Sunday, April 6, 2014

Hound Hunting - Chapter 23.

“Talk to me, Stane,” I tried to spark the conversation by sprinting straight into the subject at hand. “We just survived a strike from the sky by dawn devil – there is no stretching the imagination on explaining that one. Someone clearly either wants you quiet or me out of the way.”

“Or both,” Stane admitted somewhat neutrally. I nearly chuckled at the comment despite the seriousness of the situation. “You always were a ray of sunshine, weren’t you,” I countered. The pair of us shared a short smile while our resident gremlin was a little less cheerful. Stane’s axe shifted restlessly in his grip and he nervously moved it between both his hands.

“Alright,” he eventually surrendered with a long slow sigh that brought his shoulders low with it. “Here’s the deal, but you’ll have to bear with me because it might not make a whole lot of sense. I have, in fact, run into something similar to the spellcrafted gear you describe. But the situation was complicated and there is no way that what you’re chasing is directly connected.”

“Go on,” I implored, eager to gain potentially beneficial insight of any kind. It wasn’t like Stane to hold out on me, something strange must be going on. Then again, it isn’t everyday you have strangers chucking pilfered dawn devil eggs or the remnants thereof at you. It was no small wonder why we had been delivered such a deadly dangerous invitation for injuries of the permanent variety.

“It was a fairly run-of-the-mill objective,” Stane moved on with his explanation. I gave him some room and tried not to interrupt him as he recalled the details as readily as he was delivering his official report on the matter. “There was a wily young wizard that had reared his head and seemed determined to make him a reputation of the ruthless kind. A small squad of SpellHounds was dispatched to locate and respond to the growing threat he posed.”

Stane started pacing about as he spoke, keeping his head trained at his feet as he did. I couldn’t recall ever seeing the guy so affected by any encounter. Even the ones he questioned the orders behind he could set aside under the general heading of ‘duty, service and the good of all Emberhelm.’ Never had he had any trouble or discomfort in what he been involved with. It was one of the only real differences we had between us.

“The mage was a young little whelp, barely older than a pup, honestly. We ran him down after a bit and I was the Interdictor he had the misfortune of meeting when he came to the end of his rope. But it didn’t go down anything like I could have ever expected. The kid was a cold blooded killer like some of the violent villains the veterans talk about after staying too long in the taverns. Not only that but he had some deep pockets of power, make no mistake.

Anyways, I moved to end his attempt at escape and the two of us went toe to toe. I was certain I had him dead to rights, on the ropes and at his limit – you know? Well, I was woefully wrong in every way you could comprehend. The wizard did something I hadn’t seen coming, wasn’t even prepared for it at all.

The two of us were hedged in to this little grove of wood line that was edged by rough rocky terrain. Thinking I had him cornered and deceived by the notion that I was dealing with a kid not yet old enough to have earned his whiskers I had let my guard slip. It was exactly the reaction he had been playing for and I fell for it. By the time he had let slip his surprise spell strike I didn’t have the chance to stop it.”

A visible shiver swept through Stane as he paused briefly in his recounting of the encounter. After the moment to compose him self he continued. “It was unlike anything I’d ever seen, Nathanial, something akin to raw arcane power poured into a pillar and sent shooting my way. Even if I hadn’t been caught with my axe at my ankles I doubt I could have blocked a barrage like that, let alone channeled it away completely. By all accounts I shouldn’t even be standing here to say such things.”

Stane was one of the most formidable fighters I had ever known. He had never shown any form of fear, cowardice or shame the entire time I had been around him. I couldn’t even imagine him fleeing from his father as a kid to avoid being punished for something. It just didn’t seem like it was in him. But when his eyes met mine I could see a weight there that almost could be described as doubt; the brutal burden of being left alive after something lethal that should have claimed your life. It made my stomach turn sour and my heart ache to see it there in Stane of all people.

“Someone far swifter than me moved in between us and took that blast instead of me.” There was an eerie element to the statement that caught at me, it made me feel unquestionable that I was the first person to ever hear them spoken aloud. Every hair on my body stood on edge and questions exploded inside me like some erupting volcano. But for the look on his face I reined them in and allowed him to continue.

“While I watched on helplessly the wizard poured everything he had into the attack. You can’t comprehend the flood of forces that were flying through the air. He tapped every available source of arcane power and drove it with a dark determination into the blast. The tools he carried were stripped of every wisp of the wonder they once had been worked into wielding.

The fates alone know what happened next. There was so much sorcery swarming around us that you could barely see. Somehow we survived, the two of us, and the mad mage fell after exhausting all his resources. We were able to bring him back in shackles and surrendered him into custody for summary sentencing. Nothing of his possessions remained after the assault, not one single spark of a spellcrafted item. Even so, we recovered and delivered all the evidence along with him. It was all old and similar in sounding to what you describe – every bit of it is worthless junk now though.

That is all I know, you have my word,” Stane swore solemnly to me. “I cannot tell you where anything else came from, we never even uncovered where he acquired them from. But I can assure you that the wizard met justice and nothing of his belongings could have been passed into the hands of the inhabitants of Emberhelm.”

There was a single question that stood out louder than all the others warring within me to demand an answer. It nagged at me like no other and once the opportunity presented itself I seized the opening and pressed forward to seek its satisfaction. I simply had to know.

“Who was it,” I demanded, an air of authority and a chord of command present in my tone. “Who took the blast for you? You didn’t report that part did you, Stane? You couldn’t admit, officially, that you were almost ambushed by a child and someone else nearly paid the price in your place. I need to know who it was; I need you to tell me what you couldn’t tell them. Who saved you Stane?”

Renewed anguish afflicted Stane, who closed his eyes firmly in response to being reminded of whatever he was hiding. I could sympathize with the guy; someone had saved his life when he let his guard down. Not only just that but he had to have felt responsible for them nearly being killed in an act that had spared his own life. If he had reported any of it both of them could have been removed from duty until they were deemed fit for service. It was the kind of thing that could destroy Stane; he lived for a life of being of service – of being a source of safety for others. I could see why he might have kept his secret, but it was time to release it now.

“It was Wynna,” he confessed in a hushed hoarse voice. “Wynna Snowsong stepped into the spell blast in my place. The screams it caused her I can’t ever forget, I was certain I was watching her final moments. It was madness I tell you, no one deserved that. When it was over, I thought I owed it to her to keep her from having to relive it every time she looked another person in the eye.”

“And what happened to everyone else,” I asked without waiting for any degree of etiquette to be implied. “They didn’t make it,” Stane said ashamed. “Wait what do you mean by that, what happened to them?”

“The wizard had left traps behind him we discovered,” he told me hollowly. “Some of them used lures to draw us in; others were skillfully hidden to defy detection. Only the two of us made it back with our objective in tow.”

I felt like I was going to be sick. I also couldn’t find it in me to question Stane further. He’d been through enough, Wynna too. She could have said something though, but I guess she figured I might think about it as some form of weakness. It was a miracle that they both had made it back, given time I figured they would recover from it. We could all use such fortune right about now.