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Archives: The Golden Egg

Chapter 16: Meeting with Roke

    Eliamn, Naclia, and the minstrel Wil, led by the latter, made their way to the Demon’s Maw Pub. As the name suggested, the surroundings were bleak and dark, many a thief and cutthroat eyed the threesome as they wound their way through the back alleyways to the thieves den. The air was rank and stale with a rather obvious and ominous feeling to it.

    Upon entering the inn, the party was greeted by a lively bar full of drinking men and women, merriment and dance. Some drunks were singing off key to the out of tune piano played by an obviously inebriated barmaid. The very sound made Wil’s neck hairs stand on end. To a melodious person like himself the mashing and gnashing of the dysfunctional harmony was like taking a knife to the head. “Oh gods let this be over soon,” Wil moaned lightly.

    Eliamn had been ill-disposed to the inn from the very moment she became aware of the name, but the reception inside wasn’t really what she had expected; she had expected a dark, sinister environment... not merrymaking. The wall of sound and hot air had her flinch slightly, but Wil’s comment helped her regain her composure. Lifting her chin and wrapping her recoiling inner self in a cocoon of haughtiness and pride, she moved on with the intent of reaching the bar.

    After all, they had a simple goal: getting pear cider, getting a table, writing something on a sheet of parchment and putting it under the bottle of cider. Then, they would be able to leave and would not have to suffer the place anymore.

    Naclia took on the presence of a body guard the further they delved into the rougher side of Dragon Scale. Though she wasn’t certain of Wil’s abilities, she felt like the most capable fighter in the group, and she made sure that appeared obvious. The ranger was cold and alert, keeping her ears and eyes sharp.

    Wil wormed his way through the bar avoiding as much contact as possible with any of the patrons or staff. The chance of catching some disease off them was exponential. “A query good keep,” Wil started. “May I procure a certain unbar-like drink here?”

    The barkeep looked at Wil with a cocked eyebrow. “I know ya from some’ere, don’ I?”

    “I get that a lot,” Wil stated blandly. He motioned for Eliamn to close in and deal with the barkeep. He had no idea what they were supposed to order, it would have been the last thing on his mind anyways. Getting out of here as quickly as possible was his highest priority at the moment.

    Eliamn rose to the occasion. “I would like a bottle of pear cider, please,” she asked loudly enough to be heard by the barkeep over the sounds of the establishment.

    The barkeep grabbed a dusty bottle off of the shelf behind him and handed it to Wil to hand to Eliamn. “Don’ worry ’bout payin’ for it. On’y one man up an’ drink that stuff, and I ain’t daft ’nough to take money ’rom him or his customa’s.” He wiped his hands on the cloth around his bulging midsection as if to wipe his hands of any dealings with this man who drank the cider.

    Wil took the bottle and brought it over to the table Eliamn was at, setting the bottle down on the table he drew out some parchment and the quill. He pulled out the ink vial as well alarmed that a bit of ink had spilled out past the stopper into his pocket. Obviously he hadn’t put the stopper in all the way, but he’d remedy that this time after he was done with it. “So, what exactly do you wish for me to write?” he asked Eliamn, considering it was her show that he just was playing a part in.

    Eliamn was glad the barkeep seemed informed. It saved her from asking more questions about Roke which would reach the ears of other patrons nearby. “Weeping Bell Inn, first floor, room three,” Eliamn said as she sat down next to Wil. The room she mentioned was the third one she had asked the innkeeper, the one she had planned on renting expressly for meeting ‘Roke’.

    Naclia remained unobtrusive, but she stayed close to Eliamn and Wil. Some of the male patrons of the bar were watching them, but what could two beautiful elven women expect? With her hand on her sword hilt, she gave each watcher an icy glare when their eyes met. It worked for most of them as they turned their eyes away after catching Naclia’s bone-chilling glare.

    Wil penned the note quickly on the parchment and blew on the ink ’til it was dry enough to place under the bottle. “Done. Shall we remove ourselves from” Wil asked with a small pause in his speech. He didn’t wish to insult the place or patrons, at least within earshot. Eliamn nodded and got up. She walked around the table and headed to the door. Like Wil, she couldn’t wait to get out of the place.

    Wil packed up and followed after Eliamn, sticking close to the female shaman. He meant to place his hand on the small of her back to usher her out while keeping an eye on his surroundings, but his hand was too far south and grabbed the elf maiden’s bottom.

    Naclia, who had been following behind like a watchdog, of course saw the grope. She was tempted to slap Wil herself, but if Eliamn wanted to fight her own battles, that was up to her. Naclia gasped and waited...

    Eliamn stiffened. Her mind flashed through many possible ways she could answer the touch over her buttocks. All seemed conductive to drawing more attention to herself. I do not have time for such silliness! Furious at Wil for making the grope, furious at the circumstances, furious that she felt her cheeks flame—she had to be blushing—Eliamn snared Wil’s wrist in one hand and instead dragged him through the door.

