Tuesday, April 15, 2014

The Reality Of Ridiculous.

The Reality of Ridiculous.

Have you ever felt ridiculous? Ever had someone point out that you looked ridiculous? Perhaps you have, yourself told someone else that an idea they proposed was ‘simply ridiculous?’

We’ve all heard the word in use in our daily lives at some point or another. Everyone on the planet by virtue of living among our fellow examples of humanity and/or members of society has experienced feeling or being made to feel ridiculous. Many of us have less than favorable memories stashed away in our mental vaults that we’d rather pretend didn’t exist that involve that very word as a center piece.

What does the word even mean though? If you look it up in a dictionary it might say something like: ‘deserving or inviting derision or mockery; absurd.’ I suppose on a technical level that is an appropriate explanation of the term itself. But, to me, the real true meaning of it is something a little different. In my opinion ridiculous is more along the lines of meaning any identifiable or noticeable difference perceived as being separate from conforming to the greater general majority.

I’ve had more than my share of first hand experiences with the word ridiculous over the course of my life. I won’t lie about it, for a long time I let people make me feel ridiculous on a regular basis. For example as a child I had a pair of denim overalls the spitting image of some my father wore every day to work. I would put them on and help him with things around the house/yard/garden. For me I took pride in my overalls, they made me feel good about myself.

Then one day I wore them to school oblivious to how other kids may perceive them or react. I quickly discovered that I had just painted myself as a prime target for ridicule. Regardless of the fact that our school was a small rural district among a collective of small rural districts that made up – you guessed it; a rural county. The majority of students all had grown up on a farm, around a farm or completely immersed in farm culture. But that didn’t matter; I was the one kid who showed up one day wearing something completely different than anything else the other kids were wearing. So they made me feel ridiculous, and I in my ignorance let them.

Years later on in my education, somewhere near the end of elementary and perhaps the early days of junior high I recall attending my first school dance. It didn’t leave me with a lasting desire to make a long tradition of repeating. Once more I was oblivious with regard to my attire and showed up in dress pants, shirt, complete with tie and vest. My first clue was when my cousin arrived at my house in infinitely more casual clothes.

When we reached the dance itself I found myself instantly engulfed in ridicule and feeling the full brunt of what that can impart onto you. To make matters worse I had no concept of how to dance or any comfortable facsimile thereof. Some friends of mine convinced me of trying to make use of some physical comedy gags I had improvised like waddling in place like a penguin and calling it ‘penguin dancing’ as well as sticking one foot spaced far in front of the other almost in a straight line and rocking back and forth like a rocking horse.

Ever heard the phrase most often used to try and console someone after they have reached new heights of ridiculous; they’re laughing with you instead of at you? I heard that one a lot – almost in a chorus stereo format style even. You can honestly tell a difference even as a kid between good spirited humor and people making a mockery of you. The entire rest of the night I spent being a repository for people’s pity or more pointed proclamations of being ridiculous.

As I grew up I eventually discovered the truth of the matter; that feeling ridiculous is something that solely rests with you. Some other kid once tried to mock me by pointing out that my T-shirt didn’t match a flannel shirt I was wearing over it. In fact, they (as I recall) tried to claim that I had to be color blind. Truthfully, I am not color-blind at all but I do happily concede to being color-stupid. I can tell one color apart from another without much trouble, but when it comes to instinctively knowing what two colors compliment and what ones clash I am woefully ignorant. Which I must point out doesn’t really matter much to me.

In retaliation and armed with my burgeoning understanding I started making it a point to wear mismatched color schemes of the same sort – often resorting to the most obvious pairings I had available. I would put on a bright blue shirt and then throw on a vibrant red flannel with it. In the face of any attempt to make me feel ridiculous I would simply smile and reply with comments along the lines of ‘I like how I look,’ or ‘what does it matter if I don’t match,’ etc.

Over the years as I grew up I found more and more that no body could make me feel ridiculous unless I allowed them to. I also started to see more and more the unmistakable association between what everyone else expected of you based on conformity and those they directed ridicule towards. Even as an adult it continued – and I don’t foresee it is something that will ever completely vanish from society.

That doesn’t mean that we should keep propagating it. That doesn’t mean we need to live in ignorance of how we allow it to affect us. It is our choice alone to permit it to make us feel bad or deny it any power over us.

I worked a job at local manufacturing plant for years holding a respectable job operating machines that were responsible for providing every other aspect of the production process with the raw materials they needed to build about everything they made. It wasn’t easy, it was long hours working from just before midnight to just after noon constantly moving and trying to pay attention to hundreds of moving strands of fiberglass and dozens on spools of woven fiberglass matte cloth as it was being pulled into a heated metal die, coated in thick sticky resin and coming out as a solid beam on the opposite end. It didn’t take much to have the process come to a crashing halt leaving some horrible messes on par with a gooey Gordian knot still heated to triple digits and an entire plant of other people depending on the flow of the materials we made to enable them to keep working.

The very first day I showed up for that job, I did so wearing a comfortable pair of old overalls. Worked in them every night too and didn’t give a hoot what anyone else thought or said on the matter. Although it is a little difficult to make a grown man feel ridiculous no matter what he is wearing if you watch him run over to a river of moving fiberglass mattes and strands of fiberglass string to start sewing thing together while it is still moving to keep it from crashing.

Point of the matter is that if you spend your days letting everyone make you feel ridiculous then you’ll never give yourself the time to show those same people that it doesn’t matter if you don’t dress the same or act the same. Just be yourself, be comfortable with who you are and don’t ever feel guilty about finding out who that person is (or is going to be). You can even be ridiculous if you want to be – but never let anyone make you feel that way.

Because if you ever stop and take the time to sound that word out it tells you all you need to know about anyone who tries to make you think you are being it

Re – [explicative deleted] – you – us; they’re trying to reinforce the difference between you and the rest of ‘us.’ And in the process all they are reinforcing is that they are the omitted component of that word themselves. Why don’t we all make an honest attempt to pay a little less attention to what others are saying is ridiculous and a little more on who we are as individuals. There is plenty more value in people that we can prize as precious without pointing out where we think they don’t fit in.

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Hound Hunting - Chapter 29.

I woke up in a comfortable fluffy bed with fresh sheets that smelled of soft delicate things like flowers and sunshine. There was the faint aroma of herbs everywhere as well and only slowly did it occur to me that the combination wasn’t altogether foreign at all. I was in one of the recovery rooms that made up healer’s hall. More precisely the section set aside for those just a step below what was reserved for the serious cases sent to the infirmary.

