One evening, about a week after taking service with Xenograg, Elmö tells the story of his very short adventuring career. The party foolishly broke into a sealed tomb they came across and encountered its restless dead. One person died fighting skeletons even before the true threat appeared: a raging spirit. One member broke and fled in terror immediately upon seeing it. The party leader, who described himself as a Templar, threw himself at the apparition but was obviously overmatched. His horrid death scream drove the remaining three adventurers to flight. The party disbanded the moment it arrived back in town—ridiculously named Bravetown. Elmö headed home to Eldicor the next day.
Something about Elmö’s story leaves Xenograg uneasy. It is late, and the two men seek their beds. Xenograg will sleep on it, in Barsi.
Xenograg starts awake two hours before dawn. After telling Amaltea to go back to sleep, he dresses in the dark and strides to his secret sanctum in Nestrian Palace. Passing through the magic mirror to Dojo Darelir in Rhydin City, he rushes up to Elmö’s room. Xenograg pounds on the door to wake his equerry.
“My Lord?” Elmö asks after opening the door. He is not groggy as elves do not actually sleep.
“The tomb, Elmö!” Xenograg growls. “You said the interior was defiled. Are you sure?!” Elmö blinks at the suddenness of the inquiry.
“Yes, we pointed it out to each other before the skeletons moved. Deliberate damage to statues and murals.”
“But the tomb was also sealed from the outside!”
“Yes, My Lord.” Xenograg takes a deep breath. His face is tense and grim.
“Then we have a problem, Elmö. A serious one.” Xenograg starts cutting orders.
“Get dressed. Wake the household. Prepare a travel party. We are going to Bravetown.” Xenograg turns and walks away without waiting for any reply.
Standing in his doorway, Elmö struggles to mentally catch up to the situation. ‘Get dressed, idiot!’ he thinks to himself. He can think while doing that. He closes the door.
Xenograg returns to Barsi to wake Amaltea and inform her of the expedition. There is no question that she is coming along. His next destination is Xenodar. This trip is twofold: inform Amanda (who will not be allowed to come) and retrieve three items from the tower armory.
Amanda cannot object to her exclusion. While her pregnancy is not a physical limit, the danger is simply too great to risk.
“You are taking Wyheree and Toby with you,” she says in her question-actually-command manner.
“Yes, Beya,” is his patronizing answer. They both chuckle.
Amanda accompanies Xenograg down to the armory. The items he seeks are hanging together in the center of the room’s main wall. Xenograg reverently takes down each item. First is a quiver of Rellugai blessed arrows which he belts on. He adjusts the quiver to hang across his buttocks. The second is a wing-shaped Rellugai shield with a plain verdant field. He slides his left arm into its straps. The last is a primitive club: a stone ball bound, offset, to a slightly-curved wooden shaft. Its form is intentionally archaic, an unchanging centuries-old Rellugai tradition.
“Would the blessings have faded over the years?” Amanda asks.
“Just the question I was asking myself,” he replies.
“You should go to the Rellugai winter encampment and have them checked.”
“That will cost me a day.”
“If the tomb was unsealed three weeks ago, what is another day?”
“It might matter very much, but I need to be sure of these implements. I will go to the encampment.”
“Good.” Amanda walks with him back to the magic mirror. She embraces her father.
“Do not take any foolish risks, Old Man. I mean it!”
“Who, me?” Xenograg replies, feigning innocence.
“I love you, Father.”
“I love you, too. I will see you again soon.” With that, Xenograg returns to Dojo Darelir.
Xenograg finds his Rellugai armorer waiting in the dojo hall with his elven mail. Her eyes go wide as she recognizes the arms he has returned with. He hands them over to her and says he will not need the mail for a few hours. She moves off to store the Rellugai equipment for later. Xenograg seeks and finds Elmö in the stable inspecting horseshoes.
“We will not be ready to depart for at least an hour, My Lord,” is Elmö’s succinct status report.
“I will not be ready for another three,” Xenograg replies. “You can have more time if needed.”
“How many people?”
