Banner art by JackOfClubs (jack_spire on livejournal).
You can find the whole cover art here- JoC did a great job on it!
There's also a great mix/soundtrack that goes with this story- you can find that here.
Word Count: 22,053
Warnings: Unreliable magic? Rather vague battles? A surplus of wizards? Yeah, this story doesn't really need a warning. ;)
Summary: Meren, an unusual elf girl (and her more unusual centaur "brother") take up the task of hunting down a band of orc trespassers. When she stumbles into a pitfall, Meren finds an object: an amulet that gives strange new powers. Little does she know that an increasingly desperate young wizard is looking for the very same amulet, and that their paths are destined to crisscross in a weave of chaotic magic...
The frantic pounding at the upstairs door startled the young wizard; he dropped the vial he'd been preparing and it shattered on the workroom's dirt floor. As the liquid soaked into the ground with a slight hiss and a poof of odorous smoke, Wendell cursed under his breath. "What do they want now?" he grumbled to himself as he ran a hand through his short dark hair in frustration. Unbeknownst to him, the powder still on his fingers tinted it slightly white, although this did little to make him look any older than his twenty-five years.
He glared up at the ceiling in the general direction of the knock then nudged the pile of broken glass with his boot, surveying the newest damage. He gave a shrug. Just some more mess to an already littered room, but he could almost hear his former master complaining about a wasted concoction and such a disorganized work area. The old wizard had passed six months ago, but still his once-apprentice continuously felt the need to look over his shoulder lest his magic (or lack there of) was being watched by the keen eyes of his teacher. Besides, I work better with a mess, he tried to reassure himself to get that voice to leave, but it was no use. He knew it was more out of laziness than purpose.
He climbed the narrow, rickety staircase and once on the ground floor, closed the trapdoor. With a grunt- how had the old man done this so easily?- he managed to drag the small bookshelf over the entrance. It was probably a pointless try at camouflage as anyone who really wanted to get into the workshop could find it, but the young man had never been good enough at protective magic to try to seal it the way his master had done. Wendell's only result had been melting the padlock into a jumble of metal, which he now used as a paperweight, thus summing up his magical prowess in one simple action.
Taking a moment to beat some residual soot from his simple brown robe, Wendell opened the door just as the youth on the other side had his arm raised to knock at, or rather flail at, the door again. Momentarily thrown off balance, the young half-elf grabbed the doorframe.
"Yes? I had an important spell going," Wendell said as he crossed his arms over his chest and frowned down at the boy. No need to tell the youth- Dav, one of the helpers at the inn, as the wizard knew- that the spell had been simply a kind of cantrip for a bit of continuous light in a room without windows.
The boy didn't look overly impressed, but he did look worried under his mess of brown hair. "A band of orcs was spotted just inside the treeline to the southwest. You're needed at that gate," he informed the wizard, shifting from foot to foot.
"Am I?" The wizard frowned. Surely this was more a job for some archers or something? "Aren't guards ready on the wall? Shouldn't you be alerting the sheriff instead?"
Dav hastily nodded. "Aye, already have, but you're our wizard." He said this in a way that seemed to come across to Wendell as 'You're our wizard so you better well go do some wizarding'. "The old one. I mean, the previous wizard, always said he had some kind of magic to keep the village safe."
Wendell sighed. In his opinion the villagers had become far too dependent on magic and had a bad habit of asking for something he couldn't supply. It wasn't so much that he was loath to help, but for every little spell he cast for them, he had to spend a great deal of time resting to recover from that energy drain. 'Wendell the Wondrous', he cynically snorted to himself; his master had given him that title once after one of his experiments had actually come to fruition and it had stuck with him ever since, much to the young man's annoyance and the amusement of the villagers. For all that the old wizard had been brilliant, he just couldn't seem to grasp that his student would never be a particularly powerful spellcaster.
But his master had been perceptive enough to leave something behind for his less adept apprentice. Now where is it... he'd promised to keep it on his person, but a wizard's pockets were never a secure location. Digging through a multitude of pockets, flaps and pouches and dislodging an assortment of baubles and a small beetle, the wizard finally felt the chain. The youth caught a glimpse of something green and yellow before the wizard dropped it into the slightly more convenient satchel hanging at his hip. The beetle, now sensing impending freedom and possibly a chance not to be poofed out of existence as a spell component, scurried away.