I suppose there should be some satisfaction to be found there – but there was little. It didn’t really feel right for me to be the one waking up here. At some point maybe I could come to terms with what Wynna had done. Maybe someday I could feel justified in stopping her. But they day wasn’t today and might not come anytime soon. It was something I would have to live with.

Even a blunted blade is still a blade. Just like the fact that even a SpellHound no longer sworn to service and bound to the throne can’t deny that it is his duty to make use of his birthright for the good of others. When you can see the dangers others cannot it puts you in a position to protect against it that are denied to everyone else. I guess I’d just have to make sure I billed better from now on.

Glitch was curled up in an awkward sideways slump that looked completely uncomfortable for the chair holding him beside my bed. All my things had been sorted and stowed in a small cabinet next to me. Relief rushed over me as I looked through it to discover everything in order. My sword was leaning against it, my dagger tucked along with it on my belt. Even my money was still safe and sound inside its pouch with my pants.

My pants were in there. This meant that… I looked under the sheets and groaned. Someone had removed my pants at some point. It was to be expected I suppose, and even though it wasn’t my first stay in a similar setting it was never very appealing to your dignity to wake up without your pants. Especially if you weren’t entirely certain of whom it was who removed them.

While I was lamenting the loss of my pride, or any portion thereof a familiar face sauntered into the room. Stane didn’t bother with any formalities like knocking or announcing himself before entering. But then again I hadn’t really either before I showed up to see him. I guess that made us even in the decorum department.

“They say you took down Wynna Snowsong single-handedly,” he stated sadly. “Can’t say I did it alone Stane,” I had to confess. “I did have some help from my hired consultant.” It still felt surreal talking about Wynna in such a way. I thought I owed it to her, and to Stane to say something.

“I don’t feel good about what happened, far from it in fact. Never thought I would end up on the other end of another SpellHound in a serious fight. But Wynna wasn’t right Stane, there was barely anything left of her when she came at me. She was stealing so much raw power from every relic she could get her hands on and had already used so much to hurt people.

She was determined to keep doing it too. Was about to try and breech the gate and then who knows how much more mischief she would have managed once inside.” Tears started to well up and my eyes were too wet to contain them. They fell down along my face without resistance and even Stane sniffled quietly as well.

“They’re trying to piece everything together right now,” Stane said after we both took a few minutes to politely wipe any wetness away without mentioning it. “The unofficial word is that after the accident Wynna had accidentally come into contact with a secret stash inside Emberhelm that was being relocated to keep it secure. Without knowing what it was or what was going on she must have taken action against them and found her self holding another object similar to what had been used on us. They believe the temptation was too much for her and she got greedy. From there this whole mess just snowballed until she snapped. It could have happened to any one of us.”

“No,” I objected with ample agitation. “Not just anyone of us. Trust me on that one; Wynna made the call to collect those things. She also made the choice to do what she did.” That promise of power was tempting to be sure, but on the most basic level it all came down to what was right and what was wrong. The abuse of arcane power of that magnitude was beyond bad. There was always a choice – and Wynna had simply made the wrong one.

“How many casualties are there,” I asked. I needed to know just how much damage Wynna had dealt before the end. But I guess I also was curious about the number of hidden hoards she had managed to hunt down. Were there still more of them out there being guarded in secret? Or had she wiped all the ones warding them out and reduced those treasures to trash?

“No exact figures yet but rough estimates are only a handful has been slain in the pursuit of her plot not counting those she caught in combat outside the gate. We were fortunate you got wind of her scent in time to intercept her.”

“I am an Interceptor, after all,” I proclaimed and the two of us shared a smile. After that Stane bid me farewell and went on his way. I took advantage of his absence and decided to get some more rest myself.

In the days that followed I was eventually released from my room and allowed to leave. Aethen made good on his word and rewarded me with restoring my reputation – on paper anyway and by granting me by way of a boon a measure of his influence. At face value it didn’t seem like much but when you considered I could call on it in times of trouble to leverage his good will in my favor I figured it was quite valuable indeed. It wouldn’t last forever if I abused it and I doubt even holding any degree of debt owed by him would protect me if I did something monumentally stupid but it was good to have a friend in high places.

The look on Garuff’s face was priceless too when I stuffed a slab of pure silver under his nose with the Wyatt crest and told him what he could do with his rent from now on. In fact, I advised him to consider his wealth and take up another trade instead. The life of a landlord wasn’t nearly as profitable if he didn’t treat his paying patrons with some respect. That is unless he wanted to cost himself more than coins coming in. He took my advice and agreed to invest his interests elsewhere.

I even squared my deal with Glitch too. Well, I paid him like I promised that is. He insisted on maintaining our partnership though. By working with me I figure he saw a shot at securing the freedom of his family. And I, for one, couldn’t blame him. Seeing as how I had also agreed to aid in the endeavor I figured it was a fair assessment.

What I wasn’t prepared for was having him move in with me. In the future I decided it best to watch how much I pay a gremlin. You get a little generous and the next thing you know you have a roommate. I needed to find another client and a bigger place before long.

You can’t win them all, I guess. Not if you have the luck of a hound.

Friday, April 11, 2014

Hound Hunting - Chapter 28.

A barrage of blasts ripped through the air to fly my way and I realized with a fair measure of fear that you can’t block them all. Summoning another surge of spell energy I sprinted to evade them instead. But I wasn’t the only one who would have trouble dodging a whole horde of harrying attacks.

“Glitch,” I called aloud. “Let them fly and put some holes in this book-breaker!” I could hear the clicker-clack of Glitch’s hand crank and it made me smile all the more. A volley of shinning steel spat into the air and sought out the SpellHound turned sorceress. Some of the bolts slammed into the ground with a rain-like thud while others hammered against an unseen curtain of force.

Wynna was all but cackling at her cleverness as she escaped any lasting harm from Glitch’s creation with only a handful of projectiles piercing her protection to strike anywhere near to her. I saw her mirth and raised her a growl. Power lanced up from my belly and thundered through my arm to envelop my blade. There was a single word, etched along its flat and I found it already on my lips.

