Jason moved silently through the brush.
It was perhaps the first thing a young wolf learns, how to move qithout making a sound. How to stalk your prey, the arts of hunting were both something you learned from your parents, as well as an important part of schooling. It was the only part of schooling he had ever really been good at, and yet it still earned him low marks.
Jason was what the others of his kind would call a ‘loan wolf’, a term which he had come to accept as a compliment among humans, but was really an insult. A loan wolf didn’t fit into a pack; they were unable to hunt as part of a group. Jason was sociable enough, he liked to be with others, but he’d never quite picked up on the subtleties of wolfpack-tactics. His sister’s pack never let him come along, so the only time he really got to hunt with others was when his family went out, and they frequently didn’t catch anything.
But here at the Citadel, there wasn’t anyone else to hunt with. Sometimes he could get Denna to go with him, but she was just as inept, and they typically ended up hunting alone but in the same area.
As he closed in on his quarry, he got his first real look at it. He’d known it was a dear for hours, a young doe separated from its mother. It was moving slow, leaving an easy to follow trail, so Jason wasn’t really getting all the enjoyment and thrill out of the chase that he was hoping for. But, the forest was largely empty this time of day, and he had to take what he could get.
He had routed the creature into a steep-walled gully and finally had it up against a dead-end. Nowhere to hide, not chance to escape. Licking his chops, Jason emerged from the bushes and prepared to lung.
He paused, however, in mid attack, and sat back unhappily on his haunches. It was a dear, clearly too young to be on it’s own, with one game leg. The right-left leg was being dragged uselessly behind it, a large thorn sticking clean through. The bone was probably broken, judging by the way it walked, and the wound was bordering on gangrenous.
“I should so be eating you, right now,” Jason growled and ran his tongue over his teeth.
He’d been chasing the doe for hours, the fight was definitely gone. It no longer had the strength to evade him, and had lost the will to run. Standing there, a few paces away, it looked at him, eyes filled with fear, and simply rolled onto its side, ready to die.
With a long sigh, Jason morphed back into human form and came to kneel beside the animal, gently placing one of his hands on its head. The one magical skill he had gained, perhaps the only thing he could ever do right, was ecomancy. One of the many ‘-mancy’ paths, ecomancy had to do with mastery over animals.
Although, to be fair, ‘mastery’ was really not such an accurate term. You couldn’t force an animal to do something it didn’t want to do, ecomancy was more about communication. It bridged the gap between human(or werewolf) and animal, allowing the shared need to form a mutually beneficial coalition.
As his hand touched it, Jason could feel the animal’s heart rate slow. There was an instant trust, a connection, and the creature knew he meant it no harm.
Examining the wounded leg, Jason was unable to confirm a fracture. It looked broken, but it was probably just a hairline crack. The thorn was the real concern, it was a good three inches long and going clean through the leg. The injury was festering around it, green and dripping with puss.
“Where’s a dragon when you need one?” Jason mumbled as he returned to his feet and began casting about. Although he often made it clear to others that “plants were not his specialty” he did seem to have a strange knack for herbs. It was something he just sort of got, and at the same time found strangely interesting.
As Jason moved about in human form, fingers carefully picking through the stems of plants, he located a few he recognized and uprooted them. After pocketing the herbs, he carried the doe down out of the gully to where it met with a larger ravine, and found a nice, soft bed of heather near a brook. He laid the doe down on the heather and began gathering the rest of the ingredients he needed for a simply poultice. Nothing in nature would be strong enough to fight an infection that severe, but he could at least dull the pain a little.
Once he had all the materials, Jason mixed them together with some river water and crushed everything up on a rock. He had to be very careful extracting the thorn, but it came out fairly easily, and he soon was able to spread his poultice over the injury. With the leg tied using a strip of his shirt and a splint made from a twig, he finally let the creature stand up and test its weight.