    Wil hadn’t caught on to what he did until Eli grabbed his wrist and started dragging him. As soon as they had cleared the door, Wil blurted out his awkward apology as best as he could under the circumstances. “Oh, gods Eli...I’m—I didn’t mean to do that, I was reaching for your back, that’s all. I’m sorry my hand...well it...instinctively most likely...” He jumbled his words in a mix. He was genuinely out of things to say. He couldn’t even think of a joke to disarm the situation.

    “We do not have time for this,” Eliamn released his hand and half turned to look at Naclia and Wil. “We should make haste back to the inn: this neighborhood is not safe.”

    It had been a good thing that the grope was done under pressure, Eli figured. If not, she might have not had the wits to keep her head: Wil’s grope symbolized a world in which Eliamn did not feel ready to step into yet. Grace under pressure... grace under pressure...

    “True enough,” Wil said as he nodded and began guiding Eliamn and Naclia back to the Weeping Bell Inn. The trip there was incredibly faster than the trip to the Demon’s Maw, mostly because Wil had become more familiar with the area having walked it before.

    By the time they arrived, Eliamn had regained her composure to some degree. Firstly, there was the matter of them succeeding this much without experiencing much trouble at all in the tavern Wil and Aiden had seemed to dread so. Secondly, there was the matter of Wil’s grope. Oddly, she decided she believed him. If Wil had really wanted to be untoward with her, he’d have use his charm and wit to make it look good or tease her a little about it, or so she felt.

    Naclia was pleased for just how well their visit to the disreputable Demon’s Maw Pub, but she had to wonder if there would have been any trouble if she hadn’t been there acting the part of a seasoned bodyguard. For the walk back, she had been watching over her shoulder, making sure no one had followed them. Nobody had, luckily. There was the issue of Wil’s grope, but as they walked back, she was beginning to doubt her original assumption of it being intentional. He had been much more charming than that. She had been hoping for more of a reaction from Eliamn, but perhaps the shaman just wasn’t as dramatic as her.

    Eliamn yanked the inn’s door open and made her way in, giving the innkeep a nod in greeting before she choose a table to sit at. Wincing, she partly untied the leg wrap her hand hidden her keys in and plopped them over the table, after which she began gingerly rubbing the exposed skin: the keys, being tightly pressed, had left uncomfortable imprints in her skin.

    Wil followed Eliamn into the inn and plopped down opposite of her. “Well that went better than I anticipated,” he said in mention to the Demon’s Paw inn. “Thirty years ago you couldn’t walk three yards into that area without being mugged. Must be the new guild leader’s leash of control over the area. I’m rather surprised.”

    Eliamn nodded. “What comes next is this Roke person visiting. You two should get what rest you can while you are able. I myself will wait in room three for him.”

    “I’m pretty well rested,” Wil admitted. “I only woke up shortly before we met at the cartographer’s shop. Besides, a bard’s life revolves around evening performances—I’m a night-type person, in other words.”

    “We cannot go all in the same room and meet him when we do not know how dangerous he could be.” Eliamn shook her head slowly and readjusted her wraps. “I look fairly vulnerable and naive myself not to mention I have things to talk about with him anyhow, so, I have the best chances of making him feel at ease. When he comes, I will have Sylph ready to warn Naclia and you so that the both of you will be able to intervene.

    “If something goes wrong, you will not only be able to rescue me, but you will also be able to have another perspective on the situation, such as blocking off his escape routes or watching for any helpers he might have brought along. If he proves uncooperative, I can enlist the aid of the spirits to compel him into giving me the answers we want.”

    “I have to say I’m a little energized from the trip to the pub,” Naclia explained. “You know, I could use invisibility spirits and hide in the room with you,” she suggested.

    Eliamn’s frowned a moment as she considered Naclia’s idea “It is not especially restful done for a prolonged time, but I suppose we could both be invisible and on watch while Wil waits in the bed for Roke to show.” The shamaness smiled, actually liking the idea. “That is good. It means that if I have to ask spirits aid that he will be far less likely to interrupt me since his attention will not be directly upon me.” Eli then looked over to Wil. “Do you know what questions to ask?”

    “Not especially,” Wil responded. “Something about a porter/smuggler. But that’s about all I can think of. Give me lines to memorize and I’ll do so and speak them eloquently at the time required.”

    Naclia was quietly pleased that Eliamn agreed to her idea. After saying it, Naclia had began to rethink her idea, but if Eli, the best shaman of the group, thought it was good, then perhaps she was right.

