Unenthusiastic knuckles rapped on the paint-chipped door. Seconds later it gave its reply, creaking open to reveal a rather uninteresting, working-class man. The visitors commenced with a greeting.
"Good vs. Medieval ghost removal," Gregor introduced dryly, tired-eyed. The contrarily happy-looking jester Keeb stood beside him on the porch.
The resident smiled and exclaimed with a gravelly voice, "Ahh! And only fifteen minutes late. I was actually wondering if maybe you got cold feet and decided to settle your tab with coin after all."
Gregor returned a smug smile. "Scared? Nah, that ain't us."
However, Keeb's sunny disposition turned to puzzlement. Pointing at the resident he directed to Gregor, "Mister Samsummer, the bartender? Is this some scheme to get you out of paying for beer? And why'd you drag me along?"
"Shaddup," Gregor snapped at him. To the resident he added, "Don't mind my partner here; he's a little socially awkward, but he's got that sensitive elfin vibe that can hone in whatever's ethereally not right in the world." All the while he emphasized with funny hand gestures around his head. "So shall we get down to business?"
Samsummer stammered, "Oh, sure. Come on in. The name's Toman, by the way."
The wizard and jester entered into a modest interior, a bit cluttered with books and throws. A cozy living quarters invited them, standard with armchairs, rocker, coffee table, and small fireplace cold and black with ash. Unexciting paintings decorated the walls. Beyond a half wall waited the kitchen with entrances to hallways on both sides.
"D'ya fellas need a drink?" Toman offered. "We have a special on amber—" He covered his mouth with mock embarrassment. "Oh, right, I'm not at work."
"Doesn't matter; you invited," Gregor said with no breaks in his words. "Hook me up with that amber."
"I'll take a candy apple smoothie," Keeb distantly requested, eying the surroundings.
"I got amber," the man reminded on his way to the keg in the kitchen.
"That'll do," Keeb settled.
Readying cups, Toman explained, "As I briefly mentioned to you before, our special 'boarder' doesn't like guests. When a stranger comes along, the house cusses and fusses with a bunch of weird, unexplained noises. We've heard the typical moaning, sounds of snapping wood, creaking— it's mostly woody sounds— but the creepiest we've heard to date sounds like an axe grinding against a stone."
Gregor turned to his elfin mate. "Are you picking anything up?"
The jester shook his head with a jingle. "Wha-the-who? I have no idea what this is about." The rest he trailed off in a mutter. "Interrupt my unicycle half-pipe for a ghost chase... be golden if I passed out in an alley on a daily basis..."
"What'd he say?" the resident asked Gregor.
"He's chanting. Works up the spirits." More whimsical arm gestures.
To that Toman gave a satisfied smile. "Oh, I should warn you that several folks have complained of sore throats after visiting here. Will that be a problem for you?"
"Nope. I know the best throat cure," Gregor said neighborly, cup in hand with a toasting gesture.
The two novice ghost hunters got down to business. Separated from each other's immediate auras but within proximity, they studied the walls and ceilings, picked up knickknacks, and placed them down again. It looked more like shopping in a flea market than a science.
Taking the left kitchen hallway, Keeb did get a tingle, and it led him to a door halfway down a set of stairs to the basement. Jester booties on creaky steps subsided to a tune hummed on the other side— a sweet melody offered by passionate female vocal cords— one that if sung to a true love would be impossible to forget. With a smile the jester adjusted his accordion collar and straightened his hat, making sure he looked his best for the lady. He gave the knob an unobtrusive turn and nudged the door, only to interrupt the song. "Don't come in," the voice warned simply, as if doing so would ruin a birthday surprise. Keeb heeded the request and jerked the door shut, squeaking "Sorry" as his meticulously-placed hat shifted off kilter.
Keeb continued down winding stairs narrating to nobody. "I am now proceeding into the bowels of the house— bowels being a good word to describe this two-bit make-believe. I don't feel anything out of the ordinary. Hair's not standing up. Heartbeat's normal. No urge to pee. There's an annoying crumb stuck in my molar, though." He paused to probe his tongue. "The air is stale and cool— probably because it's a basement. Or does cool denote a spectral presence? Heck if I know!"
