lieutenant’s bars on her collar. “Just what in Omnu’s name do you think you’re doing in here?”
“The same as you, I rather think,” Rhadid replied calmly, pushing past Owl’s outstretched arm to take a position at the head of the group.
“Well, cut it out and sod off back the way you came, citizen,” she said bluntly. “This dungeon is off-limits to civilians.”
“No, it is not,” Rhadid said. “As I have already explained to your colleagues guarding the front access. The law is clear on this point.”
She closed her eyes for a moment, shaking her head. “That lazy piece of— If I find out you bribed your way in here I will personally see that you’re brought up on corruption charges along with Lieutenant Adaan. Name, now!”
He sketched a shallow bow, managing somehow to make the gesture subtly mocking. “I am Lord Rhadid Daraspian. And you are…?”
“Figures,” the lieutenant grunted. “Listen, Lord Daraspian—”
“Lord. Rhadid,” he enunciated in a tone that cut through even the prospect of dissent. “I was under the impression that basic etiquette was included in Army training, Lieutenant. Only a Head of House is addressed by title and surname, all others by title and given name. Fortunately for us all, my grandfather is not here.”
Admestus and one of the soldiers behind the lieutenant grinned broadly. Owl and two of the other soldiers grimaced in anticipation of what would inevitably follow.
“Thank you,” she said in a dangerously even tone, “for the reminder, your Lordship. Here’s one for you: Army operations in an active dungeon are treated under the law as wartime activities. Thus, interfering in them can be adjudged as treason before a military tribunal not answerable to any House, and in the meantime, I can order my troops to shoot you where you stand if I deem it necessary.”
“Which you clearly do not,” Rhadid replied. “I frankly see no relevance to any of that, since I am not interfering with you in any fashion and in fact look forward to parting ways. And I was not simply exchanging polite courtesy, Lieutenant. I require your name and that of your commanding officer.”
Her eyes narrowed to slits, and all the amusement vanished from the faces of the other soldiers.
“Uh, point of order here, m’lord,” Owl interjected. “Speaking from a strictly practical position, if somebody maybe has the legal right to shoot you it may not be best to make that their most attractive option. As you said, nobody here’s a threat or even necessarily a nuisance to anyone else. How’s about we leave it at that and shuffle along?”
“Never thought I’d say this, LT, but the adventurer’s got a point,” one of the soldiers remarked.
“He does,” she agreed, eyes on Lord Rhadid. “But that’s not really up to me, is it? If his Lordship is bound and determined to turn this into an issue that goes beyond the walls of the Manor, it’s clearly not for the likes of us to gainsay him.”
“I am determined only to pursue my mission here,” Rhadid said, still perfectly calm. “It makes no difference to me, Lieutenant, whether you let my party pass with no comment or fervently wish that I am eaten by the Manor, so long as you do not impede me. If that is not your intent, I am content to concern myself no further with your lapses in manners. One can expect only so much from the common soldier, after all.”
“Yeah, see, that’s the kinda stuff that’s not helping smooth this over,” Owl muttered.
“In that case, we common soldiers won’t keep your Lordship from your business,” she declared. “Fall in and let’s go.”
Rhadid’s group moved to one side of the hallway to let the soldiers file past.
“There’s some trapped floorboards back that way,” Admestus informed them, “if the house hasn’t rearranged itself since. Careful where you put your feet.”
“Thanks for the heads up,” said one of the troops, nodding to him. Moments later they were past, and proceeding briskly down the hall.
“Well, now, that’s just unfriendly,” Admestus muttered, turning to watch them go with his fists planted on his hips. “I warned them about what was ahead. Is it too much to hope for a little turnabout, there?”
“You, ah, don’t interact much with the commoners in your society, do you, m’Lord?” Eric asked hesitantly.
“In point of fact, I have,” Rhadid replied. “I find it is well worth the effort of cultivating goodwill, where the prospect of such exists. In cases where I need swift compliance from someone I can expect never to meet again, it is often more effective to strategically invoke the resentment many of them carry in the first place, and bend it to my own ends. There is seldom a swifter way to make resentful little people leave. None of which matters for our purposes, now that the obstruction is abolished. On we go.”
“Onward and upward!” Admestus agreed cheerfully.
As if his words had been prophetic, they rounded the corner to find a staircase ascending to the next floor. Owl led the way again, moving carefully and checking for ominous features of the architecture.
