Monday, February 4, 2013

"The High-Wizard's Hunt" Cover Reveal!!

It has been known for a long time that a good cover sells more books than good writing.  Therefore, we are anticipating a mad rush on release day because everyone will want to pluck this digital beauty from the cyberspace shelves.  We are so thankful that we have been able to locate such an amazing cover designer for our novels!

We thought long and hard about what elements of the story should grace the cover of the second book in the Osric’s Wand series. We are sure that our readers will not be disappointed. Not only did Rodrigo Adolfo depict our literary creations just as we imagined them, but he created a wonderfully complementary image to the first book’s cover. We can’t wait for you to see it!

Understandably, you are probably wishing we would stop rambling and just get on with showing you the artwork. However, we love a good build up for something so grand as this. In fact, we are sure it is worth the wait, so we hesitate to rush into the reveal too quickly.

Perhaps we should share the blurb from the back cover first - you know, build up the anticipation just a bit more - before we unveil Rodrigo Adolfo’s creation.

On second thought, we think we will make you wait for the blurb. So...

Without further delay, and with only this last, brief paragraph separating you from the promised introduction to the newest face to the series, here it is in all it’s glory!

Don’t be shy; tell us what you think of the cover by commenting below. We will make sure Rodrigo stops by to see what you have to say! Remember to give credit where credit is due and thank him for all of his hard work to bring this cover to the world!

Now, should you want to get in touch with Rodrigo to have a cover designed for yourself, all you have to do is get in touch with us through one of our many outlets and we will get you in touch with this truly talented designer. Then, he can get in touch with you. It will be a very touching moment for us all. <wipes tear from eye>

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

A Christmas Surprise

Don’t worry; it isn’t fruitcake. We received this letter, and we thought we needed to pass it on...

Dear Jack and Ashley,

I wanted to inform you that each and every one of your readers made it to my good list this year. During this magical season, I was hoping you would help me reward them.  Let’s spread some Christmas cheer and let them in on a little more of the Hunt, shall we?”

Warm wishes,

~ Santa ~

We certainly couldn't deny the request. After all, who could say no when Santa asks for help? Don't forget to check out chapter one, here, first.  Then, here it is, to add a little magic into everyone’s day, Chapter Two of “Osric’s Wand: The High-Wizard’s Hunt”!

