Tag Archives: Professor Ahlstrom

Bonus #50: Lightning in a Bottle, part 3

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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.”

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Bonus #49: Lightning in a Bottle, part 2

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“A family friend,” she said brusquely. “Name’s Arachne, I’m sure your parents mentioned me.”

“Hang on a second,” Tamara said. “I could swear that elf just said her name was Arachne.”

“She did,” Lord Rhadid replied softly. “Without evidence, to be sure, but the description matches. Spectacles and all. You did not mention you were acquainted with such an august personage, Admestus.”

“Whoah, now,” Admestus said, holding up both hands placatingly. “Come on, m’lord, it’s me. Do you honestly think if I knew somebody like the Tellwyrn her Tellself I wouldn’t have spent fully half the time you’ve known me bragging about it non-stop? I have no idea what she’s talking about, my parents never mentioned her.”

“Also,” Owl said idly, “we don’t actually know this is—”

“What the hell do you mean they never mentioned me?” the elf roared. “After all the— That stuck up pair of goody-goodies thought didn’t bother to… No, you know what, that’s actually fair. If I were trying to raise a level-headed child I would keep them away from terrible influences like myself.”

“If that’s what they were trying it didn’t work,” Tamara opined.

“I say,” Eric offered hesitantly. “Are you, in fact, the archmage Arachne Tellwyrn?”

“You doubt me?” she asked, raising an eyebrow. “Anywhere else I could demonstrate very easily, but I just swept that floor.”

“It’s just that…well, that,” he said. “You’re…sweeping the floor. When one thinks of legendary wizards, one tends not to envision them performing menial servant work.”

“It’s very calming,” she explained. “Meditative. And in here, nobody bothers me. Even the adventurers know to mind their damn business in Manor Dire. I’ve been coming here to straighten up for the last ten years, during semester breaks. It’s a nice change from herding students and the Manor seems to appreciate it. Regardless! I doubt very much any of you have anything to offer me but annoyance. Whatever a random pack of adventurers up to is by definition less interesting to me than the fact that little Admestus is running around dungeons with a random pack of adventurers. Young man, I have killed an emperor and a god, toppled multiple nations and publicly spanked a Hand of Avei. I will not hesitate to tattle on you to your mother.”

“Hold it,” Admestus bellowed, holding up an imperious hand. “We can continue that line of blather in a moment. I need to make something explicitly clear.” Stepping to the side, he planted himself in a wide stand and turned to face his companions. “Nothing about Admestus is in any way little. I’m sure you know what I mean.” In case there was any doubt, he pointed with both hands at his belt buckle. “Eh? Eh? If I am still unclear, I’m willing to arrange a demonstration. Specially for you, sugar lips,” he added, winking at Owl.

There was silence.

“If I may,” Lord Rhadid said after an excruciating pause. “Ms. Tellwyrn—”

“It’s Professor,” she said, “if you insist on being formal.”

“The rumors are true, then?” Eric asked. “You actually founded a school for adventurers?”

“It is not a school for adventurers,” she spat. “And just what do you mean, rumors? We’ve been taking students for thirteen years!”

“Oh, uh, I…” The dwarf tried to edge behind Tamara, who immediately stepped away.

“Professor Tellwyrn,” Rhadid continued with all the calm grace of a man who was not being continually interrupted by an impromptu sideshow. “I understand you are concerned for the well-being of a family friend; that is quite laudable. Rest assured that this group is not a roving band of treasure-seekers. I am a scion of House Daraspian, which holds hereditary title to these lands; I regard Manor Dire with the deepest respect and my business here is a solemn affair indeed.”

“Daraspian, huh,” she grunted. “Bunch of troublemakers even by noble standards. None of that has anything to do with me… Rhadid, was it?”

His Lordship did not react to the insult in the slightest. “It is. You mistake me, Professor; I would not attempt to impress one such as you with my title. I am explaining that this is a serious archaeological expedition. This is Professor Eric Ahlstrom, the leading expert now alive on the history of this dungeon.”

“Ahlstrom?” She fixed her gaze on the dwarf, tilting her head to look over the rims of her glasses at him. “I confess I didn’t believe it when Admestus introduced you.”

“Oh, that hurt,” Admestus protested.

“I read your books,” Tellwyrn continued, ignoring him. “Very thorough material, and a lot less dry than the general run of academic texts.”

“Oh!” Eric blinked. “I…well, thank you! That is extremely flattering, Ms… Ah, that is, Professor.”

“Rest assured,” said Rhadid, “our purpose here is academic. We are all well-informed as to the nature of the Manor and every care will be taken to avoid antagonizing it. You may inform Admestus’s parents, when next you see them, that he has become involved with reputable intellectual undertakings, not crass dungeon delvers.”

“I’ll inform them of whatever I think, which isn’t that,” she snorted, and pointed her broom handle at Tamara. “Reputable intellectual undertakings don’t require the employment of thugs.”

“Oy,” Tamara protested, scowling.

“That simply isn’t true, and I expect you know it,” Rhadid countered with a thin smile.

Tellwyrn grunted, but did not argue the point further, which was probably what passed for agreement in her case. “What exactly is it you’re here after, Rhadid?”

“That is family business,” he answered calmly, “and with all due respect, none of yours.”

“House Daraspian’s ‘family’ business is an open secret,” she said. “It’s also neither academic nor intellectual.”

Rhadid smiled again. “Perhaps Admestus was remiss in his introductions. Tamara is, indeed, hired muscle and nothing more…”

“Oy!” she snapped.

“…but the gentleman to my right is Owl, a fully accredited and tagged member of the Thieves’ Guild. I hired him for this expedition due to his noted expertise on the matter of traps and locks, but I should think that a formal Eserite presence in my party rules out the prospect that I am here in pursuit of the kind of dealings for which my House is…somewhat justifiably notorious.”

“Hm.” She transferred a skeptical stare to Owl. “Wouldn’t be the first crooked Eserite I’ve ever known…”

“All systems are corrupt,” he agreed, shrugging. “Not excluding the Guild itself. For what it’s worth, Lord Rhadid checks out. Never been involved in any Daraspian shit that would make the Guild rule out dealing with him. Underboss Whatsit signed off on me taking this job. Full disclosure, I’m here to keep an eye on this as much as for the payout.”

“Oh, pweeeease?” Admestus whined, folding his hands pleadingly and giving the elf his best puppy dog eyes. “Pwease, Auntie Tattlewyrn, can I play with my friends? I promise to put up all my toys afterward!”

