Thursday, March 20, 2014

Hound Hunting - Chapter 6.



For the second time tonight I found my thoughts tangled and my feet carrying me back towards Howlers Hall. Try as I might I couldn’t swallow the same lie that I had told Maeredith; I had become involved in whatever was happening. It didn’t matter what words I used to convince myself otherwise, I had caught wind of something and there would be no resting until I got to the bottom of it.

Besides, Baylen had asked me personally to do anything I could on Lillian’s behalf. It had been the right thing to do and to that end I had already given him my word. And that is one thing I can’t bear to break. Whatever was going on had turned Lillian and perhaps the Butcher both into some kind of tools. But to what end, I had to ask myself. What purpose could they have served?

There were still too many pieces in play; I had only unraveled a few loose threads of whatever pernicious plot was already in motion. My gut told me that anyone capable or wiling to so completely alter another wouldn’t stop short there. No, this was too complicated and for there to be no clear trail to follow there was no simple solution.

I didn’t even have a clue as to how much of Lillian was left to her. Could the only remaining bits of her be some strung together creation that was only capable of playing its part? Did she even fully realize the scope of what had happened or would she ever even be able to comprehend what her crimes cost her? The thought that she might be paying the price for someone else didn’t make me feel any better.

If some sinister sorcerer was at work towards a sadistic scheme I would never rest knowing that still more strangers might be the ones to suffer before this was over. My father had paid such a price for doing the right thing when a coward made an attempt on the life of a royal. Before him a hot headed young hex slinger took my mother from me. There was a debt this city owed me that it could never repay; it couldn’t afford increasing in its obligations towards any others.

So what if I would be taking on the extra trouble of a case without a paying client. I could always just bill the throne, right? They’re good for it. I didn’t even know if Lillian had any family herself, or children for that matter. But I knew one person who might, someone who had already assured me that he had known her for a long time. As for the Butcher I supposed there might be someone out there who care about him, I mean everyone has a mother. Or so, I’ve been told. But I had no way of locating them, nor did I even have any information regarding who he was or how they were connected.

The first scent to seek out would have to be anything more I could uncover about Lillian, and that aligned nicely enough with my current destination. Once I had been paid I could try and put myself on the trail by looking into her. Either way it could help my hunt along and keep a few folks I owed off my backs while I did so. The last thing I was going to need any additional assaults on my attention. And if a debt is owed and the issue is constantly brought before you it can do just that. It’s never good to avoid your obligations.

Something still didn’t smell right though; literally. While I walked back across town to navigate my way towards Howlers Hall I was bothered by it. An overwhelmingly out of place odor on the air that seemed to mingle with everything else, yet was barely detectable. It was the strangest scent I’ve ever encountered, some manner of sorcery that stained the air in every direction.

I’ve hunted down murderous mages before, even sniffed out saboteurs using spellblast seal way to stop a signed treaty. There was a case of cursed clothes a mischievous merchant had planned to peddle as a joke that I accidentally ambushed. But never had I found anything so faint and so pervasively, well – everywhere. It set my ears on edge; I ran threats down, but I always had a trail to follow to do so. All of Emberhelm was one giant trail now.

How do you hunt something when its scent is simply everywhere? I’ve heard of a trail going cold, even following the remnants of a spells magical mark could eventually fade into oblivion. There were tricks; I am sure there were even so many more than I was aware of that I could never comprehend. But something like this, this kind of thing could only set SpellHounds into a frenzy chasing their own tales. It would only succeed in wasting time.

Which is exactly what I was letting it do I realized with a start. I was distracting myself with this presented puzzle, and if I started allowing myself to pursue it I would only add a former SpellHound to the number of goose-seekers. No, I had to remind myself that my best plan was for my next action to be securing my funds and further information. Something told me that if everyone kept running at whatever was going on blindly that it would end badly.

And if not myself, who else would stop and start asking questions? That thought made me pause to review recent run-ins I’d had with my past peers. As much as I might not agree with some of them all the time, I couldn’t see some of them ignoring some of the signs of impending danger. Maeredith couldn’t ignore whatever she had seen I was certain. Stane was a dependable guy, and although he could be a little lacking in scholarly smarts he was by no means un-observant or capable. I had faith that any clues he caught eye on were already keeping him on his guard. Wynna would always be eager for some fresh fiend to chase in her endless attempt to prove her supremacy. Besides, despite her jesting jabs at my expense she’d not be above looking for any excuse to hunt me down, even just for laughs. And Corrin, no doubt would welcome any reason to put him to the task of eliminating any threat to appear. That man seemed to be crafted for the sole existence of extinguishing enemies of Emberhelm.

Doubt still drilled away inside me. All of them, every single one were constrained by an almost literal leash that lay at the foot of the throne. No matter how competent they may be, or how driven in their appointed assignments; at the end of the day they still were bound by sworn service. All it would take was one official order, one refused request and they could be defeated – derailed.

