Monday, March 31, 2014

Hound Hunting - Chapter 17.

I’d never been in the habit of having very many visitors inside my humble home let along trying to fit much more than myself inside at any one time. But strangely enough Glitch didn’t seem to make it any shorter on space than if it was just me alone. The obvious explanation was that since he was somewhat smaller than me it wasn’t comparable to me having to share the living space with anyone larger. Yet, I also couldn’t discount the fact that he had been used to calling an even smaller pile of scrap home might have something to do with it. My place must seem like a palace in comparison.

He had even patched up a few things like my chairs that I had only been able to piece back together into a makeshift manner. As I glanced around I caught sight of the differences, all the little things that stood out to me from how I had left them. Things like my chairs for example, some of my books had been respectfully returned to their rightful places and there was something new mounted to my wall as well.

It looked harmless enough, like an unassuming slender plaque that I couldn’t identify the material that had been used to make it. For all I could tell it might have been shaped from some exotic wood, but I wasn’t certain. The only thing that I was sure of was that until Glitch held his hand up to it, I couldn’t detect any magic moving through it. Once he had however, pulsing power scattered its way to weave a web of worked spells all over my home. Leaving a gossamer glow of sigils and glyphs that marked its presence as easily as moonlight marks the night.

“Glitch, where did that thing come from,” I asked immediately. “Oh, I found it,” he told me flatly. “Some people throw the strangest things out for the junk pile. It is very handy for someone with some skill to scavenge them so they don’t go to waste.”

“What does it,” I started to ask, only to be cut off. Glitch gave me a stare that made me feel like some foolish young student. “It keeps things inside in and things outside out,” he eventually explained. I had already guessed as much and had been expecting something more along the lines of how it accomplished it. Or, perhaps to at least be told some degree of detail about it. After waiting for a few more moments no further information came, forcing me to accept I had all the answers I was going to get from a gremlin.

Deciding it was a better idea to redirect the conversation I debated about asking anything more on Glitch’s family or to mention the mysterious piece of amber. I wasn’t sure which would be the more appropriate subject, seeing as how his family seemed to be a sensitive one. Was it polite to probe a gremlin about personal matters I wondered? It wasn’t like there was a wealth of common knowledge available about what was rude to them, at least not that I was aware of.

The one thing I could count on was that they all shared a natural curiosity. It was within reason that a fresh puzzle might help him distract his thoughts long enough before we broached that issue. Besides I was rather interested in it myself, which reminded me of another thing; Glitch’s gadget had also eluded my senses until it activated. Could the two different creations share a similar characteristic that gave them such a capability?

“Glitch, why is it that I couldn’t tell that this toy of yours was here until now?” My inquiry sparked another surge of satisfaction from the small scrap-smith. “See, now you can tell it is more treasure than trash too,” he cheered. “Even a SpellHound can be blind to see such things from time to time.

There is more to magic than just what even you can see. There is so much more that isn’t easily experienced, it takes time to understand. Can you see the life that flows through the forest? Do you smell the fish deepest down in the dark water? No, not even a SpellHound can pierce beyond the surface of the oldest primal powers.

The spells shaped to craft that prize is far older than Emberhelm and make use of such potent forces.” I was still processing what he had said when my impromptu instructor fell silent. He had hit the nail on the head alright I suppose; SpellHound’s had been born with the ability to perceive magic in all its forms. We could see it, smell it, even taste and hear it. And as uncomfortable as it could be there were times we had to touch it.

Now, don’t misunderstand me because you walk around in a world where magic is everywhere. You can’t avoid coming in contact with it. But for a SpellHound there are times when you have to make use of your senses to discern how dangerous some things are that others aren’t aware of. And if that means you have malicious magic being slung at you, and then you needed to be able to feel what it could do in order to defend yourself. It isn’t exactly pleasant but it can be quite vital.

I couldn’t deny that there weren’t things that I had considered over the years that might exist that were hidden from me. There was just so much that I could sense that I had learned to ignore such ideas as being born of my imagination. Until recently I hadn’t ran across too much that made me question such concerns. Now I had to review those thoughts anew.

“Okay,” I granted that I couldn’t argue with his point. “So if I can see this thing while we are inside and it is active then why is it that it is invisible to me from outside?” This time my question elicited a contemplative rub of his chin before he formed a response. I couldn’t resist the realization that there might be an untold amount of knowledge that Glitch in particular could share with others if anyone bothered to listen. There was even the possibility that the gremlins as a whole might have much to teach as well. Who knew how much that their unique connection to things might have unlocked overtime.

“It sleeps until awakened,” he declared decisively. He seemed quite sure with his assessment, enough that he added a nod to punctuate his opinion. “When you are inside and ask it to wake up you can see the life return to it. But it keeps itself calm as if still slumbering to anything outside, that way it can spring to life catch things off guard.”

That did make sense in a strange bizarre sort of way I figured. Well, if you thought of such a thing as some kind of living breathing thing. This, for me, was a pretty big stretch to believe. It was reasonable that it was the best way Glitch could explain it though and at least it was a way to look at it that provided some insight.

“And what would make something block out all sign of magic entirely,” I had to ask, doing my own imitation of a scholar’s expression of examination. “Let’s say, for example, that you found an object that was around others of magical origin. Furthermore let’s say that all these things are possessions of someone known to have spellcrafting talent. What could not only resist retaining any residual trace of that touch, but also reduce the remaining evidence of everything around it?”

Glitch had to really consider that one for awhile. I actually decided to quit counting my minutes after mentally realizing I was near to running out of fingers. Could it be that I had just stumped my smart small little associate? I was honestly beginning to believe that there might be nothing about magic used in manufacturing such objects that he didn’t know. A bead of sweat began to trickle down my forehead as I started to face the concept that I might have over-estimated his wonderful wit.

“It wouldn’t be shaped of stone or steel,” Glitch mused aloud. His voice held an almost alien quality as he spoke – it was like listening to some out of place entity as it struggled to form a clear view of things. But instead of its analysis being one formed internally it was being birthed along with breath. The whole atmosphere around us was a peculiar mix of still air and strange silence.

“Such materials are strong, resilient; capable of holding a respectable repository of power for sustained use,” he continued his unconscious commentary. “But, not all energy can be contained thusly. Some forces need to flow as they naturally do; they need a living thing to tie them to a core of their creation. Very few living people have the memories of how such magic used to be molded to make such a vessel. And even less might have the mastery to recognize it rightly.”

Eyes the color of swimming salmon stared of into nothing as I studied Glitch’s face. Slowly they started to clear from whatever mental maze had gripped the gremlin. I couldn’t really mark what exactly it might mean, but I kept my attention firmly trained on the tiny tinkerer. There was more he had left to say, I could feel it.

“What you’re describing,” he offered as his voice returned to its more familiar sound. “The thing you speak of is a primal and quite potent natural method of magic. It would be bound to a substance that held a living life at some point. Stone may have held the energy of the earth passing through it, but what you seek would have had to been something that grew. For example a long lived limb of wood could be worked to provide its primal essence to some arcane energy if properly shaped. It isn’t easily done; it takes time and instinct to fuse everything intuitively in a way that can prevent becoming rejected. Things are done differently now; cruder some would say but progress is proof that elegance isn’t necessary if function is a foundation.”

At some point while Glitch had been sharing his speculations with me I had withdrew the amber amulet from my pocket. It still didn’t feel any different than any other commonly found chunk of solidified sap but it still seemed wrong to me. My fingertips felt their way over its exterior finding nothing out of the ordinary. My mind was still working to incorporate what Glitch had explained, trying to tie anything together it could.

Looking down at the yellowed brown substance resting in my hand seemed to draw Glitch’s eye. When I looked back up I could see the unspoken question behind his eyes. I didn’t have to tell him anything more than I already had. But it was in my nature to be straight with people.

“I found this at a lady’s house, among her things,” I admitted. “She was involved in a crime that took advantage of her ability to use magic. Problem is that someone has done something to her that has shattered her mind and left little clue as to what was going on. People have tried to kill me, her place was invaded – they killed her mother and nearly did the same to her father. There was a kid in the house who will probably never forget what happened and I have no idea if anything else was taken to cover their tracks.

