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Chapter One: Avoiding Blueberries

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“You can’t avoid them forever, Wendell.”

“I know, Chuck,” Wendell sighed.

Tiny arms wrapped snuggly around the 72” beard, which was gathered and folded tightly against his chest. Sandals flopped frantically across the cobblestones, trying to keep up. “Sooner or later you’re going to have to talk to the Council.”

“I know, Chuck,” Wendell sighed again.

“…we’ve been gone for months. A lot has happened since we left for Clockworks City, and we need to…”

“Chuck,” he moaned.

The old mägo (an ancient term for ‘wizard’ or ‘user of magic’) blinked and stared up at him. “Right. Of course you know that. Sorry.” Letting out a loud grunt of his own, Chuck poked his head to the side, trying to get a gulp of fresh air without fuzz in his face. It was becoming growingly difficult to keep up with Wendell’s stride.

…a natural consequence of backfiring magic (and turning yourself into a two-and-a-half foot gnome).

The cobblestone path weaved through the monstrous grove of trees and across a small bridge. Wendell just wanted to put as much distance between him and Chucks cottage as possible.

Just can’t sit around waiting to get another summons, he thought. Everything I look at reminds me of…but he stopped himself. It didn’t do any good to complain, but the Council’s needs and growing desperation didn’t change how he felt.

Less than 48 hours of escaping prison and torture by a psychopathic priest and everyone wanted him back in the saddle, business as usual.

Chained and hunched over a stone alter for weeks.

Tortured.

Not exactly the sort of life experiences High School prepared you for.

If it wasn’t for an assassin, originally sent to kill Wendell, he’d likely be dead right now.

The irony made him smile.

You could write my life into a fantasy novel…but no one would believe it.

All he wanted was some time to heal.

Mentally…emotionally.

Catch his breath before thrusting more life and death (and everyone’s expectations) into his face.

Was that too much to ask?

He a long sigh escape his lips. “I’d just…like it to be later.”

Stumbling over a small rock in the path, Chuck grunted. “They’re here to help you, son. You do understand that, don’t you?”

Wendell nodded.

“But you’re determined to avoid them anyway.”

“I just got back!” Wendell snapped. When the mägo flinched and nearly fell over, he checked himself, lowering his tone. “Sorry. Didn’t mean to snap at…I…,” another sigh, “There hasn’t been a moment to breathe, Chuck. I still don’t know what I’m doing, we nearly got killed…Dax is at deaths door, Alhannah isn’t far behind and…”

Chuck stopped abruptly. “And you think it’s all YOUR fault, don’t you?”

Wendell slowed to a halt and looked back at the mägo.

Cool blue eyes sparkled from under rebellious, bushy, snow white eyebrows.

What could he say? Wasn’t it his fault?

He voluntarily took on the mantle of the Hero.

Didn’t that, of all things, mean what happened around him as a natural course, was his fault?

Letting his beard drop to the ground with a ‘fwump,’ Chuck put his fists on his hips, eyes unblinking. “You do, don’t you? You think, because bad things occur around you—because you happen to be participating, that you can take responsibility for everything?” He snorted, “‘Cause that’s just ludicrous, boy.”

Wendell rolled his eyes and started to turn, but a tiny hand snatched his fingers and held tight.

“Wait one blasted minute here. You don’t get to walk away from something this serious.”

Tugging, “That’s exACTLY what I’m trying to do, Chuck. Get the heck out of here!”

The grip held fast.

“Thinking like that is going to eat you alive, Wendell.” Fingers patted the back of Wendell’s hand. “But I do know what you’re feeling.”

Scoffing, Wendell tugged his hand free. “No, you don’t, Chuck.”

Chuck snorted again, an eyebrow popping upward. “Don’t I? Spent nearly a lifetime with the last Hero and you don’t think I had my share of bad experiences? Of failures? Of horrible, overwhelming guilt? I’ve watched villages burn! Men, women…even children perish by sword, spear and worse! I’ve held my closest friends in my arms as they left this world and in most cases, I was involved in the very conflicts which led to those deaths!”

Stepping closer, Chuck jabbed Wendell forcefully in the thigh with an index finger, “So don’t tell me I don’t know what you’re feeling, child—I’ve lived it longer than YOU have!”

Wendell watched his friend shake with what seemed like anger, but the expression on Chucks face seemed more…haunting, than angry. There was so much he didn’t know or understand about his teacher, but one thing was certain—Chuck cared.

And at moments like this, it meant the world.

“I’m sorry, Chuck. I didn’t know.”

“No, you didn’t,” he grumbled.

“And I shouldn’t have assumed, either. That was wrong of me.”

“Yes, it was.” The light-hearted expression—which Wendell had grown to appreciate, peeked out once more across the old man’s face. “But you’re young yet. Ignorance with a dash of irrational stupidity isn’t your fault, it’s a stage of progression. Point is, you have a good heart, Wendell. That’s what matters. I’ve told you this before, but I’ll keep drilling it into your mind until you understand. As long as you maintain that good heart, everything else is just practice.”

With a smirk and a simple shrug, Wendell forced a smile to his face. “Practice. Right.” Not exactly what he wanted to hear, but for now, he’d take it.

“Alright then,” Chuck sighed heavily, looking about as if he’d lost something, “we should get you out of here.”

Wendell’s mouth dropped open. “What did you say?”

“Not for very long, mind you,” the mägo added quickly. He tugged at the corner of his mustache thoughtfully, “We heroes have to remember our duty, yes, but you have to let the bowstring off once in a while or it’s likely to snap, right?”

Wendell grinned, “Exactly.” Though the grin didn’t last long. “Won’t the Council know if we try to leave Sanctuary?”

Chuck frowned, “Hmmm. Good point. The blueberries will nab us if we use the Prime Gate. Then again, there’s nothing useful at any gate location anyway. It’d be a waste of time.”

“We don’t have Dax to help us, either…,” Wendell added, the smile reappearing, “but what about that door in your cottage—the one that’s connected to the Black Market? We go through the closet!”

Chuck shook his head. “Uh-uh. Escape route only. One way portal, for emergencies.”

“You’ve got to be kidding.”

“It’s why the thing’s inside a broom closet, boy. Think! ShEEsh.”

Wendell held up his hands in defeat. No use arguing with a person who’d probably forgotten more about magic than Wendell could possibly learn in a lifetime.

“Besides, I invited Elder Käshen to keep the gnomes company and he’d likely notice. The boy is a scatterbrain, yes—but he notices minute details like an OCD accountant.”

So much for getting away…

“OhhhhhHHH,” Chuck moaned. Then with a gasp his head popped upright, eyes glaring at Wendell, “GOT IT!”

Even with Chuck as a gnome, Wendell was forced to sprint after the mägo to catch up.

“Where are we going?”

The wizard didn’t even look back.

Instead, he gave out a ‘hoot’ and dashed down the cobblestone path towards Sanctuary’s marketplace, shouting loudly, “The Roadkill Tavern!”

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