Friday, March 4, 2011

Scratch of the Nail

High atop the mountain known only as "Nail," the wind snapped and whipped, beating the weak rocks and tempering the snow into hard ice. A cave scooped out of the mountain houses a figure that, though the driving cold assails him, he does not shiver. With a voice deep and resonant as the mountain's breath he shouts words none of us, living or dead, will understand.

And the wind howled faster.


I, ever your servant, was standing with my friend Clarence watching the barges crack the ice on their way down the weary Mississippi. We both dreamed of warmer skies, though Clarence less because he was a penguin and quite used to this type of air. Mayor Ghearen had issued a warning to all inhabitants of the area, telling them to be wary of the spectacular cold. Truly, it was colder than it had ever been, and it was rather tiresome. I voiced my displeasure to Clarence.

"It is very cold," I said.

"Squawk," said he.

"Quite right," I agreed. "It does seem rather like that of the magical type. Perhaps we should perform experiments."

"Squawk," he said again. Again I agreed.

"Yes, fish does sound very tasty right now. But after the experiments, friend."

We left the banks of the frosty Mississippi, and retreated to our home, a cabin made up of logs, and outfitted for our purposes perfectly. Clarence began to move about the place, setting up for our tests. In preparation for what I knew would be the answer, I readied our more eccentric equipment. Once things were all in readiness, Clarence called to me.


I joined him on the flat area behind our home. We had toiled away the summer months laying wooden planks to level the area, which now came in much handiness. Clarence held in his fins two leaves. One was a bright red, preserved from the fall, and the other dead and brown.


"No, the other." Clarence replaced the red leaf into its bottle. He handed me the brown leaf, which I crushed in my hand and spread on the ground around me. Keeping my attention on the constant, fierce wind, I held my hand out to Clarence. He put in it a stout iron rod, which I planted into the ground between my feet. The rod was inscribed with blue and gray symbols from the bottom to the top, and stood about five feet. It was stuck in the center of the ring of leaf particles, and when I removed my hand it stayed erect. Carefully I stepped out of the leaf-ring, and Clarence replaced me.

From a belt around his waist he plucked a sack of a substance known as inij. It was a powdery thing, rust-colored, and he sprinkled it atop the leaf bits. The leaves glowed blue, and the lights rose in a circle around Clarence, flashing different patterns around him. He began to manipulate the patterns with his flippers, bending them to his formidable will. I paced around him, observing the effect each change he made had on the thing as a whole. Soon, the answer became clear to us.

"Squawk," he said, the urgency in his voice prevalent.

"That is the grandest thing you have said all day, friend. But you are right, as usual. I ask you finish preparing our equipment. I must send a message to Castle Shorgorend and tell them that we are on the move. Imagine, one of those frostbitten fools appearing after all this time."



It seems an acceptable point to describe me and my companion. I shall start with he, as it is a simpler task.

He is a penguin.

Aside from that critical point, however, is what adorns him. He has a belt around his middle, lined with pouches (from one of which he drew the bag of inij). Helping to support the belt is a blue sash that goes across his shoulder. This also is lined with pockets and the like. They carry many useful items; without these items the both of us surely would have died many times over during our tasks.

As for myself, I come from Ysland, and have reached the age of forty. all but three of those years were spent in training to be one of the Elemental Guards, and further being one of the Guard. I have training with the staff, sword, and bow, but prefer the staff. I have blond hair, my nose has been broken, and I am not tall.

As for the friendship between Clarence and I, each of the Elemental Guards must have a familiar, and it must coincide with the Element you are sworn to protect. I am the Erik, the Frozen Guard, and so I must have a familiar that is at home in the cold. Clarence, being a penguin, fits the bill. We met while I was in training in the south, and we quickly became friends.

I now find it prudent to return to the story at hand.


Through magic, we have made it possible to determine when something is foul on the air or ground, but have not been able to relay facts with it. So, while Clarence was readying supplies for a trip north (as the direction was), I sent a pigeon to Castle Shorgorend. I told them that the unnatural cold in my area was the work of men. Actually, if we are correct, simply man.

The pigeon flew towards our castle, buffeted by the strong winds. We employ the hardiest pigeons, so I fully expected it to reach its destination. I joined Clarence in our armory.

"Are we in readiness?" I asked. His pockets bulged. He pointed to a pile of armor and supplies, fit for a man. I proceeded to apply them to myself. Thick furs from the wolf and bear, and leather armor on the outside. I also had pouches, but of things more pedestrian than my friend. Legal tender, food, water, maps, and other things that a traveler would normally carry. Thusly equipped, we found a train that headed north into the wastes.

