Meridell was much as Harker had expected it to be – warm, sunny, grassy and green. It didn’t particularly suit his purposes for it to be so sunny and warm, as he had banked on keeping his identity mostly unknown, under his dark hooded cloak with his scarf wrapped around his face.
He had only been in Meridell for about ten minutes before he started to sweat and itch under the thick layers of clothing, and knew it was unfeasible that he would be able to get around unnoticed in such ill-suited attire. He shed his cloak and woollens and instead opted for a plain brown tunic of light material, as he had seen several passing farmers dressed in. He wore a large straw hat, pulled down to cover as much of his face as it could. He rubbed some dry dirt on his arms and legs to dull his vibrant golden colouring and carried a rough hessian sack slung over his shoulder as if he were heading down to the markets to trade. The sack was of course empty, but nobody could tell that just by looking at him.
He and Aren had spoken at length the previous day in his library. He had told the Lutari all about the book – the only surviving copy of the blueprint of Dr. Sloth’s infamous time machine, lost many years ago during the war – and how he had been attempting to recreate the device himself. The machine itself was complete – in principle. Building it hadn’t been particularly difficult – if you were clever, like Harker happened to be. But Dr. Sloth had implemented a dangerous idea of his own – the device required a living mind to inhabit it in order for it to function. Harker had never attempted to upload his own consciousness to the machine in the fear that if he got it wrong, he would likely cease to exist and the machine might fall into the wrong hands thereafter.
Therefore the gadget had remained hidden in the safe in the wall of his library, removed only when Harker felt the whim take him, and was always returned shortly afterwards. It had been one of the heavy burdens on Harker’s mind for many years – one that he thought might finally have become too heavy to bear alone.
It had been somewhat of a relief to confess all of this to Aren, who patiently listened as he pulled at the threads of his erratic memories. He had always been so controlled, so measured, that the Lutari found himself wondering for the first time what possible darknesses lived within his master’s mind. He had always had his secrets – and Aren suspected strongly that he always would.
They had agreed on the main fact of the situation – the book must be recovered, at any cost. A blueprint of a working time machine could be dangerous in the wrong hands – and they both knew that Jorge's were certainly not the right ones. What he had planned with the book they had no clue, but Harker had a nasty suspicion that his mysterious cellmate – the only one Jorge had ever seemed like – had something to do with it.
Together they searched the entirety of Aren’s house in the vain hope that his brother might have hidden it somewhere inside – to no avail. It was nearing eight o’clock in the evening before they gave up the search and returned to Harker’s mansion for a late supper, and to plan their next move.
Harker had suggested that their only real course of action now would be to travel to Meridell and confront Jorge himself. Aren had agreed and obliged the Krawk’s expressed wish of him remaining in Neovia at the mansion, to keep the house safe in his absence and to look after his pet Kadoatie. He also wanted Aren to be prepared in case his nosy neighbour Henry came snooping.
Harker had made his travel preparations shortly thereafter, and had arrived in Meridell at the earliest possible chance.
Harker now found himself on his way to the Meridell Dungeons, far below the Castle of King Skarl. He passed the King’ treasurer – tossing large silver coins into the air with a toothy grin – and several magicians gathered around a bubbling beaker. One particularly handsome Lupe – an apprentice judging by his youthful looks – leaned too close to the beaker and inhaled some of the steam up his nose, which promptly grew treble its ordinary size. The Lupe gave a loud shriek and the red Draik beside him hooted with laughter, nearly knocking over the beaker in his amusement. Their teachers – one Zafara that Harker vaguely recognised as the potion-maker called Kayla, and the other a yellow Aisha – simultaneously gave their apprentices each a hefty whack on the upside of their heads.
He turned away from the spectacle and headed past the gameplay area for the favoured Invasion of Meridell (Harker himself had completed all of the missions in under one week, several years ago) and down the first flight of steps towards the dungeons.
Although he seldom left his mansion of late, Harker was well accustomed to having free roam of Neovia as he pleased. He had been allowed access (with a protective escort) into the closed Meepit Oaks Sanatorium when it was strictly off-limits to all civilians. He had – in his younger years – enjoyed visiting the travelling gypsy camps that oft passed through the town, and he had been the first Neovian since the reopening of Neovia to be offered mayorship of the town. He had turned the offer down of course, but he had still been the first choice.
It was therefore somewhat of a surprise to Harker when the guard leaning against the barred door to the main cellblock refused him entry, under any and all circumstances. The Krawk was so taken aback by this unexpected bump in the road that he yanked his straw hat off his head in annoyance and asked the guard brusquely if he knew who he was speaking to.
