After a while, the sounds of a horse and cart ambling their way up the road to the estate meet Bael’s ears, mixed with the light chatter of Merrick as he coaxes Bucky along with words of encouragement. Clearing the hedge, Merrick catches sight of Bael outside and pulls the reins up. Giving the scene a quick look, Merrick’s expression goes a little askew.
“I was about to ask why you had on such a thick and ill-fitting leather glove, but it just occurred to me where that cheese you’re handling came from. Up to a little experiment, I take it? Going to see if the mice that eat that stuff turn green, or start exploding or something?”
Bael grins. “I am a student above all else. I like to learn things.” He glances back at the cheese and spells the glove clean before carefully removing his hand. “I don’t know enough about poisons or curses to determine whether it has been tampered with, but I’m not about to trust anything from that particular gift-giver. However, if the cheese is safe, perhaps we will coax these creatures out of hiding as I know Al is curious and wishes to parlay. If not, perhaps it will discourage them from playing havoc with our pantry stores and destroying my cakes. I’ll admit I haven’t seen Bub in weeks.”
He nods at the cart. “And what are you off to do? You look prepared for a trip.”
He gives a confused glance at the back of the cart, then realizes he had a tarp over everything. He hops down as he lifts a corner to let Bael view the pile of Baskets. “My trip is complete, now that I’m here! Thanks to your quick action, we were able to search the town and gather up most of the baskets that were delivered. It was agreed upon to put them all in the vault to keep them out of harms way until we decide how best to dispose of them.”
He pauses for a moment, looking a bit unsure of himself all of the sudden as there is a pause in the conversation. He rubs his neck a bit in thought, finally coming to a descision. “Bael, I need to ask you something. I know this Naga is of primary concern at the moment, but I’ve had something on my mind for the past few days and was hoping you could help set it at ease.”
Bael is about to call up Carson and Benson to begin unloading the cart and incinerate the lot before they do something as foolish as store two dozen small monsters in their basement alongside all the magic and loot, but pauses at Merrick’s words. He’s never asked for counsel before. The tiefling tugs his cuffs and stands straight. “Certainly, Merrick, if I can.”
Merrick nods and stays silent for a moment, trying to figure out where to begin. “I guess I’ll start at the beginning. As you know, Ezra had asked for assistance a couple weeks ago. I was one of our group to go lend a hand. I’m sure Al and Leon had filled you in on the details concerning her, but while I was there, I had noticed a pile of trinkets that had been scattered about the place and… picked them all up.”
He paused at that, seeing the look of dawning comprehension on Bael’s face. Merrick takes a sharp breath in through his teeth: “Yeeeeah. As you know the nature of Ezra’s talents more than anyone, I’d wager, you can guess the results of that. No good deed goes unpunished, as they say.”
“From what I understand, Esre uses sensory triggers to create the necessary connection for accessing memories. The objects given or stored are mnemonics, the physical way to release the memory or a reminder that it has been altered or stored.” Bael considers Merrick carefully. “I am guessing you accidentally accessed a number of stored memories from various applicants?”
He pauses considerably longer before continuing. “When I had…excised myself of a great number of memories and then requested that they be reinstated, it was…difficult. It took days. The most trying part was not the process but the aftermath of the tumult of memories being relived in every detail. But, then again, those were *MY* memories. It would be quite another thing to have had such an onslaught through the eyes of many strangers. Have you spoken of it to Esre? Now that she is on the mend, I mean? I’m certain she would want to help you be at ease.”
“Thanks for your concern. I might do that, but the fact that I got a barrage of other peoples’ memories isn’t what is troubling me. It’s… one memory in particular.” He shifts a little on his feet, looking down.
Then his head snaps up to meet Bael’s eyes “OH! Um, it wasn’t one of *your* memories I saw. That wasn’t… nevermind. The memory that has me worried was of someone, a warrior in the heat of battle, at the brink of death.” Merrick tries to recall the memory in more detail. He looks at the ground, attempting to recite the whole thing in full before seeing Bael’s reaction.
“He had been run through, gasping his last. Not wanting that moment to be the end. That’s when an Offer came. A pact. ‘Choose’ said a voice. And he accepted.”
He fell silent for a moment, then cleared his throat. “I’ll be the first to admit that I know next to nothing about Warlock Pacts. I had always assumed they were mutually agreed upon, drawn out affairs with a lot of negotiations and stipulations. Business like, you see? But this- this, experience. It was so desparate, so unbalanced, so *FAST*.”