Houndstooth,” I said and the word reverberated through me with a deep resonate echo. Every SpellHound has some name they give their weapon of office. For some it is an assigned moniker, for others it is just a label to hang on there ever-present companion. I spoke the name of my own sword and felt every enchantment ever laid into it stir to life. The blade of a SpellHound, regardless of its form is an effective tool – a badge of office no matter how much of its inherent potency is put to use. I had rarely ever had any need to call on it, even before I left the service to the throne. Since then it had been left to slumber. I suppose I had felt bad for removing its edge, or maybe I just didn’t want to wake it and be reminded of how together we had done our duty for so long before I couldn’t bear the burden any longer.

Now it was awake again, and I shoved a spark of power into it. It responded with all the obedience I had every expectation that it would and an arcane aura appeared along its length. I had no sharp bite to give Houndstooth any real teeth like it once had, but I could lend it some of the stored spell power instead. It greedily greeted that pouring power and yearned to be sent into service.

Another series of short steel bolts shot out again at Wynna and she effortlessly kept them at bay. I pushed my own feelings of unfairness aside and replaced them with the unspoken oath of balancing the scales she seemed to think were tipped to her side. My mouth snapped open and pure authority announced itself to challenge her.

“Wynna Snowsong,” I shouted out with the commanding edge of a SpellHound. “I hereby bound you with the charges of treason, dereliction of duty, malicious use of magic, murder of both innocents as well as SpellHounds in service to the throne and willful breech of your sworn oath. For these crimes you will answer, accept your fate or face me now.”

I could feel the full weight of the words as they left my lips and hit her with all the impact they used to. But I wasn’t a SpellHound in the service of the throne anymore. Only those still in the service of performing their duty had the ability to call on the given authority invested to them. I had only expected to go through the motions out of formality. Color me surprised.

Wynna stood transfixed by my challenge for a few breaths; obviously I wasn’t alone in the land of shock and surprise. It was cold naked hunger that eventually broke the hold that had held her compliant to my commands. Her eyes had narrowed their gaze on my blade and the power pulsing within it – from me. And I had no doubts about what was motivating her madness now. She was feeling the hunger of her arcane addiction. Here I was looking like a tasty treat; lucky me.

With the frenzy of a starving beast Wynna charged me, Glitch kept up his bolt barrage as she did. Right up until she closed the distance between us I could still see the glint of the gremlin’s tiny tips colliding with her conjured shield. Once he no longer had a clear shot I noticed the spinning stream of shooting steel stop. And I was eternally grateful to Glitch for keeping me out of the line of fire. Although, it occurred to me that it wouldn’t afford him much to kill me before I paid him the remainder of his wages. Even if he could have just picked over my pockets, thankfully he wasn’t aware of that fact.

Wynna’s movements were a dizzying blur of rushing blows and jerking jabs. I couldn’t allow myself any time to think about my reactions and relied on pure reflex instead. Ducking a savage swipe from her sword, I dropped down and immediately tumbled into a roll. I had learned my lesson from before and in so doing avoided being bashed by her rod. My dagger was forgotten in my off hand and I lashed out with a quick swipe of my blade instead.

It was an act of impulse, seizing the second an opening presented itself to slip any attack in I could. The edge of my enchanted blade rippled as it met the magic surrounding her and severed its way through the shield of sorcery. Without any sharpness on the weapon, my sword couldn’t cut through her armor with the same success. But as it bludgeoned into the back of her thighs the charge of channeled conjuration reacted violently to the touch and unleashed itself into an explosion.

Raw arcane power ravaged the air around us with shimmering waves of heat and flame. Everything that I could see was shaded in bright blues, silvers, purples and whites. Somehow the connection between Wynna and the magic she had shaped around herself was cleaved in two and she yelped out in agony as it fell absent from her. I could feel my senses clear as they became free of her blinding blizzard.

Every scrap of stored spell power was rammed as fast as I could push it into my sword’s tip and before she could recover I shoved it at the small of her back. It slid cleanly into the armor waiting there, introduced itself and then moved on to impale itself into the flesh found inside. As the bloodied blade met the air on the other side a gasp carried the displaced breath from her lungs as well so that the two sounds married themselves into a melancholy music.

My vision dimmed and I could feel myself falling into the weakness of absolute exhaustion. I had nothing left in me and I could feel Wynna’s body fall limp to the ground. The mechanical motion carrying Wynna to the ground also slid my sword free from her as well.

I had just killed my friend. I had just stabbed someone in the back, literally. There wasn’t any strength left in me to even decide which of the two would haunt me the more. Neither of which would I ever have predicted of having been capable of.

All I wanted was to lay there with my shame and swim in an endless sea of sleep. But a series of quick tugs at my shoulder demanded my attention. When I looked up through the cloud of confusion I saw Glitch, a panicked expression etched into his face. He was pointing at something – someone who was approaching as if it warranted worrying about.

I didn’t care whose blurred body was walking this way. My job was done and I was too tired to move, much less do any victory dances. I was done; simple as that.

“You were warned what would happen if I caught you with blood on your blade,” a voice as icy and dangerous as a glacier calmly commented. Through the fog of my fumbling mind I struggled with whether or not to bother with the effort of putting a name to the speaker. But as soon as they spoke again, I didn’t have to.

“I knew you were behind this and now I have you at the very scene of the crime. Finally, I will have the pleasure of extinguishing your stained existence from the respected ranks of any who ever bore the banner of the SpellHound.”

“Hey there Corrin,” I said too tired to add the cheery sarcasm I preffered when addressing the man. “Always entertaining when we can get together, but as usual you have it completely wrong. It was the other way around; Wynna was the one behind it and my blade was required to put an end to it.”

“Tricks and falsehood,” spat Corrin. For once I couldn’t fault his disbelief – I never could have believed it myself had I not had to stand against her. Even now my conscience was questioning my decision to deal a deadly blow. What if I could have brought her back? Could she have, with help, been salvaged from her madness? Now I’d never know.

Magic flowed and formed around Corrin’s empty hands; I didn’t even need to look at him – I could feel it. For the second time today I was standing in the presence of a SpellHound capable of slinging spells. Now it made sense; Corrin didn’t rely on his massive sword to eliminate his foes because he didn’t need to. The man was a mage himself.

In the face of another arcane assault I realized that all it might take would be another well channeled chance and I could siphon some of the magic to fight back. But at what cost, I wondered? Would I kill Corrin too like I did Wynna? And if I did manage to overcome him what kind of shape would that leave me in afterwards?

No. Sometimes you just have to face your fate and accept what awaits you.

