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Cold Moonlight Fire

Part Two

Death Before the Idol

The sound of the scream intruded jarringly into the cozy fireside scene, freezing everyone in place for a moment.

"Oh no," Laura whispered. "Mrs. Saul--the laboratory!"

She spun and ran out of the room, the three guests following at her heels. No one challenged her assumption that the cry had come from the laboratory, not just because she knew the manor's interior architecture while they did not, but also, as Bryn thought, that if anything unusual was to happen there that Rostoke would be at the center of it.

Laura led the way down a short corridor, then up a narrow flight of stairs to a back hall on the second floor. From there they went towards the center of the house, where they found a spiral staircase. It was of newer construction than the rest of the manor; the ornately carved handrails were done in a more modern style. The current owner had, perhaps, added it for easier access when he decided to put this section of the attic to his private use. Rostoke's wife was about to step onto the first riser when a woman rushed pell-mell down the staircase.

"Mrs. Saul!" Laura exclaimed, catching the woman by the arms. "What has happened? Why did you scream?"

Stark fear was written on the servant's plump, matronly face. Under other circumstances she might have fit neatly into the stereotype of the smiling, gray-haired, apple-cheeked grandmotherly type of lady. Now, though, the horror she had experienced had left her face a twisted mask, and she shivered with pure terror.

"Oh, Mrs. Rostoke, it's murder! The master...and Mr. Draycott..."

"Duncan and Cole both?" Laura exclaimed, and made a move for the stairs. In a reversal of what had happened a moment before, Mrs. Saul grabbed Laura's arm.

"No, no, don't go up there. You don't need to see them as they are now, beneath that horrible idol. Better to remember them the way they were in life, ma'am."

Laura shook off the servant's hands angrily and stormed up the staircase. Her guests followed quickly, energized by the word "murder."

Rostoke's laboratory was worthy of its name. Long tables were laid out with alchemical apparatus, from the simple mortar and pestle to glass flasks, mixing beakers, drip bottles, pipettes for measuring exact amounts, and alcohol burners for applying heat. Shelves held serried ranks of reagents in carefully labeled vials, from herbs to minerals to more exotic substances. Bryn took in these details only peripherally, though, because her attention was fixed on the two bodies that lay sprawled on the floor.

"Duncan? Cole?" Laura cried and rushed forward before Bryn could warn her not to touch anything. Rostoke had been lying on his face, a pool of blood spreading beneath his upper body. His wife turned him over, then let out a gasp of terror and jumped back.

Rostoke's throat had been slashed, a single cut across the neck. His shirt was soaked in blood because of how he had lain, and his eyes stared sightlessly at the ceiling.

The second man lay on his back, slumped against the wall so that his head and shoulders were propped up. There were no apparent marks of violence on him. Wyreth squatted next to the body, careful to keep his mantle out of the blood.

"This man is still alive," he said after a moment's inspection. "His breathing is shallow and his heartbeat is weak, but he is not dead."

"My brother is alive?" Laura exclaimed, a sudden hope in her eyes. On a second look, Bryn noticed that there was a family resemblance between them, especially in the curly black hair and bronzed skin tone.

"Yes, he is. We should get him to a bed," the Esper suggested, "after which I can attempt healing magic."

"I'll get him," Hawthorne said. "You don't think he might have head or spine injuries?"

Wyreth rose back upright.

"No; it should be safe to move him."

Bryn, meanwhile, was the one who had first caught sight of a less gruesome but equally macabre aspect of the murder scene. Sitting on the worktable directly above where Rostoke's body had fallen was a statue about a foot high. The curves and angles of the creature it depicted were at times so unnatural that it made the statuette look like an abstract work, but parts were so detailed that Bryn was convinced that it was an exact rendering. The fiend's lower body seemed lost in mist or water, but the upper was basically humanoid. Its torso was massively built, with huge arms all out of proportion to its body and hands as large as its head tipped with claws. The face was less of a face than a mask of evil, an open maw with four fangs topped by two burning eyes that somehow carried, even in stone, a sense of glaring malignancy. The statue appeared to made of a dark blue mineral, and even in the lamplight it appeared to have an oily sheen.

What it was supposed to represent, Bryn had no idea, but the sense of evil it conveyed was inescapable and overwhelming. It was no wonder the thing had caught Mrs. Saul's attention. She'd called it an idol; if it truly was, even the adventuress had no desire to learn what sort of insane minds would consider that an object of worship.