Copyright 2012 Jack D. Albrecht Jr. and Ashley Delay

Chapter 2
An Odd Departure

The sudden bitterness of the cold met Osric’s face and hands when he appeared at the field in Lothaine.  His thoughts drifted as he pondered Bridgett's journey to the Grove of the Unicorns, wondering what mysteries Gus might be able to uncover.  He fondly recalled how Gus had finally begun to treat him with respect, and the last few moments he had spent with Bridgett, looking into her eyes and kissing her hand as he held it in his own.  He had to shake off the feeling of loneliness that hit him suddenly as he gazed out at the snow covered landscape.
“Don’t tell me the warmth of Braya turned you soft?” Kenneth slapped Osric’s shoulder with a smile.
Osric turned and grinned back, “No, I guess I just wasn’t prepared for the suddenness of the change,”  he said, quietly thankful for the excuse the cold provided.  Focus, he berated himself, holding his hand up in front of his eyes and squinting at the brightness of the snow as he scanned the landscape.  He caught sight of what he was looking for a fair distance to his left and behind them. Greyback popped her head up, gazing at the two of them in joyful surprise.
“Oh, Osric, it’s so nice to see you and Kenneth again!”  Greyback greeted them with a familiar, frightful smile.  Her cheerful voice echoed between the nearby trees.
“We’re glad to see you too.”  Osric smiled as he turned to walk toward Greyback.  He was thankful for the friendly greeting.  Thinking through the possibilities for their near future,  it would be nice to have friends, and he couldn’t have asked for greater allies than the dragons.
“How’s the wing?”  Kenneth smiled as he made his way toward the massive dragon.  He reached up and held Greyback’s wide face between his hands and took a good, long look at her.  “You look healthy as a hatchling.  You seem to have a bit more color in your scales as well,”  Kenneth said, glancing back at Osric with a wink.
“Oh, you really are too kind,” Greyback batted her eyes and smiled again.  “I have been eagerly awaiting your return.”  She gazed, almost timidly, between the two.  “Thank you for freeing my kin. You will always have an ally in us, for as long as you live.”
Osric decided that the look was not timidity, but gratefulness and joy.  Greyback was having a difficult time dealing with her emotions.  A dragon welling up with tears?  I hope things turn out that well for our kind when this is all over, he thought, as he reached his hand over and patted her neck.
“Half of Archana would have done the same had they known that you were all enslaved,”  he assured her, trying to break the tension,  “but we have to get back soon, or they will know who did it.  We have a lot of work ahead of us, too.  Archana willing, the hunt will take us,” he motioned at Kenneth, “before our hides decorate the chambers of those responsible for carrying out the enslavement.”
“The Hunt,” Greyback said solemnly, “will never take you, if the dragons have anything to do with it.”
Osric  furrowed his brow at Kenneth, who shared his apprehension at the thought of dying of old age.  He shrugged in Greyback’s direction and smiled.  Osric pondered the thought of aging, and the horror of it danced through his head.
He pictured himself sitting alone, with wrinkled hands shaking with the weight of a cup, sitting next to a fire for warmth.  Imagination filled him with pictures of his eye’s white with age, and nobody to talk to as he wasted away.  A silent end to a life of hunting, with no last wishes, and the thought that his death would mean nothing to the world.  There would be no nourishment for others by his body, and he would be left to decay in the ground.
No, I’ll go hunting drogmas alone before I let that happen.  He shook the uncomfortable feeling as the thought entered his mind.  Drogmas were vicious creatures, unable to speak or wield magic with intent, but death at their claws was preferable to a slow, painful demise. Although, being a lower species, they would not offer him a last request, but at least his death would serve the purpose of food rather than decay.  Osric turned his thoughts to the matters at hand.  Besides, the thought of dying from old age was a moot point.  Their current mission would probably lead to his death anyway.  By the time he discovered who was attempting to start a world war on Archana, he was bound to have generated some powerful enemies.
Greyback asked them to tell her about the fight to free the dragons.  Although she had heard of their freedom telepathically from the elder dragons who had been held at the volcano, she wanted to hear it from the heroes’ perspective.  Kenneth was more than delighted to relate the events for her, so Osric sat silently, listening and thinking about the future.  They spent most of the day near Lothain, talking of recent events and enjoying the company of friends.  Osric was unsure of what to expect when they arrived back in Stanton, so he preferred waiting until evening when there would be fewer people out and about.  He thought about the implications of the attack on the palace and how much his life had changed since it occurred.
Osric did not completely understand all of the changes he was undergoing or how he was able to perform such extraordinary feats of magic.  He was confused and frustrated; although he didn’t really feel any different, he knew that he was changing.  He still longed to be a simple Vigile, serving his community and returning to his modest home each night.  He doubted his ability to achieve anything great, and responsibility was being thrust at him faster than he could adapt to it.  His wand’s power was still a mystery, but he felt as though it was only a small part of why he could feel the power within himself growing.  If it was just the wand, then wouldn’t my wand spells be the only magic affected by it?  That doesn’t explain how my spoken spells seem to share the same power, or why no one else is as affected by Bridgett’s amulet as I am.
Kenneth nudged him on occasion for support when Greyback questioned a part of the story.  Osric chimed in with a, “that’s what happened,” or, “It wasn’t really that impressive”, but hearing it told by another with all of the intonation of a great fire telling made the events sound rather impressive, even to him.  Kenneth described Bridgett’s selfless mission to distract the guards so the rest of them could get inside the volcano unseen, and there were undertones of guilt in his voice as he explained how she had been captured.  He waved his arms in the air as he described the timely arrival of Stargon, Ero and the other eagles.  Hatred could be heard in his tone when he told Greyback how Thom had crushed the crystal key that was used to unlock the cages and they had thought all hope was lost.  Kenneth’s tale faltered as he tried to explain how Osric had made his first wand.  It was clear that he still did not really understand what Osric had done.  Osric was pulled from his thoughts by Kenneth shaking his shoulder.  “Os, you will have to take it from here, I have no idea what you did or how you did it.”  
“Honestly, I don’t really know how to explain it.  It was Gus’ idea.  He thought that maybe I could draw the strands from a source other than Archana, and sort of unravel the spell.  I used the concept to draw magic from the gifts of our friends and make a wand, to see if it was even possible.  I guess it has never been done before, but it worked,”  Osric said with a shrug.
“You unraveled a spell?  I didn’t think that was possible.  Especially not one as complex as the vile barrier that confined my kin!”  Greyback sounded like she was in awe, and more than a little frightened, of the power that Osric must wield to have accomplished such a feat.
“I guess I did.  I really don’t know how it worked, I just wanted to free your elders.” Osric glanced up at the sky and rose to his feet.  “We should probably be heading back to Stanton now.”  They gathered what little supplies they needed and rigged the flying gear on Greyback.
Soon Osric found himself with wind blowing through his hair and Archana stretching far below.  It was a beautiful sight with snow blanketing the trees and fields and glistening streams trying to wear away at the thin coat of ice.  He felt lucky to be flying back to Stanton and seeing the horizon from such a height.  Traveling by spoken spell had its advantages, but the view and time spent in peaceful reflection on dragonback is something he appreciated more than ever before.  Hundreds of strides above the world, he felt things slow down for the first time in what seemed like forever, but he knew it would not last.
Osric was thoroughly enjoying the flight when the city of Stanton appeared on the horizon.  Though he had rarely seen it from the air, the sight of his hometown was easily recognizable.  Their journey had only taken them away for a short time, but the city looked smaller than he remembered.  The last few rays of sunlight turned the snow on the rooftops to gold and shadows stretched toward them as they approached the edge of town.  Greyback circled above the dragon platform, and they could see men unloading supplies from the backs of several dragons.  One small dragon on the far side of the platform cried out as they approached.  It looked as though she may leap into the air to greet them.  
Osric spoke quickly, “Greyback, tell the dragons that they must not acknowledge that they know who I am.  If they make a scene it could get me killed.  No one must know that I released the dragons from their imprisonment until we find out who was behind it!”  Instantly, they could see the dragon calm and Greyback swooped away from the platform until there was room for her to land.  The city sprawled out below them and Osric took a deep steadying breath.  In a way he was relieved to be home, but things had changed since he was last there.  He had changed.  For a moment he wished everything could just go back to the way it was before the attack on the Ratification Ceremony.  Life had been simple before he had been promoted to Contege of the Stanton Vigiles.  He had been happy with his quiet life patrolling the city, never wondering if there was more to himself than his Portentist gift and his swordsmanship, and not having to think about the politics and potential repercussions of war and conspiracy.  
Greyback glided slowly through the air above the palace grounds.  Osric trembled with anger at seeing the sight where all of the trouble had begun.  Although, crews had obviously worked day and night to clear the debris and begin rebuilding the palace.
Stepping off of Greyback’s wing and feeling the stone of the dragon platform again filled Osric with a sense of relief. Not too long ago, the thought of returning to Stanton seemed unlikely.  However, he had not imagined his intended journey to speak with the irua would have ended the way it did either.
Gordyn and Dru stood nearby on the platform as they disembarked.  Why his Vigiles were guarding the dragon platform was beyond him, but those questions could wait a bit longer.  Osric took a deep breath, taking in the scent of home as he turned.
