Star Dreamer

Chapter IX: Undoing the Voodoo

[Keir]

Keir looked the newcomers over suspiciously but was glad to see Thomis back. As he watched their every move he almost failed to notice that Daron’s eyes were closed and her breathing was growing weaker. “I could use some help over here.” he replied to Pondra as he knelt by Daron’s side and checked her pulse. “You know anything about healing?”

[Pondra]

The big man looked thoughtful for a moment, then shook his head.

“I am a blacksmith,” he shrugged.

After another moment of thought, he looked at Vels.

“Vels,” he called, “come help.”

Looking apologetic, he stepped back outside the circle. He realised that the rhythmic chanting whispers had ceased to bother him.

[Vels]

Vels looked up.

“Sorry, I had no idea..” he apologized and quickly walked to Keir’s side. He began running his hands a small distance of Daron’s body, and a blue light glowed pale against her skin.

“This will take some time”, he said, looking at Keir.

[Jayden]

Jayden had dismounted and sat on the ground next to his horse. He looked positively petrified. Sweat lined his face, and he had turned slightly pale. He was alert, however, and his eyes constantly scanned the horizon for any sign of bandits. Or wolves.

[Rudolpho]

Seeing that the situation seemed to be under control and there was nothing he could do from within the circle, Rudolpho wandered over and to Thomis and again rumbled his questioning growl. In the meantime he kept his senses sharp to the surroundings for the approach of any “guests”.

[Thomis]

Thomis slid carefully from his horse, testing his wounded leg and finding it capable of holding his weight without much pain. “This Brendan,” he said to Jayden as if he had not noticed the other man’s obvious fear, “was the main target of this Grumhog’s attack.” There had to be an interesting story behind how the mysterious young man had fallen from favor, and why he had continued to linger in the area. But there were more important things to do other than gather tales for Laurelyn to add to her repertoire.

He looked down at the impatient panther, and shrugged slightly. “I think we are still searching for a plan,” Thomis responded apologetically. He ran his eyes over the other members of his party, noting Daron’s obvious distress and Laurelyn’s rather messy state. And Jacques’ bare head. At that sight, he paused, and remarked almost casually to Rudolpho, “I do not suppose you know where the jester’s head was mislaid, do you?” Silver chains and teleportation spells stitched into handkerchiefs – magical devices came in every shape and form, and it was worth a shot …

[Daron]

Daron woke up almost instantly. A strange man knelt by her side. She barely stifled her first impulse to run away from him. Her instincts told her he meant no harm; in truth he was there to help her. His hands’ faint blue glow disspiated while she watched.

The lack of pain from her injuries startled Daron. Her hand reached up under the bandage on her shoulder. Her dark eyes widened in shock as she felt smooth, though still tender, skin where the wound was before. She checked the wound on her left thigh with the same incredible result.

“Thank you, sir,” she stammered shyly. “I appreciate what you’ve done for me…”

[Vels]

Vels smiled, and his hawkish face crinkled into something slightly more pleasant.

“It’s nothing. I am Vels, town healer, and hence it is a pleasure to be of service. Please, do not move too quickly or you may undo what I have done.”

[Rudolpho]

He was about to start looking around for Jacques’ hat when something tickled at his nose and pricked at the fur behind his neck. Rudolpho froze and cocked his head to the wind. Not too far away he could smell the scent of…wolves. There was a pack of them and closing in fast. He smelled also the scent of blood. They had killed recently and apparently were looking for the second course. Rudolpho growled a warning. He made sure it was a deep throated vicious growl too. If I do it loudly enough, maybe it will wake that Jayden up. How could he sleep now anyway? Rudolpho crouched down low facing the direction the wolves were approaching from.

[Laurelyn]

Laurelyn was pacing the edge of the circle, but not near enough to cause any retaliation. But she didn’t wander too far – she kept her eyes on Thomis.

She had to focus on him – otherwise she’d start paying attention to whispers and murmurs of the stones. They were growing restless and perhaps hungry? Laurelyn had gut feeling that they were hungry for more of her blood seeping into the earth and soaking their stone roots.