"I wonder if Rostoke was studying that when he was killed?" she thought aloud.

"The Nahar idol?" Laura asked. Her face twisted into a mask of anger as her eyes fastened on it. "I told Duncan that he should get rid of it, and now see what happened. I'll smash it into a thousand pieces!"

In a quick, convulsive movement she snatched it up, but Wyreth caught her arms gently but firmly.

"This is only an object," he said. "It did not kill your husband. Destroying it will do no good. Moreover, repulsive as it may be, it is probably a valuable historical artifact. I do not think you wish to destroy your husband's last project."

He removed the idol from her grip and set it back on the table.

"I suppose you are right," Laura said sadly. The momentary storm of her fury had passed, and tears were welling up in her cobalt eyes. "If anything, I should want its mysteries solved as a tribute to Duncan's memory."

"For now, though," Bryn said, "we must think of your brother. His life needs to be our highest priority."

Hawthorne lifted the younger man into his arms, bearing his weight easily.

"Where should I take him?" he asked.

"His room," Laura said, wiping her eyes with the back of her hand. "Come; I'll show you the way."

She descended the staircase, the mercenary following cautiously so as not to make a misstep with his burden. Bryn and Wyreth remained behind momentarily to look over the scene.

"How long do you think it's been?" she asked the Esper as he examined the corpse.

Wyreth frowned at the question.

"My medical knowledge is not what it could be, but I would estimate about one hour. That would put it at about the time Hawthorne and I arrived at the manor."

"Too bad."

"Oh? What do you mean?"

Bryn shrugged.

"It means that none of the guests have an alibi. You and Hawthorne were together in the library after you arrived, but before that, any one of us could have slipped into the house, killed Rostoke, left by stealth, and presented ourselves at the front door as if we'd just arrived."

The Esper looked at her oddly.

"Why include yourself? An hour ago, you were perhaps a mile or more away from here."

"That's my story. You have no way of knowing if it's true. I wanted to state the facts fairly, from an objective point of view, so I included myself."

Wyreth smiled thinly despite their grisly surroundings.

"Not many people, I think, would see matters in that light."

Bryn shrugged offhandedly, returning the Esper's earlier gesture.

"I've never liked to be ordinary."

"So I see." He changed the subject abruptly. "What about the murder weapon?"

Bryn thought about it for a moment.

"If I was the killer, I would throw it out that window." She pointed to a nearby casement. "Out there, the snow would quickly cover it, and it would not be found for months, if that. That way, I wouldn't have to run the risk of carrying it with me. Most likely the killer attacked from behind, so he or she wouldn't have blood on their clothes. The blade would be the only thing to link them to the crime."

The Esper looked her over, his face enigmatic.

"I presume you are guessing the direction of the attack because Rostoke did not fight back?"

"I've seen him in battle, and I'm sure you have, too. He'd never go down that easily."

Wyreth gave her a curious look.

"It might have been someone of this household. In fact, it probably was. Rostoke would have trusted one of them and let them get close to him."

"Not close enough to cut his throat. He'd have seen the knife, and once that happened he'd have fought back. There's no sign of a struggle here. Most of the alchemical equipment is easily breakable, but there's nothing out of place."

Nothing, she thought, other than blood stains splattered on certain of the lab materials.

"No," Bryn concluded, "Rostoke's murder was a surprise attack. Step up from behind, hand over mouth, head pulled back to expose the throat before Rostoke could react, and one quick slash. It could have been anyone, even his wife."

"Surely you don't suspect--" Wyreth started to protest, then stopped and spared Bryn the trouble of responding. "Forgive me; that was a fatuous comment. Of course, we all are suspects. Everyone in this house had the opportunity, at least, to commit the murder."

Bryn smiled sourly.

"And meanwhile," she said with another glance at the window, "the storm has us cut off from Tyler and the local law."

"A pretty problem, isn't it? But come, let us head downstairs and see if Mr. Draycott can add anything to our understanding of the situation."

As they returned to the staircase, Bryn could not resist taking one last glance backwards. The idol sat there, small and unmoving, and yet she could feel a repulsive aura from it that dominated the room as if it had been alive. A shudder ran through the adventuress as she tried to contemplate what had happened to the two men in the attic, something she was afraid was far worse than simple murder.

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