None appeared in the next few minutes, however, and by proceeding with deliberate care, the party made steady progress over the hours that followed. Owl’s sharp eyes kept them out of most of the traps, though as he lamented, creeping through a trapground by himself was a far cry from ushering a group of amateurs through the same, and they did not pass unscathed. Even their lapses did not bring them to significant grief, however. All of them were sufficiently adroit to avoid the marble bust which tipped over on them, and Eric proved too physically sturdy to be much damaged by the toppling bookcase he wasn’t nimble enough to evade. Lord Rhadid and Eric were both struck by the darts which a stuffed moose head spat at them when they stepped on the rug in front of it, but Admestus was able to swiftly neutralize the poison and standard healing potions made quick work of the minor puncture wounds thus inflicted.
Traps aside, they did encounter several puzzles. None blocking their paths, but Eric strongly advised pausing to solve these as part of gaining the house’s favor, to which Lord Rhadid acquiesced.
Eric’s knowledge of history and literature got them through the questions asked by the talking book they encountered upon a pedestal in the middle of the second-floor hall. Their reward for passing this impromptu quiz was a map of the surrounding hallways, which they used to avoid several clearly marked dangers, unlock a gate sealed by a complex mechanical puzzle that Owl ultimately solved, and proceed up another flight of steps to a third floor and beyond the map’s knowledge, at which time the piece of parchment itself turned blank.
The house did seem to go out of its way to test them each individually. Only Rhadid was equipped and skilled enough to defeat the animated fencing dummies which barred one corridor, and Admestus was able to make sense of the table of cups and bottles positioned before a wall of fire, mixing a potion from the supplied ingredients that enabled them to pass through the flames unscorched. Owl paused to solve a blacksmith’s puzzle sitting ostentatiously atop a stool, which then turned into a ring of keys that got them through a series of nearby doors, ultimately leading to a single door with no key, but a keyhole nearly as tall as Eric with two large shafts of iron standing nearby. Owl coached them through the basics of lockpicking and managed to lead a team effort which required the strength of all four, but eventually succeeded in springing the giant tumbler and letting them through.
That proved to be the pattern. Any challenge they could not solve, they could simply go around, though a path thus taken tended to lead nowhere interesting for a long time. A successfully passed puzzle, however, would lead quickly to another. The house was an ever-shifting maze and it grew progressively more difficult to grasp where they were in relation to where they had started, to say nothing of how long they had been there. They did not encounter any more servants of the house, however, neither zombies, the spectral servitors Eric had warned them to expect, nor semi-permanent guests making themselves useful like Tellwyrn.
When Admestus finally worked out the right combinations of weedkillers and fertilizers to coax a row of potted vines to shift their foliage away from a pair of double doors, the group encountered their first dead end, but also their first sign of open approval from the Manor since losing Tamara.
“It’s just the two rooms,” Owl reported, coming back through the only other door in the comfortable bedchamber into which they had emerged. “No other exits, though there’s a little washroom in the second one. Looks like your basic hotel suite. That’s a smaller and somewhat nicer bedroom in there, while you’ve got the second bed and chairs up here.”
“Hm,” Lord Rhadid mused, looking around. It was a rather cozy chamber, rustic as most of the Manor’s décor was, complete with a fully blazing fireplace and a stuffed unicorn head mounted above the mantle. “Professor, what do you think?”
“I’ll tell you what I think,” Admestus declared, flopping onto his back on the bed and lacing his fingers behind his head. “I think we’re about due for a break! Oh, my poor aching toesies…”
“I very specifically did not ask what you thought,” Rhadid answered him in a biting tone. “Professor Ahlstrom, I believe you said that an open bedroom was tantamount to an offer of safety?”
“All precedent confirms that, my Lord,” Eric agreed. “This is a very positive development! The house is a good host to those it deems good guests, and it would seem we have regained that status. I do recommend taking advantage of the offer.”
“I am loath to lose time,” Rhadid murmured, frowning at the wall in thought.
“None of us are tired to the point of collapse yet,” Owl said. “Shut up, Rafe. As I was saying, Lord Rhadid, there’s no telling when the next offer of safe shelter will come. If we push on, aside from having to backtrack outta here, we run the risk of being dangerously exhausted by the time we get another chance to rest.”
“Remember, we are guests here,” Eric added. “Rejecting an offer of hospitality may be taken as an insult, even if it’s done less violently than the last…well, you know.” He trailed off awkwardly, as all of them tended to do when reminded of that unpleasantness.
“I believe you are correct,” Rhadid said after a momentary pause. “On all counts. Very well, then, we camp here. Make yourselves as comfortable as you can. We will move out again as soon as is reasonable.”