[Daron]

Daron next scanned her surroundings. Thomis had returned, along with Rudolpho in his panther form. Two other men accompanied them: a large one who reminded her of Cannor the blacksmith from her village, and one who seemed afraid of his own shadow, judging by his posture and attitude. She turned to Vels and looked him in his eyes.

“Though you really should attend to Master Thomis and Mistress Laurelyn…they need your help more than I do…I wasn’t that bad off, truly…”

[Vels]

He shook his head. “Some injuries are worse than they feel. I will tend to your friends.” He stood, and walked over to the other woman.

[Jacques]

Turning from where he’d been following the Rudolpho animal’s gaze, Jacques snorted.

“Just so long as you don’t start singing again,” he warned. “Particularly anything about doors, sunny days, or anything else.”

He turned back to where Rudolpho was staring.

“What do you hear, boy?” The mask hung around his neck where he could get at it, one hand held the knife firmly, and the other kept making movements towards his head. “Dammit. Wish I had my hat.” The knife spun in an iritable circle. “Or another bottle.”

To keep from scratching at his head, he jammed the free hand into a pocket. And pulled out a small glass bottle.

“Didn’t know that was there!” He grinned and pulled off the cork. And cursed. “Damn – vinegar. Why the ….” He paused in his curse as inspiration struck. Maybe, just maybe it would work. Then all these people could go and leave him to sit in this peaceful, comfortable, circle for a while.

He moved over to where he’d been digging into the dirt, and began rummaging through other pockets.

“You yell if anythin’ comes, now,” he called back to Rudolpho. “Or meow, or bark, or somethin’”

[Thomis]

With one last look at the still unresponsive Jayden, Thomis unhooked the crossbow he had acquired at the scene of the last confrontation from his saddle. “I need you to patrol,” he said firmly to Rudolpho, “and find out what we have out there.” He carefully set the crossbow with one of the few undamaged bolts he had been able to salvage. “And find that hat.” That last part was said even more firmly, with a level gaze in the panther’s eyes, hoping he could make clear to the boy that he might not be the only member of their party with magical items.

“A bad spot we are in, Hillrover,” he added as he stepped closer to the circle to look at the stones. Rudolpho had passed across the line easily enough, and crossed back out. “Tell me, quickly, what do you know about Grumhog’s plans.”

[Laurelyn]

Laurelyn knew she couldn’t come any closer. She managed a tired smile and said, “A very tight spot.” Her expression turned grim, and she continued, “Grumhog seems to have plans on sacrificing us to some godling, and I suspect that he and his cohorts are cannibals.”

[Fiend]

With a snuffling growl, Fiend managed to somehow slip himself out of the pack he’d been unceremoniously ported around in. He skidded and slipped off the horse, to land with a yelp ad a thud on the earth. This wasn’t enough to stop him, though, and he bounded off towards the stone circle where everybody else was congregating, yipping along the way.

There, at the edge of the circle, he skidded to a halt, and set about prowling around the perimiter, growling constantly and sniffing at the ground.

[Keir]

The little healer watched Vels with interest. He’d seen magical healing before, never certain it was quite proper, but he couldn’t argue with the results. He suddenly felt a tad useless and walked off by himself, fingering the knife Jacques had lent him. If there was to be more trouble he would have prefered to have his staff but it was gone, probably lying in the road where they were captured. He hoped they’d be able to retrieve it after they escaped, if they escaped.

[Vels]

Vels approached Laurelyn slowly, trying to forget her last comment. There was danger sure enough, but he had no intention to stay around and see it.

“Miss, ” he said quietly to Laurelyn, “are you in need of healing?”

Before she could reply, Pondra grabbed him.

“Quick!” the big man spluttered, shaking the healer so bad he thought his false teeth would drop out. “Something is wrong with Jayden!”

Vels turned his head, and saw Jayden lying limp on the ground. By the time he reached Jayden’s side, the man was dead.

Jayden’s skin had turned papery, and his eyes were glazed. Vels cursed. He ran his hands over the man’s body, and not a mite of blue glow could be found. As he felt over Jayden’s hand, a coldness took him, and he opened his eyes.

On the back of Jayden’s cold hand was a scratch no more than an inch long, the flesh puckered and red. Vels knew that this was the cause of death, and yet there was no poison to be sensed.

As he watched, the flesh around the wound moved.

