Grimm Tidings

Chapter 17

Grimestoke danced with glee into Baltrog’s study. He had caught both the dwarf and the half-elf! And to imagine that Baltrog had first balked at the expense of the new trap! Well, he, Grimestoke, had been right, and now he had two pretty birds in his trap. Baltrog would be pleased. Oh, he would be very pleased. Perhaps even more pleased then when Grimestoke had built the amplifier, that ingenious device that increased the strength of some of Baltrog’s spells. Yes, even more than that.

Grimestoke skipped across the floor of the study to Baltrog’s chair. He was just about to declare their good fortune when he stopped in his tracks. Baltrog’s eyes were shut and his right hand was pressed against his chest just over his heart.

Oh no, thought Grimestoke. Not now.

Baltrog was in a trance. That was what he called them. Grimestoke called them naps, but Baltrog insisted they were deep meditative states that he entered to renew his magical powers. And he had warned Grimestoke that he was never to be spoken to, never to be touched, when he was in one of his trances.

And so Grimestoke hopped from one foot to another in quiet frustration.

When does magic start?

It was an interesting question, one that Baltrog came back to whenever he had finished a particularly satisfying spell. Obviously, for some people magic started when they began to study magic. Wizards, people without innate magic ability, approached magic the way a cobbler approaches shoemaking or an oyster-monger learns to shuck bivalves. They had to crack open the books, memorize the incantations, learn the gestures, invoke the right deities. They had to practice. Magic could start for them whenever they chose to apply themselves.

Poor beggars, though Baltrog. Imagine having to work at magic, having to sweat over every magic accomplishment. The only surprises such a drudge would ever have in his yeoman-like toil would be when a well-studied spell fizzled. Such base craftsmen would never feel the thrill of magic coming from within, would never feel the elation of a having a spell work better than planned. Better not to touch magic at all if you can only wield it as a clumsy tool.

For him it had been different. Like so many sorcerers, his magic, his innate gift for magic, had showed itself during puberty. He had been fourteen, a thin, reticent child with no real friends, no real interests, a dead mother and a father so consumed with his work that he was rarely home. It had been during the year when his voice had begun to crack and hair had begun to sprout on his body that he has discovered his talent. It had happened during a lesson. His father worked long hours so Baltrog, still called Edwin (Edwin!) in those days, had been left in the care of a tutor, a cranky old drunk who went by the pretentious name of Sage. One afternoon Sage had gotten into his cups more than usual and had begun to berate Edwin about his future.

“Your father is a great man!” he had shouted, banging his tankard on the table. “A generous, wise man. But most of all, a hard-working man. That’s the key! Hard work. You can be as talented as you want but without hard work, without diligence and sweat and toil, you’re no better than, than . . .” He had scanned the kitchen for something to use as an example and settled on a fly that buzzed around a chopping block. “Than that fly. Look at it. Dirty lazy thing. That’s you. That’s you if you don’t study, if you don’t apply yourself. Dirty and lazy. And do you know what happens to dirty lazy things? Do you, lad? This.”

Sage had picked up on of his scrolls and swatted the fly out of the air. It landed on the kitchen table, dead.

“That’s you,” said Sage. “An insect. Dead. No good for anything. A dead bug. Not worth a second look.”

As young Edwin stared at the mashed fly, he had felt something shift in his mind. It was a strange sensation, as though part of his brain had been hidden behind a door that suddenly opened. His mind suddenly felt large, infinitely large, but at the same time cold. And he felt as though an unknown space in his chest was filling with anger the way an urn filled with wine. The sensation made him felt dizzy so he focused his attention on the fly to steady himself.

“Dead with nothing to show!” Sage continued to rant. “Dead dead dead!”

No, Edwin had thought. As simple as that: no.

The fly buzzed weakly. It flipped over and tried to crawl with a smashed thorax.

“It’s not dead,” said Edwin.

“What?” asked the befuddled Sage. “What?”

