Sheen looked up at the townhouse and wrinkled her nose. “It’s filthy,” she commented. Indeed it was, covered in soot and the grasping fingers of razorvine.
“It just looks like everything else on the block,” Talan said, gesturing along the line of similar houses.
“Well, what were you expecting?” Haden asked, fiddling with the lock.. “It’s been vacant for some time. Come on, let’s go inside and have a look.” With a loud screech of corroded metal giving way, the lock turned. They stepped inside, exploring the dusty, silent rooms.
Joris shook his head. “If Yolette really wants something to clean, we’ve got a job for her now.”
Haden nodded. “It looks serviceable, it just needs some work.”
“I’ll be back,” Sheen said, moving her fingers as though going through a mental list. She walked out the front door, still counting silently to herself.
Ari snorted dust up her nose and sneezed, then bounced through the kitchen to sniff around the back door. Talan wrestled with the hinges and Ari catapulted herself into the small back garden with a joyful bark.
Haden brushed some dust off a frame in the front parlor and was startled to discover an ancient family portrait still hanging there. It was a beautiful painting, but he found himself thinking that there was something a little strange about it. He didn’t move again until Sheen came stomping back and dropped a stack of buckets pointedly on the floor. Yolette grinned at Haden nervously.
“Are you going to help?” Sheen demanded, waving a scrubbing brush at him.
“Of course,” Haden said, “but not like that. See what Mal’s doing?” Sheen glanced into the back parlor and saw the elf waving his hands around in the air. Dust billowed into the air as though swept by invisible brooms, then was sucked into a whirlwind and vanished. Haden grinned. “I can do that, too.”
Sheen grimaced. “I’m not sure I approve of using magic for cleaning.”
Mal glanced over at her blandly. “Why not? There’s nothing virtuous about doing things the hard way. Magic leaves more time for the important things in life. We are not ants.”
Sheen examined the magically-cleaned floor. “It still needs to be scrubbed and waxed, though.” Mal shrugged as Sheen pulled Yolette into the garden and began drawing water from the well. Ari bounced over and stuck her head unceremoniously in a full bucket. Loud slurping noises ensued. Sheen gave the dog an offended look and Talan laughed.
By nightfall, they had the first floor clean enough that even Sheen was satisfied, the old tile and wood floors gleaming, the walls and ceilings restored, even the fireplaces unblocked and drawing properly. Haden and Mal, having turned out to be temperamentally unsuited to drudge work, spent most of the afternoon ferrying their gear from Chirper’s. They bought some firewood and candles and turned the front parlor into a temporary camp, arranging bedrolls around the walls in lieu of furniture.
“Where’s Mal?” Joris asked, settling to the floor with a groan and tossing his damp hair out of his face. A day spent scrubbing had meant that he’d needed to scrub himself afterwards. It seemed bizarre to him that you could get dirty cleaning, but that was the way it worked, apparently.
“He spotted a wizard’s society up the street and went to have a look. You know, it’s been a long time since I’ve lived in a house,” Haden remarked, poking up the fire.
“Me too,” Yolette said.
“I’m sure we’ll get used to it,” Haden replied.
“Where did you live, then?” Yolette asked after a moment. Joris had slumped down with his eyes closed, either asleep or well on his way there.
Haden shrugged. “Here and there. Inns mostly, but I stayed with friends sometimes. And I woke up in some pretty peculiar places with a hangover, but we won’t go into it.”
“That sounds like fun,” Yolette said. “Well, the inns and friends part.”
“You’d think so,” Haden said, “but it’s not really. You miss having a place that’s *yours*.”
Talan came in, yawning, and sat down on his own bedroll. Sheen followed him, giving the room a last scrutiny and a tight-lipped nod: apparently it met her standards satisfactorily. “Well, I’m going back to the Hands of Time. I’ll see you fellows in the morning.”
Haden blinked. “You won’t stay?”
“Of course not,” Sheen said. “I already have a room, remember?”
“So do I,” Joris muttered sleepily, “but I’ll never make it back there t’night.”
“Oh,” Haden said, somewhat at a loss. “Well, you shouldn’t go out in the streets by yourself at this time of night,” he announced finally. “I’ll walk you back.”
“So then you’ll have to walk back by yourself?” Sheen asked, amused. “No, it’s just around the other side of the Foundry. I’ll be fine. Good night.”
Haden scowled at her retreating back. “Apparently I’ve been overruled,” he groused.
Light was only barely beginning to peek through the bay window when the front door slammed open and Sheen barreled into the room. She yanked Talan unceremoniously out of his blankets and thrust a piece of paper in front of his eyes. The ranger blinked rapidly, trying to get his eyes to focus.
“Um, good morning?” Haden said.
Talan took the piece of paper carefully from Sheen and held it a bit further away from his face so that the runes would stop blurring. “I have the ranger’s witch,” he read, then gasped. “Where did you get this?!”