“Pondra!” Ves cried, stumbling backward from the body. “Throw it in the fire! Throw it!” he shrieked, falling down in his attempt to run.

[Pondra]

Pondra acted before he thought, grabbing the lifeless body and throwing it into the bonfire. As it lay burning, it erupted – masses upon masses of crawling maggots bursting free, only to be burnt in the raging fire. The smoke twisted in the wind and blew back into the circle, thick and black. It smelt of grilled beef.

[Keir]

The shrieks of the dying maggots filled Keir’s mind with dread. These were not the nearly mindless spawn of common flies, he could feel their intelligence, a hateful and malignant intelligence with a thirst for more than flesh. It shook him to his soul and only an utmost effort of will keep him from screaming aloud as each voice was silenced.

[Laurelyn]

Laurelyn wrapped her arms tight around her, feeling beneath her fingers the wrapping of ropes that were supporting her sore ribs, and tried desperately to keep from shaking. In a voice that was tight with control she said, “Thomis – you know I think we were safer standing against the League.”

[Rudolpho]

Rudolpho watched warily and in surprise as the scene before him unfolded. He could not believe they had thrown the man into the fire until he saw the maggots errupt from the corpse. He had seen many digusting things in his young life, but nothing as disgusting as this. Fighting the impulse to retch he turned his attention to Thomis and the closing wolves. With a forepaw, he scraped into the dirt before him W-O-L-V-E-S. With that, he bounded over to Jacques and gave him a quick sniff. He quickly re-established his scent and stated sniffing around the area to get catch the scent of the hat.

[Pierre]

Pierre felt ill as he watched the burning maggots crawl forth from the dead man’s body. He knelt down and retched until his stomach was empty and his head felt light. What had such transpired? Nervously, he touched the back of his neck. Who was next? What would happen? Thomis was here, though he appeared to be, at the moment, unable to really do anything about the situation. All Pierre could do was hope that he was wrong, for he knew that he himself had no way to get out of the infernal circle.

[Thomis]

Thomis considered Rudolpho’s hastily scrawled warning, and nodded both in acknowledgment of the threat and in agreement with Laurelyn’s statement. A quick question, and her equally brief response, explained to him why she and the others remained within the circle. “Wolves,” he muttered, considering. If these wolves came – or Grumhog’s men, assuming those were two different things, and he was not sure they were – the party would be an easy feast. Corralled by an enspelled circle of stones.

[Vels]

Vels propped himself up on his elbow and shook his head. He could hear Pondra pacing nearby.

“The same thing took half our village…” he said aloud, addressing no-one in particular. “Two days ago, after the annual hunt, they all fell sick – and died. Yesterday the graves were covered in maggots…” he spat, clearing his mouth of bile. “My son…” he shook his head again, but he had no more tears to cry.

Pondra put his hand on the healer’s shoulder and looked at the group around them.

“Please, forgive us for not saying anything before. We do not know what causes this disease…”

“It’s no disease,” spat Vels – anger and sadness mixing in his eyes. “It is the bushes… the Red Dew bushes which grow here. Jayden cut his hand on the thorns of one.” The image of the squirming skin on Jayden’s hand came to him, and he bit back bile. Had he known when he saw the man cut himself, perhaps he could have -

A wolf cry cut the night air. It was so close, so close – Vels shivered.

“If you need healing,” he said quickly then, as if he had resolved something, “ask me now. I fear that we may not have long.” He stood, and faced the chill air.

[Pierre]

Still staring at the ground, Pierre touched his cheek. He felt a strange warmth pass across it, and his cheek felt smooth.

[Jacques]

There was a shattering of glass, and a faint hissing noise as Jacques dropped the bottle of vinegar, and another small vial of something white.

Fiend yelped, and stopped snuffling. Jacques cursed.

“Damn wolves.” He glared at the ruined collection of chemicals he’d been concocting, and sighed. Maybe he’d have to wait a little longer before he could get everyone out of his circle. That’s if they managed to survive the wolves first.

He gripped his knife firmly in one hand, and turned. To see Fiend sitting whining on the other side of the circle.

“C’mere, boy. It ain’t safe out there for you with all these wolves about.”

Fiend whined again, and pawed at the ground where the circle was.

“Dammit, I know you can cross it. Everybody else got in.”