They unfortunately would not allow Clarence a seat on the train, and I had no kind of power to force them. So, I decided to sit with my crated friend in the storage car. It was very cold, but the furs I wore (and my friend's warm skin) kept us well heated. We passed the time going over what we knew, which was little.

"We know it is a wizard," I said.

"Squawk," my friend said, through the wood bars of his make-shift prison.

"It can't be him. The last time we saw him was five years ago, and he couldn't summon any more than a mild breeze on his best day. His beard is too big for his head to support. Perhaps it is Mishgail the Angry?"


"That is not a bad guess. But, the last we heard of him is that trouble down in Egypt, and Mistress Illio dealt with it handily."


"She is too young for my tastes. Too much temper, also. And no, Smoldering Leytan doesn't seem like a good fit. His powers over the cold are trivial. What about Gorz?"


We were silent for a time. The rhythmic clack of the rails below provided us a delirious tempo that nearly lulled me to sleep. Then, suddenly:


I sat up, eyes wide. "Yes, of course! His powers would have matured enough by now. Gorz would have trained him quite well. But he is still young, young enough for us to dispatch without much trouble." I smiled at my friend. "Your sharp mind has paved the way for us again, my friend." Clarence smiled and decided that it was time to sleep. He was asleep before I, but not by more than a minute.


We disembarked at Winnipeg; the cold was relentless. The sun was obscured by thick cloud, draped over the sky. The wind pushed us from the north. Heavy snowflakes fell fast and thick over us and the area. We bid farewell to the train porter, who unloaded our things. I suspect he gave us a strange look, but it is so common to receive them traveling with my friend that I barely notice anymore.

"I wish to send another message to Shorgorend, but I doubt even our hardy birds will make it in this weather," I told the penguin.

"That won't be necessary," a voice from behind us said. We both turned, surprised and ready for action. There stood a young woman with red hair pulled into a tail, her arms crossed, a short-sword at her side, and a white and red lizard hanging on to her shoulder. "How do you stand this weather?"

"Lady Illio," I said, bowing, "A pleasure to see you. But why are you here? And how? Last I heard, you were cleaning up a mess in Africa."

She closed the space between us. Her lizard, a salamander, leaped off her shoulder and landed on Clarence's head. It quickly slithered into one of the pouches on his sash. "Squawk."

"And I'm sure he's happy to see you too," I said.

"Shorgorend doesn't like this storm, not a bit," the woman said. "And while they have total faith in your abilities, they wanted a bit of insurance."

"But whyever would they send you? Not that I am displeased, you know, but your skills are more suited to the heat of the desert than..." I spread my arms wide, meaning all the cold and wind around us. When I pulled my arms back in, a pile of snow had formed in each palm. "...this."

"Who do you believe is behind...this?" Illio asked. Her salamander peeked its head out of the pouch and was testing the air with its tongue.

"The orphan Marag. We believe that Groz has raised him to be a potent threat. If he has produced this, then clearly he is," I told her. She was shivering, so I led us to a road-house. While the innkeeper was surprised when two people and a penguin walked in, stranger things have happened in Winnipeg.

"Shorgorend agrees," Illio said. "However, they believe that Marag may have found his master's book prematurely."

Clarence and I both halted mid-stride. "We had not thought of that. Finding such a powerful tome that early in life. What would happen if he lost control of it? The winds would blow until world's end!"

"Which is why I was told to go with you. No matter how talented Marag is or how much access he has to his master's power, he won't be able to handle the strength of fire so young." Back inside, her familiar had retaken its spot on her shoulder. At her words it hissed.

"Squawk." Clarence said.

I went to the counter, behind which stood a man whose main export was beard. "Two rooms for the night. We'll need breakfast of course, but we'll be rising early. Say...four?"

"In the morning?" Asked the man.

"Of course. What else could I mean?" What happened next is a custom between two men who are related by facial hair. I believed his beard to be better, so I stroked mine first. He stroked his also, as a way of saying mine was good enough. I had a light sandy color, while he had more of a grizzly color. With that, I turned away.

"We have rooms," I told my companions. We'll see you bright and early."

"How could it possibly be bright," Illio said, "If the sun is nowhere to be seen?"


"I believe we need direction," I said to Clarence.

"Squawk." Clarence said. He made ready the spell to tell us which direction to travel. It was very similar to the one performed earlier.