Slitted windows illuminated the basement sufficiently. Plenty of shelving, wood scraps, tools, old furniture, stacks of kegs— nothing scary down here. Keeb proceeded cautiously nonetheless, although boredom started setting in. He quickened his pace, daring a spook to pop out from behind the ratty old couch. Nothing. Maybe from the shadows underneath the workbench? No excitement there either. The jester slumped with a sad jingle.
There was one thing left to explore: a rusty metal door partially obscured by a vertically-placed mattress. Pushing the cushion aside, Keeb put his game face on, thumbed the latch, and proceeded through.
And his body temperature plummeted. Only undefined darkness and the unexpected stench of bodily waste welcomed him. Hunching his shoulders, he cupped his nose and shivered. "Oh, these are not the happy sensations." The door slamming behind him put a jounce in his stance, and he swung around for a quick exit. No luck; he was locked in, bathed in cold black unknown.
Meanwhile, Gregor touched down on the basement floor and conjured a magical orb of light above his hand. His staff left at home, this was the height of his magical ability. A eureka smirk hit his face— most likely due to the keg collection— but his thoughts were quickly sidetracked. Frantic banging sounded from across the room, and he raised a finger to the side of his head. "Hark! That sounds like spectral activity!"
He made a beeline to the old metal door and opened it. "Wait!" Keeb alarmed in panic as he raced out, ducking under Gregor's arm.
"Yo, Keeb, what's in there?" the wizard asked, curiously peeking inside.
"Cold breath and ghost turds!" Keeb said anxiously at the foot of the exit stairs.
Gregor took another look inside, and the foul smell hit his nose. Magical light revealed an ancient dusty wine cellar. Scraps of torn, splintered wood and frayed rope littered the floor, another area was singed with soot, and a pail caught a solitary drip from the ceiling.
"Woo!" exclaimed Gregor. "That smells too bad to not have anything wrong with it!" To Keeb he teased, "Don't be a Chicken-spine Charlie. This is the last room. We'll just go in, nod our heads, then we'll be done."
Keeb tiptoed to the door held open by Gregor's foot.
"Wait," Gregor said with hand to his ear. "Hear that?"
"What?" alarmed Keeb.
"That's fifty thousand orcs and skeletons across the land calling you a dumbass!"
"Fine," Keeb settled, straying to claim a wooden wedge. "Let's get this poop over with."
With the door wedged in place, the two armchair spook seekers ventured inside. Granted, this room certainly gave a more eerie appearance to the eye, untrained or otherwise. Gregor, too, felt cold in here. Wood pieces and rope were strewn about but positioned in a manner that hinted at some kind of makeshift contraption. The odor originated in a crevice at the far right corner. At the opposite corner sat a boxy platform within a shaft inside the wall— a lift— though its pulleys were bare and rusted, and the ceiling hatch patched over with wood. A large palette leaned against the back wall, the source of a spine-chilling draft.
Gregor gave the palette a tilt revealing a man-sized a hole ripped into the gray bricks. Cobwebs wafted like curtains in the breeze.
Keeb offered his mate a grin and shy buckle of his knees. "I'm really not comfortable here. In fact, I might have just peed myself."
Gregor differed. "Nah, this is getting exciting now. Let's see what's inside this wall!" Remembering all the amber he drank, he also dipped in his stance. "Oh great, you had to say pee!"
"Then you go in there and expose yourself to all the creepy-crawlies! I'm gonna be the smart one in this quest and wait in the reserve box!"
"Remember that episode of Scooby Doo?"
Keeb perked up with a giddy smile. "Oh? Which one?"
The wizard plucked his mate by the pointy ear and dragged him along. "Get in there!"
With an exaggerated "Oww!" the jester stumbled into the narrow rocky passage. It was a scene typical of any Good vs. Medieval outing, only without orcs and treasure chests, so Gregor felt no hesitation in following.
The two ventured down the cavern for several yards feeling as though they were leaving the property line. Finally they came to a grade too steep and crumbly to traverse. Keeb tried it anyway at Gregor's insistence. Little belled booties scrambled up over rolling pebbles, but a tender rump slid down shortly after.
"Well, that's disappointing," Gregor droned, looking up the near-vertical slide. "I was hoping for something at the end of this teaser— like a prize or an optional boss monster."