Fiend whined and lay down where he was.

[Rudolpho]

As he set about the task of picking up the scent to Jacques’ hat, something tickled at his nose. It smelled strongly of vinegar. Rudolpho looked up and fixed Jacques with a glare, then looked over to Thomis as if to say “How can I pick up a trail with that smell?” Just then Rudolpho heard a snap of a twig and a rustling noise coming from just beyond the edge of the woods. Too late to go looking for his hat now. I’ll have to find it later. He raised his hackles and began to rumble deep in his throat in the direction of the noise. He teeth were bared and his claws out.

[Thomis]

Thomis tested his wounded leg again and decided to take Vels up on the offer of healing. It was a brief moment of discomfort, as Mesani’s shields reacted immediately to the touch of the man’s magic before subsiding into an unquiet level of acceptance… “Wolves,” he muttered again, as the blue glow faded, and suppressed a shiver from a cold wind that was kicking up. After a moment, he passed the crossbow to Laurelyn and pulled his sword. And considered whether to try simply carrying one of the others across the circle.

[Laurelyn]

Laurelyn took the crossbow, and let Vels work on her next. There was a momentary warmth as the healer’s blue glow eased her crack ribs. She quickly offered her thanks with a smile and checked the crossbow – readying it for the coming confrontation. “Would someone move the pup into Jacques – please,” she asked.

[Thomis]

Thomis waited while the healer tended to Laurelyn’s injuries, and crouched down next to the panther to speak softly into Rudolpho’s ear. “Red dew bushes,” he almost whispered, “do you think you could gather some thorns without pricking yourself?” A slight nod of his head indicated the crossbow he had handed to Laurelyn; he assumed the boy was bright enough to figure out the thorns – if indeed they caused the affliction which had claimed Jayden – would be a handy addition to their weaponry.

When Vels was finished tending to the storyteller, he straightened to address her. “You can’t make yourself cross willingly. Perhaps if you were carried by one not enspelled?”

[Laurelyn]

Laurelyn answered firmly – she was tired and enraged at being so trapped, “I’m willing.” She laid the crossbow down.

Without hesitating, the Oath-bound stepped across the circle, and felt Mesani’s shields immediately harden as something foreign, and threatening, moved outside them. Something of dark whispers and shadows. Sheathing his sword, he stooped slightly to sweep her up with one arm behind her knees and the other behind her shoulders. And began to step across.

[Laurelyn]

Even if this was to be a short-lived endeavor Laurelyn was reassured by Thomis’s closeness.

[narration]

Again the spirit voices rose from the ground, chanting and rhythmic. Yet they seemed this time to be merely curious, their whispering touch gentle on the mind. Still, the evil was there, brooding, but it did not awaken.

Vels smiled. “There is hope at last!” he sighed, looking around for Pondra, who was already reaching to pick Daron up in his massive arms. Her nose was crinkled ever so slightly – Pondra never had smelt much like flowers.

[Pierre]

A light smile came upon Pierre’s lips. So, perhaps they would be able to escape this place after all…

[Rudolpho]

Rudolpho glanced back as Thomis stepped across the circle and carried Laurelyn out of the circle. I thought that might break the spell but I wasn’t real sure. He continued to keep his ears swiveled forward in the direction the wolves were approaching. He made sure to keep track of how many sets of feet he heard and that they would not split up and encircle the clearing. As he listened and watched an idea struck him. Changing only the structure of his vocal chords, he adopted those of a wolf and howled a greeting. ~Who are you and what brings you here~ he asked of the wolves.

[narration]

From just beyond the trees, an answering cry sounded – then two, then a monstrous clamour of howls.

~ We are those who are feasting – those who are kill-hunt-eating -those who command the spirits – those who shall revel in the forever-hunt ~

Vels cried out as he spied a wolf lunging through the undergrowth just beyond the firelight. It was gone in the blink of an eye.

The moon was near its peak, and its pale crescent hovered like scythe in the sky. Something told Vels that their time was up.

[Daron]

“Thank you, Master Pondra,” Daron said as the blacksmith set her down on the ground outside the cursed rock circle. Relief flooded her body. She was free.

