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The next morning....
"Trina! You lied!"
"Ah, my dear Rahia! I never said my keys would actually open the locked doors. You should read the fine print in our agreement. My keys only work in your private room!"
"But the doors.. the passages!" I knew as I said this that I was in a losing battle. She had sunk my battleship! I also knew that eventually one of her keys would open a door somewhere. I narrowed my eyes and said, "So, how many shards today?"
There are things that come over time and things we want to rush. We want to open every thing quickly but does that do us more harm than good? Are we so fixated on what we have that we don't realize what we could lose? Is this something that the Castle is trying to teach us through Trina? Nah, couldn't be! The Castle isn't some massive form of AI, it's just a castle. Right?!?! It's just a Castle!
The Man in the Cheap Suit
I strolled out of of Trina's shop, feeling just a little bit dirtier than when I walked in and stopped short. There leaning against the wall of the Belfry was a man in the most ridiculous suit I had ever seen. His hair was a wavy brown and his eyes burned blue like the hottest flames. He didn't look up as he waved me over. I don't know if it was something about how he leaned against the stones as if he owned the place or if it was the soft smirk on his lips that made me move. I just knew that before I blinked I was standing before him.
"So you are Rahia, huh? You don't look like much. I hear you are sneaking about the Castle trying to find hidden passages," he had a slow lazy drawl as he shook the coat of his brown suit.
"I'm just curious is all."
"Right, well maybe I can help you with that. Of course nothing is free in this world so I need a little help in return," he said as he pulled a card from his pocket, "You'll just need to find the items on this list and perhaps I can help you out."
"Perhaps! That isn't much motivation for me."
"No, I guess not but what are your alternatives?"
"Fine," I agreed, taking the card, "What's your name and how do I contact you?"
"The name is John and I'll contact you."
"Do you have a last name, John?"
"It's Just John," he said with a pleasant smile that made him look more like a cherub than a man.
"Okay, Just John!"
He nodded and walked off towards the Castle Vicinity. I thought about following for 2 seconds before I flipped the card over and read the list.
Plain Stamp, Links of Steel, Rare Food, Subdued Mind
I wondered what any one would want with a Subdued Mind, that was illegal or so I heard. However, if he could help opening passages who was I to judge? I had a new mission and luckily I had most of what he needed in my backpack. I just had to go see the Blacksmith, hopefully he would be awake!
The airship let me off at Cloud City at the Commercial District so I popped in to Power Mill to see if I could get another Blinding Disc. Those always come in handy when you need to redirect someone's line of sight. However, as luck would have it they were out so I picked up an extra Angel's Song instead. I decided to pass by the Book-Lover's Shop as they never had anything good for reading in and made my way into the Craftsman District. Unfortunately, the Blacksmith was once again snoring away at his anvil so I decided to help myself. I made the Subdued Mind and snagged a Whims of Fate on my way out of the door. I don't even know how he stays in business nor do I get how the Gnome Kitchen stays in business. Okay, at least the Blacksmith is a Gnome but the Chef for the Gnome Kitchen is a raccoon! He isn't a bad chef, just a well, the butter is always burnt when it should be nutty and he IS A RACCOON!! I can't explain the Castle, no one can!
I made my way to the Rune Garden as I wanted to make sure I drew all the Runes exactly as they appear. The Gnome in the Flying Boat caught me as I was sitting on the statue on the Gnome King. They really don't like that! He glared and starting yelling. Hey was it my fault their King turned to stone? No! They really do act like it! What can a girl do? I moved down closer to Mountain Heart, picking up a stray Lava Drop along the way. I even found a Candy Cane! Uhg, Squirrel Tail flavor. I really hate those! I spit out the offending piece of candy and decide to make my way home for the day. There isn't much to do when passages don't open themselves!
I sat in my overstuffed chair, threw the white teddy bear that occupied it before me across the room and opened the Book of Shadows. I don't know if I was hoping to find a spell or just a footnote about how to open the hidden passages, the only thing I do know is that it put me to sleep. I woke to a crashing sound and found Elle, my Snow Fairy, chasing Gnolio, my Christmas Gnome, around the tree.
