The house seemed preternaturally quiet that afternoon. Miles was gone for the day, running some errands and scouting out the local yard sales. In spite of the beautiful spring weather, I had closed the doors and windows against the cacophony of birdsong, traffic noise, neighborhood lawnmowers, and the dull thud of sword and ax on shields as my Old Dwarf and my Bounty Hunter held weapons practice in the back yard for the amusement of my other characters.
I had hoped to take advantage of the peace and quiet of the empty house to work on the next chapter of Book Three, but I could not concentrate. A profusion of lilac bushes were in full bloom in the front and back yards. In spite of the closed windows, the heady fragrance permeated the entire house, making me drowsy. As I sat on the couch, I began to nod, and my mind began to drift.
Images crowded my befogged brain. Keys, heavy gold keys secured on an unbreakable ring…a tall, sinister figure in flowing black robes…an impregnable stone tower, devoid of door or window…and something else…
I tried to drag my mind back to consciousness, but ended up with the words of Poe tiptoeing through my mind – “…suddenly there came a tapping, As of some one gently rapping…”
No, wait. There was something tapping. I jolted fully awake. I cocked my head and listened. The tapping started again, this time louder and more persistent. It seemed to be coming from the guestroom. I rushed in to look. Something was outside the window. For a split second, I thought something had slipped out of Poe’s poem; but the black bird sitting on an overhanging branch of the ironwood tree, pecking at my window frame, was not a huge, imposing Raven but an undersized, bedraggled Common Grackle.
I went to the window and opened it. “Shoo! Stop pecking on the house! I don’t need it full of holes!”
The bird did not fly away. Instead, it slowly sidled along the branch, drawing closer to the window. It hunched over, almost appearing to bow to me. When it raised its head, I found myself looking into milky white eyes. My mouth went dry and my knees almost buckled.
The bird shifted on the branch, getting as close to the window screen as possible. He ruffled his feathers, shook his tail, and opened his beak. “Good morrow, accursed witch! How fare thee, these many long centuries?” he croaked.
The bird fixed me with his opalescent stare. “It gratifies me that you have not forgotten me,” it said in a voice not unlike fingernails on a chalkboard.
“How did you get here, Morcant?” I demanded.
“As you must know, cunning one, it is not I upon whom you gaze. I remain locked away in the same dark tower to which you condemned me.”
“So, how did your familiar get here?” I glared at the bird, a figure with whom I was well-acquainted.
“He followed the energy of a certain set of keys as they slipped from world to world, along magical conduits and enchanted paths,” the bird replied in Morcant’s voice.
“Well, he can just turn right around and follow those same magical conduits and enchanted paths directly back to your world, where he belongs!”
“Methinks not, beldame. He has followed the keys to your world, where, no doubt, you summoned them. Their magical signature has disappeared, but I am most certain you are still in possession of the keys. My familiar will not return without them.”
“Really?” I quirked an eyebrow and folded my arms in front of me. “I assure you, Morcant, the keys are, and will remain, out of reach of this pathetic creature.”
“Really?” Morcant’s voice echoed my own from the bird’s gaping beak. “Perchance my familiar can convince one of your retinue to retrieve them. To my mind, they should not be that difficult to persuade. Especially a certain Bounty Hunter, or an exceptionally greedy elf.”
“You’ve been spying on me,” I accused. “Well, it doesn’t matter, Morcant. The keys are out of reach of all and sundry. Now, recall your familiar before I feed it to my Dragon.” My eyes narrowed and I took a step toward the window.
The bird squawked, and hopped to the ostensible safety of a higher branch.
Morcant changed tacks. “Surely I have paid for my crimes. Have you no pity?” his familiar cried entreatingly. “It has been seven long centuries since I have felt the sun and the breeze upon my skin; seven long centuries since I have feasted my eyes on the outside world or heard the voice of another human, save through the eyes and ears of my familiar.”
“You’re breaking my heart, Morcant. Your punishment fit your crimes, and it has been a scant few years, not centuries, since you were exiled to the tower. And,” I reminded him, “it was not I who locked you away, it was the inhabitants of your world, those that remained after you rained down death and destruction on their villages and cities.”
“Years in your world, maybe, but many lifetimes in mine. And you were the one who created the locks, penned the incantation, and hid the keys,” he charged.
“I only recorded the events as they unfolded, Morcant.”
The grackle screeched in anguish. “Nay, crone! Had you not penned the vile words…”
The tirade broke off abruptly, as the grackle took wing. Below the window, my characters looked up at me.
“Did you call us, Mistress?” my Cleric asked.
“No,” I replied quickly. “I was…er…chasing a bird. It was pecking holes in the window frame.” I closed the window and lowered the blinds, ending the conversation.
I turned and collapsed onto the bed, as my rubbery legs could no longer support me. For long minutes I lay there, my heart racing, my palms sweaty, my mouth desert-dry. Finally, I pushed myself up and swung myself out of bed, nearly colliding with my Cleric.