It moved about a bit timidly at first, clearly still in a great deal of pain, but it looked up thankfully at Jason all the same. It took a few cautious steps up to him, and waited.
“If I leave you alone out here, you’ll be dead inside a week,” Jason shook his head. “I should really, really be eating you.”
With another long sigh, he lifted the deer up and slung it carefully across his shoulders, then hiked back to the Citadel. It wasn’t all that far, and a young deer just didn’t weigh much. It would have made a decent meal, and for the life of him Jason still wasn’t sure what compelled him to let the animal live.
He reached one of the smaller mountain gates that led in from the passes, and after signing the logbook next to his name from when he’d left, Jason entered the Citadel grounds. His only real plan was to find one of the husbandry experts, magic could probably save the leg if someone could be compelled to cast a healing spell.
And, so, he headed off towards the stables.
Encountering Denna on the path, Jason waved with one of the dear’s front legs and altered his course to come up beside her.
“Hey, you’re back early,” he grinned.
“Yes, well, I didn’t end up having to go as far as I thought,” Denna smiled back. “How did the presentation go?”
“Completely bombed it,” Jason gestured. “Utterly failed, and looked like an idiot doing it.”
“That’s… basically what I was expecting,” Denna winced. “It’s a good thing you’re cute, or I wouldn’t keep partnering with you on these projects.”
“You really think I’m cute?” Jason grinned.
“In your own, silly way,” Denna waved. “But, you’ve redeemed yourself by bringing me dinner.” She patted one of the deer’s haunches and licked her lips excitedly. “I wasn’t thinking I was going to have time to hunt this week, so this is a nice surprise.”
“Ehh, this one’s not for eating,” Jason said sourly. Thinking quickly, he turned so she could see the injured leg and pointed to it. “See? Its sickly, it’ll give you a bad stomach ach.”
“Ohh, that’s only an infection,” Denna waved. “The rest of the flesh is juicy and tender. I’m all for thinning the heard, got to pick off the sick ones, you know? Besides, I think the fear tastes even better when they know from the start that they can’t escape…”
“I’m gonna go ahead and casually ignore how creepy that sounds,” Jason chided. “Look, I need to drop my furry friend here off with one of the stable masters, meet you later for dinner—regular dinner, not deer?”
“Oh, all right,” Denna sighed, glancing at the doe longingly and licking her lips again.
They parted ways and Jason headed off towards the complex of stables. The Citadel kept all kinds of animals. Draft animals were the most common, but there were also livestock, and even just pets. Some animals were raised to produce ritual ingredients, others served ceremonial functions in the multitude of religions practiced around the site, and then of course there were things like peacocks and tortoises that were kept for no reason at all.
One of the smaller and more diverse stables held an extensive collection of specimens and was used as a sort of school. Sal, the husbandery master, took on dozens of apprentices, and used the animals here to help educate the Citadel’s children.
He was a modest man, of great intelligence and experience, but in general unassuming. His simple clothes and down-to-earth mannerisms hid the fact that he was one of the most important and respected men in the whole facility, the one all the others turned too when they had questions.
Jason entered the part of the stable that Sal used as an office and work area. The floor was lined with straw and dirt underneath, but there were many wooden tables and shelves holding all manner of curious things, most of which Jason was very happy to not look too close at.
He found Sal hunched over one of these, in his customary brown coat and wide-brimmed hat, knee-high boots and muddy smock. He turned around and waved Jason over once he heard him, and held up a small sprig of a plant he had been examining.
“Jason, I was meaning to come and find you later,” he called, holding up the plant. “One of my students found this in the forest, I was hoping you could identify it.”
Jason squinted close at the plant, and shook his head.
“Sorry,” he said. “I don’t know what that thing is, but I’d be happy to draw it for you.”
“If you don’t mind,” Sal nodded. “I’m sure its nothing, but I’ve checked with all the herb-lorests and none of them has a clue. I hate to leave my young ones with unanswered questions.”