“Greyback, I want to thank you for the pleasure of your company.  It has been an honor getting to know you.”
“Oh, the pleasure was all mine,” she spoke softly and placed her head on Osric’s shoulder, leaning in for his embrace.  “I will be watching you with great interest High, Osric. If you need anything, I will be close by.” She stumbled over the intended address, remembering his desire to remain anonymous.
“Wait here for just a moment, Greyback,” Osric motioned for Kenneth to say his goodbyes and made his way toward Gordyn on the steps of the platform.  He had no idea if word had already reached Stanton of the dragons being free, so keeping up appearances was important.  Both Gordyn and Dru had their attention on the city and had not noticed them land.  They were clearly distracted by the progress on the palace and not bothering to take notice of all of the commotion of landing dragons about them.
“Gordyn,” Osric was greeted with a look of bewilderment when he called out the Vigile’s name.
“Archana be praised!  What took ya so long?”  Dru grinned awkwardly as Gordyn greeted Osric with a slap on the shoulder, but the young vigile looked nervous trying to decide what action would be appropriate to greet his Contege. In the end, Dru offered a shy handshake.  Osric did not hold the shyness against him; he had once been a young recruit and remembered the feeling.
“I’m afraid it is a bit too long a tale to tell at this time, my friend,” Osric shrugged off the question as he prepared his expression for his feign.  He dug through the pouch on his belt indicating his lack of resources.  “Right now,  I have to pay this dragon something for the journey back, or we may all have some trouble in the morning.”
“Let me see if I have the coins to cover it.  I wouldn’t want this poor lad to wet himself again for fear of a dragon attacking,”  Gordyn said, nudging Dru with his elbow and producing two gold pieces and a half dozen coppers from his own pouch.
Osric took one gold and the copper to offer Greyback.  He would have a hard time convincing her to take anything at all, but he needed her to keep up the ruse.
“Relax Dru, she is a very docile dragon.  She would probably just pout until the fare was paid.  Nobody has been attacked by a dragon in years, and never over a lack of payment,” Osric reassured the Vigile, then turned and made his way back to Kenneth and Greyback.  He heard Gordyn continue to talk about the strength and ferocity of dragons as he walked away.  “Have you two said your goodbyes?”  Osric teased.
“Oh yeah, we even had the chance to start a budding romance.” Kenneth slapped Osric on the shoulder with a smile.  “Took you long enough.”
“Greyback, don’t object to this, please.”  Osric spoke softly as he held out the payment.
She had been laughing at Kenneth’s antics, but at his words Greyback grew silent and stared between Osric’s hand and his face.
“I cannot accept payment from you,” Greyback whispered softly.
“We need everyone to think that nothing has changed, Greyback.  Take it, please.”
Greyback clearly was not happy having to take the offering, and she looked around the platform anxiously.  Osric felt her pain, and he didn’t want to remind her of the years spent in enslavement, but there was no way around it.  He struggled with the hurt he could see in her eyes as she searched for a reason to say no. It took her a few moments to concede, and she did not wear a thankful smile.
“I will take coppers, but I will not take gold. You can put that back in your pouch and tell them I was not happy with the amount you offered me.”  Greyback growled softly as she faced Osric.  Her head swung slowly toward his hand as she opened her mouth to accept the payment.  Osric placed it on her tongue with a grateful smile.
“Thanks, Greyback, this helps more than you can know.”  Osric was about to walk away, but he paused and looked back.  “Greyback, I have always heard that dragons eat coins to aid in digestion, but the dragons at Braya were not fed coins.  Why is it really that you swallow your payment?” Osric asked quietly, glancing around to be sure he wasn’t overheard.
Greyback cast her gaze down at the platform and Osric wondered if he had somehow offended her.  “Osric, that is such a personal matter. I am surprised at you,” Greyback responded sheepishly.
“I’m sorry, you don’t have to answer that.  Forgive my intrusion on your private matters.  I didn’t know it was such a delicate subject,” Osric retracted the inquiry, ashamed that he had embarrassed her.
Greyback glanced around, reassured by the distance between them and the nearest observer.  With a raised eyeridge, she indicated that they should step closer to her.  She rested her head on the platform and spoke in a low tone.
“You have earned the right to ask any question you wish, but you must swear to never tell another soul.  Only those who helped to free us from our bondage can know, for dragons do not want the reason being well known.”
The soft but serious tone of her voice was sobering.  Osric didn’t know how to respond, and he felt as though he was treading on ground few had traveled.  He wanted to respect Greyback’s privacy, but he also felt that she was granting him a great honor, and he was unsure of how to proceed.
“Of course, my friend, but you don’t have to answer. I was only curious.”
“We do not actually swallow the payments.”
Osric was taken aback.  He got the impression from the change of Greyback’s tone that she was sharing a funny secret, but she had such a serious expression in her eyes.  Osric struggled to understand what her statement implied.
“We don’t mind at all that walkers believe we swallow the coins to aid in digesting our food,” she whispered.  “It keeps them from looking for it anywhere other than our, um, droppings?”  Greyback smiled fearsomely.  “Some time after our elders were imprisoned, the walkers found our hoards of treasure and took them as their own.  We have few places left in this world that we can stow our treasures without fear of robbery, and we were forbidden to defend ourselves against walkers for fear of retribution against our kin caged at Braya.”
Osric stared at her in disbelief.  He fumed at the idea that further injustice had been done to the dragons, and there was little he could do about it other than find out who was responsible for containing the secret of the dragons’ imprisonment within his own realm.  Kenneth snickered quietly, and Osric glared at him for his untimely display of humor.
“That explains why my father used to insist that my mother fetch him herbs from the market for his constipation rather than swallow the coppers my mother attempted to feed him!”  Kenneth could hardly contain himself, but he kept his laughter and exclamations nearly silent, so as to only share it with the three of them.  Osric couldn't help but smile at the joke, but respectfully refrained from joining Kenneth’s tittering, due to the seriousness of Greyback’s explanation.
“Besides, this impressive sheen in my scales cannot be achieved by swallowing copper, and gold,” Greyback winked at Osric.  “Rather, it comes from laying upon it.”  She stood up proud, a display of the shine on her scales in the torch light.
“Thank you for sharing this with us, Greyback.  I hope to rid you all of this burden soon, and you can acquire and protect all the gold you want, simply for the benefit of your scales,” Osric whispered. “Now, I’m afraid we need to get on with our business.  I will see you again soon my friend.”  Osric grabbed the ragged book that was never far from his reach and tucked it in his belt as Kenneth gathered his gear.  He resolved himself to eliminating any lingering injustice to the dragons by learning more about who was behind it.
Gordyn insisted that Dru accompany the two of them to see Toby.  They followed the tentative, young Vigile as he led them along the walkway.   Osric felt a rush of fear and concern as he observed the people all around him.  The workers moving to and from the rubble carried themselves in a hopeless, half absent manner.  Osric searched for, but failed to see, a single head held up with pride as they labored tirelessly in the twilight.   Unfortunately, he doubted that their hopes would be rekindled in the near future.  Although he hoped that the corruption did not extend far into the leadership of Stanton, Osric still felt apprehensive about trusting anyone other than Toby and James.
They crossed over the path leading to the palace, and they could just make out the sound of crumbling rock being joined into slabs for the walls by Stone-Melders.  One large man caught Osric’s gaze as they approached.  His dirty and tattered clothing hung from his frame.  He sat against a tree alongside the path sipping water, and the soulless, tired stare shocked Osric, bringing him to a stop.  The face of every man sitting on the matted grass was blanketed in despair.  The big man stared blindly back at him, his entire body covered with dust and grime.  His feet were bloodied from the holes worn through his boots and seeping, swollen wounds shown through several tears in his clothing.  The crusty heel of a loaf of bread hung limply in his right hand.  As though eating were an afterthought, he looked down at his hand and his eyes drifted closed.  As his head sagged, the crust of bread rolled onto the ground near Osric’s feet and a low snore began to rumble from his chest.  The man’s hair was matted to his tear-streaked face and it seemed months or more since he had bathed.  His left hand was clasped tightly into a fist at his side, white knuckled and clutching a lone, white daisy.
A chill ran up Osric’s spine as he realized he knew the man.  He was hard to recognize without a nearby anvil, and the typical black leather apron was nowhere to be seen, but he knew the man.  He was Macgowan, one of Stanton’s best blacksmiths.  His wife Kauna, whom he called Daisy after her favorite flower, had worked in the wash facilities in the palace.  Osric had seen them many times stealing kisses as they walked hand in hand on the street.  Macgowan walked his wife to work everyday, whispering in her ear.
Her cheeks seemed to glow as they made their way through town, seeing no one but her devoted husband as he accompanied her on her walk.  Kauna would run with a skip in her step, humming a tune and smiling, as she hurried to his shop to watch him finish his work everyday.
A man as large and intimidating as Macgowan was rarely as affectionate; his muscled arms, massive frame, and rough calloused hands turned tender when he closed his shop for the night and embraced his wife.  Every man envied Macgowan, and every woman, Kauna.  Osric could only assume the cause of his grief was the loss of his beloved, and he was sure he would know others that had lost loved ones in the attack.  I grieve with you friend.  I know she was everything to you, Osric turned his head, unable to see someone so dear to Stanton changed forever.