Something very dangerous is in the works, Glitch, and I have been asked to get to the bottom of it. For fate’s favor I would have done so if for no other reason than people needed help. I have the ability to make a difference and there are people paying a price they don’t deserve.”

I had to take a second to compose myself before I continued. Once I had I made a conscious effort to try to get my focus back on track to where it needed to be. “So, is there any way you could figure out where this thing came from or how it works? Right now it is just about all I have to go on.”

An excited glee fell over Glitch that he couldn’t hide at all, not that it seemed like he even bothered to try. He grinned so big that his teeth even began to show; it was the fiendish look of fun that can make you hesitate. “Well, let’s take a little look-see, shall we,” he exclaimed.

Before I could make any move to say a word a thing of amber was already in his hand and being scrutinized. From the devilish drive that now motivated his every move I began to question if the trinket would still be in one piece by the time any answers came. But I suppose you just have to trust people sometimes.

Sunday, March 30, 2014

Hound Hunting - Chapter 16.

Midday had given way to afternoon as my booted feet hit the stone covered streets again. The rain had passed away, but hanging around I its wake was a gloomy sky of grey that impressed upon Emberhelm a reminder of recent weather. In the diffused light of day the plain piece of amber looked dull, lacking that luster that sunlight could cast it in. It added another element to the curious creation that made me wonder all the more just where it came from and what part it played. Or did it play any part at all?

No. I couldn’t allow myself any doubts now. This had to be my ticket to a trail, there was too much ambiguity amuck for an overly untouched article of amber. When there is an absolute lack of any tracks to follow, sometimes their very absence can be a clue all its own. That was the inherent hubris some people made when being hunted; they covered their tracks too well – they left things too clean. Even the softest steps can leave some sign or their passing. But when there isn’t any mark made by anything that is when even the most primal predator will ponder the puzzle.

I just needed Glitch to be able to provide me with anything he could about Lillian’s trinket. My feet fell into a steady pace while I tried to gauge where I should direct myself that would allow me the best odds of finding the genial gremlin. It wasn’t like he ever traveled far outside Gutterside much, so that narrowed things down considerably. Then I also remembered that I had ‘hired’ him to play watchdog on my wagon for me. If he was a creature of his word, and I had always known Glitch to be precisely that, he’d be stationed somewhere so that he could keep my home easily surveyed.

Garuff wasn’t above returning to remind me of where I stood in relation to him, predictably by means of entering my home to do as he pleased. He already had done more than enough to punctuate that point, and despite the fact that I had paid him I couldn’t rule out additional animosity. It was just in his nature to harass people I believe, as natural to him as breathing perhaps.

Having anyone I could trust at least keeping an eye on my place did make me feel a little better about everything though. Not that I didn’t have faith in Glitch being able to protect himself, but Garuff’s goons were far larger and could outnumber the little guy. I might have paid him to monitor my place but I hadn’t exactly invested enough in him to risk any injuries. Although, knowing Glitch he probably was clever enough to keep any combat quite calculated in his favor.

As an attempt to try and redirect my thoughts I set about reviewing a few things that I had been able to piece together so far. For starters; there was some individual or group going around sniffing out secret guards sworn to keep dangerous items hidden. How they were finding them was still a mystery since not even I had been given anything to go on about how to locate them or recognize one should I find myself starring one in the face. A minor detail I suppose.

To further complicate the case, the very things they were protecting were supposedly sealed away or hidden in some manner to remove the risk of them being discovered. And on the rare chance that one of them had been sniffed out then that would mean a SpellHound truly was involved. With me being the only one I could think of not being bound by my oath that was a scary thought. It also meant that if this thing went any worse on me then I was going to be sitting around with a big primary suspect sign around my neck. Say goodbye to my happy thoughts.

That left me with another thing to consider; Lillian. She was at least in some capacity a cause for me getting tangled up into this whole mess. Her and that Butcher hadn’t concocted their little scheme all on their own. If they had her mind wouldn’t have been ended up holier than a moth riddled rag. No, something or someone had used them as part of something – perhaps this greater game that was currently being played. I just had to connect all the pieces together.

Both Lillian and the Butcher had already some spellcasting skill. His were of the expectedly brutish variety while hers where not quite refined by any means but at least seemed to be something she had become comfortable with to some lesser degree. Most folks born into a world where they could wield any magic at all either shut themselves off from it or they embraced it. And of those who chose to cling to it they could seek the chance to study it or try and find their own way; the latter didn’t tend to produce respectable results. Lillian had been one of the rare few who had not found her way starring down a SpellHound in the streets – until now.

So now I had a brain blasted young spell-maiden sucked into some sinister scheme and no idea how she became involved. I had no clue how many more of these un-marked guardians might have died while I tried to make sense of anything, much less if more of these mysterious magical treasures have been stolen. Sadly, I couldn’t even convincingly say that I still had a home left to go back to I admitted. I mean, I hoped everything was still there, but against some of the grim circumstances starting to form, I had to consider my luck might only get worse before it kept improving.

Once more I felt the road beneath my feet give way to gravel and finally the packed stone dust of Gutterside. It was the kind of unspoken sensation that sent a tingle through your body as some small part of you whispered the confirmation: you’re home. No matter how far you go, or whatever becomes of you it is simply a natural byproduct of establishing some degree of roots for yourself. Even if your home is a beat up old caravan wagon permanently parked in perhaps the least prominent precinct.

It took me an extra few moments to single out Glitch’s familiar scent among the others of Gutterside. I had already started to accept that the arcane distortions that were present everywhere weren’t going anywhere. If I was going on the offensive to engage in some pernicious plot, then I’d want to both cover my tracks and slow down any attempts at intervention as well. The conjured clutter was certainly succeeding in all those areas.

The faint footsteps of the gremlin didn’t lead me back to his small shack. This wasn’t a complete surprise, since I had already expected that he might have taken up a position more suitable for keeping an eye on my place. What I hadn’t counted on was where I did find him; his trail had ended going inside my home. And there was no sign of him having exited.

“The gall of that gremlin,” I mumbled to myself immediately. “You pay a guy to keep an eye on a place so that nobody else goes inside to cause you any more problems and what does he do? He decides to park himself precisely where you wanted to keep people out of.” I had to remind myself to hold my tongue as I approached the door. It wasn’t exactly advisable or polite to ridicule someone who was doing you a favor. Besides, if he hadn’t expected me to walk in on him enjoying my humble abode then I could at least savor a look of surprise.

My senses swept over my surroundings as I reached out to grasp the door and found no cause for alarm at first. But the split second my hand hovered within a hair of the knob instinct immediately objected to opening anything. What had he done to my wagon? My head was impressively clearer than it had been this morning but for whatever reason, be it from my day, the previous night or whatever you care to blame it on I couldn’t predict what might happen if I blindly turned that knob.

“Glitch,” I greeted the gremlin with an over-emphasized neutral voice. “This is Nathanial Vaen; would you mind telling me why you’re in my hone and what you’ve done to it.” As an after thought I decided to add; “please.”

Whatever had set off my warning reflex hadn’t manifested enough for me to fully make out but there was just enough that I could register a ghostly shimmer flicker and then fade away. Discretion is the better part of valor, or so I’m told. And considering how I had already almost walked right into an ambush and another attack that could have ended different had not those involved fled I decided to err on the side of caution. I took a few deliberate steps back down from my door and waited.

Glitch didn’t say anything at first, which gave me enough time to really wonder what he was doing inside My Home. Eventually though I did hear a few strange sounds, almost too soft to make out and then his voice followed them. “You pay me for protect,” he offered as an explanation. “Best job I can do from being inside.”

The door swung open and I suddenly found myself looking up at the short figure of Glitch, a somewhat perplexed look on his face. It was kind of expression that you were tempted to chuckle at; a raised eyebrow above the hint of a smirk. The whole combination reminded me of a mix between a confused child and a master craftsman being questioned about the quality of his trade. I repressed a laugh all the same and bought me a moment for composure with a cough.