The wizard echoed that scurry as he was all but dragged out the door, to the wall and up the stone staircase. The high wall encircled the entire town, except for two gates to the north and two to the south, giving a fairly good view of the area from the top. A view which left the wizard quite uncomfortable, first from the height, then from the sight of a group of monsters. A group far larger than a band, so either more had arrived or the boy wasn't particularly good at math. The wizard gulped. Yes, those were orcs, alright. Even from here he could almost smell them.
As the monsters began to approach, the wizard's hand found the amulet without him being aware that he was looking for it. Was it his imagination... no, it did feel warm, and for some reason he was getting the feeling that it was trying to do... something, although how a stone would be able to act was uncanny, even to a wizard. He frowned and closed his eyes. Whispering to it and feeling like an idiot for doing so, he said "Alright, you gaudy piece of jewelry. Time to do... whatever it was you were made to do." He was really beginning to wish he'd paid more attention when his master had explained this, but that man could ramble on and on and the apprentice had lost interest not long into the lecture.
Let's see... grip it like so... Don't think there was a phrase to say, was there? Please don't be something I'd have to say... right, concentrate on what I wish it to do. Get rid of the orcs would be a prime desire right about now, he thought to himself as he began to recall the needed combination.
He felt the stone grow warm again, but just as it seemed ready to act to his will, it flashed back to cold. "Curse it!" Why didn't that work? His master had explained that this was a protective amulet and that with a little effort it would protect the town. Great, but unfortunately rather vague.
Maybe 'getting rid of orcs' was too offensive for a protective magical item? Trying again, the young man instead concentrated on something more specific and less violent. Protect the gates. Make them stronger so nothing can get through them. As he felt the amulet heat again, this time giving off a slight grey light, as well, he let out a sigh of relief. Glancing back over the wall and trying to ignore the wave of vertigo, he saw the first ranks of orcs propel off of what appeared (or rather, didn't) to be an invisible barrier. Clearly confused and somewhat dazed, a few finally looked up, making what could only be rude gestures towards him. One, probably a leader judging by how much it was shouting to the others, had the wits to hurl a spear up at the wizard who dove out of the way just in time. As it quivered in the wooden crate next to him, Wendell, also now quivering, explained to the people stationed next to him, "Whatever I did, it won't stop weapons. Ducking would be wise, I think."
The nearest archer, the innkeeper, rolled his eyes. "Fighting by cowering is a great battle tactic. Go check on the other gates and get out of our way, please." In a far less sarcastic tone he directed to the half-elf, "Dav, go run north and see if the sheriff is in place."
The boy nodded and took off running as the innkeep shoved Wendell aside and took the position the wizard had been occupying, firing off an arrow.
That's the thanks I get? Wendell grumbled to himself as he scuttled low on the wall towards the next gate to the east, not noticing that the iron of the one he'd just left was beginning to give off a low, dim red glow.
Other than a few townsfolk keeping watch, nothing had been near the southeast gate. Wendell continued circling the town until he reached the northeast one. Here, though, was a commotion, but not one that he had been expecting; there were orcs, but none were bouncing off invisible walls. Wendell wondered what he'd done wrong. Does that amulet only protect a small area at a time? But surely his master would have pointed that out. Unless he had? The wizard once again mentally cursed the fact that he hadn't paid much attention at the time.
Not only were the monsters not being kept from the wall, these had come prepared. A group had laid claim to a fallen tree and were using it as a battering ram, shouting as they charged the iron gate. Judging from how said gate was beginning to bend after each strike, it didn't look as though the it would hold up much longer. With each bang, Wendell cringed. Why couldn't this have happened a year ago? What do I do?
Gripping the pendant and chain tightly in his right hand, he tried thinking at it again. Do something, would you? That wall thing, fire, sudden localized earthquake, something-
Before he could finish that thought, a rumbling noise sounded; with each hit of the gate, it grew louder, as though echoing the movement. I was joking on that last one! he quickly shot at the item in his hand, but he realized it wasn't the ground shaking. It sounded more like it was coming from ...above? But why would something up high rumble? As his eyes rose, he noticed small pebbles and bits of masonry begin to rain down from the guardhouse built atop the parapet. No one else seemed to notice this, although the man nearest him had begun brushing flakes of mortar off his shoulder using the fletching of an arrow.
