In the end it all came down to a difference of experience. Mr. Whetle had been manager of the Red Lion Hotel for over fifteen years. Yindulwer had been its owner for less than a month. In that short time both men had come to detest the other as they each attempted to assert control. Firing Mr. Whetle was not an option as his departure would easily lead to the loss of several other key members of staff. Their self-serving loyalty was just another cause of irritation for Yindulwer.
If truth be known, Yindulwer had not wanted the Red Lion. The previous owner had been his father who had handed it over as a coming of age present. It was a tradition among his family that such a gift would carry more responsibility than reward. As such, Yindulwer was convinced that his father had deliberately allowed Mr. Whetle to turn the hotel into his own private fiefdom. A problem that Yindulwer was racking his brains to solve.
Realising that he was tying himself up in mental knots, Yindulwer got up from behind his desk and left his study. He walked down the carpeted corridor nodding cordially to the few guests he passed. Reaching the hotel’s grand staircase, Yindulwer descended down to the lobby. He had not made it halfway down before he could hear the sound of complaining.
“What do you mean we can’t have it today? All the arrangements have been made, Mr. Whetle. Do you understand what a cancellation would mean at this stage?” It was an elderly voice filled with a lady’s deep indignation. Her outburst seemed to be only a temporary loss of temper and the hotel soon fell back into relative calm. However, within this silence, Yindulwer’s sharp ears were able to pick out low tones of a heated discussion. Heated at least on the side of the elderly lady. She no longer shouted but her voice often rose in irritation.
It soon became clear that the elderly lady’s complaint centred on the use of the Red Lion’s assembly hall that evening. It was a regular booking made well in advance. It was therefore to be expected that a sudden cancellation on the actual day would cause some anger. What interested Yindulwer about this was not simply the lack of good customer service but the absence of any satisfying reason. He could not hear what Mr. Whetle was saying but the irate responses from the elderly lady proved he was being unduly vague.
Finally reaching the last flight of stairs, Yindulwer took a brief moment to survey the lobby below. As it was the middle of the day the large room was mostly deserted. Only a handful of guests and staff moved about on their own errands. With few to obscure his view, Yindulwer easily spotted the elderly lady where she stood over by the reception desk. Her conservative black dress was about thirty years out of date and completely ruined by the addition of a woollen shawl.
Yindulwer’s vantage point on the stairs not only gave him a good view of the elderly lady and Mr. Whetle. It also allowed him to hear them better as well. This still meant he had to interpret what he heard as Mr. Whetle’s excuses continued to be vague. However, taking the hotel manager’s words and body language together, Yindulwer came to the conclusion that Mr. Whetle was trying to lay the blame on him.
It was not that Mr. Whetle was saying anything directly about Yindulwer. There was no mention of him by name or any suggestion of direct involvement. Instead it seemed to Yindulwer that somehow his very presence at the Red Lion had interfered with long held arrangements. Whatever the truth, Yindulwer knew that if he wanted to discover what was really happening he would have to be careful. If he showed too much interest he could lose his opportunity but there were other ways to gain information.
Watching the elderly lady for a few more moments, Yindulwer found himself instinctively reaching for his family’s secret mantra. It was always there sitting at the back of his mind waiting to be used. Feeling like a warrior grasping his favourite weapon, Yindulwer began to recite the words. As the sacred text cycled through his mind, Yindulwer felt the steady build-up of static. It covered his whole body but with an effort of will, Yindulwer concentrated it into a single spot in his right eye. It was a hard technique and for a while, Yindulwer’s vision swam in and out of focus. Once settled, Yindulwer again looked across the lobby.
The mantra was probably not the best option for detecting magic at a distance. The standing field of negative space that it produced could not be extended far beyond the body of its user. Moreover, its passive nature made it ineffectual as anything but a shield against direct magical attack. However, it was precisely for this reason that Yindulwer chose to use it. Any other method would have actively bounced off every spell in the lobby alerting their users to Yindulwer’s actions.
Whatever magic the elderly lady was using it was strong and active. It wrapped around her whole body making her appear to Yindulwer’s right eye as a large unfocused blob. It had to be some sort of illusion spell but what it concealed, Yindulwer could not tell. It was odd, however, that someone had gone to the trouble of hiding their identity in order to book the use of an assembly hall. It seemed to suggest more than just a simple case of some criminal enterprise.