There were four of them, and two rooms with a bed each. Therefore, naturally, the nobleman took the smaller bedroom with direct washroom access himself, leaving Eric and Owl to share the other bed and Admestus to sleep in the armchair. None of them bothered to protest this arrangement, or even seriously considered doing so.
The alchemist, somewhat ironically, seemed to be having the most restful night of the three consigned to this side of Rhadid’s closed door. He had tipped the chair to lean its tall back against the wall and draped himself within the resulting hammock, and quite soon was both snoring and drooling. The other two lay much less comfortably on the wide bed, Eric on top of the quilt and Owl beneath it. The sleeping arrangement, though, was not the thing that kept them up.
“So,” Owl said in a low voice, after several minutes of awkward silence broken only by Admestus’s reedy snoring, “we gonna talk about it or not?”
The dwarf cleared his throat softly, almost whispering his reply. “Do you think we ought to wake…?”
“Can you imagine anything good coming of that?”
“He does seem rather imbalanced, yes, but I assumed he was tapped for this mission for good reason. We’ve seen his considerable skill.”
“Don’t be taken in,” Owl murmured. “The eccentric professor bit is a bardic archetype, that’s all. I’ve met and worked with the kind of crazy that still manages to be incredibly good at a specific job, and that isn’t what it looks like. Think obsessiveness and poor social skills, not grandstanding and comedy.”
“I…admit personality types aren’t my own area of expertise. I’m something of an academic stereotype myself.”
“I hadn’t noticed.”
“Why, then, do you think he is…like this?”
“Dunno. I do know when somebody works that hard to draw attention, he’s drawing attention away from something else. And when somebody with a belt full of poisons and acids wants me to not poke my nose into his business, I stay outta his business. I also don’t go outta my way to include him in sensitive conversations.”
They fell silent as Rafe snorted loudly, shifting in his improvised bed, and emitted a heavy sigh, then resumed snoring.
“It was the suddenness of it,” Eric whispered eventually. “Just…he just…”
“Here’s what I keep goin’ over,” Owl murmured back. “Everybody else here has a role. I’m a specialist in traps, and we’ve met lots of traps. You’re the leading expert anywhere on the Manor. The alchemist, because Rhadid wants something in the old wizard’s alchemy lab. In hindsight, I can’t think of a solid reason why he dragged along some thug wannabe adventurer.”
“You don’t think…you’re not suggesting… Lord Rhadid brought Tamara along specifically to…to…do that?”
“Doesn’t follow, does it? If he needed a living sacrifice, he wouldn’ta blown it on the first major obstacle we met. We’re in a dungeon, bein’ led by a man who’s clearly willing to spill our blood to get what he wants. In this situation, unknowns are dangerous. I dunno why he brought her and that makes me nervous.”
“I hate myself for even saying this,” the dwarf breathed almost inaudibly, “but…I mean, from a coldly pragmatic standpoint, in that specific scenario…”
“Oh, no, I totally get that,” Owl agreed quickly. “Rhadid coulda made her apologize an’ make nice with the zombie, maybe mollified the house that one time, but she showed how she was gonna act and it was just a matter of time before she got somebody killed. It made total sense, don’t beat yourself up for noticing. Difference is, we might’ve thought it, but we didn’t fuckin’ do it. Deliberately and without hesitating. That shit isn’t normal. I’ve met more killers than you probably ever will and the ones who just calmly do things like it means nothing scare me a hell of a lot more than the mad dogs that lash out when provoked.”
A shrill giggle split the quiet of the room. Rafe writhed, mumbling to himself, until he had squirmed completely sideways, with his legs dangling over one arm of the chair and his head leaning backward over the other in a position that had to have been terribly uncomfortable. At the very least it made his snoring significantly louder when it resumed.
“I suppose there’s an upside to all that,” Eric said at last. “At least we know we are important.”
“Mm,” Owl grunted. “What’s he want in the alchemy lab?”
“I’m afraid I don’t know. He only revealed to me that that is his goal. I rather suspect Mr. Rafe knows. If you want to ask him…”
“Don’t think I’m that worried just yet,” Owl murmured. “Least, not about that. More immediately… Rhadid’s the man with the plan, and anyway he obviously won’t regard himself as expendable. He obviously needs the half-elf to be alive at the end of this, cos whatever he wants in the alchemy lab requires the alchemist. You are the leading authority on this whole damn house. I’m a specialist too, but in a more general kinda stuff. Hell of a thing, being officially the least necessary person here.”
The ensuing pause was painful, and not just because of Admestus’s snoring.