    “Well, memorizing word-for-word would be a disservice—I think you will need to be more flexible than that,” Eliamn answered Wil. “However, we do need to know about Roess’ employer or about the proxy whom gave him the job. We need to find out how Roess came to actually know that Mycen had an egg and how they arranged the distraction to get her out of her lair. Also confirming if they have a spell caster on their side would be good, along with what kind. Learning whom was responsible for spreading that rather specific rumor might be of some use. More importantly, though, is how Roess intends to get his prize back to Lord Mur-Cavendrel... we cannot allow him to leave until we learn all he knows about it.

    “I do not expect Roke will give us his full cooperation unless given an incentive to betray Roess,” the shamaness admitted. “I am willing to give talking to him a try, but I doubt we will be able to offer the concessions Roke may ask in return. Therefore, I expect this to degrade to us having to magically coerce the information out of him.”

    “I do believe I can handle that,” Wil stated. “Mur-Cavendrel, Roess, routes he’s taking, and the rumor.” If mention of Eliamn’s fixation on the rumor bothered or phased Wil, he didn’t show it. “I prefer not to make spirits dirty themselves and lower them to that of common torturers,” Wil stated with minor disgust. “If anyone should dirty themselves in the service of information gathering, it should be I. After all, I’m the hireling, my dear mistress,” he said the last part with a flourishing bow, or as best he could as he was sitting.

    A small giggle escaped Eliamn. “I believe you will find that Dryads and Leprechauns can be more subtle than that, but you are right in that we will be just as well served in this instance if we do not need to resort to them.” She turned to Naclia. “Shall we start our vigil? I would be surprised if Roke would not scout the Weeping Bell early, so better get to it before he sets up for our midnight encounter.”

    Naclia nodded to Eliamn. “Sure.”

    Eliamn stood up and, key in hand, made her way to room three. It wasn’t too far as that room was still on ground level. “Any of you know how to do cooperative summoning?” she asked as she unlocked the door.

    “I’ve never done it before, but I know of it,” Naclia replied. “Is that what you want to do for the invisibility spell?”

    Wil shrugged. “Sorry, my mother never taught me cooperative summoning, I didn’t even know such a thing existed. I suppose what you’re supposed to do is synchronize your summons. But again, that’s only a hypothesis.”

    Eli nodded as she pulled out the key and opened the door. “I have been thinking of ways of conserving my strength after I realized that I would need to carry three people back to the rest of our group. This would be an easy way to make you both familiar with the process: if Roess has the help of a spell caster, I am going to have to use my powers sparingly if I wish to be able to stand up to him when the time comes.”

    “Sounds fair enough,” Wil stated. “You can take what you need of me.” He wasn’t sure what she wanted him to do, but if he could ease the burden in any way then it was fine by him.

    “Very well, it is simple enough,” Eliamn said as she entered in the room. “Once Wil gets settled in we can try.”

    Wil entered after Eliamn and sat on the bed. “So, you can sit in my lap and tell me all about it, dear Eli,” he joked.

    The blonde elf maiden smiled indulgently but instead came right in front of the half-elf minstrel and offered him one of her hands—the other she offered to Naclia. “The onset is simple. You merely have to take my hand and concentrate on the heat of our bodies. You have to imagine that you end up lending me your body heat in order to keep my hand warm,” she explained. “Once you manage that, use your powers as a summoner to make an equivalent connection—but instead of trying to keep me warm, you instead support my own spiritual strength—and let go of my hand without releasing that connection.”

    Naclia followed Eliamn into the room and shut the door behind her, then joined Eli and Wil. “I think I can work with that,” Naclia replied, taking Eliamn’s hand.

    “Sounds easy enough,” Wil stated, placing his hand in Eliamn’s. The task was simple enough in explanation. He drew in a deep breath and concentrated on drawing a line from outside his body, in through his head and feet, passing through his body and into Eliamn’s. He removed the physical element of the connection but kept the spiritual connection firm. Eliamn rewarded Wil with an approving nod and waited on Naclia to achieve the same.

    After Wil joined hands with Eliamn, Naclia began to channel her energy in the way instructed. It came rather easily for her, as she was familiar with the source of her spiritual power. Once she had forged the connection with Eliamn, she looked over at the shamaness. “Well then, are we ready?”

    The shamaness smiled, gave a little nod and then said: “That link will make it so that whenever I rely on the spirits, you will both end up shouldering part of the effort—depending on the strength of the summon, the strain will be greater. Both you and I can release this link—all it really requires is the conscious desire to pull back.”

    “Invisibility is rather easy to bring about, but it can be wearying overtime,“ she continued. “But shared between us three, the effort taken should be negligible. Still, it should be a good test.”

    After sharing a look with both to see if they were ready, Eliamn took a deep breath and then intoned: “Spirits of invisibility, by your power allow the earthly forms of Naclia and myself to be ever unseen. Grant our wish to evade all prying eyes throughout the night.” The two elves quickly came to be desaturated of all color, turned glassy transparent and then vanished from Wil’s sight altogether.