“Six: you, me, Amaltea, two comrades, and someone chosen by you to manage the horses and baggage.”
“One pack horse should suffice, then.”
“Coursers and palfreys for the six?”
“Anything else?” Xenograg realizes he had forgotten something.
“Oh, yes! I need you to go and hire the flying galley, again. Make it for a week.”
“I am leaving the Dojo, now, to collect my comrades. I expect to be gone for at least an hour.”
“Understood.” Xenograg leaves Elmö in the stable and returns to his sanctum for another magic mirror trip: to the homestead known as Sanctuary.
Xenograg chooses to recruit Wyheree before Toby. It is still early morning, but she is sure to be up. Being a frequent visitor with a standing invitation, Xenograg just walks up the house’s back porch and knocks on the kitchen door. Wyheree answers almost immediately.
“Good morning, Wyh.”
“Good morning. Come on in.” He does and is immediately greeted by a scream of joy.
“Pop-pop!” Shanni runs up to Xenograg, and he lifts her to his hip.
“Hello, Precious! Are you being a good girl?”
“Yeess!” she whines but with a smile.
“Good.” He kisses the 4-year-old’s forehead. Wyheree speaks up.
“You have not finished your breakfast, Shanni.”
“Yes, Mama,” she replies. Xenograg sets Shanni down in her usual kitchen chair, and she gets back to eating.
“Have you had breakfast, my friend?”
“Actually, no. It has been a hectic morning.”
“You rarely break your morning routine. I am afraid there is not much left. The cook has already left,” she says with a smile, referring to her husband, Roran.
“Whatever is left will be fine, Wyh,” he says while sitting down at the kitchen table. That consists of two muffins and a few scraps of scrambled eggs. Shanni gives him her last half-strip of bacon. He caresses her cheek to thank you. Knowing he does not drink coffee, Wyheree fills a glass of water for Xenograg. Wyheree takes her own seat across from him and sips the last of her coffee.
“All gone!” declares Shanni.
“Very good. You can go play now.” Shanni is out of her chair like a shot.
“Bye!” she hollers halfway out of the kitchen. Xenograg has to stop eating for a moment because both adults are laughing.
“So what disrupted your morning?” Wyheree asks. Xenograg’s mirth evaporates.
“You are going to regret that question.” Xenograg looks her straight in the eyes. “I did not come for breakfast.” Wyheree frowns.
“I should have guessed.”
“I am sorry, Wyh.”
“How serious is it?”
“I do not know, but I suspect very serious. I do not want to be under-prepared. Amanda is unavailable, of course.”
“Yes, of course. Amaltea?”
“What are we facing?”
“I fear a vengeful spirit is loose.”
“Wraith or spectre?”
“I do not know.”
“More than one?”
“I fear so.”
“Down southeast, near Bravetown.” Wyheree makes a face of disgust.
“Ugh. That hellhole?”
“You know it?”
“I adventured out of there for a short time when I first arrived in Rhydin.”
“A party of adventurers from there unsealed a tomb. Elmö was one of them. I am obligated to clean up his mess.”
“My exact sentiment.” Xenograg takes a long drink of water and a deep breath. “I need you.”
“I would never refuse you. How soon do we leave? How long will we be gone?”
“I am thinking this afternoon, but I can wait for tomorrow. I cannot see this taking less than half a week.” Wyheree frowns in thought.
“No promises on this afternoon, but I will try. I need to talk to Roran.” Xenograg nods and stands up from the table. “Is Toby also coming?”
“He is next on my list.” Wyheree nods before turning to call down the hallway.
“Shanni, come say good-bye to Pop-pop!” Shanni barrels into the kitchen for a quick hug and kiss on the top of her head.
“Now get out of my kitchen, troublemaker,” Wyheree commands with edged humor.
Toby’s reaction to Xenograg’s request for aid is guarded and serious, but Xenograg detects a hint of excitement in his friend. He wonders if Toby has cabin fever. As with Wyheree, Toby does not promise to be available today. Xenograg informs him so without complaint.
