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 Wi...er, 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.”

1 comment:

  1. What's wrong with the fruitcake? I happened to like the fruitcake.