Osric stopped abruptly in the middle of his stride and looked up at his escort.  His uniform was neatly pressed with none of the grime that covered the exhausted, saddened workers nearby.  Osric knew he could do nothing at that point to right the Vigiles’ failure to protect their loved ones, and he felt guilt weighing on his conscience.  He couldn’t have done anything to stop the explosion, but he could do something to help the people.
“Dru,” he spoke sternly enough to get his attention, but not loudly enough to disturb Macgowan’s sleep.  Dru turned with a quick, nervous jerk to meet his gaze.
“Yes, Contege?”
“Toby is in his temporary office, correct?”
“Yes, Sir.”
“We can find our own way to him; I want you to gather half of the Vigiles on guard duty and see to the needs of these men here,”  Osric said, motioning with his head in the direction of Macgowan and those gathered around him in the grass.
“Sir,” Dru looked at the group anxiously, “there are hundreds of people like this in Stanton lately.  They make the guards uncomfortable; all they do is weep and lay outside.  That man there,” he pointed at Macgowan, “has beaten every Vigile that has asked him to go home.  He’s gone mad, Sir.  Mirdren is with the healers now.  Macgowan beat him nearly to death when he tried to take his flower and send him home.  They are harmless enough when left alone, and people toss them scraps on their way to rebuilding the palace.  Perhaps leaving them alone is the best idea?”
Osric could see Dru’s apprehension, and hear it in his voice.  He understood that the recruit was terrified to approach the intimidating man, especially after he had assaulted several Vigiles, but Osric could not allow his people to be neglected.
“They make you uncomfortable?” Osric repeated, outraged.  “How do you think they feel?  Their lives have been completely upheaved by an unexplainable attack on the one place they were supposed to be safe!  They have lost their loved ones, and for some of them, that was all they had.  Dru, I do not want you to ask them to leave, I want you to build them a shelter, here!”  Osric glared at the shy man’s shocked expression.  “Get some men to help you.  You will feed them, shelter them, and make sure they are warm and comfortable.  Provide them with firewood and show them that we share in their grief, while demonstrating that there is still good in the world and, perhaps, even something worth living for.”  He watched as Dru looked nervously at the group again and added, “Dru, it was our duty to protect these people, right?”
“Yes, sir.”  Dru stared down at the ground, ashamed.
“Well,” Osric took a deep breath and looked out at them, “we failed them, and this is the result.  Though there was no way for us to prevent it, we bear at least some of the responsibility for that failure and their loss.  We cannot hope to restore their faith in us without helping them to find some hope again.”  The young recruit was eyeing Macgowan again, and Osric sensed his fear with the Empath gift he had gained from Bridgett.  “Dru, I will not ask that any of the men go near Macgowan.  I will take care of him myself, but I want to see Vigiles down here working harder than any of these people laboring on the palace.  I want to see these men being helped, rather than tolerated.  Do you understand?”
Dru nodded in agreement and set out to gather the Vigiles as he had been ordered.  Osric looked at Kenneth and they moved together toward the market.  He had an idea, but he needed to get something before he approached Macgowan.  A few houses out from the market district, he found what he was looking for in a window sill.  Osric politely explained the situation to the woman at the door, and she was more than happy to provide him with what he wanted.  
Osric approached Macgowan with compassion and placed a hand gently on his large shoulder.  “Macgowan,” he spoke softly as the vapor clouded the crisp air from the sleeping man’s breath.  He didn’t wake, so Osric gave him a light shake and spoke again.  Finally, Macgowan’s eyes drifted open and Osric held a handful of daisies out before him.  Tears fell from his eyes as he took the flowers, and he looked up to see tears in Osric’s eyes in greeting.
“I won’t move,” his low rumbling voice was calm, yet firm enough to make sure Osric understood, “so please don’t ask.”
“We won’t ask you to move, but some men are going to be erecting a shelter here.  They will have hot water to bathe, as well as fire, food, and blankets.  If you ask any one of them, they will fetch you some clean clothing.”
Macgowan’s face turned upward as he examined Osric’s eyes.  Understanding passed between them and Macgowan nodded in response.  Osric stood, knowing that no one would be threatened by the grieving man again, and he vowed to himself that Macgowan would have fresh daisies every day, even if he had to grow and spell them himself to keep them in bloom during the winter’s chill.
He felt a bit better as he set out to meet Toby.  Though a few tears still ran down his cheek, a sense of accomplishment flowed through him knowing that those in mourning would be looked after.  Walking in the cool air, Osric finally allowed himself to be invigorated by the feeling of being home.  It was  a small kindness, but it was the first step of many in repairing his city and beginning the healing.     
Osric and Kenneth approached the temporary Contege office in the records room of the barracks, just west of the collapsed palace.  A short, bespectacled man glanced at them nervously as he exited the room they were approaching.  With wide eyes, he looked down at the book in his hands and shuffled his way past the two of them.  Osric sensed a slight pull from the man, indicating something important had just occurred.  If they hadn’t needed to talk to Toby so badly, Osric may have stopped the man to investigate.  Osric tried to shrug off the feeling that he should have reacted, and they entered the office to find Toby looking severely agitated.  Stopping just inside the door, Osric and Kenneth stood quietly.  Without glancing up from his desk, Toby acknowledged the entrance of two more people by raising a hand to silence them while rubbing his temples with his free hand.
“I know you miss us, but you don’t have to weep my friend.”  Kenneth laughed.
Toby froze, then slowly lifted his head.  Osric smiled and shrugged his shoulders at Toby’s shocked expression.
“Didn’t expect to see us again I guess?”
“No, I was wondering if you had deserted your post after all.”  Toby stood and stepped out from behind the desk, extending his hand to Osric.  “Sit down and tell me how things went at Braya,” he motioned Osric to the seat behind the desk, and stood a respectful distance away, “I was sick of running this place anyway, I never make it home in time for dinner.  Jasmine thinks I have a mistress; her hugs last far too long. I’m sure she is sniffing the air for perfume while she clings to me.”  Relief was evident as his shoulders dropped, but his posture showed a readiness to work.
Osric took several purposeful steps around the desk before he responded, not quite ready to resume leading.  It wasn’t that he couldn’t perform the duties, but rather that he felt he needed to be elsewhere.  Not the sudden urging that came with his Portentist gift, but he knew that the mess was not going to be sorted out unless someone who knew what was happening was working it.  The Portentist ability was silent, and that bothered him more than anything else.  Just a little hint would be nice, Osric tried to reason with Archana for some direction, but none came.
“Toby, you may be relieved of your temporary Contege duties, but I’m afraid you won’t get off that easy.  You are one of the few men I can trust to help me unravel this mystery, and I need your help.”  Osric spoke with reserved calm, “By the way, why were there men and women sleeping and suffering on the cold, hard ground around the crumbled palace walls?”  Osric’s tone turned serious quickly as he questioned to Toby.
“It’s that damned Konsult, Dredek.”  Toby sneered as he spoke, his disdain for the Konsult’s name was clear by the curled lip that contorted his face as he spoke.  “He insists that even though they have apprehended the person responsible for the attack on the palace, the Vigiles are not trained well enough  to handle another attack, if one were to come.  He has all of the recruits and most of the senior Vigiles training and drilling in weapons.”  Toby paused for a moment, and then crossed the room and closed the door.  “He keeps assigning men to menial tasks, or promising grand promotions, depending on their performance.  He intends to announce his selections for promotions at tonight’s operations council, so he has ordered all of the Vigiles to attend.  Honestly, I’m not sure if leaving the city unguarded is his malicious intention, or if he is just ignorant enough to not realize the potential problems that will cause.”  Toby ran his hands over his bald head in frustration.  “And that creepy little minion of his, you must have passed him in the hall, keeps piling stacks of paperwork on my desk to keep me occupied.  If you ask me, Dredek is selecting more people to take with him when he departs, but what could he be planning?”
“I’m not sure, but this is unacceptable!  We have people starving, and dying, out in the cold.  Some of them are in shock and need help.  Why would he stop the Vigiles from aiding them?”  Osric was storming around, seeking a view in the windowless room.  He needed the fresh air on his face and the bitterness of the wind to give him a fresh perspective.  Confronting the Konsult and demanding he explain what was happening seemed to be the only option.  That course would provide an opportunity to investigate the man that left the room before they arrived as well.
“I can’t seem to make sense of his orders, either. He has been cryptic when I ask him for more of our men to help, too.”  Toby smoothed the front of his uniform with his right hand, and rested his left on the hilt of his sword.  Osric knew the motion, Toby was itching for a duel.
“I’m going to talk to him,”  Osric turned to face Kenneth, “You two go down to the training grounds and see what he has them doing.  Kenneth, I want you to train Toby in the way Machai showed us to fight, but keep the talking for the walk there.  The last thing we need is for those responsible for Archana being on the brink of war to overhear you.”  
“What are you going to say to him?” Toby probed, and Osric was more than willing to share.
“He is going to tell me what his plans are so I can help, or give me back the authority to lead my men.”
Kenneth smiled and Toby nodded his head as he left the room.  Osric smiled as he heard Toby’s next inquiry.
“So, you learned something more than that traveling spell since I last talked to Osric?  And who this, Machai?