This meeting is likewise attended by a child of the host. While all four St. Germain children enthusiastically greet ‘Grandpa Xenograg’, Maurin stays to listen to the adults’ conversation. She sits with obviously-forced patience and silence until her father agrees to accompany Xenograg. Then she drops her bomb.
“I want to come, too.” Toby’s reply is instant and incandescent.
“I’m twelve years old. Old enough to become a page for Gran…Lord Xenograg.” Xenograg blinks in surprise.
“You want to become my page?” he asks her.
“Yes! I want to go and learn more from you. I know it’s a job; I’m not stupid.”
“This is stupid,” corrects her father. “Not another word from you, now.” Xenograg turns to Toby.
“I certainly would not take her along on this dangerous trip. I am not opposed to her serving me this summer, though. I could use the help.” Maurin bites her tongue and stays silent, but beams at her father. Toby frowns in thought.
“We’ll discuss this later.” Maurin also frowns, but realizes he did not say ‘no’.
“Thank you, Daddy. Thank you, Grandpa.”
So everyone, including the flying galley, needs until the next day. Elmö is relieved to have more time to prepare; mistakes and omissions made in haste are being rectified. He considers taking a second pack horse, but decides to just store extra supplies on the ship and retrieve them as needed.
Sixtus, Dojo Darelir’s captain of the guard, confronts Xenograg in the afternoon about the lack of a bodyguard detachment. Xenograg replies that his companions and Elmö are his bodyguards. He informs Sixtus that prior adventures have always resulted in high mortality amongst his guards; he will not drag more to their deaths.
“Ask for volunteers,” replies Sixtus. Xenograg snorts.
“No one will. The Rellugai know how many of their kinsmen have died with me on such adventures.”
“I volunteer, My Lord,” Sixtus says, surprising Xenograg.
“No! I need you here; in my absence, of all times.”
“Not this time, My Lord. I invoke my life debt.” Xenograg sighs.
“I ask you to reconsider, Sixtus. Another time, another task.”
“No, My Lord. This is the time.”
“Very well, Captain. Tell Elmö to prepare your horse.” Sixtus smirks at that.
“I already have.”
The cavalcade gets underway at dawn. Xenograg notes that both a second packhorse and second Rellugai handler have been added by Elmö. He says nothing about it, though; Xenograg left it to his equerry, and must give him the freedom and authority that goes with it. The party size will be eight with ten horses. Only six people and nine horses depart Dojo Darelir. They will pick up Toby, Wyheree, and her horse at the Sanctuary on their way to the Rellugai steppe.
It is almost midmorning before the horses and supplies are secured on the galley. It casts off from the dock and the oarsmen row it upriver from the Rhydin City. Once clear of the city walls, the captain has the sail raised and lifts the ship into the air. The oarsmen continue rowing, as that is part of the magical ritual. Their speed increases beyond anything possible by muscle power or wind.
Despite the ship being long and wide, first-time passengers tend to stay below deck despite the cramped space. Even Elmö, on his third trip, spends most of his time with the horses. Xenograg stands with the captain at the tiller.
The trip to the Sanctuary is short and uneventful. The sight of the galley arriving over the trees is the cause of great excitement in three small sky-watchers on the ground. Xenograg grins, having expected the St. Germain girls would be allowed to stay home today. They are running for the house now. One splits off in the direction of Wyheree’s cottage. The captain brings the ship down and lands in the lake.
Xenograg is not surprised that it is Maurin who leads Wyheree’s horse from the barn to the ship; the girl wants to show her ability to do the work of a page. Xenograg is obvious in his attention upon her, and his body language conveys satisfaction.
Good-byes are made between husbands and wives, parents and children. The galley pulls away from the dock and takes to the air again. The captain flies in a low circle around the homestead for the enjoyment of the children.
The flight to the northern steppe is not long. It takes a little while to find the Rellugai winter encampment, but Xenograg feels they can still reach Bravetown before dusk. The galley can put down on land, but the captain prefers water. The river near the encampment will suffice. They are close enough that horses will not be needed. Amaltea, Wyheree, Toby, and Sixtus accompany Xenograg down the gangplank.
