The next day, we all woke up to a raucous cawing in the distance. Thick foliage obscured any sight of what was causing the annoying disturbance. My first instinct was to go check out what it might be, but Lizzie was firm, "Whatever is out there might not be overly friendly to four, inexperienced adventurer. And if we had to run from whatever it is, we couldn't run far with Abigail's injury."
"No really, guys, it's just a scratch. I could run if I had to. But we might want to know what is disturbing the crows over there. Innocence is bliss, but ignorance can lead to destruction."
Tallie cocked her blue head sideways, "That was very profound, Abigail."
I calmly weighed the decisions in my head. "There couldn't be any harm in checking out whatever was over there. It could be harmless, but if it wasn't and we were in danger, wouldn't we want to know? But if we weren't in danger and going over there would put us in danger, I'd rather not of course. But whatever you decide, I'll agree."
Then I realized that the rest of the company was watching me, waiting for a decision. I repeated myself, "I ... ahem. . . am willing to accept whatever decision you come to. Myself, I'm divided."
They peered curiously at me. "Couldn't you just do some of your wizardry to turn yourself invisible and check it out? Isn't that what you've spent your whole apprenticeship doing?"
I sighed. Great, so now I'm supposed to be a full-fledged wizard? But hey, I sure wasn't about to go destroy my obviously high image, so I played along. "Psshaw, sure I can. Vanishing is a simpler act, but a smokescreen, now that takes skill." I smiled bravely, "Believe me, I'll go check out this creepy disturbance and hone my smokescreen skill in the process." Oh, well done, Rizon. Rather well done. You've only heard the words for the smokescreen spell from the wizard Martin. You've never even done it. It could knock you out, and who knows how long you could hold the spell.
But I'd promised, and the girls were looking expectantly at me. I was in for the test of my whole apprenticeship. And I'd never done anything close to it before. I was a total nube at efficient spell-casting. A single wrong word and my total life force could explode like a dynamite-filled cow. Of course, that was the best way to go. There were countless other painful methods of dying from a spell gone wrong: sucking every last drop of moisture from your body, filling your bladder with natural gas until it exploded with intense pain also rupturing other organs, spewing a purple acid into your lungs, growing fungus from every possible pore on your body, and even your brain matter expanding through every possible space in your body until you suffocate.
This spell could take many more, and if I could do it successfully once, there was no guarantee that I could do it again.
But with that synthesized smile still plastered onto my paling face, I marched into the ring of trees surrounding the clearing. As I drew nearer to the sound of the crowing, my heart rate tripled and every footstep was as loud as a herd of elephants. But that's how it's supposed to be in all the adventures, right?
The foliage was thick about my legs and often entangled the lower half of my body in such a complex web, that my progress was greatly hindered. But gradually, my eyes adjusted and I was able to avoid the entrapping tangles of vine and bush.
The sound of crows soon filled my head. I took a deep breath, mentally preparing myself for the physical torture I was about to endure. I closed my eyes . . . and recited what I hoped was the proper incantation. Surprisingly, the words were easy upon my tongue and seemed to be nothing special, but that sensation was directly contradictory to the terrifying possiblities underneath.
"Ula, cum lauda, sancta clorifique onoytiar!"
Rizon tensed, expecting to find some torturous species invading his internal organs, eating him from the inside out. . . . he nearly jumped out of his skin when his stomach rumbled. He stared in horror as it made some liquid-y sounds and then fell silent. This was the end, he just knew it. He clenched his eyes shut and swallowed hard. Just as he thought that he could die any second, he heard a loud, crystal-clear laugh from somewhere nearby.
Rizon's eyes snapped open, abruptly scanning his line of vision for whoever had laughed at him. And good thing, he opened his eyes, because a low snarling came from off to his left. He could hear the underbrush flattening under something heavy coming at him.
Frozen in fear, he fixated his eyes on the point where it would emerge; somewhere in the back of his mind he realized that the crows had stopped cawing. Then he saw it . . . a huge, snarling menace emerging from the shadows, it's head was contorted and twisted into fantastical nightmarish proportions. It was not unlike a large, mutated wolf. Long fangs dripped saliva and something else . . . like blood. It stalked toward Rizon on long shaggy legs, a steadily advancing terror.
It was nearly upon Rizon, he couldn't run for fear, but thrust his arms up to protect himself as it lunged with a excited growl at his throat. In the exact instant before, the dripping fangs latched onto his arm, he dissolved into a wisp of smoke. Rizon felt himself being pulled away from the hideous appartition, as some unseen force dissolved him and reassembled him a different point in the forest. The wolf mutation -Rizon had decided to call it the Salivator- appeared surprised as he vanished from before him and reappeared some distance away.
Rizon stumbled as gravity returned to him, and had but a few seconds as the Salivator spared no time in rushing full-speed towards him, the rage at being foiled evident in his predatory eyes.
But just before it's jaws closed upon his throat, it disappeared in a wisp of smoke, just like Rizon had, with the exception that this time Rizon couldn't tell where the Salivator had disappeared to. He peered cautiously around in an attempt to discover the wolf's whereabouts.
"He's gone, kiddo. For sure, as I'm Helvester Sakcloat." The speaker stood upon a protruding rock a ways away. He was an unimposing type with muttonchops and a very independent set of eyebrows that punctuated nearly every syllable.
"Who in the dragons of Roastok are you?" Rizon gazed open-mouthed at the strange figure.
"Tut-tut, my good man. Open mouths lead to flies in the respiratory system and that is definitely not a good thing. And just on a side note, save your open-mouth adoration for objects worthy of it: example being a extremely large collection of valuable artifacts, an extremely beautiful girl, and of course a magical or physical feat of pure awesomeness, similar to what I just did for you. Now come in before your companions get tired of waiting." Without another word the strange man disappeared straight into the ground.
Rizon struggled wearily over to where the odd man had been standing and as he was about to cry out in frustration, he found himself plopped in the middle of a sitting room. To be more precise, on the middle of a table, in a bowl of nuts. Abigail had just been reaching for one such nut, but seeing Rizon's posterior firmly situated over the bowl, thought better of it and withdrew her hand.
Helvester stood off in a corner, leaning on the fireplace. He was smiling into his elbow, a poor attempt at concealment. "There is an art to teleportation, and it would do nicely if you removed yourself from the refreshments table."
Glaring at the man, Rizon rose from the table and seated himself with a sigh of relief on a nearby padded chair, next to the rest of his company. "I believe that you, sir, have a good bit of explaining to do for yourself. How about starting with what you did to me in the forest? and what you did to the wolf-creature? and what it was? and who you are? and what we're all doing here? and why should we trust you?