"I'll settle for the opportunity to turn back with all limbs intact!" Keeb bargained.
Five minutes later, the two returned to the comfort of Samsummer's living quarters. Keeb took to twirling a yo-yo while Gregor offered his professional opinion. "Overall I couldn't find anything out of the ordinary," he summarized as if understanding his own words. "Spectroanalysis is at an all-time low this season, your cold spots are in check, and your moth problem should not be a symptom of orbs. Keeb had a minor freak-out in the sub-basement area— looked like an old wine cellar— but—"
"Oh, that," Toman dismissed with a chuckle. "We actually had a fellow trapped down there for a couple days; can you believe that?"
"You— huh?" Gregor returned a faithless squint.
"Yeah. Bit of a ragtag— a vagrant— said he fell in a hole somewhere in the field and ended up down there. Said his name was— Mendrick? He was quite weary and shaken up— understandably so, stuck down there with the ghosts having the run of the house and all. He wanted to know the way to town, so I gave him some coin and sent him on his way."
"How long ago was this?"
Toman shrugged. "Two days ago."
"And how long was he down there?"
"We're guessing three days. He said it felt like three days. He couldn't get out the door 'cause it was locked tight, so he passed the time trying to build a gizmo out of scrap wood to get him back up that grade. Clever man. Well, somewhat clever; he didn't get anywhere."
"When was the last time you heard the ghost?" Gregor asked impatiently.
Toman pondered with a noise. "That would've been around— five days ago."
"Well, duh!" Gregor surmised. "Don't you think maybe those noises you heard were caused by the guy trapped in the basement, banging on the door and shouting for help? The wood noises— he was breaking your shelves apart, for frog's sake!"
"I take that back," Toman reconsidered. "Luvvie said she heard it just yesterday morning in fact. Somebody stopped by, and the house sounded like a tree was falling through it according to her. Some of the wall hangings tilted; it was an awful mess."
Keeb tried to suppress laughter. "Oh, tilted pictures. That's going way too far!"
"Are you really sure you couldn't find anything?" Toman asked.
"Well, I wouldn't say our session today was completely exhaustive," Gregor negotiated. "We can talk about phase two tomorrow over some complementary beers if you'd like."
"Okay," the resident said with a nod. "I'll see you at the pub. If something else should come up by then, I'll be sure to tell you about it. Thanks for your time, heroes."
The town of Nothertyme was of little significance to the heroes, especially at this time when the world was safe from any major threat. The citizens here all looked alike and said trivial things like "Welcome to Nothertyme." The only thing this place offered was a good deal on medicinal herbs which the heroes stocked up on. Keno, however, was spotted exiting the armor shop where he had sold twenty-three sets of plain white clothes. No salutations were made as Gregor and Keeb joined him; rather, Keno beamed with a palm full of coins. "Not bad, huh? Eleven commerkens! We eat for another day."
"Or two minutes as long as Stumpy's around," sighed Gregor. He turned to Keeb. "Twiggy-sticks, before we forget you're here, go see if you can wrangle our dwarf." Back to Keno he mused, "Found out something interesting about the Samsummer house. Seems the only unwelcome guest they had was an actual guy who somehow trapped himself in the basement and survived on ceiling water for three days. I'm actually curious if he's still around."
"Never mind that," Keno differed. "I've been talking to the patriarch of this town. We might have an actual job."
"Right here? In Nothertyme?"
"Yeah. Can you believe these hardworking folks are stricken by a classic case of tyrannical ogre who lives in the mountains, who every month comes lumbering into town to collect the rent: generous portions of food, livestock, dancing girls— pretty much whatever it demands? It's been going on for so long, the townsfolk will complacently mention it to you like a regular weather report; you know, partly cloudy, gusty wind, chance of ogre attack. But they look at anyone in a suit of armor like wide-eyed urchins at a crumb dispenser and upon mention of someone actually defeating it for good will flick like a switch to realize that maybe their lives really are at the back of the manure cart compared to everyone else's. That's not quite where we come in, by the way. Someone who had probably been guzzling too many beers at the feelgood dinner theater of the year felt empowered enough to step up to the challenge, but the patriarch is making him sound more like a sacrifice than a savior. He said his name was Mendrick."