He could hear Kenneth laugh as he strode down the hall of the barracks.  He envied the next few hours for Toby.  Learning dual wielding for the first time was fascinating, and probably more so with Kenneth as the instructor.   Although Osric had grown to respect Machai, the learning process would have been more enjoyable without the dwarf’s superior attitude.  Osric had a strong urge to pull out his sword and work through his training forms. There was nothing like wielding a sword together with a wand and the Hunter’s gift - the feel of the wind, and the sword seeming to dance with its own will as he took well controlled, deep breaths.  It took nearly everything in his power to resist the temptation to seek out a duel of his own.
He walked down the same dirt road as before, and noticed that Dru had done a fine job getting aid for the downtrodden people.  They had several fires built already, and he could hear “Thank you sir”, and the occasional “May Archana bless you” thrown his way from teary eyed gatherers as they were brought soup and fresh bread.  Osric’s men pointed in his direction as they smiled and gave blankets to everyone, and no shortage of eyes were straining to see him in the distance.  It seemed as though every soul that lost a loved one in the disaster had gathered in the immediate area.
Gordyn and James worked together at James’ cart, and dozens surrounded the rickety stand where they handed blueberry honey cakes to all that passed the stand.  James wore an enormous smile as sweat ran freely down his face.  He was baking fresh pastries at an impressive speed, and the saddened crowds desire to eat his food seemed to fill him with more energy than Osric had ever witnessed.  Osric joined in and stepped behind with Gordyn and James to help pass out the delicious looking dessert.
“Gordyn, James, things are going well up here I see.”  Osric commented, while taking note of the many grateful faces surrounding the stand.  It was hard to keep up with the number of hands begging for their share of the treat.
“Ah well, when Dru brought me the news of your orders, James and I were together at the dragon platform.  We rushed down here right away; James has been barking to do this for some time now.”
“James, thank you for helping,” Osric looked quickly at the invigorated, red face of the cook responsible for the large crowd.
“All the thanks I need is on their faces.  Just look at them smiling when they take a bite!”  His large grin had grown and seemed to encompass his whole face, and Osric turned to see the faces of those eating the pastry.  “I’m thinking of making another sign that reads, ‘Comfort Food’,” he spread his hands out before him, indicating a large, elaborate sign.
Osric laughed at the grand gesture. James was right, and if the faces of those receiving the free food weren’t exactly smiling, it certainly did appear to help their mood.  The incremental increase in their mood did wonders for James’ attitude, and Osric knew the man well enough to know that it wasn’t for his own pride that he reveled in it.  Osric was proud that he had men like James on his side, and he only hoped it would be enough in the trials to come.
“Carry on,” Osric slapped them on the back and made his way through the paths that surrounded the rubble.  He walked quickly to the tent that Dredek was using while commanding the Vigiles, and he noticed no guards present outside the door.  He expected to see candle light, or at least the light from a wand illuminating the pale fabric of the crudely built enclosure, but the barren appearance left him feeling a bit unnerved.  He moved inside cautiously and found the room empty except for the large table in the center.  It didn’t look like they had left a long time before, as smoke trailed lazily from a candle in the corner.  
The tent had an odd feel to it.  Osric checked within himself, but none of his gifts were activating.  Something just felt wrong, so he scanned the contents of the room.  A bowl sat turned on its side in the back, and it caught his attention.  He made his way slowly around the enormous table, not sure what to expect.  On the floor in the shadows lay the body of a slender man, his spectacles laying askew across his pinched face.  Osric knelt down and felt for a pulse, but he knew it was unnecessary.
Osric didn’t know the man, but he knew that the pale cast of his skin was not normal.  The body appeared odd as it lay on the floor.  He had seen dead bodies before that appeared to be asleep, but the wide open eyes and horror filled expression of the man seemed void.  It was as if there had never been life behind those eyes, and it filled Osric with an uneasy feeling.  He grabbed his wand and held it out before him, focusing his power on the thought of contacting his men.  A shimmering white lite ignited above his wand displaying the image of Toby and Gordyn walking toward the Training grounds.
“Toby, Gordyn,  I need to see you in the Konsult’s tent, now.”
In a short span of time, Toby joined Osric in the tent.  Osric had busied himself lighting the lanterns and candles while he waited, and the low light made the ashen appearance of the dead man’s skin look even more disturbing.  Toby stared down at the dead man, unable to avert his gaze.  Gordyn had not yet joined them, and Osric was growing impatient. Toby shook his head and turned to stare out the small window of the tent.
Osric’s mouth turned down at the obvious concern on his Profice’s face.  It wasn’t as though Toby seemed to know the man well, but he was certainly very disturbed at the man’s death.  Obviously Osric felt bad that the man had died, but he wasn’t sure why Toby seemed so distraught.
“Toby, why exactly are you so upset?  I hate to see a man lose his life, too, but something else seems to be bothering you.”
“This man’s death is going to be the beginning of a fire storm, Osric.  He is one of the Wizardly Union officials I told you about.”  
“Aren't they responsible for matters of magic?”  Osric prodded Toby to explain himself, and his dark eyed expression suggested fear.  
“Oh, yeah.  That and making sure the public is aware of new discoveries that would make their lives easier.”  Toby pulled a chair out to support his leg and leaned in.  “If you think that means they have no power, think again.  They use their knowledge to gain power by demanding things before they give up the knowledge,” he let out a small chuckle.  “Don’t think they give up the good stuff either.”
“Sir,” Gordyn stepped in the room, “sorry.  I had a hard time getting away from the crowd.”  He noticed the body on the floor and took in a sharp breath.
“Gordyn,” Osric drew his attention, “when did you last see the Konsult?”
“He took off on a dragon just before I got your orders to help the poor folk at the palace.”
“What? He left town? What exactly did you see?”
“Well, that bedwetting fool that was always at his heels kept looking behind them saying, ‘He could be here any moment.  They looked to be eager, sir.’  I jus’ figured they were leaving because they owed gold to half the vendors in Stanton.  James himself was taken for a good deal, especially when you consider what he charges for a meal.”
Why didn’t you tell me this when I worked with you earlier?”  Osric was frustrated, and Gordyn fidgeted at the sight of the dead man and the anger in Osric’s voice.
“I thought he was escaping the gold he owed, not this.”  Gordyn nodded at the frozen face of the dead man.  “Ain’t nothing you could have done about a Konsult stealing from the food vendors.”
“The murder of a Wizardly Union official,” Toby huffed, “for that, you could even put a Konsult in prison.  You can bet that they will be here to find out what happened to him, too,” Toby nervously met Osric’s gaze.  “The last thing we need right now is a bunch of Union officials poking their noses around here while we try to rebuild.”
Osric was having difficulty breathing, and he walked out the door.  The cold air of the darkening night met him as he stepped out.  The frustration he felt was beginning to weigh down his mind.  He didn’t know what to make of the new situation.  He couldn’t think straight when something horrible seemed to greet him at every turn.  Starving people sleeping in the streets, a murder by the Konsult, the Palace isn’t rebuilt yet, and now the Wizardly Union is a threat too.
“Sir,” Toby was running toward him from the direction of the tent.  Osric hadn’t realized he had wandered toward the treeline.
“What is it, Toby?”
“Not that I blame you for wanting the time and quiet to think, but you shouldn’t be going hunting without telling someone.”
“I wasn’t going hunting. I just needed fresh air to think.” Osric kicked a rock in frustration. “I wish I was though. It’s been one problem after another since the explosion at the palace.  I can’t remember the last time my mind felt rested and clear, nevermind the last time I had the pleasure of a good hunt.”
“Go in the morning,” Toby shrugged his shoulders, “nobody will miss you.”
“Have you taken a blow to the head?  How can I do that with all of this going on?” Osric motioned toward the rubble pile and back at the tent where a murder had just occurred.  He immediately wished he could take the comment back.  An image of Gus saying nearly the same thing to him in a cave flashed in his mind.  With the image of Gus came a memory of Bridgett, and he yearned to hear her voice again.  Focus.  It’s only been a few days, he looked back up to see Toby watching him with a curious expression.
“You already have the Vigiles looking after the people at the Palace grounds, nobody from the Union could have heard about his yet, Ryhain Domnall will be resting for the next few days, and the construction of the palace is underway.  I think we can spare you for a day or two.  I wish I could go too, but Archana knows you need the time away more than I do, with all you’ve been through.”
“I have responsibilities here, Toby. I can’t just abandon them to go hunting when I am needed here.”
“Are you saying I have done a poor job of running things here while you were gone?”
“No, that isn’t what I meant. Look, you have done a fine job. You should have been the one to take this position in the first place.  But I have an obligation to these people now that I am back.”  Toby smiled at Osric’s stuttered recovery, but the joy failed to reach beyond his mouth.
“Osric, I admit that you could spend the next several months here swamped in paperwork and easily find more than enough to do to fill every hour of the day.  Stanton will take a very long time to recover from the devastation at the palace.  But the union officials will come to investigate this murder.  If you are tired and rundown from the duties of your office, you will be one step behind them every step of the way.  We need you at your best.” Toby ran his hands over his smoothly shaven head. “Archana knows the next few weeks are going to be rough,”
Osric looked over at Toby’s weary eyes and decided he was right.  They all needed some time to think, and there was no need for them to be hovering around Stanton watching the Vigiles work.  His men were well trained, and Osric knew they would do their jobs, but he wasn’t going on a hunt alone.
“Go home, Toby, and get some sleep.  You, me and Kenneth all need some time off.”