    Wil sighed and lay back on the bed. “Now all I gotta do is wait for this Roke fella to come strolling in out of the blue. Exactly how long do I have to wait anyways?”

    “I do not know,” Eliamn’s disembodied voice replied. “I expect he may turn up after midnight, so, we may have to be patient.”

* * *

    After hours of waiting, laying stretched out on the bed a small knock came from the door at midnight. “It’s open,” Wil grunted in response, sitting up.

    The door opened after Wil’s announcement and in entered two robed figures. One of them was obviously a dwarf, small and stocky, though it was impossible to tell gender, the other was definitely feminine, although much taller than the dwarf, he race was indiscernible due to the robe covering her. Both were covered from head to toe in a thick black robe, with only their eyes showing through the slit made in the cloth. Despite the obvious difference in race and height they shared one thing in common, heterochromia iridium, and even more uncommon, they had the same two colors in the same eyes. Their left eyes were a disturbing red in color while their right eyes were a soft hazel. Despite not making any threatening movements, Wil was already on edge.

    “Which one of you is Roke?” he growled.

    “We are Roke,” The dwarf answered, its voice think and deep. “You have business with us?”

    “Yeah, I have a couple subjects to approach with you,” Wil said in attempts to retain his composure. He had to keep calm or his spiritual thread would weaken and Eli and Naclia might fall out of invisibility. “The first is Roess, a smuggler. I need to know which way he’s taking to the Mur-Cavendrel’s land, and whether or not he was actually hired by them.”

    The dwarf and woman both put their left hand on their chin in unison, and stroked the area softly through the fabric. “Roess was hired by a Mur-Cavendrel. His path to the lord, however, is more complicated than simple words could explain,” the dwarf said again. “He knows the back roads well, and he’ll be avoiding all the main routes.”

    “Why? If he’s hired by the Mur-Cavendrels, then he shouldn’t have to worry once he’s in their land, right?” Wil stated, demanding an answer.

    “Not very bright, are you?” The dwarf growled. “I said he was hired by a Mur-Cavendrel, not by all of them. The others have no idea what the one who hired him is doing.”

    Wil greeted that news with silence. If it’s only one Mur-Cavendrel, then we might have to tread even more carefully. If I know anything about nobility, it’s that they are notorious for asking for proof before they would take another noble into custody, especially if this is the son, nephew or cousin of the current lord, or worst case scenario: the current lord himself! What have I walked into here? “Give me a moment to collect my thoughts,” Wil stated. “I still have business with you.”

    “Very well,” responded the dwarf, once again. It seemed as though the woman wouldn’t be doing any speaking tonight. Only one of the two was Roke, and by Wil’s crafty mind he was thinking he was dealing with a middle man. The responses were too clean, too staged. If this was really Roke, he would have stated the exact route that Roess was taking, were he really the omniscient information dealer that the cartographer made him out to be.

    The long hours of waiting had Eliamn remain in a light trance as she focused on maintaining her part of the illusion (the trance also took her mind from her aching feet—Eli did not enjoy standing in place like this overlong) and her consciousness stirred back to wakefulness as the Roke pair made her way in.

    Normally, Eliamn would have figured she’d have felt eager to get on to the discussion as it signified the end of their wait and the very reason that they had stayed behind in Dragon Scale, but she instead found her heart hammering wildly in her chest. She even went so far as to stop breathing—as at that moment, she wasn’t even sure she could stop herself from panting anxiously.

    Like Wil, she had been taken aback by how sinister the pair felt... but she was also under the pressure from both the danger the pair pose and from her actual fear of failing to take advantage of the opportunity. It was really all she could do to recover her composure at the time—Wil was on his own.

    The moment of truth came, at long last. Inwardly Wil didn’t want to ask the next question, if this pair truly knew everything. The origin of the rumor he started. Of course he had been careful, he fed different disinformation throughout the city, between different classes and peoples, never allowing his name be spoken within the same breath as the rumor. For a more powerful argument against him sewing the seeds of dissent, he also advocated on the side of the group he besmirched. Summoning up his courage he gave a soft sigh. “Who started the rumor of the elves traveling with the knight with the lie that they were on a mission from Mycen?” Wil asked.

    The dwarf growled. “We don’t pay attention to mere rumors.”

    Wil sighed. “To translate that: You don’t know,” Wil said with a small smirk on his face. “Tch. I thought Roke knew everything.”

    The dwarf shot a glare at Wil. “What we do know about the rumor is that it had multiple starting points, between different classes and peoples. The information even varied a little between each telling. Whomever decided to spread the rumor was clever in covering their tracks. It sounds like something that Roess would do himself to shake sight off of himself,” The dwarf announced.