"Shut the fortress door," Gregor exclaimed. "That's the same guy I was talking about! A guy gets freed from a practical dungeon, and the first thing he does is— challenge an ogre?"
"How's that for a motivational poster? I heard he's staying at Black Hayden's Inn. Let's go pay him a visit."
At the south end of town stood the lodge in question. Those who managed to force open the stuck door found themselves in a lobby slumped at the low end of quality. Wilted flowers drooped in crusty vases, and rat-chewed seats decorated the parlor. A door read "gift shop", although its accompanying window was dark. A plump hostess waddled behind the front desk to meet with Keno and Gregor and answer their inquiry.
"Not here," she said shortly. "Checked himself out in the middle of his first night."
"His mangrapes must've shriveled," Gregor reckoned to his partner with a nudge.
"He just said he couldn't stand the room," the clerk corrected. "I still see him around. His new home is the dive across the street. I'll often see him staggering into the alley, drunk and purple-eyed as a pickled zombie. How can a man live like that before an all-important day? He's facing off against the ogre of Howling Crag tomorrow morning, you know. If you ask me, I'd say he's doomed to pulverization."
"Thanks," Keno concluded with a nod.
The pub across the street was not the one run by Toman Samsummer where respectable legendary heroes go for a drink. This was the other side of town. To enter, a visitor had to duck lest a flying chair smash across his head. This particular visit was no contrary to the bar's reputation. Beer was spilling and fists were swinging, and in the middle of it all was a man with shaggy hair and scruffy face, dented lightweight chest plate, dark green mantle, and empty sheath across his back. Among the rest of the barflies he appeared the most adequate in dress to at least walk a mile to Howling Crag. If this was his idea of training, it lacked sense. A team of rowdy ruffians lifted the so-called savior off his feet and tossed him like a sandbag, but Keno stepped in to make the catch. The man was soaked in the aroma of beer, and his limbs slipped like jelly off Keno's frame. Finding his balance and standing eye-to-neck with the barbarian, he looked up at him and smiled degeneratively. "My hero."
Gregor waited outside at a peaceful section of alley where only a few oblivious bums called home, and the smell of vomit carried downwind. Keno ushered the man into the sunlight and gave him a mild shove that was exaggerated by his own stumbling. Trying his best to look cool, he slicked his untamed hair, but nothing could flatter his dark-ringed, bloodshot eyes.
"So you're Nothertyme's savior, huh?" Gregor greeted him.
The man's voice was a lost moan. "Look, uhh—"
"Keno," the barbarian briefed. "And that's Gregor."
Mendrick gave a subservient nod to the big man. "Keno. It wasn't how it looked in there. There's no bad blood between me and the fine patrons of this establishment. We were just relieving a little stress." Despite his first impression, he seemed articulate and witty.
"Shouldn't you be resting up for your big moment in the spotlight?" Keno asked dubiously.
"Rest," Mendrick scoffed. "Rest doesn't work for me." He pulled a pipe out of his pocket, loaded it, and held it over a bum's lamp to light it. "I have to keep moving. Noise. Crowds of good old-fashioned humanity. That relaxes me." With his first drag he added, "To each his own, right?"
"Man, it must've been hell for you sitting in that dark Samsummer house basement, huh?" Gregor noted.
Mendrick's face flushed, and any semblance of coolness left his demeanor as he turned to part company. "No further questions."
Keno reached out, but pity kept him from seizing the man. "We mean no disrespect, Mendrick."
A more humble savior replied, "It's not necessary to announce my so-called amazing display of mental fortitude to the public. All I want is to return home."
"And where would that be?" Keno asked.
"Shendora, ninety miles across the wilderness. I wouldn't make it on my own; I need transport."
Keno was about to respond but Mendrick, with a voice of conviction, continued, "I've been around; I know how the system works. A stranger in a foreign town has no money, so he has to barter for what he needs. When I heard that this place has an ogre problem, I volunteered to exterminate it in exchange for transportation. Everything else is fringe: a place to stay, decent meals, beer, a haircut, a sword, some armor, everything I need to prepare for my face-off with the beast." It was at that point he distantly realized something. "Yeah, I left my sword somewhere."
"Why couldn't you just steal a horse?" Gregor asked.