[Thomis]

Thomis settled Laurelyn on her feet again, with the briefest of touches across her cheek before he stepped over the circle again to collect her crossbow. The howls of the wolves shivered in the wind, matched in their eeriness only by the oddity of a panther howling back in response.

[Laurelyn]

Laurelyn whispered, “Thank you” and lightly touched his hand before stepping away.

[Rudolpho]

Rudolpho listened to the response and answered in kind. ::I mean no disrespect, but I suggest you take your hunt elsewhere. The ones here have done nothing to merit being anyone’s prey. They have been imprisoned unjustly by an unknown entity. You will find great resistance if you try to hunt or kill these. They are not good eating and I am in part their protector. I ask you, stay your hunt and preserve the peace, before it ends in unfortunate results.:: Rudolpho did not relax his stance and listened for the the alpha’s response. If nothing else, killing the alpha might send the pack into confusion.

[narration]

Of a sudden, some fell sound came shuddering through the air. It was bestial, guttural – Vels was sure it was the sound of wolves dying suddenly and painfully.

A moment later and all was silent but for the sound of Pondra running back and forth to grab the last of the trapped. Vels wanted to scream.

“This is like some damned waiting game that we cannot walk away from” he cried, frustration getting the best of him.

Then on the border of the shadows, a man walked forth, stopping at just the point where he remained a silhouette. He said nothing, but looked poised to say something.

[Rudolpho]

Rudolpho saw the man stop at the edge of the clearing. He remained poised to pounce but waited on the man’s words. As he crouched he sniffed the air to aquire the man’s scent and see if it was familiar.

[Daron]

Daron looked towards the man in the shadows. Squinting hard enough to give herself a headache, she still couldn’t distinguish him from the trees. Her other “talent” came into play; she tried to pick up on the man’s thoughts.

Swirling, chaotic images of wolves meeting horrible, bloody deaths filled her mind.

The intensity brought her to her knees, clutching at her temples. She whimpered softly from the pain.

[Thomis]

Thomis stepped back across the circle, balancing the crossbow easily over one forearm, not aiming directly at the shadowed figure but in his general direction. A quick glance around told him the others were well, except for Daron. “Looks like someone may have disposed of the wolves for us,” he said quietly to Laurelyn, and allowed his eyes to stray briefly towards Fiend. “Too bad the little fellow missed the chance to show how ferocious he could be.”

[Laurelyn]

Laurelyn smiled at Thomis’s comment about Fiend, but responded to his first remark. “I just hope it doesn’t mean we’re facing a worse predator.”

[Jacques]

Fiend yipped, and bounded happily, albeit alightly unsteadily due to his wound, over to where Laurelyn was now safely outside the circle. Then, as he skidded to a halt by her feet, he faced the figure in the distance and let out a long, low, growl.

“Now is that any way to greet a man that kills wolves?” demanded Jacques from his newly seated position in the middle of the stone circle. Then again … “Not that I’ve anything personally against wolves,” he added loudly, though the knife in his hand was held lightly.

At least the others could now leave him in his nice, comfortable, safe, circle and get on with whatever bizarre acts they intended to.

Fiend turned to look at the jester, and began whining.

[Laurelyn]

Laurelyn looked down at Fiend and then back at Jacques. To the jester she said, “Jacques, are you alright? You know that trouble can get in there, but you can’t get out?” What she feared was that the jester might suffer from the prick of the deadly bush..

[Jacques]

“I’m perfectly safe in here,” replied Jacques. It was true – he felt much more safe and relaxed and comfortable in his circle now that everyone else was getting out of it. He certainly had no inclination to leave. “Why’d I want to get out anyway?”

[Pierre]

Pierre turned to stare at Jacques, but he did not say anything. Not that there was much to say. Who would want to stay here? he wondered. Ah, well, simply because he did not understand did not meant that it was wrong.

[Jacques]

He turned to Fiend, who was scrabbling at the dirt at the circle edge.

“C’mere boy.”

Fiend whined, and stopped. Then looked imploringly at the jester with large, brown eyes.

“You ain’t nothin’ but a hound dog,” muttered Jacques and stood to walk over to the edge of the circle. “Cryin’ all the time.” he sighed. It had been so safe and comfortable in the circle, and now, so close to the edge, he felt even less inclined to leave. Out there was death, chaos, destruction, irate husbands, unappreciative audiences. And …. He shuddered. And children.