    Wil blanched. Roess would do the same thing that I’d do out of spite. Scary thought there. Well, the blame’s shifted from me, that’s all I care about, he thought quickly, to check off if he missed anything. Who hired Roess, which paths he’d take, who started the rumor. It seemed he covered all the subjects Eliamn wanted him to cover. “Why would someone steal Mycen’s egg, other than for money, whether it be to sell as a curiosity or for ransom? It wouldn’t make much sense to me to steal something from a dragon, they have a long memory.”

    “We do not know,” the dwarf replied. “We can only state fact, for a price, not speculate the whims and hearts of men.”

    Wil sighed and mentally checked over his list of things he had to ask about one more time. Was there anything he had forgotten? After several minutes of pondering, he shook his head. “Alright, how much do I owe you?”

    “Five questions, five Raiden,” the dwarf announced holding out his hand.

    There were seven questions though, Wil thought. He grumbled and looked through his purse. He had maybe a total of four Raidens with him, and a few odds and ends, not enough to equal the stiff price that the dwarf had asked for. However, the dwarf miscounted the questions, thus he was probably bad with mathematics. Wil closed the pouch and threw it to the dwarf. “It’s all there,” he lied, keeping a straight face.

    The dwarf nodded and peeked in to make sure that it was all there. It seemed satisfied with what it got, so both the dwarf and the woman left the room. Wil waited a few minutes, listening to the footfalls of the two individuals as they left the inn. Letting out a relieved sigh, Wil lay back on the bed. “Did I touch on everything you wanted to know about?” he asked the air, hoping either Eliamn or Naclia would respond.

    For a long moment, Eliamn’s invisible face twisted in indecision. Her hands became white knuckled as she sank her nails in the flesh of her palms, her mind whirling with questions about what she should do now.

    She tried to get a grasp on what she learned instead of dwelling on what they had failed to learn. Roess is using one of the backroads. Roess is employed by one of the Mur-Cavendrels with the others not knowing about it. Roess had likely started the rumor. A sick anxious feeling grew from the pit of Eli’s stomach. That wasn’t enough. This hadn’t been worth standing up to Aiden. This didn’t seem to be of any help to them except—

    Eli’s head perked up, an idea dawning in her head. It had her go cold. I cannot believe I have been this stupid! I have grossly overestimated Roess, simply because I feared the worst! Her violet eyes settled on Wil, whom was waiting for an answer. She decided to make a gamble and try to do the same with Wil—she was invisible, so, it would be hard to call her bluff without the benefit of seeing her body language. Wil had the power to confirm whether she was right about Roess or not! “They failed to answer why you started the rumor, Wil,” she finally said, her tone frosty enough to make Flau proud.

    Wil sat up. “I didn’t start the rumor,” Wil lied with a flat tone of indignation. Although he was lying, it didn’t show in his expression, tone or body language. “If I had I wouldn’t have bothered asking about it! I’m so glad you trust me enough after I had put my own neck out on the line when dealing with those two.” He scoffed, adding a hint of sarcasm to the statement. “But if it will make you feel better, then I will cop to starting the rumor. Fine, I started the rumor. I did it because I wanted to stall you all from helping out a really old, really powerful, and extremely vengeful dragon, because we all know how incredibly intelligent that is. Even greater, I just decided out of the goodness of my heart to help out this Roess guy by haphazardly making up a lie and feeding it to the people, knowing how weak human hearts are. Then, somewhere along the line of sheer coincidence I decided to help you guys because I felt a pang in my heart that said ‘oh no, I did a bad thing now I should repent’, because that’s what all selfish self-righteous bastards do: they repent for their mistakes,” he spat, half growling by now. “Then I bothered to help you out, not once, not twice but three times without much benefit to me because it serves the greater purpose of making me feel better. Sounds about right along the lines of what you want to hear, right, Eliamn?

    Eliamn tried a smile. She knew that when people smiled, it could be heard in their voices. She hoped Wil would confuse it for confidence. ”I did not ask if you did it. I asked why.

    “Dragon Scale was not ever a place where Roess had intended to stop,” she explained. ”He sent a dummy wagon that we intercepted there so to act as a decoy to cover the passage of the real egg around the city. Stopping inside the city after the decoy had preceded him would only have been stupid, since finding the false egg would have had people doubly-alert.

    “Roess is not omniscient. He has no way of knowing of us,” Eli asserted. “The only spell caster on his side likely is the Mur-Cavendrel involved—nobles can pay for the education for learning sorcery and using the dragon’s egg as a magical reagent would be the only reason while I could see this whole scheme being of the slightest worth to anyone willing to tempt Mycen’s wrath. It would be perfectly natural to have the foresight to shield his underlings from magical scrying in the first place—especially so to not be found out by the rest of his family. Magic involving an unborn dragon makes me believe necromancy could be involved—it is not something to brag about.

