Inside this room are several pieces of well-worn furniture, inherited from past occupants: a bed, a long, squat dresser with a slice of mirror hung above it, and a small desk and chair. The rest of the room is decorated in what can best be described as "controlled chaos." Canvases cover most of the wall space, on which have been glued odd assortments of buttons, twine, bits of colored cloth, autumn leaves, pebbles of varying sizes, etc. Some of this "art" represents recognizable figures but most are unlike anything ever seen before. Overflowing bags stuffed with cloth scraps sit near the doorway, while more cloth, bobbins of thread, yarn, and ribbons cover the surface of the desk. Located next the bed is something that might be a nightstand (judging from the trinkets resting on it), but it too is built from a mish-mash of smaller elements, twisting around and around like a corkscrew and then widening and flattening at the top.
Today is the big day … when Zahnrad is scheduled to come by and begin the process of tearing up her floor so that he can examine the chamber that supposedly lies beneath. The day starts out calm enough, thankfully, as Olivia wakes mid-morning since she doesn't have loom duty today. Daylight is filtering through one of her windows and the cries of Creens in the distance can be heard. All in all, it's starting out as a rather nice day.
Yawning, Olivia tosses back the blankets on her bed and goes over to her dresser to wash her face and brush her hair before braiding it. For once, she's not stepping on any cloth scraps or stumbling into any overflowing bags, because everything has been packed away in her wagon or the dresser and desk drawers in anticipation of Zahn's visit. Even the walls are bare, since she's packed away all of her artwork, as well.
There's a rapping on Olivia's door. The pitch at least indicates it's not a Gunther-level of visitors this morning. "You awake yet?" comes Zahn's voice. "I stopped by an hour ago and you were still sleeping!"
"I'm awake, but I'm not even dressed yet!" Olivia calls back, drying her face with a small hand towel. "Just cool yer heels for a while! You could go by the kitchens and get a snack to pass the time… "
"Already did that!" Zahn calls back, "Where do you think I've been for the last hour. Anyway, I'll just wait out there. It's not like it should take you any time to dress."
"Not this time, anyway, since I already have my work clothes laid out," Olivia responds as she brushes her hair now. "But I don't appreciate the insinuation that I don't dress carefully, Zahn! Sheesh if this is how you talk to Amy, no wonder she's constantly snapping at you!"
"Clothes aren't complicated! You just stick buttons in holes," Zahnrad calls back, "No reason it should take long."
Olivia hmfs and pulls her nightgown over her head. "At least you're quick to explain yourself," she grumbles as she reaches for her shirt, "but if you thought about what you were saying beforehand, you might not have to do that as much."
"I'm surprised you're so … suspicious that people are trying to put you down. Is it because that rat insults you a lot?" Zahn asks from somewhere outside. "I mean, if he does I could have Amelia beat him up… "
Now that she's more fully awake and thus in a better humor Olivia just laughs as she puts on her overalls. "I think you'd enjoy that too much, Zahn, so I think I'll skip it," she says. Once she buttons the overalls' straps in place, she quickly begins braiding her hair.
"I would not. I'm just offering as … a friend. You could do better!" Zahn calls back from somewhere else outside. Apparently the Kadie is pacing.
"So everyone keeps telling me… and yet we're doing just fine," Olivia replies gently, not wishing to offend the Kadie if he's actually concerned about her feelings. Once her hair is braided, she ties the ends with a bit of black ribbon and quickly makes her bed, since there's no telling what kind of dust Zahn is going to kick up. She certainly doesn't want any of it in her sheets, that's for sure! At last, she walks over and opens her door.
Outside Zahn is pacing back and forth in front of a wagon loaded with a couple of large boxes. "Whoo!" goes Zahnrad when he spots the open door. He then pauses there and comments, "Oh, hey, you cleaned! That will make this faster."
"That's what I had in mind, too… plus, I didn't want any of my things getting torn or broken," the Skeek says, smiling. "It's all packed away so we won't have to worry over it. D'you want to move your boxes inside while I grab a quick breakfast? I promise I'll be back really soon."
"Sure. And don't worry, I didn't bring any explosives," Zahnrad notes as he goes and starts offloading one of the boxes. He waddles towards Olivia's room.
Olivia grins as she jams her flowered hat on her head and exits. As she passes the Kadie, she calls back, "Well, that's one weight off my mind!"
"Good, she won't be so worried as to ask about the floor stripper, then," Zahnrad mutters to himself as he carts the box in and sets it onto the floor with a thud.
Upon reaching the Weavers' kitchens, Olivia piles her plate with a little more breakfast than she's used to eating nuts, fruit, cheese, bread and berry jam. As she munches as fast as she dares so that she won't get a stomachache figuring that she's going to need all the energy she can get today! Finally, after a quick glass of milk, she puts her plate and glass in the sink and hurries back to her room.
When Olivia returns, she finds that Zahnrad has moved the two boxes into her room. Right now he's crawling around on the floor and peering intently at it. "Do you clean often?" he asks, "Because I'm wondering how much junk we'll find under it. There are some cracks stuff can fall through."
Olivia errrrs and looks embarrassed. "Well, uh… this is actually the cleanest my room has been since I got back from Justininople," she admits, the insides of her ears reddening.
"Oh boy," Zahnrad mutters. Sitting up, he asks, "So, do you want the good news or the bad news?"
Olivia rubs her temples. "Hey, you're gonna take the floor out of my entire room," she says wearily. "Isn't it all bad news in the end?"
"Not your entire floor, just part," Zahnrad clarifies. "Well, anyway, the good news is that the floor is of peg-lock construction … which means removing it requires pulling the pegs and the flooring should just lift out. Now, the bad news is … this isn't the first time the floor has been lifted."
Olivia ohs quietly and looks worried. "Has it been lifted recently? Is there even a way to tell?"
"Well, I can't say how recently, just that it has been. Some of the pegs were replaced once; I can tell by the color and wood grain pattern. They don't match," Zahnrad explains as he rummages around in one of his pockets. He pulls out a pair of strap-on goggles made from re-purposed bottles and straps them over his eyes. Next the Kadie pulls on some gloves. Clapping his hands together, he says, "Well! Shall we get this going?"