The sun, if it could have been seen, was at the top of its rise. We had been traveling for eight hours due north. Illio had changed her light garb for heavy cloaks and furs, but she still shivered. Her sword smacked against her thigh with each step. There were no landmarks, and the snow had wiped out the definition of every object we passed. Some peaks were to our east but they were neither our destination, nor any type of compass.

Clarence, assisted by Mistress Illio's salamander (a creature by the name of Jack) constructed the spell to point us toward our target. We found that our target was near. "That's good," Illio said. "Then we can get out of this damnable cold."

The next day we stood in view of a large mountain -- I believe I mentioned it at the beginning of our story -- that struck the heavens like a dagger of stone. The wind was very fierce; Mistress Illio was forced to crouch near the ground to keep from being blown over. Clarence and I stood tall; the freezing wind and snow seemed to give us some kind of strength.

We were deep in our element. Clarence was of course very used to such things. I, having been born in the deep north cold of Ysland had been accustomed to this weather since I was a child. I went through my training in Antarctica, living many months without respite from winds and snow and all manner of unpleasant weather.

"What do we do?" Illio asked. Jack was deep in one of her pockets, and she herself could barely be seen under her layers.

I didn't say anything for a time. She was trembling with the cold. Clarence was looking up at my with his bright, deeply knowledgeable eyes. I looked at him. "What do you suggest?"

Clarence's eyes roved over the mountain. He pointed at a black speck on the face of it. "Squawk." 
Clarence looked at Illio. "Squawk."

"I like it," I said.

"What did he say?" The woman asked. Neither of us responded. Instead, we traced a path up the side of the mountain. There was a strange ledge halfway up to the speck on the mountain. From the ledge we traced a roundabout path to the speck. "Hey! What's going on?"

Clarence looked at her and then me. "We have an idea. Let's get going."

We made our way up the mountain. As we got closer, the wind died down, and Illio was able to come out of her shell of clothing. At her bidding, Jack jumped out of her pocket and into her hand. She cupped her other hand around her mouth and blew, opening her hand as she did.

Jack burst into flame and lifted into the air. I yelped and Clarence jumped, but after the initial shock I noticed that the little lizard was releasing a pleasingly warm glow. "Why hadn't you done that before?" I asked.

"The wind would have snuffed him out and sent him flying. Might never have found him, either." She watched the flame-ball float around her head for a moment. "But this was the perfect time."

An hour later we were at the mountain ledge that we had seen. It was a big area, more like a plateau than a ledge. some hundred feet above us there was the speck, which revealed itself to be a hole in the mountain, as we had figured. We allowed Illio a time to rest.

"What now?" She asked, puffing with breath.

"For now we part ways."

"What?" She asked. "Why? Why do we have to do that? Why can't we just stop this and get out of this God-forsaken cold?" She shouted. I smiled.

"Why don't you point that voice of yours up there?"


"Oy! Marag! I know you're up there! Come out!"

Nobody appeared at the mouth of the cave. Illio stared up at it. Jack pulsed heat next to her. "I said come out! Are you afraid of little old me? I'm just a girl!" Still no one appeared. "Now I know why your parents left you to die in the wilderness! You are too foolish and stupid to even know when you are being insulted! Why I bet even the orphan-maids couldn't stand you! May your arms sag and your beard never grow! May your legs wither and your head shrink! I could beat you in a fight with my eyes closed and one arm tied behind my back! I bet Marag means 'Slip-waisted pretty boy with no future prospects or friends!'"

A half-hour later, Mistress Illio was still shouting.

"-and even if you HAD any sisters, they would all be spinsters and cuckolds! And your brothers would be hooligans and ruffians! I bet you have eight toes! I bet you can count the chickens in the backyard while standing on the front porch! I bet-"

"That woman is beyond my measure," I said. We were level with the hole in the mountain. What we 
had hoped was Illio's incessant shouting would keep Marag occupied while we got into position.


"I'm sure he'll think something is up, but he won't know what. We should move while the Lady still has some steam in her." Clarence agreed.

We inched closer to the hole, and found that furious winds were pumping forth from it. I directed Clarence to the other side of the opening, and waited for him to get all in readiness. Positioned opposite from me, he nodded. His eyes were closed, and his avian face was serene.

Whipping my staff out in front of me, I leaped into the opening. The winds nearly threw my down the face of the mountain. Clarence jumped out also and he stood his ground like a champion and deposited magic in front of him. However, neither of us moved, shocked by what we saw. I'm afraid I said a cuss.