He steals a glance up at Bael, in an almost pleading expression “Are… are all pacts like that?” The question sounds almost childlike. As if it was a boy first learning a hard truth of the world.
Bael tucks his hands behind the small of his back and smiles kindly. “No,” he says softly.
“They are not all like that. Although it is true to say that it is most often offered to those who are desperate and it is mutually-agreed upon–such is the nature of a Pact–” he leans forward a little “–but it would naive to think that those who have the power would not take advantage of the opportunity.”
He steps to one side, carefully considering Merrick’s wide eyes. “I have not told you of Whitespire, the university where I was prepared, like my classmates, for whatever magics took us. I was offered an opportunity and accepted into the Pact Program as a sophomore, vaulting me into graduate studies well beyond the rest of my class…” he pauses. “It was not taken well.”
He tilts his head and gives a ghost of a smile. “However, it was a contract, as you envision it, and one I entered into willingly. In fact, I made one hundred and thirty-nine corrections, addendums and negotiation points before I signed!” He laughs.
“Of course, I imagine being an all-knowing, all-seeing intelligence beyond mortal comprehension, it knew me well enough to know that I would be comforted by the illusion of control, but I am not foolish enough to think I have out-maneuvered such a mind.” His face softens. “Even though I was beaten, even though I was expelled, sent away and abandoned by family and friends to the furthest point West, I have had faith in my Patron and trust that this is a step along my journey to fulfill our Pact, my offer, and his promise. It was laid out in black-and-white, entered into knowingly, with years of preparation to guide my choices, addressing all my expectations–even including a loophole caveat for my earning my freedom from my ultimate price and keeping the power I’d earned. I was more than ready and quite excited by the prospect. It was–and still is–an honor to be chosen.” He nods.
“So, no, Merrick. The Pact is not always entered into in such moments.”
Merrick smiles, relieved at the news and gives a welcome sigh as his shoulders relax. “Glad to hear it. I’ll admit the thought of my friends suffering under making such a monumental commitment while their very life slips away gave me no end of worry for both you and Leon these past few days. One’s imagination tends to run wild with what some other worldly being could demand of you at any moment with no recourse to deny them. It’s reassuring to know you walked into it with eyes wide open.”
Bael gazes off to the right, considering the whole of the truth. “Of course, that was *my* experience,” he admits. “And I have not seen many others first-hand. Well and so. You would have to ask Leon his experience. I only observed it.”
“I had thought of asking Leon about all this first, but…” Merrick stops himself. He speaks a little slower, choosing his words carefully: “I trust him with my life, and I know you do as well. But, let’s just say that he’s a bard. I wouldn’t be sure if I were getting the truth or hearing a legendary tale if I were to ask him directly about his pact.” He gives Bael an all-too-knowing smirk.
He adds “I don’t think he would knowingly lie about it, but lets just say it doesn’t take an Ezra to tailor fond memories to suit your needs.”
The tiefling looks up at the taller human. “I watched as he was courted by many powers, offered tempting dreams and nightmare visions with no knowledge of any who contacted him, whispering promises of power…It could have been anyone, anything, for any price…” his voice fades for an instant. “But he had offered himself up without reservation to any who would take him, carte blanche, and with only the truest intentions of his heart in the bargain. He did not know the powers that he courted and he signed nothing, but gave his oath and his name in good faith–” he smiles again. “Such is the nature of Leon.”
Bael straightens. “I tried to coach and counsel him beforehand, but I was too late and ignorant of what drove him. He is fortunate to have been accepted such a benevolent Patron who asks only for music shared, experienced by as many ears as can know the song of the storm-lute.” Bael smiles widely. “Perfect for a bard! And it suits him, although he is much changed.” He chuckles and waves his his own face with sparkling rings on his fingers. “Well, who am I to say? We are all much changed by many reasons, and most of them for the better.” He nods a little. “I am learning much out of my schoolroom. And I am much better for it.”
Merrick takes it all in, then a thought dawns on him “Wait, did you say you witnessed him actually forming his pact?”
Bael nods. “Well, yes, I did–although more accurate would be to say that I ran from it. He’d asked Al and I to stay with him, uncertain what the nights would bring, that night in particular. When the power took him, I awoke to find him with his blade in hand, eyes alight, voice like thunder over Al and…my training kicked-in. We were up and out of the shack under cover of darkness and running fast–although I stayed behind, invisibly, to watch over him and goad what I thought may have overtaken him…possessed him…I did not know for certain,” The words slide slow. “I wasn’t certain what I would do, what I *could* do, but I lent myself every advantage should I have needed to revenge on him for Leon’s sake. It was a rather heart-breaking moment. And a long uncertainty.”