A lone man mounted on a pony rides up to Xenograg’s party: a herald comes to find out their intentions. He recognizes Xenograg, and his body language changes.
“Hail, Nur-Wan! You have come to see His Holiness, of course.” Xenograg blinks, surprised the herald knows that. He answers with diplomatic care.
“We were worried you would not get the word in time,” the herald adds, setting Xenograg even more on edge. Wyheree and Toby also hide their surprise at this strange conversation.
“I have come. These are my friends.”
“They are welcome here. Follow me, please.” Xenograg nods, and the herald swings his pony back towards the encampment. Xenograg looks to his companions and gives them a subtle shake of his head. They both nod, and the five walk on in silence behind the herald.
The encampment is a small impermanent city that exists for almost half the year. It is late Spring, but isolated remnants of snow piles can still be seen in the shadowed sides of the yurts. The temperature is mild but not warm, and the wind is cool if not chilly.
Almost all the men are out working the animal herds; young children are playing while the older ones are helping the women with various domestic chores. The various Rellugai look at the five walkers. Most smile but immediately return to their tasks. A group of giggling children run up to Xenograg. He grins, then makes a comically-exaggerated gesture like he is cursing each of them. The children all squeal with mock fear and run away laughing. The five laugh, as well.
A corpulent older man approaches on a pony at a slow walk. Xenograg turns to his companions.
“Medicine man. As we pass him, gesture as I do,” he instructs. They nod and watch carefully. Just before their closest approach, Xenograg touches his chin under his mouth with the fingers of his right hand. The others quickly copy him. The medicine man smiles down at them. While looking at Wyheree, the rider’s smile disappears and his eyes bulge. He halts his pony and dismounts with unsafe haste. He drops to his knees before Wyheree, sits upon his heels, and crosses his arms across his chest as if suddenly cold. He speaks in a tonal language she does not understand, but his tone is pleading. Alarmed, Wyheree looks to Xenograg. His expression is one of embarrassment. Xenograg speaks emphatically in that tongue to the kneeling man, but the man does not rise. Xenograg turns to Wyheree.
“I should have realized this would happen. I am sorry, Wyh. The Rellugai have a God of Winter whom they attempt to placate in hopes of a mild winter. This medicine man has mistaken you for a manifestation of that god. He is imploring you not to undo Spring.” Wyheree notices that other Rellugai have noticed this scene. Some likewise drop to their knees and crosses their arms. Some women run into their yurts only to quickly return with various foodstuffs. They lay the food on the ground then kneel.
Wyheree takes a few deep breaths to calm herself. She is embarrassed but also annoyed at being seen as a malevolent entity. She masters her emotions, though.
“What should I do, Xenograg?” is her first spoken response. Xenograg and the medicine man quickly converse again.
“I have told him you are not their god or his servant. As he can see your nature, he will not accept that from me.”
“So I am stuck.”
“What do I do now?!” is her exasperated retort. Xenograg looks around quickly before answering.
“Play the role. Show them you are not here to bring back Winter. Accept the offerings.”
“All of them?”
“No, that should not be necessary. They are short of food, in fact. Take a little something from each, I guess.”
“Must you continue to make trouble for me, Old Friend?” is her dark-humored reply.
Wyheree turns her attention fully to the medicine man at her feet. She smiles and offers her hands to him. He slowly reaches out and takes her hands in his. She gestures that he is to rise, and he does need her help to get back on his feet. She then walks around the area, doing her best to convey amity to all the Rellugai. She takes a single, small food item—usually bread—from each woman who has brought out some. Wyheree eats and nods each time as if in satisfaction. When she cannot possibly eat more, she returns to Toby and Xenograg.
On the way back, Wyheree sees one of the remnants of snow on the ground. A grand gesture comes to her. Slowly turning in a circle for all to see, she reaches out and gently draws all the remaining snow into the air. It arcs into her hands where it simply vanishes. In a minute, there is not a trace of snow left in the encampment.
