I love when author J. Michael Radcliffe visits us for Humor Meets Horror Month on HO. This is his first of two stories for our Halloween Celebration! Please take a look at his websites and blogs listed at the end of the story, and Tears for Hesh is available on Amazon.com
Hesh wandered about the potions shop aimlessly, unable to find the rare ingredient his master needed. He grew more frustrated by the minute, for his master had been very specific in his request. He had ordered Hesh to rush out and acquire one phial of firedrake tears, as quickly as possible. Almost indistinguishable from salamander tears, the tears from a firedrake were much more valuable and exceedingly rare, since they could only be gathered from a fully grown adult of the species. This was a dangerous task under the best of circumstances, since adult firedrakes – a distant relative of the phoenix – could only be found in the calderas of active volcanoes, where they built their nests.
Although Deadwood & Blight’s was one of the most reputable shops in town with an enormous selection, they just didn’t seem to have it. Hesh stumbled slightly as he tried to squeeze past a plump little wizard carrying a basket overflowing with ingredients. The cramped, narrow aisles of the shop made his task that much more difficult and at almost seven feet tall, he towered over all of the other patrons. Muttering to himself as he went, he scoured the shelves looking for the ingredient.
I will not fail the Master! He’s kept me on all these years when no one else would have me. I know he could have smarter and quicker assistants than the likes of me, but I’m strong and loyal, I am! Ha – I’d like to see any of those skinny little wizards carry a cauldron in each hand like I do for the Master! I just wish I didn’t stammer so; the Master said he’d fix my tongue one day with his magic. Like he said, how can I work for the most important wizard in the city if I sound like a dolt?
He shuffled down another aisle for at least the third time, bumping into a stack of cauldrons at the end of the row and sending several of them rolling noisily across the stone floor.
“Oi! You there!” shouted Jerrick, one of the clerks. “Mind where you’re going or you’ll be paying damages!”
“S-S-Sorry…” Hesh stammered apologetically.
What’s wrong with Jerrick? He’s never snapped at me like that before; normally he’s so understanding, even when I can’t get my words out.
Hesh backed out of the way as Jerrick tried to retrieve the errant cauldrons. The shop was nearly bursting at the seams with customers seeking to restock their supplies in preparation for the annual potions competition next week.
“I’m… I’m trying to find f-f-firedrake t-t-tears,” he stuttered.
Jerrick stopped restacking the cauldrons and glared at Hesh.
“Are you insane? Do you have any idea how unstable those are?”
“Unstable?” Hesh’s eyebrows shot upward in surprise. His master hadn’t mentioned anything about the ingredient being unstable. He had just ordered Hesh to find them immediately and at any price.
“Yes, unstable! If you shake the container too hard or gods forbid drop them, they will combust, destroying everything within fifty feet. That’s why they are on the restricted list!”
Hesh fumbled with his bag of coins and shuffled his feet, looking around to see if anyone was near enough to hear what he was about to say.
“Look, Jerrick, you’ve got to help me. Master ordered me to f-f-find them immediately. It’ll mean m-m-my head if I come back empty handed! Master won’t be happy, not happy at all!”
Jerrick just sighed as he finished stacking the cauldrons back into a neat pyramid display.
“Look Hesh, I’m sorry, okay? But trafficking in black market ingredients is just too dangerous. Besides, if your master needs them so badly, then why doesn’t he have a signed order approved by the Council Apothecary?”
“Shh! N-n-not so loud! Master said he doesn’t have t-t-time for such f-f-foolishness.” Hesh glanced around again to make certain no one had heard Jerrick.
“That isn’t right, Hesh. Do you know what they would do to you if you were caught with firedrake tears without a permit? You’d be indentured to the Council for at least ten years and forced to spend twenty-three hours every day as your animal form, whatever that might be.”