She flicked her fingers at him and what happened to the tip of his ear was somewhat reminiscent of the way his mother flicked it when she was annoyed—but also of a firework, given that it hurt ten times as much and was accompanied by a bright spark of arcane magic, not to mention the brief smell of burning hair. Tellwyrn turned her attention back to Rhadid while Admestus tumbled to the ground, clutching his head and howling dramatically.

“I’ll tell you what,” the elf said, folding her arms and leaving the broom to stand upright on its own. “If you get the boy killed, make sure you’re the next to go, because that option will be worlds better than what will happen to you if you come out of here alive and he doesn’t. His family are nice, well-behaved people who’ve never offended so much as a fly. That makes me twice as vindictive in their defense. Understand?”

“Thoroughly,” Rhadid replied, inclining his head in acknowledgment. “Though I have no reason to expect it will come to that, or I would obviously not have risked it in the first place.”

“Why are we arguing, exactly?” Tamara asked, looking down at Admestus with her lip curled in contempt. “Just let her take him home. Do we really need this assclown?”

“Considerably more than we need you, as I have already explained,” Rhadid told her curtly. “The disparity in your relative value is such that I am less inclined to interrupt his tantrum than to make you carry him till he is done with it.”

“As long as we all understand each other,” Tellwyrn said, fixing Admestus with a glare. “Get up, you little reprobate. I will be reporting on this to your family. Is this what you want your father to hear of you doing?”

He stopped rolling, lifting his hands from his head to peek up at her. “Kinda? Guy needs to unclench a little, you ask me. A bit of embarrassment now and again’s good for his circulation. At least, that’s what I’ve been telling myself from the cradle on.”

“Just quit,” Tamara growled, grabbing him by the collar again and hauling him upright. “If you can’t act like a sane person, at least act like a person, would you?”

“What?” he simpered at her. “And pass up the chance to be carried in your strong, protective arms?”

“If you’re not going to go out the way you came, get on with it, then,” Tellwyrn ordered, grabbing her broom and making a shooing gesture at them with it. “You’re tracking who knows what mess all over my nice clean floors. Admestus, visit home as soon as you’re done here, you know your mother worries and you’ve doubtless given her enough gray hairs already. And Professor Ahlstrom, do write me at Last Rock at your convenience. We’re a small institution with no dedicated archaeology department, but I’d be delighted to have you as a guest lecturer. I pay well.”

“Oh!” he said, blinking in surprise. “That’s… Why, thank you, Professor Tellwyrn, I believe I may take you up on that.”

“A good day to you then, Professor,” Rhadid said politely. “Come along, all.”

They carried on down the hallway, and the sound of sweeping resumed as soon as they had moved a few yards. It cut off abruptly when they rounded the next corner, though. Lord Rhadid silently called a halt with a gesture, and Admestus peeked back around the corner. It led to a completely different stretch of hallway, now.

“Well, how about that,” Owl mused once they had continued on. “The great Arachne Tellwyrn unwinds as a volunteer housemaid in one of the great dungeons. Not something I would’ve expected to find out, but damn if it doesn’t make a certain kinda sense.”

“I still dunno why you’re all convinced that was Tellwyrn,” Tamara grunted.

“She is either Tellwyrn or is going to come to a sticky end for impersonating her,” Rhadid said evenly. “I am inclined to believe the former, for several reasons. It makes no difference for our purposes, regardless. Owl, please join the Professor at the front. We will doubtless begin to encounter more surprises the deeper we go, and I want his expertise on the house and yours on any traps to guide us.”

“As you wish, m’lord,” Owl said noncommittally, quickening his pace to join Eric while Rhadid fell behind.

“Do you wish to try examining any of these doorways, Lord Rhadid?” Eric asked. The hall in which they now walked was wider and more ornate; the doors were of polished wood, and rather than bare stone walls and occasional torches there were iron sconces containing candles with mirrored backings, plus low tables and display cases showing off a variety of decorative objects interspersed with the doors along one side of the hall.

Rhadid came to a stop, turning in a slowly circle to critically examine their surroundings.

“In your opinion, Professor, would that speed our progress?”

“It’s…hard to say, my lord,” Eric replied, frowning in thought. “I think the most efficient approach would be a balanced one: taking time to explore, but moving steadily forward. I would caution you not to display too much impatience. The Manor is likely to perceive excessive eagerness to access its treasures, and won’t reward that attitude.”

“I see,” Rhadid said, his tone neutral. “What if—”

Immediately behind them, a door opened and a zombie stepped out.

The thing moved with amazing speed for a corpse that looked too desiccated to stand upright. They all turned at the soft creak of the door opening, to find it already coming at them in long strides, clutching something at waist level with both hands and emitting a gurgling moan.

Tamara reacted just as fast, shoving past Admestus even as she yanked the greatsword from its scabbard across her back. She brought the weapon down in an overhead slash that flowed straight from the act of unsheathing it, sending the undead tumbling backward in multiple pieces.

“Swiftly done,” Lord Rhadid said approvingly.

“Oh, no,” Eric whispered, aghast. “Why did you do that?”

“What the fuck are you on about?” Tamara demanded, rounding on him. “We were just attacked by a fucking skeleton! I did my job.”

“Um.” Owl bent to pick up the object the zombie had been carrying: a silver serving tray. Beside it lay several shot glasses, all but one broken in the fall, and a miraculously un-cracked bottle of brandy. “I don’t…think it was attacking us.”

“Is that zombie wearing a suit?” Admestus asked, peering over his shoulder. “It is! That looks like medieval formal livery! Aw, look how dashing he is!”

The fallen zombie, though bisected at the waist and with its left arm separated just below the shoulder, opened its lipless mouth to moan again.

“It’s a servant,” Eric exclaimed. “It was offering us drinks!”

Mirroring the undead’s groan, a low noise sounded through the house, a deep moan of straining woodwork. As if the Manor itself were voicing a protest.

“Oh, now you’ve done it,” Admestus remarked fatalistically. “Now you’ve really gone and done it.”

Fortunately none of them were standing in the path of the abrupt scenery change which immediately followed; rather than the subtle alteration the Manor had used to change their path behind them, this was swift, physical, and violent. Segments of the corridor’s walls behind and ahead of them slammed across the hallway, impacting the opposite walls with a deeply ominous boom and sealing the group in a space barely ten feet long.

“Professor,” Lord Rhadid said with impressive calm, “your thoughts?”

“I’m sorry, I would have warned you,” Eric babbled, “but you have to understand, meeting friendly agents of the household is most unusual and they are described more often as spectral than biologically undead, and besides, no adventurer’s account describes encountering a Manor servant this early on! They occasionally appear later in an excursion, when an explorer has passed multiple trials—”

His Lordship raised his voice to interrupt. “Professor. Fault can be discussed when we are not trapped like rats. Have you any thoughts on remedying this situation?”

