Cold Moonlight Fire
The Search Begins
"We have to face matters squarely," Hawthorne was saying. "There is a murderer in this house and in all likelihood it is one of the people in this room."
Bryn sipped at her coffee, enjoying the flavor of the strong, rich brew. She'd heard a story once, that in the days of Mother Brain ancient Parmanian scientists had created the first coffee plants using advance science because the version of the plant that grew on Parma could not survive the cold Dezolian climate. Bryn did not know if this was true, but if so, she was deeply grateful for their efforts. The beverage sent a warmth through her that helped to dispel the cold nervousness that had settled over her spirit.
Hawthorne had suggested this conference. The violet-haired soldier had taken control after Wyreth's efforts had proven inconclusive. It had also been his idea, which the others had quickly agreed with, to serve refreshments as the dinner hour was upon then and under the circumstances there would hardly be the opportunity for a meal.
The dining hall had been the most convenient location under the circumstances. Platters of bread, cheese, and fruit had been set out on the long hardwood table, along with a large silver coffee urn. Candles burned brightly in an iron chandelier hanging from the beams above as well as in tall candelabra set in the room's corners. These plus a roaring fire of pine logs in the massive stone hearth kept the room well-lit; none of those assembled would have appreciated shadow and darkness under the circumstances. The walls were decorated after the fashion of an ancient noble hall. An exotic tapestry hung across from the hearth, and armorial and game trophies ringed the chamber. The stuffed heads were all of monsters rather than common game; Bryn recognized a red mole, a mistralgec, and a skytiara among others. The weapons were antique in style but looked well-kept, especially the two great axes crossed over a shield above the fire.
"Why do you say that the murderer is still here?" Laura asked. "None of us would have killed Duncan." She said it defiantly, as if trying to convince herself.
"The storm," Hawthorne said. "According to Wyreth's examination, Rostoke was killed about the time it started. There's no chance that the killer could have endured the walk to Tyler and shelter. It may be just possible that an intruder might have slipped in and committed the crime, but if so, he, she, or it is still here somewhere."
Mrs. Saul let out a little gasp. She was sitting next to her husband, Josiah, the grizzled servant who had opened the door. They were apparently the only servants; she was the cook and housekeeper while he served as majordomo and man-of-all-work.
"I don't believe that explanation, though," Hawthorne continued. "There are seven of us, and while this house is large it isn't so large that it would be easy to hide in for an extended period of time."
"Why would the killer stay here?" asked Josiah. "He could use a telepipe to leave any time he wanted, travel hundreds of miles to wherever he pleased."
The mercenary drilled his fingers on the table.
"That's not too likely. Remember, for a telepipe to work, you have to play a tune on it for about ten minutes. That's why fighters like me can't use one to get out of a battle when it goes sour."
Bryn smiled thinly.
"I have to agree with you, Hawthorne. I doubt anyone could give an impromptu recital without being heard."
"That was how I saw it. I'm glad someone else agrees."
He hooked his thumbs into his belt.
"That leaves only two possibilities. I don't like either of them, but they're what we've got. First, someone from this household killed Rostoke. Second, one of the guests slipped in, killed him, slipped out, then pretended to arrive. These are the only possibilities that make any kind of logical sense, to my thinking."
This pronouncement raised the ire of Mrs. Rostoke. Her dark eyes flashed dangerously as she was quick to respond.
"No one in this household would have murdered Duncan! I loved my husband to the depths of my being. Josiah and Marybeth have served the Rostoke family for over twenty years. As for my brother, Mr. Wyreth has already said that he did not commit the crime."
"I tell you," Mrs. Saul said nervously but resolutely, uncomfortable to be speaking her opinion to her social superiors but determined to have her say nevertheless, "it was the idol! That fiendish thing is responsible for all of this, somehow!"
A shudder ran through her, and her husband put a big arm around her shoulders comfortingly. The act surprised Bryn; she hadn't thought of Saul as being a sensitive husband.
"My wife's right," he said. "We've seen a lot of the things Mr. Rostoke's brought back over the years, some of it strange and dark, but that statue was the worst of it. Pure evil, it is. I told him no good would come of having it in this house."
He could not quite keep a note of triumph from his voice when he made the final pronouncement, the self-satisfaction of the pessimist whose doomsaying had at last come true.
Hawthorne, at the head of the table, looked as if he wanted to scoff at the superstitious pair but could not quite bring himself to do it. Remembering how she had felt when she'd looked at the idol at the murder scene, Bryn thought she knew what was holding him back.
"Wyreth," she said, "is that possible? Could the idol be responsible?"
The Esper, who had remained silent thus far, tented his fingers.
"As more than merely a grim set-piece? It is an intriguing theory. I'd be the last person to deny the fact that the ancient ruins of Dezolis contain objects of great power and great evil. Moreover, Nahar is one of the four so-called 'torture palaces' together with Guaron Morgue, the sorcerers' tower of Menobe, and the great prison Ikuto. It is the most mysterious of the four and the one about which the least is known."