Unfortunately Hesh knew exactly what his animal form would be – a large panda bear. Unknown to Jerrick or anyone else, Hesh’s master, a member of the Council, had one day turned Hesh into his animal form for amusement. Hesh hated his animal form – the fur was hot and he scratched for hours after returning to his human self.
“But Jerrick, I don’t have a choice!” he pleaded. “L-l-look, I’ll give you t-t-ten gold crowns if you get me the stuff.”
Jerrick raised his eyebrows. “Your master must really want those tears,” he said, obviously surprised by such an offer. “That much coin would pay my wages for nearly six months!”
“Please, Jerrick! I must not f-f-fail the M-m-master! I m-m-mustn’t!”
“Look, why is this so important to your master? What does he need those tears for, anyway?”
Hesh shook his head, and then brushed his long brown hair out of his eyes. “Dunno. All I know is the Master wants them, and he wants them now.”
“Alright, fine – I’ll get them for you, but keep your money. Your master doesn’t deserve you, Hesh; he’s obviously a cruel beast judging by that scar he gave you the last time we were out of ingredients he wanted.”
Hesh shuffled his feet as his hand automatically went to his cheek, feeling the scar where his master had hit him with a lash. Master had been very angry that day indeed.
Jerrick rapped his knuckle three times in an offbeat sequence on the stone wall of the shop and vanished into a dark opening that appeared. He reemerged a few minutes later with a small brown parcel cradled gently in his hands. Carefully he handed the small box to Hesh, who looked at it with interest.
“Now listen, Hesh,” said Jerrick sternly in a whispered voice, “you MUST make certain you don’t shake or drop this box! Even though I’ve packed it carefully and placed a cushioning spell on it, it is still very, very dangerous!”
Hesh nodded and very gently placed the parcel into the pouch on his belt, steadying it with his hand for good measure.
“Thank you, Jerrick. You’ve always been so k-k-kind to me. Maybe someday I can repay your kindness.”
Jerrick smiled. “Go on then, you big oaf. Back to your master before he sends a seeker after you.”
Hesh thanked Jerrick again and quietly left the shop by way of a side door. He would have to hurry or his master would be furious. He quietly latched the side door and hurried down the busy street towards his master’s chambers.
Hesh continued to trot down the alleyways towards his master’s chambers, although he was careful not to jostle the priceless package he carried. He was still a number of blocks away when the soles of his feet suddenly tingled with an intense burning sensation. He broke into a trot, knowing Master must have cast the summons. As he rounded the corner at a brisk run he could almost hear Master’s voice warning him not to be late.
“You tarry too long and I will not hesitate to cast a summons! It’s a lovely little hex I’ve found in that book you retrieved for me just last week – you remember, the Tome of Hefestus Blackstone? He was a black-hearted tyrant of a wizard. The spiteful old codger was famous for the abuse heaped upon his unfortunate apprentices, especially if they failed to arrive at an appointed time. One day, having been kept waiting for just over two minutes by an assistant who had slipped and fallen down a flight of stairs, Blackstone devised the summons. It begins as a tingling sensation in your feet and gradually increases in severity until it feels as if you are standing upon a bed of hot coals. Nothing will stop the burning sensation except for appearing in front of the spellcaster who placed the hex on you. If something prevents you from reaching the caller, the level of pain will eventually overload your central nervous system, causing first unconsciousness and eventually, death. You understand this, my slow-witted assistant?”
The burning sensation in his feet was rising up past his ankles now, spurring him into a dead run towards his master’s home. The wizard had used the spell on him twice before and Hesh knew he had precious few minutes to go the last few blocks before blisters started erupting on his feet. The pain had just reached the level of a blowtorch when Hesh burst through the door of his master’s study. He collapsed in a heap on the cold hardwood floor and tore off his leather boots, tears streaming down his face as he fanned the burning soles of his feet. His master remained seated at the oversized ebony desk near the fireplace, with his back towards Hesh as he gazed into the embers of the dying fire.
“You’re late!” snapped Hesh’s master.