“Ehh, I’m sure we’ll be able to figure it out,” Jason told him, taking the plant and starting towards the door.
“Jason,” Sal called. “I… notice you’ve got a doe on your back, is there something you’d like to discuss with me?”
“Huh?” Jason blinked, then turned his head to glance back. “Oh, right!”
He turned around and carried his wounded doe back to one of Sal’s tables and carefully set her down, letting her stand on her legs but still keeping a hand on iher back so she didn’t try to jump down.
“I think she took a fall a few days back,” Jason said. “The kind leg might be broken, but she had a pretty big thorn stuck clean through it. I took the thorn out, but the wound is infected.”
“And you didn’t just make an early dinner of her?” Sal asked, scratching the doe under her chin and checking her eyes for jaundice.
“Well, I wanted too,” Jason sighed. “But, I kinda felt bad, poor thing was all alone, and nobody wants to die alone.”
“You realize, of course, that this hurts your credibility as a werewolf,” Sal pointed out.
“Meh,” Jason shrugged. “So, can you fix her leg? If she’s got to loose it anyway, I think I might as well eat her, she won’t survive in the wild without it.”
“She won’t last anyway,” Sal shook his head. “This one’s too young to be on her own, she should still be nursing. I can fix her up, but she probably won’t make it if we let her go again.”
“Well,” Jason gestured. “Do you need another doe? I’m perfectly happy getting my dinner from the kitchens.”
“Ehh, sure, sure,” Sal laughed. “I need to stay on your good side, you know, you’re the only wolf I can get to come and talk to my students! All right, help me lay her down for a moment.”
They forced the doe onto her side with the injured leg up, and Sal very carefully cut away Jason’s impromptu bandage and cleaned the wound. Then, he placed his hands over it, and for a moment his palms glowed with a pure, white light. He let out a grunt of pain and stumbled a little, then stepped back and whipped the sweat from his brow.
“That certainly was a terrible infection,” he coughed, resting on a stool. “She’ll be fine, now,” he waved. “Put her down on the floor for me, and I’ll find a pen for her later.”
Jason nodded, and placed the doe down on the ground. She snorted at him, and rubbed her head against his leg, then danced off excitedly to go and explore. Quietly, Jason took the sprig of plant and left, not wanting to disturb Sal any further.
It was perhaps a good example of why he felt so little compulsion to further his studies in magic. The most widely practiced and perhaps important path lay in the healing arts. Healers, like Sal, could mend any wound and cure most diseases.
But it came at a cost.
It was perhaps a strange sort of balance, but for whatever reason it was impossible to heal another. Instead, in order to fix an injury, the mage had to take it onto themselves, and then heal the damage there. It required intense strength of will and high tolerance for pain. Two things Jason didn’t really have.
He’d made his way back into the main structure by now and found his sketchpad. One of the libraries had a nice collection of books on herb lore, and he settled down in a quiet corner to go to work.
There was a certain art to sketching plants, a set of rules, if you will. One had to know how to emphasize certain parts, while down-playing others, so that fit into the common style of horology. This art had been standardized and practiced for many thousands of years, and still vital to understanding modern books on the subject.
It was the first skill Jason had picked up at the Citadel, which was odd since it wasn’t actually taught anywhere in his lessons. Various plants were sometimes used as ritual components, but they were considered quite weak.
He’d never been much of an artist back home, though art was considered a very important pursuit. His sister could paint and draw with the best of them, but nothing Jason ever managed was even worthy of being taped to the refrigerator. And then he began flipping through a few books on plants(a subject which fascinated his father but never before held Jason’s attention), and read about the art form of sketching plants.
Using what he knew, Jason quickly finished the sketch. It was a sort of universal language, one that helped him dissect and recognize the parts of the plant. He circled three features on it he knew were important, and drew lines to them, then held the picture back and examined it.
