Friends & Family Chapter 2: Intervention

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2.

He holds his eyes wide open but utter darkness still blinds him. A heavy scent of iron engulfs him. So strong it suffocates him. But not strong enough to mask the putrid reek of feces and urine.

Bristles, lengthy like the end of a broom, spike his cheeks. He struggles to pull free but something heavy and terrible pins him in place. The more he struggles, the tighter it grips him, pulling him deeper into the moist bristles and the stench of iron.

Not iron. Blood. Not bristles. Hair. Long whiskers. Recognition floods his awareness. Unable to move, he opens his mouth and yowls. "Hamm!"

"Oz," a voice answered.

"Hamm!" Oz yelled. He flailed against the shadows that held him, but his fists caught nothing but air. Tears streamed from his eyes as he yelled again. "Hamm!"

A gentle hand rested on his forehead for a second, brushed his cheek, and, at last, rocked his shoulder. "Oz, wake up," the voice prompted. "You're having a night terror."

A night terror. Another night terror. Oz popped his eyes open but remained cloaked in darkness. But the horrors melted, morphed into harmless objects by his waking mind. His breathing slowed. His pulse faded into his veins. His heart settled into his chest. His invisible captor transformed into a heavy comforter twisted around his torso.

The hand on his shoulder pulled away accompanied by soft, staggered footsteps receding toward the corner of the small room. Oz turned his head to the right, in the direction of the sounds. There, the darker shadow of a thin, tall figure distinguished itself from the surrounding gloom of the room. The soft, sweeping susurrus of fabric against fabric followed by a huff of air replaced the scuffle of shoes as the figure sat.

"That's better, son," a familiar voice said. But not the voice Oz wanted to hear. Not Hamm's voice. Avery's voice.

"I'm not your son," Oz snapped, immediately regretting the venom he had injected into his words.

After a minute of silence, Avery finally responded. "You're right, Oz. My apologies." More silence.

"I-I'm sorry," Oz stuttered. "I-it's just . . ."

"I know, Oz. But you're right, and I should be more careful with my words." Avery paused. "You were right about something else, too."

Oz sifted through his brain but couldn't figure out what Avery meant. "I was?"

"Yes. We checked Hamm's clothes and Malcolm's. Both had been smeared with an odd mixture of warg feces and urine and who knows what else. The smell got more putrid with time. That's not all, either. The back of Commander Hofstra's cloak had been likewise smeared with the mixture. They were all marked, Oz. Marked for the wargs to attack. Marked for death."

Avery's news made Oz swallow hard. "But why would anyone want to kill Hamm? He had lost his magic and was just a blacksmith. How could anyone think he was some sort of threat?"

"That's a good question. One I've been pondering. I have a possible answer, but . . ." Avery paused again and fell silent again.

Agitated, Oz broke the silence himself. "B-but what?" For emphasis, Oz sat up and swung his legs off the bed so he could better look at Avery. "W-what are you thinking?" Oz asked with an edge, trying to provoke his uncle.

Avery cleared his throat and said, "But . . . I'm not sure if this is the time to talk about it."

Typical Avery, Oz thought. Always mysterious, rarely forthcoming, and often more frustrating than helpful.

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