“Go ahead, Cindercleave, do what you feel is right,” I surrendered. But apparently I wasn’t the one to get the last word in. Maeredith’s voice rang out next, clear as a fresh summer rain. What could she want?

“Corrin Cindercleave, by the authority invested in me as an acting Justicar I do hereby order you to halt your hostility.” My vision had faltered even further and now only vague degrees of darkness remained. I couldn’t see where Maeredith was or even if Corrin was complying. Honestly I wasn’t sure I cared how this was going to end. I just wanted it to be over, no matter what form it took.

“A formal investigation has been issued into the matter and former SpellHound Nathanial Vaen is to be considered excluded from suspicion. This comes from the mouth of Aethen Wyatt himself and is to be considered his personal proclamation on the matter. You will accept the will of a Wyatt, will you not?”

I must have truly been in bad shape; I would have thought I would be giggling like a grinning girl right now. Instead I was sinking further into sweet shadows and silence. The world melted away into midnight and the last words I heard was Corrin complain.

“About as smart as going to battle with a shattered shield,” Corrin cursed. A small hand was still gripping my shoulder and I took some comfort in knowing Glitch had stayed at my side. I made a mental note to inspect my belongings the moment I was conscious again just in case.

Blackness was bliss.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Hound Hunting - Chapter 27.

In that frozen fragment of displaced time I could imagine what my own father must have felt when he placed his own life on the line in place of another. There was no guilt, no remorse to be felt over my course of action. I didn’t even have a single instant of doubt or contemplation about whether or not what I was doing was what I should be. All there was for me was the absolute certainty that Glitch was in harms way and I needed to help him.

Everything slowed and I could hear my heartbeat coming in a drawn out drumbeat that left long pauses between them. I sprinted forward with all the speed I could summon with my only intention being to intercept any malevolent magic that was aimed at my associate. As I slid into the space between them I watched as already the arcane attack had blazed to life into a luminous line of burning blue-white power. It was surging straight towards me, a baleful blast that I had no desire of dodging.

It was rather bizarre, in a way I suppose; that surreal sense of seeing a sinister spell shooting its way towards you and only watching it come. I didn’t have my sword anymore and yet I found myself not truly caring about that small detail. What I did have was a rigid resolve that I had fashioned from my will alone; I refused to fail my friends.

Reaching out I grabbed at the power that was racing its way to find me and met it head on. Without the aid of my blade the blast threatened to engulf me, spreading out like a crashing wave. I found my anger then, standing against the assault and it answered my call. Fueled by fury in its face I rallied my rage and roared defiantly. “You’ll have to get through me first,” I bellowed. “And we both know that there isn’t enough magical might in all creation for you to beat me.”

My grip tightened around the arrow of arcane energy and pulled it into me before it could spill past. No time for second thoughts now. There wasn’t even any opportunity for regrets to form as a torrent of terrible torment swam through me. It was like being dropped into the heart of a mountain of molten lava while simultaneously landing inside the deepest glacier. There was so much pain laying siege to all my senses that it was hard to retain any tie to reality.

I drifted amongst the dizziness for an unknown amount of time. All I could do against all that agony was fight to hold on to the determination to defy it. It ravaged its way through me and I could only feel it bleeding out in a thin trickle. There was no way I could keep this up for very long. If I tried I would be consumed by the effort.

“Know what to hold on to and when to let go,” a voice reminded me in a whisper. Holding on to this kind of power hadn’t done Wynnna any favors and I had no interest in becoming anything similar. I had to let this power pouring into me go and I needed to do it quickly.

Concentrating I called every ounce of strength I could and pushed at the rushing energy to direct it down where it was already trickling away. Nothing happened at first but gradually the flowing force grew in its exit. Little by little I could feel the pouring power steady itself into a strong stream. As it left me, more of my mind returned to me. I had become little more than an open portal to direct the dangerous magic through and I was still holding on to the source.

That gave me an idea. If I had been able to pull the flung force of Wynna’s flowing power into me, then just maybe I could keep tugging. Absent the attempt of straining to store any of the energy I could keep all my attention on the task of fighting against the flow of it. So long as I could maintain channeling the current then I figured it was at least worth a shot. My only other option for reducing Wynna’s raw resources was to watch her wreck more havoc by hurling it around. At least this way I could deplete it with only myself being in the line of fire.

Throwing myself into my tenuous theory I flexed my fingers and dug my feet in. I could see Wynna’s features through the flooding fury, twisted with hate and driven by a dark desire to see me dead. Gone were the warm aspects of someone who I knew well and considered my equal, despite any humor hinting to the contrary. In their place was sheer madness and little else left alongside it.

Violently the rushing ray whipped up as I gave it a hard jerk and more magic crashed into me before passing through. Any attempt at subterfuge, I feared, would only give her the split second chance she needed to sever the stream at best or at worst overload me in a final flash to claim us both. So I had simply skipped straight to the point of things and charged ahead.

Panic appeared as Wynna hissed at my grave gambit, her eyes going even wilder than I thought was possible. I suppose when sanity took a vacation anything was possible. Without hesitation I kept up my leverage and pulled as much of the flowing power as possible. As it begrudgingly bowed to my will, more magic joined the jumbled jab already swarming towards me.

It threatened to become too much for me to handle as the increasing amount of arcane power swept over me. But I hardened myself by repeating the words in my head over and over; just become part of the path – let it pass. My mantra worked and I found myself maintaining my grip as I fell into a rhythm to try and drag everything I could drain right out of Wynna.

One by one some of the repositories that served as her reserves began to falter. I had no conscious way to judge for how long we had been locked in contest against each other. All my attention had been so focused on the monumental effort of my own desperate attempt to thwart the threat she represented. Regardless of the duration I could feel one thing for certain; I was reaching my limit. Exhaustion was coming to claim me and not even I could ignore my mortality.

So when Wynna finally managed to drop her outpouring energy I relished the relief. I ignored the curses she cast into the air along with the snapping sound of things being broken in frustration. As the final fragments filtered through me I cut off the avenue I had allowed for them and reserved what remained. It wasn’t much, only a small sliver in comparison to what had been shoved through me. But I bent it temporarily to my will, desiring only to make use of it for the next few fleeting moments.