“Ahem,” I redirected, or tried to anyway. “That explains why you’re in my home, Glitch, but not why I got second thoughts when I was about to enter. Didn’t I ask you to just look after it for me? All you had to do was let me know if Garuff did anything else to hassle me. You didn’t need to camp out inside… Or whatever else you did.”

The odd expression didn’t fall Glitch’s face as he studied me while I spoke. “You paid me,” he said still unsure of the source of my reaction. “Good pay too, so I do good work. Master Spell-Sniffer was worried about his things, so Glitch makes them safe. Now they have protection from people when Spell-Sniffer sleeping or busy.”

I had to say, my offense at returning to find my home had been entered without consent twice in one day was rapidly retreating in favor of a growing fondness for what he was implying. And I had hired him to provide me with some sense of security. He certainly had held up his end by my estimate. Actually, I would almost say that Glitch had gone above what I had expected to do his reputation proud.

“Well, I am indeed grateful and impressed,” I revealed. His charcoal colored face shifted into a smile of self-satisfaction at my words immediately. “You do great work and I have to say that you’re even more reliable than most non-gremlins I know.” The additional praise seemed to improve his inflating appreciation for his handiwork. He had earned his pay already, I concluded. I wasn’t above paying him further for any additional aid he could offer, but if he was in a good mood perhaps he might be more agreeable if he found anything that might hint at how dangerous things might be. That and the happier he was the less likely he might be to ask for increased reward. I might not see so much silver again anytime soon, I’d prefer to make it last just in case.

“Glitch, my friend,” I began, deciding to try my luck. “I may have another job that only someone with your extraordinary talents might have any hope of tackling. If you aren’t too busy could I count on you to help me out? There really isn’t anyone else I expect who I could take this to besides you capable of figuring this thing out.”

Appealing to his pride he had in his work along with a meager measure of enticing his curiosity looked like it was doing the trick as Glitch considered my offer. But then my luck returned and I was handed a curveball I hadn’t ever expected. All the while I was outside talking to a gremlin still standing inside my home.

“You pay me very good,” he pointed out very business-like. “I do good work for you and make you happy. If you pay me better then I do better job for you and make you even happier.”

There was a disguised quiver in his tone that troubled me. Granted, I also was worried how much more money he might be expecting but I couldn’t ignore the fact that there might be something deeper motivating Glitch’s proposal. I was certain of it when my hesitation prompted him to lower his head and his shoulders slumped slightly along with it.

“What troubles you,” I asked as delicately as I could. “You’ve done me a favor and helped ease my burden, what can I do in return?” When he looked back up to address me I could see the pain present in his eyes.

“I need money to rescue my family,” he said. And it was all he had to. Nobody as good as Glitch deserved to suffer, not even a gremlin. “You’ll get it, you have my word,” I swore an oath to him. For once I didn’t even really feel all too guilty about it either.

Saturday, March 29, 2014

Hound Hunting - Chapter 15.

Once I was satisfied Fayrel (who insisted he introduce himself before I left) was going to be stable enough I sought out a healer and paid him a Steel Shield for his services up front. Technically it is their duty to help anyone hurt or ill, but I have always found that it didn’t harm anything to provide some incentive just in case. While he worked his trade I excused myself to return to my own.

The place was fairly clean all things considered, magically speaking that it. This was more than a little peculiar, seeing as how Lillian had a talent for it. There was the expected faint traces that had been around so long they had almost etched themselves into the building itself. Magic has a way of doing that, I had seen some older places that had been home to powerful practitioners for so long and who were so active the very ground would echo with raw energy. Lillian’s home didn’t have the same feeling to it, nor did I expect it to. But there should have been more than a few remaining threads.

It didn’t add up right, as I tried to make sense of everything. Especially when I factored in what Fayrel had told me. The thugs who had forced their way inside had destroyed everything in their path as they hunted for something. I didn’t have enough to go on to pinpoint exactly what they were after or even if it was more than a single item. But my intuition told me that if they had fled so fast that I could believably bet they hadn’t located what they looked for.

If that was true, then maybe my luck was starting to turn around. Two bits of good fortune would be a welcome gift indeed. Fayrel had told me that since they had taken in his grandson Latham, that Lillian had been letting him sleep in her room and she had only used it to sew in or do other things when she had the time. Instead she had taken to sleeping in a chair and working as much as she could. She had also moved what few belongings she had into a small alcove in the wall that had never been filled in. Lillian had always laughed at how handy the storage space had been since someone had neglected to complete their job when the place was constructed.

Thinking about the poor little boy bothered me on so many levels. It was hard not to keep Latham from my mind; I suppose it was the fear that he might share a similar situation that I once had. The kid had already lost a mother he had never known, then his father and now his grandmother was gone. On top of it all, he had to witness his grandfather be violently victimized in his own home, someplace he had to have finally felt safe. Now his grandfather was fighting a different kind of fight and here a strange man was saying his aunt might never come back or be the same.

Latham was still cowering at Fayrel’s side when I left the two with the healer in the back room. He had finally stopped crying but in place of the tears terror had permitted only trembling and silence to remain. I could remember enough to relate, only time would tell how he would decide to deal with it. The boy couldn’t have been more than six or seven; a far cry from being old enough to make any choice on how it would shape it. He also wouldn’t have the physical ability to act on how it might leave him feeling for a few more years either. That kind of pain leaves its own kind of wounds, and it would only get worse before it got better.

Gritting my teeth I tried to lock such thoughts away, they were distracting me from keeping my focus on where I needed it. The heart can be a source of complication sometimes when cold logic would be more beneficial. But at least the desire to do something for a boy who could not would help drive me when logic was spent. Stubbornness can provide the steam needed to tackle things that otherwise our minds might retreat from. Regardless of how unwise or foolhardy they may be.

Lillian’s little cache cupboard was right where Fayrel had directed me. However, as I set myself into examining it a puzzle began buzzing about in my brain. The evidence of arcane energy was even more removed here at the heart of her personal possessions. There was no conceivable explanation that I could come up with that would make any sense. If no where else, her private things should all bear her distinct scent. But almost nothing did, quite the opposite actually.

One by one I started analyzing everything. Lillian didn’t have much, but what she did have was a variety of things. Things were there that ranged all the way down to tiny trinkets and up to curiously well-crafted clothes. She must have spent a fair share of time and effort in making her own eye-catching attire. It probably helped her bring in bigger tips which she benefited from, and it was also not a stretch to conclude that she also may have been able to make use of her magic to aid her.

Frustrated I found that everything I examined was too diminished to offer up any usable scent or traceable imprint. Grief and irritation began to braid together to become a growl as I sent whatever was in my hand flying. This was once more getting me nowhere! All the potential promise that had been presented to me previously was turning to an ash-like taste in my mouth. This was impossible, my brain tried to tell me; a dead end in fact. But the rest of me was already too furious to listen to anything.

There was no way that anyone who had any arcane ability could have avoided leaving some evidence of its use. Just living inside these walls Lillian had left a legacy of her presence. Any time she weaved a working of magic or shaped a spell would have left its mark here. But there was just so little left that everywhere I looked I could hardly believe Lillian could have lived her. There just wasn’t an ample supply of signs that I could see, and when it came to magic I had always been able to see its touch.

It was like being blind…

The single thought froze me in place as if I was something made of stone. It resonated through me with a ripple and everything became still. That was what I was missing, I could feel it. It didn’t make sense from a rational standpoint but I was certain of it. At every turn I had been running into a lack of clues. But there absence was a tale tell clue of its own.

Following along that train of thought I started looking for the one thing that had the absolute least speck of being touched by magic. My eyes fell on a single object and a torrent of excitement gripped me enough that I nearly cheered aloud. It was an innocent enough looking item on its own, but of all those there it was completely devoid of any element of enchantment.