Now the stone beneath Wendell's feet was beginning to... pulsate, was the only sensation he could equate it to. And if stone suddenly became able to throb, that wouldn't end well for those relying on it to stay stationary. Grabbing the man who was now sporting a slight layer of dust, he shouted, "Get everyone away!"
The man glared at him as he drew another arrow from his quiver, "And let them break through? Are you crazy?"
"Look, would you!" Wendell shoved the man around so he faced the now trembling wall. "They're shaking the foundation! Guarding the gate is all well and good, but not if it's going to fall on you!" Okay, so the gate wasn't the problem here and he didn't think the orcs had actually been the cause, but he still considered his point valid.
The man's eyes widened. Winning the award for obvious understatement, he exclaimed, "They shouldn't be able to do that!" He grabbed the arm of the archer next to him and pointed, then ran to the next.
Word spread, but not fast enough. Before most could do more than move slightly along the wall and out of the way, the guardtower... sunk. Majestically. After a shrill sound that caused only Wendell to cover his ears, not that he was in a position to notice this as he scrunched his eyes closed, it exploded down, crashing through the stone walkway below it and taking a large chunk of the wall on a sudden unexpected trip to become far too large hats for orcs. As more of the wall began to crumble, the townspeople on either side of the recent gap fled, some west, some south, and some down what remained of the stairs that led back into the village. The stairs were nearest, so downwards the wizard went, tripping over the uneven stone. His ears still rang from what he was now thinking had been a sort of magical alarm bell.
Stumbling along, he caught a whiff of smoke. Oh no. Don't tell me it heard that, too! How is this protective magic? He had to be doing something wrong. Perhaps his master had left some sort of written instruction somewhere?
That thought in mind, Wendell ran back to his home, muttering a curse when he realized he'd left the door open. This time he kicked it closed behind him, rattling the doorframe. The bookcase was still in place and he gave another grumble as he shoved it out of the way with his shoulder, then yanked open the heavy trapdoor to take the ramshackle stairs down three at a time. Placing the amulet on the table, he fumbled to get the old lamp to light, burning his thumb on the firestick before he was able to ignite the wick. Now able to see better and wishing he'd had the chance to finish that spell he'd been interrupted from, he frantically began to search the workroom for his master's old spellbook or any kind of note he could have left behind. He ripped books and scrolls off shelves, heedlessly tossing what was of no use onto the floor and shoving anything with potential into an old rucksack.
After exhausting almost every shelf and surface of written material, Wendell finally located what he sought behind a dusty bottle of something that was blue and mostly dissolved. This he shoved aside to grab the thick, also dusty, book at the back of the shelf. He jammed the leather book into the bag and pulled the drawstring tight. As he threw the sack over his shoulder, he heard the rickety staircase behind him creak. Supposing it could be that half-elf kid again but thinking that wasn't likely, he reached over to snatch up the heavy glass bottle he'd knocked aside; this quickly became hidden in the folds of his sleeve. Armed as best as he could be considering the location, Wendell swiftly turned to face whatever had caused the noise.
Sure enough, it wasn't the boy. Standing at the bottom of the stairs with a notched short sword in hand and its expression one of permanent angry underbite, was an orc. Why do I never remember to lock the door? Wendell cursed at himself as he took a step back from the table in the center of the room. Would there be a way around it? Could he possibly sneak upstairs and lock the thing down here?
This idea was quickly dismissed when he feigned a step to the right; the orc lunged with the sword, seemingly to aim at the wizard, but the gas lamp got in the way. Had the floor been clear, this would not have been a problem and the dirt would have extinguished the flame, but in Wendell's frantic search the floor had acquired a carpet of parchment. As the fire began to leap from paper to ancient book, the young wizard hoped that for once in his life luck would prevail.
Knowing he lacked any kind of water spell, he tried the only option available in the rapidly smoke-filling room. While the orc was momentarily distracted by the flame, Wendell hurled the bottle at its head and ducked under the table, shoving the monster aside when he got to the other side. It wasn't until he'd reached the top floor, slammed the trapdoor shut and pushed the shelf back in place that he finally realized a flaw in this plan. Everything of any importance in his workroom was flammable except for one item: the amulet, which he'd left on the table. He hesitated for a moment and glanced at the floor, then decided no malfunctioning piece of jewelry was worth facing fire, smoke inhalation and an angry orc. Shifting his pack into a better position on his back, he fled from the building.
The next part of the story can be found here.