Even with mere embers of energy burning away at my insides, it took what was left of my strength to hold it there. It demanded release in a way that didn’t require words and I for one regretted denying it. Siphoning the smallest portion I could I sent a surge of spell-stimulated strength to my limbs experimentally and felt the renewing vigor. The temptation to tap into a power with such promise was immediately aware to me, and I could see how alluring it was. With a steady supply of stolen spells you could become a SpellHound without equal. But to do so would be wrong on so many levels.

My replenished stamina wouldn’t last for long unless I continued to lean on the power I had just imprisoned inside me. All I wanted was to live long enough to release this raw power – no body had the right to contain it indefinitely. And I definitely didn’t want to pay the price it would cost of me for any longer than was necessary.

Wynna shifted a smoking rod from one had to the other and drew her own short sword with murderous intent. At her feet was the shattered shaft of the other rod along with a variety of the other various items she had been carrying. A sadistic snarl escaped her and a smile spread over her face. Wynna was gone.

I let another brief pulse of power free and used it to send my feet flying into a spin while my arm shot out seeking the hilt of my sword. The moment metal brushed against my fingertips I clutched it up and brought it back to be held before me. Now, all I had to do was hope that I had worn her down enough that we could survive any magic she might have left.

Fortune, Fate; if either is a lady then let them favor me with a friendly fondness now and not her. Besides, surely I had the better smile between us… Well, one with more sanity behind it at least.

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.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Hound Hunting - Chapter 25.

As I reviewed everything that had happened recently further I found myself looking at a string or strange scenarios. I had been shot at by crossbow wielding thugs. Someone had tried to point a trio of dawn devils my way and I had to deal with a brute Butcher in the streets. And all that together was only a portion of my problems. Aethen Wyatt had summoned me to a secret meeting, Garuff had harassed my home and now I was working with a gremlin.

Is this what happens when you hang out your shingle as a SpellHound for hire? It stood to reason since I hadn’t ever really known of any others to do the same before me. Perhaps they were far wiser than I. But a man has to eat and remaining idle doesn’t profit you anything. I had taken a job and while technically it had been seen to completion I had made promises – I keep my promises. Besides that, I had found myself a scent and I couldn’t just cast it aside once I had. I had to follow it to the end or else I could never sleep well again.

The only problem with that was that I had given my word to more than one person for more than one thing. They were all looking to be connected together, but each one in a different way. To Fayrel I had sworn without ever speaking the words to vindicate his daughter. Baylen had made me give him my assurance that I would likewise do everything in my power to help Lillian and her family as well. As I considered it I had also agreed to return to Fayrel in one piece to visit with him after everything was over as well.

Then, there was Aethen. He had obligated me both by calling on my compassion as well as my professional need to be paid. Through him I may have officially obligated myself into becoming the unofficial representative of the throne’s interests. Some guys are just so lucky and clever enough to land themselves in all the best possible career opportunities. Unfortunately I am not one of them.

Glitch made a guttural little grunt as we walked that snared at my wavering attention to see what had prompted the sound. When I looked his way I noticed he had slowed his steps and his face was twisted into a dark brooding demeanor. Something was troubling the tiny thinker and as I turned my focus towards figuring out what it could be I started to notice it as well.

It had started out all so very subtly that I had missed when it had started somehow. Faintly at first it had been just background noise that I had begun to filter out. But at some point it had improved enough to become a blizzard that laid siege to a SpellHound’s senses. If whoever was behind what was happening was using tactics like this to cover there tracks then this could only mean one thing; they were making another move.

Both of us must have came to the same conclusion at about the same moment because Glitch’s eyes met mine neither one of us had to say a word. Now was not the time for another theoretical lecture or for us to waste more time in wondering around looking for some elusive evidence. Right now we had to put what we had to work for us and make the best use of it we could.

I closed my eyes and focused on calling to mind the faint fragment of the amber amulet’s scent to make it as fresh to my senses as it was the moment I first experienced it. Frustratingly it eluded me as I tried to seize upon it as other thoughts fought for my concentration. What had it smelt like? I tried to use the question as a cue to drive my efforts to dig through my memory.

The sharp sudden sound of explosions screamed somewhere in the distance in different directions. I didn’t need the senses of a SpellHound to hear them either, and there was no hiding them from the ears of everyone. But with the knowledge of their being more than one there was also no way of determining which one would lead you to the real threat. It would only keep anyone trying to deal with a problem too busy and too tied up to take any organized action.

It was a brilliant angle; even the SpellHounds would be blind and overwhelmed to stop whatever scheme that was already in motion. My only chance was with the small sample that Glitch had been able to show me briefly. I pushed everything else away – I couldn’t do anything to help anyone by running around chasing my tail. There were promises to keep and a job to do and would be buried before I allowed myself to be denied from doing either.

The world went still and blank. I summoned up my will and wielded it like a weapon to cleave everything else clear from my mind. There, in the silence and emptiness a scene formed into being. Tranquil serene waters of a forest lake sat before me with the soft early morning sun warm along its face. A single ripple cascaded outward from a single drop of moisture and the smell of dew-damp moss drifted on the air. The colors of nature were playfully painted all around me. As I drank in every detail that I could hold firmly in the mental image a musical medley completed it.

When I opened my eyes again everything was still just as veiled against my vision as it had been before. But now I wasn’t trying to see everything, I wasn’t looking at it all and trying to see past the confusion. Instead I was narrowing my gaze to find something familiar, a single thread that matched itself with the scent in my head. And as I examined the air around me a series of similar smells took shape.

They were faint and frail – stretched near to the breaking point but they held the same primal presence. The trail they showed me was a web-worked pattern that encompassed almost all of Emberhelm. The entire complex arrangement of arcane energy though was most prominent in one point. And based on the direction it was leading me, I knew without following it where it would take me.

They were near the gates of Castle Virtus. Whatever this was, it was standing virtually just outside the seat of the Wyatt’s power. And with considerable chaos already afflicting the entirety of Emberhelm there was no way of knowing how many SpellHounds remained in its defense. Even if considerable forces could be found they may not be able to stand against something with the ability to blind them. There wasn’t any more doubt left to me that a SpellHound had to be behind this. Nobody else could have known so precisely how to handicap them.

Some would blame me. Some probably already had. But if I wanted to see Aethen make good on his promised pay I had to ensure that he and his kin stayed on that seat. Emberhelm didn’t need the strife of someone sans-sanity seated in their place either. The carnage already wrought alone was bad enough – continued conflict could leave more of it as a wasteland.