“Well, so far as we know, Tamara was a nobody,” Eric offered. “I mean, that is…rest her soul. You know what I mean. My University knows where I am, and doing what, and with whom. I assume your Guild does likewise. Questions will be asked if I don’t return. And, ah, the Thieves’ Guild is rather notorious for imposing repercussions on people who misuse its members.”
“Don’t kid yourself,” Owl muttered bluntly. “We’re in a dungeon. People died doing this back in the day when this was a thing people generally did, and that hasn’t been true since the Enchanter Wars. Oh, there’d be questions if Lord Bigshot was the only one to walk outta here alive, but you know a smooth operator like him’d have answers. Nobody is gonna be too awful curious about people who die in Manor fucking Dire.”
Rafe squirmed again, shifting back around to a position that would put him upside down in the chair. This proved too much for its precarious balance; its two grounded legs scooted backward as the upper edge of its back slid abruptly down the wall and the whole thing impacted the ground with a bang, bouncing the half-elf roughly on impact. He let out a yelp, and then nothing, lying there with his legs dangling over the edge of the seat and the rest of him hidden behind it.
“Y’know what, screw it,” he said aloud after a moment’s silence. His rotated his ankles once each clockwise and then the other way, and then fell still. After scarcely a minute, his snoring began again.
“What is our plan, then?” Eric murmured.
“Same as it always was,” Owl replied. “Survive. Just a bit more complicated than we thought, is all.”
He rolled onto his side, putting his back to the dwarf, and thereafter they were silent. Even so, it was some time before sleep came to either of them.
At least breakfast was good.
The smell awakened them; overnight, a covered platter had appeared on the bedside table in the front room. Beneath its lid were utensils, a pot of tea, and four plates laden with boiled eggs, blood sausage, fried potatoes, tomato slices and baked beans. Eric reassured them that food offered by the house was safe, not that he had to try very hard. There was no table, forcing them to take plates to various seats around the room, but not even the aristocrat complained about the arrangements as they all tucked in.
The meal wasn’t completely devoid of complaint, however.
“It’s beyond my imagining,” Owl said between bites, “how one dainty little slip of a half-elf can snore like a thousand beavers devouring a whole forest.”
“Sir, how dare you,” Admestus retorted loudly. “I most certainly do not snore. The idea! Harrumph. Ha very rumph, sirrah!”
“What do you think of our progress, Professor?” Rhadid cut in.
“It’s of course impossible to gauge it in any objective manner,” the dwarf replied. “We are certainly making progress, m’lord. Continuing to solve challenges and impress the Manor with our conduct is the path forward. Navigating to the innermost depths of Manor Dire has always been a game of patience and perseverance.”
“So you have informed me,” Rhadid acknowledged, spearing a chunk of potato with his fork. “I do not want to risk attempting a shortcut if it will antagonize the house’s governing intelligence, let me be clear about that up front. If that risk can be avoided, however, I would prefer to speed our progress in any way possible. For example, we have found that both the Imperial Army and the gnomes are active here, and doubtless vying for the Manor’s favor. How do you suppose we might turn this state of affairs to our advantage?”
Eric blinked twice, seeming momentarily to forget his plate of food. “I…could not exactly say. Your Lordship is surely more skilled at politics of any sort than I; even the necessary politics of academia have tended to be over my head—”
Admestus straightened up. “Hah! For a dwarf, what isn’t—”
“Shut up, Rafe,” Rhadid ordered. “Go on, Professor.”
Eric cleared his throat, shooting the half-elf an annoyed glance. “As I was saying, m’lord, I don’t think it advisable to try. Intervening in such affairs, even supposing we have the opportunity, seems most likely to provoke the house itself. We’ll want to refrain from doing anything disruptive or destructive. The only exception I can imagine is if either other party in question begins acting directly against the Manor’s interests, in which case we could doubtless gain much favor by siding against them.”
“Seems improbable,” Owl noted, “bein’ as how both of them are trying to butter up the house themselves.”
“Precisely,” Eric agreed, nodding. “It would not be wise to attempt. The safe way is the slow way, my lord.”
“I see,” Rhadid said with a lack of inflection that obfuscated his feelings on the matter. “Well. Do finish your meal, gentlemen, and let’s be about it as quickly as we can.”
There was no obvious place to leave dirty dishes, so they carefully stacked everything on the tray and covered it again, leaving it right where it appeared, before setting out once more.
This necessitated some backtracking, as they had passed through a series of challenge-barred chambers to reach the bedroom suite. Eric insisted on slowing to examine their surroundings for hidden alternate exits, but if any such existed, the party failed to locate them. Soon enough, they were back in the corridor, and for lack of a better plan, set off down it in the direction they had not yet explored. Rather than leading to a turn or intersection as the halls tended to, this one ended in an arched doorway, the heavy oaken double doors within it standing wide open to reveal yet another surprise.
