Watching his friends walk out into the clearing, Vin couldn't help the feeling of guilt that weighed down his soul. It didn't seem right for him to be safely perched in a tree while the others walked knowingly into an ambush. And was there any denying that very real, however slight, feeling of relief? It only added to his guilt and almost sent him scurrying back down the tree and out into the open with his friends. Almost. Logic and reason kept him in place until the orcs sprang their trap and then it was need and purpose that held him.
He brought his first two orcs down quickly. They were the ones that had been stationed to either side of the trail and in the best position to cut off any retreat. After those, Vin watched closely and only took down the ones that looked to be the most dangerous. He was surprised when he failed on three attempts, then realized that the crystals hidden in the back of the orcs' necks were deflecting his arrows. After that, he was more careful and was amazed at how quickly the fight progressed and how soon he was down to his last arrow. Luckily, his friends were also down to the last of the orcs and it looked like his last shot would not be needed.
Vin became a little concerned when he spotted Ezra following one orc into the forest on the opposite side of the clearing and decided it was time to leave the security of the trees. As he descended, he missed seeing Chris wounded by his opponent although he did emerge in time to see Buck fell his last orc. Looking about, he began walking toward the fighter when he suddenly spotted Nathan having trouble off to the side. The healer had lost one of his knives and was being driven steadily back by a particularly nasty brute. The image brought back memories of his own first encounter and Vin turned to help but hesitated when he heard Buck yelling his name.
"Vin! Shoot it! Shoot it!" Buck called over his shoulder to the tracker as he began racing across the clearing. He didn't know why the half-elf was hesitating. Couldn't he see that he was Jaydee's only hope?
Buck howled as he saw the orc's blade descend. He watched as the point of it pierced Jaydee's chest, driving him back and to the ground. He saw the look of surprise and pain on the young man's face and then he saw only red as the rage was finally unleashed.
Looking in the direction the fighter was running, Vin saw Jaydee standing weaponless in front of an orc. He instantly raised his bow and took aim on the creature's neck. A sudden cry from behind made him glance back over his shoulder and he saw another, all to familiar scene of horror. Nathan had tripped over the body of an orc and had lost his final blade in the process. He was lying helpless, completely at the mercy of his foe. And orcs had no mercy. Even as Vin spotted them, the orc's blade was descending in a deadly arc and the healer could only raise his empty hands in a futile attempt to stop his impending death.
Vin reacted without thinking. Spinning, he barely took time to aim before releasing his final arrow. The white fletched shaft flew from his fingers and pierced the orc's left eye. The impact sent the creature staggering back while its sword landed a few inches wide of its mark. Vin had one moment to draw a ragged breath of relief before Buck's wordless howl of rage had him turning once more. The young tracker staggered and his bow fell from nerveless fingers at the sight that greeted his eyes.
Jaydee lay on the ground, in much the same position as Nathan, with an orc standing above him, but there was one grim exception to the scene. While Nathan had escaped unharmed, the orc looming over Jaydee had its hands gripped tightly around the hilt of a sword that was clearly embedded in the young man's chest. The creature was on the verge of pulling its weapon free when Buck ran up behind it and with one swing of his axe, sent the orc's head flying across the clearing.
"Bysha, no!" Vin cried out as he stumbled toward Jaydee's body. Tears blurred his vision as he drew closer but he could not take his eyes off the gleaming blade that stood anchored in his friend's chest. It was his fault. He knew for a fact it was. Those three arrows. Those Pits-be-damned three arrows that had been stopped by hidden crystals. If he hadn't wasted them... If he had been more careful with his targets...
He was still alive. The thought took a moment to sink into his head as slowly, slowly he made the realization. The orc hadn't killed him. In fact, the orc that had been about to split him in two, was gone. Nathan blinked and slowly sat up. He looked towards his feet and saw his final opponent with the shaft of an arrow protruding from one eye. The hand he placed on the ground to brace himself, touched something cold and looking down, he saw the sword imbedded in the ground scant inches from his body. Drawing a deep and shaking breath, Nathan whispered a quiet prayer of gratitude to Bysha for sparing his life.
Chris drove the point of his sword into the ground and leaned heavily on the blade as he tried to catch his breath. He could feel the blood running down his chest and arm, mixing with the sweat and plastering his shirt to his body. He tried to ignore the burning pain of his shoulder as he searched the clearing for his friends.