Olivia shoves her worries aside for the moment to focus on the task at hand. "Uh, sure. What do you want me to do?" she asks.
"Well, not sure what I was going to find with your floor, I brought several sorts of tools. They're in the boxes. Can you go to the box in the far corner and open it? There should be a long tube-like tool in there with little fold-up bars on both ends. Grab that and bring it over?" Zahn asks as he busies himself with wiping away dust from a section of the floor.
Olivia nods and trots over to the box Zahn has indicated, then opens it. After rummaging about for a little while, shoving aside other tools that she has absolutely no idea of what they are for, the Skeek comes up with the tubular object and takes it back to the Kadie. "Is this it?"
Taking the tool away, he peers at it. After flipping out the bars, he gets up and nods. "Yes, this is it," the Kadie declares. He fiddles with one of the ends and another tube pops down. Grinning, he sets that end on the floor, then puts one of his feet up onto one of the lower spread bars. And the next thing Olivia sees … is Zahnrad bouncing around the room on this odd contraption. boing, boing, boing!
"Right, great!" the Kadie declares as he goes bouncing by the Skeek, "Just go open the other box too, we might need some stuff form it as well."
Startled, Olivia delivers her unique straight-up-and-backwards jump when she sees Zahn go bouncing by. After recovering a bit, she stammers, "Uh, y-yeah, okay. W-what else do you need and what is this?"
"Peg puller, Wingnut style!" Zahnrad answers as he bounces around on the cleared segment of flooring. Whenever he seems to land just right on one of the pegs in the floorboard … as he comes up, so does the peg in the floor. Must be suction powered. "I'll need a pry bar from the other box, but it'll be at the bottom, I've got a blanket covering some cutting tools in that other box. Just lift the blanket and tell me what you see and I'll tell you what to do with it!"
Slowly, Olivia backs away from the bouncing Kadie and over to the other box. After opening it, she sees the blanket Zahn was talking about and lifts it away, then peers inside again.
And in the next moment, there's this huge ball of fur that pops up from the box, waving its arms and going, "BLARBLARBLAR!" This is quickly followed by a raspberry sound. Figures … apparently Gunther decided it would be fun to hide in one of the boxes and lay in wait for someone to open it.
There's a knock at the open door, and Amelia pokes her head in. "I heard Zahn was coming over, and couldn't find… oh, there's Gunther… " she comments.
Taken completely by surprise, Olivia SCREAMS and drops the top of the box on her foot! Then she starts cursing and hopping around on her uninjured foot while rubbing the bashed one. When her toes finally stop throbbing, she yells at the younger Kadie, "For the love of the gods, Gunther, you nearly made me die of fright! Is it your idea of fun to make me drop dead?"
Gunther is grinning from ear to ear from where he sits in the box. "Miss me?" he comments, as he rests his chin on the edge of the box. "Just consider this pay back for handing me over to the otters… "
"What's this about otters?" Amelia demands. "And why is Zahn jumping around like a frog?"
Zahnrad goes bouncing by the front door, and Amelia. "Hi, Amelia!" he calls out. In his wake are a series of floor pegs he's pulled from the floorboards.
Olivia comes to rest on the edge of her bed and glares at Gunther. "I did not hand you over, they swooped you up and away before I could do anything about it!" she snarls. "And just for this no, I DID NOT miss you!"
"So … I have to try harder, then?" Gunther asks Olivia. Meanwhile, Zahn tells Amelia, "I'm pulling the floor pegs so I can lift a part of her floor. Gunther is … well, being Gunther."
"How'd he sneak into one of the boxes though?" Amelia demands.
"Probably when I had to take a break in packing to help Father with a project," Zahnrad answers as he now bounces a few times in place. With one final bounce, he hops off the peg puller and lands on the floor. "Did you want him for something?"
"Scare me like that again and I will find a way to shave yer tail," Olivia threatens, looking like she could do it right now. "And get out of that box I need to tell Zahn what's in there so I can hand him the right tools!"
"There's a bunch of pry bars and chisels in the bottom," Gunther answers as he hops out of the box and rubs his backside. "My butt can tell you that much."
"Want him for… no, I just like to keep track of him," Amelia notes. "In case he has a mind to do some unauthorized spelunking!"
"Now, would I do that?" Gunther asks and grins at Amelia.
At long last, Olivia notices that Amelia has showed up and waves to her. "I see you've come to observe the insanity," she says weakly. "Lucky for you, they've started early."
"I just want to be here in case something jumps up out of the floor," Amy notes. Then adds, "Something that isn't Gunther."
"Hm, hey, Olivia … one more thing you could do for me. Sketch this section of the floor onto some paper and number the boards. I want to be able to reassemble it, so as I pull a board, I'll mark the underside with the number you gave it," Zahnrad asks the Skeek. "As for you, you miniature ball of doom, get me a thin pry bar out of the crate. I need to pull a floorboard up and I think I can fit the bar in this crack here."
Gunther slaps his forehead in a salute and then darts to the box of stuff. "Aye aye, Captain Kadie!" he declares. Zahnrad … just rubs his temples.
"I'm glad to see that you're including Gunther in more of your work, Zahn," Amy says, smiling.
"You get to take responsibility for any disaster that comes from it," Zahn comments to Amelia, grins, then winks. Gunther hops over to Zahn and swirls the crowbar. As if it were a sword, Gunther dips to one of his knees and offers it to Zahn by resting it across his forearm.
Olivia nods to Zahn and goes to rummage about in her desk drawers for some large sheets of paper and the charcoal sticks she uses for sketching. Once she finds these items, she walks back to the space Zahn has cleared and begins drawing that section of the floor. It only takes her a minute or two to complete the project, since the shapes are simple and she's a quick sketcher.
Zahnrad takes the pry bar, but not before he gives Gunther a really strange look. With a small shake of his head, Zahn starts carefully fitting the pry bar into the floor seams, trying to not damage it as he works on popping the first floorboard loose. "Which number did you give this one?" he asks Olivia when the board starts slipping up.