Holding it up the light it looked harmless enough; a simple piece of crudely polished amber held by short length of finely braided cord. It wasn’t any priceless creation from a jeweler’s hand by any means. But it could easily be the kind of ambiguous ‘art’ that some less than wealthy worker might try to tip a lovely lady with. Be it an attempt to garner favor from a drunk or a kindly gesture from someone attempting to show gratitude it was something easily dismissed.

Where had it come from though? There had to be some kind of trail I could follow. There had to be some reason why this one object was so untouched. And I aimed to find it. I was going to teach someone the true meaning of ‘being hounded.’ No matter the cost, this ambiguous amulet of amber was going to be the key I needed to lead me back to something tangible. It had to be connected to what was happening, and above all it had to have had a source. If there was a source then there would be a trail, regardless of how hidden it might be. And there was little that could compare to a hard headed SpellHound when they get on the hunt.

Now I just needed to find someone who could point in a useful direction, a person with particular experience in peculiar items. Specifically speaking; I needed the kind of individual capable of recognizing more about my curious little clue and willing to tell me. The only contact that I could think of to fit the bill was my gremlin neighbor. He had a way of dismantling even magically made objects – a skill that I currently placed an increasing regard on.

The promise of anything that could lead me further towards unraveling things filled me with hope. But I had to restrain myself before I rushed off; I owed it to Fayrel to check on him first. I also found that I needed to make sure Latham wasn’t going to become an orphan anytime soon as well. Color me concerned, I confess.

Remarkably I caught the healer as he was just on his way out the door. Even more impressive was the gesture he gave me in response when I reached for my pocket. It was the empty hand held forward that universally meant that additional money wasn’t necessary. Guess I didn’t need to tell him to keep the change then.

“That man certainly has a gift,” Fayrel announced as I entered the room. There was a noticeable return of spirit to his tone that prompted a smile from me. It was immediately greeted with a similar grin in reply. “He wouldn’t permit me to pay him either, not sure I could have anyway. I suppose I have you to think for that?”

I affirmed his assumption with a short nod and tried not to make any overly emphasized gesture out of it. Some men could have their pride damaged by an act of generosity, and by my accounting Fayrel had been through enough. I’d like to spare him some measure of his self-respect if I could.

“You weren’t in any condition to be asked to be patient, so I figured I would remove any potential issues that might have presented a source of hesitation,” I explained. “That way we could expedite you getting the emergency aid needed without having to worry over anything. If you’d prefer we can think of it as a loan, although I would like to think of it as me repaying a debt. I was just paid for a case that resulted in me being in part to blame for your daughter being placed in bindings.”

“If you were speaking in earnest earlier, then you are also answerable for her being shown mercy,” Fayrel challenged. “Or is that not correct?” The old man had me there, I had to admit. Thankfully, though, he didn’t seem to be getting too angry talking about it. Actually, he seemed quite calm and understanding. It was as bright a blessing as a moon at midnight, and I sighed in appreciation of it.

“Listen,” the word came out a little more awkwardly than I intended and I noticed how nervous I must sound. Clumsily I tried to keep the conversation moving. The longer I let the quiet grow, the harder it might be to say what had crossed my mind. And I preferred to take care of this now before I took my leave.

“There are things I need to follow up on and look into,” I told them. “The trail is already growing cold as we speak but there is one last subject I would see to before I go. Please, take no offense; it would be my honor to leave you with some support to ease your shoulders of burden for awhile. If you’ll permit me to, I’d like to offer you a Silver Sigil to make use of as you see fit. It is not my intention to insult you in any way, but I can’t imagine it is going to be easy for you to care for the two of you without Lillian’s earnings. At least that may provide you some time until you can manage on your own…”

The air felt horribly heavy as Fayrel raised a hand to implore me to give him a moment. His movements held no hurry to them; his body simply had a slow tranquil quality that could snare your attention easier than anything rushed of forceful. Yet the gesture refused to yield to anything other then a response of respect. And I politely provided it by falling silent in short order.

A single sigh combined with closed eyes highlighted the tiniest trail of a tear along his cheek. I didn’t dare interrupt, waiting instead for him to break the silence. When he did it was with the kind of unguarded aspect men rarely display in public. And for some it is likewise seldom seen privately either.

“It isn’t something a man of my years cares to confess,” he spoke softly. “But you are not wrong in your assessment of matters; without the steady supply of coin she provided things would become impossible rather immediately. Once my strength returned to me I could still earn my keep by getting a hammer and saw to hand again. Although, I haven’t had to for a fair stretch since Lillian often took her mother’s counsel and pressured me to hang them up.

A man may have his pride, but the true judge of his character is in whether or not he can swallow it when it may be prudent to do so.” Fayrel opened his eyes once more and I found myself looking into orbs of deepest brown. They didn’t hold within them any hint of weakness. The strength of an ageless old oak was written there as bold as could be in sharp contrast.

“For all that you have done and offer to do – I extend to you the gratitude of an old man,” he declared with dignity. “But mark my words and here them well, son; in any capacity I have available to me, I will repay your kindness shown here today.”

“Of that, I have little doubt,” I replied. “However I would prefer to part as friends, if we may. That would be payment enough to appease me. You, Master Fayrel, are a remarkable individual. You’re the kind of man that other’s are proud to be able to proclaim that they know well and speak of fondly. And any man who can bring an arm up in defense of a woman or child I would like to call friend.”

“Then farewell, my friend,” he said finally. He looked on with gentle warmth as I turned to slip back out the doorway before wishing me one last spar of support.  “May you find what you need and accomplish what you aim to. If you survive to see peaceful days again soon, pay me and the boy a visit if you’re able. We would welcome the company of a good friend from time to time.”

You have my word on that,” I agreed happily. Then I departed, with pockets a little lighter and feeling a piece more merry. It was time to see me a gremlin again. How often can people say they visited a gremlin twice in one day? And were happy to do so? Maybe I am just a little odd like that, but I was smiling all the same.

Friday, March 28, 2014

Hound Hunting - Chapter 14.

I managed to cover the last few blocks to locate Lillian’s place quick enough. The only problem was; that I hadn’t been the only one. As I slid to a stop and planted my feet I could just make out the already fading sounds of footsteps in the distance. A shattered door hung from its ravaged hinges and someone was sobbing.

“Missing moon,” I cursed. If only I hadn’t had to deal with those two thugs, I might have been able to do something. But right now there wasn’t time for regrets, right now I needed to make a judgment call. There were two options I had at hand. The first was I could try to engage in a pursuit of whoever already had a head start on me. Which would put me at a disadvantage and from my recent encounter might only end in another dead end. That left me with forgoing another foot race to investigate my original destination to begin with.

It wasn’t an easy decision, or one I completely made without reservations. But I tried to console myself with the logic that, with such a lead on me already it wouldn’t be wise to attempt chasing after them blindly. I needed to keep my head if I was to have any hope of getting in front of this thing. It wouldn’t profit me anything if I allowed whoever was behind this to keep luring me into rushing after every running thing they dangled in front of me.

My hand dropped down to rest reflexively and relaxed at my swords hilt. Cautiously I maneuvered my way towards the open door and tried to remind myself to take an extra breath to ease my apprehension. If anyone was still inside I wouldn’t do myself any favors by charging in and frightening them further. But I wanted to be ready for any more surprises just the same.

Shards of soft-stained woods littered the doorway’s entry area and now a delicate creak lamented its lost pieces. Light past through the portal along with me and had banished most of the shadows morning might have allowed to linger. There was a cluttering of debris all around as I swept my eyes about to scan my surroundings. A dribbled trail of cardinal colored droplets stood out in short order leading down a hallway into a rear room.

Someone was bleeding, and from the direction of the blood it appeared to be that who ever it was might also near the source of the sobbing. “My name is Nathanial Vaen,” I called out to them, not wanting to startle anyone anymore than they may already be. “I am a former SpellHound and acquaintance of Lillian. Please, don’t be afraid; I am here to help.”