“Oh. Um, I…yes.” Eric ran a trembling hand over his beard. “Well. That is, no precise parallel occurs to me, but, I think, generally…”

“How ’bout we try apologizing and asking nicely?” Owl suggested.

“Leave it to me!” Admestus proclaimed, swaggering forward to stand before the section of wall which had emerged to block their path. He cleared his throat, straightened his lapels, and ran a hand over his hair, then flung himself to his knees with a wail of dismay. “OH GODS I’M SORREEEE! It was all an accident, we didn’t mean to kill the zombie. SHE DID IT! HER!” He pointed behind him with one hand in Tamara’s general direction, pawing obsequiously at the wall with the other. “This is a terrible misunderstanding! Oh, gods, I don’t wanna die like thiiiiissss…”

He trailed off, bawling at the top of his lungs, alternately drumming on the wall with his fists and kissing it.

“Stop it, Admestus,” Rhadid ordered. “Professor Ahlstrom, I am waiting.”

“Right,” Eric said unsteadily. “Well, as a general rule, the Manor is not unreasonable; accidents occur under pressure. Owl has the right of it, in fact. When one errs, a good faith effort to make amends will do much to restore the house’s good graces.”

“How?” Tamara demanded, pointing with her still-unsheathed sword at the fallen zombie. It was groaning intermittently, its torso flopping this way and that, seemingly too weak to move in a goal-directed fashion with only one arm. Unsettlingly, its other arm and disconnected legs were both shifting feebly as well.

“Well,” said Rhadid, “that seems a start. Admestus, time to earn your salary.”

Admestus broke off licking the wall to look inquisitively at him. “I…I thought I was. You…you want me to seduce the house? I don’t know, I’ve never gotten it on with an edifice. But hey, if it’s for the good of the—”

“Enough!” Rhadid barked, showing the first open irritation he had betrayed this far. “Get over there and fix that creature, and cease your asinine noisemaking!”

“How the hell is this load gonna fix a busted zombie?” Tamara asked skeptically while Admestus scuttled over to the fallen undead without further comment. “I seriously doubt he can put on his pants unassisted.”

“Can’t,” Admestus agreed, having arrived at the zombie’s side in a slide on his knees, already reaching into the pouches attached to his belt of holding for his supplies. “That’s why I make it a point never to have my pants off alone. Well, one reason. Okay, little buddy, you just hang in there. Uncle Rafe’s gonna make it all better.”

Another low moan sounded around them—not from the zombie, but the house. This time, the floorboards actually shivered beneath their feet.

“Quickly, please,” Lord Rhadid suggested.

“Excuse me,” Eric protested, “but it’s a known principle that you cannot raise or significantly modify undead using alchemy alone. Any method of practical necromancy requires the active use of at least two of the four schools of magic, and most call for shadow magic as well!”

“It is for good and specific reason that I chose this imbecile as my alchemical specialist,” Rhadid replied calmly.

“Stop, I’m gonna blush!” Admestus trilled, even as he worked. Pulling the fragments of the zombie back together was the easy part; holding them in the right position proved more challenging, when the creature wouldn’t stop its weak thrashing. “Listen, guy, you’re gonna have to hold still. If I gotta immobilize you it’s just gonna mess you up even more.”

The zombie groaned, turning its mouthful of crooked, yellow teeth in his direction, but actually stopped wriggling. At least, its torso did.

“Reflex action, huh?” Admestus grunted, wrestling the still-twitching arm into place after pulling both ends of its sleeve apart. “’sokay, I can work with this…”

While he hadn’t attempted this specific feat before, he was no stranger to working rapidly, under pressure, and in adverse conditions. Admestus swiftly bound the two pieces of severed arm together with curse-briar twigs and enchantment-grade copper wire, liberally sprayed the resulting makeshift splint with a solution of skeleton dust and dilute panacea potion which he mixed in a small perfume bottle, and finally applied one drop of unicorn tear to reactivate the briars. Immediately they began to spread, twining up and down the zombie’s emaciated arm until its broken part was encased in a cast of rough, dark wood, the enchanting wires completely buried within.

“Okay, how’s that work?” he asked, ignoring both the nervous faces peering over his shoulder and another rattle of the floorboards. “You got a full range of motion? Cos, full disclosure, I’m kinda spitballing here and if that’s not holding together I’ll obviously wanna try something different on the other bit.”

The zombie carefully flexed its arm, seemingly without effort. Then it formed a thumbs up with the reattached hand and moaned wetly at him.

“All right!” Admestus said cheerfully. “We are in business! Tammy, babe, I’m gonna need you to hold his legs down.”

“I’m not touching that fucking thing,” she snapped.

“Omnu’s balls,” Owl grunted, dropping to the floor beside Admestus to help wrestle the still-kicking legs into position. “We don’t have time for this.”

Fortunately the zombie was skeletal enough that only its lower spine needed to be repaired to rejoin the two halves of its body. Minutes later, Admestus and Owl were carefully helping it to stand back up.

The undead opened its jaw wide, emitting a long groan.

“You’re welcome, ol’ chap!” Admestus said brightly. “I’d clap you on the back, but…y’know.”

“All right,” Rhadid said, looking around at their enclosure. “I note that the building itself has ceased making threatening noises, but we are still here.”

“Based on all my reading,” said Eric, “this should be…a start. I’m sorry, my lord, it’s out of precedent for us to have been greeted by a house servant this soon in our trek and I frankly don’t know what it signifies that we first botched it and then tried to repair the damage.”

“What do you mean, we?” Owl asked, turning a pointed stare on Tamara. She flipped him off.

“Well, we’re halfway there!” Admestus said cheerily, having picked up the fallen bottle of brandy and sole surviving glass. He poured himself a shot and then held it aloft. “Your health, zombie house!”

They all stared while he tossed it back.

“What are the odds that was poisoned?” Owl asked.

“I told you,” said Eric, “the Manor doesn’t poison people with drink freely offered.”

“Besides,” Admestus added haughtily, “an alchemist is never poisoned. Unthinkable!”

“Nine tenths of the shit you do is unthinkable,” Tamara informed him.

“Anyway,” Eric continued, “this is likely to make our way a little more perilous, at least until we’ve earned back some favor with the house. Forgiven is not forgotten.”

The low groan which resonated through the floorboards was too perfectly timed to have been coincidence. The zombie, now leaning against the wall, added an echoing moan, making an awkward rolling motion with its head that might have been a disjointed nod.

“He came out of here, didn’t he?” Owl stepped past the injured undead to open the only door in this section of the hall with them—as he had said, the one through which the zombie had abruptly emerged minutes ago. The thief poked his head in. “Hey, this looks like a lounge. ‘Splains why a waiter came outta here. There’s another door.”