Mendrick looked sincerely disgusted. "What do I look like to you, a common thief? In Shendora I lived a life of honor. I was trained to see the good in everybody and treat them with respect. Utmost discipline— that's my way. You two should know. I fight for justice and love with all my heart." A drunken hiccup partitioned his statement. "I promised these people that I would free them of their hardship, and tomorrow morning I will carry out that promise."
"Forgive us for our presumptuousness," Keno apologized skeptically. "But big ugly bullies slapping the sunburn of freedom is a nerve for us. You can understand our curiosity in the matter."
"I'm sure you have your reasons as much as I do," Mendrick settled. Yawning, then taking a drag off his pipe, he reasoned, "You know, no virtue said I had to do this alone. Now if you'll excuse me, I need to continue my early victory celebration." A respectful nod ended his spiel.
Keno insisted, "Your test of might is nearly a clock-spin away. You should gratefully accept the accommodations that have been offered you instead of squandering your strength."
His route to the pub entrance interrupted, Mendrick turned around in stride with a cocky smile. "I told you, I don't do well in quiet. I'll make sure to send my apologies to the roly-poly hostess. Cheers!"
As he returned inside, Keeb rejoined the party and with him stood Stumpy, fresh from his lunch break. Keno's attention stayed on Mendrick, however. "Something seems odd about him."
"Ya think?" sassed Gregor.
"Okay, here's what we're gonna do. Keeb, keep an eye on our virtuous friend in there. Buddy up with him and make sure he doesn't suffer any major head trauma."
Keeb whined, "Am I gonna have to bathe him?"
The jester slumped in defeat. "Draaag." As he sulked through the entrance, the pub came alive with wolf whistles and yokel shouts of "Hey, perdy!" Keeb's defense of "I'll scream" was the last that the other heroes cared to hear.
"Gregor, you, me, and Stumpy will go explore the ogre's cave— see exactly what we're up against."
The wizard complained, "Aww, why can't I look after Mendrick?"
Keno gave him a dubious glare. "Two kegs on one end of the tightrope pole does not make good balance. And I can't believe I even respected that question with an answer."
"Fair enough," surrendered Gregor. "But you don't need me to recon a stupid ogre. At least let me do more research on the Samsummer house."
"Dude, didn't you see how Mendrick totally blew me off when I asked him about the house? Something happened to him back there. There might be vital information that our dear bartender friend needs to know!"
"If you must," Keno settled with a sigh. "But come back with something gristly. I won't settle for any myth busted crap."
Late afternoon had its way with Mendrick, and evening came for him like the Grim Reaper itself. Luckily Keeb stood by to offer him safe passage. Back at Black Hayden's Inn, the jester, hauling an incapacitated Mendrick in a wheelbarrow, found his forsaken accommodations and literally dumped him onto the floor. Everything had been tidied since his last, incomplete stay. Telling was the would-be hero's standard-issue sword propped against the wall, forgotten yet anticipating his return.
Wobbly in his own right, Keeb unlaced Mendrick's boots and griped, "The only challenge you're good for is a drinking marathon against Gregor." He stumbled for balance and loosened the chest plate next.
This stirred the half-conscious man, and only a faint glimmer of lamp light shined in his swollen eyes. "Is this the inn?" he slurred.
Keeb hammed a response. "Out partying while I watch the clock tick past your curfew, and you don't even have the decency to pick up milk and birth control herbs. You've been sent to your room, young man!" He nonsensically laughed at his own parody.
"Oh, I hate this place," Mendrick groaned. However, his thick fatigue was too much to bear. Climbing into bed, he had only enough wit to clear his pockets of his smoking accessories— then decided to light up one last time. Suppressing a sickly regurgitation, he rolled onto his back, neck propped against a rolled pillow atop a tightly made bed. Keeb took a station at the desk and found the whole situation rather sad.
With a puff of smoke, Mendrick stared at the spinning ceiling, then looked at Keeb. "I got bad news and worse news."
The jester spun in his chair. "Oh boy. Here comes drunken philosophy 101!"
"No, no, not at all," Mendrick asserted. "Well, maybe a little. See, the way you and your friends travel around the world, righting wrongs and all— good for you as a group, but it's a lonely life after all. You don't know what you're missing, and that's the bad news. The worse news is: I do, and it hurts like hell."
