The first thing Chris noticed when he returned to the Lucky Wench was the looks of concern on his friends' faces. The second thing he noticed was the absence of Nathan and Vin and he swore softly under his breath.
"Now, Chris. We don't know that something bad has happened." Buck saw the hard glint in his friend's eyes and tried to reason with him. "Could be Nathan and this Trian girl are just enjoying each other's company and... "
"Nathan knows how important this is. If he had found something out one way or another, he would have come back and told us." Chris looked about the room and spotted Inez behind the counter. Striding up to the bar he did not waste time with explanations. "Tell me how to get to Hurough's house."
"Chris! It's Nathan!" Jaydee's happy shout spun the mercenary around and he spotted the healer's cloaked form slowly passing in front of the window of the tavern. A sense of relief washed over him and Chris shook his head despairingly at his overreaction.
Jaydee was also relieved to see the healer approaching and hurried to greet his friend. Throwing the door open wide, the young man grinned and stepped back to give Nathan room to enter. That one, small step back was all that saved his life.
Shouts of surprise and anger filled the tavern as Jaydee fell to the floor clutching his stomach. Blood stained his fingers as he lay gasping in pain and staring up in shock at the knife in Nathan's hand.
"Jaydee!!" Buck's cry drowned out all the rest as the fighter pulled his axe and moved to stand protectively over his fallen comrade. "You son of Pit Viper! You've betrayed us!"
Chris had also drawn his sword and moved to block the healer's path. "Nathan? Why are you doing this? Where's Vin?" The mercenary couldn't believe that the man would just suddenly turn on them without a very good reason. Surely, not over the love of a woman? But if he had a reason he was keeping it a secret. Nathan remained silent as he moved further into the room still brandishing his deadly knife.
"Chris! Look at his eyes!" Josiah's shout caught the mercenary's attention and directed his gaze to Nathan's dark eyes.
"Bysha!" Chris stared in shock as he saw a gaze that just that morning had been dark brown and full of life and was now a dull and solid black. "What does it mean Josiah?"
"He's being controlled somehow. Maybe an amulet or charm on his body. We'll have to catch him and remove it to free his mind."
"And in the meantime he's going to try and kill us all." Buck's angry growl clearly indicated what he thought of the plan.
"No choice, Buck. It's just like you when you go into a battle-rage." Chris hated to throw that in his friend's face but he needed the fighter to control his anger. "Ezra, you and Inez take care of Jaydee. Get him out of the way and do what you can to stop the bleeding." Chris feinted with his sword as he spoke and watched closely as Nathan moved to block the swing.
"Look, his movements are slower than they should be and not as accurate. I'm going to keep him focused on me while you work your way behind him. When I give the signal, you pin his arms while I get the knife. Josiah, once we have him down, find whatever it is controlling him and take it off."
Everyone jumped to follow the commands. The few patrons in the tavern moved back against the walls to give the fighters room. Inez hurried forward with a handful of linens while shouting for Stin to fetch the local healer. Ezra joined her at Jaydee's side and the two of them managed to drag the young man over to the bar.
Chris was aware of all the movement around him even as he feinted again at Nathan and then backed away to draw the man further into the room. The mercenary knew that in a real fight, Nathan's skill would have made him a dangerous opponent; under a wizard's control, the healer was slow and clumsy. The trickiest part of the fight was to not accidentally run the man through.
The mercenary continued to back away and watched from the corner of his eye as Buck moved into position. When he saw the fighter was ready, he made a broad, obvious slash at Nathan's gut, which caused the man to lower his hands in defense.
Seeing his chance, Buck lunged forward and wrapped his arms around the healer's chest. Clenching his hands together, he held on as he felt the powerful muscles flex and try to push his grip apart.
"That's it, Buck!" Chris threw his sword to the side and grasped the wrist of the hand welding the long knife. He dug his fingers into the tendons and slowly the fingers were forced open. But even as the blade fell to the floor, Nathan forced his arms up and away from his body, shrugging both men aside.
"Pits! It really is like a battle-rage." Chris staggered back to his feet just in time to kick the fallen knife clear of Nathan's grasping hand. "He's stronger than he should be."