Monday, December 24, 2012

A Gift for You....

On Christmas Eve, the magic stirs
The second starts, where ends the first
Sword and wand, fiends and friends
High-Wizard rise, the Hunt begins

What a wonderful gift to see that so many fans like our Facebook page!  As promised, we want to give you all a gift as well.

But first, we want to thank each and every one of you for helping us reach so many milestones.

Because you’re talking so much about “The Wand-Maker’s Debate”, we have achieved the rank of a  #1 best seller on  You all worked hard to help our facebook page get over one hundred fans, and Jack has over 4,500 followers on Twitter!  If it wasn’t for the support of our loyal readers, none of this could have happened. Thank you so very much.  

As promised, to thank everyone who has helped Osric’s tale reach so many readers, we want to share the first chapter of “The High-Wizards Hunt”.  We are only a couple months away from publishing, but it has yet to see an editor, so please understand that you may find a few mistakes. Regardless, we think you deserve a sneak peek!

Buckle up and keep your hands and feet inside the ride at all times. Here it is, the first chapter of “Osric’s Wand: The High-Wizard’s Hunt”...  

The High-Wizard’s Hunt
Book Two of the Osric’s Wand Series

Jack D. Albrecht Jr
Ashley Delay

Copyright 2012 Jack D. Albrecht Jr. and Ashley Delay

Chapter 1

Thom gingerly rubbed his sore, swollen jaw as he paced back and forth in the cell.  He glared angrily at the other men who occupied the space.  It had been a while since they had heard any activity from the other side of the door, and he was growing anxious.  Aron grumbled at him sternly to sit down, but his desire to mangle Osric for punching him and locking them in the cell was too great for him to sit idle.  Thom mumbled under his breath.
“I’d love to tear that dragon lover limb from limb.”  He spun quickly and charged the door with his shoulder.  He hit hard, and to his surprise the door gave way, sprawling him unceremoniously on the floor of the volcano.  He looked back at his companions and grinned at their slack-jawed expressions, surprised that Osric’s men had unbarred the door rather than leave them to starve in the cage. Thom scrambled to his feet as Aron began issuing orders.
“Search the area, quickly and silently, and find me a weapon!  Those traitors may still be close.”  The men rushed to get up and out of the cell.  Although it may have been built to contain a dragon, the chamber had felt very small to the men locked within.  
Thom was fairly certain that Osric had found the cache of dwarven swords, but since there was a chance they sat undiscovered at the end of a hidden tunnel, he headed straight for the kitchen.  As he passed through the open archway, he slowed and listened carefully, wary of encountering any guard Osric may have left behind while he was still unarmed.  Thom could hear movement behind him, but he was only interested in finding a weapon, so he moved deeper into the kitchen.  There was a dead lamb on the butcher block in the center of the room, the butchering abandoned when Osric and his friends had attacked.  A faint scent of decay was beginning to permeate the air.  Thom crept along the wall, staying close to the stone and keeping his eyes open.  He reached the far corner without seeing any movement and began to relax.  It seemed that Osric had not left anyone to guard the volcano after all.  
Thom stopped, ripping a dingy tapestry off of the wall to reveal a wide passageway.  He ran swiftly down the stone corridor and slid to a stop in an open, empty chamber.  Thom spun around and growled in rage, stalking back to the kitchen.  He intended to scour every inch of the volcano for a weapon, and if he couldn’t find one, he would go outside and find a sharp stick.  One way or another, he was determined to hunt down Osric personally and see his head on a spike.
Thom left the kitchen, all thought of stealth and suspicion gone from his head, and ran to the stairs leading up to the sleeping chambers.  As he raced along the ledge that clung to the side of the volcano, he kicked a loose stone as hard as he could.  It narrowly missed the head of an irua guard coming out of one of the rooms, ricocheted off of the wall, and then clattered to the floor near the guard tower in the center of the open room.  The guard quickly ducked back inside the room to avoid being pushed off of the ledge as Thom careened past him.  Thom ran into one of the last chambers in the row and stopped suddenly.  
There was a slight odor of lavender lingering in his quarters, and it brought to mind the beautiful woman traveling with Osric.  She must have been in his room while he was locked in the cage with the other guards, probably sitting on his sleeping pallet, and the thought of the intrusion sent rage coursing through Thom’s body.  After Thom had crushed the key to the dragon cages, Osric had punched him, resulting in what felt like a broken jaw.  He had regained consciousness to the sound of that woman’s voice echoing above him, and her words still rang in his ears, “You are the most powerful wizard who ever lived.”  Thom had no idea what made her think that Osric was so powerful, but he intended to prove her wrong.  He glared around the chamber and kicked the small table near the bed.  Wood cracked and splintered, and the noise calmed Thom down a bit.  He would have preferred that the sound had been made by the skulls of the men who had locked them in that cell, but the wood would have to suffice until he could track them down.
Thom flipped his sleeping pallet up and the rage returned.  Osric’s men had taken his dragonbone wand, and they had even found the spare sword he kept under his pallet.  The knife that had been secured to the bottom of the table was nowhere to be seen, either.  Thom left the room and ran down the stairs to find Aron.
He found the gruff looking man who had been his supervisor and mentor for nearly six years sitting on a chair in the kitchen.  One of the guards was cleaning the angry wound from an eagle claw on his arm.  The injury had festered overnight, and sweat broke out on Aron’s brow as he watched with a grimace while the guard wiped pus and blood from the gash.  Even if they could find a weapon, Thom was not sure if Aron could wield one.
“Wipe that worried, girlish look off your face.  I can swing steel just as well with my other arm.  Did you find me a weapon?”  Thom glared at Aron but bit back a retort out of respect.  
“No, Osric and his cursed, misfit friends cleaned this place out.  All of my gear is gone, and they found the dwarven swords, too.”  Thom tore a strip of cloth from the hem of his tunic and handed it to the guard to wrap up Aron’s arm.  “I will go out and gather some wood for a fire, and then at least we can make some spears.”
“Blast!”  Aron punched the irua guard in the throat and loosened the bandage, cradling his arm to his chest.  “That’s too tight, you idiot.”  He pointed with his good arm at the other guards standing around.  “You four, go with him.  I want a hot meal and some sharp sticks by mid’day!”
Thom walked out of the volcano fuming with anger at Osric.  Not only had he freed the dragons, isolating everyone on Archana from rapid travel, but he had taken all of Thom’s gear and weapons.  Just as the thought about the dragons being free crossed his mind, a great sweeping shadow passed over him and Thom dove to the side behind the massive tree near the entrance.  The other four guards who had been just behind him scurried back into the volcano.  Thom crouched behind the tree, expecting a blast of fire to envelop him at any moment, and scanned the sky.  He watched the massive, golden-brown beast soar up and away from him, and he recognized the dragon that had stood guard at the entrance for as long as he had been stationed at the volcano.
“Stargon.  Blast that wicked creature!  He will toy with me like a cat with a mouse.”  Thom cursed the dragon under his breath and began breaking the lowest limbs from the tree and hurling them toward the volcano’s entrance.  He kept his eyes on the open sky as much as he could while he worked, and when he had a sufficient pile of wood between himself and the opening to the volcano, he called out to the other guards.  “Gather it quickly and get back inside.  The beast is gone for the moment, and I have no intention of being eaten today.”  He grabbed several more long, straight limbs and rushed for the entrance, leaping the pile of firewood and nearly colliding with another guard as he emerged tentatively, gazing up at the sky.  Thom kicked the careless man for blocking his escape as he dodged past him and dashed back inside the volcano.
The men were able to gather the wood without incident, but the close encounter had them all considering the possibility that they were trapped at the volcano with few supplies and an unknown number of vicious dragons nearby waiting to make meals out of them.  The air was thick with tension and unspoken fear as they built a fire in the pit just inside the entrance and began hardening and sharpening long limbs into makeshift spears in the flames.  Thom addressed Aron with venom in his tone.
“That nasty beast you kept at the door hasn’t left, and I am sure he has many friends nearby.  How do you intend to get us out of here?”  Aron stared at Thom with contempt but his voice was steady with authority.
“We will stick together and travel light.  We have no supplies to weigh us down.  Once we make it to the trees we will have sufficient cover, food and firewood.  I am sure they will find easier prey than a group of well trained guards to fill their bellies with,”  Aron replied.  “We will have to move quickly, and I expect you all to keep up.  A man alone will be easy to pick off, but together we can outsmart the stupid creatures.  We should leave quickly so we can find water and shelter before nightfall.”
“Where exactly do you plan to go?  We are in the middle of nowhere with no means of transportation or supplies.  It will take us days to walk to the nearest hint of civilization!”  
“First, we will make our way to the ruins.  There is a man near there that may help us, assuming we can find him.”  Aron replied, glaring at Thom’s insubordination.
Thom grumbled quietly as he went back to work on a spear, “That sounds promising.”
Aron stood and looked up the shaft of the volcano at the small patch of blue sky visible from where he stood as the men completed the last of the crude weapons.  “We will need a distraction to make it to the forest,”  he stated, glancing around at the guards.  His gaze rested on the irua he had assaulted for hurting him while tending to his wounded arm.  “Landin, you are the fastest and most nimble man here.  You will scale the shaft and pull the dragons’ attention to you from the top of the volcano.  I suggest you make a lot of noise, and then run for your life and try to make it to the trees before they get to you.”  