"Ten," Olivia replies. "You're working from the place I had as the bottom of this section of flooring. Is that all right?"
"I didn't now floors in buildings at ground level came up like this," Amelia admits.
"That's fine," Zahn answers and marks the backside of the board once it's fully free. Handing it off to Gunther, he says, "Stack this someplace safe." He gets to work on the next board. These go a lot quicker with the first one free. And one by one, the floorboards pop free, exposing the under frame of the cabin. "You can't put wood directly on the ground, it rots. So, the flooring is always raised a bit," Zahn explains.
Also exposed is the collection of trash that has apparently been accumulating under the flooring. Lots of buttons, bits of fabric, moldy paper, and so on. "What a mess," Zahnrad complains.
The insides of her ears blushing again, Olivia hurries off and comes back with an empty cloth bag. She wordlessly hands it to the Kadie so he can clean up as he goes.
Junk goes flying up from between the floor frame as Zahnrad starts scooping up and tossing the trash into the bag. This goes on for a couple of minutes … right until Zahnrad abruptly stops and leans down. "Hey, what's this?" he asks as he starts digging around in the ground a foot below the frame.
Olivia leans in for a closer look, while at the same time, trying not to block the light the Kadie needs to see by. "What'd you find?" she asks, all curiosity.
"There's a box buried down here," Zahnrad answers as he works with his claws to free it and lift it out. It's maybe six inches square and covered in crud. Again using his claws, he scrapes away much of the debris from it, then says, "And rather ornately carved, too. Weird. I'm not even sure what kind of wood this is."
"And what is it doing under the floor in my room?" Olivia mutters, still curious but a little anxious, too.
Gunther, who is perched nearby on one of the floor joists, comments, "Looks like a Chronotopian puzzle box. See the weird patters in little squares on each side. You have to push them in a sequence to get it to actually open."
That comment gets an odd look from Zahnrad. "How do you know that?" Zahn asks.
"Traps and weapons, duh! I keep up on all the ways to secure things," Gunther asserts and puffs out his chest.
Zahn tosses it towards Olivia so she can take a look. "Strange little thing. Amelia, you should check out the weird wood. Ever see anything like it before?"
Olivia drops her charcoal and paper quickly so she can catch the little box! After shooting Zahn a look, she examines it closely, looking for the squares Gunther was talking about.
Sure enough, each side of the box is carved into six sections. In each section are little pictures formed from a series of lines and dots. They don't look like anything real… so whatever they mean could be anyone's guess.
"So, smash it open?" Amelia asks, looking over Olivia's shoulder.
The Kadie girl also taps on the wood with a claw. "Ummm… it's wood. Definitely wood," she says.
"It could be thistlebark," Amy finally decides. "It's dark enough, but I've only ever seen thorns and stakes of it before."
"So, gonna open it?" Gunther inquires as he sidles closer to get a look.
"Errrr, well, I don't think I can. Looks a little too complex for me," Olivia admits. "Zahn might be able to, though."
"If it's thistlebark, then it's meant to keep spirits out," Amy explains. "Or in."
"Oh, so you're saying I'm not smart enough to open it?" Gunther grumbles and crosses his arms.
Olivia glances at the younger Kettenrad brother and grins. "So… how many Chronotopian puzzle boxes have you opened lately?" she asks archly.
"The same number Zahnrad has. None," Gunther comments, "But, I knew what it was and he didn't!"
"It… probably shouldn't be opened up in here anyway," Amelia warns. "It's really expensive and probably belonged to a necromancer or a witch."
"Oh, just let him try," Zahnrad says as he sits on a floor joist.
Olivia hmms and nods her agreement at this. "True enough." When Zahnrad speaks his peace, however, she hands the box to Gunther. "All right, then, let's see your handiwork! But if you let out something nasty, as Amy is suggesting, then I'll tell my Aunt Augusta to come after you."
Gunther peers intently at the box as his claws tap on the corner edges. Zahnrad, however, looks at Amelia. "You think it might contain something nasty? How would you fit anything dangerous in something that small?"
Clucking his tongue, Gunther starts pressing the sections on the box. They sink in with clicks. He pauses, then lifts the box to his ear and presses a few. "Ah, okay, I get it," he mutters.
"Maybe it's… okay, I don't know what it could be," Amelia says, shrugging. "Probably an amulet or magical artifact?"
The clicking of the sides of the box come faster and faster as Gunther fiddles. He's not even looking at the box … he's listening to it. But with the way he's grinning, he may be close to something. And after a couple minutes, he says, "Ah! Got it! Whoo! Worship me." Grinning smugly, he sets the box in his lap and hooks a claw on the edge of its 'lid'. "Ready to see your hidden treasure?" he asks.
"I still wish I knew what this puzzle box was doing underneath my floor," Olivia says, frowning. "I don't know that any of our apprentices have even been to Chronotopia… " She speedily looks up at Gunther when he makes his announcement. "Goodness, you got it to unlock already? That's pretty good!"
"Well, I just listened to the internal licking instead of figuring out the pattern. Kinda like picking a safe," Gunther explains to Olivia.
"Uh… I still don't think you should open it here," Amy warns, standing near the doorway. "It could be something Valicross left behind, you know? He seems the sort to sneak into Olivia's room… "
"Open where, then?" Zahn asks, "And are you sure you're not being too paranoid?"
"It's just that we aren't equipped to deal with whatever might be in there if it's magical," Amelia points out. "We need Isolde or Natasha or Qing. They could set up some sort of protection before we open it. With a long stick, at that."
Olivia quirks another glance at Gunther. "Should we take it outside my room, then?" she asks the Kadie boy. "At least whatever it is wouldn't wreck my furniture that way."
"Okay, who's closest to the Weaver compound, then?" Zahnrad asks, "Since Amelia is worried we're going to blow up the room. We could move outside and maybe get one of them to come watch?"
Amelia points out, "The Inn is closest, and that means Qing."
"I hear he's about as pleasant to be around as having a bad case of tail fungus," Zahnrad points out.
"He doesn't smell as bad as when he first arrived," Amy claims.