Slowly I scanned everything around me a second time, ruled out any potential ambushes were imminent, and then took another step forward following the fallen blood. “Someone is wounded, if it is serious I might be able to summon a healer,” I offered. My gut warned me that I needed to be careful here, lest I walk into a wounded victim prepared to respond to any return from their attackers. I could only pray I hadn’t amassed enough misfortune to have my end be at the hands of frightened folks I only sought to help instead of some coward with a crossbow.

I thanked my intuition without words and hesitated before taking another step. “It would be greatly appreciated if we could avoid any misunderstandings,” I begged. “Were I to step around a corner I would be ever so grateful not to be attacked. I am armed but my weapon is not drawn, I know you’re afraid but I can assure you that I am only here to offer aid.”

A strained half-hoarse voice answered me after a long stretch of awkward silence that left me holding my breath. “Where,” it coughed weakly before managed to find enough air to continue. “You... mentioned Lillian. Haven’t seen or heard from her since yesterday.”

The smart thing would be to keep taking my own advice and ingratiate myself further to avoid any unwanted violence. But my heart was telling me that whoever was trying to talk to me was the one wresting with wounds. And by the sound of struggled speech they needed rest and a healer’s hand.

So despite my better judgment I held my empty hands out before me and stepped suddenly into view. And nothing happened. There was no pounding pain or sharp stabs, just a sight that filled me with sorrow. An older man, well past his prime was slouched against a wall, pale and short of breath with dark stains on his shirt. He couldn’t have made any move to challenge me if he tried by my estimate. But he still clutched a makeshift club of crude iron beside him.

Huddled to his right I found the source of the crying in the form of a small shape tucked against an overturned armchair. Next to it was the motionless remains of a woman, still in a position of providing some last effort to protect something. I could only assume it had to be the child still cowering close by. And whoever had done this, regardless of what that had been after had taken the life of an unarmed woman. I added that to the tally of debt that someone would be held accountable for, and swore to myself that it would be paid.

“Forgive me, sir,” I tried to apologize as I reached to examine the man’s injuries, already aware that I might cause him fresh pain. “We’ll need to get this bleeding stopped first, then I can try and call for a healer – I don’t want to leave you until we have that under control.”

While I rummaged around me for anything to try and use as a bandage to cover his wounds, my patient attempted to say something again. His voice had dropped down into a specter of speech that forced me to keep my ear turned towards him and really focus my attention on what he was trying to say. “You need to save your strength,” I cautioned, but he just shook his head to discard my advice stubbornly.

“Served,” he succeeded in saying. “Saw plenty of battle, in my youth; fighting for Emberhelm. Not much luck for me, my wounds are too grave I fear.” I had heard plenty of similar talk from my peers after receiving some fairly impressive injuries themselves. When they gave up the will to fight it didn’t matter how powerful a healer might be; without the spirit to survive they wouldn’t.

“No man with mettle enough to hold his ground in defense of Emberhelm would surrender at such a slight scratch,” I tried to rally his morale. There had to be something that would motivate him to keep fighting. And one look down at his hand was all the inspiration I needed. Keeping one hand applying pressure I used my free hand to point towards the shuddering shape of a terrified child.

“No man willing to lay down his life for those dear to him would then abandon them to leave them defenseless.” Guilt started to replace the look of submission in his eyes as they stared into me before defiance settled into his features. He wasn’t out of the woods yet, but if he held on to that fighting spirit it just might give him a chance.

“Do you know who did this or what they might have been after,” I gambled enough to allow myself to ask. “Anything you could remember may help me find them.” My own conscience clawed at me that this man, this father, potentially would go to his death not knowing what happened to his daughter. Even if he pulled through he deserved the knowledge of what had befallen her. I needed any information he had, or anything that might have been overlooked and left behind. But I couldn’t attain that without justly providing something in turn.

So I interrupted him before he could summon up the energy to try and continue communicating with me. “I cannot in good faith proceed without admitting to you why I am here,” I explained without pretense. “Your daughter has been involved into some deeper plot; to that end she has been the victim of malicious magic that has affected her mind. The results of which have manipulated her into using her own talents to serve the schemes of an unknown individual or group.

She’s been placed into the custody of the SpellHounds, and she is currently receiving treatment to repair the damage done to her. I personally had to apprehend her, but you have my word; I have done everything in my power to see to it that she has been treated as fair as possible and not burdened with the full blame of what had been done.” I had to close my eyes and pause for a deep breath before I could continue. It felt good to at least be able to offer some consolation, to be able to offer any manner of explanation for Lillian’s absence. Even if I couldn’t provide all the answers currently, perhaps someday I could.

I couldn’t help but be concerned at how my confession might color anything I was about to be told. Or if it meant that I might not be told anything at all. I had just admitted to handing over his daughter to the authorities, claimed she had committed a crime and was suffering from being changed by some mysterious phantom. Admittedly it was a little tough to swallow, even for me. Could a father? Especially after having been attacked in his home, losing his wife and potentially facing joining her in the near future?

“You have my gratitude,” he finally whispered. The sincerity behind what he said far outweighed the volume he had available to him. There was absolutely zero doubt that he meant it. Even with so much pain to contend with, I could mark the summoning of strength he was drawing on to keep talking. And I wished for nothing more than the ability to ease his burden, or at the very least reduce the need I had for looking to him for help. It made me feel powerless and horribly heavy of heart.

“Knew something wasn’t right,” he continued, bullishly clinging to the determination to keep going. “It was little things, small changes that weren’t easy to notice but hard to miss if you’ve known someone from a baby. Lillian would wander off in between work and often offer excuses of having been confused or mistaken about some errand.”

I tried to keep pressure on the wounds but noted the cloth I had used was still being soaked in scarlet fluid. By my own limited training for dealing with battlefield trauma and first aid I could assume that his bleeding might be slowing but I didn’t want to risk a glance to confirm the theory. If it hadn’t, all that would do is welcome a wave of more misplaced blood. And I didn’t figure the man had that much left to him to spare.

I was desperate for information but I was beginning to calculate my chances of getting a healer to him in time if I left him in his condition. And I wasn’t keen on gambling with his life. “You need a healer’s hand,” I pointed out. But once more he deflected my concerns with a shake of his head.

“It’ll keep a while longer,” he assured me with a ghost of a smile. “You were right; I am needed so much more now that I cannot afford to give in.” Another series of wet coughs plagued him, ending in a moan that redoubled my worries and threatened to drive me into reconsidering a desperate dash to get help.

“Those men, they were looking for something – I know not what, but they were ruthless in pursuing its location. I… I tried to drive them out but they overpowered me. I don’t have the strength left in me that I did in my younger years or else they would never have made it over the threshold.” I couldn’t help but smile at that, sharing the moment along with him. Something told me that he was probably right about that last assessment, and made me feel just a little more guilt at being delayed.

“They tore through the place, demanded to know where my daughter and where her things were. So, reluctantly,” he said, the regret clearly visible by the look of shame his face held, his eyes closed tightly. “I told them that Lillian’s things were where they always were; at the foot of her bed in a small bin. Their filthy paws pillaged through the entire lot before something spooked them enough to turn tail and run right back out the door. They hadn’t been gone only a handful of moments before you showed up.”

The strain of so much speaking, along with the remaining price reliving the experience had taxed the mangled man. He struggled to control his breathing as his cough tried to return. Yet, even with his dwindling reserves he raised one eyebrow to regard me and spoke once more.

“The only problem is that my old memory isn’t what it used to be,” he confessed with another shadow of a smile. “I may have been mistaken, mixing up where she stored the old rags and sundries for fixing her clothes instead.” A chuckle found its way out of me as I saluted the man with a proud nod.

“Well handled sir, very well done indeed,” I congratulated him fondly. “Now how about we see about getting you patched up, shall we?”

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Hound Hunting - Chapter 13.

No one spoke to me again as Maeredith escorted me outside and nodded her own little farewell to send me on my way. With each step I thought I could almost detect an audible snickering from behind the safety of Castle Virtus’s walls, but I ruled it out as merely my imagination. Overhead the warm sun had passed behind a curtain of clouds, making the atmosphere above ground a reminder of being below again.