He spotted Josiah first, using his staff to crush the skull of what appeared to be the final orc standing. To one side, he saw Buck, then Vin moving in the fighter's direction. Something in their movements had Chris pulling his sword free and stepping in their direction even as he scanned the field for his other three friends. Nathan was climbing to his feet and looked relatively unharmed, no sign of Ezra and Jaydee...oh Bysha, no. "No! Vin! Stop!"
Chris began running forward the moment he saw Jaydee's body. Buck had been standing over the young man but was moving to intercept Vin, who was completely unaware of his danger. Chris cursed himself for a fool as he ran. He had thought to warn everyone except the half-elf about the battle-rage and now the tracker was walking straight to his death.
"Vin! Look out!"
Josiah jerked his head around as he heard Chris' desperate yell. His blood ran cold as he took in the terrible scene being played out before his eyes. Jaydee lying dead, impaled through the chest; Vin completely focused on Jaydee's body and oblivious to Buck's advance and everyone else too far away to prevent the inevitable. His own cries joined the mercenary's as he began running forward as well.
Dimly, Vin heard the shouts of his friends and they seemed to echo his own internal cries of sorrow and guilt. Movement caught his eye and he looked up to see Buck stepping into his path. The man's face was twisted in anger, his teeth barred in a ferocious snarl that would have been the envy of any orc, had any been left alive to see it. "Buck, I'm sorry, I..." Vin lifted his hand helplessly as he tried to put into words the pain he was feeling. Buck was right to be angry with him but surely he understood? Nathan's life had been in danger too and it hadn't been a conscious decision as to which friend he would save. How could he have made a choice like that?
Buck's only response was a low-throated growl as he raised his bloody axe above his shoulder. Vin froze in shock as he suddenly realized his danger. "Buck?" The hand that he had raised in supplication turned, as he sought to placate the mindless rage he saw before him. "Buck, what are you...?"
"No!" Chris, was only a few steps away when Buck completed his swing and Vin's body was thrown several feet before impacting harshly with the ground. The mercenary didn't hesitate as he kept his forward momentum and tackled his old friend to the ground. The pain in his shoulder darkened his vision and the coppery taste of blood filled his mouth. He tried to pin Buck's right arm to the ground but felt himself being shrugged off like a child.
"Chris! What do...?!"
"Knock'im out! Anyway you can!" Chris yelled to Josiah as he instinctively rolled clear of Buck's axe. The added abuse to his shoulder was almost too much and for a moment he lost track of his surroundings. His head swimming, he managed to drag himself back to his feet in time to see Josiah use his staff to block another downward swing of the fighter's axe.
In an amazing example of control, the wizard completed a blurring series of blocks and blows that left Buck staggering but still swinging wildly. Josiah avoided the careless strokes until he spotted an opening. Stepping in close, he caught the axe handle in his left hand and drove the head of his staff straight into Buck's stomach. The man folded with an explosive release of air, and as his knees hit the ground, Josiah brought the butt of his staff across the back of his head.
As he slowly climbed to his feet, Nathan became aware of shouting and the continuing sounds of battle. Looking across the field, he expected to see his friends putting down the last of the orcs. He wasn't prepared for the vision of horror that greeted his eyes. Vin's crumpled body. Chris and Josiah fighting Buck. Jaydee...Oh, Bysha...
Nathan ignored the three men and their private struggle just as he ignored the pain from his own wounds and aching muscles. He crossed the corpse littered field with his attention focused on the closer of his two fallen companions. Kneeling beside the young tracker, he was relieved to see the steady rise and fall of Vin's chest. Blood from a wound on the tracker's forehead covered half his face but he was beginning to stir even as Nathan reached out a healing hand.
"Vin, can you hear me? You hurt anywhere else beside your head?" Nathan rested one hand on the young man's shoulder while he gently placed his other palm above the ugly gash.
"Nate..Nathan? Jaydee..." Vin blinked and squinted against the blinding light of the sun. His mouth felt horribly dry and it was hard to focus his thoughts enough for speech but he had to try. No. Nathan had to try... "Go...Jaydee needs..."
Nathan looked over his shoulder to the grisly remains of their young friend. He shook his head sorrowfully and returned his attention to Vin. "I don't think ..." He fell back in surprise as Vin shoved him away and surged to his feet.
"No! You've got to ...got to..." Vin swayed and placed one hand to his pounding head and the other to his churning stomach.