Olivia nods at this piece of advice. "All right, Amy, you keep a watch on the Puzzlemaster here so he doesn't open the box too soon," she says, jerking a thumb in Gunther's direction. "I'll go and fetch Master Qing, if he's in his room. Then we can open the box when he gets here. How does that sound?"
"You make a habit of smelling the town visitors?" Gunther asks Amelia.
"You could smell him from twenty feet away, Gunther," Amy reminds the boy. "Yeah, I'll sit on him until you get back, Olivia."
"No playing with her tail," Zahnrad warns Gunther. "It belongs to me."
Olivia repeats Gunther's strange salute to Zahn, but this time in Amelia's direction. "All right, I'll be back as soon as I can!" she says before running off in the direction of the Inn.
Even after living in the rented cabin for a number of weeks, it is relatively spare in furnishings and decoration, but it does seem a bit more lived in since the mage arrived. Paper wards hang on the door and the heavily curtained windows, likely as much to warn away the Akwavi as to any malevolent spirits. Inside, what few desks and chairs there are have been pushed to the edges of the main room, and laden with books, scrolls, skulls, and other odd tools for magecraft. A tempered glass kettle is suspended over a crude stove for heating water, a number of ceramic cups situated around it, and tellingly empty rabbit-baskets are stacked further away. Oddly, one characteristic has changed here… the scent of chemicals and acids has retreated somewhat rather than gotten stronger as the snake has lived here.
Most of the lighting here comes from candles spaced around the room, keeping the place relatively dim, but there's still enough light to see the ktinza board sitting in front of the current resident. Qing lies coiled back on himself, arms folded over his chest, the snake studying the board in front of him. Occasionally, he makes a move, and there's a pause, and eventually one of the opposite side's pieces moves in response, by itself.
There is a soft rapping on the door of the mage's room, followed by the equally soft voice of a Skeek. "Master Qing? May I come in, please?" It sounds like Olivia Weaver's voice.
"Enter," says the mage, without looking up from the ktinza board. He moves another piece, then creases his brow slightly when the nothing on the other side of the board counters him.
The door opens slowly and sure enough, Olivia enters the room, looking about her in awe before dropping a quick curtsy to the mage. "I'm sorry to interrupt your, um, game?" she says uncertainly, as Qing faces no opponent that she can see. "But there is a rather unusual situation unfolding at the Weaver's that we may need your help with."
"I finished washing your … whatever this is, Master Qing," a voice calls from outside. It sounds like Morgan! "And I have the toads you requested."
Upon hearing Morgan approaching, Olivia quickly moves away from the door so the Kadie can follow her inside.
Qing moves a piece, but leaves his finger still on the top, eyeing the position. He seems to debate the move, but finally settles on it and immediately regrets it as whatever force on the other side immediately captures a piece, a pawn scooting forward and rolling another one off, which Qing picks up before it can fall on the floor. "Do not concern yourself with this diversion, it is nothing I can't return to later." If anything, the Rokuga seems glad for the distraction. "What is the trouble? Morgan, you may wring the toads out later, we may have some business to attend to."
Morgan steps inside with a basket full of neatly folded clothes. Some look like robes, others like wraps, with a few less identifiable and blood-stained things thrown in as well. He hefts the basket in, then puts it on the floor, wiping his head with the back of his hand. "Whew," he breathes. "Hi Olivia. Trouble?" A cloth bag atop the clothes pile suddenly jumps an inch.
Olivia grins at Morgan before replying, "This is me we're talking about here. Don't I always bring trouble?" To the Naga, Olivia says, "The Kettenrad brothers, Amelia Blacktail, and I have found what looks like a Chronotopian puzzle box underneath the floorboards in my room. Gunther has already discovered how to open it, but before we do, we'd like someone with more experience in magical matters to be there, too. Amelia says the box might be made of thistlebark, which is meant to keep spirits in or out of something. Which brings me to you… since you're the closest mage I could ask about this."
"You all bring trouble," Morgan replies, sounding exasperated. He flicks back his hair and puts a hand on his hip, shaking his head. "Well, let's see to this then, I do have toads to wring out, you know!" He gives Olivia a 'thank you for saving me' look when he thinks Qing isn't looking.
"Mm. A sound decision," says Qing. He lifts himself out of his coils, which begin to unloop and straighten. The snake seems to occupy more space than Morgan might remember since he first visited… or maybe the cabin just seems cramped because of workroom sprawl. "
"You may have to lay off the mousemeat pies, Master," Morgan notes aside to Qing, trying to sound very neutral about the advice.
"Such a box would not be the first to have held something dormant," he adds. "Let us go."
The Rokuga gathers up his robe and spectacles, and his trademark broad hat. "I have been eating no more than usual, Nightshade. Though we do need to have the Chalk girl bring more rabbits." He slithers his way to the door, which offers some frame of reference… yes, he's definitely bigger, having to duck under the doorframe and scuffing his scales slightly on the edge as he passes.
The strange gathering at Olivia's place has moved outside of the Weaver cabins. Currently Zahnrad, Gunther and Amelia are all sitting in a patch of dirt outside. In Gunther's lap is sitting a small, ornate wooden box. His tail is vibrating nervously as he fights the urge to tear the box open. Only the glares of both Zahn and Amelia seem to be holding him at bay.
"I see you've kept Gunther in check… that earns you good points for the day!" Olivia calls out in greeting, as she leads the magic-users over to the group.
"You packed up everything he could have been tied up with," Amy mutters.
"It wasn't fair to threaten to keep Nene and Bebe away from me," Gunther complains loudly. "I was only going to peek."
"Master, what do you know of containment boxes? I've worked with one type, as you've seen, but I've never seen a Chronotopian make before. I thought they were quite against magic," Morgan remarks aside to Qing as they approach.
"Yeah, one little peek and a Boschian brain-sucker would have jumped up into your nose," Amelia notes.
"Sorry, Amy, but the safety of my things takes precedence over keeping them out to restrain Gunther," Olivia tells the Kadie girl with a smile.
"Are there really Boschian brain suckers?" Zahn whispers to Amelia.
"Probably," Amelia replies with a shrug.
