Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Hound Hunting - Chapter 4.

Burning in my belly was the remains of the rise Lillian had managed to coax out of me. It may not have been a cheap shot much less anything intentional at all. She had just been caught committing a crime by precisely one of the people she didn’t expect to draw any attention from. Lillian was facing a large amount of uncertainty about her future. But it was exactly the kind of gambit she had risked in trying to amass for herself enough funds to suit her dreams.

Suffer a fool for a time, and in time that fool will suffer. I’d heard that saying many times as a child, and right now I could truly appreciate its wisdom. It is ironic how often such proverbs can prove themselves true. Despite knowing it wasn’t particularly necessary I couldn’t resist the impulse to give my captured conniver a brief nudge to direct her towards the doorway.

Baylen’s bearded face stepped out from behind his bar, his hands held before him in a gesture that pleaded for me to pause. The tall man of the tap-trade regarded us both before finding his words. When he spoke it was with careful consideration.

“You have done your job, just as you gave your word to do,” he began, blinking briefly to direct his eyes aside. “The quality of your craft is to be applauded, and I fully intend to uphold my own end of our agreed bargain. But I would ask you one final request if you spoke honestly; please, if any influence is available to you make use of it to allay her punishment. I have known this girl countless seasons, long before she grew into the shape of a woman. I would look on it as a personal favor and don’t think I could live with it on my heart should she forfeit her life for a lapse in judgment.”

Mercy was the hallmark of an honorable man my father had once told me. It was one of the limited number of lessons he had been allowed the time to impart to me before fate found it fitting to remove him from my life. Chief among the things he had taught me was one central foundation that I had always used to guide me. It was the knowledge that a good man can always choose to do what is right without being forced to do so.

That was the last ideal my father imparted to me, and it had cost him his life to do so. It wasn’t the kind of experience you could allow to lose value or ignore. He deserved more than that, his memory was worth being honored. And just thinking of him was sobering enough to remind me that I had indeed already spoken with at least an implication of sympathy.

There was only one person that I could think of that I could turn Lillian over to and have any chance of being able to leverage any good will on my own behalf. Especially after my recent warm reception from Corrin and company. If I showed up with a second suspect when he was already suspicious of me I doubted he would let me speak so much as a word on either of our behalves.

No, I would have to take her straight to the Justicars themselves and surrender her into custody. This wasn’t without its own potential unpleasantness, a Justicar’s talent laid in their ability to look right through you. Where other SpellHounds can follow a trail or perceive the flowing magic all around, a Justicar can sniff their way right inside you. They can smell your own guilt; even see the stain of any sinister sorcery on your soul.

Or, that is what they say anyways. I’ve never been all that comfortable with the idea of finding out first hand myself. Especially since Justicars hold the authority to pass judgment on anyone outside the royal line – even other SpellHounds. There have been those among the ranks who thought themselves above the law. They all ended up facing a Justicar for judgment of their crimes and punished accordingly. Usually it took the form of a private farewell visit from one of the Extinguishers.

The word comfortable couldn’t be used to describe anytime I had ever been in the presence of one of their number. Granted, I had been required to interact with a Justicar on a number of occasions, we all did. Anytime an Interceptor apprehended someone, and they were still breathing, we had to present them before a Justicar. It just so happened that over the course of my service I had been assigned a designated member with which to deal with.

Her name was Maeredith, but precious few dared to call her by her given name choosing instead to call her Justicar Starseer. I knew Maeredith; we had worked together enough times that she was familiar with more than just my reputation. Where her peers might be content to consider simply if those brought before them had indeed committed a crime, she looked deeper. Maeredith would look to the core of them and balance every aspect before announcing their fate.

It couldn’t be an easy thing to do, nor was it something I could imagine being on either end of. But Maeredith was steadfast in her duty and did it without fail. I had to respect that about her, even if some did not. Maeredith’s heritage was one of mixed blood, a fact that I was uniquely suited to find a compassionate disposition towards. This isn’t the kind of thing that helps you make friends among other SpellHounds.

The trait can be found among any number of intelligent races, it isn’t something any one race holds a monopoly on. In fact, since the earliest discovered births of any SpellHounds some families have sought to preserve their own bloodline by breeding. Some of the more ‘noble’ houses have often held that mingling between races or with non-SpellHounds to be a scandalous affair.

Both of us were the offspring of parents who not only were of different races but also unions between SpellHounds and non-SpellHounds. Specifically; my mother was of dwarven descent and my father was of elvish blood. Maeredith’s mother was a proud and beautiful elven warrior, while her own father was a dwarf SpellHound already serving the throne. Neither of my parents ever served.