“Time to earn my pay,” I announced and raced into following the faint trail that would doubtless lead to a fight that I logically feared could be my final. “Hi-ho, hi-ho; it’s off to work I go…” I quipped quietly to myself and noticed Glitch had followed suit behind me. I had once heard some drunken dwarves singing that song late one night as they shuffled out of a tavern. It had some strange way of making me smile. Smiles were exactly what I needed right now. It is far better to laugh in the face of impending death than to greet it grimly. Besides, if you’re going to go after a mad SpellHound it is only fair to face them with a little madness of your own.

Monday, April 7, 2014

Hound Hunting - Chapter 24.

By the time more SpellHounds showed up to investigate reports of dawn devils inside Emberhelm Glitch and I were already long gone. We had left all explanations in Stane’s capable hands as we pursued our own problems. It seemed like every answer I had been able to dig up was only pointing me further and further away from a final answer. Instead I was only finding more and more questions.

“Glitch,” I called for my companion’s full attention as we shuffled along down the street. He was still stalking along at my right and only a pace or two behind me. It was somewhat frustration for him to remain just out of the edge of my field vision but I was tired of trying to argue anything with a gremlin. Even so and fearing another fresh verbal confrontation with him I had to ask.

“Why did you sink steel into that stranger when he approached,” I asked him openly. Of all the things swirling around in my noggin’, for whatever reason, some of Glitch’s actions stood out at the moment. Once the guy had come towards us the gremlin had greeted him with a rather grave reception. I don’t know if it was the speed of his decision to deal with the matter with deadly force that troubled me or if it was the fact that he had done so without starring the stranger in the eyes first.

“He was already in the motion to attack us,” Glitch announced as his assessment of the issue. “Besides, when you are my size and provoke unpleasantness in others you learn quickly not to provide anyone the edge to press their advantages. He made his move so I made mine. Had I been a hair’s breath faster I might have halted him from hurling his projectile.”

“And what of your own little projectiles,” I asked. Whatever that weird weapon was in Glitch’s satchel I had to concede made me curious what other gear the gremlin carried. Had he not been in my employ I might have not liked to be on the lethal receiving end of it. You had to hand it to gremlin genius – they had a way with things that could counter their deceptive lack of physical strength in a fight.

“If I kept throwing things at anything else that attacked us after our ambiguous ambusher I figured we would have fallen,” he commented. “So I opted for field testing my little creation. I am thinking of calling it a ‘crank bow’ – although I am not completely certain I can replicate it. You see it uses this fascinating arrangement of…” Glitch trailed of as he talked once it occurred to him that I might not fully share his appreciation of some of the finer details.

He blinked those salmon spheres of his at me to dismiss the incoming information that his mind had called forth and shifted back to the subject without ever slowing his stride. “It shoots specially crafted crossbow bolts far faster than any crossbow ever could. The only problem is that aiming is still somewhat of an issue.”

“I’ll say,” I agreed as I recalled the rapid rain it had sent sailing through the sky. It was still impressive, to say the least, even if it wasn’t exactly accurate. And to think that if I was hearing correctly Glitch had just mentioned that it was something of his own invention. Something that he hadn’t ever actually tested before until only minutes ago. I wasn’t sure whether or not to applaud his clever creation or question his use of an untested implement in the heat of a dangerous encounter. My eyes drifted down to the satchel at his side and I found myself wondering with perhaps more caution than curiosity how much he had stuffed into that thing.

It just seemed bizarre that the bag bouncing by his side didn’t even betray the bulk of his ‘crank bow.’ The sack seemed to have simply sucked whatever he had slipped inside it and absorbed it somehow. That thought reminded me of something Stane had said to me, something that at the time I had heard but at the same time hadn’t heard. It may just be a minor detail but it was one that felt too important to overlook. Plus, it was something that I hadn’t recalled ever hearing of being done before.

Stane Stormaxe had reported that when cornered the wily wizard had drawn not just on the ambient arcane energies around him or simply his own skill to craft the spell he used to strike out with. He had also tapped into the very trinkets, tools and treasures he carried to power it. In the end he had drained everything dry in an ambitious attempt for an ambush assault. That was a tremendous degree of power to pour through him; I had never heard of anyone alive capable of anything on that level. I don’t think I had ever even heard of anyone crazy enough to even try it. If Stane hadn’t been the one to tell me that it had happened I never would have thought it was even possible.

Making use of their senses and natural abilities a SpellHound could deflect some magic directed their way. If they are really focused they can channel the surging sorcery through themselves and into the ground. The spell-shaped steel they carry acts to aid them, serving as a focus and a conduit almost akin to a lightning rod of sorts. But even a SpellHound could only withstand so much power passing through them. This guy had been squarely seated at the center of a terrible tidal wave of raw power and had chosen to do so.

It was insane to imagine anyone consciously choosing to do anything of the sort. Most people with any ability for magic generally shaped spells they were comfortable with – typically things they could do without reaching out for even small amounts of the raw power around them. Those individuals who dared to might try their hand at working with the wilder forces found flowing naturally but even they didn’t tend to turn more than a minor amount to their will.

Not only had the wizard worked towards wielding his own familiar forces, but he had also called on everything around him. He had used himself as a funnel of sorts for every element of potential power and directed it at Stane. I couldn’t even say with any certainty that committing to such an attack left him with any idea that he might survive. If that was the case, he had to be really motivated to make sure he took Stane out with him.

But Stane hadn’t been the one to receive the blast. Wynna Snowsong had felt its formidable force in his place instead, having placed herself in its path. She had taken the terrible trap for Stane and had somehow survived. I could see her racing in to the situation and throwing herself immediately into becoming involved. Wynna loved proving herself and in her own right she was quite capable. However I don’t think I could have handled that amount of arcane fueled attack and survived. Although upon seeing a friend facing that danger I am sure I would have tried.

So how was she even still standing? “Can someone actually do that,” I absently asked aloud. Glitch grunted back at me, not sure of what I was referring to and prompted me to elaborate. “Draining down everything from even things as old as items like that amber amulet? I mean, is it even possible to cannibalize them and shove that much spell-power through a single person?”

“In theory,” Glitch decided. “But there would be too many variables to account for to make it effective or guaranteed of success. If anything went wrong the results could be unpredictable at best and catastrophic at worst. The effort alone could drive a mind to madness, burn a body to oblivion or even leave you as an empty shell. That is all contingent on if you even had the ability to even get the stuff to allow you to withdraw all of its essence out in the first place.