Qing cranes his neck forward, forked tongue flicking, as if to scent the earth on the box. "Containment boxes are a curiosity mostly attributed to Sylvania… ones from Chronotopia mostly focused on holding Boschian taint. This looks very unusual."
"It seems odd to me someone would go so far to contain something, especially someone from Chronotopia. Destruction, not preservation, is their usual approach to spirits," Morgan tells Qing as he, too, peers at the box.
The box itself smells of must and dirt. Much of the dirt has been scraped away to reveal that each side is composed of six sections and each section bears a small pictograph of dots and lines. Some have already been pressed. As for why, Gunther pipes up, "It's unlocked! We just have to lift the lid." And the Kadie's hand moves towards the lid…
"WAIT!" Amy shouts and grabs for Gunther's hand! "Qing might be able to read the tiles!"
The witchdoctor nods at his apprentice, adjusting his spectacles to peer closer at the old container. "And most modern practices eschew crafting such items in favor of spell wards." He doesn't try to reach for the box, but does crane his head closer, nearly bumping his hat on Gunther's head. "It is thistlebark, however, which isn't often used for much else. Gunther, without opening the container, tell me what you have discovered about it."
"Valuable, too. Thistlebark isn't used lightly, and is as expensive as metal sometimes more so," Morgan murmurs. "Odd, too, that it's a puzzle box. That suggests the maker meant for its contents to either be secure, or else opened by someone clever. Or, well, he may have been mad."
"I opened it by listening to the mechanism inside click," Gunther explains as he holds the box up. "I have no idea what the symbols on the outside actually are. There's a difference when a correct tile is pushed from an incorrect one." Up close, the pictures are actually a series of horizontal lines, four, all equally spaced. Random patterns of dots with vertical lines stick off each dot. Sometimes two of the dot/line patterns are connected by another horizontal line at the termination of their 'flags'.
"It could be a trap for Gunther too!" Amelia says. "Valicross didn't like him. And this thing was right under Olivia's floor."
"Which means it may have been a trap for me, if it's associated with Valicross," Olivia puts in quietly. "It was under my floor, after all, and one of his puppets did come here that one night."
"If you ask me, I think you are all being paranoid," Zahnrad offers. "It could have been there before the cabin was built."
Olivia's voice may have been quiet, but she actually doesn't look all that concerned. "To be honest, I have no idea how the box got here, or if Valicross was the one who left it," she tells the Kadie boy. "I was simply expanding on Amy's theory. There are still plenty of other ways it could have got here and I know it."
Qing taps his chin with a blunt clawtip. "Hm. It does not seem like Valicross' nature to make a trap in this way. He was a diabolical man, but he was not a subtle man. I also do not recognize the markings… they aren't any magical script that I know of. If they are not merely decoration, I would assume they have some bearing to the box's operation or its contents. Still, I will prepare a circle of warding which we can set the box in, should anything be released, and a spell of binding. A spirit will open the lid once Gunther has determined the construct is unlocked. Then we should be able to safely see what may lie within."
"Nightshade, you will assist me, and I will explain scribing of the Knight's Bridge as it pertains to linking caster circles to a main pattern with Von Adrin's method," continues the snake, unshouldering a bag he was carrying.
"How long will that take?" Gunther asks. With how his tail vibrates, he obviously wants to open it!
"People don't make boxes out of that wood for nothing," Morgan tells Olivia and Zahn. "Not unless they're crazy or eccentric. The detail of construction suggests some effort was put in to it, and the material means they either wanted to keep something in, or out." He then nods and steps forward. "At your side, Master."
"Oh no, you'll never find any crazy people in Stonebarrow or Sylvania," Zahnrad comments, then grins.
For her part, Olivia sits down next to Gunther and puts her hands over his, which are still on the lid of the box. "I want to know what's in it, too," she whispers to him, "but if I just let you open it, Amy would bop us both. Besides, you're my friend and I don't want you to get hurt if the thing inside is dangerous. You know it'd come after you first you're the one holding onto it!"
"I can beat it up," Gunther asserts in whisper. "Like any of this mumbo-jumbo ever actually does anything!"
Olivia whispers back, serious now, "Valicross' mumbo-jumbo knocked you out that time or don't you remember?"
"Just a flesh wound," Gunther counters.
"You show surprisingly little faith in the arts, for one who has seen the dead walk," Morgan remarks aside to Gunther. He begins helping Qing unpack, sorting out chalks and oils.
"But I'd rather something like that didn't happen again," Olivia says gently.
Amy has been quietly thinking, and whispers to Zahn, "Does it look like something a Wingnut would have made?"
Bare dirt isn't often a mage's favored working surface, but Qing seems to take it in stride, staking out points in a roughly circular pattern with ceramic spikes, and droning at Nightshade as he works, or sometimes drawing the witch's attention to some of the carving he does in the soil with a bone knife, lining the ruts with colored sand. "You will only need the Saint and the Wayfarer for your circle to see the operation of the Knight's Bridge, but I will expect you to name the 16 principles of recursive spiritual limitation that Van Adrin detailed in our book yesterday on our return. Gunther, please place the box in the center without scuffing any lines. And somebody will need to find a good poking stick… spirits won't be able to move the box's lid."
"See! I said we'd need a long stick to open it with," Amelia gloats.
"Could have, I suppose. It's just a mechanical device, after all. 'Lefty' liked to use odd woods when he made things, like Loom number four," Zahnrad whispers back.
Morgan looks pained at the mention of reciting the 16 principles, but merely nods and says, "yes Master," in a very automatic way.
"It could be something of Lord Druagh's if it was buried when the cabins were being built," Amy suggests.
Gunther gets up and heads to the circle. After considering it for a moment, he does a strange hopping dance into the center of the circle (without touching any lines!) and sets the box at its center. With the same odd hopping dance, he exits the circle. The Kadie boy then smacks his forehead and says, "Darnit! I should have used the peg puller to get to the center."
"But I think the peg-puller would have made extra marks in the circle that Mage Qing would not have wanted, so you did right," Olivia says with a slight grin at the Naga.