They were tied to the throne and the royals who ruled from it. Regardless of the wisdom at work all it would take is one foolish fancy or reckless reaction and any serving SpellHound could be sent sniffing after smoke. I didn’t even want to begin to picture all the city streets with spooked SpellHounds on the prowl for elusive enemies.

Its bad enough most folks find it uncomfortable in the company of anyone who can see aspects of nature all around them at work when they can’t. Add to that a potential witch hunt for some ghost that we may or may not be able to track and you’re asking for anarchy. Besides, not every SpellHound is patient in their performed service. Some are simply far too eager to follow their quarry to the hunts conclusion. No matter what the end result is.

While I’ve never been good at letting go of a scent once it attracted my attention, my conscience couldn’t permit me to do so in ignorance. Maybe I couldn’t keep from seeing this thing through but I had to ask the questions that would haunt me otherwise. Because once you reach the end of the trail and you find something standing there it is never a clear situation.

Without knowing the details, you can’t damn someone to their death – even if it is by another hand than your own. My blade’s edges may be blunted but if I used it to harry anything than I would be just as guilty as if I introduced them to their end myself. If you are going to put yourself against something then it is best to do so knowing what you face. Right now I was impotently ignorant to whatever was making a move, and that was doubly dangerous.

So lost to my own mess of a mind had I become that without warning I nearly collided quite completely into a firmly fortified pole bearing an Everlight lantern. Under its now swaying spell light I stumbled to reorient myself. The sounds of conversation, clinking glasses and a crackling fire reached me at once. With Howlers Hall once again before me, I shook my head to try and clear any of the confusion I could from it. Finding it mostly a failure, I decided to go on in anyway.

Things had already started to pick back up, a fact that I could only attribute to a quick-paced word of mouth about what had already transpired earlier in the evening. The place still was far from packed by any means but compared to the meager amount around before there had to be two or three times their number now. Baylen was busy back behind his broad topped bar, once more looking comfortable in his craft.

It didn’t take much effort to navigate my way over to find an empty space along the bar. And true to form, Baylen didn’t waste any time before giving me his customary grin of greeting. Then he turned his attention elsewhere and continued welcoming others whiling keeping their cups wet. The man seemed to make an effortless display of juggling all the work that it would take multiple other hands to handle in some establishments.

As politely as I could manage it, I tried to time a friendly gesture to call on Baylen when next his gaze passed my way. My hand was casually extended upward ever so slightly in anticipation of asking for a moment when something flew frighteningly fast towards it. It smacked into the bare skin of my palm with more weight than expected and left my hand tingling to the point of threatening numbness.

“Sharpened spears,” I muttered a curse under my breath and reached down to examine the mysterious missile. A plain pouch of thick cloth lay atop the table, the bulged bundle skidding to a stop after hitting my hand. There was an audible tinkle of coins bumping about when I retrieved it and Baylen was suddenly standing behind it.

“Your fee, plus a meager token of my appreciation – twenty five Steel Shields and a Silver Sigil,” the bearded barman beamed. Had he just said what I think he did? My standard rate should have only amounted to fifteen, maybe twenty Steel Shields at most. I wouldn’t by any rights be above accepting a generous increase of twenty five; that would be enough to keep me in the clear for the next few weeks easily.

But to add an extra Silver Sigil into the deal, that kind of money could keep me afloat for months. Had I really earned that manner of compensation? Perhaps old Baylen had indeed been suffering far more than I had ever truly anticipated. Most day to day transactions were made using the infamous minted metal money we all called Steel Shields – because they were made of steel and bore an emblem of a shield ironically enough.

Traditionally you could still pay for purchases or other business in worked goods instead. That is how the whole necessity of using metal as money began. Gold became scarce and was relegated as a royal resource too valued for trade. Silver was then the coin of higher cost currency, and with many commoners needing metal for various trades it simply developed. One person might pay you a dagger for cow; another might offer you a steel staff for a tract of land.

In short; there is value in the material and in the craft of shaping it. But let’s face it, not everyone wanted to carry about a series of various metal items or what not to do trade with. Hence the solution of the Steel Shield piece: you could pay a smith a number of coins for his work and he could literally turn a portion of them into a tool you needed while keeping the remainder. And the result could still be traded or valued just as highly – possibly more if he is quite skilled.

I could only stare at my sack of steel and silver, thoughts of fortune finally finding its way to smile upon me. Baylen punctuated the moment perfectly by playing a heady brew before me and his smile somehow managed to grow even warmer. “I believe I owe you a drink as well,” he said ever so friendly.

Delightfully I accepted with a merry bow and took a swig. It was like drinking in liquid sunlight from a summer’s day. Refreshing and clean, warming me all the way to the core. While I relished the relaxing sensation I couldn’t help but consider that I did have time to perhaps order another drink while I engaged in educating myself further. I had indeed earned it after all and there was some breathing room in my finances of late.

So I called for Baylen with a wave of my hand and set myself to the task.