Nathan quickly stood and tried to steady the tracker. Pulling free, Vin began staggering toward Jaydee's body, leaving the healer with no choice except to follow. They passed Chris and Josiah who were both standing over an unconscious Buck. The two men were breathing heavily and the mercenary looked to be on the verge of collapsing as well. They looked up as Vin stumbled past and Chris' expression was a kaleidoscope of surprise, relief and joy. Dropping his sword, he reached for Vin's arm but either by accident or on purpose, the half-elf stumbled clear and continued on his course. Chris could only lower his hand and follow sadly behind.
Vin finally reached Jaydee's side and dropped heavily to his knees. His vision swam in and out of focus as he leaned over his friend's body. With a shaking hand, he gently brushed damp bangs from the too still face. Moisture blurred his sight even more and he didn't notice the drops of blood, mingled with his tears, which fell on Jaydee's pale cheek. "My fault. S'my fault he's dead."
"Vin." Nathan kneeled next to the grieving young man and put an arm across his narrow shoulders. "Vin, I'm sorry. I can't do anything for him but I ..." As he spoke, the healer rested his right hand on Jaydee's chest slightly above the sword. His words choked off and his arm tightened convulsively around Vin. "Bysha! He's still alive!"
Chris and Josiah heard Nathan's shout and were immediately at his side. Chris reached for the hilt of the sword but the healer grabbed his wrist in a bruisingly tight grip.
"No! Not yet. Not until I know what's happening inside him. I don't know why he's still alive, but pulling the sword out may kill him for sure."
The mercenary nodded his understanding and stepped back. Knowing that Nathan would need a moment, he took the time to look around the field for the final member of their group. Unfortunately, the loss of blood coupled with fatigue made focusing difficult and he needed to sit down before he fell.
Seeing his dilemma, Josiah placed a comforting hand on Chris' uninjured shoulder. "You stay with Vin and Nathan. I will look for Ezra."
Nodding his gratitude, the mercenary collapsed on the ground opposite Vin who finally looked up at him and smiled crookedly.
"He's going to live, Chris. Nathan's going to heal him and maybe Buck won't hate me."
"Vin, Buck doesn't hate you," Chris sighed wearily and rubbed his eyes. "I didn't tell you about the battle-rage. Seeing Jaydee ... it must have sent him over. He didn't know who he was attacking."
Before Chris could explain further, Nathan looked up and caught both men's attention. "The edge of the blade has nicked his heart. The metal itself is keeping him from losing too much blood. When we pull the sword out, it's going to make a larger cut and he's going to immediately lose a lot of blood."
"Can you heal the cut as I pull it out?" Chris began struggling back to his feet even as he asked the question.
"I ...I'm not sure." The hesitancy and self-doubt in the healer's voice was painful to hear. "It's a lot of damage to try and heal all at once. And I haven't worked on a heart before."
"All you can do is try, Nathan. That's all any man can do." Chris gripped the hilt of the orc sword as he reassured his friend. "You just let me know when you're ready."
Nathan nodded his head as he nervously licked his lips. "Don't jerk the sword if you can help it. Ease it out slow and straight."
Now it was Chris' turn to be nervous. He could only use his right hand on the massive blade and it was obviously imbedded in the ground beneath Jaydee's body. He wasn't sure he could get it out without jerking on it. Glancing over at Vin, he was about to ask for his help when he became aware of another presence moving up beside him.
"Move over, Chris. I'll do it."
"Buck? You sure you're up to it?"
The fighter grinned but thankfully, there was no hint of madness to it. "The kid is still alive and Nathan says he has a chance of staying that way. I can do it."
The mercenary backed off and returned to his place on the ground. Vin had taken Jaydee's head in his lap and Chris rested his good hand on his partner's shoulder. As they waited in silence for Nathan to start, Chris looked for Josiah and spotted him moving into the forest, presumably still in search of Ezra. He was thinking of following the wizard when Nathan announced he was ready.
Bracing his feet wide apart, the fighter gripped the sword's hilt in both hands and began slowly exerting force to pull the weapon free. The muscles in his neck stood out as he tried to keep the tension steady and still make the blade move. For a long moment, nothing happened, then the sword jerked slightly and moved upward just a fraction. Blood immediately welled up from the wound and Nathan's breath hissed between his teeth. The healer had the palms of both hands pressed tightly to Jaydee's chest and his dark skin paled perceptibly as he channeled his power into the damaged flesh.
