Part fourteen and finale in the Knack for Powders serial. A table of contents for previous episodes.
Merph's back spasmed as he sat against the pavilion's pillar hidden in the woods outside Lord Calle's tower. He frowned, but his captor, Mortok, was silent as he stared into the forest where the first light of dawn began to lighten the clouds. The silence had stretched for minutes once Merph had finished answering Mortok's questions about what had happened to Healer Kluvenstrom.
A giant crow stood within Mortok's circle of runes. Merph would have worried more, but Whitey slept at his side, the dog's rib cage swelling with long breaths.
"I have never heard a more bumbling tale. Yet, it is the haphazardness of your methods that leads me to question my views." Mortok returned to the chest on the far side of the pavilion and removed more runes and placed these on the floor around himself. "Your story counters what Tvinnrun has told me. You swear what you've told me is true?"
The hair on the back of Merph's neck felt clammy and a droplet ran down his back between his shoulder blades. Whitey opened his eyes to look up into the boy's eyes. Merph found compassion within them and a sense of strength. "I've told the truth as far as I know."
"The first piece of wisdom I've heard from you." The rune furthest east lying on the ground around Mortok began to glow brightly. Moments later the next rune caught light as well as if an invisible fire spread between the blocks. "Do not disturb me."
Merph nearly laughed, how would he disturb Mortok. He'd been discarded against the pavilion walls with his arms and legs tied. Resigned, Merph watched as the rest of the blocks lit up, light cascading into the forest lighting it as if it was midday. Mortok froze. The body ceased to move, almost no breath filling his lungs.
Whitey whimpered and moved away from the inanimate body of the runeworker.
The light from the blocks faded until there was just a trace of color flaring around the shapes of the carved runes. When the sky lightened, Merph discovered that the giant crow had disappeared. He waited as time passed. He pulled at the ropes that bound his wrists, but the rope was tied tight and he couldn't force any slack into it to free his hands. Whitey barked and ran into the woods.
The rune-carved blocks flared once more. _Not as brightly as the first time_, thought Merph. _Or at least once the sun had risen, daylight made the runes seem weaker._
Mortok rose from the center of the blocks holding a runelock that looked identical to the one Merph had found on the cliff edge where Tvinnrun had hidden it.
Merph squirmed from his position trying to push himself away as Mortok approached. He didn't get far from the pavilion. Dirt rubbed against his skin.
"For Othinne's sake," swore Merph. "I'm not going to hurt you."
Merph stared at the runelock. "No!" He kicked one more time. A twig stabbed into his back. "You won't trap me."
Using both hands and a smooth motion, Mortok placed the runelock on the ground. He walked forward to the no longer evading Merph and lifted him over his shoulder again to return to the pavilion. "I've retrieved the runelock you described. If you're telling the truth, we'll release Kluvenstrom from the runelock. If you're not, I'll turn you and the runelock over to Tvinnrun. He'll know what to do with you." Mortok settled Merph against the pillar again.
"How do we free him?"
Mortok selected some branches from the chest and returned to sit with his legs crossed in front of Merph. "He is locked in an astral plane --"
"Astral plane?" Merph remembered the healer speaking those words before, but he didn't understand it that time either.
Mortok shook his head. "It's complicated. Don't interrupt me. Kluvenstrom is locked in an astral plane and I'll need to find the thread that links him to our world. I'll need you to be quiet." Mortok's eyes squinted at the boy. "And don't move, or I may lose the thread and we will lose Kluvenstrom."
Merph waited while Mortok lit the branches and then reshaped the rune-carved blocks around him and went into another one of his trances. He tried not to move, but it was hard as the ropes cut the circulation to his feet and hands. The sun punched a hole through the mists that covered them and the light felt warm on his flesh.
"Any luck?" asked Merph.
The runeworker glared. "It is too late and the trail too distant. As for you --"
"No! Don't take me to Tvinnrun."
"I trust you," said Mortok. "Too many days have passed and I can't locate the trail. I don't think we can rescue Kluvenstrom. You've done all you can do. This isn't your place, you should return to your family."
Merph was amazed at the pluck of the runeworker who was willing to quit trying so soon. "There must be a way."
"I tried." A darkness flashed across Mortok's face before he continued. "I hear a whisper, but can't tell from which direction it comes."
"Of course, hear. It would be impossible to find the thread, so I'm looking for the body in the astral plane. Kluvenstrom answers me, but it comes from every direction and none."
"I think I know how you can find the healer," said Merph.
"You're not a runeworker. What can you know?"
Whitey barked as he returned from wherever he had gone. Merph twisted to look over his shoulder and saw the dog emerge from the forest. Katja followed Whitey and held two of Merph's pig bladders in her hand.
Merph closed his eyes and a smile crossed his lips. _This would work_. "Remember what I told you about creating the bat powder? Perhaps it will help you pinpoint Kluvenstrom's voice."
Katja unknotted Merph's bonds as the runeworker scowled, but he didn't move to stop the girl. Merph sprinkled bat powder over Mortok's ears and waited with Katja while the runeworker revisited the astral plane.
A pop announced the return of the healer as his body coalesced out of nothing. Merph hugged the healer. "You're back."
"Yes, thanks to you." The healer faced Mortok. "Do you perceive Tvinnrun's handiwork?"
Mortok looked into the forest. "He was my teacher."
"I know. It breaks my heart when one abuses their power. You will join me in confronting Tvinnrun?"
"I... I can't," said Mortok.
"You must. If you don't, Lord Calle will suffer. Without you, it is just my voice against his. With you," Kluvenstrom waved his arms to include Merph and Katja, "and my friends, we can stop Tvinnrun."
"No," said Mortok.
"Aren't there ones you care about? Friends you've made here? They will suffer if you refuse to speak."
Mortok met the healer's eyes. "You speak the truth. It feels wrong, but I will help."