VISITORS IN THE NIGHT
Nestling deep within the protection offered by a ring of towering, snow-covered mountains known as The Gollmaas, the waters of Lake Vession shimmered under the light of a full moon. A myriad of brilliant stars filled the night sky, each adding their own measure of silver radiance to the glistening, frost-laden vista.
It was midwinter, a cold and unproductive time, where life stood in wearisome immobility, patiently awaiting the coming of spring. Leafless trees, their naked branches sharply highlighted with sparkling hoarfrost, stood around the shores of the vast lake. The trees rose into the steep foothills that bordered the lower slopes of the Gollmaas Mountains, somewhat softening the severity of the bleak rock. Nothing moved within the chilled night time scene save the ripples caused by a gentle breeze that wafted over the lakes’ scintillating waters.
Rising with great majesty from the centre of Lake Vession, and bordered by a narrow strip of flat island, stood a solitary, awe-inspiring mountain…Mount Oragil, the ancestral home of the venerated wizards of Endovaar, and the seat of all comprehensible wisdom, not to mention some rather ancient and incomprehensible knowledge. Here, encompassing the uppermost parts of the mountain, the ancient wizards of old had built what is unanimously regarded as the most impressive edifice in the world. Nothing constructed anywhere else on Endovaar ever came close to the circuitous rows of magnificent towers with their golden domes, or endless embankments of open-arched porticoes, allied with the dozens of immense flying buttresses that fastened the entire, seemingly impossible structure firmly to the mountaintop.
It was late evening and, other than the subdued light from tiny lamps that still shone from the occasional bedroom window, the whole structure stood in total darkness. A complete silence purveyed silence throughout the darkened corridors and cloisters that entwined their way throughout the citadel. Absolutely nothing, and no-one, stirred at this time of night. Which is why no-one in the huge citadel could possibly help but hear the sudden high pitched screech that breached the still night air?
The scream seemed to rise from the very soul of Mount Oragil. Then, just as the last heart stopping echoes faded into the night, the scream broke out again, only this time filled with more hysteria.
High on the upper levels of the citadel’s south-side, where the wizard masters and more important people slept, lamps were being hastily lit. Doors opened along both sides of a wide corridor, wizards, sorceresses, teachers, and various officials poured out of their private rooms and milled around the corridor in hushed confusion. Each of them dressed in their night attire, and all holding a variety of candles and lamps, they shivered in the chilly corridor and gazed around edgily for the source of the scream. No one knew quite what to make of such a disturbance. Never in living memory had such a thing happened to interrupt the peace of the mountain at night, and many of the wizards had lived for an extremely long time, retaining more or less perfect memories. However, not all of the wizards had maintained unblemished memories as they grew older. A few exceptionally ancient wizards now stood in the corridor, huddled in a small group and muttered in nervous senility about demons. Beside them several officials began to whisper urgently amongst themselves. However, because it was common practice to be distrustful when it came to the citadel officials, everyone else in the corridor ignored them.
‘Stand aside,’ the deeply irritated voice came from the rear of the corridor. ‘Stand aside I said, and let me through!’
The small crowd turned to see Master Voranil striding purposefully down the corridor. Master Voranil, the head of the wizards’ order, was a tall, lean man, with a flat face and small piercing grey eyes. Even wearing his pale blue nightshirt with its matching woolly hat and his brown carpet slippers there was a commanding presence about him, and the assembled crowd quickly moved to let him through.
‘What in the world is going on here?’ Master Voranil demanded angrily as he glared into each confused face in turn. ‘Who was responsible for that terrible scream, come on now, own up?’
There was a short pause as the assembled crowd looked round to see if anyone was going to admit responsibility. One of the officials muttered that it definitely wasn’t him, and several other people shook their heads, then…
‘Err…sir…that is…err; I’m afraid it was Milandra, sir.’
The timid-sounding voice came from a little farther down the corridor. Everyone turned to see a dishevelled head peering nervously from a doorway.
‘Amvaar!’ Master Voranil exclaimed with mild surprise. ‘I might have known you would be responsible. And you had better have a good explanation, I might add.’