    “Seeing we defeated the agents headed for Dragon Scale, the only other knowing of us whom could have made the rumor would be you Wil.” Eliamn concluded. “You confirming it means that pressing Roke for further information would likely be useless—Roess never passed by again, so, their information on him cannot be more recent than since he set out to capture the egg.” She dispelled the invisibility shrouding herself and Naclia and flicked a lock of blonde hair behind her shoulder. “Thanks to your admission, we can move on. There is nothing more to learn here; we can leave on the morrow and rejoin the rest of the group with what we found out.”

    Wil laughed. “I started it for fun,” he admitted, shrugging his shoulders. “That’s why I started the rumor. Frankly, I didn’t believe you in the beginning, to be completely honest. To think that Mycen, an ancient dragon, would ask the help of elves and a handful of humans? It sounded ludicrous. Not to mention, an egg. A dragon’s egg. But not just any dragon’s egg, but Mycen’s unborn child?” He shook his head. “Even for the truth it sounded horridly false. So I started a rumor, a little tiny rumor, and spread it around nice and thin, to see if it would set in.” He lowered his tone, “However, that wasn’t nearly as fun a rumor to start with. My rumor started off as ‘trying to usurp power from the duke’, but changed drastically to ‘assassinate’. Not just the one I started in court, but all of them, they all came to the exact same rumor of assassination.”

    Wil sighed. “Someone changed the rumor. Normally, not a huge deal. I started the rumor yesterday though, and already today it’s altered completely to assassination,” he said, putting his hand on his head. “So I started a few more bush fires, so to speak, to smoke out some more information at what, or who was spreading these rumors, but that didn’t go to well.”

    Eliamn figured that she should have had been elated at being right, but what Wil said in the end robbed her a bit of her triumph. She juggled with the idea in her head and found no good answer. Besides, it was late too. “I will retire for the night—it is very late. I will pay for the five Raidens on the morrow.” On that note, the shamaness headed for the door.

    “Don’t bother,” Wil grunted, getting off the bed. “I didn’t pay the full five Raidens anyways. There was four and some change. I expect the real Roke here within the hour.” He grinned. “Merchants, no matter what they deal in, do not like to be cheated. If you’d prefer that I dealt with the real Roke by myself, I’d be more than happy to do so.”

    Eliamn jerked to a halt. “You mean those two were not Roke and that they only pretended? That the dwarf failed to count for five Raidens when you practically left him the money pouch?” Eli apparently could not fathom how a dwarf wouldn’t be able to count to five.

    Wil laughed. “Puppets, is my guess. They can only do what the master programs into them, not do simple things like count. I asked seven questions, it registered five. That got me thinking that this wasn’t the real Roke. The female’s movements mimicked the dwarf’s movements precisely as well, but didn’t say anything at all during the meeting. Which makes me think that the dwarf is the fake. If the woman had to concentrate on ventriloquism it would make sense that the dwarf itself was the puppet, and most likely a realistic but not entirely replica of a real dwarf. Since it always travels with the same woman, and the dwarf does all the speaking, the woman would seem like nothing more than an attendant. That would attest to why both are wearing full robes that conceal the body, and face.” Wil explained. “However, how she’s manipulating the puppet still gets me. I didn’t see any strings, and I didn’t feel any spiritual presence. It could be sorcery, but I wouldn’t know—that’s not my area of expertise. Stop me if I’m going too fast for you to follow my conclusions.”

    “I hear you, but I do not think it makes much sense,” Eliamn replied, a slight frown marring her forehead. “Why go through the trouble of having a proxy when the woman ends up exposing herself anyways? Someone wishing to harm the dwarf would likely share the same intent with his attendant. It seems like a lot of trouble for very little, regardless of how she does it.”

    “Good point, I didn’t think of that,” Wil stated. “In that case it brings us to the second thought I had, much earlier in the conversation—they were the middle men.” Wil shuddered. “If that’s the case...” Wil shot up and grabbed Eli around the waist, pulling her away from the door. He put his body between her and the door.

    “Tch,” came a response by the door. “I wasn’t going to do anything to her.” The owner of the voice came into the room and shut the door behind him. “Good evening Eliamn and Naclia of Mirror Forest, and to you, Wilhelm Mard,” the man started, pulling his pipe up to his lips. It was the same cartographer who sent them to go see Roke in the first place. “Allow me the late introductions: I am Roke. I will be answering any questions you have tonight, but first, please pardon my rudeness. I hardly ever deal with people myself any longer as I am getting older and over the years I have made many, many enemies with my information gatherings.”

