Saturday, March 15, 2014

Hound Hunting - Chapter 1.

I think that it is only fitting that since I first mentioned my current story in the works was a month ago today that I should share more of it with you now. As always; it is still a work in progress and might change considerable in the time to come. But for now, I hope you enjoy it and don;t hesitate to say what you think about it! Without further ado - Hound Hunting, Chapter 1:

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There exist certain people with the born ability to sense magic at will; we like to call those people SpellHounds. Traditionally, SpellHounds are only ever allowed to exist in the service of the Realm. With the potent talent to track and detect all uses of magic they make the ultimate investigators of all magical activity. But sometimes a SpellHound exists outside the service of the Realm. And sometimes, those SpellHounds are less than friendly about how they use their birthright.

My name is Nathanial Vaen, and I am a SpellHound. But despite what some might have you believe, I don’t work for the King, Queen or Country and I certainly don’t play for the morally ambiguous team. Life for a freelance SpellHound is anything but glamorous, but it is a life with some measure of freedom. And when someone’s neck is on the line, who would you really prefer to call? You want someone who can sniff out trouble and loyal enough to stick by you.

And that someone is me. At least as long as you got the coin for it. Currently that someone with the coin was a worried and troubled pub owner who had also decided to take up brewing in his business’s basement. Hence my personal regret for my many bad judgments in my life – namely my decision to descend into those foul-smelling depths.

Baylen Herward had been operating Howlers Hall for as long as I can recall and the place typically stayed busy, especially at the end of a long day. Howlers Hall is a rather no-frills type of establishment – functional hardwood benches and long broad tables. The floors beneath your feet crunching softly with the collection of daily debris and a crackle of roaring fires warmed the room form a large hearth.

Baylen’s tireless frame could often be seen fetching up casks with practiced ease and pouring drinks behind the bar. Baylen was by no means an overly large individual, so it always struck me as ironic to watch the man at work. He was a tall and lean man who rarely stopped moving but always seemed to welcome every face who entered his establishment.

It was, perhaps, for only that reason that I accepted his request for aid. Baylen was a good man by my reckoning, and I hated to see him without those patrons. Alright, the promise of a bit more weight to my purse didn’t hurt to persuade me either. But Baylen was definitely a man who deserved a hand, and I could lend him one.

This is why I was starring at stone blocks that formed the Howlers Hall dependable cellar. The smell of mingled mold and mildew vied for my attention against those of yeast and fermentation. “Why couldn’t Baylen have hired me to taste test something instead,” I mused softly to myself.

Standing about complaining wasn’t going to get me paid any faster, or return me to the plentiful fresh air above. So with a groan I tried to get my mind back on task and concentrated. Closing my eyes I called up everything Baylen had been able to tell me. The details were few in number but it was a place to start, so I had to work from them.

Within the last week or two customers had begun to suddenly leave disgusted only to not return. Regulars and long time patrons both were not immune to the growing trend of migration from Howlers Hall. It wasn’t exactly a secret that Baylen had been brewing his own beverages of late either, so all the puzzled barkeep could figure is that somehow it was his own self-made wares providing the motivation. But despite all his efforts to prove where the problem was, he couldn’t find anything to fault.

So that left me with only a handful of options to investigate. If someone had managed to find a way to hex his ale in a manner that eluded him, then that might explain the unhappy exodus. And if it wasn’t the beverages themselves, then it had to be someone or something influencing how patrons reacted to them. Either way meant malicious magic was afoot. And I do hate me some magic misused for nefarious purposes. What could be more nefarious than fouling the taste of a handcrafted brew, or ruining an honest man’s business?

Shifting my focus, I sniffed at the air once more and set myself to sorting out all the scents that had already firmly decided to assault me. There was quite the myriad array to be frank, but as I tried to key in to any lingering traces of sinister spellcraft there was naught to be found. Even a scan of the room once more didn’t avail any clues to my sight. Whatever was happening here obviously wasn’t taking place down here at the source of Baylen’s supplies. That meant a welcome return topside and further investigation.