“Well…there you go,” Eric said nervously, hitching up his satchel upon his shoulders. “Shall we?”

“Tamara,” Lord Rhadid said pointedly, nodding toward the zombie waiter, “is there something you would like to say to our new acquaintance?”

She looked at him, then at the zombie. It groaned at her. Tamara curled her lip and pushed past Owl into the lounge. “I’ll take point.”

The rest followed, Rhadid and Eric both pointedly bowing to the zombie in passing. Through the door was a wood-paneled room longer than it was wide, with several deeply-padded seats and low tables, a roaring hearth along one of its shorter walls and a long bar backed by a sizable stock of bottles against the side. The party moved through it without pausing to appreciate the scenery; the room’s other door was positioned to emerge into the same hallway from which they had just come, past the obstruction the Manor had placed across it.

When they emerged, however, the hallway was clear. It extended emptily in both directions, with no sign of either the barrier walls or the injured zombie.

As if to summarily squash any relief they might have dared to feel, another tremor rumbled through the floorboards, this one accompanied by a low growl that sounded like the product of something alive. The group froze momentarily, then Lord Rhadid turned to Eric.


“We need to keep moving,” the dwarf said urgently. “It seems we’re not forgiven yet, after all; that must be earned. The faster we go, the more we will encounter, and that will lead to opportunities to impress the Manor positively. But there can be no more incidents like that! If we offend the house again while already on its bad list…”

“You heard the Professor,” Rhadid said firmly, casting a swift glance across the lot of them. “No mistakes from here. You must be fully on alert, but do not act without thinking!”

He finished his instruction staring at Tamara, and then stood there holding her gaze, even as the house groaned beneath them again. Finally she bowed her head, albeit sullenly.

“Understood, Lord Rhadid.”

“Good. Owl, Professor, take the lead again, please, and proceed at such a pace that you do not risk charging into a trap. You,” he pointed at Tamara, “go right behind them. Step forward to defend if and only if Professor Ahlstrom informs you of the necessity. Admestus, with me. Have countermeasures at the ready in case we are flanked, but again, look before acting.”

“Yes, sir, your Lordliness!” Admestus chirped, throwing a deliberately off-kilter salute. “If it’s all the same to you, milord, I shall also think before acting!”

“What the hell is he gonna do?” Tamara grumbled as they started moving up the hall. “Spritz perfume on the next monster?”

“Ooh, now there’s an idea!” Admestus chattered. “Monster perfume! But…what would be the market? There’s something there, I know it, but I’ll have to mull that. Meanwhile, I’ve got this!”

He pulled out a jar which filled the hallway with a clean white glow, causing the whole group to pause and turn back toward him.

“Lightning in a bottle,” he said in answer to the unasked question.

“Okay, but…not literally, though, right?” Eric replied.

Admestus stared at him without expression and replied tonelessly. “Everything I have ever said has been completely literal.”

The house shuddered around them. Several nearby doors rattled in their frames.

“Move,” Rhadid ordered, and they set off up the hall again.

“Now that you mention perfume,” Admestus added, “I do have a spray bottle full of flesh-dissolving acid!”

“I recommend you stop making statements which our host might construe as threats,” Eric advised.

“Pshaw, what, little old me? I’m the genius who put the waiter back together, remember? I’m officially the house’s favorite person here. It knows I’m harmless! Don’cha, ol’ girl?”

He patted a doorframe in passing, then leaped away across the hall with a yelp when the door jerked inward, revealing that both it and its frame were lined with jagged fangs, and then slammed back shut.

“Did you see that?” Tamara yelled. “It tried to bite him! The fucking house tried to bite him!”

“You gotta figure most of the people he meets get to that point sooner or later,” Own remarked.

“Wait,” Rhadid ordered, and they came to a stop, watching him. The group pulled a bit closer together as another distinctly animal growl sounded from within the walls—a very, very large one, the noise coming from both sides of the hallway and seeming to move as if whatever made it was progressing through the rooms nearby. Only Rhadid kept complete composure, standing somewhat apart from the group.

He stepped across the hall and back two yards to another door, and carefully tried the latch.

Fortunately for him, Rhadid had not been boasting about his credentials; his reflexes were not those of a man who lived comfortably on inherited wealth. He no sooner touched the latch than retreated, and thus was out of range when the door burst inward and a gigantic forked tongue lashed out across the hallway to strike the opposite wall. The door was also lined with fangs—bigger ones, this time—and emitted a truly deafening ursine roar before slamming shut again.

The floorboards trembled more violently beneath them, and suddenly, all the torches lining this stretch of hallway flickered out.

“If anyone is wondering,” Admestus announced, “the damp stain spreading on my pants is from my reagent bottles. Cork must’ve come loose.”

Lord Rhadid drew his sword, turning back to study the group thoughtfully, running his eyes over each of them. Then he nodded once as if deciding something and strode forward. “Very good, I have an idea. Everyone, step away from that door.” He pointed with his rapier at another one on the same side of the hall as the door which he had just narrowly escaped. “Tamara, try the latch.”

“Are you joking?” she demanded.

“No,” Rhadid said calmly, as if that were a perfectly serious question, and came to a stop right alongside her. “I will be right here with you, don’t worry. I know what I am doing.”

“I don’t know what you’re doing,” she snapped. “What’s your bloody great idea?”

The floor actually rippled beneath them, causing Eric and Admestus to stumble. For a moment the hardwood had surged like the surface of a disturbed pool; in the aftermath it was left firm as ever and undamaged. Another hungry growl resounded, this time definitely from the door Rhadid had indicated.

“The first step,” he said evenly, “was to hire a mercenary with the understanding that she would not be paid if she did not follow my orders.”

Tamara held his stare, her jaw muscles working; Rhadid simply gazed dispassionately back.

“This had better work,” she growled at last, turning to the door and drawing one of her wands. “Whatever the fuck this even is, it had better work. Ready?”

“When you are,” Rhadid replied, nodding.

She swallowed once, held her wand up at the ready, and with her other hand, reached out and turned the latch.

Tamara immediately jumped back, barely avoiding the meaty tongue which flopped out at her. The tooth-lined door frame snapped repeatedly, roaring loudly enough to disturb her hair.

Rhadid stepped back at the same time, then once again to place himself behind her. As Tamara dodged to the side, he nimbly shifted and planted a powerful snap kick right in the small of her back, knocking her off-balance and straight into the tongue.

Tamara managed to yell once, and as the fanged door slammed shut behind her there came a flash and snap of her wand discharging. Then silence.