‘If that does not do it, nothing will,’ she thinks.
While Wyheree is building good will, Xenograg is led away from the others and disappears into a large yurt. He comes back outside after a half hour wearing a stone face. His companions fall in as he strides out of the camp in the direction of the ship.
“What’s wrong, Xeno?” asks Amaltea. Xenograg sighs.
“Inhuut is dying.”
“Not today, but soon. He asked me to come back as soon as possible.”
“I’m sorry, Xeno.”
“Me, too. He is a good and wise man.”
“What of your arms, My Lord,” asks Elmö.
“They are still potent. He blessed them, again, anyway.”
“One more thing: a Rellugai medicine woman will be joining us. Inhuut insisted when he heard of our mission.”
“More help,” opines Wyheree.
“Indeed,” agrees Xenograg. By the time the five have walked back to the ship, an armored and masked Rellugai riding a pony has caught up to them. She dismounts and gives a slight head nod to Xenograg. “Everyone, this is Roga. She does not speak Common, though. Sixtus, both Rellugai guards, and I can translate when needed.”
Xenograg then calls to the ship in a tonal language. One of the Rellugai assigned to the baggage horses comes running down the gangway. Xenograg gestures towards the medicine woman and gives instructions in that same tongue. The guardsman bows his head to Xenograg and then to Roga. She holds out the reins of her pony to him. He takes them and leads the pony up the gangway. The six people follow them aboard. Once the pony is secured, the galley casts off and takes to the air. Next stop is Bravetown.
After conferring with the galley captain, Xenograg tells his friends he is going to take a nap. Wyheree and Toby cannot help but notice Xenograg looks tired—and old. They ask Amaltea, and she confirms that Xenograg’s endurance is poor. He always promises to retire, but something always comes up that triggers his sense of duty. Amaltea does not bother to hide her worry from Wyheree and Toby.
As the location of Bravetown is known to the captain, he sets the most direct course. They make good time, and the galley sets down upriver—and out of sight—of town. It is about an hour before sunset. The entire party, including horses, disembarks and travels without incident.
Elmö leads the troop from the river to a nearby road and onwards to Bravetown. The town is sited upon a wide hill beside the river. The woods have been cut far back from the city walls for security. A permanent checkpoint stands astride the road halfway between walls and woods. The appearance of nine mounted people so close to sunset causes a stir among the guards at the checkpoint. Several of them mount their own horses. Xenograg dismounts a courteous distance from the checkpoint, and everyone follows suit. They lead their horses on foot the rest of the way to the checkpoint.
Elmö takes the lead dealing with the guard sergeant. He confirms that no rules have changed since his last visit. All armed persons must be members of the Adventurers Guild to enter the town. Elmö and Wyheree are already full members, though hers has lapsed. Everyone else must apply immediately. As equerry, Elmö has to handle all the paperwork for Xenograg’s party. Xenograg applies as a full member while everyone else, including Toby and Roga, apply as retinue members under Xenograg.
Wyheree presents her guild badge to the guard at the appropriate table. The young man frowns.
“This is not a Guild badge, madam,” he informs her.
“It most certainly is,” is her correction. “It bears the crest and my membership number. Do check your records.” The guard does not open the book, but hands back the badge to her.
“Maybe so, but it is not the proper size or shape. Please withdraw.” Wyheree is in no mood for a second dramatic scene today. She looks around and quickly makes eye contact with another guard sergeant—a middle-aged woman—several paces behind the table. The sergeant approaches the table and addresses the young guard.
“What do you got, Grig?” Wyheree does not wait for the man to answer. She holds up her guild badge to show the sergeant. The sergeant visibly blinks before beginning to chuckle. She addresses Wyheree directly.
“My apologies, madam! That style of Guild badge was discontinued almost twenty years ago. It is older than Grig, here! He doesn’t even know they existed.”
“Thank you, Sergeant. It has been a long time since I was last here.”
“We will have to replace it with a current one, though, madam. If you will accompany me to the other table, I will personally update your records.”