Buck continued to ease the sword free and there was a horrible grinding noise as it slid against bone. Chris felt the bile rise in his throat but could not take his eyes from the grizzly sight. Not that he hadn't seen worse in his years of fighting; there was just something terribly disturbing about seeing the blade slowly being withdrawn from Jaydee's chest and knowing the boy was still alive.
"Bysha ...please ..." Nathan's quite prayer warned the men that all was not going well. Normally the healer worked in complete silence. That he had been driven to pray out loud...
Sweat beaded the healer's brow and his breath rasped in his throat. Buck didn't know what to do except keep pulling the blade free. Nathan gave a small shake of his head before bowing it as if in defeat.
"No!" Vin took one hand from Jaydee's head and grabbed Nathan's arm. "Don't give up! I know you can do it! You have to!"
Nathan's eyes flew open and his lips parted as if he was trying to speak but no sound came out. At that same instant, the point of the sword finally emerged and with it came a bubbling fountain of blood.
With a curse, Buck hurled the sword across the clearing and dropped to his knees at Jaydee's side. Placing his hands over the terrible wound, he tried to hold back the life-stealing flood.
"Bysha!" The healer cried out as he suddenly felt a strange but welcome surge of energy flow through his body. With his eyes closed, he didn't see the soft glow that surrounded his hands or the way it seemed to penetrate Jaydee's chest. As the light faded, the blood that had been seeping steadily out between Buck's fingers slowed and finally stopped completely.
Holding his breath, not daring to hope, Buck carefully moved his hands and pulled back the edges of his friend's blood soaked shirt to uncover the wound. Or rather, where the wound used to be. His stifled yell of victory drew Chris forward to peer at the newly healed scar as well. Closing his eyes in relief, the mercenary sat back and unconsciously hugged Vin a little closer. He was surprised to feel the half-elf collapse limply against his side.
"Vin?" Chris turned his body until he could get both arms around the unconscious tracker and lower him gently to the ground. At first, he thought it was the wound on the young man's head finally taking its toll. As gently as possible, he tried to determine just how bad the injury was. The large amount of dried blood made it difficult to find the exact location of the split flesh. Chris' brow furrowed in confusion as he probed all around the most likely spot and found nothing but a thin, pale pink line.
"Chris, your arm..." Vin's sudden collapse had pulled Buck's attention away from the miracle beneath his hands and he had watched as Chris tended to his partner. Something 'wrong' had caught his eye but it wasn't until his friend used 'both' hands that Buck figured out what that something was.
Chris turned a puzzled glance to Buck then looked down at his left shoulder. He blinked in confusion and then realized what the fighter was pointing out. Using his right hand, he pulled open the tear in his sleeve and rubbed away the dried blood. Once again, where there should have been a gaping wound, there was only a pale pink scar.
Both men turned amazed stares to Nathan who still sat with his head bowed and his hands resting on Jaydee's chest. Buck reached out a tentative hand and grasped the healer's shoulder. Quickly raising his other hand, he was barely able to catch the unconscious man before he sprawled face down across Jaydee. Chris left Vin's side to help Buck ease Nathan to the ground.
Checking each of the men, Chris was grateful to see that all three had strong pulses and were breathing evenly. They appeared to be merely sleeping except that no amount of shaking would rouse them.
"What do you make of it, Chris?" Buck asked as he gently positioned Jaydee's arms and legs to make him as comfortable as possible before covering him with his cloak.
Chris was doing the same thing with Nathan and Vin and could only shake his head as he hazarded a guess. "Well, Jaydee lost a lot of blood, and Vin took a pretty hard knock to the head, I guess that could be what's put them down. Nathan used more energy than I've ever seen before so that's probably what laid him out. Hopefully they'll come around soon."
Sitting back on his heels, Chris caught Buck's attention and nodded at the rips in his clothes. "What about you? Did Nathan fix your cuts as well?"
The surprised look was answer enough. "Pits, Chris! I thought he barely had enough energy to heal Jaydee. How did he manage four of us at one time?"
Chris didn't have an answer for him and had a feeling that when he awoke, Nathan would be just as confused as his friends.
In his search for the minstrel, Josiah was determined to leave no stone unturned. Or rather, no orc unturned. Having walked the entire field without spotting any sign of Ezra, he began to fear the smaller man might have become trapped under a dying orc. Using his staff as a lever, he shifted the most likely bodies but to no avail. He was both relieved and worried. Ezra obviously had left the clearing at some point during the battle but had he done so by his own choice or as a prisoner?