"Oh?" Keeb grabbed a piece of parchment and box of colored pencils from his goody-bag. Spilling the pencils onto the desk, he selected one, deciding the best way to play counselor was to doodle as Mendrick spoke.
"Her name is Judiana, the most lovely woman in the homerealm. And she's mine. But fate has been challenging our spirits nonstop. I miss her dearly. Look at me; my body has become that of the walking dead, but I continue on, just to be with her again." He broke for a drag from his pipe.
Meanwhile, Keeb sketched out a very novice circle-figure of a girl with oversized breasts, mouth full of square teeth, and hearts floating above her head.
"She's a seamstress by trade," Mendrick continued in a daze. "Loves to sing. Her perfume— such an intoxicating scent of lilac. I can smell her right now."
A spring breeze blew in from the partially open window. Keeb sniffed the air and could not deny the fragrance. With a snicker he said positively, "That's because there's a lilac tree right outside your window." He got up, swished aside the drapes, opened the window fully, and stuck his head out. The view of the downtown street was dark. The inn's front gate glowed in lamplight, but there was no sign of a lilac tree nearby. In fact, the breeze blew cleanly in his face with no aroma— strange yet insignificant, so Keeb simply shrugged and said, "Or not." However, turning back to the desk, he found his pencils arranged neatly side-by-side in order of color.
As the jester slowly approached his work station, face full of wonder, Mendrick continued his soft rambling. "I would fight from one end of the homerealm to the other for Judiana. Blackstag— yeah— he was a testament to my devotion."
The pause was open for Keeb, but he was more occupied in his pencils, picking one up and examining it.
"Mendrick?" the beautiful young maiden gasped.
She was dressed in white lace, long brown hair flowing down under silver tiara, blue eyes widened in utmost shock. Sitting on edge on a wicked throne of thorn accents, she could not move. She dared not move because beside her in coupled throne sat a warlock smiling wickedly. The spectacle that held their attention: two dark robed henchmen had wheeled in a standing rack, and chained to it was a clean-cut, goal-driven yet riled form of Mendrick in pure white chest plate and cape. In a council of stone walls, flaming pots, and decor lined with witchcraft symbols, the valiant man faced judgement.
"Let her go, Blackstag," Mendrick barked, tugging at his shackles. "You do not appreciate her. You cannot draw any strength by having her at your side."
"Ah, but you're wrong," the warlock said slyly. "Merely having the most cherished thing that you do not invigorates me. In fact, I would wager that witnessing your death would empower me to conquer all of Shendora. But where are my manners? Sit down and have a drink." He snapped his fingers as a command to one of the henchmen.
The robed figure fetched a gold kettle from a nearby shrine and took it to the prisoner. The other kicked his knees out and wrapped a bony claw around his cheeks, forcing his mouth open.
"All I have is skunk eel slime," Blackstag sassed. "I hope that's satisfactory."
"NO!" Judiana cried out, preparing to spring from her seat, but the warlock clutched onto her wrist.
Thick cream-colored substance poured from the kettle past Mendrick's intense eyes, constricted chops, and into his mouth. Choking, the man climbed to one knee but could not fight any further.
Judiana buried her face in her hands and wept.
"That's it," Blackstag cooed. "Let the poison set in."
After several heavy minutes, the robed henchmen loosened the chain anchors on the rack, and Mendrick's body crashed to the floor. Belly flat, gasping, he looked up at his dear love with squinted, dying eyes.
"A textbook case," Blackstag taunted. "Any last wishes? Hopes for the afterlife? Words of wisdom?"
"Yeah," Mendrick sputtered. "Wisdom. When you let a man go, make sure he's DEAD!" Immediately he sprang to his knee, reached into his boot for a concealed dagger, and launched it at the warlock. Judiana winced at the sudden action before casting her watery eyes at the man sitting beside her. Blade piercing his throat, Blackstag was snuffed instantly.
Mendrick swung his arm, using his chain as a flail, and smashed it across the head of the kettle henchman. The other wished not to partake in such punishment; he turned tail for the exit to Mendrick's allowance. The warrior rushed to his maiden, and they embraced inseparably, vowing never to leave each other's sides again.