"He pulled my wings, trying to take the snow sparkles for himself! He is a greedy, greedy gnome," Elle whined, flapping her wings in anger.
"It's pretty! I can't resist the pretty sparkled. You know this Rahia," Gnolio sniffed. I figured he must have also gotten into 'Kins, my pet pumpkin, seed patch. Gnolio is highly allergic to pumpkin seeds.
"Take it outside. You two have to settle things on your own. I may feed you and give you a roof but you have to get along inside the house!"
"Whatever," they both shouted like two teenagers instead of mythical beings thousands of years old.
It's not easy taking care of all I take care of. I pull Johns card out of my pocket and stuff the card along with the items into a pink box I found three days ago. I don't really like pink but it's the only box I had. I was just finishing when there was a knock at my door. The knob turned and in walked John, still wearing that ridiculous suit.
"Hope you don't mind but I really need those items. You are pretty fast! Maybe I should make it harder next time," he said flopping down into my one and only chair.
"You know most people wait to come in!"
"Most do, I don't. You have the items, right?"
"Good, good," he said, smiling but I noticed the smile did not reach his eyes. It was in this moment that I knew I had been had, again!
"You aren't going to tell me anything are you? You aren't even going to help me?"
"Dear Rahia, I have been helping you since you came to the Castle. I've been sending you things you needed and giving you small clues along the way. If you have been too blind to see them it is not my fault but your own," he answered while sweeping up the box of goodies and striding towards the door, "Open your eyes or you'll never be able to see what is right in front of you."
"What does that even mean?"
John didn't answer but instead walked out of the door and into the black of the moonless night sky.
I sat down hard on the wooden floor boards, so hard I think I heard something crack but I didn't care. I just felt hollow! Was I looking in the wrong places? Is someone trying to prevent me from finding all of the hidden passages? Is the answer really right in front of me?
I looked down, seeing a Runestone fading right in front of my eyes. That's it! The runes! If I could gather all of the runes in the Castle and put them together! Wait, this seems familiar! I had to gather together several runes in order to open up the Mystery Chamber when I first got here. It can't be another rune key, could it? Well it never hurt to try! It's with a new resolve that I pick myself up off the floor and quickly realize that I have bruised my backside. Well another mark won't hurt and I'll hunt down all of those rune stones, even if it kills me! Besides, how many runes could this place possibly hold? Is that Lord Chamberlain's laughter I hear again? Am I going insane? Is that what this Castle does? Does it drive you insane? Sane or insane, I will find the answers!
I had resolved to find all the Rune stones but tonight my heart wasn't in it. Maybe, it was my mind. I really can't be sure. I fumbled with my backpack and realized I was short 378 diamonds. Where did they go? I know I had 1600 something when I started the day, give or take 2 or 3. I was now down to 1200 something. Did the gnome in the Flying Boat nick a few when I wasn't looking? I tried to remember but all I could think was John, Just John! I had been conned when I wasn't looking he had plucked some from my backpack! I needed those diamonds! How else could I bribe Lord Chamberlain or even the Keeper of the Castle to look the other way while I poked about? I was starting to get a fierce headache, tiny little needles were drilling into my brain. My room felt small and the walls were closing in! I ran out into the cool night air, taking stinging gulps of the cold night air. It just wasn't helping. I ran and ran until I found myself in front of the Tavern. I knew I was about to make another mistake when I pushed open the door and saw the Iron Knight at the dice table!
"Shall we play, Rahia?"
"Sure," I sighed sinking down on the offered chair and waving to the Innkeeper. I knew he would bring over my Pear cider quickly. It's better than the Apple cider, really. I mean have you seen the Bar Counter?
We played three rolls and each time I knew he was cheating. I'd roll a 2, he'd get a three and so on. I just couldn't bring myself to care. I finished off nearly 6 ciders when I heard a voice yelling across the Taven.
"Rahia! Is that you? Imagine seeing you here! I thought you gave up Castle exploration ages ago!"