    Eliamn remained behind Wil, eyes wide as she gaped at the cartographer. She was quite obviously stunned by the revelation. Naclia was just as shocked as Eliamn. She was going to chastise Wil for not asking where the Mur-Cavendrel estate was, but now she wondered if she could still get an answer. It was possible he couldn’t give an answer for the location when Eliamn visited him at the map shop, but he could now answer as Roke.

    The ranger sat down on the bed, preparing for another round of questions. “Well then, Roke. Can you tell us now where we can find the Mur-Cavendrel estate?” Naclia asked.

    Roke puffed on his pipe. “Forty-four miles south southeast from Dragon’s Eye, close to the border of the Glassy Woods,” he said in response to Naclia’s question, without a moment’s hesitation to think. “Roess will be avoiding the main roads, and more importantly, avoiding going too near the Glassy Woods. He’s been caught poaching there on several occasions and the locals are less than friendly when dealing with repeat offenders. It’s more than likely that he’ll avoid most well-trodden back roads as well, sticking to animal trails and a few bush trails he knows. He’ll be taking a route I couldn’t comprehend, let alone explain. If he knows I’ve talked with you, then he’ll change his route, and I’m pretty sure that there are multiple agents of Roess and Mur-Cavendrel here in Dragon Scale as it is.”

    Naclia absorbed this information. Thank Falis, she thought. It was exactly what they needed. Considering the possibilities of finding Roess, it would probably be better if they found Mur-Cavendrel first. Word may have made it to him about them, so they would have to travel in secret. “Thank you,” she said to Roke, though her eyes drifted down to floor as she contemplated how they should continue.

    Eliamn gradually regained her composure and turned her mind around questions she could ask. Naclia already nailed a good one, but Eli’s lack of knowledge over geography made her ranger companion much more apt to questions in regard to directions.

    There were other things Eliamn had been wondering about that she needed to confirm. “Has anyone from the Mur-Cavendrel family ever been interested in purchasing books of the arcane persuasion?” she asked Roke. “Especially books which would be difficult to purchase openly thanks to questionable content, subjects such as necromancy?”

    Roke nodded, puffing on his pipe. “However, who, has always evaded my spies eyes and ears. Roess, and other smugglers of his type, often get subcontracted through various people to filter unwanted attention away from noble families. There were a few books purchased a hundred or so years ago, or earlier, but nobles usually buy things of some strange antiquity for odd reasons. As recently as the fall of Marmo there have been a few more...disturbing...purchases that passed that way,” Roke answered.

    “Then perhaps not a noble, but a retainer?” Eliamn suggested. “Roess was protected from scrying. I have yet to find out whom might have magically shielded him so.”

    Roke scratched his bearded chin while listening to Eliamn’s question. “It’s a long shot, but one of the children of the Mur-Cavendrel family did do a little dabbling in sorcery. I’m well versed in a lot of backwater dealings, and this town, but the Mur-Cavendrels tend to be just out of my scope of intelligence,” Roke admitted. “If it is one of the younger of that clan, then I have very little information on them. They aren’t a very prominent family, you see, and thus, tend to fly just under the general range of interest.” Roke stopped his movement for a moment and suddenly grinned largely. “I just remembered, there’s a mage guild stashed in the forests between here and there. They took a town over after it was deserted and made it into a sort of conclave. If anyone had information on your mystery mage, it would be them.”

    The blonde shamaness furrowed her brow as she puzzled over the latest tidbit of information. “That might be worth looking into. Can you describe to Naclia how to reach that place?”

    “Why describe. Wilhelm’s old maps have the place on them. I’ll point it out,” Roke said, puffing on his pipe. Wil brought out his old map and unfurled it carefully. Roke bent down and pointed at a neatly crossed out township some eighty miles northwest of Dragon Scale. “That’s the place.” Wil took an immediate mental note of it on his map. He had been there once before, but it was a long time ago.

    Eli nodded; that certainly worked. “I am also wondering what is in this for Roess; he is tempting the ire of a dragon—after all—and it takes a certain kind of person to dare do that. There is also the issue of how they managed to distract Mycen out of her lair in the first place. Any insight in that?” Any edge on knowing what motivated Roess and how organized he had been to pull all of that off might help them figure out how to best deal with him once they met face to face.

    “All I could do is give my best guess,” Roke stated. “The very idea seems inconceivable at best. I’m afraid that I don’t know how he did it.” The older man sighed and puffed upon his pipe. “However, why he did it. Well that’s more obvious than a smile on a thief’s face: money. Wealth and power are great motivators for someone like Roess. How much do you guess a dragon egg be worth? Three, four, five hundred Raiden? Maybe into three to four thousand Raidens? How much land would one get for such a service? What titles would be bestowed upon a man who committed such a deed? And then there’s the chance of infamy. ‘The man who stole an egg from under the dragon’s nose’. That in and of itself would make him a legend.” Roke scratched his chin. “That’s my hypothesis.”