Josiah was no tracker, but he began making his way around the edge of the forest searching for some sign that would start him off in the right direction. He put most of his focus on the area closest to where Ezra would have stood during the fight. His diligence was rewarded when he spotted a clear boot print in a patch of soft dirt. Too small to be an orc's, Josiah knew he was at last on the right trail. Glancing once over his shoulder, he noticed Buck back on his feet but obviously under control. Deciding Ezra was his first priority, the wizard spoke a short prayer for Jaydee, then turned his back to the solemn gathering.
Traveling in what he hoped was the right direction, Josiah soon found additional boot prints and the occasional broken branch or crushed plant. The forest was still ominously quiet and the wizard made frequent stops to listen for sounds of life. He was about to begin moving again after one such pause when he heard the distinctive rustle of leaves that only a two-legged traveler would make. Slipping behind a large oak, Josiah gripped his staff in both hands and waited.
The steps drew closer and finally neared the wizard's tree. Judging the moment right, Josiah whirled around the tree with his staff raised for either a quick block or a lightning fast strike.
"By your presence here, I assume that the last of the orcs in the clearing have been dispatched?" The amusement in Ezra's voice was unmistakable. Josiah found himself smiling even as he shook his head in exasperation.
Lowering his staff, the wizard took a good look at his newly found companion and shook his head again, but this time in honest amazement. Except for a few spots of blood and his disheveled hair, the man did not look like he had just been in a fight with a small army of orcs.
"What happened, Ezra? Got bored and decided to take a stroll through the woods?"
"Well, things were becoming a bit tedious when I happened to spot one of those creatures slipping away from the others. I became even more curious when I noticed him carrying this." With those words, Ezra produced a medium sized wooden box from beneath the folds of his cape.
Josiah became instantly alert as he sensed the magic energies that fairly radiated from the dark chest. "That's a transport box."
"The kind that is designed to travel by itself much as you do with the crystals?" Ezra frowned as he studied his prize more carefully. "Are you sure?"
"Near as I can be with it being made of wood. The spells are different but they still feel the same." Josiah reached out a tentative hand and traced the scrollwork along the edge of the lid. From the clasp to the sturdy hinges, every part of the box was made of wood. "What's inside?"
"Nothing. However, it did occur to me that the Scroll of Eventy would fit quite nicely." Ezra arched a knowing eyebrow at his friend as he passed him the box.
"You're probably right. Let's get back to the others and see what Chris thinks." Josiah turned and took several long strides before realizing that Ezra was not keeping up. Looking back, he saw the minstrel following at a much slower pace and very noticeably favoring his newly healed ankle. "Problem?"
"Nothing a horse couldn't solve but I suppose I will have to settle for one of Nathan's compresses." Ezra finally reached Josiah's side and gratefully accepted the man's support. "I almost wish I had just broken the Pit's be damned thing rather than merely twisting it again."
"Well, it may be a good thing you didn't. It would probably have been a while before Nathan had enough strength to heal it." Josiah shortened and slowed his steps to accommodate his friend and used the time to fill Ezra in on the last of the battle. Ezra remained silent throughout the tale but did force himself to a slightly quicker pace.
Buck watched as Chris poured a little water on one corner of his cape and used the damp cloth to clean the dried blood from Vin's face. He thought about doing the same thing for Jaydee but decided it would take more than one flask of water to do the job. He frowned as he looked from one unconscious young man to the other.
"Chris, how did Vin get hurt? Last thing I remember, he was coming out of the woods and looked just fine."
The mercenary glanced up but then quickly looked back down at his hands. Unfortunately, he wasn't fast enough to keep his friend from seeing the flash of guilt and sorrow in his eyes.
"It was me, wasn't it?"
"None of the blame falls on you, Buck. This time it's my fault." Chris frowned as he gently turned Vin's head to work on the side of his neck. "I forgot to warn him about the battle-rage. He didn't know what he was walking into."
"Pits! I could have killed him!" Buck lurched to his feet and began pacing back and forth as he cursed at himself. "I could have taken his head off...!"
"Buck! Stop it. You didn't kill him and if I had thought to warn him..."
A soft, raspy cough interrupted the mercenary and had Buck instantly crouched at Jaydee's side. "Hey there, kid, you back among the living?" As Jaydee's coughing continued, Buck eased him up into a sitting position to help his breathing.
