Eleven triangular heads popped up, all swivelled in her direction. Instant curiosity fired the sleepy glaze in their eyes to a high and expectant gloss. Seeing this, she rumbled her approval and then projected another thought.
“Listen carefully and remember well, for what you are about to receive is a piece of your past…”
Sunset had come and gone, signalling the end of another spring day for the villagers who dwelt on the edge of Farwild Forest. Now, in the waning moments of twilight, a procession of shadowy, slouch-shouldered figures trudged homeward. Most were farmers who reeked of sweat and freshly turned dirt, but there were a few woodsmen with axes and a swineherd as well. One by one, these shadows disappeared into squat wooden huts whose doors shuddered as they were barred for the night.
A stranger watched these tired goings-on from his hiding place in the woods. He had been watching for hours, watching and waiting for the sun to go down. He didn’t like crouching in the bushes like a sack of flea-bait, but there was a great prize at stake tonight.
And he’d suffered worse indignities in his life.
As if in response to that thought, his right leg began to throb—a pain as bitter as it was familiar. He reached down and began to rub the blighted limb: first the foot that looked more like a five-toed club, then the ill-formed calf. Oh, how he hated this affliction! There was no respite from it, no relief; and together with his hideously cleft lip and two-coloured eyes, it rendered him a target for other people’s abuse. He scowled, fending off a flurry of remembered blows, then consoled himself with a long-cherished pledge: some day, he was going to be the one swinging the stick.
The strip of rutted earth that served as the village’s road was deserted now. He hauled himself onto his feet with his crutch, wincing as blood coursed sharp and hot back into his bad leg, then hobbled out of hiding. As soon as the pain died down again, he conjured an illusion of emptiness and set himself within it. A faint psychic chirring accompanied the spell, but he didn’t care. Nobody in the immediate vicinity had the power to hear it. Of that, he was quite sure.
He followed a residual trail of his own magic to a shack on the village’s outskirts. To his delight, the door was not latched. He grinned at the owner’s unwitting hospitality and then prowled into the gloom beyond the threshold. Almost as an afterthought, he exerted his Will. The door closed with a soft creak, then barred itself. A fire flared to life in the hearth. Its dull yellow light exposed two rooms: a tiny cell that stank of rancid furs and a full chamber pot; and a larger common area that boasted a grimy wooden table and two sagging plank benches. Obscure symbols adorned the rough-hewn walls. Fetishes dangled from the rafters alongside braids of drying herbs. The cripple sneered at these trappings of witchcraft. They were useless, an impotent facade. Their fool of a maker should have spent his time and energy on a sturdy warding spell instead.
The fool in question was sprawled face-down on the dirt floor in front of the hearth. His limbs were stiff; his skin was blue. This came as no surprise to the cripple, for he’d slain the man with magic earlier on in the day. It had been a blissfully easy kill—caught unwarded and unprepared, the warlock had succumbed to the deadly spell almost immediately. He flipped the corpse onto its back, meaning to rifle through its pockets, then tensed as its hands flopped into view. One of them was clenched around a thick ivory horn whose carvings were both intricate and obscene. Although this was the first time the cripple had ever seen it, recognition blazed through him like a wildfire. That was the talisman for which he had come a-hunting!
And this idiot had been trying to wield it like a magic wand!
He sneered at the idea. The talisman possessed power in plenty, true, but none that a mortal man might use. In the warlock’s hands, it would’ve been no more than another gaudy prop.
But at least he didn’t have to ransack the place now.
As he wrested the horn from the dead man’s grip, the air in the shack began to buzz with a power not his own. Quicker than thought, he raised the shields of his Will. In the next instant, the corpse sat up and loosed a hair-raising psychic scream.
“’Ware the rogue sorcerer!” it cried. “As he has slain me, so shall he slay you! With my death, I curse him! Curse him! Curse him! May his living heart be torn from his chest and eaten before his eyes!”
Then the body collapsed back onto the floor and did not move again.
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