"Yeah, but he's still slow." Buck didn't bother standing all the way up. Instead, he moved into a crouch and seeing his chance, dove for the back of the healer's knees.
The room actually seemed to shake as the two large men hit the floor. Chris followed his friend's lead and while Buck straddled Nathan's legs, the mercenary threw his body across the healer's back.
"Now, Josiah! Find whatever it is controlling him."
The wizard quickly stepped in and concentrated on the struggling pile of bodies. He got a strong sense of power close to Nathan's head and at first he thought his guess of an amulet had been correct. Crouching down, he tugged at the collar of the healer's cloak looking for a cord or chain. What he found instead made him cry out in shock.
"Bysha's Shame! What madness is this?"
Chris was focusing all his attention on pinning Nathan's arms and couldn't look to see what Josiah had found but the horror in the man's voice was enough to make his blood run cold.
"What is it, Josiah? Did you find what's controlling him?"
"It's... it's a piece of wood. A... a skewer driven just under his skin, along his neck. Bysha, Chris, I don't know what will happen if I just pull it out. Whatever spell is binding it to him... removing it while it's still active may kill him."
Chris swore out loud. "How much energy can it hold? How long until it wears off?"
"I don't know! I'm not a wood wizard!" Josiah clenched his hands into fists that he could only raise in frustration. "I don't know how much energy wood can hold or how the spell works."
"Well, figure it out dammit! We ain't got all day here. If that Wartolin fellow could do it, why can't you?" Buck's hollered suggestion snapped the wizard's head up and brought a heated retort to his lips; a retort, which died even as his mind fought to grasp the truth behind the fighter's words. Why couldn't he? Because he had never tried?
Josiah looked back down at Nathan's exposed flesh and his eyes traced the sliver of wood from the bloody bit left exposed were it entered at the base of his neck to the point just at the base of his skull. Placing his hand gently over the slightly raised ridge of skin, he closed his eyes and reached out with the inner sense he used whenever checking one of his own spells.
As if viewing an image through clouded glass, the wizard sensed the power in the wood but it lacked the clarity of his own energy. Murky and dark, it seemed to float just outside his grasp. Josiah concentrated harder and tried to understand what he was feeling by comparing it to his own energy when trapped in a stone. His own power had a sharp, clear feeling to it. Cold and smooth just like the gems that held it.
So, what held this energy? Wood. A material that had once been alive. Irregular and porous. Smoothed by man but still having a grain. A texture. He thought of Chris' carvings and the transport box. He imagined the way the wood had felt beneath his hands and reached once more for the energy beneath his palm. Not dark and murky. Alive. Warm and fluid. Like sap just beneath the bark. He could feel it now. And he could sense the spell that held it trapped in the wood. Unfamiliar words seemed to flow into his mind and suddenly he knew their meaning. Shaping the sounds with his lips, he softly spoke them out loud and felt the energy respond.
"Bysha. You did it!" Chris gasped in relief as he felt the struggling body beneath him suddenly relax and still. Pushing himself to his knees, he looked to see Josiah slowly pulling the piece of wood from Nathan's neck. Inch by inch it appeared and the fighter felt his stomach lurch with the horror of it.
"Yes, it seems I did." Josiah seemed to be in a daze as he freed the blood stained sliver from the healer's flesh. "I'm... I'm not sure exactly how or what it means... but I was able to control the spell. A wood spell."
Chris clapped the man on the shoulder and then eased him out of the way so that he and Buck could roll Nathan over and check on his condition. Even as his back came to rest on the floor, the dark eyes fluttered open and a pain filled groan escaped his lips.
Seeing that the man would probably live, Buck stood and hurried over to check on Jaydee, leaving Chris and Josiah to tend to the healer. He was relieved to see what was obviously a female healer tending to his young friend who appeared to be recovering quickly.
"Jaydee? You still got all your innards?"
A weak grin was his only answer but it was enough. Buck settled on the floor next to Ezra who continued to hold Jaydee's hand in a surprising gesture of comfort.
