The Observations and Insights of an Itinerant Archmage
by Tervine Culver (aka Carl Quaif)
12 Fyrmont, 1013: Another pleasant summer morning dawned as I partook of a delicious breakfast at the "Merchantís Repose," an excellent inn which I had come across upon returning to the city of Minrothad a twelvenight past. As I settled down to read a letter from my old colleague, Calomon, my ears detected murmurs of conversation from the other patrons:
"...nother body, this morn. Head clean severed, they say. I tell ye, Ďtis a bad business and no mistake..."
"...and her wrists all bruised, like that; must have been a powerful brute who did the deed..."
"The third this week! This shall not be borne! I shall complain most strongly to the Guildmaster, have no doubt about that!"
This last voice belonged to a large, prosperous-looking man in costly clothing - a merchant, obviously. It seems to me that merchants dress the same wherever one goes; both expensively and gaudily. Hmph. And people say wizards all look alike... As the loud-voiced merchant stomped from the common room, I called over one of the serving-girls and asked her what he meant. The girl was more than happy to relate the gory tale: it seemed there had been a rash of grisly murders in the last month or so, which the authorities were helpless to prevent. The victims were all young women, and each was decapitated neatly - as if the head had been sliced off by a thin wire, rather than by a blade. No trace of the heads could be found, either, which confounded Speak With Dead attempts. This latest atrocity was the seventh such, and it appeared the interval between killings grew shorter each time. Apparently, there were fears that vampires or - worse still - lycanthropes had returned to Traderís Isle.
Personally, I had my doubts about this hypothesis; a lycanthrope would never be so neat in his feeding, and why would a vampire steal the entire head? I put the news from my mind and finished my breakfast. I had an appointment to keep, down at the inner harbour...
The sun was warm, and gulls wheeled overhead as I meandered down to the docking bay where The Fair Nancy was berthed. Her Captain, the lovely Sarabine Meditor, planned to take a group of tourists out on her for a trip today, down the Lithwillow River to the sea and thence around the coast, and had invited me along for the journey. This was the first time the Nancy had set sail since returning to port after our adventure in the Southern seas, and was a bit of a "shakedown voyage," to ensure all repairs had been made correctly. Having proved my skills at retrieving overboard sailors during that trip, my task was to provide the same service for these "landlubber" day-trippers.
And of course, any chance to spend time with Sarabine was to be grasped tightly with both hands, as far as I was concerned.
As I approached the ship, however, it became obvious that something was very wrong. The expected holiday-makers were nowhere to be seen, and the Nancyís crew were sitting idle on the dockside, each one wearing a mournful expression. Of Sarabine, there was no sign. What could have happened? My mouth was suddenly dry; I galloped up the gangplank with unseemly haste, and fairly flew towards her cabin. My pace slowed as I approached her door, for I could hear the sounds of quiet sobbing within. I knocked gently; moments later the door flew open to reveal Sarabine, her eyes red and puffy from crying. Seeing that it was me, she practically fell into my arms in a flurry of fresh sobs.
A few minutes later, we were sitting on her bed, and she had composed herself sufficiently to tell me what was wrong. It appeared that the victim of last nightís murder, which had been the source of so much excited gossip in the inn, was someone close to Sarabine - her beloved younger sister Faradelle (who had been identified by the opal ring she wore). As I held her tightly, I swore by Tarastia, Patroness of Justice, that I would make this killer pay, somehow. This was no longer a faceless crime to me; this was personal.
...Yes, well, all these tragic and vengeful histrionics on my part were all very well, but it was better, perhaps, to employ official channels; the last thing Sarabine needed was for me to be arrested as a vigilante! When she had recovered somewhat, Sarabine accompanied me to the Home Guard Headquarters - situated in Meditor Hall - to find out what was being done about these heinous crimes. We were interviewed by a Sergeant of the Guard named Gerram Lendor, a blocky man with iron-grey hair who was obviously a career soldier. Sergeant Lendor listened attentively to Sarabine and expressed sympathy when she had finished. He related that these murders were stirring up bad feelings amongst the elven and human communities, as apparently all the victims were either elven or human. This had already resulted in ugly scenes against hin and dwarven residents, since their apparent immunity made them suspect in the eyes of the "mob," as he put it. He continued to expound on this theme, but I had ceased to listen; something had occurred to me.