The torches came back on. There was no more growling, no trembling of the floor; just a quiet hallway stretching away in both directions.

Rhadid reached out carefully with his sword, pushing down on the latch of the door that had just eaten Tamara until it clicked and the door, creaking quietly, eased an inch or so inward. He then planted the tip of the sword against the wood and gave it a push. The door swung open to reveal a quiet little study. Nothing but bookshelves lining the walls, and in one corner a desk with an oil lamp atop it, an overstuffed armchair pulled up alongside.

“As I thought,” Lord Rhadid said lightly, sheathing his sword. He stepped over, grasped the latch, and pulled the door gently shut. “The house is perfectly able to distinguish friend from foe. I think we shall have much less trouble from here. Remember to think before acting, everyone, and mind your manners. Well?” With no more ado he strode past them, heading on up the hallways. “On we go.”

The three of them stared after him in silence for a few seconds while the distance between them grew. Then, almost in unison, they hurried to catch up. There was really nothing else they could do.

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Bonus #48: Lightning in a Bottle, part 1

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This chapter topic was requested by Patreon backer Lluazarg!

The talent assembled was carefully selected for dungeoneering, but in this day and age, actually getting into the dungeon required much more mundane gifts: money and influence. And so the four of them stood carefully out of earshot, as their employer had emphatically instructed, watching Lord Rhadid speak privately with the Imperial soldiers who had just instructed them all to clear off.

Though after the first five minutes, only Owl was still paying attention to his Lordship. Tamara had begun pacing restlessly in the road, and Eric was gazing enraptured at the shape of Manor Dire rising from among the pine trees up ahead. Admestus had begun mimicking each of his companions in turn to pass the time; Owl had ignored him and Tamara had just taken a swing at his head, so now he stood alongside the dwarf, in the same posture, staring at the manor house.

It might have been the home of any rich noble, these days, though for the era in which it was built the lack of any fortifications was unusual. With the pines blanketing its grounds the full spread of the manor itself was hard to discern from this angle, though it was clearly huge. Gabled roofs poked up here and there between the trees, spreading in both directions from the high peak of the central hall, with turrets and towers rising even higher in places. The tallest had a sizable telescope protruding from its domed roof, which would be a rare feature now and had surely been an amazing extravagance when it was installed. The manor itself was perfectly preserved, of course; to look at, it might have been built this year. Only the military presence suggested at a glance that it was more than some aristocrat’s country house.

In addition to the roadblock before the gates, the Army had improvised a barracks in the manor’s old stables, from which the Imperial banner now flew. The road ascended the hill to the house proper, so that even from beyond the gates, most of the manor’s shape was visible above the outer walls and the staff-wielding Imperial soldiers holding the open gateway.

Admestus snuck a sidelong glance down at Eric. The dwarf was so caught up staring at Manor Dire that he had actually dropped his precious satchel.

“Hey,” the half-elf said, nudging Eric’s shoulder with his elbow. “Are we there yet?”

The dwarf turned slowly, blinking in befuddlement, to stare up at Admestus with an expression of disbelief.

“Just ignore him,” Owl advised without shifting his attention from the conversation taking place at the gates. The officer apparently in charge was talking with Lord Rhadid, while the rest watched their group with weapons at the ready. “If you give him attention once he’ll just keep hounding you for it.”

“Hey, hey, hey,” Admestus protested, wagging a chiding finger at Owl. “You can’t go giving away my professional secrets, old man! It’s simply not done. There are codes to be observed, don’t you know?”

Taking his own advice, the thief ignored him, keeping his eyes on their patron.

At that moment, Lord Rhadid shook the officer’s hand, looked back down the road at them, and jerked his head once in the direction of the manor. Then he turned his back and strode through the gates toward the house without waiting for them.

“We’re up, Tam,” said Owl, setting off.

“Don’t call me that,” she snapped automatically, ceasing her pacing and coming after them. Eric and Admestus were already on the way, leaving the mercenary to bring up the rear.

The soldiers gave them no problems; the officer was lounging against the gates with his arms folded, while his troops watched the adventurers pass but said nothing. They kept their weapons in hand and most of them stared particularly at Tamara, who was clad in leather armor and carrying enough obvious weapons to strongly suggest some of her bulging belt pouches contained less obvious ones. With a fully laden wandbelt holding two holstered sidearms at her hips and a heavier-duty shieldbreaker wand at the small of her back, plus a battlestaff and greatsword slung across her back from a bandolier filled with extra power crystals and no less than six visible defensive charms pinned to her hardened leather vest, she looked like she might have been able to break their four-person blockade of the gate by sheer force.

“Best of luck in there, kids,” the officer said sardonically.

Admestus halted, turning to the man and waggling his eyebrows. “Give us a kiss for luck?”

The man’s expression didn’t alter until he actually pursed his lips and started making smooching noises. Before anything could ensue from that, Tamara grabbed him by the collar and hauled him bodily up the path.

Lord Rhadid had at least stopped short of entering the Manor without them, and stood before the doors, atop the short flight of steps leading there. As they drew up to the base of the stairs, he turned from inspecting the great double doors to face them, prompting the group to stop. With the exception of Admestus, who added an extra swagger as he placed his foot on the bottom step, prompting Tamara to grab his collar again. For the moment, then, they paused there, giving the nobleman his impromptu dais from which to look down on them. Noblemen, as they all knew, lived for stuff like that.

Rhadid Daraspian was a tall man with the athletic build and sun-darkened complexion of one who liked outdoor sports; though short of middle age, he was already balding, but in a way which gave him a sharp widow’s peak that, if anything, augmented his aquiline features to their advantage.

“Now that we are here,” he stated, “you will all listen once again to a lecture you have already heard. You will do so patiently and attentively. This will be our last chance to review these facts, and they are of paramount importance; if any one of you fails to respect the realities of our situation, it is entirely possible that we will all die—and worse, the years of effort I have devoted toward the arranging of this expedition will have been squandered. Professor Ahlstrom, if you would, please repeat to our fellows the base instructions you have given us for survival and success in Manor Dire.”

Eric cleared his throat and shuffled his feet uncertainly. When Lord Rhadid made no move to yield the position atop the steps, the dwarf contented himself with climbing up onto the first stair and turning to face the rest of them.