I looked up to see the last person I wanted to see tonight.., "Dal, how have you been?"
"Fantastic! This is Nimie," the tall auburn hair girl explained, pointing to a slim and rather short girl with black wavy hair.
"Hi," came a whispered response from Nimie. I think she felt as much as I did, that any where was better than here.
"So," Dal said, bouncing around, "What trouble can we get up to tonight?"
"I'd rather not get into any! I've had a really bad couple of days and.."
"Blah, blah, blah," Dal cut in to my explanation. What can you expect from Dal? She isn't shy, rather outgoing and one of the best traders I knew. "You have the look of someone who lost the world, Rahia."
"Only 378 diamonds."
"Ah, is that all? I lost 200,000 on the Wheel of Fortune the other day. I was chasing three beautiful pet eggs! Do you know what those go for on the Black Market now?"
I could tell she was laughing at me on the inside. This was the girl who gave diamonds out like candy. She never kept more than 3 on hand and I was bemoaning the fact I had lost over 378 when she had already spent 500 on the open Market.
"I've heard. It seems there was a rise after the egg crisis. Wait! Did you say 200k? I didn't know you had that much?"
"Eh, a girl greases a little palms here, catches several Blood Lotuses there and boom! I'm in the gold!"
I saw Nimie roll her eyes and I just had to smile. I may be meeting an old friend that I wish I could forget but the other looked like a promising new friend.
"Well, you always did have a way with gold and items."
"Yes, plus now I have Nimie to help me out. She is in and out in a flash. Just tell me who took the diamonds and we can have them back quick! Right, Nime?"
"Sure," Nimie sighed. Dal has such a strong personality that you just can't say no to, which is why I had to part ways with her all those years ago.
"Well, it was John. Just John!" I had never the Tavern so silent. you couldn't even hear the mouse that hides under the Bar Counter. "Did I say something wrong?"
"J..J...John," Nimie stuttered, "No, I can't help there. He sends me Snowflakes and Unique Stamps. I can't."
"It's the same with me, Nim but Rahia is a friend. I bet she is on to something major in the Castle or she'd still be tucked away over in.. where was it?"
"No where," I said, "Don't worry about it. It's just diamonds but why does that name have every one spooked."
"You don't mess with John," Dal said, flipping a coin between her fingers, "If he offers you a deal, you run the other way. Fast!"
I sat back in my chair, the air completely gone from my lungs. He said he helped but was he lying. I knew something was off about him but was he good or bad?
"Y..yes," Nimie nodded, "I've pulled a lot of jobs for him. He is someone you don't cross. I've seen..I, no. It's best no speak of it."
"Speak of what?"
"Things that go bump in the Castle, of course," Dal said, "I'm sure you've noticed the lights in shadows."
"Yes, I've actually been looking in to that."
"I wouldn't if I were you," Nimie said, moving her chair closer to mine, "People go missing here all the time. Do you ever wonder why?"
Nimie nodded at my question and my resolved weakened.
"He can't be that bad, can he?"
"Well," Dal whispered, "rumors are that he has even Lord Chamberlain under his thumb. You could ask the Keeper of Wishes but she hasn't been seen for awhile. Have you ever wondered what happened to her after she vanished behind the Source Gate?"
"Well, yes, of course I have wondered but surely he wouldn't."
"He might," Nimie muttered into her cup, "Just talking about him sometimes brings down his wrath. He's all cherubic smiles until you start poking around into his business."
"I think we should move this conversation away from listening ears," Dal said pushing her chair out, "I'll settle with the Innkeeper and meet you both outside."
I leaned against the building waiting for Dal, watching NImie pace. I wondered what I had gotten myself in to. I had kept my nose clean for almost a year and now I was giving shards to Trina for keys that may or may not work. I had done a request for John without hesitating. It figures! I could never go long before finding trouble. I always thought it was Dals influence but I guess it was just me.
"A Bloodred Moon for your thoughts," Dal said as she came out of the Tavern.
"I was just going over the past few days," I replied with a shrug.
"Hm, so know any where private we could talk," Dal asked looking quickly at Nimie.
