Friday, March 28, 2014

Hound Hunting - Chapter 14.

I managed to cover the last few blocks to locate Lillian’s place quick enough. The only problem was; that I hadn’t been the only one. As I slid to a stop and planted my feet I could just make out the already fading sounds of footsteps in the distance. A shattered door hung from its ravaged hinges and someone was sobbing.

“Missing moon,” I cursed. If only I hadn’t had to deal with those two thugs, I might have been able to do something. But right now there wasn’t time for regrets, right now I needed to make a judgment call. There were two options I had at hand. The first was I could try to engage in a pursuit of whoever already had a head start on me. Which would put me at a disadvantage and from my recent encounter might only end in another dead end. That left me with forgoing another foot race to investigate my original destination to begin with.

It wasn’t an easy decision, or one I completely made without reservations. But I tried to console myself with the logic that, with such a lead on me already it wouldn’t be wise to attempt chasing after them blindly. I needed to keep my head if I was to have any hope of getting in front of this thing. It wouldn’t profit me anything if I allowed whoever was behind this to keep luring me into rushing after every running thing they dangled in front of me.

My hand dropped down to rest reflexively and relaxed at my swords hilt. Cautiously I maneuvered my way towards the open door and tried to remind myself to take an extra breath to ease my apprehension. If anyone was still inside I wouldn’t do myself any favors by charging in and frightening them further. But I wanted to be ready for any more surprises just the same.

Shards of soft-stained woods littered the doorway’s entry area and now a delicate creak lamented its lost pieces. Light past through the portal along with me and had banished most of the shadows morning might have allowed to linger. There was a cluttering of debris all around as I swept my eyes about to scan my surroundings. A dribbled trail of cardinal colored droplets stood out in short order leading down a hallway into a rear room.

Someone was bleeding, and from the direction of the blood it appeared to be that who ever it was might also near the source of the sobbing. “My name is Nathanial Vaen,” I called out to them, not wanting to startle anyone anymore than they may already be. “I am a former SpellHound and acquaintance of Lillian. Please, don’t be afraid; I am here to help.”

Slowly I scanned everything around me a second time, ruled out any potential ambushes were imminent, and then took another step forward following the fallen blood. “Someone is wounded, if it is serious I might be able to summon a healer,” I offered. My gut warned me that I needed to be careful here, lest I walk into a wounded victim prepared to respond to any return from their attackers. I could only pray I hadn’t amassed enough misfortune to have my end be at the hands of frightened folks I only sought to help instead of some coward with a crossbow.

I thanked my intuition without words and hesitated before taking another step. “It would be greatly appreciated if we could avoid any misunderstandings,” I begged. “Were I to step around a corner I would be ever so grateful not to be attacked. I am armed but my weapon is not drawn, I know you’re afraid but I can assure you that I am only here to offer aid.”

A strained half-hoarse voice answered me after a long stretch of awkward silence that left me holding my breath. “Where,” it coughed weakly before managed to find enough air to continue. “You... mentioned Lillian. Haven’t seen or heard from her since yesterday.”

The smart thing would be to keep taking my own advice and ingratiate myself further to avoid any unwanted violence. But my heart was telling me that whoever was trying to talk to me was the one wresting with wounds. And by the sound of struggled speech they needed rest and a healer’s hand.

So despite my better judgment I held my empty hands out before me and stepped suddenly into view. And nothing happened. There was no pounding pain or sharp stabs, just a sight that filled me with sorrow. An older man, well past his prime was slouched against a wall, pale and short of breath with dark stains on his shirt. He couldn’t have made any move to challenge me if he tried by my estimate. But he still clutched a makeshift club of crude iron beside him.

Huddled to his right I found the source of the crying in the form of a small shape tucked against an overturned armchair. Next to it was the motionless remains of a woman, still in a position of providing some last effort to protect something. I could only assume it had to be the child still cowering close by. And whoever had done this, regardless of what that had been after had taken the life of an unarmed woman. I added that to the tally of debt that someone would be held accountable for, and swore to myself that it would be paid.

“Forgive me, sir,” I tried to apologize as I reached to examine the man’s injuries, already aware that I might cause him fresh pain. “We’ll need to get this bleeding stopped first, then I can try and call for a healer – I don’t want to leave you until we have that under control.”

While I rummaged around me for anything to try and use as a bandage to cover his wounds, my patient attempted to say something again. His voice had dropped down into a specter of speech that forced me to keep my ear turned towards him and really focus my attention on what he was trying to say. “You need to save your strength,” I cautioned, but he just shook his head to discard my advice stubbornly.

“Served,” he succeeded in saying. “Saw plenty of battle, in my youth; fighting for Emberhelm. Not much luck for me, my wounds are too grave I fear.” I had heard plenty of similar talk from my peers after receiving some fairly impressive injuries themselves. When they gave up the will to fight it didn’t matter how powerful a healer might be; without the spirit to survive they wouldn’t.