Hesh winced at the tone of the wizard’s voice and stared at the floor; at least his feet had stopped burning. “I’m… I’m… s-s-s-sorry, m-m-master,” he stammered awkwardly.
“Sorry? Sorry?? Well I guess that must make everything alright, then, doesn’t it?” his master hissed through clenched teeth.
Rising from the chair by the fire, Hesh’s master towered over him and Hesh flinched at the thought of what his master might be contemplating.
“M-m-master, I b-b-beg of you, p-p-please! It was d-d-difficult to f-f-find!” Hesh groveled on his hands and knees, unable to meet his master’s gaze. The last time his master had been so angry, he had forced Hesh to spend the next seven days in his animal form of a giant panda.
“Of course it was difficult to find, you dolt! Firedrake tears are rare to begin with, not to mention the fact they are highly regulated!” scolded the wizard. “Well? Where are they?”
The wizard thrust his hand out, the sudden movement causing Hesh to flinch yet again. He scrambled to undo his purse strings as gently as possible, careful not to jostle the delicate parcel within. Hesh wasn’t sure which was more terrifying, his master’s wrath or the thought of blowing himself to kingdom come if he dropped the package. He gently placed the parcel in his master’s outstretched palm, his hands shaking as he released it.
“About bloody time, you idiot! These have to be delivered within the hour, else my plan won’t work!” the wizard snapped.
His master turned and stormed angrily over to the desk, dark robes billowing out behind him. Snatching up a quill, he dashed off a short note and then folded the parchment into a small triangular shape. He attached the folded parchment to the parcel and then muttered a brief incantation as he ran his index finger along each edge of the parcel. The package shimmered slightly as the spell took effect and the wizard actually smiled as he rubbed his hands together in anticipation. Hesh had never seen his master smile before; the expression of near glee on the old man’s face was frightening. The wizard placed the parcel on the small silver tray located on the edge of the desk. The tray was the preferred method for sending messages back and forth to other members of the Council, as the item was transported immediately and under the security of numerous wards designed to prevent theft or spying. After muttering a brief incantation, the wizard clearly spoke the name “Tobias Follett” and the package vanished with a slight popping sound and a puff of silvery smoke.
“Now then,” said the wizard with a smile as he turned to face Hesh. “My plan is finally set in motion. You understand what I am doing, yes?”
Puzzled, Hesh studied the wizard for a moment. He knew the extremely volatile nature of firedrake tears and he had clearly heard his master lacing the package with a spell of detonation. Sudden fear crept into Hesh’s eyes, betraying the cold spike of dread that had just coursed through his body. His master had just sent the package to Tobias Follett, the wizard who had just been elected Chancellor of the High Council. Unless someone warned him, he would be blasted into dust when he opened the package, and the Chancellor’s position would again be vacant. Hesh knew his master lusted after power, but he never dreamed the old man would stoop to murder!
“M-m-m-master,” stammered Hesh as he struggled with what he should do.
His master smiled at him; a wicked smile that cut Hesh to the very bone. “Yes? You think I’ve gone too far, perhaps? It would be a pity if anyone tried to interfere, after all of the work I’ve done. You’ve no idea how difficult it was to plan just the right… accident… yes, I believe that term will be used.”
“M-m-m-master, I p-p-promise! I w-w-won’t t-t-tell!” Hesh pleaded.
“Oh, I believe you, my faithful Hesh. You will never tell a soul,” said the wizard, his voice trailing off to a hiss.
Jerrick was just putting away the last of the boxes, preparing to lock up the shop for the night, when he noticed a small leather pouch hidden at the base of one of the cauldrons that had been knocked over earlier in the day. Scooping up the pouch he opened it and examined the contents. The purse obviously belonged to an apprentice or assistant to a wizard, as it contained only a few coins and a silver talisman. Jerrick took the silver talisman and turned it over in his hand and noticed it was embellished with a large capital letter “H.” He shook his head and placed the token back in the purse. Hesh must have dropped the purse when he had knocked over the cauldrons earlier in the afternoon. Since he paid for the firedrake tears with gold from his master’s purse, he must not have missed his own. Jerrick would return it to Hesh on his way home, as his usual route would take him by the chambers of Hesh’s master.