"This good lady has assured me that he will not only live but retain his rather voracious appetite as well." Ezra's smile was genuinely pleased and Buck was reminded of his own words spoken to Vin. Peel one layer away, and there was another waiting to be discovered.
"Buck? How's Nathan?" Jaydee's voice was hardly more than a whisper and his friend was quick to reassure him.
"He's going to be just fine. Josiah took care of the thing controlling him so he should be back to normal."
"And what of your other friend?" Inez questioned from her place on the other side of the recovering youth. "The one called Vin?"
"Pits!" Buck swore softly as he suddenly remembered they were still missing one member of their group. If the wizard they were up against had used such a horrible spell on Nathan, what could he have done to the young tracker?
"Wake up! Please, you have to wake up. We have to find a way out of here."
Why did it seem like someone was always shouting at him to wake up? And why did it always seem to happen when his head felt like it wanted to crack open and spill his brains out onto the ground?
Vin groaned as the voice continued to insist that he return to consciousness. The closer he moved to waking, the more aware he became of the other pains radiating from different points of his body. He also became aware of the uncomfortable position he was lying in and his inability to move freely.
Blinking his eyes open, he at first thought that night had fallen. He was lying on the ground with his head and shoulders propped against a very hard, uncomfortable surface while his legs stretched out straight in front of him. The only light seemed to come from an oil lamp sitting just beyond his boots.
Drawing a shaky breath, Vin attempted to ease the pressure on his neck and discovered that he couldn't lower his hands. Flexing his shoulders caused a dull pain in his wrists and there was the distinctive sound of metal scraping against stone. Becoming more aware, he used the resistance to balance himself as he drew his knees up and pushed his body upright against what he believed to be a wall. He bit his bottom lip to keep from crying out as the muscles in his stomach protested the movement and a sharp pain flared in his right wrist.
As his lower back came in contact with the wall, Vin's wrists came into his view and he saw the metal bands that glinted dully in the light. He turned his head and followed the metal links attached to the manacles to the large ring that anchored them to the solid rock surface.
"Finally. I thought you would never wake up."
The insistent voice intruded once more on his thoughts and Vin jerked around in surprise.
"You! You were with Nathan!" The tracker winced as his own voice sent a flare of pain through his skull. At the same time, he became aware of the strange way in which his words seemed to echo slightly in the darkness. Looking toward the lamp once more, Vin realized that what he had mistaken for nightfall was really the interior of a cave.
"Where are we? And where is Nathan?"
"We're in a cave up in the cliffs above town. Nathan..." Trian caught her breath in a stifled sob and then continued. "Hurough found us in his work room. Nathan had just discovered an orc's hand in a jar when Hurough walked in. He's very good with his staff and caught Nathan by surprise just like he did you. At first... at first I was afraid Hurough had killed him. Now I wish he had."
Vin stared in horror at the young woman. "Why? Where is he?"
Trian's hands gestured feebly from their own metal prisons. "By now he's probably dead at the hands of one your friends. He may even have killed one or two of them before the others could stop him." Seeing the look of disbelief in Vin's blue eyes, she tried to explain.
"Hurough created a spell that lets him control a person's mind. The command can't be too complicated but it's enough to make a person kill even his best friend. Hurough placed the spell in a piece of wood and... and put it inside Nathan's neck."
"Bysha." Vin remembered the crystals in the orc's necks and he felt his heart skip a beat as he imagined Nathan being controlled and forced to attack Chris.
"We have to find a way to get out of here. I don't know what Hurough has planned for us but he probably won't let us live." Trian shook her chains in frustration as she channeled her grief into anger. "We have to escape and find a way to stop him."
Vin agreed but didn't see any possible solution. Struggling to his knees, he examined the bands about his wrists and could see that they were magically sealed. The thick links of chain also appeared to be magically welded together and the anchoring ring was set firmly into the cave wall. With no locking mechanisms or visible joints to pry at, there didn't appear to be a way of removing the chains.