A light rain began to fall; bringing a soft series wet thumps to my attention as it struck my coat. The rain itself felt good, like the world around me was just a little more refreshed. Which I think both I and Emberhelm could use at the moment.

Taking a deep breath I opened up my senses and focused on everything around me. There was so many traces, so many tangled threads of traffic from passing people and ambient arcane forces. But beyond all that there was still an unmistakable element, which added a static of sorcery on the air that cluttered it all. This was still not going to be a straight forward task; I needed some trail to follow. What I needed was a scent, some trace that I could track. Be it a foot print of sorts or some identifying ingredient that might lead me towards whatever was behind it all.

And since no clue was going to sympathetically decide to show itself to me I would have to seek it out the old fashioned way. It was something I’d already put off long enough and I couldn’t postpone it any longer. Already my odds of finding some link that might connect to Lillian were getting lower and lower. If any evidence remained I couldn’t afford to have it vanish all together or be removed by anyone attempting to cover their tracks. It wasn’t as if who ever they were hadn’t been doing an impressive enough job of obscuring any efforts to investigate so far.

According to my information from Baylen, Lillian had been residing in a small apartment over in what some jokingly referred to as the ‘Domestic District.’ It was a lower end area commonly populated by working class men and women. As such it wasn’t nearly as downtrodden as Gutterside, but it didn’t provide an overwhelming amount of visible luxury. The streets were maintained enough to be kept at least functionally clear and you typically didn’t run into too many people sleeping within sight of them.

Where someone like me might be able to expect to pay about a Steel Shield a week in rent anyone living up in the Domestic District probably had to keep up with two to three at least. And that was probably a cautious estimate for an individual in my opinion. I didn’t want to try and figure how much it might cost a small family trying to get by. This is what Lillian, as I understood, had been attempting to do.

Baylen had explained to me that Lillian had been earning a steady income from her work at Howler’s Hall. Her parents had been burdened by poor health in recent years and she had moved in with them as part of a mutually beneficial arrangement. She had been trying to help her parents as much as she could while also looking after her nephew. Unfortunately they had lost her brother in an accident a few months back and the child’s mother had died in childbirth.

It was so much misfortune for one family that I didn’t relish potentially being the person to lay more of it at their door. But they were only one family dealing with the impact of this; there could be countless others in the days to come. I shuddered to even imagine if any of the guardians had been secretly keeping their assigned artifacts safe in homes of their own as well. Such thoughts weren’t going to do me any favors so I tried to push them aside and concentrate.

The Domestic District was a few blocks from here and my feet had already put themselves into motion to head that way. Luckily the rain at least wasn’t very heavy, being just enough to be a reminder that it was there with me while I walked. Between the rain and my mind I found myself distracted, only half noticing the number of others out and about as well.

Until a steel-tipped shaft shot over my shoulder suddenly, arousing both my adrenaline and my attention immediately. Nothing was more cowardly, more dishonorable and unskilled as someone who lacked the courage to face you if they aimed to take your life. Killing someone was never a glorious act in itself, but if you were going to engage it shouldn’t be cheapened and done without respect. Someone had just made a dangerous mistake; they had insulted me and I was still breathing.

A guttural growl bubbled up from my belly in unison with my drawn sword. Instinct born from the experience of being in the heat of battle automatically took over and all logical thought surrendered to step aside. Heedless of any idea of the size or strength of the forces assembled against me I sprinted into motion. Blind reflex sent me in what it screamed had to be the direction of the shooters location. And as luck would have it, someone was finally smiling on me. There was a pair of figures, both of them with crossbows still in hand.

One of the two was still fumbling with his weapon, panicking at being unable to cock it. His partner, the current mark my rage had trained itself towards, let his empty implement fall to the ground. Frantically and driven by a flood of fear he reached for his companion’s crossbow only to continue cursing. They hadn’t planned on missing, and now they weren’t prepared to deal with me directly.

The crossbow coward tried to raise his weapon in a last-ditch effort to defend himself and held it up as a makeshift shield. It collided with my sword with a satisfying crack that carried it backwards and into his nose. A mixture of blood and unintelligible speech erupted instantly. But it barely registered as I swept my sword into an arc that slammed the crossbow aside and followed it up with a lightning fast slash into his ribs. The sharp shattering sound was immorally sweet and I savored it as he collapsed to the ground.

With the shooter clearly removed to the ‘no longer a threat’ category I redirected my attention back to his partner. He was wide eyed and shaking as he stumbled into an awkward attempt to flee for his life. Normally I might have erred on the side of mercy and allowed him to escape, having already captured the other crossbowman. But being shot at has the terrible tendency to put me in a very bad mood. And this poor soul had been involved even if he hadn’t pulled a trigger.

Still riding atop my surging explosion of emotion I bounded into a brutal pursuit almost regretting my blunted blade. My momentum carried me within easy reach rather quickly and I immediately brought the weapon in my hand down with a fiery fury. I didn’t have the time to spare or the clear thought to control my aim. Instead I let loose my first impulse and struck savagely at just between his shoulders.

If I had aimed the attack only a little higher, even my dulled metal might have mangled his neck or head. Any lower and I could have crushed his spine to leave him confined in a prison of his own body. A fact that I wasn’t entirely sure that might upset me enough to make me lose much sleep. But my blow bashed the breath clear from his chest and sent him into a dizzying tumble. He hammered against a rough wall as his interrupted velocity violently changed his course from a horizontal one into something more vertical in nature.

Looking up at me was a similarly gibberish and groaning goon while I grabbed his collar and collected him up to drag him back to lie beside his match. Both of them were bleeding and my fleet-footed friend was still struggling to control his breathing. His partner clutched at his side with the same worried grip he had used to hold onto a weapon. Apparently he hadn’t yet realized that my swords absent edge hadn’t actually cut him. Once the shock and trauma wore off he might, but it still was little consolation to the broken ribs he had to handle hurting. Not to mention his badly broken nose.

I honestly couldn’t find any compassion in me for them. They had just tried to kill me, lacking any courage to do so like a man or with respect. And, while I hadn’t returned the favor with the intention to do the same, I couldn’t say that if they had been slain as part of the pursuit or later from their injuries I wouldn’t feel guilty. It was the kind of dark thinking that worried me about what I could do if I used a more lethal length of steel.

Glancing at the still sharp tip of my sword I found the conviction at my core that corrected me. It wasn’t the presence of sharpened steel or the absence of it that could make a man dangerous. That ability rested solely on the person holding it and how they used it. I could have made the decision to kill these two regardless of if I had a weapon in my hand or not. Still could do exactly that, in fact. But I hadn’t.

So I sheathed my sword with a sigh and felt some of my anger abate. It wasn’t going to do me any good outside of a fight and there was no way I could justify killing two unarmed men. Even if they had tried to kill me and I might want to, it wouldn’t make it right. Besides, I could use anything these two might be able to tell me far more than some short lived gratification.

“Who wants me dead,” I asked them. My voice had lost the energetic edge of someone speaking heatedly; in its place was a cold detachment. At first I thought my change in demeanor had frightened them further, their eyes having started to become blank stares. But then a horrible howling fought its way free of them and my vision blurred. It was like being in the most abysmal weather you could imagine. Assaulting all my senses at once; I could hardly see, hear or smell anything for a flurry of magical forces all around me.

By the time it started to lessen I could begin to make out two lifeless forms, now slumped against the ground and silent. Someone had used these two to try and kill me and when they failed both of them had been eliminated. There was still too much magic too single out exactly where the spell had come from to silence my suspects. And I didn’t have the time to wait around for the watch to show up and start asking me questions.

This was getting really frustrating and fast. My fist slammed into something rigid nearby in an effort to release some of that building stress. All it managed to do was send a shockwave of numbness and discomfort cascading back up my arm. It was about time I found a solid lead on this thing. And I was becoming decidedly determined to do just that.