‘I am really terribly sorry, sir,’ Amvaar replied sheepishly as he stepped with exaggerated caution into the corridor. He limped slightly when he moved, the result of a bad fall he had when he was a boy. He was wearing a long white nightshirt, which was far too big for his painfully thin frame. On his feet he wore a pair of threadbare socks, each one sporting a bare toe that poked out from the frayed wool as if they too were trying to see what all the fuss was about. Amvaar’s pale, gaunt face, with its long hooked nose, was framed by a lengthy mass of straggly, iron-grey hair, with a beard to match. His narrow, sunken, hazel eyes darted anxiously from Master Voranil to the door he had just come through.
‘Err, there was a, well, there was a mouse in our, err, our bedroom, sir,’ he explained weakly. ‘Milandra got such a fright. Scared me out of my wits too, I must say.’
‘What!’ Voranil exploded. Behind him the small crowd began to mutter indignantly about rodents. A few unnerved sorceresses, and two of the more ancient, and extremely deaf wizards, turned to face the wrong way and wondered who had spoken. Voranil moved purposefully down the corridor, his flat face dark with exasperation, the bobble on his woolly hat swinging menacingly from side to side. ‘Utter nonsense, Amvaar. There haven’t been any rodents in Mount Oragil for centuries. You of all people should know that.’
‘Oh, it was there, sir. I saw it myself,’ Amvaar replied, putting as much conviction into his high-pitched voice as he could. He slid a scrawny hand from one voluminous sleeve of his nightshirt and pointed towards his private rooms. ‘Have a look for yourself, sir. I think it ran behind a bookcase.’
Voranil suddenly looked hesitant. Tilting his head to one side, causing the bobble on his hat to swing languidly over his face, he stared warily at Amvaar. ‘Are you sure it was a mouse you saw?’
Amvaar nodded seriously, and began to tick things off on his fingers: ‘A small grey creature, with large ears, a long tail, and makes a squeaking sound? Yes, it was definitely a mouse. Can’t think of anything else that would fit that description, sir?’
For a long moment, Master Voranil was speechless. Mount Oragil had always been a clean and orderly place, where disease ridden pests, which caused the more common illnesses, were kept at bay. This was relatively easy to achieve; with the mountain, sitting on an island, in the middle of a vast lake, it did make it very difficult for vermin, such as mice, rats, cockroaches, and even unwanted humans, to gain access. There was, of course, the ferry down on the east side of the island. However, the ferry was checked for cleanliness at all times, and so too was any cargo it might ship to the island. So it seemed impossible for a mouse to have managed to get onto the island, let alone survive a climb of hundreds of feet, completely unnoticed, into the uppermost parts of the citadel?
‘Right, let me see what this is all about,’ Voranil said with an exasperated sigh. He brushed past Amvaar, and into his private rooms.
The main room in Amvaar’s apartment was actually quite large. However, there were so many bookcases crammed against every available piece of wall space, which in turn were fronted by towering piles of paper on the floor, the room looked positively tiny. Other than the plethora of bookcases, the room was furnished with nothing more than a pair of over-stuffed chairs, a shabby-looking desk, and a small round table. A variety of candles and small oil lamps gave off what light they could manage, creating as they did weird shadows between the books and piles of paper. On the desk stood an odd-looking metal tripod that clutched an apathetically glowing stone in curved metallic fingers. This, Amvaar had created in a vain attempt to add more light to the room.
Standing behind one of the threadbare chairs with her face buried in her hands, was the slender figure of Amvaar’s wife, Milandra. She was almost as tall as Amvaar and although she was older than his one hundred and seventy three years, she looked much younger; in fact Milandra only looked to be about forty. Master Voranil moved to her side and placed a gentle hand on her shoulder. She flinched at his touch, then moved her hands away from her tear-stained face and stared worriedly at Voranil.
‘Oh, sir, it was terrible. That, that horrible thing, it ran right across our bed covers, right in front of my very eyes.’
By now the crowd in the hall had moved closer to the door, and were jostling with each other to get a better view of the small scene. Without looking, and most likely without giving it a single thought, Amvaar absently closed the door, bruising several innocent fingers in the process. There was a series of muffled yelps from the other side of the door, followed by a few muted expletives concerning Amvaar’s parentage, which in turn were shortly succeeded by the sound of shuffling feet disappearing up the corridor. Amvaar gave the door a quizzical look, shrugged his thin shoulders, then turned to Milandra and patted her hand.
