Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Hound Hunting - Chapter 26.



There was a depth of dark power that thrummed through the air to become pervasive. It hung behind the vast veil like a massive maw hidden just beyond a heavy curtain. All it would take would be one unsuspecting soul to draw that drape aside to declare itself prey – and I was that fool apparently. But I refused to let anyone else suffer at the hands of some sinister scheme. Too many I had known had been hurt in one form or another; some still struggled with recovering.

Through the fog that afflicted my senses I couldn’t make out much about the surroundings. Everything was muted and distorted so that nothing could be made out clearly. But none of that mattered to me right now. Only the focus I kept my attention trained on was of importance. The trailing thread of the spellcrafted signature was all that mattered, and I clung to it with an iron grip.

At the heart of the conjured chaos was the central courtyard outside the castle gates. Bodies were scattered about, left to lay in limp lifeless poses, many of them bent into unnatural angles. Some bore the markings of a SpellHound while others looked to be little more than innocent civilians unfortunate enough to be present at the wrong place at the worst time.

It was hard to gauge what manner of magic or weapon had wrought such slaughter. There were signs of scorching on bare bones while flesh remained flayed on others. It was like looking on after a storm of surging sadistic glee that it haunted you with a sick feeling I couldn’t shake. Nothing mortal in any manner could have committed this carnage, I decided. The whole scene made my blood begin to boil, which couldn’t calm the churning in my stomach but it did displace it slightly.

Standing in the center of the spell that highlighted the horror around me was a lone figure that stood silently surveying the sealed gate surrounded by stubborn stone. The worst of the magic that worked against my SpellHound senses was weaker here so close to the heart of its source, but its effects still tore at me, forcing me to keep my concentration. I suppose I expected to find some fiendish figure clad in a deep hooded cloak but beyond the mask of magic I discovered no manner of disguise awaiting me.

I recognized the light leather, trimmed in pale blues and soft white of the armor at once. Gone though was the official uniform of a SpellHound, yet a short sword still hung from a hip. In either hand was held a rod of some kind. One looked to be wrought out of iron while the other could have been fashioned from wood. A collection of assorted items were hung from tied lengths of cord and more were tucked into a belt in disarray – many of them bearing the hum of the same ancient arcane artifact of amber we had analyzed.

Without waiting to look on the face I already knew would only confirm the truth I already struggled with accepting I spoke the one word that was resting on my lips. “Why,” I asked; it was the only question I could coherently form in the dizzying flood of mixed emotions swirling around inside me. Part of me pleaded for an explanation, anything that might make sense. Had she survived whatever had happened here? If so, then why was she carrying the very things that were responsible for leading me here? Why was Wynna Snowsong standing in the eye of the sorcerer’s storm that was blinding every SpellHound in Emberhelm?

I didn’t want to hear the answer that I feared was awaiting me. And when Wynna turned to face me, her eyes made every hair on my body stand on edge and my nerves ignite with fire. Every instinct in me all joined together in a chorus that championed any course of action that would carry me clear of my former colleague. Her once brilliant emerald eyes instead only held a vivid void of viridian.

Blazing behind the spell shroud power welled up and warped the air around her. Raw wild energies were arcing off of her and slithering along her skin. It was unlike anything else I had ever seen and now I could understand part of the puzzle. Wynna had made of herself a massive battery of magic. She was draining things of their deadly destructive energies and then filtering them back out through her. I shuddered at the thought of what being hit by a meager measure of that magic might do. I didn’t want to even entertain any ideas about how it would feel to try and hold on to it.

“My friend,” Wynna welcomed me with a lukewarm half smile. “You are an infuriatingly hard headed hound who holds know allegiance to any authority. So, do tell; what is a mix-blooded mutt like you doing sniffing around after me?” A sudden surge showed itself in a spark near the tip of one rod before it rippled down its length to dance about.

Had she even heard me ask her my own inquiry first? You’re about to argue with a crazy lady, I cautioned myself and swallowed my objection along with a gulp I didn’t bother with hiding. Based on the ample evidence all around, it didn’t take a sharp-witted scholar to come to the conclusion that Wynna was little more than a ticking bomb of titanic proportions. I had no desire to join the rest of the dead currently close by.

“Well,” I stumbled with how to respond before deciding on what came natural to me. “You know how we mongrel mutts are; never keen on doing as we’re told and too curious to quiet when caution would warrant.” I tried to study her movements as I spoke, looking for anything that might grant me some idea of what to anticipate as how she would react to my words. But her body language was too erratic to tell me anything. She shifted her stance in a restless array of impulsive jerks and her eyes darted around to only occasionally fix themselves on me.

There had to be some way to keep her thoughts trained on me lest some whim direct her to return to her recent rampage. Not only that, but I could feel Glitch positioned just behind me, safely sheltered in my shadow. Should Wynna lay eyes on a gremlin in tow with me she might attack us both before we could make any move to stop her. And at the moment I still had no clue how you could stop something like what she had shaped herself into. Or, even if it was something anyone could possibly accomplish.

Relying on a combination of our old custom of quipped barbs and sarcastic remarks I tried to draw out more of her competitive nature. Maybe if I could use her never-ending need to prove herself better than me I could prevent her from breeching the castle’s gate. Should she make it any further inside there was no doubt in my mind that many more would die and some of them could be of royal blood. I may not be beholden to them by any bond or oath but it wasn’t right to leave anyone at the mercy of the mixture of madness and magic that Wynna represented.

“What’s wrong Wynna,” I challenged playfully. “You didn’t honestly think you could keep the most talented tracker who ever served from your trail, did you?” A fell fury formed behind her eyes, like the promise of an endless abyss and the crushing weight it could offer. “Don’t tell me you actually believed a mutt like me could be fooled by your clumsy tricks and terrible traps. It was only a matter of time before you ran out of room to run – just like any other fleeing fugitive.”

My words speared into her and stung enough to engulf her with the outrage of pained pride. Wynna wailed at the wound my words wrought within her and her spell-shimmering skin nearly changed into a covering of conjured flame. Her hands lashed out at me with those rigid rods already in her grip while I had only just barely slipped my own steel free from its sheath.

“How dare you besmirch my superior skill, you mutt,” she spat. By reflex my sword arm shot out to block the more impending blow of the rod in her left that was seeking to strike at my neck. But in doing so I couldn’t spare any momentum to adjust my defense against its sibling. This, upon me making my decision changed its attack angle to crash into my outstretched wrist just as my sword had offered its resistance against the other rod. Electric fire exploded up my arm and snapped my strength like a twig to send my sword tumbling.

Reeling in pain I scrambled to move out of reach and endeavored to find any way of aiding my chances of surviving the current combat while unarmed. I reached for my dagger but my hand refused to grasp it, offering only sizzling sharp discomfort instead. Opting for my off hand I drew it and hoped for the best.

With at least some blade to bear against my opponent I stood my ground. And only then did I discover that in the melee Glitch had also been sent tumbling into view. He was already hurrying back onto his feet but Wynna was loosing a blast before he would have any chance to avoid it. Without my sword to help ground me and focus the rushing forces there was no way I could channel it away, let alone try to block it.

That didn’t stop me from trying anyway.