Brushing his hair back from his face, Vin winced as his fingers found the painful bump on the side of his head. Taking inventory of the rest of his aches, he decided that his wrist wasn't completely broken and that his stomach would probably sport a terrific bruise. The wizard Hurough really was good with his staff in a surprise attack but he would probably meet his match if he went against Josiah.
"You... you're an elf!"
Trian's shocked squeak brought the tracker's straying thoughts back to the present and he realized that once more he had unconsciously tucked his hair behind his ears. Grimacing slightly, he quickly corrected the apprentice.
"Half-elf. And I'm not a Pit-spawned demon."
"Well of course your not. What kind of statement is that?" Trian appeared truly confused and Vin instantly regretted his sharp reply.
"Forget it. I don't know if Nathan told you but my name is Vin."
Trian smiled tentatively. "Pleased to meet you. I remembered seeing you at the tavern, just before your other friend helped you up the stairs."
Vin hoped he wasn't blushing where the girl could see. "Look, these manacles and chains are all sealed with magic. Isn't there anything you can do with them?"
"No. I can only work with wood and even that just barely." Trian rattled her bonds once more and sighed in frustration. "Hurough made sure to take all the wood pieces that I had. He even took my wooden jewelry and beads." Trian shook her head and Vin suddenly realized that her long braid was gone. "He even found the crystal in your pouch."
Vin looked down for the pouch he normally wore at his waist and discovered it was gone. Not only had Hurough gotten Josiah's crystal, he had also gotten the cloak pin that had belonged to Vin's father. Snarling in anger, the tracker pulled against the chains binding him to the wall but only succeeded in making his wrists sore and raw.
"It's no use. The shackles can only be opened with the key and Hurough has that." Trian slumped against the cave wall and dejectedly hung her head. Her shorn hair formed a curtain about her face but Vin could still see the sparkling tears as they fell to the ground.
"We can't just sit here and do nothing. How did Hurough get us here? Did he leave a trail that my friends can follow?"
"No. At least not all the way from town. He used a transport tree to take us to the top of the cliff, which is just a few feet above us. Once there, it was easy for him to drag us down the trail and into this cave."
Vin also settled against the wall of their prison and tried to think of a plan. "What will he do now? Will he stay in Briar Cliff or will he leave? Did he mention anything about what he had planned for us?"
"I think... I think he just plans on leaving us here to starve to death." Despite the grim topic, Trian seemed to regain some of her composure and wiped at her cheeks with one hand as she spoke. "He did say something about 'as soon as he heard from Listrel' he would be going to the capitol. But I don't know who Listrel is or where exactly in the capitol he would go."
That wasn't good news. While interesting to learn that Hurough also worked for Listrel, if he just up and left, Chris and the others would have no idea where to look for them. Provided they were still alive to look. The thought of never seeing his partner again was too painful to even consider. Vin tugged on the cord around his neck and pulled the small dragon from its hiding place beneath his shirt. Holding it up to the light, he cast his mind back to the night in the barn when the mercenary had presented it to him.
Trian's voice once again interrupted his thoughts and he frowned slightly in annoyance as he answered. "It's a dragon that my partner gave me. He carved it himself."
"From wood?!" Trian was suddenly on her knees and straining against her bonds to get a look at the carving in Vin's hands.
"Well, yeah. What else would he have...?"
"Give it to me! Why didn't you say you had a piece of wood?" Trian reached out her hand as far as she could but still fell several inches short of reaching Vin.
"What are you going to do with it?" Vin wanted to escape their prison as much if not more than the apprentice wizard but he was loath to just hand over his first pairing gift.
"It depends on how well he carved it and what type of wood it is. If nothing else I may be able to wedge it into the holding ring and then use a growth spell on it to make it swell and break the metal."
That sounded a little unlikely to the half-elf but he reluctantly removed the cord from the dragon then stretched out his own arm to carefully hand the carving over.
"Oh, it is nice. The stone eyes are perfect. Your friend is very talented." Trian turned the small sculpture about in her hands and examined it very carefully.
Vin nervously waited as the young woman hummed softly to herself as she studied it from all angles and rubbed her fingers across the smooth surface. She clutched the small dragon tightly and closed her eyes as she used her power to sense the structure of the wood.