‘It’s okay now, my love. Master Voranil is here to help us,’ he said. Turning to his Master, he looked hopefully into the other man’s small, narrow grey eyes. ‘You will get rid of it, won’t you, sir?’
Master Voranil’s flat face turned a deep shade of red. ‘I am the head of this order, man, not a damned rat-catcher!’
‘It’s a mouse, sir…’
‘I don’t care if it’s a damned horse!’ Voranil’s face was darkening to an ugly purple colour, and small veins began to stick out across his forehead. ‘You’ll need to get rid of the thing on your own.’
‘Please calm down, sir,’ Amvaar said feebly. ‘There’s no need for you to get all worked up about it.’
‘No need?’ Voranil spluttered, and a few more veins appeared, joining the others. ‘An unearthly scream wakes me from a sleep, and I find someone has let a filthy rodent into the citadel. Then you,’ he pointed directly at Amvaar’s hooked nose, which quivered in response, ‘you have the audacity to ask me to get rid of the thing. No sir, it was obviously you who let the creature into your rooms in the first place, so it is down to you to get rid of it. Report to my study first thing in the morning,’ Voranil moved towards the door and placed his hand on the handle. ‘And make sure you get that rodent out of here. I’ll be calling for a full account on the cleanliness of the entire citadel, so your rooms had better be vermin-free.’
With that Master Voranil stalked out of the room and slammed the door behind him. Shaking in his threadbare socks, Amvaar turned to his wife. ‘Oh dear, I think he’s a bit upset.’
Amvaar’s antics had suddenly so incensed Milandra that for a long moment she could not speak, instead she hit him.
‘What was that for?’ Amvaar asked, shocked as he rubbed at his shoulder.
‘You!’ she snarled. ‘You made me look a fool in front of Master Voranil.’
Amvaar raised a fragile-looking finger and a look of triumph crossed his thin face. ‘Ah, but you were the one who screamed the place down, all because of a mouse.’
Milandra hit his shoulder a second time. ‘And you were the one who hid in the wardrobe in case it came near you. Some man you are. You can’t even protect your own wife from something as small as a mouse.’
Amvaar looked suitably chastised. ‘Err, yes. Well, I got a fright as well, you know. Just a natural reaction, and all that, you know.’
Milandra’s face softened slightly. It was common knowledge that any kind of excitement was strictly off Amvaar’s curriculum. He was a gentle man of simple means, a teaching wizard, who had not left the confines of Mount Oragil for well over one hundred years. Her wide amber eyes flashed warmly as her lips formed a sensitive smile. ‘I know, and I’m sorry, Amvaar. But listen, we need to find that thing and get rid of it before the morning.’
‘Pity we don’t have a cat.’
Milandra shrugged her graceful shoulders and sighed deeply.
‘Master Voranil would probably tell us it was a rodent, or something. You know what he’s like about certain animals.’
‘He has Scorb and Scorb hunts rodents in the wild. Perhaps he would lend him to us till tomorrow morning.’
‘What, that bad tempered thing? Don’t be stupid, Amvaar. Besides, Scorb is a huge golden eagle, how would such a big bird manage to get behind those bookcases and extract a mouse? Anyway, there’s no way Master Voranil would lend Scorb to us.’
Amvaar looked dejected. ‘No, I suppose you are right. Why don’t we have a familiar, Milandra? They are handy after all?’
‘You know why,’ Milandra shook her head and pushed her long blond hair irritably away from her face. ‘Animals are messy, they smell, and need looking after. We don’t have time for any of that.’
‘A cat looks after itself,’ Amvaar answered in hopeful defence.
‘No, and that’s final. Now, are you going to find that mouse, or do I have to scream the place down again?’
Amvaar’s thin shoulders drooped and his hands began to tremble. ‘Okay, but if it bites me, I’m blaming you.’
Moving cautiously, he made his way to the window, absently picking a heavy book from the nearest shelf as he went. Holding his newly acquired weapon at arms length he crouched and peered behind the bookcase. There was a narrow, dark void between the case and the wall just big enough to slide his thin arm into. But Amvaar had no intention of doing anything so stupid; not, at least, when there was the chance of being bitten by something small and furry.
‘Could you pass me a lamp, or a candle please, Milandra, I can’t see a thing behind here.’