“Well, then! As, ah, I’m sure you recall, Manor Dire is the youngest of the great dungeons, having existed for scarcely five hundred years. Many of them date from the time of the Elder Gods at least, but this… Well, it was the home and seat of power of Archmage Direstaan, who is thought to have been the ancestor of House Daraspian.” He turned toward Lord Rhadid and sketched an awkward little bow before continuing. “Basically, it should be treated as the home and demesne of an exceptionally powerful wizard, even in his absence. The house itself has a clear intelligence and a certain…distinctive approach to its treatment of guests. As we explore the Manor, we will be repeatedly tested as it figures out our intentions and capacities. It is of paramount importance that we remain guests of Manor Dire.” Eric paused to clear his throat. “If it begins to view us as invaders, things will go very badly for us, very quickly. So, conduct yourself as you would in the home of any powerful person who you must assume will be aware of anything you do. Don’t damage anything. Don’t steal anything. Even picking up a loose penny could land us in seriously hot water.”

The entire group turned to look at Owl. He didn’t even acknowledge them, the thief simply regarding Eric with a patient expression as he waited for the lecture to continue.

“What we’re looking for is…well, somewhere deep in the house,” Eric continued. “Like all dungeons, Manor Dire contains considerable wealth as well as great danger, but this one is not so easily looted. As I was just saying, anyone who begins picking up treasure in here will be quickly brought to grief. The physical layout of the Manor is malleable as water; we’ll go where it wants us to go. Our goal must be to gain its respect and regard so that it allows us into the innermost regions where the important artifacts are held, and deems us worthy to…” He trailed off, glancing up at Lord Rhadid, who continued to watch them impassively. “To make use of them. Any questions?”

“Yeah.” Tamara made a languid gesture that was only vaguely reminiscent of a student raising her hand in class. “What’s the point of going for the treasure in the deep rooms if we can’t bring it back out with us?”

“The real treasure of Manor Dire is in the use of its facilities, not their extraction,” Eric replied, his voice growing more animated as he warmed to his favorite subject. “Remember, this was the personal citadel of one of the greatest archmages who ever lived. The library in this house is one of the finest in the world. Magnan himself studied here, in Direstaan’s enchanting lab. Likewise the alchemy lab is—” He broke off, glancing once more up at their patron, then changed tracks. “And there’s the observatory! You can see the telescope from the main room, but so far no one who has ventured into the Manor has been granted access to it. That’s arguably the most precious resource within! Direstaan was a pioneer of astroscrying; they say that with the equipment in there, one can count the rings of Drusera and view the moons of Bastila as clearly as modern telescopes can see our own!”

“If nobody’s ever gotten that far,” Admestus asked innocently, “who is this they who says that, and how do you know they aren’t full of it?”

“The observatory is not the goal of this expedition,” Lord Rhadid interjected before Eric had to find an answer. “Are there any other questions? If any of you has a pressing concern you felt uncomfortable raising previously, I encourage you to get it out of your system now, before we are within and subject to the temptation to poke at anything.”

“I’m curious about the composition of this team, m’Lord,” Owl said. “I’m a specialist in traps and locks, Ms. Farahd here is a fighter—those are obvious. I even get the librarian, since he’s such an expert on the house.”

“Archaeologist,” Eric corrected stiffly. “And it is not arrogance to state that I am the foremost expert on Manor Dire among modern academia. I have made it the focus of my entire career!”

“Bet that makes you a blast at parties,” Owl remarked, still deadpan. “Point is, I get why he’s along. But what the hell is with this guy?” He pointed at Admestus without bothering to look in his direction.

“No one is with Rafe,” the half-elf intoned solemnly, spreading his hands in a gesture of benediction. “Rafe…is with you all.”

Tamara drew in a deep breath and let it out very slowly through her teeth.

“Thanks to the Professor’s little lapse, there,” Owl continued, “it’s clear enough our goal is the alchemy lab. But seriously. With all due respect, m’Lord, this group is about two-fifths having any business in a dungeon. We’ve got one fussy academic who doesn’t look like he’s ever been outside before, and the kind of clown who’s likely to get killed in a moderately rough bar, let alone one of the great dungeons. And again, m’Lord, I mean no insult, and I’m sure you’ve been taught to use those weapons, but…well, you know.”

Rhadid indeed had both a golden-hilted rapier and a wand hanging from his belt, and the sword at least he carried with the effortless balance of someone for whom the weapon was an extension of himself. The belt, though, encircled a Punaji-style greatcoat that was perfectly tailored to him, its velvet obviously brushed just that morning, and had thread-of-gold embroidery climbing its lapels and halfway up the sleeves. He did not look like someone who belonged on a dungeon dive.

“I take no insult,” Lord Rhadid said mildly. “Would it assuage your concerns, Owl, to know that I am a veteran of expeditions into Venomfont, the Tomb of Sypraxis, and the Screaming Gardens?”

Owl actually blinked three times in rapid succession, the first sign of surprise or discomfiture he had betrayed since joining the group. “Actually, my lord, it does.”

Rhadid nodded curtly. “I understand your concern. With no insult meant to you, let me be clear: Professor Ahlstrom, Admestus, and myself are essential for this expedition. You two are along as insurance, and for the sake of thoroughness. You will be well-paid when our mission is completed—but you will be paid by me, when we return to Tehvaad. There are no looting rights associated with this excursion, and as you have repeatedly been told, succumbing to the temptation will likely doom us all. Is that understood?”

He arched one eyebrow, staring superciliously down at them until everyone verbally acknowledged the instruction.

“Actually, my lord, I have a question,” Eric said meekly. “That bit with the soldiers… Are you sure our presence here is perfectly legal? I realize that Manor Dire is within your House’s traditional holdings, but it’s also within the Tiraan Empire, of course, and…”

“You should be more aware of the legal gray areas surrounding the great dungeons than most, Professor,” Rhadid answered. “The Imperial Army does not want people entering Manor Dire, but it is not illegal for civilians to do so. Between those two facts is a narrow space of leeway which most people wisely hesitate to navigate, but I assure you that the privilege of rank applies so long as you are with me. Possession is, as they say, nine-tenths of the law.”

“Anyway,” Owl added unexpectedly, “the Empire treats the great dungeons more like frontiers than real estate. Theasia’s too clever to claim sovereignty over a piece of territory troops can’t actually hold. They’ll try to stop you going in, but once you’re in, on your head be it.”

“Ah, very good,” Eric said, smiling. “That’s reassuring.”

“Are you entirely sure that word means what you think it means?” Admestus asked.

“Any other questions?” Rhadid inquired pointedly. “This will be your last chance to ask them in safety.”

They glanced at each other in silence. Admestus picked his nose.

“Then we begin,” Lord Rhadid declared. He turned, grasped the door handles with both hands, and pulled the great double doors wide in a grandiose gesture, then immediately strode into Manor Dire without waiting for them.