The small, pale-skinned guard’s face blanched, but he merely nodded his head and started up the steps to the ledge that would provide him with the most likely route up the volcano shaft.  His steps were heavy and methodical, as though he were accepting that he climbed to his death.  Aron watched him find his first hand holds in the volcanic rock and then looked away calmly, ordering the other guards toward the entrance to prepare for a sprint to the tree line.  The men stood anxiously inside the entrance, each feeling thankful that Aron had not ordered them to be the decoy, but also mourning the inevitable loss of their comrade.  The chance that Landin could make it to safety was slim.  It was much more likely that he would not even be able to buy them enough time to make it to the cover of the trees before he was snatched up by a dragon.  Soon they heard Landin’s voice echo down the shaft and ring through the volcano.
“Aron, I loathe you!  You worthless piece of dragon dung!  How dare you send me up here to be eaten by these fire breathing behemoths!  If I make it through this, I swear I will hunt you down and...Aaaghhh!”  His voice faded as he took off running down the side of the volcano.
Aron grinned widely, “Good man, Landin.  All right, gentlemen, let’s not allow his tirade to be in vain.  Move!”  Aron ran outside, gripping his spear and scanning the sky, while the other guards followed nervously.  They ran swiftly while watching for a dragon attack, and they heard a short, distant cry from a dragon followed by a clipped scream just as they reached the trees.  Thom glanced back and saw Stargon soar upward from behind the volcano with Landin’s limp body grasped in his claws.  He cringed at the sight but rushed deeper into the trees before he could be spotted by another dragon.
The men walked as quickly and silently  as they could, frequently glancing up at the sky through the small gaps in the trees as they traveled.  Aron signalled a halt near a rock outcropping deep in the forest.  The trees were thick and the canopy overhead was dense enough that no blue sky could be seen.  He looked around at the fearful faces of the other six men with him.  The gash on his arm throbbed terribly but he allowed no hint of pain into his expression.  If any of them were going to get off the mountain, he would have to maintain his firm authority over the guards.  “Thom, take three men with you and find some food and water.  We will camp here and strike out as soon as the sun rises.”  Aron planted the butt of his spear into the dirt at his feet and ordered the others to gather firewood.  A fire could signal their location, but they would need the flames to ward off any other creatures that might be stalking about in the woods.
Thom and three others walked away from the designated camp while the other two guards began collecting wood from nearby.  Thom told two of the men to find some berry bushes and the third to collect water.  
“How am I supposed to collect water with nothing to carry it in?” Thom sneered at the man’s objection.
“You will just have to figure something out.”
As he walked deeper into the forest, Thom fashioned a snare from a sturdy vine and went in search of rabbit tracks.  Normally he could catch a rabbit in a matter of minutes by casting a spell on the snare to lure the rabbit into its circle without triggering the animal’s instincts.  However, Osric had taken his wand, so he would have to rely on his skills alone.  Thom followed a trail until he came across tracks and some recent rabbit droppings.  He found a low hanging branch that crossed a narrow part of the trail and tied the free end of the snare securely to it, leaving a noose dangling above the path.  Stepping over to a nearby berry bush, he pulled off a few leaves, crushing them in his fist to make them more aromatic and then sprinkled them on either side of the snare.  He hoped it wouldn’t be long before a rabbit wandered into his trap, but he pulled another length of vine from a nearby tree and continued up the path to set more snares while he waited.
Thom busied his hands with twisting vines into nooses, but his mind was distracted and occupied by thoughts of the attack at the volcano.  So many things were bothering him about what Osric and his men had done that he could not focus on one of them long enough to figure it out.  He knew that short devil, Machai, had much to do with their success in assaulting Aron’s crew.  Somehow, they had obviously managed to woo the dragon guarding the door to their cause before they had even entered the volcano.  Also, somehow they had made it to the volcano without being seen by any of the patrolling guards.  The next part was what disturbed him so much.  Thom had awoken with a pounding headache to find himself lying on the ground with his hands tied behind his back.  He could not recall hearing the alarm signal from the guard tower, nor hearing any sounds of fighting.  He couldn’t even remember being dragged from his sleeping quarters, but he had woken up on the main floor of the volcano.  Based on how he had felt upon waking, he assumed he had either been drugged or spelled.
Thom thought back to the conversations he had taken part in with Aron and the other guards while they had been locked up in the Dragon cell.  “Ridiculous!” Thom rambled to himself as he walked. “I have a hard time imagining what they described, never mind believing it.  So, Aron was sitting at the table playing a game of bones with Shrad, and Asram was manning the guard tower.  Eric had been standing guard just inside the entrance of the volcano, and four men had been out on patrol.  Nothing unusual there.  Had I not been sleeping, surely I would have seen it all coming and we wouldn’t be in this position. But, even with five of us asleep, no one should have been able to sneak into the volcano undetected,” Thom stopped to set another snare as he mulled over the events.  
According to the unanimous recount by Aron, Shrad, and Asram, Osric and the others had just appeared out of thin air.  “That idiot wouldn’t notice if the volcano erupted on his watch! Of course Asram said everything had been perfectly normal, and then all of a sudden, Osric was standing next to him in the guard tower.  Why would he admit that he hadn’t been paying attention while standing guard?  Sure he would say he only had enough time to sound the alarm and reach for his knife before Osric knocked him on the head.  He wouldn’t want to admit his own incompetence.  So why didn’t the alarm wake us all up?”  
Thom glared at the ground as he thought about how his comrades claimed the attack happened.  Asram had claimed that after Osric hit him on the head, he blacked out, and the next thing he knew, he was lying on the volcano floor with his hands and feet bound.  Aron insisted that he was just about to claim victory over Shrad in their game of bones when suddenly, that vicious little dwarf that had delivered the swords was standing behind him with an axe, and Osric’s big friend had appeared next to the entrance, knocked Eric unconscious, and came up behind Shrad with his sword drawn.  Shrad swore that he saw Osric grab Asram on top of the guard tower, disappear, and then reappear on the volcano floor.  Asram was unconscious, and Osric pulled his sword from the dying body of one of the guards.  Shrad wasn’t sure, but he thought that the sword had just appeared in the man’s chest the way the men had appeared among them. “Ridiculous!”
Thom shook his head in disbelief as he walked.  The tales the men told were absurd, but Thom had fought the dwarf, Machai, and his speed was undeniable.  No man had ever bested Thom as easily and quickly as Machai had, so he could see why someone would think he just appeared out of thin air.  However, the idea that Osric had somehow transported himself and Asram from the guard tower to the floor was absurd.  No magic could do that.  No magic he had ever seen, anyway.  Thom wondered if there was a simple explanation for it all.  He suspected that russet haired maiden had spelled them all and they had hallucinated the whole thing.  Landin said he and Palin had come running when they heard the alarm from within the volcano, and she was just standing a little ways from the entrance talking to a prairie dog pup.  The dragon that guarded the entrance was nowhere to be seen, and when she reached for something in her belt, Landin pulled his wand and immobilized her.  They had each taken a hostage and entered the volcano to negotiate, or to at least distract the assailants long enough to allow Aron and the other men to get the upper hand.  It had worked, too, until those filthy eagles had flown in with the dragon and saved Machai’s head.  Thom smiled to think of all of their heads lined up on pikes outside the volcano.  Someday, he intended to see it.
As the dim light under the canopy of trees waned, Thom retraced his steps along the path to check his snares.  He had placed six in total as he walked along the trail through the forest.    The last snare he had placed was empty, and the berries on either side were undisturbed.  He decided to leave it set and they could check it again in the morning.  As he came upon the next snare, he grinned at his luck and quickened his step.  A small rabbit was straining at the noose, eyes wide and muscles trembling, struggling to breathe.  Thom picked up a heavy limb from the underbrush near the trail.  He poked the rabbit and sent it skittering away from him as far as it was able while restrained by the vine.  For a brief moment, Thom thought he heard a man call out, but the sound was faint and distant, and more than likely just the wind in the trees.  With a quick jab, Thom cracked the skull of the rabbit with the end of the branch and gathered the small, limp body from the snare.  He smiled and hummed quietly as he continued back up the trail.
Thom’s grin faded and he fell silent as he approached the next snare.  Something wasn’t quite right about the scene.  His vine was still tied to the low branch above the path, but the noose looked as though it had been untied.  The loose end of the vine was lying on the path, and the leaves he had dropped were stacked in a neat pile next to it.  Thom stopped, looking into the forest on both sides of the path and listening for any strange sounds.  He heard and saw nothing, but the hairs on the back of his neck were standing on end.  The other guards wouldn’t have done something like that.  Either there was someone else nearby, or that part of the forest was infested with tree sprites.  Thom hated tree sprites.  He scattered the leaves with his boot and hurried on to the next snare.
