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The cavern floor was a sprawling tangle of necks and tails and distended bellies: eleven drowsing dragonets and their mountainous dam in post-feeding repose. The she-dragon regarded this latest brood of hers through hooded eyes, slyly spying on their dreams, then abruptly broadcast a thought.
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-toedclub, 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.
The cripple was livid. For a long moment, he could only glower at the corpse and fume. Who would have guessed that a peasant-witch would be capable of channelling the power of his own death into a post-mortem spell? The curse itself did not cause him any real distress--that had been nothing but pure bluster. But the warning that had accompanied it was irksome to an extreme. He had no clue as to how far it might travel, or how many ears it might reach before it finally dissipated. If the wrong person heard it--
He dismissed the thought with a scowl. He'd worry about that if and when it ever became a problem. Right now, he had still had work to do.
So he shrugged off his shabby wool cloak and then opened a series of inner pockets which yielded to no one's touch but his own. From these, he withdrew two golden fists, life-like down to the long, opposing thumbnails; and a pair of obsidian spurs that were cruelly curved like dew-claws. They had been shaped by the same power that had shaped the ivory horn. It had taken him almost seven years to find them all.
The sinister-handed fist had come to him first. He had stolen it from a merchant's stall with the hope of selling it to another of the fat fools. While searching for a suitable mark, though, his mind had begun to whirl--an awful spinning that had robbed him of balance and sight. Fearing plague, he had staggered into an alley to hide from those who might jump to the same conclusion and kill him for it. As he languished beneath a garbage heap, the gyre had spun itself into a voice both seductive and foul.
"Do not part with the fist," it had commanded.
Believing himself delirious, he had resisted such a notion. He needed food, warm clothes, a safe place to sleep. The gold in that fist would buy him those things, and perhaps a few coins for his pocket, too.
"The gold in your hand is nothing compared to the powers you harbour within you," the voice had said then. "Accept Me as your Mistress, and I will show you how to use those powers to get all you want from this world."
He had laughed at that. Him? Powerful? This wasn't delirium, it was outright insanity!
"I will forgive your insolence just this once, for you are ignorant. But henceforth, do not presume to question My word on anything."
Something dark and swift and sharp as a scorpion's sting had struck at the core of his mind then. At that moment, his perceptions had shifted, and he'd gotten his first glimpse of his own fell potential. And oh, what an intoxicating glimpse it had been! He would've sworn allegiance to anyone--or any thing!--who offered to show him more.
"So be it," his new Mistress had intoned. "From now on, you shall be My highest servant. If you serve Me faithfully and well, you shall have power beyond a beggar's dreams. But if you fail or forswear Me, you shall suffer as no mortal has ever suffered before."
The threat had not daunted him. His only thought had been for what he must do in order to reap his reward.
"Find the rest of My talismans," She had told him then. "The first is in your hands already. The whereabouts of the second has been placed in your head. When it is safely in your custody, use your newfound knowledge to summon Me again. At that time, I will give you further instructions. Hunt in secret; no one must know what you are seeking or why. Most importantly, no one must know Whom you serve. Go now, and do My bidding."
With that, the voice had withdrawn. Shortly thereafter, he had started his quest for the talismans. His journey had taken him all across the continent: from the desert plains of the southlands to the gulf of the fresh water sea; to steamy Cos province and now to the edge of Farwild Forest. In each instance, he'd tracked down a single talisman, never knowing what it was until he saw it. And in each instance, he had found it in the possession of a person who practiced some style of magic.
He knew very well that this was no coincidence. One of the fundamental dictates of sorcery was that power attracted power. At times, this inevitability lent a certain amount of convenience to his quest. But at others, he thought, turning to scowl at the warlock's body again, it was an outright pain in the ass.
Then he swept th7e grudge from his mind. There was still much to do before the night was over, and no one to do it but him.
His first task was to ward the shack--not a complicated procedure, but taxing in terms of time and energy. And while he begrudged both expenditures, he dared not stint on either, for without wards, he would become conspicuous to any and all who could hear the resonations of his magic. And the sorcery which he meant to perform tonight was especially loud. So he swallowed his reluctance without another thought and began to construct the barriers that would insulate him from the rest of the world.
When he was done, he returned to the table and sat down. He was hungry now as well as tired, but aside from a plate of souring milk that the dead man had left by the hearth, there was nothing in sight to eat--not even the resident mouser. Just as well, he told himself. Cat meat gave him gas.
After an all-too-brief rest, he retrieved a chunk of charcoal bone from the inner lining of his cloak and moved from the table to an uncluttered section of the room. There, he sketched a hexagram onto the hard dirt floor and enclosed it within a circle. Next he placed the talismans within the diagram: the horn at the lowest point, flanked by the spurs, and then the two fists. The crowning point remained vacant. Finished with the preliminaries, he then drew himself to his full height in front of the diagram and began to chant: hard, arcane words that caught at his mouth like fishing hooks. He did not falter at the pain; it was part of the mantra, both a token sacrifice and a focus.
As he chanted, an eddy appeared within the circle; a cloud of charcoal dust lent it texture and mass. Encouraged by his litany, it then spiraled into a ceiling-high funnel, spinning so fast as to seem motionless. At the core of this maelstrom, two eyes winked into view--red pupil-less slits which flashed like flowing lava. Brimming with excitement, he forced the last of the incantation from his now bloody mouth.