"Yes, I think it will work. As long as I put in just enough power and not too much."
"What will work? What spell are you going to put on it?"
"I'm going to try and animate it. If it works, we can send it out to bring back help. Now, no more talking. I have to really concentrate. The worse that can happen is I put too much energy in the spell and the wood splinters. In that case we'll just try using the pieces to break the ring."
Realizing that it really was their only hope, Vin resigned himself to the possibility of losing the dragon. Closing his eyes, he listened to the quiet, rhythmic chanting of the wizard in training and prayed to Bysha that she would succeed.
"Nathan, c'mon, snap out of it." Chris applied a couple of gentle slaps to the man's face and was rewarded with a groan of protest. "That's it. You can do it."
With Josiah's help, he eased the groggy healer into a sitting position and then gave him support until he found his balance.
"What... where... Trian?"
Nathan stared about the room in confusion. The last thing he remembered clearly was Hurough's cluttered workshop and finding the missing orc hand in a large glass jar. He had just turned to his companion to suggest they warn the others when...
"Bysha! What happened? Where's Trian?"
The healer grabbed Chris' arms and demanded an answer but the mercenary could only shake his head.
"We were hoping you could tell us what happened to you and Vin."
"Vin? I never saw Vin. I was with Trian. She didn't do it, Chris. She doesn't have the skill to transport. We found the orc hand in her teacher's workroom. That's... that's the last thing I remember."
Chris snarled in frustration. While he was relieved to hear that Nathan had not been wrong about the girl, he was even more concerned about Vin's fate.
Nathan struggled to his feet while rubbing the back of his neck with one hand. He was surprised to feel a spot of sticky warmth and when he drew his hand back, he saw that his fingers were red with blood. "Chris?"
"Hurough embedded a piece of wood in your neck that had a spell on it. You attacked us and we had to hold you down while Josiah removed it."
"Attacked you? Did I... ?"
"You gave Jaydee a slice across the stomach but it looks like the local healer has him put back together." Chris motioned with his head to where Buck and Ezra were helping the youth to his feet.
Seeing that Nathan was looking in his direction, Jaydee did his best to give Nathan a reassuring grin. But when Nathan saw the torn and bloody shirt, he groaned and covered his face. Josiah placed a comforting hand on the man's shoulder and guided him to the nearest chair.
"You cannot blame yourself. You had no control over your actions. Let the rightfully guilty party bear the burden of your actions."
"Hurough." Nathan swore through gritted teeth and pounded his fist on the table. "We've got to find him. Find Trian."
"And Vin." Chris saw the confusion in Nathan's eyes and realized he would have to explain. "I didn't like the idea of you going off alone. I sent Vin to follow you and make sure you didn't run into any trouble. He had one of Josiah's crystals and was supposed to use it at the first sign of danger."
At first Nathan felt a rush of anger at the thought that Chris hadn't trusted him. That he had gone so far as to send the tracker out to spy on him. But in the next moment he realized what a foolish thought that was. If Chris had really mistrusted him, he wouldn't have let him go in the first place and he certainly wouldn't have sent his partner out alone.
"Chris... thank you."
The mercenary nodded his head, relived that Nathan understood and was not angry. "Now, like you said, the important thing is finding Hurough. We find him; we're bound to find Trian and Vin. Feel up to taking us back to his house?"
"Try and stop me." Nathan rose to his feet and accepted the knife that Josiah held out for him.
Chris called over to his other three comrades waiting near the bar with Inez. "Buck, I want you and Ezra to stay here with Jaydee." He held his hand up to stave off the expected protests. "Just in case Vin or Trian shows up, someone needs to be here. And if Hurough also has them under a spell, then it will take more than one of you to stop them without hurting them."
"Sure thing, Chris." Buck gave his old friend a broad grin. "If the little elf shows up here, I'll just sit on him till you get back."
"There, that should do it."
