Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Hound Hunting - Chapter 18.



There is only so much time you can spend starring at a gremlin fiddling his way around the object of his curiosity. I could see some of the subtle spell threads as he poked and probed his way blindly about to try and uncover their secrets. But even to my gifted eyes there was little that I could truly see. Glitch was being guided far more effectively by his own intuition than any help I could give him. So I decided to give him some space and set my small kettle out on the stove.

In so many ways there is a pure unassuming relaxation to be found in life’s little rituals. For me, it can be just as simple as brewing up a hot beverage. Not being used to fixing for two I had to adjust my regular routine by getting two mugs out instead of one and alter my amounts. Did Glitch even like hot tallow tree tea? It wasn’t quite like the more commonly consumed teas most people drank. Tallow tree tea tended to be darker and harsher but I personally preferred it. That and it had a little added impact of giving your mind a nice jolt. On those slow mornings it was about as effective at motivating you as being kicked by a beast of burden or falling into frigid water. Of all the options available, I think I’d stick to my tallow tree tea. Call me crazy but it just seemed like the more enjoyable choice.

By the time the kettle had began to whistle its little water fueled warning Glitch still showed no sign of returning to reality. I tried to consider how complicated something so seemingly simple could possibly be as I started to pour the steaming water into my mugs. Truth told I probably knew as much about how the tea was gathered and ground or whatever they did to make it as I did about the amber amulet. As far as I could guess it couldn’t be too difficult but it was a topic I regrettably was rather ignorant on.

The tea steeped as I watched it darken gradually. There are times when it is good to remind yourself that there are always things that you aren’t aware of. It isn’t healthy to go through life expecting that you have every answer or necessarily safe either. I let that thought trickle through me like the hot water did likewise to the tea.

A pair of dark skinned pointy ears pricked up suddenly to alert my attention. Glitch blinked hesitantly at first, and then he started to shake off some form of fog that I had to guess was similar to waking up from a heavy slumber. I nearly forgot all about the tea until my hand bumped the edge of the cabinet it rested atop of with a jerk.

“Care for something to drink,” I politely offered. Graciously Glitch accepted and held his hot cup before him, taking a short sip before he spoke. “This is good,” he commented, a clear strain of spent strength present. “That amber is far older than almost any artifact of arcane origin I have ever encountered. I can’t conceive of whoever worked to create it willingly releasing it. There is too much emotion invested in it, to much time. It has been dreaming for far too long and only recently become reawakened.”

“By the way you talk, I’d hazard a guess that you discovered something,” I attempted to approach the conversation carefully. “I did,” Glitch confirmed before filling his mouth with a larger pull of liquid. My own tea sat untouched and virtually ignored. I tried to ask about what he found but no words formed from my tongue. Fortunately they weren’t needed as Glitch resumed relaying the results of his research after the bulk of his beverage disappeared.

“This is an orphaned object. It is a small piece of a greater whole and someone has gone to great links to manipulate the magic used to make it. The reason that you can’t see any trace of spells on it is because it is passively using all ambient arcane energy around it to blind you. Think of a fog or blizzard – a heavy rain even; no one snowflake or rain drop can have much affect. However, when you pull a large number together they can strip you of sight.

This has been turned into a mask for anything magical and it uses the very magic flowing around it to accomplish it. At one time it had been fashioned for other things but something has tampered and twisted it. My guess would be that they took advantage of its long sleep and the fact that as something separated there is a strong natural need for it to return to what it once was a part of.”

“Where could something like that have come from?” The question was meant for me but once again it managed to make itself known to the both of us. “There is no way that Lillian had the sheer skill needed to accomplish something that advanced. Could this thing have caused harm to someone who had it? Something like shattering their mind or warping their will by any chance?”

“Hard to say,” Glitch answered. “This has become an abomination after a fashion from what it was shaped for. But I can’t say for certain that it did the damage itself though. What I would say is a more likely explanation is that whoever bent this might have done something similar to someone else. Wouldn’t be easy, or quick and they’d have to have considerable raw power and a lack of convictions against using it so.”

That had me worried. “If there are more things like these still circulating around, could they be used to completely blind anyone from following who did it?” Already I had felt a faint force trying to distract me. Could this amber be a piece of that puzzle?

“Can you identify whoever or whatever modified this things magic Glitch?” Once more the gremlin gave me a grave look of consideration before answering. Then his eyes shot over to spot the second warm mug of tea that I had forgotten and I slid it over to him. He greeted it gratefully and began sipping the beverage.

“That would be incredibly doubtful if I had to bet anything important on it,” Glitch admitted between swallows. “Not unless whoever managed to do this somehow foolishly left some trace of the mangled magic’s core components attached to them. It’d be a mistake that might rival painting the castle walls red and forgetting to wash your hand. You’d be easy enough to spot but in this case I don’t think I’d want to risk getting close enough to check.

I can say this much though; this isn’t the kind of item one just happens upon at the corner curiosity shop. Someone had to hunt this thing down from some resting place – possibly as aged as the artifact it held. I’d say we’re looking for some tomb thief at the very least.”

