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Descent into Magery
By Peter Hug
The alley he crouched in was dark and dank, but then, so was much of the rest of the city. It had been a bad season so far, with much rain that had washed away the better part of the harvests, food would be very dear in the coming winter. With the council in a state of war they had levied troops, and the troops needed to be fed, this made food even more dear. And the misery that the rain had caused did not end there. Most of the city, if you could even call it that, was of thatched roofed buildings, mostly wooden buildings, and they were beginning to mold. The musty scent of decaying roofing and the moldy odor of the rough timbers nearest him were almost overpowering. He eased himself into a position that was not so much more comfortable as less uncomfortable; nearly every thing was uncomfortable these days. And the pain in his stomach was no more bearable than the scent of the buildings. However, he could, would and was about to do something about that. He simply had to wait for a trader with a suitably fat purse to pass the edge of the alley in whose shadows he hid.
"Damn troops!" he murmured to himself, knowing all the while that what he said would do no good, or make a difference for that matter. He was not particularly worried about doing good just then. The twilight was already fading, and the lamplighters were already coming out, what few there were, since the council had since decided that that was one of the things that they could safely save coins on. Though Derrl did not mind so much the council's frugality, it was only going to make what he had to do all that much simpler.
Yet another bell had sounded, sounding faint and hopeless as if it could no longer struggle to make itself heard in these times of hardness. If he was lucky there would still be a few unlucky traders heading home from their warehouses; heading towards homes that bordered more on palaces, for of all the people, only the traders still seemed to be well off.
He could hear footsteps coming along down the dark passage between the fronts of the houses: he seemed to be having some luck tonight. There was only one set of footsteps in the quiet night, although he heard an extra thunk, almost as if an extra foot was walking down the same lane along with whoever it was. A thought occurred to Derrl, more luck, if his guess was right, the extra thunk meant a cane or walking stick. He corrected himself for a moment, good luck for him, but not nearly so wonderful for whoever the other person happened to be, for if they needed a cane just to walk, what possible defense could they put up against him? He had his dagger with him, and was fairly sure of his abilities with it. He had won his fair share of knife fights, though he knew that against a patrol he would have no chance. But that meant nothing just then, as it was not a patrol he was about to face. From what he could tell, it was a fragile old man. He was guessing that it was a man, for the footsteps seemed to be a bit heavier than what he would associate with a woman, tough and not nearly as heavy as that of a trained soldier.
Derrl cautiously worked his way to the end of his dark alley, careful not to make any noise, lest he give himself away. There was a rustling by his feet, then a squeak as something shot off past his right foot. He stood there breathing hard. Normally he would not have been so frightened by that, but his nerves seemed frayed to the point of snapping. He was nervous about what he was about to do. He was not a cold-hearted murderer, he knew that, but he had to have some food. And unfortunately the more he thought about what he was about to do, the more nervous it made him feel. He could almost smell the stench of fear emanating from himself and his clothes. He waited as the footsteps and accompanying cane came nearer.
He paused to lean his head against the cool timber of the wall. Though the rain had let up, he was still thoroughly sodden from the downpour earlier in the day. The puddles in the lane and lying across the cracked and missing cobblestones were a reminder that the rain would probably return. Sweat was beading on his forehead, though he did not notice. As the sweat accumulated, it began to drip off the point of his nose, which was crooked. It had been crooked since he had gotten drunk that evening and had started a tavern brawl. The Barman had quickly ended the excitement when he knocked Derrl across the face with a light club that was always kept beside the tankards. The footsteps were getting closer now and were almost upon him. He took a few moments to gather himself, check his dagger, run his thumb along the edge of the blade to test it. He grimaced when he realized that it needed to be sharpened badly. It had more than its share of nicks on the blade, but it would have to suffice for tonight. He quickly stepped out of the darkness of the alley to stand in front of whoever it was, desperately hoping that it would be some incompetent trader. Everyone knew that none of them had any skill with weapons. That was why they all hired out guards for their wagons, well… the traders with enough coins at least, and yet none would hire Derrl. Serves them right if I kill one them tonight, they pushed me to it he thought to himself quietly. As he took in the street ahead of him he groaned softly. It was old Kevesk, the oldest man that anyone in the surrounding city knew, one of the strangest people that anyone knew. The man wouldn't eat any kind of meat, did most of his business at night, and always had a long walking stick that more closely resembled a staff, with iron caps at either end. Pity, he thought, not much sense in killing the man... yet still, he was a trader, and traders did have coin, though this one might have less than most. He would have to do.
"Go away before you get hurt, Derrl. You don't really want to hurt me," Kevesk said calmly as if this were nothing out of the ordinary. His voice was calm and even, and even good-natured, almost that of a grandfather warning his favorite grandchild not to play by the stove, knowing full well that the child could get hurt, but that the child would not heed his warning. They never learn until they get burned do they? The old trader thought to himself. He did not really expect Derrl to listen to him, none ever did. Pity, he thought.
Derrl was more than a bit nervous now that the old trader knew who he was.
"Hand over the purse and no one gets hurt, trader!" he managed to snarl through teeth clenched with what was now fear bordering on panic. His eyes were frantically searching for an avenue of escape. However, his own planning had outdone him; the only way for the old man to get away was past him, and vice versa. He supposed that he could just run now, and hope to get away. For some reason he was inordinately afraid of the frail old man. For a brief moment, what he thought was his better judgement took over, and he charged the old man with his knife. The moment he stepped towards Kevesk he regretted it, but not for long, at least not for a little while anyway. The flicker in Derrl's eyes warned Kevesk, and his staff came up quickly with a twirl in the fingers of his right hand. The butt end of the staff with its textured and patterned iron caps collided with the side of Derrl's head with a resounding blow.