“Mistress, what is the cause of such distress?” she asked, wide eyed.
I shook my head and placed my finger over my lip. I gestured for my Cleric to follow me. Once in the hallway, I whispered to her to wait there. I went into the master suite, unlocked a cedar chest and retrieved an antique document box, crafted of mirrorwood and decorated with fine marquetry in the form of runes and mystic symbols. I returned to my Cleric, motioning for her to remain quiet and follow me. The others were in the kitchen, preparing lunch, so we tip-toed down the stairs and entered the conference room, closing the door behind us. I placed the box on the table, and we sat down.
“That is the box I gave you some time ago,” my Cleric noted. “This must have something to do with the keys.”
I nodded. “When you gave me this box, you said that it could prevent magical detection of any object locked within it. However, before I secured the keys within the box, someone found their magical signature and followed them here.”
“Who, Mistress?” My Cleric’s eyes were as big as saucers, and she leaned forward in her chair, eager to learn more about this trio of keys.
“His name is Morcant. Actually, Morcant himself isn’t here, just his familiar.”
“His familiar? Then he is a magic user.” It was a statement, not a question. My Cleric is conversant in the ways of magicians.
I nodded. “Morcant was…is…an evil wizard,” I explained. “He is from another world – not this world, the real world, and not the world from which you come. I wrote about him some years ago. He was the most powerful wizard in his world, and probably the most evil person who ever existed there. He used his magic to kill and destroy, in an attempt to rule his world.”
“What happened to him?” my Cleric asked.
“He was tried in absentia by the judicial system in his world, and found guilty of atrocities too numerous to list. Their prescribed punishment was exile, but they did not know how to enforce the exile of a wizard. A coven of good witches put their minds to the task. It took them five years, but they finally devised a way to trap Morcant for all eternity.”
“They trapped him? How did they do that, Mistress?”
“One of the witches lured him into a tower with the promise of an artifact of enormous power. Once he was distracted by the object, she slipped out, closing the door behind her. The other witches rushed in to lock the tower. They had constructed three magical locks in the side of the tower, and crafted three magical keys. The three keys were inserted into the locks and turned at the exact same moment. The top and bottom keys were turned clockwise, while the middle key was turned counterclockwise. Once the keys were turned, Morcant was sealed inside the tower forever.”
My Cleric sat there, mouth agape, eyes almost popping out of her head. Finally, she declared, “That must be extremely powerful magic, Mistress.”
“It is,” I agreed somberly. “The tower itself is enchanted. No one can break into it by physical force, nor can Morcant break through the walls to free himself. He can not break through the floor to tunnel out of the tower. There is no physical means of escape.”
My Cleric gasped. “But what of the windows?”
“When the tower was sealed, the windows and doors disappeared, leaving only solid stone walls.”
“But that is a death sentence!” my Cleric objected. “There is no way to deliver food! He will starve to death!”
“He needs no food,” I explained. “He is not only trapped in that place, he is trapped in time. Yet, through his psychic connection to his familiar, who was not trapped with him, Morcant is aware of the passage of time outside the tower. He is also aware that his familiar has followed the magic energy of the keys and has discovered that the keys have somehow fallen into this world, and I now have them in my possession.”
“So the familiar desires to take the keys back and free his master?”
“That is his wish,” I agreed, “though the chances of him freeing Morcant, even if he had the keys, are very slim.”
“The locks and the keys are also enchanted,” I explained. “Each key has a unique bit that will only fit its own specific lock. If a key is inserted into the wrong lock, the lock will be destroyed. If the keys are not turned at the exact same moment, and in the proper directions, the locks will not unlock. And to insert all three keys into their respective locks at the same time, the keys must first be freed from the magic ring that holds them.” I unlocked the box, and took out the set of keys. “See? The ring is unbroken. It has no split anywhere in the metal, where the keys can be taken off the ring. On the ring, they can not be held far enough apart to reach the three locks all at the same time, nor can they be turned. And the ring is enchanted to be indestructible.”
“So why do you need to keep the keys hidden in the enchanted box?” my Cleric asked.
“As an added precaution,” I explained. “If magic could create these keys and their corresponding locks, perhaps greater magic…or pure, dumb luck…can defeat them. And Morcant can never be allowed to leave that tower. The consequences of that event, both to his world and to myself, whom he blames for his predicament, are too horrible to contemplate!”
My Cleric nodded her understanding.
“I will keep the keys locked in this box, and keep the box itself under lock and key in an undisclosed location. You may share with the others what I have told you, but I alone will know the location of the keys.”
“I understand, Mistress.”
We left the conference room, and started up the stairs.
“So, now…why don’t you tell me all about the visitors we had last week?” I gave my Cleric a sidelong glance as I reach past her to turn on the porch light. She was blushing bright red.