"Amelia, who lived in that residence before Olivia," Morgan asks as he chalks, and chalks, and chalks.
Amelia just blinks, and looks to Olivia. "Do you know?" she asks.
Zahnrad, looking bored, wanders off to find a poking stick.
Olivia shakes her head. "I don't, but my aunt would. I can ask her later, if you like, Morgan?"
Zahnrad returns with … a collapsible level, it looks like. He snaps it to full extension, about six feet, and returns to standing next to Amelia. "This will work and it's not all wiggle-wobbly like most sticks are," he notes.
It is indeed more waiting, but at least Qing works fast… all six arms are employed, making practiced gestures with the snake's body arched over the circle. He occasionally points out areas of design to Morgan, a circle beginning to build around him too, and the town witch can feel the stirrings of spirit energy beginning to flow.
"That may be best," Morgan replies. Finally done, he stands and backs away form the completed circle. "I haven't worked with this much chalk since the baby boom three years ago," he then remarks, scratching his head.
Amelia just looks blankly at Morgan for a moment after that comment.
Some ten minutes or so pass (though it might seem like ten years for the youngest Kadie), and finally the long pallid body of the mage is looped into a circle at one end of the pattern, while his apprentice is situated across from him in his own to help guide and shape the energies. Soon, the lines connecting the ceramic spikes in the earth develop their own faint glow. "That should be enough," says Qing. One of his small wisps orbits the brim of his hat. "You may open the box when ready, if you can."
"Be careful," Amelia whispers to Zahn.
"About time!" Gunther blurts.
Olivia stands off to one side, as well, watching anxiously as the box is about to be tipped open.
Zahnrad reaches the level out over the warding circle. While biting his tongue, the Kadie prods at the box. Brow furrowing, at this distance it appears to be a lot more difficult to open the box… But eventually Zahn gets the top of the device to pop open a crack. Grunting, he nudges it further. With a small creak, the top falls backwards and the box is now open, its orifice pointing skyward.
And … nothing happens.
"Well, they can't all be horrific artifacts destined to ruin the world," the witch remarks in a blaise manner.
"Ow!" Amy yelps, gritting her teeth and covering her ears with her hands. "Make that stop!" she hisses.
Strangely, even Qing, not known for his hearing, seems to be picking up on the sound. He grimaces, and produces a lens filmed with cobweb, which he places before one ruby eye, and he softly mutters to himself.
Olivia reacts to something, too, which has the effect of making her nose wrinkle and her fingers stick into her ears! "Gah, what is that horrid noise? It sounds like talons against glass!" she squeaks.
And now Morgan, Gunther, and Zahnrad hear it … a high pitched whine that actually makes their teeth hurt. And it grows louder, and deeper … until it breaks into a cacophony of squawks and kaws. Something practically explodes out the top of the box. A dark, billowing, mist that swirls in the air. As the sound grows even louder the mist starts to take shape. A mockery of a female Korv floats in the center of the circle. She's … (dressed?) in old finery, so ostentatious it's as if she is on a stage performing somewhere.
"It's a ghost!" Amy hisses, and lashes her tail about.
All around the group, the windows of the Weaver cabins are popping open. A myriad of angry Skeek heads pop out and start yelling at the group. "Gah, stop that horrid racket!" they all seem to say in unison.
Morgan reaches up and plugs his ears, leaving chalk on the tips. "It's a very obnoxious ghost," he groans. "I think I'd have preferred the doomsome artifact. Who goes through so much trouble to bottle up that?"
Even nature seems to get into the yelling. From the forest, there's an explosion of the strange screeching of Creens. The calls are followed moments later by a colorful explosion of the Creens into the air. Not only that … they're heading towards the little gathering!
Olivia quickly turns to her fellow apprentices and practically has to shout over the noise, "Oh, go back inside and put pillows over your heads! Morgan and Master Qing are here, and if they can't stop this caterwauling soon, no one can!"
Like all smart Kadies do when a flock of birds is approaching, Amy uses her tail as a parasol.
"Enough," hisses Qing, who raises a bony hand and seems to clutch at the air. The wisp that was orbiting his hat winks out of existence.
Looking up, Morgan groans at the sight. "Not more Creens, not after last time," he sighs. He's also suddenly glad his own Creen nature isn't responding!
Gunther and Zahn just hit the dirt. The flock of Creens spins in the air and descends directly towards the group. In an instant, everyone is enveloped in a swirl of scale and feathers. And even if Morgan's own Creen nature isn't responding … they sure are to him. Four of them just flew up his robe. Heads pop out of Morgan's collar. One on each side of his head. They tandem hiss against his cheek. You know, little forked tongues tickle… And just when it seems like the chaos is about to get worse … the ghost in the center of the circle abruptly stops singing.
Olivia yipes! and tries to come to Morgan's aid! "Shoo, you stupid birds!" she shouts, approaching Morgan and waving her arms in 'go away' gestures at the Creens. "Leave the nice witch alone!"
For his part, Morgan simply looks very put upon. "Another day in Stonebarrow," he sighs. Then, louder, he asks, "Master, how do you wish to proceed?" Idly, he pats the head of the left Creen, squirming now and then. When Olivia rushes up to him, he just gives her a sigh and says, "Believe it or not, I'm rather used to this." Very, very put upon.
The two Creens yet unseen can be readily felt by Morgan. They're tickling delicate areas.
Olivia drops her arms suddenly and looks rather confused by how well Morgan is handling all this. "Uh, okay?" she says, uncertain. "D'you want me to… um, y'know, help extract any Creens from your robe or something?"
"He must have candy in his pockets," Amy comments, after making sure her ears aren't still ringing.
The pallid mage's hand is still outstretched, clutching at the air, while the other five arms wave with mild annoyance at the flapping creatures around him. "You are bound to my will, spirit. Name yourself."
The mildly annoyed Creens try to decorate Qing's robe. They are, thankfully, largely unsuccessful.
"Please take the ones who's heads you can see, I need to get the others, um … " Morgan abruptly wriggles, then balances with his tail, " … myself." He reaches under his robes and fishes around. "They're very, ah … AH! … Ah, frisky."