The guard looked him up and down with an unimpressed look on his face. He saw a yellow Krawk covered in dirt holding an empty potato sack and a slight sunburn across the bridge of his pointed nose. He gave a noncommittal shrug and Harker ground his teeth together in frustration. Jamming his straw hat back on his head, he gave the guard one final glower before heading back up the steps towards the belly of Meridell Castle.
He hadn’t factored in the potentiality that he wouldn’t be allowed to visit prisoners in the Dungeons. He knew it was ordinarily possible – hadn’t Jorge complained in his letter that his family hardly visited him? Harker reasoned that it was likely due to the Lutari’s recent escapade itself that was the reason behind the tightened security, and he cursed his housekeeper’s brother all over again.
He was out of ideas, and knew he would soon start to draw attention to himself if he continued to loiter aimlessly inside the Castle for much longer. He was dressed like a peasant – it was only natural that they would treat him as one.
He was making his way back towards the entrance of the Castle – thinking desperately of his next ploy – when he momentarily stopped paying attention to where he was walking, and inadvertently smacked squarely into a courier, sending them both tumbling to the floor.
Harker apologised to the courier as he helped him back to his feet, and bent down to retrieve the bag of envelopes the Kacheek had dropped. He gave a sharp hiss of breath when he saw who one of the envelopes was addressed to, and gave a hearty cough to cover his reaction as he straightened back up with the bag and handed it back to the courier with another apology.
“Oh, it’s no trouble. I was in such a hurry, I wasn’t watching where I was going. I’m running so late this morning.”
A small lightbulb flickered in Harker’s head.
“Say, are you on your way to deliver to the Dungeons?” The courier nodded as he adjusted his bag strap on his shoulder. “I just came from that way myself. They aren’t letting anybody through.”
“No visitors, perhaps. But I have a royal decree from King Skarl himself. Couriers can go anywhere, so long as they have this.” He pulled a small, rolled piece of parchment from his pocket and showed it to the Krawk. “Even the Dungeons during a lockdown.”
“Well, I suppose it makes sense. Even prisoners need their daily mail.”
“Exactly! Nice meeting you.” The Kacheek gave Harker a friendly smile before continuing on his way.
Harker’s mind was working furiously as he made his way back towards the front of the castle, and his eye caught sight of the two apprentice magicians from earlier. The handsome Lupe was describing the contents of a small glass vial aloud, and the red Draik was scribbling notes on a piece of parchment. Their tutors seemed to be nowhere in sight, and Harker drifted towards the large wooden table where they had set up their equipment.
“Good morning,” he said softly as he approached. The Lupe raised an eyebrow at him and the Draik gave him a friendly smile.
“Good morning, farmer. What can we do for you?”
Yet again Harker had forgotten his garb, and glanced down at his dirt-smeared arms. He smiled back at the young boys to hide his disdain, showing the whiteness of his teeth.
“You look like skilled magicians, am I correct? It takes a powerful kind of person to be able to handle magic and to wield and bend it to their will. Are your services for hire, by any chance?”
The Lupe’s eyes gleamed and he opened his mouth to reply – and the red Draik promptly stomped on his foot.
“We’re not allowed to charge for our magic until we’re qualified. We’re only in training.”
“We’re nearly qualified, though.” The Lupe couldn’t help adding.
“Besides,” the Draik continued, ignoring his friend. “All magic has to be regulated and approved by the Council, ever since – well, there was an incident recently. We’re not allowed to speak about it.”
Curious. Why did that ring a bell with him – as if someone had mentioned the same thing earlier? But a query for another day, perhaps.
Harker leaned forward and peered inside a small metal cauldron on the wooden table. A fragrant liquid bubbled inside, all the colours of the rainbow rippling as it moved.
“It’s a shame. I would have paid highly for a simple potion – one I’m sure your tutors wouldn’t have minded if you made for me. It really is the most basic of magic. Perhaps I can find someone in Brightvale to make me one.”
“Brightvale! Our potions are a hundred times better than theirs!”
“Oh, to be sure. But I wouldn’t wish to bother you, overqualified magicians, with such a menial task. I’m sure you have much more pressing matters to attend to – working for the King, and all. I’ll just find a potion peddler in Brightvale who doesn’t need to get signed approval from King Hagan to sell basic magic. Thanks for your time, boys.” He made to move away when the Lupe flung out a paw and grabbed him by the arm.
“Jeez, Leo!” The Draik gave a loud groan. “Kayla and Lisha are gonna kill you.”
“Nonsense. Lisha loves me as if I were her own son.”
“Leo – she set your tail on fire last week.”
“Well, yeah. But with love.”
“I would hate to get you into any sort of trouble,” Harker said with a regretful smile. “I really ought to head to Brightvale.”
“What kind of potion are you after? I mean – if it’s really super basic…”
Harker could almost see the dollar signs reflecting in the Lupe’s eyes, and gave him his most charming smile.
To be continued…