"Sure, the Pond of Life should be empty this time of night."
"Lead the way," Dal said and with that I should have known what was coming.
I entered the Pond of Life at least two steps ahead of them but the blinding pain I felt on the back of my head still took me by surprise. I slumped to the ground with a meek little groan.
"Sorry, Rahia," I heard Dal say as if from a long distance, "You just can't ask all those questions!"
"Ow, my head! Dal! Nimie," I yelled into the morning air. I saw my backpack laying on the ground next to me and knew by the look of it every thing had been taken. I slowly sat up and touched the back of my head, feeling the nice fat bump that already formed. My day had gone from bad to worse. I reached for my backpack and realized they had missed a few Snowflakes. I had something cold for my head, at least.
"Rahia!" The scream nearly made me jump!
"Elle, what are you doing here?"
"Gnolio and I followed you when you left last night. We couldn't lift you so we got the whole gang together and followed the two women who did this to you. We have, I think, most of your things back at the house!"
"I'm giving you extra food, tonight!"
I beamed at the Snow Fairy. It seems she isn't as useless as I first thought she was. She only seems to bring back rusty chests but to recover my things from those two!
"Elle, what did you do with Dal and Nimie," I asked, slightly afraid.
"Oh, we locked them in the Warden's Hut," Elle said with a giggle, "That's where we caught up with them."
I looked around my menagerie of pets and smiled. Who needed old friends or new friends, when I have these guys looking out for me.
"Hoo, hooo," Owlsly had to put his two cents in.
"Indeed. Who, who. Let's go home, my head is really hurting!"
I was still determined to look into those Runestones. Why would John give me the answer only to send those two after me? It didn't make any sense! Was it all hot air from Dal and Nimie or was John just diverting my attention? Was I being sent on a wild goose chase? OUCH! All of these questions are really making this head pounding worse. I think I'll just go home, light a Ritual Candle and take a Vivacity Potion. I'll worry about the rest tomorrow.
The Runic Path
I woke the next morning to a very sore head and determined to find all the Runes I could gather together. I hid most of my belongs in an old chest in my room. I didn't want to lose my work again. After repacking my backpack with the essentials I head out to the Tavern. I need to get my game of dice in before I start poking around and I need to send the airship, I mean sleigh off before it decided to leave without giving me a bit of gold.
I hit the sleigh first and watch the lights spiral to the top of tree. I'll just never get used to that! My next stop was the Tavern and sure enough the Iron Knight was waiting. He grinned, rubbing his hands together. I knew I was going to lose the 450 gold coins I had just made off of the airship/sleigh. Sure enough, three rounds later the Iron Knight was grinning from ear to ear and jingling his pouch in face. I waved him off and started my search. The Innkeeper didn't pay me much mind as I said I'd clean up the Game Table and Bar Counter for him. I didn't turn up much at the Game Table but at the Bar Counter I found a Rune of Cruelty. I may not have much luck at dice but I can find almost any thing, except where I set my glasses. It's been a week and I still haven't found them. It's hard finding things when you can barely see and everything looks like a giant fuzz ball.
I exit the Tavern after having a Pear Cider, those things are addictive, and head for the Castle Vicinity. I rummage around the Crypt but only find a Harpy Feather and an uneaten apple. The Broken Carriage grants me a Rune Stone while the mouse tries to take a bite out of my wheel of cheese. They really should do something about this rodent problem. Perhaps invest in a few cats?!?! I stop by the Gnome Road Sign and find a Stone of Peace along with some Runes etched into the sign itself. I jot those down in my notebook and head off to the Castle Gates. I come up empty in the Belfry but I do find some Rune etchings at the Broken Well. They are carved into the stones and barely recognizable but I jot them down. The Rock Garden yields a Grave Blade and if it wasn't for the Rune etchings I would craft it into a Knife of Peril. The Keeper of the Castle stops me in the Castle Entry but I just tell him I'm helping with some cleaning and he lets me pass quickly. I do take a small moment to pretend like I'm dusting the Stone Gargoyle to jot the down the Rune etchings around the inset.