My invasion of Blackstag's lair might have seemed a little impulsive, but I knew he had a penchant for skunk eel slime, a fast-acting poison. However, I happen to have a tolerance to eel substances and the like. Sounds like a nice fairy-tale story, huh? The kind you and your mates experience on a weekly basis? Well, Keeb, I bet you've never known an outcome quite like this.
The king's minister reached out with neighborly hand. "So you're the one I've heard so much about, Mendrick."
They shook hands. "It is a pleasure to meet you, sir."
"Please," the old man corrected. "Call me Venintine."
Mendrick nodded humbly.
Against a landscape of castle exterior, green rolling hills, and sunbeams filtered through cherry blossoms, Minister Venintine presented his case. "It's frightening. Shendora has been subject to so many villains practicing witchcraft lately. As the Minister of Public Well-being to the king, I was wondering if you could help me with some research— a study in how to better protect ourselves against the toxins of black magic."
"I would be happy to, Minister Venintine."
"Wonderful. I have a retreat in the Nothertyme countryside. It's a well-furnished cabin overlooking a beautiful pond and a laboratory in the basement— an ideal place for discovery. The journey is a three-hour wagon trip with a week's worth of study. I plan to head out after this week's end."
I spent the rest of the weekend with Judiana, talking, laughing, sharing our dreams. She gave me two special presents: this mantle I'm wearing and an emerald's glory flower. A true testament to longevity, a specimen can remain in bloom for a year or more— undying, the perfect symbol of our love for each other. There were dewdrops on the petals— she had cried on it, making its scent all the more sweeter. She would miss me for the seven days I would be gone, but she was also happy. I was about to help make a better future for our kingdom in which we could settle down without fear. But my first day at camp wasn't what I had expected. Venintine's intention was indeed to hone a defense against witchcraft, but by using me as the test subject. Remember that henchman who escaped? He was a deceptively cunning one. Turned out to be the king of rats, blathering across the region that a simple-looking man was able to stomach poison and not die. Peaceful retreat? It was a dungeon. I was caged like an animal, interrogated, monitored, sparing blood at every whim. My reasoning, my pleading, my shouting at the top of my lungs: it all went ignored. I was in so much mental pain the first few weeks. Were they weeks? Days? Months? I couldn't tell. Seemed like over a year I was held prisoner in that place. No one ever came for me. Missing Judiana is hell in its own right, but— absence was always hard on her. No more on the subject.
Mendrick, hair and beard overgrown, sat in tattered clothes inside his cell, rocking to clam himself. The only view beyond the barred door was that of a workbench; he had come to know every wood pattern, every splinter of its surface by now. His most common associate, a petite nurse dressed in white, brown hair tightly woven in a bun, silently appeared at the station and set down some papers and work materials. She never spoke to him in a personal manner, only to give basic commands like "Stick out your tongue" or "Arm, please".
Mendrick suppressed a bout of crazed laughter. "One in three hundred people are allergic to spotted fungus, you know."
The nurse's unflattering face looked back with a cold stare, not answering and generally uninterested in the remark.
"Does that make them witches?" He giggled madly. "Or are they just spiced with the flavors of life?"
She walked away from the desk and out of sight.
"You wouldn't know!" Mendrick hollered with tears in his eyes. "You're the most drab, boring person in the homerealm!" Resuming his rocking, he started humming a frantic tune.
I could feel my mind being torn apart. The only threads that kept it together were memories of songs that Judiana would sing. Have you ever recalled a song that you had forgotten about, so it played back in your mind clearer than ever before, Keeb? That happened to me one day. I suddenly got a rush of memories and a spark of hope when nothing about my surrounding indicated otherwise. But alas, I was just going mad. The memories turned into garbled nonsense, the songs sung like an inexperienced child drowned out as though water were filling my ears. The eerie voices got worse, horrifying, warped in pitch, shooting through my head. Then I started seeing things: objects move off the desk, flying across the room. All I could do was shut my eyes tight, seal my ears, and try to ride it out. Shortly after, everything changed.
Head wrapped tightly in his hands, Mendrick screamed for mercy. Suddenly he felt warmth, and his physique reflected an orange glow. Screaming continued, but it was no longer his. He popped his eyes wide open to accept the nightmare head-on.