You’re talking about unbelievably long odds,” Glitch explained. “And what about someone on the other end of all that energy,” I added inquisitively. “Similar situation, I’m afraid. You can only push so much through you at any time. If you could gradually release a good portion of it slowly then perhaps you could survive the situation. But even holding a small amount would still cause a strain and the initial impact would leave lasting harm.”

“Assuming you could do the impossible and store some of that to slowly slip out, you could live from the experience though, right,” I asked. “Survive, yes,” Glitch answered. “But not without being warped by it to become crazy as a loon for example.” Wynna hadn’t seen overly altered to me but I couldn’t exactly look insider her head either. And there was a certain element of insanity present in everything that was going on.

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.

Saturday, April 5, 2014

Hound Hunting - Chapter 22.

Whatever had been launched towards us came to rest just shy of hitting anyone and landed in the dirt. There wasn’t anytime to investigate the object either, because hot on its heels came an unsettling sound. It was a high pitched shrill cry, the unmistakable call of a fearsome flying foe that nested in the cliffs near Emberhelm. They had come to be known as dawn devils; fiendish beasts that liked to appear in the sudden sunlight of dawn to strike at anything foolishly still afoot.

Against the blinding backdrop of a rising sun I couldn’t make out a count of how many creatures were zeroing in on us. The sound of the screeches stabbed at your ears and my heart sped up to supply me with ample adrenaline to face the fleet footed fears rushing right through me. While I readied myself against avian assault I made it a point to remind myself not to try to focus on locking on to any one dawn devil. If they struck in a swarm it wouldn’t do me any going to try to keep my eyes on any single one. My best strategy would be to take advantage of my reflexes and lean on my peripheral vision to aim my reactions. You can detect movement far faster than any discernable detail – and these things had us outmatched in the eyesight department. Plus, they moved wicked fast, even for something with wings.

Dawn devils didn’t typically hunt this far into Emberhelm, let alone have the reckless abandon to try and take down prey as big as any of us. Well, perhaps something gremlin sized. But they just didn’t generally go after anything as intelligent and risky as an elf or dwarf etc. It wasn’t that they couldn’t, far from it, they had just come to consider such things as too much threat for not enough gain. Early settlers had taken great lengths to defend themselves against the local wildlife. It wasn’t something a predatory forgets when it finds food too costly to consider hunting.

So why in all of Emberhelm would dawn devils be here, so far from their nests – from the safety and security of their territory to attack us? A glance at Glitch told me I might be the only one wasting time on thinking. My curious cohort was already sheathing his own blades to retrieve something else from his satchel. It was a strange shaped cylinder with a crude grip. Along one side was what looked like a hand crank and along its belly was a bulbous box.

The second the first dawn devil closed in on us enough to present a passable target, Glitch gave his grim gadget a quick crank and small sharpened spears of steel sparked into the air like hurling hail seeking only to deliver stabbing pain. There was a clack of clicking sound as his darts tried to do damage but the dawn devil banked easily aside to escape the bold barrage.

Seeing one up close is no laughing matter. These things have a wingspan longer than a grown man is tall and some reach proportions large enough to double that. Feathers of browns, grays and blues shimmer in the light in such a way that is simply dazzling in the light of sunrise. But they don’t call them devils for nothing; they are quick, clever and the thick layering of their formidable feathers can disperse a solid impact. I suppose when you live and hunt in a rocky terrain it helps to have a hide to protect you.

Two more dawn devils flew in a forked flanking formation trailing the first. As it cut sharply to avoid the impending impalement they dropped down to angled low and headed straight for Glitch. Like I said, these things had earned the name appropriately enough. While the first had drawn the gremlins fire the trailing two were taking advantage of the directed attention to attack.

Both Stane and I had spotted the strategy and were already in motion to intercept it. My sword swept into a vicious upward arc that had it retained its edge might have sliced a savage cut. Stane had opted for using brute blunt force by way of his axes broadside to slam into the other devil with a stunning strike. Neither of us was left with a smile of satisfaction.

Cursing we both immediately realized the flaw in out tactic; the dawn devils feathers absorbed much of the kinetic impact and dispersed it along them. Both birds were knocked from their flight towards Glitch, but our counter offense was already being shaken off. We had managed to smack them and that was about the extent of it.

My heart sank and I deeply started wishing that I wasn’t standing there holding a blunted blade. There were at least three dawn devils that I had counted so far. I watched the two we had blocked take back to the sky but I couldn’t find the third when I tried to look for it. The early morning sky was already aglow of golden hued crimson as dawn was rearing its head.

Glitch himself had even ceased his own miniature spear shooting flurry to try and track where his target might have vanished to. But those devils were simply too at home up there flying nobody knew where over our heads. The light glinted off the tip of my short sword and the rapid fire combat thinking areas of my mind seem to seize on that detail to spin off into an important point.

It was still a point. Dawn devils could tense up and take a strong slam into even a rocky wall in the pursuit of their prey. In fact I have heard tales from elders of Emberhelm about them clutching up their catch of the day and diving into a cliff wall to tenderize the meat before returning to their nests. But one mistake some of the young ones made before they had mastered hunting or the technique itself was to veer too sharply near the sharp jutting crags. The others would leave them there to rot, not even bothering to pick the corpses clean. Some said it was to keep the breeding pool strong, to weed out the weak or ignorant among them.

To me at the moment in particular I didn’t care about so much the how or why about dawn devil culture, let alone customs. What mattered was something I could use. And one thing I could use was tactical knowledge like the fact that their feathered forms were susceptible to being pierced much like anything else. I may not have an edge to bring to bear, but I did have one sharpened bit of steel available to me, and I had every intention on making the most effective use of it.

“Stane, Glitch; we need to stab them, bludgeoning won’t work on these things,” I advised. I had their number now I aggressively admitted to myself and tried to watch for another attack. Glitch had already hefted his handmade contraption anew and had it held before him while he scanned the sky for anything to present itself. Even Stane had his own axe shifting slowly in a swaying pattern while he rocked back and forth on the balls of his feet, eager to engage again.

This time there was little warning when a dawn devil raced down towards us. It seemed to melt from the air itself out of nowhere and I only caught sight of it out the corner of my eye. The sudden motion made me jerk and spin to face it, almost a second too late too avoid a beak-shaped battering ram rushing at me with vicious talons to accompany it. I whipped my blade up for a thrust to strike at it but found my opportunity was already past.