“I appreciate that, Sergeant.” So Wyheree ends up at the New Members table after all, but on the side instead of in line. She is eventually presented both her old and a new badge by the sergeant.
“Being useless,” the sergeant informs her, “you can keep the old badge if you are sentimental.”
“That is very kind of you, Sergeant. Thank you, again.”
The new badge is worn around the neck on a lanyard. Its face has a thick border of bright red and bears her old membership number. The prominent red border identifies its bearer as a magic-user of some kind. Wyheree sees that Xenograg’s new badge is likewise red-bordered. Toby’s badge has a thick border of bright green, marking him as a psion. Their membership numbers are significantly higher than hers.
Everyone who registered as retinue is then given a heraldic tabard by Elmö. It matches his own, that of the Baron of Arra. Roga is visibly displeased but remains silent while putting the tabard on.
“What’s her problem, Master?” is Sixtus’s softly spoken question.
“Her older brother died in my service at Mount Dread,” Xenograg answers. Sixtus’s looks skyward.
“O, Jupiter…,” he mutters and walks away.
Once everyone is badged, the party walks through the checkpoint and towards the town gate. Elmö has already informed everyone that only personal defense weapons are allowed to be worn inside the walls. Guards at the gate ask if the group will store their heavy weapons together or separately. Elmö answers the former, and a sufficiently large storage room is assigned. Xenograg uses sorcery to lock its door once their weapons and armor are stowed within.
“Sir Elmö, is the White Marble Inn still the best inn in town?”
“Yes,” he replies.
“Then lead us there, please.” He smiles and makes a little bow.
“As you command, Lady.”
The inn’s lobby is indeed lined with white marble, though now tinted with age. Elmö takes note of everyone’s guild membership number as they will be needed to get lodging for all. The desk clerk questions one membership number on Elmö’s list: Wyheree’s, of course. Elmö assures the clerk that the number is correct.
As Elmö is occupied, Xenograg turns to Wyheree for local information.
“Is there someplace in town to buy magical items?” he asks.
“There were several back in my day,” Wyheree replies. “I presume that hasn’t changed.” She sees Xenograg’s unasked question in his eyes and nods. She looks around the lobby. Finding what she seeks, she points to a desk away from the front door.
“There,” she says. Xenograg and Amaltea look where Wyheree has pointed. The desk has a small sign that reads ‘concierge’. Xenograg gestures for Wyheree to lead them there. A middle-aged woman seated behind the desk stands at their approach.
“Good evening, My Lord and Ladies,” the woman says, having guessed the three’s rank by their dress. “Are you guests of the White Marble Inn?”
“Our equerry is registering us as we speak,” Wyheree answers. The woman smiles.
“Welcome! My name is Alizabeth. I am the senior concierge here. How may I assist you, Lady?”
“Come the morning,” Wyhere says. “we are interested in shopping for quality equipment. Alas, I have not been here in many years.” The concierge glances down at Wyheree’s guild badge. Her eyes alight and she smiles even wider.
“Goddess bless me, I haven’t seen a number that low in ten years! Welcome back to Bravetown, Lady…?”
“Wyheree. Thank you. I wish to know if East Market Street is still where the best wares are to be found.”
“Yes and no, Lady. Market Street is now divided into High, Middle, and Low. What used to be East Market is now all of High and the better part of Middle Market.”
“I understand. Is there a best route through town directly to High Market Street?”
“Indeed there is, Lady. Let me get a map, and I will mark it accordingly.” The concierge opens a drawer in the desk and lifts out a single sheet of paper. It is a simple but clear street map of Bravetown. With an ink quill, the woman deftly circles the location of both the Inn and the entrance to High Market Street. She then connects the two with a route that is not shortest by distance. The concierge then turns the map around to show the three guests.
“Lady, this is the best route. Not the shortest, obviously. This street here,” she taps on the map with her finger, “should not be used as a throughway.”
Wyheree smirks as she remembers something from long ago.
“Some things never change, I suppose,” she quips. The concierge chuckles.
“Quite so, Lady. Is there anything else I can help you with?”