A long thick braid hung at Baylen’s back, barely bobbing about as he paced at a much slower speed than his typical busy manner. His thick dark beard concealed some of his features, but I knew an unhappy demeanor when I saw one. And when you work this job you’re bound to see them quite regularly. Busy didn’t seem to be improving and without a single word I think we both already knew I wasn’t surfacing with good news.

“Well,” Baylen asked, unable to mask the melancholy from his tone. His forearms tensed as he set his hands to the habitual ritual of wiping down the bar before him. But the frustration was clear enough from his stance. Worry was written all over his brow and every inch of his frame was wound tight enough it threatened to snap.

I hate it when I don’t have an answer already waiting to present. Even more so when a client is expecting me to do exactly that, it makes me look like I don’t know what I am doing. And worse yet; it sets me up to appear like anything I say next is just me bumbling about for excuses. Never mind if that is precisely what is happening.

“Apologies, Baylen,” I decided to open with and tried to put on my best professional expression. “Don’t you worry just yet; I am still on the case. Everything below checks out; there isn’t any sign of magical tampering or influence. That just leaves a few other possible angles up here. Give me a little more time to track your trouble down and I give you my word that we’ll sort this out.”

It was hard to judge if my words had provided any comfort since Baylen didn’t look up from his task. This also meant that I had no clue to whether or not he bought my professional approach or if he was already rethinking his decision to hire me and had chalked my tactic up to simply stalling. To be fair, I’m not sure which way I’d have looked at it either.

But Baylen had come to me for help, and that meant that he was going to get my help – I had given him my word after all. Looking around the room I couldn’t avoid admitting that he indeed needed my help. Only perhaps half a dozen or so patrons were still seated around the room, cautiously nursing their drinks like they might explode. Which is a fairly depressing sight; anytime you see an empty or nearly empty pub it is a rather sad scene.

By the look of those melancholy few, Howler’s Hall had become a reluctant roost to spend their evening. Their boots told stories that their silence would not, I had already wagered most of them either knew one another or were simply wary enough to avoid socializing. A mixture of powdered stone, mud and sawdust clung to the various customers while they consumed their beverages. It didn’t take a well trained eye or keen intellect to deduce that these were labor men by trade, toiling in their respective crafts by day and enjoying what remained as the sun settled outside.

My gut told me that I should rule these men out; what could any hardworking folk have to gain from sabotaging Baylen’s business? It just didn’t make any sense, so I continued my search for explanations. While I mulled it over, a serving lass slipped up beside Baylen and sighed slightly as she surveyed the room. She was young, by my reckoning, barely starting to grow into her own curves but she carried herself with the casual grace of experience. Her hair had been cut off short, just long enough to be tucked behind her ears into an effective style that forwent anything ornate. And in the warm glow of the firelight it shone like burnished copper.

After a long moment she began to untie the apron that hung down her front and neatly folded it to store behind the bar. “Lillian is already here to take over,” the young lady reported, an edge to her timid tone. Entering the doorway was the working woman’s obvious evening counterpart. Lillian wasn’t a short woman by any reckoning, easily nearly as tall as most of the men who frequented the hall. Or, perhaps it was the nearly thigh-high laced boots she wore that enhanced her legs with highlights only heels could produce.

She stalked her way towards the bar, warm eyes of amber taking note of the number of few faces seated inside. A rhythmic click marked her steps and her long dark locks swayed in time showcasing only a hint of curl. If I had to wager on the fact, I’d place my coin on the knowledge that while both women had been working this job awhile, Lillian had learned to play to her feminine strengths. And by the comfortable way she chose to display her own curves she had become quite used to doing so.

“Evening Abigail, Baylen,” she greeted them neutrally before she deftly bound her hair back behind her to prepare for duty. Those amber eyes flicked towards me and an eyebrow arched aloft in response immediately. “And whom do we have here,” she added with an attempted air of playfulness.