He seems to come to himself and flashes another sharp-toothed smile. “And, rest assured, Leon would not lie to you–about this, about anything, really–he is far too good for that.”
Merrick sheepishly nods. “I wouldn’t presume to ask what specifically your patron demands of you. However, don’t hesitate to ask me for help if it is within my power. Or if there is anything your patron would forbid you to do. Apparently with Ezra, her patron forbid her any divine or magical healing. Had we used any, even without her knowing- I shudder to think.”
“I, also, will not lie, even to save hurt. It is not in my nature. But my Patron did not task me to do anything, I was asking *HIM* for help, for power, to complete my aims. I could not offer the standard coins of life or soul as they had already been spent to earlier oaths, which I am still bound–more or less–so I offered the only thing I prized more: my intellect. My mind.”
“I have however long I have to either solve my Patron’s riddle and abjure myself of obligation or consign myself to eventual madness.” He speaks slowly. “That is why Al brought me to Esre in the first place–to safeguard what memories I prized best so that, if the worst should happen, perhaps they could be restored or, if not that, then preserved for others so that they might know me, live beyond me, or learn from me.”
He shrugs. “I have already set one of the Abyssals to the task as his boon for freedom from the Infernal Park, but I have not heard from it since. I’m not certain that I will, but I hope,” he says. “I always hope.”
Merrick regards Bael with a newfound sense of respect, awe, and a little sympathy.
“You are one of the better men I’ve ever known, my friend. I am proud to be counted a friend to you as well. I must admit, your bravery outshines most, even if it is not as obvious in deed, but in conviction.”
As the two walk side by side, Merrick thinks on what they have shared. He suddenly starts to chuckle “An otherworldly entity of unfathomable drive and power, seeking only someone to spread his song thru a magical lute. Leave it to Leon to land a pact with a patron unique among the unique!”
Bael chuckles as he adjusts his pince nez on the bridge of his nose. “Yes, well, Leon lives a rather charmed and fortune-favored life. I do not know many others who have his vast array of talents and skills. And, you are right, that he is both good and kind,” he says with a sideways glance.
“But I would not have you think so of me. I said I would not lie nor would I do so from omission. I am *not* a good man, nor am I brave, though I aspire to be infinitely better. I have a very long way to go.” He straightens a little as they walk together–it has been a long time since he’s spoken of it with someone new.
“You see, I was raised by my mother and her followers in the Order–I was very young when I first learned to tie a knot or hold a blade and that was to be a helpful acolyte, tying those bound to the altar or taking tithe–blood offerings.” He smiles thinly. “I imagine it was not a very nice way to live, but it never occurred to me that way. I lived in a grand home with a close family and more people around us than I could count. I was educated and well-cared for and given the finest tutors, preparing me for the best university and positions throughout the continent.”
“But I wanted none of it, actually, once I learned the nature of the Order and my mother and my sire… Just so. I bent my will towards their undoing and my continuing in academia in order to achieve my ends, which worked out very well until it didn’t.”
He looks ahead. “I was also blind to the world of Whitespire. It is a bubble, you see, of the elite class spreading their influence and loyalty throughout all the empires of the world. I am still bound to them, always, but I am…outside now. Different. But I don’t know in what ways yet–the threads have not been tested. But I cut more than a few already. Perhaps it is enough?”
He straightens his shoulders. “But, no, Merrick, I am not a good man.” He sniffs.
Merrick eyes stay on Bael as he describes his family, the Order, his past deeds. It is a steady, steeled gaze. It begins to dawn on him how young in years Bael is for having racked up quite a tally of debts: be that to family, gods, patrons.
“You may not think yourself a good man, but I’ll still say it. Indeed, the fact that you grew to realize the horrors and evil of your own family and culture and took steps to stop them? More brave than you know.”
In a turn of subject, Bael asks “But where do you hale? Home? Family? Training? School? Why do I barely know you at all?”
Once Bael turns to him with his own questions, Merrick is taken a bit off guard. He begins to feel a little selfish: after all, Bael had shared much that was personal just so Merrick could feel at ease. He almost felt ashamed for not having much to say for himself.
“By the Gods, I feel a bit empty-handed if I were to not share with you something equally personal as what you’ve gifted me with our talk. You regale me with the selling of your life, your soul, your very mind, your family shame and your aims to undo them. I would feel I were cheating you to just tell you I’m a simple son of an Innkeeper who had a knack with horses.”