Then he had noticed the fly crawling across the kitchen table towards him. He stared at it in surprise and brought his fist down on it.

“It’s dead now,” he said with satisfaction, looking at the squished bug. “Just as you’ll be, with nothing to show.”

“I don’t think so,” said Edwin quietly. He focused that cold sensation in his mind on the shattered insect.

It began to stir.

Sage leaned away from the animated corpse on the table. “What?” he gaped.

The dead fly flew, or perhaps jumped, off the table and straight into Sage’s open mouth. The tutor choked, falling backwards out of his chair onto the floor, grabbing at his throat while trying to cough out the dead insect that buzzed in his throat. Edwin watched the man writhe on the floor for a few minutes and then went out for a walk. When he returned the tutor, his bags and books, were all gone.

The next tutor that Edwin’s father hired was a polite teetotaller.

It was shortly after that first discovery that Edwin began to make friends. Because he had been an awkward child with no interest in sports or rough-housing, he did not associate with most of the children his own age who took pleasure in games of strength and skill. He feared them to the point of avoiding them on the streets. Those children, with their unerring animal-like ability to smell weakness, soon took to taunting Edwin whenever he ventured from the house. So he had been a social outcast for as long as he could remember. But after he discovered his ability with the dead fly, Edwin began to notice a different sort of child in the alleys of his home town. These kids, a mixture of races, boys and girls, and different ages, kept aloof from the other children but were not bothered by them. Indeed, one day as Edwin was idly looking out of the second-story window of his house he saw a group of thug-like guttersnipes coming upon the motley collection of assorted children and instead of taunting or teasing them, the tougher children had turned and run away.

Interesting, thought Edwin.

The next day he went in search of the small band of children. He eventually found them in a dead-end alley, exactly the sort of place he always avoided for fear of being trapped there by a gang of bullies, hunched over something. He had come up quietly behind them. They seemed to be conducting some sort of experiment.

“Hello,” he had said. Four of the children jumped up at the sound. A fifth remained hunched over something on the alley floor.

“What do you want?” demanded the largest of the children. He was, perhaps, fifteen, with bad skin and teeth. Edwin had seen him before. He was the son of the least respectable apothecary in the town.

“That’s Edwin,” said another, a halfling boy, perhaps ten years old. “He’s the rich kid.”

“I’m not rich,” Edwin said, bristling. “My dad works for the city. He runs the water.”

“He sure acts rich,” said the hafling.

“What do you want?” asked the older child again. “This is not for you.”

“What are you doing?” asked Edwin.

“Magic,” said the child who was still crouching on the ground.

Edwin could see now that it was a girl. She was maybe thirteen years old, with black hair and exotic features that betrayed a hint of hafling, or perhaps elvish, blood in her background. Edwin knew that she was the daughter of a woman who worked in a bar down by the docks. It was rumored that she had to spend many nights sleeping in the bar because her mother often entertained clients in the one room apartment they shared above a fish store. Her name was Tinder.

She opened her clasped hands. Floating just above her palms was a small dot of bright light that shimmered like a living thing. It was beautiful. The other children all stared at it.

“That’s the best one yet,” said another child, a girl who could not have been more than eight.

Slowly the little light faded and went out. The children gave a collective sigh of disappointment.

“How did you do that?” asked Edwin.

“I told you,” said Tinder, standing up and smoothing her worn dress. “Magic.”

“We can all do magic,” said the older child belligerently. “So you had better watch it, cause some of it hurts.”

“I fixed a hurt bunny,” said the smallest girl proudly.

“So if you can’t do magic,” continued the oldest boy, “Take off. And don’t even think about telling anyone about us.”

Edwin looked at the group of children. They were all in some way misfits. Most came from poor families, none had tutors or had been to school. None were physically prepossessing, though Tinder showed sings of becoming an exotic beauty. But they had each discovered that they had innate magic abilities and had somehow found each other. They had become friends.