Inside, the great entry hall continued to be downright humble as dungeons went. Again, it would have served well to show off the wealth of such a home’s owner, though the interior betrayed its age more than the facade. The great hall was very much a relic of the tastes of five centuries prior, all spare stonework and great exposed beams, with only banners, weapons, and hunting trophies as decorations. The light came from torches rather than modern fairy lamps, or even older oil lamps, creating a flickering dimness that cast deep shadows. In fact, it rather resembled a Shaathist lodge.

It was also not unoccupied.

Directly opposite the entry, the hall ended in an enormous hearth, with seats drawn up to it and a plush bearskin rug draped on the floor in front—white, a rare example of the the now-extinct Kharsa bear, which itself would be worth more than a satchel of jewelry. Stairs rose from either side of the broad fireplace to a landing which was hidden behind the wide stone chimney, but there was a comfortable space in front of the roaring blaze. Sitting there, upon the bear rug, were four gnomes.

As one, they rose to their feet, staring down the length of the great hall at the new arrivals.

Rhadid stopped just inside the doors, allowing his eyes to adjust to the dimmer light, while the rest of his group trickled in behind him and fanned out to either side, peering around at the sparse furnishings and the unexpected fellow adventurers ahead.

Admestus edged to the side of the group, turning his head back and forth to peer up and down the hall while the two groups stared at each other. After the awkwardness began to stretch out, he cleared his throat and flung out one arm to gesture broadly at everything in the most dramatic fashion possible.


Everyone turned to stare at him.

“Well, right back atcha,” said one of the gnomes, swaggering forward. “You duckies don’t look Imperial, if y’don’t mind me sayin’.”

“Were you expecting an Imperial presence?” Lord Rhadid asked blandly.

“Oh, there’s already an Imperial presence,” she replied, winking. “Least one team workin’ through the Manor as we speak. It’s more we weren’t expectin’ anybody else to make it in here. They’ve mostly given up tryin’ ta stop us from comin’ in, but y’don’t often see the common run of adventurers in a dungeon where they’ve set up shop ’round the entrance.”

“I beg your pardon,” Admestus gasped. “Common run? How very dare—”

“Rafe,” Rhadid interrupted, “shut up.”

“Yes, sir, m’lord, sir. Shutting up, sir, by your will.”

“For my part,” Lord Rhadid continued, inclining his head slightly toward the gnomes, “I’ve no intention of interfering in whatever business you have. Is there going to be a problem here?”

“Oh, now, y’don’t need to worry about us,” she said, grinning amiably and continuing to approach; being in no hurry, it took a while on her short legs. “No honest gnome ever begrudged a fellow adventurer the chance for fun an’ profit! As to whether this is gonna be a problem, that’s rather up to you, innit? Cos the Manor’s fairly discriminatin’ in terms o’ how it handles interlopers, but not too excessively. Could end up bein’ a right nuisance for us if you rile up the house.”

“We fully intend to avoid such an outcome with the greatest care,” Rhadid replied. “I confess I am somewhat more concerned with the presence of Imperial troops, now that I know there is a team within.”

“Aye,” she agreed. Having come within conversational distance of them, the gnome stopped, craning her head back to meet his eyes. Behind, the rest of her group watched in silence from the fireside. “Not the most cautious o’ wanderers, are they? Troopers always wanna poke somethin’ with a battlestaff, an’ then when the inevitable happens, shoot it. I will say, in fairness, this crew’s less slaphappy than most. The Empire’s had their thumb on Manor Dire for a while now; by this point the lackeys they send in have at least some vague idea what the hell they’re doin’. Billie Fallowstone, glad t’know ye!”

She held out her hand, and Rhadid bent forward to shake it firmly.

“Lord Rhadid Daraspian. Charmed, I’m sure.”

“Your Lordship,” she said, raising her eyebrows. “An’ a Daraspian, no less. Here to try an’ assert the ol’ hereditary claim t’the place, if y’don’t mind me askin’?”

He straightened back up, still wearing a thin smile. “I am not inclined to discuss my personal business, though no, I do not mind being asked. I gather the house is fairly quiet at present?”

“Ehh…” She grimaced, and made a wavering gesture with one hand. “Dunno if I’d go that far. She ain’t too stirred up, I’ll say that much. The house’s always a wee bit on edge with this many people stompin’ about. I’d say mind how hard y’put down yer feet an’ odds are you’ll met no trouble, ‘less ye blunder into somebody else’s mess.”

“I thank you for the warning,” he said courteously, inclining his head again. “By your leave, then, I shall wish you good fortune. I am eager to make a start on my own expedition.”

“Aye, no time like the present!” Billie said with irrepressible good cheer, falling into step beside him as Rhadid set off down the center of the great hall. “I wish you the best o’ luck with your quest, then. Winding trails an’ full chests to you all.”

Tamara came to a stop, frowning down at her. “What did you say?”

“It’s an old gnomish benediction, Tam,” Owl explained. “She’s not talking about your chest.”

“But I could, if y’want,” Billie added, waggling her eyebrows.

“Oy, Fallowstone,” one of the other gnomes said with open exasperation. “For once in yer life could ya not agitate the tall folk?”

Rhadid had already turned aside in the wide space around the fireplace, where in addition to the ascending stairs several corridors branched out at ground level. Owl and Eric were already following him, Tamara with a lingering suspicious look at Billie.

Admestus fell to one knee, holding out a hand to the gnome, and was somewhat surprised when she took it; rarely did people obligingly play along.

“Alas,” he declaimed, “that our acquaintance must be so brief, and our parting so swift! Know, fairest maiden, that I shall count the very heartbeats that mark our cruel separation.”

“Oh, baby,” she cooed, hopping nimbly up to straddle his outstretched knee. Billie grabbed him by the cheeks and planted an exuberant smooch right on his lips.

A moment later she was sent tumbling to the floor with a playful squeak when Tamara grabbed Admestus’s collar yet again and hauled him physically away down the hall, not pausing to let him get his feet under himself.

“Wait for me, my darling!” he cried despairingly, extending a longing hand as he was dragged away.

“Till the very stars fall, ‘andsome!” she replied playfully.

“Honestly,” one of Billie’s friends said as he was pulled around the corner, “are you gonna let the poor sod go off thinkin’ you’re a maiden?”

“I guarantee ‘e doesn’t think that,” another replied.

“Listen, dumbshit,” Tamara growled, hiking Admestus upright and setting him roughly on his feet. “I don’t care what the tavern wenches think is cute back in whatever university town it is you come from. You act the cut-up in here, and we all die. So you cut it the fuck out, is that understood?”

“Scuze me, missy, but you’re not the boss of me,” he said imperiously, then leaned around her to stare at the rest of the group, who had finally paused for them. “What about it, boss of me? Shall I cut it the fuck out?”

“Do exercise a modicum of restraint, Admestus,” said Rhadid. “But that was well handled. Now come along, all, time is precious.”