“Just finish reading it,” Sheen said grimly.
Talan cleared his throat. “I have the ranger’s witch. I wish to exchange her for the Eye of the Dawn. Surely you know by now what I am capable of. Antipeak, tonight, in front of the Trioptic Nic’Epona. Baltazo. P.S. No tricks.”
Joris turned pale and Haden sighed. “Well, this isn’t good,” the bard remarked after a moment.
“Oh really?!” Sheen demanded. “What was your first clue?!” Haden reached out and grabbed her hand.
“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to be flip,” he said gently.
Mal peeked into the room. “What’s all this noise? Goodness, Talan, you look like a loved one has been kidnapped.” This earned the elf a black glare from everyone in the room. Sheen passed him the note silently.
“This doesn’t really concern everyone,” Talan said abruptly. “I can go find Hexla and meet up with you later.”
“Don’t be stupid,” Sheen spat instantly.
“She’s right, Talan,” Joris said. “You know better than that.”
“It concerns me, at least,” Mal said. “He wants what rightfully belongs to Her. The Baltazo must be made to understand what it is to invoke Her wroth.”
“I’m trying to be logical,” the ranger said. “I don’t want to drag you all into this.”
“You aren’t dragging us,” Joris said, “we’re volunteering. Aren’t we?”
“Of course,” Sheen announced. Talan reached for Ari and hugged the dog, stroking her silky fur in silence.
“Indeed,” Mal said. “I have a plan. We will need a spell and a cut glass duplicate of the Eye.”
“Say what now?” Haden asked.
“It is a minor spell—one that will place the semblance of a magical aura on the cut glass,” Mal explained.
“Nystul’s Magic Aura?” Haden asked.
“I can prepare that,” Joris said.
“You can? It is well. The ruse will not fool the Baltazo for long, but he no doubt plans to double-cross us, anyway,” Mal replied. “It will serve to buy us some time, however.”
“It’s better than what I was planning, anyway,” Talan said thickly.
“What was that?” Joris asked.
“Charging,” Talan said briefly.
Haden stared at the floor, frowning in thought. “You’re assuming that he’s intending to bring Hexla to the meeting, though.”
“I may be able to peer into his mind and discern her location if he does not,” Mal replied. “He may know that I am doing so, however.”
“Yeah, me too,” Haden said. “However, he’s a wizard. We can’t discount the fact that he may make arrangements we can’t predict.”
“Is there any way to figure out where Hexla is before tonight?” Talan asked hopelessly.
“There has to be,” Joris said. Talan rose to his feet and began pacing the room.
“Let’s go and confirm that Hexla is actually missing, eh?” Sheen said. “This may just be a colossal bluff.” Talan halted in the middle of his pacing and stared at her.
Joris swallowed and his face brightened in relief. “Gods, I hadn’t even considered the possibility.”
“Good thinking, Sheen,” Talan said. “I’m letting my emotions run away with me.”
“Let us split up,” Mal said. “One group seeks Hexla, the other prepares for the meeting.”
“That’s a good idea, Mal,” Sheen said. “Why don’t Talan and Haden go look for Hexla at Vander’s while the rest of us go scout the meeting place and see if we can come up with anything?”
Talan made a frustrated noise. “I don’t want to get stuck away from the action!”
“You’re a tracker, Talan,” Sheen said. “If anyone can figure out what happened to Hexla, it’s you . . . with some help from Haden in asking questions and so forth.”
Talan took a deep breath. “All right, I can see the sense in that.”
“You want me to just stay here and keep working?” Yolette asked in a small voice. “I don’t think the Doctor needs me today.” Mal looked down at her.
“I may have a use for you,” he said.
“Wassat?” Yolette asked.
Mal gestured and a crystal replica of the Eye formed out of the air, light and fragile as a soap bubble. “Take this to a glassworker and have him craft one exactly like it.”
Sheen snorted. “I can do that myself,” she said. “I’m a crystal worker.”
“Perfect,” Mal said. “A bit of prestidigitation and the magic aura should fill in the rest.”
While this discussion was happening, Haden had sidled across the room and took the note out of Mal’s inattentive hand. He settled himself in a corner and concentrated for a while. “Is anyone familiar with a mosaic of two dolphins?” he asked abruptly.
“What?” everyone demanded simultaneously.
“I can see a mosaic of two dolphins, chasing each other’s tails. That’s where Baltazo was when he created this message. I’m trying to see more . . . quiet . . .”
Three pairs of baffled eyes turned to look at Sheen. “He’s *reading* it,” she explained. “Some people can use psionics to look into the past that way.”
“Ohhhh,” Joris breathed.
“Does the talent actually extend the user’s perceptions through time, or is he simply picking up thoughts imprinted on the object?” Mal asked.