He tapped his fingertips together, slowly and rhythmically.
"While we were in the laboratory I admit that I did not sense any magic, dark or otherwise, coming from the idol. I was not attempting to do so, however, so I could have easily missed such a thing."
"You should check that," Bryn said, "and any other items in the laboratory besides. If we can eliminate black magic as a possibility, we can concentrate on simple murder, as Hawthorne has been theorizing. Once the storm lifts, we can summon the law from Tyler to take over."
Draycott looked at her grimly.
"What if we cannot eliminate it?"
"Then at least we'll know what to look for."
"That seems prudent," Hawthorne said, reasserting control. "While Wyreth is doing that, the rest of use could search for Rostoke's notes. I'm inclined towards the murder theory myself, but even so those notes could contain important information as to motive."
He looked around the table, his gaze moving up and down the ranks of people. None seemed to have anything else to add. He turned to Saul.
"And Rostoke's body?"
"It has been taken to one of the outbuildings until proper arrangements can be made," the servant grunted. The cold, Bryn knew, would prevent decomposition and give the law its best opportunity to examine the body for evidence.
"Good. I suggest, then, that we get started."
* * * * *
"I'm surprised," Bryn said, "that Rostoke's research notes weren't either here or in the laboratory."
"Yes," Draycott answered, "that is odd. Why would he hide them?"
They were in Rostoke's office, a small study on the second floor dominated by an arched stained-glass window of green, gold, blue, and scarlet that must have been breathtaking on a sunny day. The massive dark wood desk with its green leather pad was set to face it, and two tall, narrow bookcases separated the great window from two smaller ones of clear glass.
Bryn felt a bit better accompanied by Draycott. Though a loner by nature, under the circumstances it was good to have someone to watch her back, and his innocence had been vouched for by the Esper. That, of course, presumed that Wyreth himself was being truthful, but the adventuress' knowledge of the reclusive order of magic-users suggested that they were.
"It doesn't make sense to me. Rostoke was never the kind to obsess over academic rivalry or people stealing 'his' secrets. He always said that knowledge belonged to the world and should be as widely published as possible, by any means."
A shadow passed across Draycott's handsome face.
"Now that you speak of it..." he began haltingly.
"Well...to be honest with you, over the past week or so, Duncan had become almost like you first described about his research. Secretive, I mean, even furtive. Whenever Laura or myself would ask him how things were proceeding, he would brush us off with a short, noncommittal answer. 'Fine,' he'd say, or, 'As you'd expect.' Two days ago I pressed him for further details and he rounded on me with absolute fury. He accused me of snooping in his private papers, and said that I was no more than a leech battening off his wealth."
Draycott was standing next to the desk; he grazed his fingers over the cool green leather.
"The fact of the matter is, it was he who first invited me to stay here. My parents operated a successful trading concern, which has continued to thrive since I inherited the business. I am quite capable of supporting myself comfortably, though not in this luxury. It was Duncan who invited me to live here not long after he married my sister, because he was afraid Laura might get lonely while he was away on his expeditions. You see, she lacks your adventurous nature, Miss Morgaine, and so did not accompany Duncan into the field.
Bryn did see, perhaps more than Draycott or at least more than he intended. Rostoke was a charming and romantic figure but he was also quite a bit older than his wife, and his work took him away from her for extended periods of time. Better to have her brother there to keep her company than risk letting her turn to someone else for more than that. The suspicion might or might not have any basis in reality, but it would be there, nonetheless.
"Call me Bryn," she invited. "I don't like to stand on ceremony."
She closed the last of the desk drawers and strolled over to the bookcases.
"So you think that something changed in the last week," she inquired, "something that would make him hide his notes for fear they would be discovered?"
"I can only speculate."
"But you believe it." Bryn did not phrase it as a question.
"Yes, I do," the young man replied.
The bookcases here, Bryn realized, must have contained Rostoke's working library. The volumes included historical works by both Parmanian and Dezolian authors, the latter in translation. Others were studies of folklore and the legends of Dezolis. Bryn had heard of some of the books, the more famous and esoteric ones.
"In the name of--!" she exclaimed as she caught sight of a book.
"What is it?" Draycott gasped, worried.
"This is a copy of the Menobe Writings. If you were to turn this over to the Dezolian Church, they would pay two thousand meseta for it--and then burn the book in the nearest fire."
Draycott looked at her incredulously.
"Burn it? Why would they do that?"
She slid the book from the shelf. A Parmanian translation, it was bound in red leather with the title stamped on the cover and spine in gold foil, with a ribbon sewn to the top of the back cover for use as a bookmark. It was clearly a private publication; no printer would release such a thing commercially.