I padded off to find Lillian’s place, now burdened by an overwhelming abundance of questions with no clear answers in sight to balance them. Whoever was behind this had no problem killing friend or foe alike. So I tried to keep on my toes but secretly hoped that I could avoid anymore attempts on my life. Whether I killed them or not, it was a safe bet that they would end up dead.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Hound Hunting - Chapter 12.

Soft light radiated from all around me to give the room a strange spectral atmosphere. Once my eyes adjusted to my surroundings I could make out that the room itself was circular and shaped of pale stone blocks. Stepping forward to stand amid the center of the chamber was a tall regal figure that I could never mistake anywhere, if even by his laugh alone. Maeredith hadn’t been joking when she had claimed I was meeting with Aethen Wyatt – the Anchor-Heart himself.

Aethen was one of the elder members of the royal family who had established himself in his teens as an extraordinary example. He was a young man who had driven himself to hone his mind and his body to the best of his ability and when called upon put his training to use. Within the first few years it had become clear that you didn’t dare stand on the opposite end of his sword or want to be the focus of his formidable mind. Aethen Wyatt had already started to show his skills as a strong strategic leader and a superior swordsman. Everyone who took to the field in a fight wanted to be by his side, his name alone seemed able to swing a battle.

That was at least twenty years ago, and Aethen had only built on his renown since then. Now he was the unchallenged go to man among the Wyatt line when they needed someone to shoulder a burden of responsibility. If an important matter demanded the personal attention of the throne, especially if it required discretion, deadly force or restraint there was no one better. Frankly, Aethen didn’t show up to speak empty words at foreign feasts. Instead he was more likely to quietly handle potential plans by rivals or lead SpellHound squads against sinister sorcerer uprising and the like.

He stood about even in height with me at a just an inch or two over a respectable six feet. However his broad shoulders carried far more muscle than me. It wasn’t the thick overly built body of someone mindlessly engaged in exercise for its own sake. His was the physique of a man well accustomed to a hard day’s labor and quite capable of keeping up with any experienced working man.

In the low light Aethen’s hair that had already been threatening its transition towards going grey looked even more enhanced. But even though he was in his late thirties and inside the castle grounds he was still wearing armor. It might have been a fashionable cut of blues and browns that tried to look more like something formal, but there was only so much its wearer would allow without limiting its designed purpose of protection.

Hanging from a belted baldric of thick leather at his side was his preferred weapon of choice; a slightly heavier version of a long sword with an oversized grip. Nobody dared refer to it by its more common name in front of Aethen, in his presence it was just his ‘hand and a half sword.’ Although in retrospect I had to repress a wry smile and a chuckle at the inherent humor that until he took up such a weapon everyone had always called them bastard swords.

It was a testament to Aethen’s hallmark philosophy, to his infamous fighting style; one of complete versatility. Such a weapon allowed him to make use of it in either hand alone or take it up into both. Basically it gave him options; he could change tactics in the middle of a fight in the most fundamental of aspects. Enabling him to use his off hand for other things and didn’t require him to divert his focus between two separate hands if he needed to concentrate all his attention.

Aethen wasn’t just some strong armed swordsman with a long run of good luck, despite what some might think. The man was incredibly well read and astonishingly well rounded in a variety of subjects. He truly took to heart the ideal of being prepared for almost anything. So it wasn’t much of a surprise that if something mysterious was in motion that Aethen was the one already addressing it.

Burning blue eyes like a sapphire orchid locked onto me as we both closed the gap between us and his merry mood trailed off to be replaced by seriousness. Among the SpellHounds Aethen had earned the nickname of Anchor-Heart not as a playful moniker to remark at how he was the core of any group he was a part of. But because if you needed to know nothing else about the man, the only thing to remember was that his heart anchored him in all matters more so than his mind. And if it was guiding him to set aside a jovial friendly disposition I had to assume it was worth me doing the same.

“What is this place, I wasn’t aware anything like it existed inside Castle Virtus,” I asked in an effort to start the conversation. There was no real way of knowing where it might lead but I figured I could at least allow my curiosity to get it going. Besides, I really did want to know where it was that we had found ourselves and it was better to deal with my curiosity than it was let my anxiety direct me.

Aethen gave me a gentle gesture and glanced around the room politely before addressing my query. His tone was one of a sympathetic tutor about to give the only answer a pupil required before moving ahead with a lesson. “All that needs to be said, is that this place is called the Cloak Citadel,” he told me. “And once you leave this place you can rest assured that you’ll never be able to find your way back here again. So, forget about it and try to focus on why you’re here.”

“Excellent point,” I couldn’t resist mentioning. “Why is it that I am here anyways?” The words leapt free from my lips more rapidly than a razor and unfortunately didn’t do a very good job of masking any resentment let alone displeasure. Part of me wanted to wince, but a bigger part decided it didn’t really care.

“A SpellHound is needed,” Aethen said so simply that it seemed like he honestly expected that no further explanation would be required. The voice inside me wasn’t bothering with subtle whispers anymore, instead it had moved on to making sure it was heard by becoming an almost full blown bellow. And what it said was mixture of laughter, sarcasm and some very vulgar things that my sense of self preservation alone prevented me from giving voice to.

“And you don’t have an ample number of them at your disposal,” I demanded with a dangerous degree of venom. “In case you missed it, I am no longer bound to the whims of the throne. There is no oath sworn that shackles me to charge at your command to wherever you direct me. I am not even beholden to you as a paying client – in short you have no right to even summon me here. You’re wasting both of our time by bringing me here is all you needed was a SpellHound.”

Apparently my remarks hadn’t earned me an early grave because instead of being met with fury or disapproval they warranted only a raised eyebrow along with a half smile. Had I missed something else? For a split second I almost expected to be let in on the joke.

Aethen shifted his stance and shuffled his feet, stopping to regard the floor beneath him for a half a second. I recognized the look of a man about to approach a subject that he didn’t enjoy and that was certainly the look of the man in front of me. “I am sure your escort has already cautioned you that this business isn’t something we care to make broadly known,” he said. I nodded in agreement and decided it wise to not interrupt; Aethen graciously accepted my attention then continued.

“The reason for this precaution is a painfully simple one; we don’t know how many among the serving SpellHounds we can trust.” Those very words hit me in the chest like a massive weight. I couldn’t even form a rational thought that made that statement make sense. Was it even possible for a SpellHound to act against the throne? I had never imagined that it could be done.

“Established some years back was a secret security detail made up of the most loyal and reliable members of the watch. These men and women were assigned the task of keeping some dangerous objects hidden. Items that in the wrong hands could lead to things best categorized as unimaginable. So precautions were taken to seal the various objects in special containers and hidden all over Emberhelm. Even their protectors identities were kept secret, no one could know that they were in the service of the throne. Instead they masqueraded as merchants, miners and craftsmen so that anyone seeking out their charges wouldn’t be able to single them out to try and get to them.

The whole plan had been working rather well until recently; when some of those very agents began to be found dead. Now, nobody could have hunted these people down without knowing exactly what they were tasked with. And the only explanation that makes any sense is that a SpellHound was involved. For whatever reason, someone had to have found a flaw in how these objects were hidden, or maybe one of the guardians became careless. But the result is still the same – dead men and women.

We cannot allow these objects to be unearthed and we cannot permit the death of those who gave their lives to go unchallenged. Once Aethen had finished speaking I could only sat there in silence as I absorbed everything. The impact of it all still hadn’t completely hit me yet, but I knew enough to realize some of the scope involved.

Truth be told I was getting a little scared at what it sounded like I was about to be asked to do. Trying to figure out what had been done to Lillian, to help her out in some form was easily enough for me to agree to. Even putting me on the trail of sniffing out some sinister sorcerer who was behind what happened to her was within reason. But if I was being given the job of slaughtering people in the streets or play vault keeper – well, that was just too much. A guy has to know where to draw the line, when too far is just simply too far.

“Where do I fit in then,” I asked with reservations aplenty. If there was ever going to be a punch line to this little inside joke fate had in mind, I was certain that I was about to hear it. And I think I both wanted to hear what Aethen was about to say as much as I just wanted to cut bait and run right out of there. Then Aethen told me exactly where it was that I fit into this grand scheme of things.