Whether or not it had anything to do with why we were assigned each other I couldn’t say. But it certainly didn’t make things any harder on either of us. We just never brought that particular topic up any in conversation, not that we had much in the way of friendly socialization. At least we could understand one another though.

“Baylen,” I breathed his name out into a brief sigh. “I am not some heartless SpellHound. Rest assured, if any ears exist to hear her case fairly I can think of no other than those I can seek out. Take my word; she will be in the best hands but she will have to face what she has done. I cannot promise she will not be punished. There is always a cost to be paid, you must understand that.”

“There is comfort, at least, that I can take in your promise,” the big brewer confided casually. “I will have your reward ready once you return, and to show my appreciation I will buy you a drink to celebrate!” Baylen slapped me on the shoulder hard in a friendly gesture that prompted a warm inviting smile to once more appear upon his face. It made me welcome the motivation to return – even if it wasn’t just for my promised pay.

It gave me a pleasant feeling as I escorted Lillian out into the fallen night of Emberhelm’s streets. The foot traffic had lessened but still other inhabitants moved about, careful to cling to the cast illumination of the Everlight lanterns. Even for those who were blind to being able to sense sorcery, there was a primal instinct that cautioned them from trusting too completely to the darkness.

I couldn’t call it an act of ignorance or superstition myself; there was something to be said for a healthy fear of the shadows. Tangible threats such as thieves were just as likely to lurk within them just as readily as sadistic spellcasters. It was wise to worry about some stranger with bared steel stalking about for a quick coin. Too many think only wielders of magic are worth their terror.

Lillian still moved with a sullen shuffle, her boots now making a far less rhythmic accent to herald her steps. Keeping my senses sharpened I set them about scanning our surroundings while we walked. The city was a blend of sights and sounds that could overwhelm an untrained SpellHound if they couldn’t filter things out. For some the experience was always a struggle to maintain.

But when you are tracking a specific trail it is more effective to single out defined elements and focus on them. Ignoring everything else worked well if you were on the hunt for a known scent, it wouldn’t help me detect a potential problem if it presented itself. Especially if I was ignorant of what to be looking out for, this always made me anxious.

Far safer to be a little nervous when nothing happened than to be caught off guard and suffer for it. A thought occurred to me on our twilight travel that still tormented me; there were still details I was missing that made me wonder. How had Lillian managed to come into contact with a Butcher for starters and where had the two of them got their hands on spells like they were working with? Not to mention what had convinced her to engage in their pernicious plot?

My conscience gradually started making demands that I seize on this opportunity to find any answers I could. Professionally I know that it wasn’t required for me to earn my pay. That had already been accomplished, I didn’t have to know the how and why of what had happened. But it didn’t keep me from still wanting to make sense of this whole mess.

“You want to educate me on how you became caught up in this whole ordeal,” I questioned, hoping got coax her into conversation. “Can’t say it is exactly common for someone like yourself Lillian to be involved with a Butcher let alone either of you to be using magic of the caliber the pair of you was about to. Stay silent if it suits you, but seems to me that things couldn’t have been overly unpleasant in Hereward’s employ.”

Lillian’s tumbling tresses caught the passing lamplight and cast it back like that of a pond at midnight. The taunting twitch of it swaying about was gone, leaving no readable clue to imply how she would react. For half a block I allowed her quiet and had nearly accepted her refusal to talk to me.

Passing under the smooth branches of a tree shaped from living stone I was promptly proven wrong. The light was interrupted as it reached out in its tasked duty to dismiss the darkness. “I’m not sure how we met,” Lillian acknowledged. She sounded different now; almost a child-like confusion was present in her tone. 

“We’ve known each other forever, always dreamed of opening a little shop of our own. Me and him met up on an empty side street some time back and worked out a plan. Messages kept coming to us, offering us more and more money if we kept Baylen’s patrons clear of Howlers Hall. But…” Lillian halted both in speech and in motion.

“Nobody was aware of our scheme. I never told anyone, I swear! And try as hard as I dare I cannot remember anyone delivering the messages to us. Nor can I bring to mind any memory of the man until recently. Whispering winds, what have I done?”

Curse my curiosity! Now I was really going to need Maeredith’s help. With a monumental shift in the way my luck was going tonight, maybe I could find her in a decent mood. And while I was counting miracles; manage to keep my big mouth from making this worse. I already had a captured criminal to turn in that may or may not have committed a crime under another’s influence and I hadn’t even been paid yet.

I definitely need to start making a list of things not to do; like speak without thinking first and avoiding my nose from getting stuck where it shouldn’t.