Sunday, September 30, 2007

Chapter 6a: Auras of Smoke

"The afterlife doesn't contain the promises of Heaven if we submit to the will of our Gods, nor the Hells we should suffer if we rebel. The afterlife is something totally…different"


~Dokkien the Wise


As Madame Rachelle strolled through the large room, she browsed through the impressive collection of books lining the walls from floor to ceiling. Thousands of books stood before her, more than she had imagined the entire city possessed, and all meticulously organized. Their topics ranged from blacksmithing to complicated mathematical algorithms. One thing she didn't see were any books on the subject of magic. Given the little she knew about the Duke's Wizard she wasn't surprised. Legend stated the man, if that were even what he was, had been sent by the Gods and entrusted with the welfare of men.


Actually, not too much was known about the Wizard. Madame Rachelle spent a great deal of time finding out anything she could him, with little success. It began as a hobby, but as she discovered little tidbits here and there, her pastime became an obsession. Maybe it became such a driving force because the local wizard was a mystery that had yet to be unraveled. He had lived in the city since its founding, and many people whispered that he had been meddling in man's affairs since long before the city existed, maybe even since the creation of man, a guardian of the human race of sorts.


Her fingers trailed behind her, gently touching the books she passed. The Wizard had knowledge unknown to most mortals, of that she was sure. He would be able to interpret what her gift had shown her. He would know why she was seeing the terrible sights. He would tell her why she saw death in the faces of everyone she met.


"Hello, Madame Rachelle."


Her heart fluttered as the strong yet quite voice spoke up from behind her. She turned to see the Duke's Wizard standing in the doorway, a silver tray with a carafe of tea held between his delicate hands.


He smiled as he set the carafe down on a reading table. The room filled with a spicy aroma as he filled two cups with the dark steaming liquid. "I am terribly sorry to keep you waiting. I had some other things to attend to."


Her nerves overwhelmed her and stole her voice as her heart raced. She stood in speechless awe, all the things she had imagined saying to the mysterious wizard suddenly gone, a vanishing trick performed by her memories. She almost felt as if she were in a dream, one that was swiftly becoming a nightmare. After a short, but awkward pause, she mumbled, "The wait was short, my Lord Wizard."


He shook his head, giving her a gentle smile. "Please, call me Wellan. Titles don't mean a great deal to me." He passed her a cup of tea. "Now, Madame Rachelle, the guard said you had some important information to share with me."


She set her cup on the table as if it would only distract her from what she had to say. Taking a deep, shaky breath and gazing at the cup as though it held the answers to the meaning of life, she quietly said, "Since we are being informal, please call me Rachelle."


"Alright, Rachelle, what was it that you need to tell me?"


She didn't know where to begin. The speech she planned at her home had become just a jumbled group of words and no longer seemed appropriate. Her voice died in her throat. Finally she gave up, speaking more bluntly than she had intended, "Everyone I see will die in the next few days!"


Wellan’s cordial smile vanished. "Why do you say that?"


"I don't know if you know anything about me, but I’m a fortune teller. I run the little business from my home, reading cards, palms, bones, tea leaves…anything that will allow me to interpret the signs fate graciously gives me. I can also see auras, colorful glows that seem to radiate from everyone. The color can tell me what sort of mood they are in, what has taken place in their past, and what might be in store for their future. It's a gift…a gift I don't take lightly."


Rachelle took a seat at the corner of the table. Wellan sat in a padded chair at the end of the table, his own tea forgotten. His eyes filled with concern as he asked, "When you see these auras, how can you tell whether they reflect the person's mood, past or future?"


She put her hands around her cup and twisted it back and forth, watching the cup and not the Wizard's eyes. "I ask them questions."


"Questions?"


"Yes. I use the cards, bones, tea leaves or anything else I happen to have to focus my concentration, and I ask them a question. For instance, I might ask if they have ever been in love; love is the most popular reason I do business. I might see a dark red glow telling me that there are strong emotions here and they truly were once in love. The props aid me a little in narrowing down the possibilities of the telling, and they make it all seem more real for the customer, but…but I mostly rely on my aura sense."


Wellan placed his hand over Rachelle's. The comforting touch drove away some of the nervousness. She stopped twisting the cup and looked up into his face as he said, "You see auras, but what does that have to do with all of these deaths you are talking about?"


A knot formed in her throat and tears misted her eyes. She wiped the tears away with the back of her hand as Wellan pulled a kerchief from his robes and handed it to her. "I…I don't always see the auras. The props help me focus and then they come easier. Sometimes they come all on their own, and sometimes they won't show up at all. Earlier in the week, maybe two days ago, a customer came in to have her fortune told. She asked the usual questions, one was about her husband loving her more and will she find happiness in her future. I used cards for the reading. When I looked up at her she glowed…she glowed black."


Tears freely streamed down Rachelle's face. Forgetting about the kerchief she wiped them away with her forearm, sniffled and continued. "It means…it…. death. Black always means death. I couldn't tell her the truth. I couldn't tell her she was going to die, or maybe it was her husband, or children, but death walked by her side. I told her I couldn't see anything. I lied. She…she left and an hour later another customer came by. I was still upset about the first customer, but I met with the next one hoping that they might have a bright future. Again I saw black. Black!"


She wept as the sudden flood of emotions washed over her. Seeing the disturbing auras was a burden she could hardly bare. Wellan leaned over and put a comforting arm around her shoulder. "It will be okay, Rachelle. They won't die. I won't let that happen, I promise."


She sat up in her chair and he leaned back in his. "What can you do?"