"Wha... what happened?" Jaydee blinked his surroundings into focus and stared about the clearing with a confused look on his face.
"What do you remember?" Buck watched his friend closely and saw the pale cheeks grow even whiter as the young man began recalling the final moments of his fight. His brown eyes widened in shock and he clutched at Buck's sleeves with both hands.
"Bysha! My sword! The orc! It...he...!"
"Easy kid. You're all right. You're all right. C'mon, deep breaths."
"But, I'm still alive?!" Jaydee's voice cracked as he looked down at the bloody remains of his shirt. "How...?"
"You've got Nathan to thank for that. I'll tell you straight, Jaydee, we almost lost you." Buck finally gave in to his emotions and wrapped his arms around his young friend's shoulders in a ferocious hug. He felt tears of relief threatening and fought them away with a flash of annoyance. Setting Jaydee back slightly, he gripped his arms and gave him a good shake.
"Pits boy! You should know better than to throw your sword away in the middle of a fight. Thought Chris and I taught you better'n that."
Jaydee only smiled at the fighter's mock anger. "Guess I just got kind of tired holding it." He was still shaken by the experience and just thinking about the orc made his chest hurt. "I really had a sword stuck through me? And Nathan was able to heal me?" He reached up one hand and rubbed at the spot on his chest where he knew the sword had gone in. Then again, maybe the pain wasn't all in his mind.
Buck saw Jaydee wince as he rubbed at his chest. "How do you feel?"
"Tired. My chest hurts some too."
"Well, just take it easy until Nathan can check you out again." Buck eased him back down to the ground and glanced over at Chris. "He's probably just tired from losing all that blood, don't you think?"
"Probably." Chris nodded his agreement and did his best to reassure his friend. "That and the fighting. I know I could use a nap right now."
Jaydee raised himself up on his elbows and looked over his shoulder to find Chris. He gasped when he saw Vin and would have gotten up had Buck not firmly held him down. "Vin? What happened to him?"
"I happened to him." Buck's gruff answer only served to confuse the young man and Chris quickly explained while trying to take all the blame on himself. Buck was getting ready to argue back when Josiah's voice called out to them from the edge of the clearing.
"That was a stupid thing to do, Ezra." Chris didn't try to hide his anger and crossed both arms over his chest as he glared down at the minstrel. "Did it occur to you that by taking off like that you left Nathan's back unguarded?"
Ezra sat stiffly on the ground and refused to meet the flashing green eyes. "I will concede that going after the orc might not have been the smartest thing to do, however..."
"Nathan could have been killed. He nearly was. Jaydee came even closer to dying and we almost lost Vin to Buck's axe. Now, you tell me that your being here wouldn't have made a difference."
The minstrel bit back the angry, defensive retort that flashed into his mind. Looking over at Nathan and Vin where they lay motionless in an unnatural sleep, he could only shake his head and say, "I can't."
Ezra finally raised his head and met Chris' angry stare. "I can't...honestly...say that." He looked once more to his sleeping friends and a shudder coursed down his spine. "I made a mistake. A very costly one. One, that I regret deeply. The only thing I can say in my defense, is that I thought the battle was all but finished."
"You never count your enemies dead before they are. Even Jaydee knows better then to try and predict how a fight will end. Wars are sometimes won and lost because of last moment surprises."
"Uhm, Chris?" Jaydee was hesitant to interrupt but hearing himself used as an example, he felt he had a right to voice his own opinion on Ezra's actions. "I've had you and Buck teaching me about strategies and tactics for the last two turns and well, Ezra hasn't. I mean, he is just a minstrel. No offense, Ezra."
Ezra couldn't help the small smile at hearing the all too familiar phrase. "None taken and thank you for the support. However, Chris is justified in his accusations. I should have remained in the field."
Listening to Ezra admit his mistake and hearing the honest regret in his voice, Chris felt his anger gradually fading. "What made you chase after that orc?"
"I found it strange that it would retreat while all the others continued to fight. And I noticed it carrying an object slung across its back which none of the others did. At the time, it seemed worth investigating."
Chris nodded his understanding but was quick to point out the flaws in the minstrel's logic. "It may be important, but it wasn't risking lives over. Theirs or yours. You put your own self at risk going off alone like that. Next time, wait for the rest of us. Alright?"