A figure engulfed in flame ran past his door. Shrill screams oozed from it. It was the nurse. Mendrick unplugged his ears to hear the rumble of a nearby inferno. This would be his last day, he thought, but a panicked state of mind argued for no one. He sprang to weakened feet, grabbed hold of two bars, gave the door a rattle, and yelled for help. The walls were aglow, and with the ceiling constructed of thick wood he knew the blaze would eventually find him. He feared that the only other human presence in the cabin had already made her escape— or burned to a crisp— but he tried coercing the bars again anyway.
"HELP! I'M DOWN IN THE BASEMENT! FOR THE LOVE OF THE GODS, SOMEONE BREAK ME OUT!"
He kept at it out of desperation: jerking on the bars that would never give to human force. Suddenly he heard the latch, and the door thrust out of his grip, slamming against the stone side. Not giving it a second thought, he engaged his feet and fell to the floor. Months of inactivity had weakened his muscles; he forgot how to run. But he picked himself up and scrambled with all his might, trying to relearn the motions. He found the cabin's exit, already thrown open, and sprang into the night air, rolling down the steps.
He heard men's voices in the field calling out in emergency. No one was considered a friend here, so he hobbled away from the shouts. A tall property fence stood in his way. From left to right, all he could see were planks highlighted in fiery glow. The barrier felt thick against his hands. He knew not where to turn. Again things seemed hopeless until suddenly the planks before him burst with the power of a giant's fist, splinters flying. The surprise knocked him off his feet, and he sat staring at the hole, wondering if it was safe to pass through. The noise caught some of the men's attention; Mendrick could hear their wonder. He made his break.
Having remastered the motion but shins quickly tiring, Mendrick jogged down an embankment to a moonlit stream. No good! He chose a direction and followed the water to a recess in some rocks. Shadows were stifling, but Mendrick determined he had to slither in as far as possible to hide. Keeping balance was a struggle. His energy was sapped. It was useless; his ankles gave in, and he toppled down a slippery slope into complete darkness.
His body ached. Gravel felt cold and damp against his backside. This was it, he reckoned. He would die in darkness in this lost hole. He shut his eyes tightly to gather his thoughts. He sensed that he was in an underground cavern. Far in the distance, he heard the sound of crushing, toppling bricks— utter destruction by ominous forces— and he winced in fear, crying. A quiet pause, then sounds of smashed wooden structures, creaking and tearing, echoed through. Petrified, Mendrick buried his weeping face into his hands.
Finally he saw a faint glow ahead, red like firelight— not the same as the inferno above; this one seemed warm and tame. He took to rocking again, wondering if he should take the bait. Minutes passed by, and the welcoming silence was broken by a dreadful scream, feminine and shrill, a death rattle. Completely broken, Mendrick collapsed in a teary wreck.
"I must have sat there for hours," Mendrick explained. "When I finally dared traverse that passage, I found myself trapped again— out of one basement, into another. Just my luck. I couldn't tell you where that small fire came from, but that, and the leaky ceiling, kept me alive. I gathered what was left of my shredded faculties and plotted possible ways out. Keeping occupied did me a world of good. At the very, very least I stopped hearing voices." He concluded with another smokey drag.
Keeb had remained at his desk and put the finishing touches on a grand masterpiece doodle consisting of stick crusaders, angels, chariots, beasts, fiery explosions, spaceships, and massive towers overtaken by vines. He called it "Good vs. Medieval's Final Fantasy I - XIII". In his own funny way he responded to Mendrick, "So you were wheeled into the lair on a rolling rack? Tell me more about this rolling rack."
Mendrick scoffed and shifted his eyes to the wall. "You're hopeless. Don't go blabbing about this, okay? I'm just drunkenly confiding in anyone who will listen at the moment." He slurred the rest. "We'll probably regret it tomorrow." Finally his pipe hand went limp.
That was all the elf needed to see. Claiming the pipe, he snuffed it out and placed it on the nightstand, then extinguished the lamp before quietly squeezing through the door. However, its soft latching was enough to open Mendrick's eyes again. Blurred sights on the window's moonlit sky, he caught a brief glimpse of what looked like white glittery fabric blowing by. Paralyzed he moaned, "Just once— leave me alone?"