I took the opportunity to allow my own grey eyes meet hers and studied her reaction carefully. Now, I have to concede that I am far from anything of note with regard to my appearance or physical features. You’ll never hear a room full of ladies swoon at my presence or find much jealousy from any men around me. But one thing I have always been told for as long as I can recall is that my eyes have this strange quality – they almost seem to change color. Maybe it has to do with the way different lighting brings out little details, I couldn’t tell you.

Lillian might have found the effect of my focused attention unsettling, or maybe she just had felt a lingering chill from her journey but whatever the cause a sudden twitch gripped her. The unmistakable signs of curiosity began to show itself on her face as well. She could really use some lessons in how to bluff better.

Before I could break the stretching silence, Baylen did it for me with a voice well accustomed to speaking with a measure of authority. “This is a hired advisor I have contracted to help improve our situation. A smaller crowd is no excuse to not be keeping your mind on your job,” he warned her and pointed towards another waiting apron.

Reluctantly Lillian retrieved the bit of cloth and tied it on, a short nod acknowledging the point without further talk on the matter. “At least he isn’t here,” she whispered mostly to herself only to find an elbow from Abigail nudging her in the side. “Don’t be so quick to speak on that topic,” she chided before a brief chuckle as she made her own way out the door.

Entering the establishment was a young gentleman clad in a ragged old coat, eager to immediately settle into an open seat near the room’s center. He casually called for a glass while I sized him up, a slight tingle stirring along my spine. Magic had begun to shift, ever so slightly, but as the ambient flow of its forces changed my body alerted me to the fact.

Goosebumps began to threaten their presence along my arms and I found myself standing alert, wary for any further signs of impending sorcery. At my left Lillian snatched up an empty mug and started to fill it hesitantly. Her mouth opened as if to impart some objection but Baylen’s experienced eye interjected instantly.

“All coin is welcome here, now more than most; you would do well to remember that.” Baylen kept one hand firmly planted on her shoulder as he spoke, his head bent towards her to reinforce his meaning. “And misfortune is just as regular a companion to an empty purse,” she cursed back at him. To Baylen’s credit he merely pointed towards the waiting customer and Lillian bowed to her bosses wishes once more.

Lillian hefted aloft the full mug and begrudgingly began her walk to deliver the drink. Upon seeing her impending approach, the mysterious man reached within his battered coat to withdraw something from a vest pocket. Unlike his tattered outer garment, pristine clothes peeked out from beneath to draw my interest. Without pause I compared his boots – hardly a single speck of dirt could be found there as well.

Instinct flared to life along the back of my neck and my gut warned me that something wasn’t right. He placed his hand palm down as if to slide his payment forward for the drink, but the only clink to be heard was that of Lillian’s boots. And I felt it hit the air even before I could see the threads of shaped spells being crafted.

Just below the table a waiting spell was already nearing completion, awaiting some trigger by my estimate. It had the dark blue aspect of a frozen ripple in water, ready to cascade outwards but as yet hadn’t done so. Whatever that spell was about to accomplish I didn’t want to wait to find out.

Moving as quickly as I could, I vaulted over the bar and threw myself into take action. Yet, even as I put myself into motion another spell started to form, and this time it was not from the table or the man seated there. Pale threads of green and purple were being shaped by Lillian’s will, finding the drink held in her hand their home.

“Hold,” I roared confidently towards the both of them. The sudden command sent a shock through them, causing Lillian to release her grip on the mug, sending it toppling to the floor. With the spilt contents of the drink also went the pulsing magic, ruined before it could finish forming. Scattering as well was the gathered spell, its energy fading back to wherever it had been drawn from.

“SpellHound,” the man spat, throwing the table forward and rushing to get his feet beneath him. Lillian’s head whipped around at the words, naked panic visible at the revelation that they declared. “Impossible,” she whimpered in reply, but I didn’t have time to provide her an explanation. Mister mysterious apparently had no intention of surrendering himself peacefully.