"Sergeant," I said, "am I right in assuming that all the victims were women?"
"Yes, Master Culver, you are. Young women, too, all of them," answered the Sergeant, a little sadly.
"How many elves have died so far?"
"Four, Master Culver," he replied promptly.
"And how many humans?"
"Three, Sir, although I donít see where this is lead--"
I cut him off sharply. "And of those three human women, Sergeant, how many were mages?"
He stared at me for a moment, nonplussed, before the import of what I had said took root. "Ritual killings," he breathed, comprehension dawning in his eyes.
"Exactly," I answered. "Someone is stealing the heads of female spellcasters for some reason. But why?" As I said this, however, something triggered in my memory. Heads of wizards...somewhere, at some time, I had read about a spell or ritual which involved the severed heads of female Wizards. But, try as I might, I just couldnít recall the details. Never mind, it would come to me. In the meantime, there was work to do. Now that we had determined the probable reason for the murders, we could use that information to trap the killer. Lendor - who obviously now considered us as honorary deputies of some sort, as he didnít once mention keeping us out of the investigation - suggested sending his men out to areas known to be haunts of the killer, possibly with a female volunteer to act as a lure. I countered by insisting that my magic would work far better to entrap the murderer. "Perhaps by producing an Elf-shaped Simulacrum of some kind, and infusing it with a magical aura, then animating it from afar..."
Sarabine had been very quiet since my revelation , but now she interrupted me. "Forgive me, Tervine, Sergeant, but you are both ignoring an important fact: each of the victims thus far was a lone female. If anyone is to serve as a lure, it should be me. Alone."
I began to protest, but stopped myself after a few ineffectual splutters; from the solemn look on her face it was obvious that she would brook no argument, and anyway, she was correct. Much as I might dislike it, the fact was that the killer struck only at lone females. Should the Sergeant or myself attempt to follow her, or otherwise keep her under surveillance, the killer would undoubtedly know, somehow. Moreover, there was blood between Sarabine and her sisterís killer; she deserved the chance to make him pay for his crime.
We took our leave of the good Sergeant, heading back to my rooms at the Merchantís Repose to plan the routes Sarabine would take. Many of the deaths had occurred in the Craft Row district, so her first patrol should take place there. However, unlike the poor victims already claimed, Sarabine would go armed with a blade of good, honest steel by her side, hidden by the Plain Sight spell I had taught her during our sea voyage. Our murderer would have a rude surprise awaiting him, should he be fool enough to attack Captain Meditor!
Still, I confess I am uneasy with the thought of Sarabine acting as a lure for our murderer; although she is undoubtedly a capable fighter, she will be - must be - utterly alone. If only there were some way I could join her without driving off the killer...
13 Fyrmont, 1013: When will I learn to keep my mouth shut? I mentioned my misgivings to Sarabine this morning, and was favoured with a strange smile from her lovely face. She asked me how serious I was in my wish; I assured her I was very serious indeed, and if she knew of some way I could join her without scaring off the attacker, she must tell me at once! I think I impressed her with my vehemence; laughing, she took me by the hand and trotted into town, heading towards the Lanitar Stronghouse, a merchant vault near Meditor Hall. After a few minutes in the strongroom, she emerged carrying a small iron-bound casket and suggested we adjourn to my rooms. Once we were alone, she opened the casket and removed a simple gold ring, then stood before me and asked me to extend my right hand. I confess I found this intriguing; the item was obviously magical, but what sort of magic could possibly enable me to fool the killer? She slipped it on my ring-finger...
...and for a moment, the world seemed to invert itself. I felt dizzy, and had to sit down quickly lest I lose my balance and fall. What had happened? I opened my mouth to ask Sarabine that very question, but the voice which emerged was not mine! Instead, a high-pitched tone emerged, as if my voice had become that of a small boy, or a...oh, no! She couldnít have!!