Merrick stopped walking for a moment. After a long moment, he turned to the young man at his side.
“There *is* something that I, well I haven’t been keeping it from anyone, but it is something personal that I guess is time to share. Wait here a moment.” With that, he turns and walks over to his horse and fishes around for something in one of its saddle bags.
Bael says nothing as he watches Merrick, a secretive smile on his face.
Merrick returns with two items in his hands: one a platinum locket, the other a sealed scroll case. “When we first met, I recall telling you about having a childhood friend who was adept in magic. Well, there is a reason I have ventured out west. I’m out here looking for her.”
He holds up the locket; it is of exquisite elven craftsmanship. He opens it to reveal two portraits: on the left side, an elven maiden of delicate beauty: straight raven-black hair framing her features, with long ears protruding out adorned with piercings. The expression not cold, but a little sad.
The opposite side shows the portrait of another maiden, this one half-elven and clearly the daughter of the first; her hair wavier and a tinge of red mixed in.
“She struck out on her own, heading west about 10 years ago. I was too young at the time to go with her, or stop her. But I had an inkling as to why she was going out west. If I do manage to find her, I am to give her this.” He holds up the scroll case.
“It is, I presume, her father’s will. Or deeds to his estate, I don’t know for certain. She hated her father, and for good reason. He was a cruel man, so I don’t expect any grief when I give her news of his death. But he was also controlling and scheming. He knew she disliked him, she made no secret of it, but I worry what plans he had set in motion to keep manipulating her emotions even after his death. I suspect there’s more to what’s in this scroll case than mere land deeds and a last will & testament.”
Bael examines the portraits as he listens, glancing at the case and Merrick’s face as he relays his tale. “You would have gone with her,” he says carefully. “And you say it is her father who leaves her whatever is in that case–so who charged you to bring it West? Or was that your own doing?”
He considers the tableau forming in his mind. “You said you were too young to go with her when you parted, so she is older than you, with ten years head start. Who is she to you?”
“You ask very exacting questions, my clever friend.” He replies with an uneasy smile. “I suppose you could say it is my own sense of obligation that I am attempting to deliver this to her. And it’s probably quicker to start at the beginning to answer your questions more fully.”
“My mother was a bard, and travelled with a band of companions not unlike what we have cultivated here at the estate. Among those companions was a rather brash barbarian from the northern isles by the name of Duncan. After a time, the group had amassed an impressive fortune and looked to retire from such dangerous work. They ended up establishing a town of their own using a charter Duncan had acquired from a local Barony. Duncan established a manor while some other surviving compatriots established other trades in town. For my mother, she founded an Inn; similar to the Dragon is some respects. She still sings on its stage.” Merrick looked off to the east in thought, smiling.
“Sorry, where was I? Right. well Lyssa was the result of a coupling between Duncan and an elusive Elven Enchantress.” His eyes rest upon the first portrait in the locket.
“It’s hard to say if she had passed away or vanished on her own, but Duncan was left alone to raise Lyssa. He had desperately wanted to pass on his battle prowess to his heir, but she took no interest in any martial study, instead focusing all her attention on Arcana.”
“I was born some time after all that, but it can be still said that we grew up together. What with her half-elven blood, her being a score of years my senior mattered less and less as we grew.” His eyes warmed at the recollection of his earlier childhood adventures; a rapid facial display of amusement, excitement, embarrassment, finally souring a bit as he continues.
“Eventually, strife with her father reached a breaking point, and she decided to get as far away from him as she could. I, ever being the diplomat, even at that age, tried to convince her to stay. Barring that, not to go alone. I was only 15 at the time. She wisely left without me.”
“When her father died but 9 months ago, he left no other heirs to his estate. So, I took it upon myself to find her. Not to try and bring her back, but I feel an obligation to let her know he’s finally dead.” Merrick paused a long while, staring at the sky.
Finally he says “Who is she to me… perhaps that is why I’ve not spoken of this till now. It is so hard to say. She is so many things to me. Playmate? Perhaps. Sister? perhaps in the way Al and Leon are brothers. Tutor? Friend? Rival? Lost love…” He trails off.
Bael considers the information carefully as the facts bloom fractal connections blossoming in many directions–some overlapping, others melding, still others reaching into the abyss. “The elder picture is her mother. Her father, this Duncan, wishes to harm her, control her, from beyond the grave? And you come to deliver the news–and to find her–to soften the blow. Answer your questions. End your quest. See her.” The glowing points in his mind’s eye align.