“I’m not sure,” Sheen said. “It’s not my area of specialty. I do know that you can sense the identities of previous owners and pick up some details of their involvement with the item.”
“It almost looks like the paper came from Arvandor originally,” Haden said, “but I believe Baltazo bought it from a woman in the Clerk’s Ward, right near the Hall of Speakers.”
“Can you sense anything about Hexla?” Talan asked.
Haden put the message down, rubbing his head like it pained him. “No, I can’t tell whether the paper was ever in her presence. But the stationery shop is very near the Trioptic Nic’Epona.”
“It is possible that Baltazo has his hideout in the same general area, then,” Sheen said.
“Should we search the area where the Baltazo procured the parchment, then?” Mal asked.
Haden nodded. “You should go with Joris and have a look around, at least. You may want to pose as tourists and see if you can find out where that mosaic comes from.”
Mal nodded. “Joris, can you cloak your appearance? I can wear the mien of another and perceive the invisible, but Baltazo would recognize you, would he not?”
“He would, and no, I can’t,” the cleric said. “It’s a pity. Kalisa could.”
“Do you still want me to work on the fake diamond?” Sheen asked.
“Yes,” Mal said. “If nothing else, it could buy us a minute or two.”
“All right, I’ll get cracking.,” she said, and left the house.
“To Vander’s, then?” Talan asked Haden, who nodded. The four men put on their cloaks and hurried into the streets.
“What did Baltazo look like when he was buying the paper?” Joris asked.
“Human and dumpy,” Haden said. “Sorry, it wasn’t very clear.”
“Don’t worry,” Joris said, glancing at Talan. “If there’s anything to find, we’ll find it. Good luck.” The cleric and the elven wizard turned at the corner and began heading toward the Clerk’s ward. Talan and Haden turned the other way.
“You okay?” Haden asked Talan, who was walking without paying attention and had several near collisions with other pedestrians.
“I . . . just the sound of that name makes me . . .” the ranger shivered. “I don’t know how you hold it together so well, Haden, I really don’t.”
“Maybe all those years of fighting my mother were good for something,” Haden theorized. “Can Ari track someone by scent? I know some types of dogs can do that.”
Talan grinned down at his companion. “Yeah, she’s really good at that.”
“Well, if Hexla’s like most women, she wears perfume and has a very definite scent. It might be easier if we could get some of her clothing or something like that.” Talan turned very red. “Oops, I didn’t mean it like that,” Haden said. Talan’s face was now burning. “I can’t see why you should be embarrassed. You do like her, don’t you? You care about her? So what’s the problem?”
“You wouldn’t understand,” the ranger muttered. “You’ve probably had dozens of women.”
“And what does that have to do with anything?” Haden asked, his curiosity piqued. “Every woman is different.”
“That’s assuming you’ve been with more than . . . I mean had . . . oh, just forget it,” Talan finished in a strangled voice.
Haden chuckled. “You think *you* have problems?”
“What?” Talan asked, turning to look at the bard. “Anything you want to talk about?”
Haden chuckled again. “Well . . . maybe. But now’s probably not the best time.”
“Yes,” Talan said. “Once we rescue Hexla and severely punish Baltazo, we’ll have to sit down and chat. There’s Vander’s, maybe we’ll see Jazra or Lissanrda.”
“Speak of the Devil,” Haden muttered, pointing a bit further down the street to where Jazra had her arm around some poor Clueless-looking sod, a young man looking around apprehensively. Haden raised his voice. “Hello, Jazra!”
“Oh, hey there, Haden!” Jazra released the Prime--who stared nervously at Haden but appeared relieved at Talan’s ordinary appearance--and winked salaciously at Talan. “You gonna bring my roommate home any time soon?”
“I’m not sure I understand what you mean,” Talan said stiffly.
“She left here with you yesterday afternoon, you dolt!” Jazra bawled.
“Well, at least that answers that question,” Haden muttered.
“I figured after my gripin’ about havin’ to share my kip, you two wanted some privacy.” Talan looked from Haden to Jazra and back to Haden helplessly.
“Jazra, that wasn’t Talan,” Haden said. “That was a shapeshifter who looked like Talan.” The Prime looked alarmed.
“When I get my hands on him . . .” Talan growled.
“Why don’t you go in an’ get a drink, dearie,” Jazra said to her Prime. “I’ll catch up with ya shortly.” The man hurried inside the inn. “All right, ya two, what’s going on here?”
“Did you see where they went?” Haden demanded.
Jazra frowned. “He asked her to go for a stroll. Lemme think . . . Hex said she loves Bloodgem Park, I remember that.”
Haden glanced at Talan. “He would want to get her out of sight before he did anything dramatically out of character.”
“Hmm,” Jazra said. “Talan . . . I mean, that guy, said he ‘had another destination in mind’. That was all I hear, sorry. I had no idea it wasn’t you.”
