Hazel and Holly — Return to the Shrine
Previous: Summoning Visions
Holly, Hemlock, Hawthorn, Tum, and Elder returned to the Shrine. It looked weird seeing it in daylight. It looked like a normal building, old and slightly dirty, but not anything to be afraid of.
“Now, all of you keep your mouths shut,” Elder said. “I will do the talking, and you will all stand there and nod and look sufficiently ignorant, suppliant, or pathetic, as the need arises. Do you understand?”
“Yes, sir,” both Holly and Hemlock murmured.
Hawthorn said, “I’m sure I’m too pathetically ignorant to fully grasp your meaning.”
Elder nodded. “Good.” He cleared his throat and fidgeted with his coat while casting a furtive glance at the Shrine’s front door. “If we’re lucky, we won’t see anyone. Early morning at the Shrine isn’t exactly a high hour.” He poked at one of his coat buttons.
“You’re stalling,” Holly said. “Let’s just go in and see what happens.”
Elder nodded. “Yes, of course.” He drew himself up a little. “Remember: ignorant and pathetic.”
“A worthy mantra for any aspiring necromancer,” Hawthorn said.
Elder shot him a sharp glare, then composed himself and marched up the steps, made a motion with his hands that was likely some sort of spell, then eased the heavy door open. He peeked inside. Then he relaxed a little and motioned to the others to follow him in.
They filed into a dark, windowless hallway. Gentle blue flames flickered behind glass sconces upon the walls that weakly illuminated the interior. Elder took a deep breath and exhaled slowly. He smiled. “There now, that’s better. I don’t know why I was so tense.” He ambled down the hallway while the others trailed after him. “Did you know the Shrine was originally Sarnum’s first counting house? All the prominent families and businesses had their money here. It’s quite a distinguished history, don’t you think?”
“How did you necromancers get a hold of it, then?” Holly asked.
“Well, a larger—and more impressive—building was constructed, into which the counting house relocated. It remains there still. This building came on the market and was purchased by us. Only just barely, though. Apparently there had been a prominent wig maker who had taken the notion into his powdered head that the building would have been perfect for his wigging business. Ludicrous! Can you imagine these halls lines with countless wigs? I certainly cannot.”
Holly squinted her eyes, trying to imagine the wigs. She had to admit, it didn’t seem at all appropriate.
“But things usually work out as they must,” Elder went on. He stopped at a door. “Ah, here we are.” He pushed it open and led them to a warm chamber furnished with plush sofas and chairs and polished tables. A few bookshelves lined the walls, but the most noteworthy feature was the great crackling fire, and the man that sat on the sofa in front of it.
“Oh!” Elder said. “Beg your pardon, I thought the room would be empty at this hour. We’ll find a different spot to, ah, hold our conversation.” To Holly and the others, he said, “Come along, then.”
Elder turned to leave just as the man rose from the sofa. His gaze passed over them, fixing on Hemlock a bit longer than the others. He wrinkled his nose. “Aren’t you the group that came here last night, looking for someone?”
Elder tried to chuckle but made a poor job of it. “What’s that? Last night? No, no. You must be mistaken. These are associates of mine visiting from out of town. It is their first visit here.” Elder made another strangled noise as he tried to laugh. “The first visit to the Shrine is always the most memorable, don’t you think?”
The man frowned some more as he continued to scrutinize them. Then his face took on an oddly calm expression. “Yes. Of course. There’s no need for you to go elsewhere. I was just leaving.”
“Oh, no,” Elder said. “I wouldn’t think of it.”
But the man made no indication of having heard Elder’s continuing insistance he stay and left the room.
Elder took a kerchief out of his pocket and mopped his brow. “Well, then. I guess that’s that.” He turned to the others and tried to scowl at them, but he seemed overly exhausted and could only manage a menacing twitch of his eyebrows. “I do believe this concludes our business together. You asked me to get you in, and I did. What you do afterwards I’m sure is no concern of mine.” He narrowed his eyes as he looked them all up and down. “Yes, that’s right. No concern of mine at all.”
“Yes, yes,” Hawthorn said. “You got us in, so, thank you very much, but we’ll be just fine now.” He shooed at Elder with his hands. When Elder remained fixed in place, Hawthorn shot Holly a warning glance.
She jolted herself into action and took Elder by the arm and led him to the door. “You did brilliantly well, Elder. Abby will be most pleased.”
Elder’s frown softened into a pleading stare. “Do you think so?”
“Oh, yes, absolutely. And when you get that orange tree, why, just imagine all that she’ll do with it.”
“You won’t be the same man,” Hawthorn said.
“That’s right,” Holly said. “I bet you’ll be rejuvenated like you wouldn’t believe, what with all the healing properties oranges have.”
“Scurvy will be a scourge of the past,” Hawthorn said.
Elder stared at him. “Scurvy?”
“Never mind him,” Holly said and put on a fresh smile. She gave Elder a quick hug, but he just stood there like a sack of potatoes, his arms limp at his sides. Then she shoved him out the door and closed it behind him.
Hawthorn said, “I’m guessing we have about two minutes before the man that was here comes back with a group of his colleagues and throws us out. And that’s assuming we’re lucky.”
Holly nodded. “Agreed.” She turned to Hemlock. “Please tell me you found something at Elder’s house.
Hemlock fished around in his jacket pocket and pulled out a folded sheet of paper. “It’s all I could find that looked remotely useful.”
Holly snatched the paper and unfolded it. She wrinkled her nose. “What is this?”
“I think it’s a picture Augustus drew,” Hemlock said.
Holly tilted her head and continued to squint at the paper. “But what is it?”
Hemlock stood next to her. “You’re holding it wrong.” He took the paper from her, turned it around, and handed it back. He pointed at a blotch of ink. “See? That winged thing there is Augustus. I think.” He pointed at a pair of crooked scribblings. “And that might be Elder and Abby.”
Holly screwed up her face. “Really? It looks like they’ve got three legs.”
Hemlock tilted his head. “Yes, well, I don’t think Augustus is the most artistically capable creature.”
“Fascinating,” Hawthorn said. “But how does that even remotely help us?”
“Well,” Hemlock said and moved his hand to the upper left corner of the paper. “Those jagged things there look like mountains. And see how they’re surrounded by those ink blots? They kind of look like stars, don’t you think?”
“I think it looks like he had a fit with his pen and scattered ink all over the paper,” Holly said.
“I… I suppose that’s a possible explanation,” Hemlock said. “But I think they look like stars. The mountains… they look like they’re surrounded by a… sea of stars.”
“Are you saying this is a map?” Hawthorn said, incredulous.
“I…well…,” Hemlock said as he rubbed the back of his neck. He looked like he might be sick. Then he took a deep breath and adopted a look of resolve instead. “Yes, that’s what I’m saying. This is a map.”
“Um, guys…,” Holly said.
Hawthorn held up a hand at her and, to Hemlock, said, “Now is not the time for false bravado. You have far more to lose than I do.”
Hemlock glowered at him. “You think I don’t know that?”
“Guys…,” Holly said again.
Still ignoring her, Hawthorn said, “To call that incomprehensible scratching a map is like putting a pig in a dress and calling it ‘mother.'”
“You speak from experience?”
“Guys!” Holly shouted and the brothers stopped bickering and turned to look at her. “Where’s Tum? He was right behind me before but now he’s gone.”
Before they had a chance to answer, the door opened and the man they had walked in on earlier stood in the doorway, backed by a pair of necromancers, one of whom looked much too muscular underneath his robe than was appropriate for a practitioner of a dark and creepy art.
“Well,” Holly said as she tried to appear calm and not at all terrified. “This is awkward.”