“Well-handled?” Tamara muttered while Admestus skipped past her to join Eric just behind Rhadid. “What the hell?”

“Situation’s a bit different than we expected,” Owl said laconically. “It’s not just a dungeon crawl anymore; now it turns out the gnomes and the Empire are vying for control of the Manor. And we just walked right into the middle of it. I’m not gonna give Asshat the Alchemist credit for doing that on purpose, but it’s prob’ly best if they both think we’re not to be taken seriously, and stick to worrying about each other.”

“Control?” Tamara asked. “Gnomes? What?”

“One of the major factors which characterizes the great dungeons,” Eric explained as they walked, “as opposed to other dangerous ruins that might or might not contain treasure, is their self-regenerating properties. No matter how carefully cleared out, a dungeon always has more hazards—and usually, more rewards for those willing to risk it and strong enough to succeed. This also makes them a consistent source of profit, which is why adventurers keep going into them. Ever since the Enchanter Wars, gnomes have been setting up colonies in great dungeons to continuously delve them for resources. Since Empress Theasia was crowned, the Empire has followed suit, and now there is something of a race on between the two parties to seize control of the various dungeons.” He sighed. “This…may well be the last opportunity for any un-aligned party to explore this one. Manor Dire has a mind of its own and won’t be as easy to suborn, but I fear one or the other group will find a way.”

“All the more reason to finish our business and get out,” said Rhadid, “before either plants a flag, so to speak. Or worse, engages in an outright battle for control with us in the crossfire. Join me, Professor; I believe you are most qualified to determine our course from here on.”

“Uh, yeah,” Admestus added. “We’re walking past an awful lot of doors, here. Shouldn’t we, y’know…look around?”

“That’s one approach,” Eric agreed, looking diffidently up at Lord Rhadid as he trundled along beside their benefactor. “Our objective is to penetrate deeper into the Manor and ultimately reach its laboratories—which will happen when the Manor decides to permit it. We achieve that end by impressing it as worthy guests, which is done by surmounting its challenges and behaving respectfully. We could proceed directly through the halls and wait for challenges to present themselves, or take our time and explore each room we pass. Practically speaking, the end result will be the same, so, really, it’s up to you, m’lord.”

Rhadid came to a stop, forcing the rest to do likewise, and looked around thoughtfully. They were in a wood-paneled corridor with heavy oaken doors along it at intervals; a few yards ahead it ended in a T-intersection. There were no visible windows, but the torches were spaced closely enough to provide adequate light.

“What do you anticipate in the way of challenges, Professor?” he asked.

“Well,” said Eric, “some monsters to fight, eventually, but Manor Dire tends more to favor traps and puzzles. We should be on the alert for surprises, of course. As a general rule, little of danger or consequence will appear this close to the entrance—or rather, this soon after our entry. Distance and location mean little in here; our progress is better judged by the impression we have made upon the Manor. Oh! You should know that bedrooms are generally safe. If the Manor offers us a place to sleep, we can be relatively sure there will be no attacks or shenanigans while we avail ourselves. Food and drink likewise; I know we brought provisions, but the Manor does not drug people except when the potables in question are obviously a component of a puzzle.”

“Puzzles,” Tamara muttered, peering around. “Fucking ridiculous…”

“Let us proceed,” Lord Rhadid decided. “The Manor may test us in whatever way it deems proper. All of you, remember to behave with the appropriate respect.”

He continued on, then turned left at the fork. They followed the corridor in silence for a time, then listening to Admestus’s off-key whistling until Tamara punched him in the ear. Then more silence.

Once it became clear that Rhadid had no intention of exploring any of the doors they passed, the Manor evidently tired of waiting on him to show initiative. The corridor abruptly turned to the right, and a few yards farther on, opened out into a sizable room.

Rounding the corner, the whole group slowed. Up ahead there was brighter, steadier light than the torches provided, along with a rhythmic hissing noise and the incongruous sound of a woman humming. Lord Rhadid gave them a firm look, then resumed course. In moments they had emerged from the hallway into a comfortable sitting room.

It was not luxurious by modern standards, reflecting the same rough sensibilities as the great hall. There was another fireplace, and large stuffed armchairs draped with shaggy bison furs. Along one entire wall ran a glass-topped display case containing skeletons of strange creatures no bigger than a cat; in one corner stood a taxidermied cat bigger than a wolf with enormous fangs the length of a human forearm, while another held a wired skeleton of a creature about the size of a dog which looked like a cross between a bird and a lizard. The fire was not lit, but the row of candles atop the mantle were, as well as two oil lamps set upon end tables next to the armchairs.

A slim woman stood with her back to them, sweeping the floor. The sound of her broom upon the floorboards caused the hiss they had heard. At their entry, she stopped humming, turning to study them critically. The apparent housemaid was, incongruously, a wood elf. For the most part she was attired as such, in a blousy green shirt with a brown vest and trousers above beaded moccasins. Her golden hair was covered by a kerchief such as any human housewife might wear, and she wore a pair of gold-rimmed spectacles.

She didn’t talk like a servant, either.

“Admestus Rafe,” the woman said stridently in Tanglish, flinging her broom to the floor and planting her hands on her hips. “Just what in blazes do you think you are doing?”

He straightened up in surprise, blinking, while the others all turned to stare at him again. “Ah… Would I be correct in guessing this is one of those situations where the correct answer isn’t going to cut it? Because the correct answer is ‘doing an honest day’s work for an honest day’s pay,’ but I get the feeling you’re fishing for something a bit more—”

“You couldn’t find anywhere else to do an honest day’s work than Manor bloody Dire?” the elf spat. “Do your parents know you’re in here?”

“Admestus,” Rhadid said calmly, “why don’t you introduce us to your…acquaintance?”

“Oh, of course, terribly sorry, m’lord,” he babbled. “You know me, so absent-minded, leave my head behind one of these days. Well! This, of course, is Lord Rhadid Daraspian, my esteemed employer and wearer of the coolest coat I have ever seen in my life. Seriously, look at him! Did you ever see such dapperness? To his left, Professor Eric Ahlstrom, who teaches something or other in some school or other up in Isilond. Or was it Stavulheim? Ah, well, doesn’t matter. These two are just muscle, you can forget about them.”

“I’m gonna strangle him,” Tamara said aloud to no one in particular. “I can see it coming. This whole shitshow ends with my hands around his skinny neck.”

“And everyone,” Admestus continued, gesturing grandly to the elf, “this, of course, is my very good… That is, the most honorable…” Slowly he turned to her, frowning. “Oh, yes, that reminds me. Just who the bloody hell are you?”

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