Ezra nodded his agreement. "Hopefully, there will not be a next time but if there is, rest assured, I will certainly remain with the group."
Postures relaxed noticeably as the two men reached their understanding. Jaydee stretched back out on his side, propping his head up on one arm so that he could still see everyone. Josiah returned to his examination of the transport box and Buck began searching the nearest orc bodies for any other unusual items.
Chris looked around the field and took note of the lowering sun and the dropping temperature. They needed to get as far away from the clearing as possible before setting up camp but traveling was going to be slow and difficult with two men unconscious and two more injured.
Josiah, do you think there is any chance of waking Nathan and Vin?"
The wizard looked up from the empty box and over to the sleeping men. "If Nathan used as much power as you say, I'm afraid it may be several marks before he wakes. You may force him to regain consciousness but he will be too weak to walk. The sleep is a way of forcing the body to remain passive while the energies rebuild. The same thing happens to wizards when we over extend our powers."
"Then what about Vin? Do you think it's safe to wake him?" Chris was growing more worried by the moment as he saw his available options being whittled away one by one.
Josiah frowned thoughtfully as he stood and walked over to where the half-elf lay. Crouching down, he rested one hand on the young man's forehead and watched the steady rise and fall of his chest. The tracker's skin was cool but not clammy, and his breathing deep and even. In every way, a perfect match to Nathan's recuperative state.
"You say he collapsed right after the healing?"
"That's right. I thought at first it was getting knocked on the head that did it but you can see where Nathan healed him." Chris kneeled down on Vin's other side and gently brushed back a few strands of hair that had come loose from the leather tie.
The wizard scratched his chin thoughtfully as a theory slowly formed in his mind. He decided not to mention it until he had more proof but if what he suspected was true... "Chris, I wish I had a better answer for you but I think we had best let them both sleep this through. If you're concerned about traveling, I think I can manage Nathan's weight for a short distance."
Chris knew there was more to Josiah's verdict than just caution but he decided to give the man some more time before pressuring him for answers. If he knew or even suspected something about Vin, then the mercenary felt he had a right to know as well.
"Fine. You take Nathan, I'll get Vin." Chris stood and walked over to Jaydee where he crouched once more.
"How are you feeling now? Think you can walk a short distance?"
"If it means getting away from all these dead orcs, I can walk as far as you want." To prove his point, the young man began struggling to his feet but found he needed Chris to get him started in the right direction. Once standing, he swayed and took a couple of unsteady steps before gaining his balance. Chris kept a steadying hand on his shoulder until he was sure the boy was not going to fall.
"Good, that will leave Buck free to help Ezra." Chris looked across the clearing and spotting the fighter, he gave a piercing whistle to catch his attention. "Buck! Heads up, we're moving out." When Buck was close enough that he didn't have to shout, Chris quickly explained their traveling arrangements then questioned him about his search.
"Found more of those crystals in their necks, also found more of these medallions." Buck held up a handful of the chains and their shining pendants.
Chris took one and turned it idly in his fingers. "Josiah, did you learn anything from that box?"
"Nothing of significance. It is definitely empowered so that when the latch is turned, it will teleport to who ever holds a piece of the same wood from which it was carved. I can't tell you where that is or who the wizard might be. However," Josiah reached into his pouch and pulled out a small, very plain pebble, which he held up for the mercenary to see. "If I hide this in the lining of the box, I will know if I come within a few feet of it again."
"Any danger to you if the wizard finds it?" Chris liked the idea but not if it put his friend at risk.
"None. Just like me, he may sense my energy on the stone but he will not be able to tell anything about me."
"Alright. Send the box back to its owner and then we'll head out."
"A moment, please." Ezra motioned for Josiah to bring the box closer to his place on the ground and studied its cloth-lined interior. "Buck, do you think you could give me a hand?"
"Sure, Ezra. What do you need?"
Buck wrinkled his brow in confusion at first then grinned wickedly. "Riggghhht. One hand, coming up."
Pulling his axe, the fighter randomly selected a nearby orc and neatly severed one of its hands. Ignoring Jaydee's disgusted gagging, he grabbed it by one finger and chunked it over into the box where it fit almost perfectly. Chris stepped up and dropped the medallion he had been toying with in as well then motioned for Josiah to close the lid.
"There. Let our enemies do the worrying for a change."
* Thanks to Debbi K. for the use of her death blossoms from the story Magic.