The sound of the impact echoed off the rough-hewn timbers of the encroaching buildings. Though he was not terribly worried, he had had enough practice with people of Derrl's type to know just the right amount of force to use. The most that Derrl would suffer from when he woke up would be a mild headache, well, not quite so mild, and a pretty little design on the side of his head near the temple. In the meantime, Kevesk figured that he had better take Derrl home and keep an eye on him. Kevesk bent over, still leaning on the staff, picked up the knife by the point of the blade with his thumb and forefinger and flicked it off into the darkness of the alley. He heard a quick screech and the skittering of rats through the refuse as they were disturbed.
"Sorry 'bout that," he murmured quietly to no one in particular, though had anyone been there they would have thought he was apologizing to the rodents. He remained stooped over for a short while, still leaning on his staff that was more like a long walking stick. And with an act of surprising agility for someone for old and frail, he slung the unconscious youth over his shoulder as he hobbled down the lane back toward his residence. He had no intention of returning Derrl to his home, because he knew that he had no home, the main reason he had foolishly tried to attack him for a paltry few coins. Kevesk hobbled with his ungainly pack until he reached what most simply thought of as the home of the eccentric trader.
Kevesk stood watch over Derrl for most of the night as he writhed on the pallet until well past the midmorning bell. As he watched, the print on Derrl's right temple began to glow an unearthly white. It was a light that seemed to be faint and yet filled the room. The glow seemed to flare quietly, then subsided, finally ceasing to glow at all. The pattern was still there, but somehow it was different. There was no longer any evidence of the pattern having been caused by a blow. It now seemed to be no more than an intricate birthmark (though it was far too regular to be so) or perhaps a freeze brand. And while the design had been incomplete, the light had completed it. As Kevesk stared at the young man while he slept, he was reminded of his days among his brethren. They were far gone.
There was the sound of faint stirring in the corner that held Derrl's pallet. The sun was near its peak already, and nigh the midday bell. He could not understand why he had slept so late. As he gathered his wits about him slowly, he began to ask himself some questions. Where did that old man get to? I could have sworn that I didn't let him out of my sight. Wha...! Huh? Where in the demon's names am I? He spared a quick glance around the room, which was obviously not his, as he had none. The roomed seemed empty enough. His head was throbbing; why did his head hurt so badly? He didn't recall doing any heavy drinking the night before. Faint from the headache, he put his head back down on the pallet, looked at the room with its high narrow windows and bare walls, and closed his eyes. It was otherwise empty, except for the old trader in the corner, apparently asleep in a chair with his walking stick across his lap. He wondered briefly about how the old man had gotten him here, wherever here was. Well, no matter, he would find out soon enough. The old fool had left him untied. It was simply a matter of giving the old man a quick blow across the back of the head, taking his purse, and leaving. He was only a little bit worried about where his knife had gone.
"I do hope that you don't intend to leave," the old man murmured, eyes still closed, "you could hurt yourself as well as others."
A bit rattled by this last remark, Derrl asked "What are you talking about, trader? Are you more daft than I thought?"
"No," he answered with a surprisingly sharp smile, one that had all of its teeth, "just wise beyond your years."
"What do you mean I could hurt myself?"
"You have talent, young Derrl, but you do not know how to control it. Had you not attacked me last night, I would not even have known that you had any talent. When I struck you with my staff, your will reacted. An ordinary person would merely have suffered a splitting headache, but you, my friend, are marked. Everyone with the talent has a mark, left there by their first encounter with, or use of, the talent. Take this glass, and take a look at where I hit you last night. I am sorry about that, but you were insistent on having my purse." Kevesk handed him a small glass. Derrl took it, jaw hanging like some village idiot. He had heard rumors about those with talent, but they were wives' tales, not to be paid attention to. "You'll notice that there is no pain there anymore. Here, take my knife, try the blade against the mark." He was still numbed from the shocks that he had received in the past days, so he complied with Kevesk's wishes. He could feel the pressure of the contact of the blade with the bleached skin, but could feel no pain. He pulled the knife away from his head, knowing that with the force he had applied he should have drawn blood, and yet the blade was clean, at least no dirtier than it had been.
"You see?" the old trader grinned, " Pass me the knife please." Derrl could see no harm in doing so, and lightly tossed the weapon to the trader.
"Now watch closely," said the trader as he raised the knife up in his fist. Before Derrl fully understood what he was about to do, the old man brought down his fist, along with the knife, aiming it directly at Derrl's marked temple, point first.
"Demon's blood!" he yelled as the knife hit him in the side of the head, not fully realizing what had happened. He had not felt any pain, nor was there the brief spurt of blood before he collapsed. In fact, he was still sitting on his pallet, much as before, only swearing violently at the old man, who was bent over double on his chair, apparently laughing.
"What in Lucifer's name do you think you are doing? You senile old fart!" In response to this, the old man, still chuckling to himself, reached out his hand to Derrl, as if to offer him the knife for inspection. The first inch of the point had been flattened, and Derrl could see traces of the pattern on the blade, the same pattern on his temple and the staff.
"What in the good spirits' names?!" Derrl exclaimed, staring incredulously at the once sharp knife, which was now good for little more than scrap metal.
"That's just one of the advantages that your talent offers you, the least of which, by the way. The others will require some learning on your part, and there are not many who can help you with that, my friend. And most you probably wouldn't recognize if they hit you over the head. Fortunately for you, one of them did just last night."
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