Fiend yipped cautiously.

“Alright already!” He gripped the knife securely and glanced at the stranger. “Someone want to get me out of here so I can teach this man some manners?”

[Thomis]

The Oath-bound considered the whining puppy, and the jester, and the hooded figure confronting them. And passed the crossbow back to Laurelyn. Though he didn’t relish the thought of what might happen if the spell made Jacques decide to resist being carried out, he stepped across the circle of stones once more in order to carry the jester out. “Time to leave this jailhouse of rocks,” he muttered as he lifted the smaller man.

[Pierre]

Pierre smiled sincerely at Jacques. “I am glad that you are out,” he said sincerely. He repeated the sentiments to the others. Laurelyn, Daron, who had the letter to his sister, a letter he hoped to “return to sender” when he visited her, and the rest.

[Jacques]

Though it was an ungainly and distinctly unimpressive exit, Jacques found that as they crossed the mystic circle he suddenly found himself feeling safer outside than in. Though there was still a niggling in the back of his mind that suggestively promised comfort and happiness if he stayed. He shuddered, and dropped his feet to the ground.

“If I’d a’known it’d be that easy, I’d’ve jumped out long before.” He shrugged. “But thanks anyway.”

Fiend yipped happily a couple of times, and then turned to the shadowy stranger. The pup let out a long, low, growl.

“Now, now, boy. Don’t be cruel. He might just be friendly.” The knife in his hand spun lightly between a couple of fingers.

[Rudolpho]

Rudolpho kept an eye on the hooded man. He could not understand why he did not catch some sort of scent from him. The wind wasn’t blowing hard enough to obscure any scent at all he thought. He did swivel an ear in Thomis’ direction as he retrieved Jacques from the circle. He wasn’t sure if he liked Thomis going in and out of the circle. His father had told him once “only fools rush in”. He had tried to take that bit of advice himself…most of the time. Jacques looked all shook up but none the worse for wear. He lashed his tail back and forth impatiently. If someone didn’t find out who this was soon, he would bite the stranger.

[Keir]

Seeing it work for the others Keir didn’t protest when Pondra lifted him clear of the circle. He lept from the blacksmith’s arms, landing gracefully but stirring up a cloud of dust around his blue suede boots. He stared in disbelief at the frozen group and shook his head. For all their hastiness before, now when they should be running away as fast as possible, they stood gaping at the solitary mystery man instead. “Ahem,” he coughed loudly, “Don’t you think we should be going?” He wasn’t too particular about a direction, though he’d like to retrieve his staff, and shuffled his feet anxiously.

[Daron]

Keir’s words penetrated Daron’s thoughts. She agreed with the healer. The sooner they all got away from this cursed area, the better.

:::Falcon!::: Daron “sent” to her faithful companion. :::Where are you, old friend?:::

A whinney answered the artist. The mahogany mare soon galloped into the clearing, seemingly none the worse for wear. Daron slowly rose, shaking her head to get rid of the lingering headache. She walked over and affectionately stroked Falcon’s nose and mane.

There was indeed something…familiar about the man in the shadows—his posture, those chaotic thoughts, Daron realized. {Now where have I seen and felt that before?}

:::Who are you, stranger? Who do we have to thank?:::

Daron waited for a response, though she did not expect one.

[Jacques]

“Why’d we want to go anywhere?” asked Jacques. “You ain’t worried about Mr Brendan over there now are you?” He pointed at the shadowy figure with the tip of his knife. Fiend looked up, and tilted his head to one side questioningly.

“Besides,” he continued, ignoring the pup’s pointed doubts as to his sanity. “The wolves would’ve been here by now.”

Fiend yipped at that, then turned back to the distant figure and growled.

Jacques shrugged and slipped the knife into a pocket on his uniform, then ran a hand over his balding head. If there was a reason to move, however, it was to look for his hat. Somewhere in all the mayhem it’d been lost along the way, and he was feeling decidedly chilly around the scalp without it.

“Enough with the theatrics,” Jacques called over to their peculiar benefactor. “Keep this up, an’ I’ll have to call in the Guild. You want to get over here before someone puts a knife between your eyes by accident?”

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