For a long moment, a ghastly silence prevailed. Then a maw fringed with dagger-like teeth chasmed into being. The wind which gusted forth from it smelled as foul as a thousand sun-ripened corpses.
"I expected you sooner than this, Malcolm Blackheart," his Mistress intoned, although Her mouth did not pattern the words. "Did you encounter difficulties along the way?"
"None at all, my Queen," he said, purposely foregoing any mention the warlock's death-spell. It had been nothing more than a trifling annoyance, too insignificant to recount. Besides, it had not delayed his quest in any way. "If I am slow in realizing Your expectations, it is because my powers are still limited."
"Some limits cannot be overcome," She told him, a reply steeped in supernatural indifference.
"Quite true," he countered unctuously. "But they can, at times, be circumvented."
"A host of your demons at my beck and call would give me a mobility that I could never hope to achieve on my own," he replied, trying to sound blasé about this nearest and dearest dream of his. "They'd also serve as extra eyes and ears."
"A curious notion," She said. "I will consider it. Now let us address the next leg of your quest. It will take you in pursuit of the last and greatest of My talismans."
"I am Yours to command, Mistress," he replied, although his heart was still set on the subject of demons. "Where must I go?"
Her unblinking gaze turned suddenly remote. At the same time, Her cyclone lost a measure of velocity. These changes didn't alarm him. From past experience, He knew that She was straddling another dimension in an attempt to divine his next destination.
"How strange," She murmured, when She returned from this excursion. "I saw a man-city ringed by tall white walls. I saw you stealing down its littered streets, hunting a being possessed of powers similar to your own. But beyond that, I saw little else--the augury was overshadowed by confusion and strife."
Spooked by the uncertainty which he heard in Her tone, he hastened to reassure her. "I know the city of which You speak, Great One. It is called Compara. To those who dwell within its wall, confusion and strife are common maladies--maladies which could aid a clever man."
Sly amusement crept into her laval eyes. "A man such as yourself?"
"None other," he replied. "Have no doubt, Great One. I will find the talisman for You."
"That would not be your only task, Blackheart."
"As well I know, Great One," he boasted. "Once I have the talisman, I must bring You back from exile. That will be a prodigious feat of sorcery, but--"
Her eyes flashed, a warning that raised the hackles on his neck. Before he could brace himself for the onslaught of Her displeasure, though, the blood in his veins turned into liquid fire. For one excruciating moment, pain defined the whole of his existence. Then it abruptly disappeared again.
"Never interrupt Me again, mortal," She commanded, as he gagged for breath, "for what you know is no more or less than what I choose to tell you. Yes, as you pointed out, you will have to work high sorcery to forge a bridge between these two planes. But--" She spat the word out like a gob of phlegm. "But before you do that, you must first find a body for Me to occupy. It must be a living body; one which possesses powers that are at least the equivalent of your own. I do not care what it looks like so long as it is healthy and not too old."
"I know you could retrieve the talisman for Me, Malcolm Blackheart. But are you clever enough to procure the body I need as well?"
"I believe so, Great One," he replied, the very essence of humility now.
"One without the other will not do," She cautioned. "If you fail to provide Me with a suitable vessel, I will have no recourse but to claim yours. Knowing that, do you still wish to go to Compara?"
He nodded. The promise of power was worth any risk.
"So be it then. You shall go." A familiar touch snaked into his mind, then deftly withdrew again. "I have given you knowledge that might prove useful to you. Use it wisely, and as ever, be discreet. No one must learn of our plans."
"I will do as you say," he swore. Then, emboldened by Her generosity, he dared to importune Her again. "Great One! There is one thing more!" Her glare raised an uncomfortable itch along the base of his throat. He suppressed the urge to scratch it. "Will you give me the demons?"
"You shall have them. But not now," She added, upending the smile that had started to take hold of his mouth. "Dawn will be here soon. You must leave this place before someone comes calling on yonder carrion."
"Go to Compara. Find yourself a stronghold and ward it with all your skill. Then summon Me again and I shall grant your desire."
"I shall leave immediately, Great One," he replied, all eagerness and unction again. Such a deferment spoiled his hopes for an easy trip to Compara, but that was no setback, only a minor disappointment. "Many thanks for--"
Her eyes snapped shut. Her maw disappeared as well. An instant later, the cyclone redoubled its furious dance. Yet even as it accelerated, its extremities unravelled, stripping the funnel to its core of swirling charcoal dust. A moment later, the dust spiralled to a lazy stop and then flurried to the floor.
In the preternatural silence that followed, he smiled. Despite his hunger and fatigue, despite the unrelenting ache in his leg, he was as happy as he had ever been in his life. Still smiling, he fetched his cloak and stowed the talismans in their secret compartments. Then he recast his illusion of emptiness and headed for the door. He did not bother to wipe away his handiwork: anyone who saw it would credit the dead man with its making.
At his touch, the door unbarred itself, then swung open. He stepped into the night, then took a series of deep breaths to purge The Dark One's lingering stench from his nostrils.
At that moment, a small, four-legged shadow slunk out of the house and raced away without drawing his notice.