"This is a handbook of black magic, containing the secret spells and rituals used by the sorcerers of Menobe before the tower was leveled in the mid-1280s," Bryn explained. "I've never actually seen a copy before, but apparently it was a sort of text given to the apprentices of that order, the Mystcapes, and so rather than being written in a confusing, difficult style by a raving lunatic, it is clear and precise."
She put the book back in its place.
"That, of course, just makes it all the more dangerous. I've actually glanced through the Violations of Saphir, and while it is frightful it would also take hours of study to draw any practical information in terms of usable rituals out of its pages."
"Why would Duncan have something like that in his library?"
"Research, I presume. The legends of the 'torture palaces' are exactly what Duncan would delve into. He'd want to compare the Writings to other sources and the physical evidence, as well as contrast Menobe with other sites where black magic was rumored to be practiced, sorting out the true horrors from those that only exist in people's minds."
There was a chill in the room; the fire had not been lit and Bryn found it hard to repress a shudder. Though, she admitted to herself, it was not by any means the cold alone that had brought it on. She crossed her arms, gripping them as if hugging herself.
"Black magic," Draycott said, eyes downcast. "It makes me wonder."
"What happened to me--the loss of memory, finding myself with Duncan's body, unconscious? You cannot say that sounds natural."
Bryn shook her head.
"No, I can't."
Draycott ran his hand through his raven curls.
"Wyreth seems to think that it is all a mental reaction, that I saw the body or perhaps even the killing and my brain was unable to cope with the shock. I fainted, and my subconscious hid the memories away, so I would not have to face them."
Bryn nodded. That seemed to sum up the Esper's apparent beliefs quite well.
"I don't believe it," the handsome merchant declared. "I've seen and heard frightful things before. Not murder, at least not first-hand, and not to a close family member, but I am hardly weak-willed. I cannot believe that I would suddenly be overcome by horror to the extent that I would fall into an amnesiac trance, any more than would you, Hawthorne, and Wyreth."
"I don't have an answer to that, Draycott. I have only a superficial familiarity with the subject. Personally, I don't see how it could happen, if that's any comfort."
He smiled at her, displaying perfect white teeth.
"Actually, it is. I'm glad to know that you, at least, don't consider me a raving hysteric."
It might have been comforting to the merchant, but it was nothing of the sort for Bryn. The problem was, if Draycott hadn't lost his memory by natural means, then something else must have induced his unconscious state. The easiest way to explain the memory loss was that he had been put to sleep by magical or chemical means, as Hawthorne had suggested, but that neither addressed the question of how he got to the laboratory or the confusing results of the telemental trance.
No, there was some deeper mystery here, something that went beyond a simple throat-cutting. Bryn was convinced of it. There was an evil in Rostoke Manor, a tangible presence lurking in the shadows.
She went back over to the desk and sat down in the chair. Had Duncan Rostoke felt anything of what she did? Had he sat at this desk, working on his researches, and realized that his life was in danger? That might explain the strange behavior Draycott had told her of, as well as why Rostoke had hidden his notes. Bryn only wished she knew what discoveries had driven him to it.
"Trying to put yourself in Duncan's place?" Draycott asked.
"Yes, but it doesn't seem to be working."
She looked up at the stained-glass window, hearing the whistling of the wind outside and, through the two smaller, flanking windows, saw the snowstorm still raging. There was no doubt that they were caught in a full-on blizzard, but the timing was too coincidental for Bryn's comfort. A freak storm that had just happened to rise at the moment of Rostoke's death?
The thought made Bryn even more aware of the chill in the room, and she glanced at the unlit fire laid in the hearth. To either side, snarling iron firedogs in the shape of great hounds looked out angrily at the room, teeth bared. The animals looked ferocious and savage; Bryn wondered how Duncan could have felt comfortable working alone with such sculptures.
Bryn looked curiously at the fireplace as her mind began to put things together. She pushed back from the chair and stood up.
"Well, I doubt we'll find anything more here."
"I agree," Draycott said. "I suppose that we should split up from here. We may not have much more time to look and we can cover more ground that way."
She looked at him oddly.
"What do you mean, we may not have much more time?"
"Why...only that the storm may pass soon, and then we will have to put the matter into the hands of the authorities and let them carry out their official investigation."
Draycott made a sour face.
"I must confess that I do not relish the thought. I was found with the murdered man at the crime scene. I may have been unconscious then, but the crime took place an hour or so before that. I know how the police mind works. They look at facts, not at the claims of Espers using strange powers they do not understand. In their eyes things will look very black against me."
"So, you want to find evidence of the truth now, before the law is summoned," Bryn said. "I can see the logic in that."
"Then you agree with me?"
"I do. We'll split up, like you suggest."
What she did not mention to Draycott was that she had her own reasons for separating. Bryn had an idea of what to look for, now, and she preferred to do so away from prying eyes.