Jerrick finished tidying up the shop and snapped his fingers, extinguishing the werelights floating around the edge of the ceiling. With one final look to see that all was in order, he closed the shop door and muttered the incantation to seal the lock and place wards around the door that would hex any intruders. His employers had been in the potions business for hundreds of years and knew the value of their inventory. Pocketing Hesh’s small coin purse, he took off at a brisk pace towards home – drawing his robes closer about him in an effort to keep out the chill evening breeze. A few blocks from the shop he came to the chambers of Hesh’s master, not far from the tower that housed the Council and offices of the Chancellor. One look at the building told of the wealth and power at the wizard’s command as a respected member of the High Council. Jerrick had never dealt directly with Hesh’s master before, as the wizard always sent his assistant to purchase ingredients for his spells and experiments. He knew however, of the fear in Hesh’s eyes when a mistake had been made that would anger his master.
Jerrick stepped up to the massive oaken door and pulled the bell-chain, shivering slightly against the cold in the process. The door opened silently and a small red wisp floated before Jerrick, pulsing slightly with light at its center. Somewhat surprised at such an important wizard using a common house-wisp to answer the door, Jerrick stepped forward and addressed the softly glowing orb.
“Jerrick, of Deadwood & Blight’s to see Hesh, please.”
The orb flickered slightly but did not move.
“Um. Is the master of the house at home?” Jerrick asked in a somewhat hesitant voice.
At this, the little wisp flickered more brightly and moved aside. Jerrick stepped through the doorway and paused while his eyes adjusted to the dim light. After closing the door, the little red wisp floated slowly down the hallway, pausing briefly for Jerrick to catch up to it. It led him to a large chamber with an enormous stone fireplace at one end, a low fire flickering in the hearth. Hesh’s master was sitting in a large leather chair near the fire, reading through an ancient tome and making notations in the margins with a black quill. Jerrick’s boots echoed as he crossed the chamber, the hardwood floors polished to a mirrored finish.
“Pardon me, are you Hesh’s master?”
The wizard didn’t bother looking up but kept jotting notes with his quill.
“Perhaps; who are you and what business have you with him?” snapped the old man, busily scratching away in the book.
“My name is Jerrick, sir, of Deadwood & Blights. Hesh was in our shop earlier this afternoon, and I’m afraid he dropped his coin purse. I’ve come to return it.”
The wizard sighed deeply and stopped his scribbling, placing the quill and book on the low table beside him.
“The bumbling fool would lose his head if it weren’t attached! I’m afraid he will no longer be running my errands, but I will see to it his purse is taken care of,” snapped the wizard as he held out a bony hand. Jerrick was shocked at the cold tone of the wizard’s voice, but knew better than to ask questions of a Council member. He dropped the purse into the wizard’s outstretched hand, flinching slightly as it was snatched away.
“Here,” said the old man as he flipped a gold coin to Jerrick. “This should cover the trouble that idiot caused you. Now if you don’t mind, you can show yourself out; I have work to do.” Picking up his book, the old man resumed scribbling with the quill. “And mind you don’t tread on the rug! It’s new and I don’t wish it soiled!” snapped the wizard as he jerked his chin in the general direction of the entrance hall.
Jerrick quickly stepped back and returned towards the front door, careful to avoid stepping on the large bear skin rug spread across the hardwood floor. Although he had not noticed it when he entered, it must have cost at least three bagfuls of gold he thought, since it was made from the largest panda bear he had ever seen. As he closed the heavy front door behind him and headed into the darkness of the street, he whispered a small prayer to the Ancients for Hesh, hoping the best for the gentle giant.
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