In an absolutely ridiculous, and loud, voice, the ghost-korv sings out, "I am Brunhilda Von-Oper, greatest diva of the stage! And I want to sing, to bring my beautiful voice to the world!" And … she does just that. Except it's far from pretty and very, very, loud. And at times … a bit lewd.
Approaching the witch very, very carefully, Olivia tries to take hold of the two visible Creens by their necks. She braces herself against being pecked, however, since she's pretty sure the Creens won't like being grabbed.
"It's like being serenaded by a sick Rughrat!" Amelia complains.
Morgan finds that easier said than done. They've coiled around his legs and are quite inquisitive with their little forked tongues … they end up in the most inappropriate places. The two Olivia actually manages to grab start squawking loudly in annoyance and actually try to bite her!
"I'd prefer the sick Rughrat," Gunther complains from where he's laying on the ground, covering his ears.
Qing's face twists a little wryly. "There is your answer, folk of Stonebarrow. Very curious. Von-Oper, recall of Chronotopia, then. What is your lineage? How did you come to be imprisoned?"
Olivia attempts to whisk the two Creens straight upwards from Morgan's collar and toss them into the air so they will one hopes simply fly away!
"My beauty and voice were prized by the great Lord Druagh. So enchanted was he with my voice, he took me for his own. Except … for some reason once he took me I never saw him again," the ghost answers. It shrugs, then resumes singing loudly and off key.
Up and up the Creens go! Except they don't seem inclined to leave immediately. Well, not without at least attempting to thank Olivia by decorating her clothing as they leave. Fortunately, the Skeek manages some deft footwork and their droppings fall harmlessly to the ground.
"Druagh's long gone now," Amelia shouts at the spirit. "We chopped his head off!"
"Pardon me, Master I am… um … indisposed at the moment. Pardon me gak!" Morgan just drops to sit down, then begins shaking his leg out vigorously. "HELLO," he suddenly squeaks a few seconds later.
Morgan's robe seems to dance around him as well as the Creens continue to wreak havoc inside. Eventually (such as after Morgan blurting out HELLO!), the Creens exit the robe from the way they came. They too take the the sky squawking away. Poor Morgan is left sitting on the ground … looking very frazzled at that.
"You'd better wash that robe out soon," Amelia advises the witch.
The cacophony has been largely forgotten by Qing. "Most curious. I can only attribute his desire to keep a relic sealed away to noble eccentricity. Von-Oper, the markings on the puzzle box. What do they signify?"
"He is dead?" the ghost caws, "Well then I am once again free to bless the world with my music!" It looks around and somehow even manages a frown. "I shall start with this town! I will not leave until they appreciate the fine arts!" The ghost seems to 'inflate' as it draws its head back. What follows is one of the most blood curdling squawk the town as likely ever heard. In unison, the Creens answer the squawk with one of their own.
Perhaps it's all the operatic nonsense, or the shouting of the apprentices, or the swarm of Creens around the Weaver's compound that aroused its wrath, but now it sounds like something even more terrible and worse, even louder than the ghostly Korv is approaching. In fact, its voice can be heard before its form even comes into view. "WHO IN DAGH'S NAME IS MAKING THAT OBNOXIOUS RACKET?!"
"Um, yes … Soon, I think. I'm very … " Morgan makes a vague gesture, then shakes his hands in the air and stands again. "Ahem."
At the cry in the distance, Olivia literally shakes where she stands. "Oh no," she moans, covering her face with her hands. "Now we've gone and done it!"
"Can't you put a bag over its head or something?" Amy asks Qing, hands going to her ears again.
"Markings?" the ghost bellows, "Do you mean my greatest work? My opera?"
"Aw Dagh, here comes ol' canon-mouth," Zahnrad mutters. He starts scooting away from the group and hopes she doesn't see him first.
"Aha… they are musical notes. Of course." The mage seems satisfied despite the noise, but he regards Olivia and Zahnrad. "Who?"
Not being asked any more questions for the moment … the Korv just starts singing … again.
"It's Augusta Weaver!" Amy shouts as the singing starts again.
Morgan returns to Qing's side, though he walks like his robe was suddenly very uncomfortable to wear. "Maybe if we do her play, she'll go away," he grumbles.
As if in answer to the mage's question, a large figure looms into view, wider than it is tall, and looking absolutely murderous. Coming closer, Qing can see that it is a stout female Skeek, with her graying hair coiled into a crown braid and the eyes behind her spectacles glinting dangerously. She stops at the edge of the circle and, ignoring everyone else, fixes her stare on the Korv. "YOU!" she bellows, voice carrying easily over the singing. "SHUT UP! HOW DARE YOU INTERRUPT BUSINESS HOURS! WORK HAS COME TO A COMPLETE HALT BECAUSE OF YOU!"
Qing starts to answer Amy, but stops when the angry Skeek addresses the spectral Korv, and he simply observes silently for now.
"She thinks she's an opera singer, Miss Augusta!" Amelia explains.
The Korv seems completely unperturbed by being yelled at. In fact, she does her own yelling back, in her off-key and singsong voice, "What is business to the glory that is my song? Why, you should bow down and worship me for blessing this place with music!" And once again, she lets out a squawk that encourages all the circling Creens to squawk back.
"I think I prefer the Korv to Augusta," Zahnrad tries to whisper to Amelia. Gunther is now trying to hide in Amelia's tail.
"Don't tug!" Amy chides Gunther. "And if anyone can out-opera a ghost, it's Augusta Weaver. She's louder than the Mayor!"
The spirit mage seems to take an interest in the exchange, but for the sake of completeness, he leans toward Olivia. "If you wish, I can return the spirit to its confinement, or disperse it. I do not wish to cause a disturbance for your village."
Augusta Weaver barks a loud laugh and folds her arms across her chest. In a slightly quieter voice than she's used so far (but not by much), she challenges the Korv, "And if I were a proper mistress of the musical arts, as you claim, then I would be plying my trade in front of paying customers instead of apprentices who are too busy to listen! This is no place for you, Miss High and Mighty, and if you know what's decent you'll set yourself up on a stage and not in the middle of a tradesman's shop!"