“Or someone who catches them,” I corrected. Things were starting to add up, at least in a plausible-yet-unproven sort of way. Glitch may not have all the same details that I did but he had enough to get a good idea of what was going on. By taking what he had been able to provide me with I could incorporate it into the rest of the known facts. For one thing; if I was after objects of old power I would definitely want to keep my tracks as hard to follow as possible. Somebody was clearly making sure of that. Secondly, they were killing and finding things that they shouldn’t be able to. That fit right in with everything Aethen had informed me. This further pushed the working theory of a SpellHound being involved into the more likely category.

But who could it be? Of all the SpellHounds serving, how many could have possibly engaged in anything of this caliber without raising suspicion? Further more; how could any SpellHound have been able to acquire any type of artifact like the amber amulet without it being noticed? It wasn’t like they allowed you to just pocket any old piece of property you stumbled across when you caught a fugitive or criminal. Quite the opposite in fact; even the most mundane materials were examined, cataloged and destroyed or deposited into storage for safekeeping.

The more I thought about it, the more something still didn’t quite track with that. Not even some of the more prominent figures among the SpellHounds were beyond reproach if they even considered keeping anything. I couldn’t even conceive of someone like Corrin Cindercleave of being able to avoid punishment if he didn’t immediately submit it into inventory or evidence. It just isn’t something that is easy to accomplish when every one of your peers can sense even the faintest trace of magic. And if someone had been forced to alter the little amber arcane artifact that would imply that at least originally it might not have been able to conceal itself. If that was the case it would have been a dead give away to anyone of us around when it was found.

“For arguments sake,” I mused aloud. “Let’s assume for a second that someone was arrogant enough to go to the trouble of tinkering with the trinket and didn’t bother to completely make sure that some small sign stayed behind to mark them. Or, perhaps, that they left some final fragment around to keep themselves a trail or tie to other pieces. Is it at all possible that we could be able to locate them at all by taking advantage of that?”

For a split second I could almost believe that I could hear and smell the grinding of metal cogs somewhere within Glitch’s head. His expression became one of complete concentration as he honed his intellect in to address the idea. He even sat his still half-full mug down as he brought his entire attention to bear on the theory.

“If I can manage to extract a small sample of the spell shaped core of the amber I could maybe provide you with a moment where you could key in on it,” he eventually explained. “However, it would only be a faint whisper with which to go on and it would fade fairly fast. But I think I could accomplish it. Just let me retrieve some of my tools and I’ll get to work.”

“Fair enough,” I admitted as I watched him touch the tiny toy he had placed on my wall before disappearing out the door. It was more to go on than I had before. And if whoever had been behind this had been foolish enough to think they had covered their trail so thoroughly they might have made that very unfortunate error in judgment. Even so, that also made me begin to question just how sane my quarry might be. So far they had held the hallmarks of someone who was smart, sneaky and sadistic. I didn’t want to add unstable into the possible profile as well.

When you go after something as ruthless as any primal predator, you have to stay on your toes. Because the worst thing you can do is let your guard down. It isn’t like pursuing any manner of panic-stricken prey like a frightened fugitive. They can be dangerous enough when you back them into a corner, but it isn’t the same kind of titanic trouble you invite by hunting a hunter. If you challenge a creature comfortable with claws of its own and without compassion for anything else, well, there is no telling what might get harmed in the process.

But, at least you could anticipate such actions from you foe, you knew what to expect. In a way it was a sobering thought. You couldn’t count on any such knowledge if you were going up against something gone mad. There was no calculating what they might do, when they would or even how.

There was an encounter I became involved in early on after I became a SpellHound. A young sorcerer had been experimenting on his family’s livestock, eventually resulting in a broken brained boar with spell-shaped strength. The sorcerer hadn’t put up too much of a fight when he was facing a few SpellHounds. His pet, however, was a different story entirely.

The boar battled every move made to peacefully contain it. When strategies shifted to engage it with force, it fled erratically. But the most unsettling concern was when it gored with an unnaturally grizzly glee some of the other boars. For whatever reason I never could reason out if it had become so warped that it couldn’t discern between threats or if it had simply become so spiteful of spirit. Regardless, in the end it was brought down with enough blows that nothing enough remained to even resemble what it was born into this world as.

Just before it went down, the beast had started to submit to the sorcerer’s sister only to snarl and attempted attacking. The animal was just too far gone to even consider saving. It was through no fault of its own but it was still too dangerous; it couldn’t be allowed to live. Even so, I couldn’t help but wonder what havoc it might have wrought if it had been something even larger or more lethal than a boar. What if it had grown cunningly crazed as well as sadistically strong?

A twinge of regret slithered straight through me and left me with a slight shiver. At least we had limited the loss of life to that of livestock, instead of where it could have lead to. I still would rather face murderous magic than a mad mind any day though.

Realizing, rather regrettably that I had missed out on my tea I let a curse slip out under my breath. With a sigh I set myself about to start brewing up another batch of beverages while waiting for Glitch to return. Something told me that we both were going to need it.