“No, this is all for now. Thank you, again.”
“You are most welcome, Lady. The front desk closes at midnight, but there will be a concierge on duty all night. Do not hesitate to call upon us for anything.”
“What are we doing tomorrow?” Amaltea asks Xenograg over dinner.
“First,” he replies, “we find the other survivors of Elmö’s previous adventuring party.”
“How difficult will that be?” It is Elmö who answers Amaltea.
“One shall be very easy, My Lady, as the templars have a ‘temple’.” Elmö’s inflection in speaking that last word raises eyebrows around the table. Elmö pauses to explain himself. “The Poor Fellow-Soldiers of the Heart of Bravery is a fledgling order. Their temple-monastery is just a storefront and the apartment above—in one of the poorer neighborhoods.” Amaltea cannot believe her ears.
“Yes, My Lady.”
“My Lady, I did not see more than six people inside during my sole visit.” Xenograg returns to Amaltea’s original question.
“What about the other two, Elmö?”
“Uncertain, My Lord. Cleon—the late templar—recruited them. The town registrar should be able to confirm whether they are still here.”
Rain can be heard outside the inn as the companions seek their beds. The dawn is clear and bright, though. The cobblestones of the streets are still wet and slick as the party follows Elmö to the Temple of the Heart of Bravery. They see various residents and shopkeepers draw water from the rain barrels located at intervals on every sidewalk.
Forewarned by the concierge, the companions are alert for possible trouble. A cluster of young people that can only be called a street gang loiter on a street corner. Xenograg mentally identifies the gang leader, and the two make eye contact. Satisfied that the tough shows no inclination to do anything, Xenograg looks back to his friends.
The temple is indeed a plain storefront. Its porch lacks merchandise for sale, of course. All the windows have heavy curtains on the inside, and the front door is closed. Elmö knocks on the door. Wyheree points to a posted notice on the door: a demand for overdue payment of rent by the landlord. After waiting a minute, Elmö pounds on the door with the heel of his fist. Movement is now heard within. The window curtain nearest the door moves, but Xenograg cannot see the person inside. The sound of a deadbolt being released is heard, and the door swings partially open to reveal a teen girl.
“Hello, Astrid,” says Elmö, recognizing her.
“Do I know you, Sir?”
“I am Elmö. Do you remember me?” Astrid’s eyes immediately go wide.
“Forgive me, Master Elmö! Yes, I remember you. I am so glad you are here!”
“I mean, it is good to see you. You are welcome here, as before. And your companions. Come in, please!”
The store’s main room is sectioned in half by a temporary wall to create a back room. This front parlor has a shrine against the side wall. There are no interior lights, and the curtain keep out much of the sunlight. No one else is present.
“Astrid, where are the others?” Elmö asks. She almost wilts at the question.
“When Isli returned with the news that Sir Cleon was dead, all the serjeants deserted. Only he and I are left, and he….” Astrid begins weeping. Xenograg silently turns and strides through the door in the temporary wall into the back room. Elmö rushes to catch up to him, and the rest follow. They find Xenograg standing before a man lying unconscious on a cot. The smell of alcohol and body odor permeates the room. There are no empty bottles in sight; surely Astrid’s doing. Xenograg’s facial expression is a tight frown.
“You said his name is Isli?” Xenograg asks.
“Yes, My Lord,” she answers.
“Isli!” yells Xenograg. The man on the cot moves a little. Disgusted, Xenograg turns to Elmö. “Sober. Him. Up.” Sixtus barks a short laugh, and a cruel smile creases his face.
“Allow me, My Lord. I know just the thing!” he asks. Xenograg nods assent. “With your assistance, of course, Sir Elmö.”
The two retainers manhandle Isli from the cot. Sixtus leads them back through the door to the front room. Astrid runs after them. Xenograg simply ignores them and begins visually inspecting the back room. Toby follows Astrid to see what becomes of Isli. He finds them out in the street, and arrives just in time to see the drunk templar shoved, head-first, all the way into a full rain barrel.
(To be continued.)