At first Thom thought the next one was dismantled as well, but on closer inspection he discovered the vine had been chewed through.  He had caught something, but whatever it was had gotten away.  He grew suspicious again as he approached the second snare he had set.  The noose was hanging from the limb, but the leaves he had scattered were gone.  There were no markings in the dirt to indicate what had eaten them, and as Thom leaned down to get a closer look, something tickled the back of his neck.  He brushed it away and looked up, and he was greeted with a handful of leaves falling down on his head.  Sitting on the branch above him was a small, delicate looking creature with long tufts of hair sticking up in every direction from its head and back.  The creature chittered down at him, scampered a few branches higher into the tree, and chittered some more.  He watched with dread as two more creatures joined the first, and they all tumbled and flipped through the branches above him.  Thom knelt down and picked up a rock the size of his palm and threw it up into the branches as hard as he could.  The creatures shrieked and scattered into the nearby trees, and Thom sneered as he headed up the path.  Even finding a rabbit in the first snare he had set failed to improve his mood after the encounter.  He grabbed it by the hind legs, snapping the vine rather than bothering to loosen the noose, and quickened his pace back to camp as the forest grew darker.
Thom stomped back into camp and growled when he realized that he had nothing to skin the rabbits with.
“What’s the matter with you?”  Aron asked, reclining against a large boulder near the fire.
“Tree sprites.”  Thom replied shortly, scanning the ground for a sharp edged stone.  “I hate tree sprites.”
“Oh Thom, are you afraid of a little sprite?  They can’t hurt you.  They will just steal you blind and then laugh at you for it,”  Aron teased, laughing with Shram across the fire.  Thom looked up with a vicious snarl and was about to respond when Asram and Gad walked into the ring of firelight.  Gad’s torso was bare and they held his tunic loaded with berries between them.  A strip of cloth was tied around Gad’s right arm and blood trailed down to his elbow.  Aron stood and walked over to inspect their haul as well as his injury.  Grabbing a handful of berries, he popped a few into his mouth and spoke around them.  “What happened?”
Gad untied the strip of cloth to reveal a red, swollen puncture wound.  Aron grabbed his arm and a bit of dark pus oozed from the wound.  Gad’s eyes were bloodshot and he grimaced in pain.  “We were collecting berries, and I tried to get deeper into the brambles for more.  I tripped and fell against a tree with a vine growing around it.  I must have caught a thorn in my arm when I landed.”
Aron looked at him suspiciously.  “Was the thorn from the berry bush, or from the vine?  What did it look like?” he asked, squeezing more pus from Gad’s arm.
“It was big, and dark.  I think it may have been from the vine.”  Aron swore under his breath at Gad’s response.
“When you tried to pull it out, did it burrow further into your skin?”  Derin, the small, dark skinned guard asked.  Gad and Asram exchanged nervous glances.
“It seemed to, just a bit, but I got it out whole.  What was it?”  Asram answered while Gad looked at his arm in disgust.
“Probably a Rhy Vine.  You are lucky you pulled it out or you would be dead by now.  They are rare, but the thorns are like parasites once they get under your skin.  I saw a man fall into a bunch of them once.  He started convulsing and within moments he was dead.  You need to clean that out and wrap it back up.”  Derin stated.
Thom looked around the campsite and asked, “Where is Cowald?  I sent him to collect water; isn’t he back yet?”
“I haven't seen him,” Derin’s face showed a flash of concern, “but I can find some moss and make a compress until we can wash it.  If you are lucky it will draw out the toxins and you will live to see the sun rise.  Perhaps one of us should go find Cowald and help him bring back water.”
“We can’t go looking for him in the dark.  Let’s eat and then get some sleep.  We have a lot of ground to cover tomorrow.”  Aron shoved another handful of berries in his mouth and then grabbed one of the carcasses from Thom.  He picked up a rock, slammed it down against the boulder to break off a sharp edge, and progressed to clean, skin, and spit the rabbit over the fire.  Aron ordered Derin and Shrad to take the first watch before lying down near the fire.  Thom fell into a fitful sleep, wondering if the sound he had heard had been a scream after all.
*  *  *
Cowald scowled at Thom as he watched him walk off into the woods.  How was he supposed to collect water with no way to carry it?  He wasn’t even sure where the closest water source was.  He walked a little ways down the path behind Thom and scanned the greenery nearby.  Perhaps he could find something to fashion into a container for water.  He caught sight of a tree with leaves the size of his torso and thought he may be able to carry water in one of them, so he stepped off the path and picked his way through the underbrush.  Cowald stood beneath the tree staring up at its branches.  He couldn’t reach any of the big leaves, and the few he could see on the ground were torn or too shriveled to be of use.  Just before he turned away in frustration, he thought he heard the sound of water trickling over rocks, and he followed the sound deeper into the forest.
He came upon a stream in a shallow bed.  The water was only ankle deep, but it ran clear and swift over smooth stones.  He began searching along the banks for something he could collect the water in and carry it back to camp.  He found nothing along the water’s edge so he turned back into the woods and searched at the base of the trees as he walked.  His lips felt dry and his throat parched, and he felt a strong desire to return to the stream for a drink, but first he needed to find a way to carry the water.  He was not paying particular attention to where he was walking, but he was surprised when he found himself standing again at the edge of the small stream.  Five small, blue stones formed a star-like pattern just beneath the water in front of him.  He recalled seeing the same pattern of stones when he first came upon the stream.
Cowald frowned down at the water.  It looked so refreshing and cool, he wanted so badly just to kneel down and quench his thirst, but he had orders.  He could not put his own needs before the other men.  He quickly turned and resumed his search; the sooner he found a way to carry the water, the sooner he could drink himself.  He walked into the woods in a different direction, carefully walking from tree to tree in a straight line away from the stream so he could find his way back.  He combed through the underbrush, diligently looking for the hollowed shell of a pike nut.  The pike trees were common enough near the ruins at the base of the mountain, so Cowald hoped he could find one nearby.  If not the tree, perhaps he could find the discarded shell that an animal had left behind.  Pike nuts were nearly the size of his head, although they were more of a fruit than a nut.  The hard outer shell was the only thing he could think of that would make an effective container.  He really wished he had his wand.  He could have made a pot out of clay from the stream bed and cast a spell to harden it.  Cowald thought he should probably make a couple anyway before he left.  They would take a day or two to harden, but at least they would be able to collect water easily later on their journey.  His thoughts were interrupted when his foot splashed down into water, and he jumped back startled.  
Confused, Cowald stared down at the five blue stones.  He was certain that he had not turned around and headed back toward the stream.  It seemed impossible that he had returned to the exact same place three times, but even more unlikely that the star pattern of stones was repeated.  There was something strange about the small stones.  Their color was so bright, almost pulsing with a luminescent blue light, and they were so perfectly round as to seem unnatural.  Cowald bent down to get a closer look.  He tried to lick his parched lips, but his tongue felt like gravel in his mouth.  He was so thirsty.  Perhaps just one drink would be all right, to slacken his thirst before he resumed his search.  Cowald paused, troubled.  He couldn’t seem to remember what he was looking for.  
The blue lights grew brighter in his vision and his thirst was overwhelming.  Kneeling down at the edge of the water, he leaned forward to see the stones more clearly.  He placed his hands in front of him to steady himself, his palms flat on the sandy bed of the stream, the water lapping at his wrists.  The blue stones appeared to be moving, slipping further out into the current away from him.  Cowald suddenly felt very anxious that the stones would wash away and he may never understand their mysteries.  He shifted his weight and leaned farther out over the water to keep them in sight.  
The blue lights floated with the current, shifting and dancing, but never quite changing position.  Cowald stretched his hand out to try and grasp one of the stones, but it was just out of his reach.  He crawled out into the water but couldn’t seem to close the distance between himself and the blue stones.  As he drew his hand from the water to reach for them again, he noticed that the water rose with his arm and encircled his wrist as though his hand was still submerged.  It was a strange experience to watch the water cling to his skin like a child at its mother’s skirts.  He turned his hand over and stared in awe as the water twirled with his movements.  
A winged shadow passed over him, and he heard a distant roar.  As adrenaline coursed through his veins, he glanced up at the sky in fear.  He caught sight of a dragon through the foliage and froze, eyes closed and heart pounding.  As he broke eye contact with the blue stones, clarity seemed to flood his mind and suspicion crept in in its place.  Something was wrong; water doesn’t cling to skin.  Cowald panicked.  He tried to lunge backward and get away, but he could not tear his hands from the water.  It felt as though there were chains around his wrists, but no metal cut into his skin.  He felt himself being pulled toward the middle of the stream.  He scrambled for purchase with his knees, but to no avail.  His arms were jerked out from under him and his face plunged into the cold water.  He was able to lift his head from the stream long enough to scream before tendrils of water coiled up his torso and wrapped around his neck, pulling him down toward the five blue stones.