Beyond the archway was an outdoor courtyard, thrice as long as it was wide; at the opposite narrow end stood another set of doors, these closed, and flanked by windows of stained glass in ornate iron housing. A long stone path led from one end to the other, wide as each of the double doorways and laid out in intricate but irregular geometric patterns, with thick moss and occasional weeds lodged in the crevices between. The sides of the pathway were left green and untended, now choked with bushes, stands of scraggly wildflowers, and clumps of what appeared to be displaced Great Plains tallgrass. Interspersed along these, flanking the stone pathway at irregular intervals, stood six ancient and weathered standing stones, ten feet tall at least. Such monuments, left for unknown reasons by long-vanished people, stood here and there in the Stalrange and parts of the Tira Valley, but none had ever been noted in this part of Vrandis. As if to complete the ambiance, and match the cloudy sky overhead, a thin mist hung over the ground, obscuring the stone path at the courtyard’s farthest point.
“Now, stop me if I’m wrong,” Admestus said after they had stared at this for a few silent moments, “but weren’t we on the third floor?”
“Such a feature is still not impossible, in terms of strictly mundane architecture,” Eric pointed out. “More importantly, I advise you not to become hung up on such details here.”
“Owl?” Lord Rhadid prompted.
“Oh, yeah,” Owl said, nodding sagely. “That is booby-trapped as hell. It’s practically an overt threat. Lemme get a closer look.”
“Be cautious,” Rhadid reminded him as the thief crept out into the courtyard, sidling along the very edge of the stone path.
“Always am,” he said laconically, creeping along the ground to study the stonework in detail.
“What do you think?”
“The moss in the cracks is good. A lot depends on how long it’s been undisturbed, but depending on what kinda mechanisms are down there I may be able to tell which stones to not step on just by how thick it grows from one crevice to the next. Hey, Rafe! Can I assume you’ve got some manner of defoliant in that belt of yours?”
“Hah!” Admestus crowed, planting his hands on his hips and thrusting them forward. “Buckaroo, I will wager you an oral sex act of your choice that you can’t think of a potion or concoction I ain’t got in this belt of mine!”
“I’m gonna pass on every single part of that, thanks,” Owl said without rancor, still studying the ground. Reaching the first of the standing stones, he turned to examine it up close, running his fingers along the grass at its base. “Tricky thing here is how all this is an obvious test. I’m used to booby traps meant to keep people out, or straighforwardly kill ’em if they got in. Situation’s changed by it being the whole point for intruders to figure out the trap and how to circumvent it. It’s not always gonna be obvious how it’s changed, either. Hmm…”
“This is so suspenseful,” Admestus breathed, gazing avidly at the thief’s progress. “I can’t watch. Oh, I wish I’d brought peanuts…”
“So for purposes of your belt of holding, peanuts don’t count as a concoction?” Eric said wryly.
“Not the roasted kind with all the salt that you buy at circuses. Dammit, now I’m getting hungry again.”
It happened before any of them could react. Owl deliberately reached out with one leg to press his toes against a specific stone in the pathway, and the towering monolith he was crouched in front of slammed down. It did not move like a falling tower of rock; that would have given him plenty of time to jump out of the way. The thing descended with the speed and force of a bolt from a crossbow, impacting the path with a tremendous crunch of shattered stone.
Once fallen, the heavy ironwork at its base was revealed, including thick chains, huge hinges, and a single titanic spring which had unclenched to push it over so fast. As they stared in horror, a rhythmic clunking sound began from a mechanism below the floor, the chains grew taught and began to pull against the spring and the stone’s own weight, and it gradually tipped back up, being pulled once more into an upright position.
As it rose, the wreckage it had made of the path was revealed; that entire segment of stone tiles was pulverized. Of Owl, there was no sign.
“What?” Eric gasped. “Where’d he go?”
“You’re asking us?” Admestus said shrilly. “Isn’t this your area of expertise? Does the Manor usually disappear bodies that cleanly?”
“I—I don’t—we should at least check…”
Rhadid put out an arm to stop the dwarf from striding forward onto the path.
“This defeated our trap expert,” he said quietly. “Whatever the foe, it is important to know when you are beaten. As eager as I am to make progress, I am not eager to the point of recklessness. Come, we have more backtracking to do before we can resume going forward.”
He waited until the two of them finally retreated from the archway before following them back up the hall, casting a final lingering look at the now-innocuous standing stones.
“And then there were three.”