The dawn devil twisted itself into a wild roll that drove it back up and over my head, carrying it out of my range before my sword could even attempt to serve me as a short improvised spear. While my focus was distracted by the dazzling shimmer of dawn’s sun rippling right over me I had missed the presence of its partners. They had been flying just behind the lead devil in a tight straight line formation that had rendered them invisible at the speed they had swept in.

It was a potentially deadly price that I should have paid in full. Instead it was discounted down from death to a particularly painful cost. Ravaging my back claws raked right up to slip through armor and find flesh waiting for them. The blow nearly drove my balance completely clear from me and I only avoided landing prone by throwing my sword arm out in front of me.

With my guard dropped and my struggle solely centered on staying upright the third dawn devil had had me dead to rights. But a violent volley of rigid rain roared forth from Glitch to catch it in the chest and a shriek of sheer shock punctuated it. The beast bellowed as it abandoned its assault and fought to fly for desperate freedom. A deft axe dealt it a blow that denied it any manner of escape save one that carried it from the land of the living.

Raw rage ripped up through me at having been hurt and with the added incentive of repaying in kind I pushed the pain from my mind. They wouldn’t try the same trick twice, I’d wager; especially after the last pass had already cost them one of their number. We had brought one of them down, now the odds were in our favor and the advantage of dawn wouldn’t exist for much longer.

“Next pass keep your eyes open,” I snarled, shaking slightly. “First fiend to show its face is mine, you two take the second.” After a few tense seconds I decided to add an extra observation as well; “they’ll likely not come at us from the same direction this time.”

I heard Stane make a sound that I expect was meant to be his admission of agreement. Glitch actually managed to make an entire word that I could comprehend; “understood.” Neither had necessarily had to even say anything, in truth I barely could have turned enough attention towards them to handle much in the form of a legitimate conversation. But some part of me had disconnected and relaying strategic assessments to your squad in a fight is a hard habit to break. I guess it had been a bit since I had been in a similar situation and was reverting to those habits.

My thoughts slowed until they became still like a tranquil lake and I relaxed my grip on my sword. These dawn devils were too good at what they did and this was their preferred period for hunting. My eyes couldn’t provide me with that precious period of warning to alert me in time for a response. I had learned that the hard way from the last pass. In fact, the pain was still creeping its way through to remind me despite my best efforts to ignore it.

If my eyes could be defeated then I would just have to turn towards my other senses. Despite the inherent foolishness of the act, I closed my eyes and removed my focus from my field of vision. I trained my attentions on the sounds and smells that swam all around me in my surrounding. There was a vivid array of aromas and noises that were available. Sorting through them all was like looking through a haystack that had been rolled down a city street; there was all manner of things mingled into the mix.

Desperately I pleaded to myself that fate was going to grab fortune and together they might enjoy each others company long enough to show me some smiles. I drifted through all the details and tried to find anything that could lend me an edge. And as I canvassed the complex components of everything around me I did start to piece some fragrant fragments together.

This far from the cliffs there shouldn’t be as strong of a scent of fresh flowing water, much less that of the fish that lived therein. Dawn devils weren’t above diving into the depths to claim a catch anymore than they would to snatch up something from the ground. Either strategy would take advantage of their keen eyesight in the early morning hours.

Then there were the sounds; the soft morning breeze wasn’t particularly strong but it carried on it the somber silence that there always was when so few people were up and about. I could make out three pairs of breathing lungs and the beating bodies containing them. The crank on Glitch’s curious little creation even squeaked just a hair as his hand absently turned it maybe half a degree.

But the faint odor of lingering fish was growing stronger. As it did it came with an increased distortion in the air. It wasn’t the clearly identifiable flap of feathers surging through the sky. Instead it was almost akin to the sound of an arrow sailing straight to seek out its target. That target, I was quite certain would be me.

I resisted the initial impulse to rip my eyes open and jerk my sword out before me. That hadn’t worked well for me the last time and I was sure that it would only strip me of the timing that I would need. If their own eyesight could spot my swords steel brought to bear before then it might adjust its attack before I could attempt any form of offense of my own.

Clinging to my gambit I poured all of my concentration into keeping my senses sharply trained on the sound and smell that continued to make its way towards me. Against all my wishes to the contrary my heart hammered harder in my chest and a little voice from somewhere far behind me began whispering questions about the strength of my strategy. I couldn’t completely argue with it either; it wasn’t the best battlefield strategy I had ever heard of. But sometimes you have to trust your instincts. I trusted mine enough to stand in the street with my eyes closed and waited for death from above to come and try to deliver it.

I could almost taste the thick near tangible tang of fresh air after a storm on my tongue. Every part of me was screaming at me to take action for the sake of my survival. And yet I held back, pressing my resolve to the brink of breaking.

Just as I could feel my nerves staring to falter I felt the air become calm and sensed something moving suddenly in front of me. My eyes ripped themselves open, but not before my arm had already ignited into a surging stab that sent my sword straight up and ahead of me. It all happened with such lightning speed I couldn’t immediately process it.

I never felt the blow as the dawn devil’s momentum married with the sharpened steel tip of my sword. Nor do I consciously recall spinning in to roll with the impact that carried it clear past me to collide with the waiting ground. In a whirling blur of chaos and confusion I found myself already in motion to reach Stane’s side. The vicious veteran was facing the last of our fearsome flying fiends with ample enthusiasm.

Glitch had fired forth a short burst of blazing bolts that caught the air just to the right of the dawn devil, driving it low and to the left. The altered course would carry it straight into Stane, who was already anticipating the encounter and leapt into the air. By the time I sprinted into range with my own sword all I could do was watch as an axe angled neatly down into the passing neck of the predator turned prey. It hit the ground hard and rolled for a respectable stretch before friction alone seemed able to overcome its speedy descent from the sky.

Just to be sure I provided each bird-like body with an extra piercing to its chest and then rejoined the others. Glitch was busy tinkering and adjusting his weird little weapon before slipping it back inside his satchel. Stane was occupied himself with wiping what remained splattered along his axe.

After a long series of silence we all gathered around the small object that had started the strange scenario. “Perhaps we should try this again,” I proposed politely “Stane, old acquaintance mine; we need to have a little talk.” He didn’t even look up, merely answering me with a single terse word in reply. “Aye,” he said. It was the only word spoken for several long awkward minutes as we all stared at the shattered stone-like remains of what looked to have at one time been an egg.