His gaze pierces. “It is not so heavy an obligation when hope makes steps light.” He nods slightly. “Ever in hope.” Bael’s steps stop suddenly. “Is this her locket?”
“Her father’s.” Merrick answers. “But with him gone, I suppose it’s hers now. I brought it with me to have a likeness of her to show in case I caught scent of her trail. Much better to show a portrait than me say ‘well, she’s about yeh high, dark red hair, alabaster skin, stunning as a glacial lake on a hot day, blah blah blah.” He tries to hide the blush of his cheeks when describing her.
Bael smiles knowingly. “I see,” he says. “I was asking for both practical and arcane reasons–should it have been a possession of hers, you could, perhaps, find someone to scry her and give you more direction. Some practitioners might be able to do something with the image itself, but none I know here have that power…yet.” He gestures back towards the path.
“A noble pursuit and if I can be of any service to help you achieve it, I would do so. I’ll bend my mind to it, should you ask it of me. But I wonder why come here–ten years ago, Hope’s Bastion would have been hardly anything and one would think those who forged it might be here still.”
He looks at Merrick. “Have you thought to ask Magnus or Captain Munroe, Cash or Nat? I don’t know if any of them number those who may have been here so many years ago?”
“I believe I had already asked Magnus on that first evening I arrived.” Merrick starts to chuckle. “Didn’t get much farther than that before Leon had introduced himself to me – and me to the group of our friends at the Last Chance. Then I was being handed a set of slightly-used magical armor and whisked away to a magical wizards tower to start slicing flesh-stitched monstrosities and *VAMPIRES*!”
He began laughing out loud at his own recollection of going from wandering stable boy to harden fighter within the span of a few days. “By the Gods, it’s no wonder I never thought to ask around. This place certainly has a way of distracting one from their charge.”
Bael’s smile widens as they walk. “Yes, indeed, it is often a trial by fire–one that you passed with flying colors and, if I recall, one that I was indebted to you as you protected the two lives that I hold most dear.” He pats Merrick’s shoulder, a thump of solid muscle and pauses.
“You know what they are to me, don’t you? I’ve never heard you question it, but I’ve also never heard it said. Just so. Again, no lies by omission and I would not wish for you to be in the dark, as it were.”
“Well, I would think it abundantly clear that you and Al are betrothed to each other. As to Leon, it doesn’t seem so cut and dry. But don’t feel like you need to lay bare the nature of all your relationships on my account. If you consider that lying by omission, then anything short of announcing your every thought though a bullhorn would qualify!” He starts to smirk, but something makes him utterly freeze in mid-stride.
A look of dawning horror spreads across his face.
“Oh for all the– we’ve been doing that very thing, haven’t we?! That blasted Naga has no doubt been scrying on the town since the delivery of those cursed baskets this morning!” Merrick spends a long moment silently cursing himself for not thinking of it sooner.
His hands cover his face as he grimaces, pulling on his hair in frustration.
“Grrrrrrrruh! Okay okay, he may know the minutia of the daily drama of the town. So I think it high time to get some personal dirt on *HIM* for a change. You remember that thing’s reaction to seeing the Rune that Sequoia gifted me? You may not have met her yourself, but do you think if we can give you enough info, you can dial in her location on the Gate?”
Bael’s eyebrow raise does little to reflect the extent of his curiosity. “Perhaps,” he says. “Although I would most likely say we should Gate to the estate so that I might consult my maps or to the Hub so we can attempt to triangulate the spot–I would rather *not* go gate-hopping based on insufficient maths. But I could get us close.” Bael says.
“But first, I believe I would like to utterly and completely destroy everything in that cart before I would let it within a league of the estate house.” He crossed his arms, considering.
“I can burn quite hot and, as I recall, that did somewhat against the nursery of jellies where this began. Any thoughts of how we might repeat the process to best effect?”
Merrick considers “Yes, fire did seem to work rather well on them. Would have to sift through all those baskets and open all the jars to get them all unless we can get a fire large and hot enou- waaaait a second.”
A rather devious grin spreads across his face.
He turns to Bael with a wry smile. “Do me a favor and put all these baskets out in the open in a clearing.” He heads over to the cart and un-hitches Bucky from it, hopping on his back as he turns to Bael over his shoulder
“I’m gonna go call in a favor from a certain drinking buddy who happens to breath fire!”
He gives the reins a snap and he’s off, galloping toward town at a clip.