“No man with mettle enough to hold his ground in defense of Emberhelm would surrender at such a slight scratch,” I tried to rally his morale. There had to be something that would motivate him to keep fighting. And one look down at his hand was all the inspiration I needed. Keeping one hand applying pressure I used my free hand to point towards the shuddering shape of a terrified child.

“No man willing to lay down his life for those dear to him would then abandon them to leave them defenseless.” Guilt started to replace the look of submission in his eyes as they stared into me before defiance settled into his features. He wasn’t out of the woods yet, but if he held on to that fighting spirit it just might give him a chance.

“Do you know who did this or what they might have been after,” I gambled enough to allow myself to ask. “Anything you could remember may help me find them.” My own conscience clawed at me that this man, this father, potentially would go to his death not knowing what happened to his daughter. Even if he pulled through he deserved the knowledge of what had befallen her. I needed any information he had, or anything that might have been overlooked and left behind. But I couldn’t attain that without justly providing something in turn.

So I interrupted him before he could summon up the energy to try and continue communicating with me. “I cannot in good faith proceed without admitting to you why I am here,” I explained without pretense. “Your daughter has been involved into some deeper plot; to that end she has been the victim of malicious magic that has affected her mind. The results of which have manipulated her into using her own talents to serve the schemes of an unknown individual or group.

She’s been placed into the custody of the SpellHounds, and she is currently receiving treatment to repair the damage done to her. I personally had to apprehend her, but you have my word; I have done everything in my power to see to it that she has been treated as fair as possible and not burdened with the full blame of what had been done.” I had to close my eyes and pause for a deep breath before I could continue. It felt good to at least be able to offer some consolation, to be able to offer any manner of explanation for Lillian’s absence. Even if I couldn’t provide all the answers currently, perhaps someday I could.

I couldn’t help but be concerned at how my confession might color anything I was about to be told. Or if it meant that I might not be told anything at all. I had just admitted to handing over his daughter to the authorities, claimed she had committed a crime and was suffering from being changed by some mysterious phantom. Admittedly it was a little tough to swallow, even for me. Could a father? Especially after having been attacked in his home, losing his wife and potentially facing joining her in the near future?

“You have my gratitude,” he finally whispered. The sincerity behind what he said far outweighed the volume he had available to him. There was absolutely zero doubt that he meant it. Even with so much pain to contend with, I could mark the summoning of strength he was drawing on to keep talking. And I wished for nothing more than the ability to ease his burden, or at the very least reduce the need I had for looking to him for help. It made me feel powerless and horribly heavy of heart.

“Knew something wasn’t right,” he continued, bullishly clinging to the determination to keep going. “It was little things, small changes that weren’t easy to notice but hard to miss if you’ve known someone from a baby. Lillian would wander off in between work and often offer excuses of having been confused or mistaken about some errand.”

I tried to keep pressure on the wounds but noted the cloth I had used was still being soaked in scarlet fluid. By my own limited training for dealing with battlefield trauma and first aid I could assume that his bleeding might be slowing but I didn’t want to risk a glance to confirm the theory. If it hadn’t, all that would do is welcome a wave of more misplaced blood. And I didn’t figure the man had that much left to him to spare.

I was desperate for information but I was beginning to calculate my chances of getting a healer to him in time if I left him in his condition. And I wasn’t keen on gambling with his life. “You need a healer’s hand,” I pointed out. But once more he deflected my concerns with a shake of his head.

“It’ll keep a while longer,” he assured me with a ghost of a smile. “You were right; I am needed so much more now that I cannot afford to give in.” Another series of wet coughs plagued him, ending in a moan that redoubled my worries and threatened to drive me into reconsidering a desperate dash to get help.

“Those men, they were looking for something – I know not what, but they were ruthless in pursuing its location. I… I tried to drive them out but they overpowered me. I don’t have the strength left in me that I did in my younger years or else they would never have made it over the threshold.” I couldn’t help but smile at that, sharing the moment along with him. Something told me that he was probably right about that last assessment, and made me feel just a little more guilt at being delayed.

“They tore through the place, demanded to know where my daughter and where her things were. So, reluctantly,” he said, the regret clearly visible by the look of shame his face held, his eyes closed tightly. “I told them that Lillian’s things were where they always were; at the foot of her bed in a small bin. Their filthy paws pillaged through the entire lot before something spooked them enough to turn tail and run right back out the door. They hadn’t been gone only a handful of moments before you showed up.”

The strain of so much speaking, along with the remaining price reliving the experience had taxed the mangled man. He struggled to control his breathing as his cough tried to return. Yet, even with his dwindling reserves he raised one eyebrow to regard me and spoke once more.

“The only problem is that my old memory isn’t what it used to be,” he confessed with another shadow of a smile. “I may have been mistaken, mixing up where she stored the old rags and sundries for fixing her clothes instead.” A chuckle found its way out of me as I saluted the man with a proud nod.

“Well handled sir, very well done indeed,” I congratulated him fondly. “Now how about we see about getting you patched up, shall we?”