A sloppily slung spell was already spreading down his arm to explode in a mix of yellow and red as it raced towards me. I recognized it without issue, aside from the predictable way it looked; like a crude pointed spear of orange, its smell gave it away. They don’t call them slaughter spells for no reason. The scent of mingled fresh and dried blood as well as some rather other unpleasant odors assault your senses making it unmistakable.

It also made this foe easy to identify; he had to be a Butcher by the way he immediately resorted to such crude combat magic. Butchers, for the most part, are little more than brute thugs among the magically talented community. Hence the straightforward panic-fire approach of flinging the first spell that came to mind.

The clumsily cast spell flew in my direction, more or less, but I don’t think it had the impact that it was intended to. In a single fluid motion that capitalized on my surging momentum I had already drawn the sword that hung at my side. There was no sound of scraping metal, instead the blade parted freely as if slipping through water. Its short length of steel rose up before me and immediately falling into a defensive position.

Making contact with the magical attack was not the waiting flesh it sought, but instead a blade of spellforged steel. Its energy crackled along the blades short length and dissipated harmlessly into nothing. Every SpellHound in service to the throne is issued such a weapon to wield. It is equal part a badge of authority and a tool to be used in their duty. Not all SpellHound’s carry the same kind of sword however, mine is barely two feet long but the blade itself is as wide as three fingers. This makes it quite handy to bring to bear on the move, and quick to do so as well. But one thing they all have in common is a marking of interlocking rings along the blade. They all are crafted with the ability to ground away hostile magic if used correctly, or negate it if the need arises in the hands of a skilled wielder.

Apparently Butcher-boy wasn’t familiar with that fact, which meant his next move would likely be another bad decision. So I tried to offer a little friendly advice. “If I was you, mister, I would consider real careful what I was about to do next,” I recommended coldly. But even as the words left my lips a voice was already whispering to me; he is going to run, it predicted.

I hate it when I am right, because he did exactly that. Like I said, Butchers aren’t known for brains and trying to run from SpellHound has to be one of the less thought-though options available. Especially if you’re a talented Interceptor like I was, with a gift for running whatever prey had been designated down. Someone should really have a talk with these people.

Lillian fell to the floor with a gasp as the fleeing foe collided into her in an effort to make his escape. Bolting through the door he jerked to his right and angled his way up the streets, probably trying to make for some of the scattered carts and side streets that in theory could buy him time to elude a pursuer. But unfortunately for him my heart was already pounding with the excitement of promised sport.

Everything else around me decreased in importance, and a grin of enjoyment spread across my face. In a blur I launched myself into a sprint that carried me straight out the door and dug my feet in as I pounded into a pace that promised to bear me onto his trail. Flashing alongside me were passing people and an assortment of stumbling hazards that I dodged in between by sheer reflex.

Fear began to work its way into my quarry, as it often does and he hesitated, stealing from his steps the few precious seconds of a lead he had possessed. He wasn’t about to surrender himself into my custody, I had already witnessed that. And if I allowed him to continue running he was likely to start slinging more wild magic hurting people.

Long ago I made the choice to avoid unnecessary bloodshed, even though I can accept that in some situations it is required. To that end I blunted the edges of my blade, leaving only its tip as its only sharpened part. But that didn’t mean it couldn’t cause lasting harm – far from it. That just meant that I had to intentionally choose to use it to spill blood, and that I could use it in less than life taking ways as well.

I had no desire to kill this thick-skulled thug but I desperately needed to cut his flight short. So, seizing on his confusion I increased my stride passing just behind him. Using all the added power my pursuit had provided me I brought the blunted edge of my blade down hard into the back of his knees. The crack of impact told anyone witnessing the event that medical expertise wasn’t required. Only the intervention of a miracle could have prevented even a single bone from being shattered by the blow. And I didn’t see any miracles moving to act on his behalf.

Fresh howling screams of torment ripped up into the sky from my formerly fleeing friend. He might not appreciate the fact, but had it been any other SpellHound besides myself he wouldn’t still be drawing breath. Small consolation for the pain currently wracking its way through him, but at least it helped me sleep at night.