Milandra handed him a small oil lamp and he moved it carefully towards the rear of the bookcase. With a sharp yelp he fell backwards and the mouse scurried out from behind the bookcase, over his leg, and across the floor. Somehow, and he never worked out how, he managed to keep hold of the lamp, and at least most of his senses. The book, however, flew out of his other hand, and it landed on the floor with a dull thud. Milandra, by now, was standing on one of the chairs holding the hem of her nightgown up to her knees, muttering inanely to herself, and trying desperately not to scream.
Picking himself up, Amvaar limped closer to where the book had landed on the floor. He gazed around, half expecting to see the mouse scuttle across the floor. His gaze fell on the book, and he realised it was not lying absolutely flat. Grabbing a ruler from his desk he poked it beneath the book, prizing it upwards. The mouse could not have been more dead if it tried; in fact it was now less than a quarter of its original height. Amvaar picked up the book and looked at the cover in amazement.
‘Oh, I say, “Magic, and how to tame the beast”’ he read the title out loud. ‘How appropriate!’
‘Is it dead?’ Milandra asked in a small voice as she tried not to look at the unfortunate little corpse on the floor.
‘What, the book? Err…Oh yes, I see what you mean.’ Amvaar looked down at the flattened mouse. ‘Well if it’s not dead, at least it won’t have any trouble getting under doorways from now on.’
‘Then throw it out of the window, and let’s get back to bed, I’m freezing.’
Amvaar grinned wickedly. ‘Anything you say, my dear.’ He carefully scooped up the mouse with a thick sheet of paper and moved to the window, all the time muttering that he had done it, he had actually done it, and tomorrow morning he could report that all was well, and that things could go back to normal!
Once again Mount Oragil fell into silence and one after another the lights that shone dimly from the various windows went out, leaving the immense citadel in total darkness. Only the silver light from the moon and stars was left to play across the frosty rooftops, and even the breeze that had earlier wafted across the lake had eased. It was deepest night and the entire area within the vast ring of the Gollmaas Mountains lay in consummate frozen tranquillity, nothing stirred, not even a mouse.
The night wore on and the moon sailed across the night sky in its usual leisurely way till it dipped behind the westernmost side of the circular mountain range. It would be another two hours before the sun began to show its-self on the eastern skyline, and with the disappearance of the moon the stars alone were finding it hard to illuminate the citadel properly. And so it would have taken someone with very keen eyesight to spot anything untoward moving along the narrow shores of the island. It would have been almost impossible to pinpoint any small, dark and sinister figure creeping up the steep winding road that led to the citadels’ main entrance. And definitely no one could possibly have detected whether the main doors had opened ever so slightly.
The citadel lay in the tranquil slumber of innocents. Wizards dreamed of catching mice, while sorceresses had gentle nocturnal visions of cute, yet unattainable familiars; pupils and teachers alike had sleepy fantasies involving voluptuous matrons, and officials had their usual nightmares over the disbursement of citadel matters. Indeed, hundreds of blissfully sleeping people were all virtuously unaware that their sanctified home was about to be violated by yet another vile and insidious pest!
It was not until the sun began to adorn the eastern sky with its magnificent golden rays that yet another scream split the delicate silence surrounding Lake Vession. This, though, was a different kind of scream; this was a scream filled with abject horror. It went on and on, repeating over and over. The screaming this time came, not from the upper levels, but instead from the basement, just inside the main entrance. The screaming went on even as the hurried sounds of booted feet thundered down the stone stairway.
As three of the citadel’s elderly cooks breathlessly reached the bottom of the long spiral stairway, they came face to face with a pair of frenzied cleaners. Both women were screaming hysterically and waving their arms vaguely towards a dark corner near one of the huge double entrance doors. When the women saw the three cooks appear, they screeched even louder, grabbed at their skirts, and raced hurriedly towards the stairs and out of sight.
Baffled by the severity of the screams, and the strange behaviour of the two women, the three cooks stood in stunned silence for a few moments. Flour drifted from their white aprons and settled on the stone floor in a fine imitation of the ground frost that lay outside the open doors. Timidly; because all three of the elderly cooks had already heard wild rumours about the mouse incident, they edged closer to the area of dark shadow behind the thick wooden door, where the two cleaners had been pointing. Strange, they all thought, that the main doors should be open at this early hour? Perhaps the cleaners had been taking the early morning air before starting work.
‘Ere’ what’s that smell?’ said one of the cooks. He sniffed the frigid air. ‘Smells like burned offal, to me.’