“Of all the SpellHounds on record, you my dear Nathanial are the only one who had such an abundance of conscience that you asked to be released. You were faultless in your pursuit of prey when you served and more importantly you questioned everything. I need someone I can trust more than anything and I need a SpellHound – you fit on both counts.”

I had to let that bit sink in as well. Aethen anticipated my next question straight away before I could marshal my thoughts into motion to ask it. “Don’t worry, I wasn’t going to ask you to hunt down and slay anything,” he offered kindly. “I remember your compulsions against needless bloodshed. What I requesting of you in this endeavor is to simply seek out who is behind this and do whatever you can to stop it. You’re authorized to take any action you consider necessary in the pursuit of that goal. And should it become imperative that you defend yourself or even take a life then I will leave that judgment in your hands.”

“So I take it this means you are unofficially hiring me then,” I said quietly. I think I could almost hear myself smile louder than the words I whispered. And there it was I thought to myself; there was the joke. “Seeing as how I am no longer a sword agent of the throne and you need me to work on this case, you need me to have some explainable cover as to why I am asking questions and the like. The only one that is easiest for people to buy is that I have been hired to look into the deaths or some such.”

I caught Aethen’s expression as I offered my own evaluation of what hadn’t been said and found in it a look of a patient instructor content that his student had stumbled into an expected conclusion. That sly old wolf had planned for this all along; I could just read it on his face. But at the same time he wasn’t wearing a smug smirk of pompous self worth about it either. This did happen to help me to not feel as bad about the whole thing.

“We are well aware that you have already been hired by Baylen Hereward to become involved in these matters. However, to increase your credibility I have arranged to provide you with a retainer and my own freely given word that should you faithfully supply me with your assistance in this matter you can expect an appropriate degree of compensation.”

He handed me an envelope of thick vellum whose weight alone was enough cause to send my curiosity into a tailspin. I’ve always been told that when you are offered a payment or anything of the sort and especially if the client doesn’t mention an amount that it was best to wait to count it until you were outside their presence. But once that package met my palm I already knew that manners could be thrown into a forge for all I cared; I was opening that thing.

The second I did, the entire world went dead around me. My heart seemed to stop along with my breathing before starting back up with a rapid rush. The reason for its mass was starring me straight in the face and I couldn’t believe it. Spaced evenly in a simple pattern were five Silver Sigils seated in front of a smooth plate of solid silver that had been stamped with the Wyatt crest. I didn’t need a wealth of light to make it out, having committed it to memory long ago I could picture it clearly enough in my mind as my fingertips traces along its lines. A simple shield of plain white with a diagonal bend crossing from the upper left down to its lower right that passed over the middle of five silver wolves arranged into a square with one at its center.

The amount of my retainer and how the coins were arranged I could have shrugged off as coincidence had they been the entirety of the envelope’s contents. But Aethen had considered that, I was certain. Why else would he also have included a piece of pure silver marked by the royal crest? Emblazoned on a wall or affixed to anything else it was an elegant work; the white field complementing the subtle silver of the wolves and the banner passing across it. However, even without its colors it still had a way of impacting me. As little more than an etched symbol placed into the metal it still felt like it demanded respect.

Perhaps that was the point. Maybe that was all that Aethen wanted to impart upon me before I left that I had once been a part of that and still was no matter how some might define me. I didn’t want to think that I owed the throne anything, but Emberhelm as a whole didn’t deserve to have people dropping dead on its streets. Without the benefit of a uniform or anything to identify them it wasn’t impossible that legitimate civilians might be harmed by mistake. If I could do something, I was obligated to do so I tried to ask myself. But my eyes refused to waiver away from the wealth I held in my hand. And I had to remind myself that it had been offered merely as a retainer. That meant more could follow when all this was over and I could certainly put it to good use. All I had to do was manage to live through it.

“I think you just hired yourself a SpellHound,” I told Aethen excitedly. “Actually,” he promptly proceeded to correct me. “I haven’t hired you for anything; neither has anyone affiliated with the throne. One of the merits of the scale of your retainer is that along with it comes the expectation of anonymity. I’m sure you can appreciate that much.”

The gears in my head started spinning once more and I tried to catch up as quickly as I could. Of course! There was little way I could explain away a sudden surge of wealth, especially if I started suddenly throwing it around. But if anyone did get curious the best story would be the simplest; a wealthy concerned party had hired me to investigate the potential concerns of the general public under the mandate of remaining nameless. Chaos in the street could cost someone considerable coin and even the feigning of compassion could be seen as a kindness. Yet, anyone with money to spare wouldn’t want to advertise any notion of a sympathetic nature for fear of being swarmed with solicitors or malcontents. It was a suitable means to account for everything and allow me credibility without involving the throne or royal family in anyway.

“Good luck, and happy hunting,” Aethen formally bid me complete with a bow. Just like that our business was concluded and my companion took his leave to disappear into some other unknown area. Everything felt so surreal all of a sudden as I stood there holding more money than I had ever expected to be paid and couldn’t begin to contemplate how long it would have taken me to earn it otherwise.

But there was work to be done and I didn’t have the time to spare lingering about. Maeredith was still stationed in the hallway like a statue, waiting to escort me back out of the castle. There were also plenty of others probably eagerly anticipating my exit so that they might announce their amusement at what they expected I encountered. I’d like to say that the joke was on them but the gravity of the situation was already beginning to temper the thrill of holding so much silver. Let them enjoy their merry moment, I conceded. Everyone deserved one now and again.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

An Introduction Of Sorts.

My name is Matthew. I like to write/tell stories. I'm a husband and father of four. Every day I battle the sinister shackles of sleep and its demons of dream.

Sound strange enough? Do I have your attention, or at the very least your curiosity? I'll settle for your passing glance to be honest.

My point here is a rather mundane and simple one; to establish some idea of who I am to those just discovering me. And for those who have known me for awhile this can serve as a refresher course. There may be a test on this in the near future.

My initial introduction is a fairly boiled down base of the myriad of aspects I suppose one might use to describe me. But they are all true - even the waging the war for being awake. As surreal as it sounds I spend the majority of my day dealing with the monumental effort of remaining conscious. In that attempt I have my share of victories and defeats. I never quite know if I've drifted into a waking dream or if that tingling feeling in my left side is a chill or the fact that I am in the process of becoming paralyzed.

Around 2009 I was diagnosed with Narcolepsy with Cataplexy. Over the time since then I have had to come to grips with some uncomfortable concessions. For one, my day always begins with a cup of coffee and 40mg of Ritalin. Around four hours later I rinse and repeat. What that means is I take the medically allowed maximum of a commonly recognized stimulant just to give me a fighting chance of not being a zombie.

In case you need to further punctuate that little point, consider this: I can take as much Ritalin in one dose that some people take over an entire day. And right after, rather easily I must add, I can quite honestly take a nap. Let that sink in for a minute.

Added to that constantly nagging pull of drowsiness I have to accept that my left side can go limp at any time. I've used a cane so much with my right over the last few years to support myself while dragging my left leg when I have trouble that I believe I have passed my wrists serviceable limits. I just had Carpal Tunnel Release surgery on it the past November (on my birthday in fact - poetic irony anyone?).

Now I don't drive anymore. I don't work anymore. I very very rarely do much of anything alone either.

But don't get me wrong; I do have a life.

I enjoy reading (or writing) a good story or book. I walk my kids down for the bus every day and get them off the bus. I check the mail, my wife and I go to the store - there are lots of ways for me to spend my time. Even if there are times things manage to get the best of me, I try not to let depression win.

It isn't easy, I won't lie. But I have a wonderful wife to support me and a family the likes of which would make saints jealous.

So if your ever curious where these stories come from, they come from an imagination that never stops. It comes from dreams that aren't content to remain to the nocturnal hours. They are born of a brain that must be kept busy. So I keep it busy and if I am really lucky I get to make someone else smile.

I do it for the happy.

Making people happy makes me happy.

Are you happy?

If so I'm happy.