"Gods around us."

Protected by the wind driving out of him, a shambling, shuffling creature moaned at the back of the cave. He saw us and gave a yelp, and an icy blast struck us, seeming to slap me across the cheek so strongly that I did fall, though only to the ground. Clarence, God bless him, rolled forward and activated the magic mentioned earlier. A blue ball rose and sped towards the thing mumbling to itself. The creature was encompassed and I rose, moving beside Clarence with my staff poised. The wind had stopped, and a heavy, oppressive air replaced it.

The thing was indeed Marag the orphan, though he seemed barely to be aware of it. He blubbered and drifted like a corpse, knocking his arms against the blue ball that surrounded him like a drunk gorilla.

"The book!" I said to Clarence. "Can you see the book?" He shook his head. He was digging in his pouches. "Blast!" We heard a concussion behind us, and when we turned we saw Illio, smoking some.

"When I noticed the wind had stopped I got up here as fast as I could. What is it?"

"It is Marag; he is under some spell," I told her. Clarence was sorting bits of magical equipment. Jack jumped off Illio's shoulder to help him. I'm still not sure how.

"He looks lifeless. What happened?"

"I don't know. He doesn't seem to have the book."


"Then let us proceed." Illio and I stepped ahead of the little ones, holding weapons ready. Her short sword pointed directly at the bubble. With a brilliant slick of light, the blue ball creased and opened. The wind returned and pointed our hair backwards from our heads. As planned, I whispered a word and struck with my staff, the end of which was encased in ice. Illio ran, and stabbed with her sword.

My attack did little but to knock the man back, but Illio's blow was powered by our familiars to release his mind and body from what held it. It worked. Marag fell easily, as if he was being dangled by strings by a puppeteer.

"Marag!" I bellowed. "Stop fighting! You are free!"

Illio kept her sword between her and him, I was less afraid. We had been joined by our familiars. Marag swallowed, a long, tiring process.

"You are Erik?" He said. The voice was weak, and dry.

"Yes. Speak freely. Whatever had power over you is dead and gone."

"No... the book," Marag squeezed out.

"Yes, the book! Where is it, please! We must find it!"

"No...a man. He took the book and put me in that terrible trance." Marag was getting stronger. "My body was tortured and drained of its energy keeping the winter storm going. I neither wished to cause such a storm nor keep it going, but I had no choice. Please, forgive me."

"You are forgiven," I said. Behind me, Illio raised an eyebrow in question. "Who was it that took the book, your old master's book, from you? There is too much power there for someone untrained!"

"I can't say. I didn't recognize him. He was fair, and young. If he was twenty-five you may cut off my nose, I am so certain. I wish I knew so I could get back to him."

"Revenge never helped a soul, young one," I said. Clarence handed me a potion he had mixed, and I handed it to Marag. "Drink. You will feel better." He did, and color returned to his cheeks.

"When Groz passed I did not want to cause the death and destruction he did," Marag said. "I was on my way to turn the book into Castle Shorgorend when I met the man. He did all this."

"I understand," I said. I turned to Illio as Jack and Clarence helped Marag up. "Let us return to the Castle. We must speak with Burghe." Illio nodded.


A week later Illio, Jack, Clarence, and I were kneeling in reverence to our leader, Burghe. He bid us rise and speak.

"We have stopped the storm that attack the north," I began. "Marag was, as we thought, the center of it, but not entirely as we expected." I explained what we found at the end of our journey.

"And Marag is with us here?" Burghe asked. He was on his audience-throne and resting his hands on his cane.

"Yes. He is being helped by the healers now. He was weak on our way back and we were forced to stop often. They say he will recover fully."

"and the book?"

"We don't know where it is, or who took it. Marag's description has given us no leads. But whoever did must be strong already to take over the orphan so fully. I suggest we be wary of this unknown element."

Burghe nodded. His grooved neck swayed up and down. "Agreed. You are dismissed."


"Mistress Illio, it was a pleasure working with you," I said. I must admit I worried over the location of Groz's powerful book, but that did not mean I wasn't going to be chivalrous.

"And you as well," she said. Jack was asleep in one of her pockets, and I could see Clarence's eyes drawing shut. "We all deserve our rest today, eh?"

"Indeed. Perhaps the new sun will yield good things about our problem," I said. Suddenly, a yawn overtook me.

"Goodnight, Erik."

"Goodnight, Mistress."