As Yindulwer approached the elderly lady, he could feel the pressure build within his right eye. It remained manageable but the dull pain threatened to tip over into nausea. To prevent this from happening, Yindulwer allowed the ball of negative energy to drop from his eye and into his chest. There it felt like a bruise, which was preferable to the previous headache. Better focused, Yindulwer confronted the fake elderly lady.
“Good day, madam. What seems to be the problem?”
“Thank you, my lord but…” began Mr. Whetle.
“My lord?” demand the fake elderly lady. Turning round she glared at Yindulwer. “So you’re the one, are you? Things were much better before you came along.”
“I am sorry you should think that. How may I improve matters?”
“You can’t, you’re stuck that way. However, maybe you could leave Mr. Whetle to do his job instead of cluttering up the place.” Maintaining a fixed smile, Yindulwer forced himself to remain polite. He would gain nothing from the short term relief of putting the fake elderly lady in her place. That could wait until after he knew the truth.
“Very well, Mrs.?”
“Frensule. I am Mrs. Frensule.”
“My apologies, Mrs. Frensule. As I was about to say. I will leave Mr. Whetle to deal with the matter. I have no doubt that he will work wonders and have the assembly hall ready and available for you this evening.” Hearing this, Mr. Whetle glared daggers at Yindulwer. This quickly changed to a reassuring smile when Mrs. Frensule turned her gaze back on him.
“Good. That is how it should have been from the beginning. I can’t be doing with all this bother. I am quite put out by this whole thing.”
“I fully understand, Mrs. Frensule. A discount shall be applied to your bill and a full silver service dinner for tonight’s gathering with our compliments.” As Yindulwer offered these compensations he kept a close eye on Mrs. Frensule.
“No that is quite out of the question. Mr. Whetle knows how we like things done and I would thank you to leave our care in his hands.”
“Then we will see you all tonight, Mrs. Frensule,” said Mr. Whetle with a slight bow.
“Yes, tonight. Good day, Mr. Whetle.” Despite the snub, Yindulwer felt no real anger at Mrs. Frensule’s departure. He was just glad to see the back of her. This didn’t mean he could relax though. It was only hours until the gathering and he needed to be ready for her return.
* * * *
Despite having a large crystal chandelier, the Red Lion’s assembly hall was lit by only a few candles. Their pitiful flames did little more than punctuate the darkness and deepening the shadows. From up in his hiding place in the musician’s gallery, Yindulwer had to strain his eyes to see.
The guests had started to arrive about fifteen minutes ago. Each one entered alone and said little beyond a brief greeting to the others. There were seven already but none of them appeared to be Mrs. Frensule. Not that this meant anything for Mrs. Frensule was a name that belonged to no one.
In the brief time Yindulwer had to investigate he had discovered nothing. There was no Mrs. Frensule of any description to be found in the city. She was a phantom who came three or four times a year to the Red Lion and then vanished when she left. Yindulwer suspected that a similar story could be told of all the other elderly ladies who were arriving.
As the number of guests increased, Yindulwer became convinced of what he was witnessing. He was proved right when the thirteenth and last to arrive paused at the doors to lock them.
“Brothers,” she said in an altogether male voice. “Welcome. Let us begin.” At these words all pretence at being female was dropped and every guest stood free of his illusions. In the darkness, Yindulwer could not be sure of the men’s faces but he did not think he recognised any of them. Individually the men might have been nameless but as a collective, Yindulwer knew exactly what to call them, wizards.
Watching the wizards form into a circle around one of their number, Yindulwer suddenly realised the danger he was in. The wizard in the centre held up his hands. In one he grasped a long knife that gleamed dully in the candle light. In the other a surprisingly docile black cockerel.
“Speak the words.” The centre wizard intoned. As the others began to chant he brought his knife round and removed the cockerel’s head. In that instance a pentagram on the floor became visible filling the room with its red light. Knowing the light would find him, Yindulwer quickly recited the same mantra as before. This time he allowed its power to cover his whole body and gave the negative energy a spin. This allowed Yindulwer to twist the pentagram’s light about him and hide from its searching glare.
While Yindulwer had saved himself from immediate discovery he was now trapped. If he moved even an inch the power would know and find him. With no alternative, Yindulwer prepared himself for a long night. He only hoped that the secrets he learned would be worth it.