    The blonde elfmaid considered the older man’s words. In the end, it seemed she had managed to cover all the questions that she felt had needed asking—she had more, but she did not expect Roke to answer with more than conjecture... and if she needed conjecture on Roess’s scheme, she figured she could get a good deal of that out from asking Wil anyways.

    “The night is dark and my respect for the elderly protests against keeping you up at this unsightly hour more than necessary,” Eliamn joined her hands in front of her and dipped in a respectful curtsy. “Before you leave, I would like to express my sincere gratitude for your assistance. I am most grateful you chose to address us; our need was great.”

    “You’re welcome. Now, I’d just like the remainder of the money you owe me, and I’ll be on my way.” Roke stated.

    Wil shrugged. “I don’t have anymore on me, I’m tapped. Your cronies bled me.”

    “How much more do you require?” Eliamn asked, not making much sense of the situation. She figured Wil had already paid the required amount, seeing the dwarf had checked and then just gone on his way.

    “Just a single Raiden,” Roke admitted. “Then I’ll be out of your way.”

    Eliamn allowed herself a smile and bent to fish out the Raiden she had hidden in her leg wrap earlier. “There you go,” she stepped forward and offered the coin. “I bid you a good night.”

    Roke generously accepted the coin and removed his presence from the room, leaving out the back door of the inn.

    Once the mapmaker and information broker left earshot, Wil let out a short sigh. “Sorry for grabbing you earlier, Eliamn. O-of course I mean when I snatched you from the door,” he said the last sentence stammering on the first word. Just touching Eliamn’s shoulders or hands made his heart skip a little. While the bard wouldn’t necessarily say that it was love, in fact, he’d downright disagree to that testament, he couldn’t help but have a bit of a crush on the older elven woman. This made talking to her in the usual smooth and carefree fashion a little more awkward to do, even more so after his fateful encounter with her rear.

    “I understood the context. Your intent was appreciated,” Eliamn returned nonchalantly; either she was not bothered by it, that she was clueless of Wil’s growing infatuation for her, or other thoughts were to the forefront of her mind.

    She brushed golden strands of hair back as she collected her thoughts on the encounter and then turned to Naclia. “It will still take three days for Roess to get to his destination,” the shamaness reminded grimly before adding, “I will admit I would like to investigate the institution Roke made mention of. The more evidence we can gather, the better we know our antagonist and the better we might be able to avoid confrontation against the Mur-Cavendrel family.”

    Wil shuddered. “No offense to all those magically gifted, but my skin crawls at the thought of interacting with magelings,” he sighed. “However, it’s the sweetest lead that we have yet, so it’d be best if we did check it out.”

    Naclia nodded in agreement. “Definitely,” she replied. “If this guild can provide us with any information on our enemy, its worth could be immeasurable.”

    While Naclia had absorbed the information that Roke gave them, she also noticed Wil’s attention toward Eliamn. Ever since they first met the night before in camp, he had paid especial attention to her, despite the obvious fact that he was an unabashed flirt. However, his flirtations seemed to have gotten more serious. It seemed to her that he was falling for the shamaness. At that realization, Naclia suppressed the urge to break out into a grin.

    “Is there anything else we need to discuss? ’cause we’d better get all the rest we can tonight, considering the toll of the spell we intend to cast tomorrow,” the ranger said as she stood, eager to get to bed.

    Eliamn considered Naclia’s words a moment before proposing: “Why not do it today and sleep outdoors in the vicinity of that mage guild? Using invisibility spirits was not all that taxing, so, I believe we could do it. It would leave us all from tonight until tomorrow evening to recuperate instead of from tomorrow morning to the evening. It will also leave me in better shape to deal with these sorcerers should they prove hostiles since I will have had part of the night to regain my strength.”

    Naclia weighed the situation and nodded. “I suppose so,” she replied. “Alright, let’s go get our stuff then!” Naclia said enthusiastically and headed for the door. She was looking forward to seeing Talen again sooner than anticipated, and getting on with the trip altogether quicker.

    Eli started after Naclia silently, her forehead marred with a thoughtful crease as she brainstormed over the possibilities that meeting with the mage guilds would bring, both good and ill. She then caught herself beginning to second-guess her idea... and she figured she might be getting herself worked up for nothing. There was someone she could ask: “Wilhelm, this mage conclave... have you ever heard of it?”

    Wil shook his head. “Sorry, my information on secret conclaves of mages is little to none. However if they are affiliated with the proper Mage Guild I have a few names I can drop to get us audience with whomever we need to talk to.” He sighed. “I’ve been to that particular town, as well. Before it was a mage-haven. I know most of the ‘ins’ and ‘outs’ of the place, so even if we are barred first entry, there are always other options.”

    Eliamn, reassured, nodded appreciatively to Wil with a “Very well,” and then headed upstairs after Naclia.

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