‘Yeah,’ agreed a second cook, ‘something does smell awful.’
‘No, no. Not awful…I said offal,’ the first cook said irritably. ‘You know, the stuff we cook from time to time.’
A look of gradual comprehension crossed the face of the second cook. He delicately sniffed at the air. ‘Oh yes, you’re right, you know.’
The sounds of retching interrupted him as the third cook threw up what had once been a lavish and delicately prepared breakfast. Being a little more inquisitive and slightly more adventurous than the other two, the third cook had ambled over to the dark corner behind the huge door, and now wished he had stayed in his kitchen. He backed away, his face now as white as the flour that garnished his apron, his mouth open in a slack, slobbering disarray of incomprehensibility. He pointed speechlessly with a quivering finger towards the shadows, managing only to make a set of strange nasal sounds.
‘Kervaal?’ Said the first cook and moved closer to the darkened area. ‘What is it? Oh my!’ He too retched, and wasted yet another flamboyant breakfast.
The remaining cook, wishing ever so fervently to keep his own breakfast exactly where it was, edged nervously back a few steps and tried not to look at the two gagging, pale-faced men, or the mess they had made on the floor, after all, that was no way to treat a perfectly prepared meal, what a waste!
‘Tell me it’s nothing bad?’ He said unsteadily.
‘Mmmff…Gnngah…mmmff,’ chocked the cook named Kervaal. His face was now blotched in strange hues of green and white. Pure horror had widened his eyes till they looked ready to burst in their sockets. Yet, somehow he managed to find his voice, albeit now in much more muffled and asphyxiated tones. ‘It’s mmmff, it’s really bad!’
The other cook, who had also turned a rather underdone shade of puce, slid to the floor in a dead faint.
‘Then, well err, I think I should go and find someone to help,’ replied the only one of the three who still retained any form of coherence, skin colour and breakfast. He shifted edgily towards the spiral stairway, all the time trying not to look at anything in particular. With one foot already on the first step he suddenly bolted upwards, only to be bowled off his feet by several wizards, who were descending the stairs at an even greater speed to see what was going on.
‘Is the whole citadel going insane?’ Master Voranil boomed, as he extricated himself from a complicated tangle of legs and arms. ‘What’s going on down here?’
‘Mmmff, gnngah…’ muttered Kervaal, and pointed feebly towards the deep shadows. He threw up again and then ran for the stairs in a confused mixture of horror and embarrassment.
‘Must be his cooking,’ said someone standing to the rear of the small crowd that had now managed to disentangle themselves.
‘What’s that awful burning smell?’ another enquiring voice gasped from the rear of the crowd.
‘Like I said, it’s his cooking…’
‘Shut up! There’s something there, behind the door,’ Master Voranil pointed out. A sudden feeling of apprehension came over him as he carefully walked towards the shadows. Nervously grabbing the huge door with one hand, he swung it to one side.
There was an instant cacophony of gasps, chocking and retching, as the light from several hand-held oil lamps revealed a man laying on his back on the stone flags. At least everyone assumed it had once been a man. The gruesome thing that lay before them held a vague resemblance to a human, in that it definitely had a head, two legs and arms, and a torso…but the torso was inside-out and what had once been the man’s precious innards were now piled in a corner, in a blackened, smoking heap.
Master Voranil jumped back at the grizzly sight, but to give him his due he at least managed to keep his breakfast down. Still, his face went through several well-animated stages, starting with disbelief, before going on to incredulity, shock, and finally horror.
‘It looks like old Traamun, the ferryman!’ Voranil whispered more to himself than to anyone in particular. Taking a deep breath to prevent having to inhale the stench of burned innards at such close quarters, he knelt beside the dead man and studied his face.
‘Yes, it’s definitely him,’ Voranil looked towards the old man’s devastated body and passed one hand just above the blackened remains, whilst concentrating briefly on a simple examination spell. ‘I don’t believe this!’ He muttered again to himself and shook his head in disbelief. Just to make sure that there was no mistake, he passed the spell over the ravaged body one more time. Master Voranil stood up slowly, his mind working overtime as it tried to make sense of the facts before him. Facing the shocked and nauseated-looking crowd, he spoke in a low, unnerved voice…
‘Magic! Someone has used magic to kill old Traamun.
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