I leapt to my feet, and ran - or rather, tottered, as my centre of balance had changed quite radically - to the full-length mirror beside my bed, where my worst fears were confirmed; Sarabineís ring had turned me into a woman! I let out a most unladylike shriek, and sat down again, on the bed this time. A quick physical check revealed this was no illusion; I was struggling to remove the ring from my finger when Sarabine strolled in. It was obvious to me that she was trying - somewhat unsuccessfully - not to laugh at my discomfort. I am not one to use strong language, especially to a lady, but I confess I was sorely tempted at that moment. Seeing my distress, Sarabine relented, sitting beside me on the bed and explaining that this ring, a Ring of Sorority, was an ancient item with the power to change the sex of the wearer from male to female (as if I hadnít noticed!), and which could only be removed by another, real. She then proceeded to do just this. After another moment of disorientation, I was delighted to find myself back in my own body - thinning hair, wispy beard, and all. Mollified, I listened with interest to the rest of her plan. She would patrol the streets alone, as we had agreed; however, I would also walk the streets in a specific order, no more than one or two streets away, so that either of us could come to the aid of the other in moments. When I jokingly commented that any assailant attacking me would quickly find himself transformed into a radish, Sarabine looked stricken; she then informed me that this particular Ring of Sorority had the unfortunate side-effect of blocking the wearer from accessing any spells of 3rd level or higher. Supposedly, this was to prevent an unwilling wearer from dispelling the ringís magic.
Hmm. Apparently, this will not be as easy as I first thought....
15 Fyrmont, 1013: Another night of patrol as "Terva" (Sarabineís nickname for me in this form) beckoned; the third in a row. I could only hope that tonight would not be as fruitless as the last two, when the only encounters I experienced were drunken offers to "show me a good time." Of all the cheek! What kind of girl do they think I am?
Their lewd attentions did, at least, prove that my disguise was working - although not even the most inebriated sot would have propositioned me, had I relied entirely on the Ring of Sorority; the ringís magic changes the wearerís sex, not their age or attractiveness, and I am hardly "loveís young dream" in either form. Fortunately, judicious applications of Powder of Valerias were more than sufficient to make me sufficiently toothsome for my purposes. A standard Polymorph Self spell might do a better job, but I am denied magics of such power while wearing the ring. No matter; an Archmageís true weapon is his intelligence, and Tervine Culver has never been found wanting in that regard!
(...With that thought, I realised I had stopped and unconsciously struck a noble pose, which must surely have looked ridiculous in my current attire. I adjusted my skirts in a resolute fashion, and walked on. )
My perambulations this evening carried me near to the Hammerspan Bridge (a route suggested by Sergeant Lendor, with whom we had kept in close contact the past few days, reporting to him each morning). By the light of the full moon, I could see the glistening waters of the Alphatian Caldera through the City Gate, beyond the city walls. The guards on duty smiled at me as I passed; although I could not read their minds without recourse to magic, their expressions told me they had decided I was a harmless streetwalker, nothing more. If only they knew... On a whim, I wiggled and sashayed my way past them, and was gratified to note some admiring glances. I have to say that so far, this has been an interesting experience!
I followed the city wall for a time, travelling through the now-silent Lower Market, then worked my way back towards through Craft Row. As I drew close to the Inner City wall, I became aware of fleeting movement at the edge of my vision; it seemed that someone was following me. Was it our murderer, or some other lowlife? I dawdled along the street, feigning extreme tiredness, and reached up to rub my eyes, surreptitiously activating the Signal-Stone mounted between them and thinking the words come, danger into it; this would send a summoning-call to a similar gem worn by Sarabine, a few streets distant. I felt a prickle between my shoulders, and I turned to see a large figure, his face hidden in a dark hood, walking inexorably towards me. In his right hand was a sword, the like of which I had never seen before; its blade seemed to be made of nothing more than soft, pearly light! Alarmed, I started to back away; before I could go more than a few feet, however, my hooded assailant raised his magical weapon and swung the blade through my neck...or where my neck would have been, had I not tripped on a curbstone and fallen to the cobbles below. I watched in fascinated horror as the blade of light struck a branch of the tree behind me, seeming to pass through it effortlessly - and I then watched the branch fall away, sheared from its parent tree by that single slice. That explained the cleanly-severed heads, at least! This man could be none other than our killer - my killer, if I didnít do something quickly! Fortunately, I had prepared for this moment. My foe had no idea whom he faced...
I reached into the hairnet holding my wavy locks in place and drew forth two long, gem-tipped hatpins; pointing them directly at the slayer, I then barked a pair of command words. From the ruby pin in my right hand flew a missile of flame, followed by a bolt of lightning from its sapphire twin in my right. Unfortunately, my assailant was too fast, avoiding the Lightning Bolt completely and barely getting singed by the Fireball. I took the opportunity to regain my feet and aimed again; I could not afford another miss, since my Hatpin Wands held only two charges apiece.