Vin raised his head and peered over at the apprentice wizard. He wasn't sure how much time had passed since she had begun her spell, but his limbs had grown quite stiff and his fingers were almost numb with cold. Now that it was safe to move and make noise again, Vin gratefully shifted to his knees and brought his hands together to rub some warmth into them. The movement also reawakened the pain in his wrists caused by both the fight with Hurough and the chaffing of the metal cuffs.
Looking up from her newly finished spell, Trian noticed the frown on Vin's face and watching him move his hands, rightfully guessed the cause of the grim expression. "You should try not to pull against the chains. That will only make them worse."
"Won't matter if we can't escape. Is your spell going to work?"
"Well, the wood didn't crack so now there's only one way to find out." Holding the dragon in the palm of her right hand, Trian took a deep breath and called out, "Arital!"
Both Vin and Trian watched the dragon closely. The half-elf wasn't sure what to look for exactly but if the spell worked then surely there would be some noticeable change. Taking his eyes from the carving, he glanced at Trian and saw the look of disappointment on her face.
"It's not working?"
Sighing sadly, the apprentice lowered her hand. "No. I set the spell to be triggered by the word 'arital' which means 'fly free' but I guess I got something wrong. Ah well, at least I know I can do the enlarging spell. I just have to remove this spell first then ..."
"Wait. Before you do..." Vin hesitated. He knew they had to escape and he had thought himself resigned to losing the sculpture but now that it was actually about to happen he suddenly found himself loath to part with it. "Could you let me have it back for just a moment?"
Not really understanding but seeing the seriousness in Vin's eyes, Trian carefully handed the small statue back to the tracker. "Sure. I could use a little rest to restore my power anyway."
Vin was grateful and smiled his thanks as he sat back with the dragon cradled in his hands. Holding it close to his face, he studied each tiny detail as if trying to permanently engrave them in his mind. He traced his fingers over the wings and for the first time noticed the real care that Chris had put into them. The mercenary had even carved in the lines were bones would have gone to support the thin membranes had they been made of flesh instead of wood. Vin turned it so that the light glinted from the blue eyes and once more marveled at how they seemed to sparkle with life. In the flickering of the lamp, it even looked like they were blinking at him.
Vin suddenly gasped as he realized that what he was seeing was not a trick of the flame. Looking at the wings again, he noticed that the hole for the cord was gone. Vanished as if it had never been there. And the wings seemed a bit larger, more spread out and thinner than the wood could have possibly been carved. Vin's breathing quickened as he watched the magic unfolding in his hands. Not daring to hope but unable to stop himself, he held the dragon aloft and whispered, "Arital."
Trian opened her eyes as she heard Vin speak the word that activated her spell. She sat forward with a surprised shout as she saw the wooden dragon in the tracker's outstretched hand suddenly rear onto its' hind legs and beat its wings in the air. "It worked! I did it!"
Vin also watched with amazement as the sculpture came to life. He could feel the tiny claws digging into his palm and the tail thumped against the base of his thumb. The tiny beast turned its head and two, flashing blue eyes seemed to peer expectantly up at the frozen tracker.
"What... what should I do now?" Vin shot a sideways glance to his fellow prisoner, afraid to take his attention fully away from the miniature dragon.
"I... I'm not sure. I mean... I've never gotten the spell to work before." Trian chewed her bottom lip as she suddenly realized that her efforts might have been in vain. "I thought we could send it for help but... I really don't know how."
Vin sighed as he lowered his hand slightly. "I thought we would be able to tell it to find Chris and the others and bring them here. Isn't there some way for you to order it...?"
Both half-elf and apprentice wizard cried out in surprise as the dragon beat its wings furiously and launched itself into the air. Darting past their faces so close they could feel the air from its movement, the magic creature flew once around the room then vanished into the darkness leading to the entrance.
For a long moment, neither Vin nor Trian moved or made a sound. Slowly, ever so slowly, they turned and looked at each other, their eyes conveying what they were both afraid to speak aloud. Trian was the first to look away as she slowly settled down against the wall of the cave, resting her head against her drawn up knees. Letting out a breath he hadn't been aware of holding, Vin turned back to the flickering light and the silent darkness that lay beyond.