“Well,” he mumbled. “Let’s see if we can’t figure out what you are…”
He took a book off the shelf and began to flip through it, then another, and another. Before long he was engrossed, having covered an entire table with herb-lore volumes, the way Denna often did with books on magic and spell-casting. There were no windows in the library, and the ever-burning lamps brought no indication of the passage of time.
This left him quite surprised when he finally looked up to see Denna standing over him with her hands on her hips.
“I thought we were going to have dinner together,” she said sourly. “If you changed your mind about eating the doe, you could have shared it with me.”
“Wu?” she stammered. “Oh… wow, what time is it?”
“Late,” Denna replied tersely. “I already finished dinner several hours ago, and I believe the kitchens have all closed by now.”
Jason felt his stomach growls and winced, unhappy with himself for missing two meals. He let out a long sigh and began cleaning up his mess, no nearer to identifying Sal’s mystery plant.
“I’m sorry,” Jason apologized to Denna. “I… guess I got a little side-tracked.”
“How about you walk me back to my dorm?” Denna suggested with a slight smile. “I can forgive you for standing me up along the way.”
Jason exhaled and nodded, hurriedly finished tidying his work area, and then tucked the sketchpad and sprig of plant under his arm.
“I’m not really sure why you’re here,” Denna commented as they left the library. “I mean, at two years into your studies, you can’t even manage a simple light spell. You aren’t any good at lore, you can’t write well enough to be a scribe—what is it you do, here? Why do you stay?”
Jason couldn’t really form an answer right away. They had made their way onto a secluded back star well now, where starlight shined in through narrow slits in the walls.
“I’m… I’m supposed to be kind of important, I guess,” he admitted.
“Well, yes, that much is obvious,” Denna rolled her eyes. “Jason Jusenkyou, Naomi Jusenkyou, its clear enough that you’re connected. And if that didn’t make it obvious, your bevy of privileges fill in the gapes quite nicely. I didn’t ask why you haven’t been expelled, I asked why you chose to stay.”
“I’m supposed to be important,” Jason repeated. “Not… like… not a spoiled brat, important, I mean I’m supposed to do things, I’m supposed to change the world.”
“Yes, strut around like you’re Hygelic’s Heir,” Denna waved, tossing her hair dramatically. “That really impresses girls. Come on, Jason, what is it, really?”
They’d reached a landing and stopped. There were no lamps, here, so the only light came from narrow slits. It was dark and secluded, deep in shadow, and they were entirely and fully alone.
Perhaps it was that he couldn’t see her red eyes, but in the darkness Jason found a small measure of courage, and squared his shoulders.
“I’m supposed to be the next Pendragon,” he announced. He had tried to make his voice sound proud and confident, but it came out as little more than a whisper.
“Splendid,” Denna replied sarcastically. “What’s a pendragon?”
“He’s… the leader of the Order of Slayer Dragons,” Jason coughed. “They led the
during the Ages…” Alliance
“I see,” Denna nodded. “And is it always a he?”
“I’m not really sure,” Jason admitted. “Uh…”
Denna poked him playfully in the shoulder. “If you want to court me, you’re going to have to do a lot better job than all this.”
She turned on her heal and started up the next flight of stairs.
“I have the sword, Denna,” Jason said quietly.
Denna paused, but did not turn around.
“The sword of the Pendragon,” Jason explained. “I have it, its mine.”
Denna returned to the landing and moved in close to him, her face falling into a dim beam of moonlight so that he could distinguish her features. Her eyes were closed, and she was standing very close to him.
“You have a lot of good things, Jason,” she whispered quietly as she extended her arms around him. “You know, I’ve been waiting a long time for you to get me alone in the dark.”
Trembling a little, Jason leaned down a little closer and gently bumped his nose against her. She tilted her head back and pursed her lips, then pushed her face a little closer to his. As a cloud shifted outside and blocked the moonlight again, Jason pressed his lips against hers.