I was too slow. Moving fast as lightning himself, the hooded man struck with his blade, cutting the Hatpin Wands neatly in two. Drat! No time to try anything else. I could see my own mortality thundering towards me, and all I could think of was how foolish I would feel, facing the Immortals dressed like a courtesan... However, the descending blade yanked to one side at the last moment, slicing a thin layer of flesh from my - er - bosom, as the killer jerked spasmodically. As I scuttled away hurriedly I realised the source of my good fortune; Sarabine! She must have struck at him with a Magic Missile or something similar. While he shuddered and tried to recover himself, Sarabine ran towards the killer, reaching towards the empty air at her side...which proved to be anything but empty, as her longsword shimmered free of its Plain Sight-induced invisibility and struck the killerís upraised left arm, drawing blood.
The hooded man seemed to simply shrug off the pain; as Sarabine struck down for another blow he slashed upward with his blade, meeting hers halfway and cutting her sword in two! Weaponless, she danced away from his counterstrike, and the killer turned to me. By this time, however, I had caught my breath, and rattled through the words of a Skittering Sparks spell, one of the few offensive dweomers I carried. I struck at him with sparks, causing his body to stiffen and jerk. His spasms knocked the hood from his head; underneath, he wore a hideous leather face-mask, which lent him an almost fiendish aspect. I had bought us a few seconds, for the paralysis would not last long; however, since neither of us were in any condition to finish the fight, I simply grabbed Sarabineís hand and ran as fast as my maidenly legs would allow.
Glancing over my shoulder, I saw the assailant staggering away in the opposite direction. So, we had hurt him worse than I had first thought. Good! Nevertheless, this did not prevent us from running full-pelt all the way back to the Nancy, and safety.
16 Fyrmont, 1013: Following the excitement of last night, we both slept aboard The Fair Nancy as she lay safely at anchor in the Inner Harbour. My Enchanted Earring of Regeneration had completely repaired my admittedly minor wounds, although I was keenly aware of how fortunate I had been - that moonlight blade could easily have caused my own head and shoulders to part company!
The sun was heading towards its zenith when we arrived at Sergeant Lendorís office, to report the previous nightís experiences and figure out our next move. The killer would be wary now; I doubted he would be so easily found a second time. The sight of Sergeant Lendor this morning was a shock; he looked as pale and washed-out as Sarabine and myself! Obviously, the good Sergeant had been getting little sleep of late. He listened to our tale, his countenance growing darker and more solemn with each new revelation. When we had finished, he steepled his fingers on the desk before him and sighed.
"Would that I had better news to give you both," he said, "but I fear the situation is grim. Before you encountered him, our slayer had already killed once last night - a headless body was found on the opposite side of the city this morning. Worse still, I received a report not a hour ago that another four bodies have been discovered in a cesspit in Market Town, across the Hammerspan. That brings the killerís total to twelve. Twelve! And weíre still no closer to catching him." He sighed, looking suddenly very old and haggard, and unconsciously rubbed his left arm.
For the first time, I noticed that the Sergeantís forearm was bandaged near the elbow. Sarabine noticed it too, and asked him what was wrong. The Sergeant shrugged, and said heíd woken up this morning with a bleeding cut; he assumed heíd sleepwalked in the night and cut himself somehow. There were also minor burns on his chest, he said, which he couldnít explain - "this case must preying on mímind, even in sleep!" Sarabineís eyes met my own; obviously the same thought had occurred to each of us. I shook my head slightly, bidding her not to reveal our insight, and hastily made our farewells to the Sergeant. By tacit mutual agreement, we said nothing to each other until we were back on the Nancy.
The Sergeant, a murderer? Sergeant Lendor? I found it hard to believe, but he bore the same injuries we had inflicted on the slayer just last night! Still, something wasnít right; he had revealed information about his wounds to us far too freely. Even if he hadnít recognised me, in my distaff form, Sarabine had been easily identifiable. A bluff? A challenge to us? Sarabine seemed to think so, but I was more inclined to believe that magic was involved somehow. We resolved to watch the Sergeantís house tonight; some inner sense told me that things would come to a head tonight. If I was correct, Lendor might be the key that solved the mystery, once and for all.
Copyright 1999, Carl Quaif. Used by permission. All rights reserved.