“If Hexla couldn’t tell, how could you?” Talan asked.
“What about Lissandra?” Haden asked. “Was she there?”
“Yeah, but she ain’t here now. She’s chasin’ a portal in the Guildhall Ward somewheres. ‘Sides, she din’t see any more than me, I don’t think.”
Haden sighed. Talan was looking dejected. “Let’s see what Ari can sniff out?” the bard suggested. Talan pulled out a lacy handkerchief and held it out for the dog to sniff. Ari glanced up at the ranger, seeming to realize how serious this was, and began carefully circling the area, her nose to the ground. It was only a few moments before she gave a sharp bark and took off down the street, leading them towards the Clerk’s ward. The two men chased the dog down the street, drawing odd looks from the passersby.
Ari stopped outside the Hall of Records and began circling again, making the occasional distraught whine. “It’s okay, girl,” Talan said. “It’s okay. You can do it.”
Haden grimaced, looking around. “You know, I just remembered that Baltazo can teleport.”
Talan winced. “You’re right. There is the possibility that Ari can’t find the scent because it’s vanished into thin air.” Ari barked again and ran off. “Or not!” Talan said, shooting Haden a quick smile and chasing after the dog. She led them even further along the ring, past the Civic Festhall and to the edge of the Guildhall Ward. Before them lay the Great Gymnasium, headquarters of the Transcendent Order. Ari bypassed it before they could take more than a cursory look, however.
Ari’s pace finally slowed in front of a massive building sporting the Olympic style: white marble and rows of fluted columns. The words “The Glass Pearl” were carved in runes on the lintel. Just below that, a cloth banner bore the message “Closed for Renovations”. Ari parked herself in front of the entrance and looked at Talan.
“Good girl,” the ranger said.
Mal and Joris made their own way to the Clerk’s Ward, through ten miles of heavy traffic. Mal called on fey power to disguise his features, then tossed his hooded cloak to Joris. The cleric looked over the garment, then shrugged and tossed his helmet into his pack. They looked around, seeing the facade of the Hall of Speakers, the Trioptic Nic’Epona, and the Power of the One.
Joris started when Mal abruptly made a sharp whistling noise and held up a gloved hand. A large glossy black raven settled onto the elf’s arm and cawed. “What?” The cleric asked.
“This is Lir, my familiar,” Mal explained. “I am going to have him scout this area for Baltazo and Hexla while we visit yonder printer.”
“Oh,” Joris said, a bit nervous now that he was alone with the mysterious elf. They walked into the shop, which was crowded with a massive printing press and an assortment of lap desks, quills, papers, and inks. There were very few customers, and a young human woman hurried over to greet them immediately.
“I was wondering if you could help me?” Mal said, murmuring something under his breath. The woman’s eyes glazed slightly and she looked at Mal with adoration.
“Yes, sir?” she asked.
“I am looking for a friend of mine, short, somewhat dumpy, and human. I have reason to believe he was here recently,” the elf continued.
“Doesn’t sound terribly familiar,” the shopkeeper said.
“You sold him this paper,” Joris piped in, showing her the letter. She examined it briefly.
“Yes, finest quality, superior workmanship. An excellent choice. Perhaps I do remember. Let me think. He was an odd fellow. Had powder on his hands, I remember that much, it smelled of perfume. Talc, probably.”
“Did he say where he was staying or where he could be found?” Mal asked insistently.
“Not that I recall, but talc is commonly used by bathhouse workers.”
“Do you know of one that bears a mosaic of two dolphins?” Mal asked.
“The Great Gymnasium is the only one I frequent, milord, and there is no such image there. At least not that I’ve seen. But the Gymnasium is mostly for Ciphers, so there are some others in this district that cater to the members of other factions. Just head further into the Guildhall ward, and you’ll see plenty.”
Mal shot Joris a questioning glance. “It’s, um, that way,” the cleric said.
“Shall we go, then?” Mal asked. Joris nodded and they headed out into the street, crossing in front of the Great Gymnasium. A commotion started at the far end of the street, and they turned just in time to see Ari, Haden, and Talan go running past.
“Talan!” Joris yelled, but they didn’t slow and the cleric cursed. Mal shook his head and began whispering another spell.
Talan peered into the Glass Pearl, which was quite dark. “Can you sense anything?” he asked Haden. The bard suddenly winced.
“I can sense Mal. He just sent me a cantrip hail saying that he and Joris are coming up the street. Let’s wait for them. Do you think we ought to get Sheen?”
“I shall send Lir for her,” Mal announced, walking up. “Where is she now?”
“Probably at the Hands of Time,” Haden said.
“Very well,” Mal said. “We wait.”
Book reviews, art, gaming, Objectivism and thoughts on other topics as they occur.
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