Though he obviously tried to hide it, she could see that he didn't know what to do. He attempted to be kind to her, to comfort her.


She could also see something that terrified her, making her want to scream. Smoke surrounded the wizard, the black smoke that only she could see.


A comforting smile twisted Wellan's lips as he reached out to brush the moisture from her cheek, "Don't worry, Rachelle, I'm sure that whatever is causing these black auras you see we will be able to stop it from harming anyone."


His words brought her little comfort.

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Chapter 5c: Sharky's Bad Day

Stiles sat on a small cot and watched a trickle of water as it meandered down the wall. Must be raining outside, he thought, then turned to watch the other men as they drank their ale, rolled their dice and told their tales within each of the four cells. There were fifteen men in all, three of the cells held four men while Stiles only had two others with him in his cell. His cellmates laughed as they exchanged exaggerated tales.


Stiles didn't laugh. Waiting in a prison cell under quarantine didn't amuse him at all. He envied the other guard's ability to carry on despite their circumstances.


Migel turned to Stiles as soon as Oswald finished another one of his stories. "You sure you don't want anything to drink?"


Stiles gave Migel a sympathetic smile. Migel wasn't really asking Stiles if he wanted ale, he was asking him to break in so he wouldn't have to listen to another one of Oswald's stories. The elderly guard loved to tell stories about his past deeds, and they became larger and grander with each retelling. Though Stiles was tired of hearing the same old tales himself, he wasn't in the mood to join in and take some of the aggravation from Migel. "Don't feel much like drinkin'."


Oswald, who was well on his way to being falling-down-drunk, plopped himself on the cot next to Stiles and slurred, "Man yoos sick?" He had a bad case of tooth-rot and his breath always reeked, but the sour smell of ale made the odor even worse.


"Yea Stiles, it ain't like you to pass up a free drink. Everything okay?"


"I'm fine. I just don't feel like drinking is all." He wanted to say more, maybe ask how the rest of them could be getting drunk while there was a chance that they could be contaminated. The rotting images of the lepers kept flashing into his mind, reminding him that he could become one of them. If they had contaminated him he would start rotting away, a little bit of himself dying each and every day, the community shunning him, his family sending him away. The thought didn’t put him in much of a drinking mood.


His mind kept mulling it over as Oswald started another tale of his grand adventures.


"Godsdamned lazy bunch o' bastards!" The barred door to the main chamber burst open and their guard stormed in. He was a slovenly man, even by city guard standards. His bulbous gut stretch his soiled uniform almost to the breaking point, making Stiles wonder why he didn’t request a new one, one that would fit his portly frame a bit better.


One of the men leaned an arm out of his cell, an ale mug in his hand, wanting a refill.


"Hey Sharky, I thought your shift was over?"


The portly guard stared at the man with disgust, a venomous look that made the already ugly man look like a troll. "Godsdamned right my shift is over. Bunch o' lazy bastards."


Seeing that Sharky was in a foul mood, and realizing that getting the man in a worse mood was possible, one of the Night Guard chimed in from another cell. "Well, what the hell are you still doin' here? Shouldn't you be home bangin' the missus' or somthin'?"


Some of the other men began to laugh.


The comment didn't bother Sharky, but a wicked gleam twinkled in his squinting eyes as he replied, "Keep it up, jail-bait, and when I get off I'll go to your place and do a little bangin' on your missus'."


The men began laughing even harder, but not the fellow who had started the banter. He didn't laugh a bit.


When the laughter died down, Sharky continued. "Nobody showed up to relieve me. Can ya believe it? I've been down here over twelve hours watching these cells, waitin' on you assholes like a barmaid for the last three of them hours, and nobody comes in to relieve ol' Sharky."


Stiles sprang off of his cot and strode to the bars. "Nobody came in to relieve you?"


Sharky spat on the floor. "Not a damned' soul."


Another one of the men grinned through the bars. "Hey, Sharky, maybe they quit doing shifts by hours and started going by how hard you work instead. Hell, you're liable to be here for another twelve hours."


Nervous laughter followed his comment.


Stiles stuck his head up to the bars and yelled, "Shut up, Jamee. This might be a real problem." He turned to Sharky. "You need to find your commander and ask him to check on those men."


Sharky's fat lips formed a frown. "Awww, I figured I would give em' another hour and then I would…" Sharky swayed back and forth, reaching out to steady himself.


Stiles hands tightened on the bars. "You okay, Sharky?"


Sharky brought his hand up to his cheek and gave it a little rub. "I…I don't know. Feel hot as hell. Just sorta came over me." He turned and started walking toward the main door. His steps wobbled awkwardly, as if he had been the one drinking all the ale. Sharky tripped and caught himself on an ale barrel, sending mugs flying to the floor in a cacophony of sound, but stopped himself from falling.


Stiles had to lean his head further into the bars to see Sharky's back. "Sharky, what's the matter?"


He saw Sharky hunch up and then heard him retch, followed by the sound something wet splashing onto the floor. The noise stopped, then started again. Sharky tried to push himself off the keg, but another convulsion struck him, doubling him over and sending him crashing to the chamber floor. When the convulsions stopped the room went silent. Everyone stared at the prone form. The keg hid his head and the puddle he lay in was covered in shadows. Stiles didn't need to see the puddle. The odor of rancid stomach acids started to fill the room, a few of the men looked queasy themselves. The smell of vomit didn't bother Stiles. What bothered him was the faint aroma mingled in with the vomit, the trace of a scent that he was too familiar with, the smell of blood.


"Sharky…Sharky, you okay?"

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