Olivia uncovers her face just long enough to whisper back to Qing, "You may have to do one or the other, if this spirit won't listen to my aunt! We could have an ear-splitting shouting match for hours if this goes badly!"
"Put her back in the box!" Amy urges. "We can mail her to the Marquis! Gallisians like Opera!"
"The art does not require a stage! The art cannot be confined! The art can be found everywhere! It should be everywhere! Who are you to question the art, you overweight shrunken, rat?!" croons the Korv. And to demonstrate this she starts singing … again. This time the Creens sing right along with her, squawking and crooning in time.
Morgan reaches up and plugs his ears again, whispering aside to Qing, "Is it bad I have the sudden urge to sing along with her?"
The mage nods again at the women, then raises one of his other hands to tighten his spell of binding again. "Silence! Your performance has finished for now. Return to your slumber."
Instead of his binding forcing the Korv back into its box … the mage can feel his bind suddenly snap and fade. The unfortunate consequence of this is that the Korv grows three times louder. Above the group, the Creens spin in an absolute frenzy!
"Gaah!" Amy yells and tries to burrow into the ground.
Olivia's aunt doesn't get angry at the insults she merely smiles a wicked, devastating smile. "If you think it's brave to offend someone who can't throttle you because you're without a body, then your caterwauling has impaired your sense more than I thought." Now seeming to notice Qing for the first time, she says to him grimly, "Since you weren't able to silence this ghost, how much would you charge to dispel it for good instead, sir?"
"Oh my ears!" Morgan staggers off, ramming in to the wall of the house and clutching his ears!
Gunther, meanwhile, has wrapped Amelia's tail around his head. Zahn has curled up into a ball. The windows of the Weaver cabins are also starting to vibrate ominously…
Qing blanches, the wedge of his nose wrinkling. "My fee is already attended to. I will disperse it." With that, he begins muttering, though he can barely even hear himself, much less be heard over the wailing.
Taking a momentary breath seems to be enough for the mage to wrest his control back, but he has second thoughts about destroying a handy subject of study, and he renews his binding spell. His claws clutch together again, as if he were physically wadding something up, and bit by bit he imposes silence on the Korv apparition, then shrinks it back toward its music box.
And for all those present, it couldn't be any sooner. Their ears are practically burning at this point. But, the sound starts to fade and the windows thankfully quit vibrating. The Korv shrinks before those gathered … and slides back into the strange puzzle box. Now … someone just needs to close, after all it can't be closed by magic.
"Ugh, ow, ow," Morgan whines, walking slowly away from the wall and then pacing around in a circle. "It's like that time I broke the bottle of rare reagents … "
Qing readjusts his hat, as if it had been knocked askew by the sheer force of Korv-song. "Yes, well… it certainly could have been worse, I suppose."
"Is it over yet?" Zahnrad whimpers.
"I miss Buffy's singing now," Amelia moans.
"I think so," Gunther answers.
Augusta takes the initiative here, scooping up Zahnrad's collapsible level from where he dropped it and using that to swing the box's lid shut. Once done, she pushes the level closed, too, and harrrumphs, shaking her head. "Not quite what I had in mind, but that'll do." Turning back to Qing, she looks him right in the eyes and continues, "I know you said your fee had been taken care of, but if you ever need a favor, I'll see to it personally." Then she walks over to where Zahnrad still lies on the ground. "A word with you, Zahn, if you please," she says ominously, handing his level back to him.
Zahnrad peeks from around his tail. "Yes?" he squeaks.
The mage inclines his head slightly toward Augusta, nodding. "Do you recognize the box, perchance? Annoying as the contents may be, your town has discovered an artifact of considerable value."
"Whew," Morgan breathes, stepping away from the group to catch his breath and rub his ears. "I don't think that could have gotten worse!"
Augusta adjusts her half-moon spectacles into a more comfortable position on her nose before speaking again. "I've agreed to let you pry up the floor in my niece's room because I would also like to know if there are any tunnels running underneath. Contrary to what you may have been told, I do care about the safety of my apprentices and would rather they not be attacked in the night by rampaging trolls if those are the creatures who dug them." Leaning closer to Zahn now, she adds, "But if there isn't anything underneath and you do not put the floor back the way you found it, then I have word from your father that you will be on slug-cleaning duty at the dam for a month. Do we understand one another, young man?"
"Oh, it'll be back the way it was or better!" Zahnrad says with repeated nods of his head. "Would you like any upgrades? I could put in some furniture that rises form the floor. Maybe some pneumatic tubing?"
"Hey, think putting the box on Loom #4 would calm it down?" Amy asks Morgan.
"What?" Morgan cups a hand to his ear. "WHAT? DID YOU SAY SOMETHING AMELIA?"
The large Skeek actually laughs at this, and pats Zahnrad so hard on his shoulder that he nearly somersaults. "That much won't be necessary, Zahn. To simply have the floor in original condition will suffice." Satisfied with that outcome, she looks at the puzzle box, then at Qing again. "I can't say that I recognize it, sir. I can't say that I want it, either. Would you like to have it?"
Amelia covers her ears again!
"I still think we should mail it to the Marquis," Amy grumbles.
The mage considers this, then folds his hands into his robes. "With your blessing, I will have it shipped back to Caroban, and they can bring it to the Chronotopian historical societies. I am sure they will appreciate your contribution."
"I like the idea about the Marquis," Gunther offers.
"WHAT?" Morgan blinks, leaning his cupped ear towards Qing.
Augusta nods gravely. "Then you have my blessing to do with it as you will. And if you ever need that favor, all you have to do is ask. Meanwhile, I will return to my work. Good day to you all." With that, she abruptly relaxes and gives Olivia a quick, affectionate pat on the cheek before striding away.
Even with the ghost gone, the Creens haven't. In fact, as if it's one final cry of the song, the Creens squawk in unison above and dive. Only this time … they all head towards Morgan. In an instant he's enveloped in scale and feather. The mass then spins upward … taking Morgan with it! As his tail twirls away, the mass swoops back towards the forest. What they intend to do with the town witch-in-training … well, it's probably better to not think about it.