The group turned to leave the alley. As they passed the large boy slammed his shoulder into Edwin.

“Don’t tell anyone,” he hissed.

The gang was almost at the mouth of the alley when Edwin found his voice.

“I can do magic,” said Edwin.

The gang stopped.

“What?” asked Tinder.

“I can do magic,” he said. “Scary magic.”

“He’s lying,” said the large boy.

“Prove it,” Tinder said to Edwin.

Edwin looked around the ground of the alley. He was searching for an insect, something he could kill and reanimate. There were flies but when Edwin tried to swat one out of the air he missed.

“Missing flies ain’t magic,” said the large boy with a laugh.

Edwin saw something rustle under some waste rags lying against the wall of the alley. He stomped on it, hoping it was a large spider, but was greeted with an agonized squeak. When he pulled back the rags he found that he had crippled a mouse. He picked the injured animal up by the tail. He had only practiced his magic trick with insects, but he could not back down now.

“Come here,” he said to the children.

The gang came back down the alley and stood around Edwin. Edwin held the mouse out to the large boy. “Kill it,” he said.

“Why should I kill it?” the boy asked.

“Are you afraid?” asked Edwin.

The boy shot a glance at Tinder, then puffed up his chest and said, “I ain’t afraid of anything.” He took the mouse by the tail.

“I can fix it,” said the little girl.

“Shut up,” said the boy. He grabbed the mouse with his other hand and broke its neck. The creature dangled limp from its tail.

“Is it dead?” asked Edwin.

“Yeah, it’s dead,” said the boy. He spun the mouse around by the tail to demonstrate.

“You’re sure?” asked Edwin.

“Sure I’m sure. What are you? Stupid?”

Edwin felt his anger flare. The coldness that flooded his mind when he did his magic seemed harder now, a crystalline blade of ice in his forehead.

“I don’t think so,” said Edwin.

The mouse bit the large boy’s hand. He screamed and tired to shake it off, but it held on, its teeth deeply embedded in fleshy mound beneath his thumb. “Get it off get it off!” the boy shouted. Finally he managed to shake the mouse free. It flew into the wall of the alley and bounced to the ground where it lay still.

“I thought you said it was dead,” said Edwin.

The apothecary’s son clutched his bleeding hand. “It was,” he said through gritted teeth. “That was a dirty trick. That wasn’t magic.”

“Really? And is the mouse dead now?” asked Edwin.

Everyone looked at the rodent. It lay perfectly still, its back bent at an impossible angle.

“Yes,” someone said.

Edwin focused on the mouse. It gave a jerk. The children stepped back in fear. The mouse opened its mouth in pain and tried to drag itself forward towards the large boy. Edwin let it crawl a couple of feet before he brought his foot down on it, snuffing its undead life.

There was a moment of shocked silence in the alley. Then Tinder spoke up.

“What else can you do?” she asked.

The dynamics in the gang of magical outcasts shifted that day. The apothecary’s son came to fewer and fewer meetings. Eventually he left the group to take up work in his father’s shop.

The remaining members would meet in Edwin’s house when his father was at work. The halfling boy, whose name was Taiven, was able to put the babysitting tutor to sleep with a simple wave of his hands. That left the group to experiment with their abilities. Tinder’s talent seemed to be evocation. She could manipulate energy, creating dazzling lights with a few simple gestures. The little girl, Cadalyn, was able to heal wounds by laying her hands on them and singing a song she had composed herself. There were others who came and went, but these three and Edwin met regularly.

The little gang would be banished whenever Edwin’s beloved father had time off from his job running the city’s waterworks. Edwin never gave his father an inkling of his abilities

Over time Edwin learned that his magic was always stronger, much stronger, when he was angry. When he was mad he imagined that there was a cup somewhere in his body into which the energy of his rage poured. As the cup filled, his magic became more powerful. As he became older, the cup seemed to grow within him, so no matter his rage of magic skill, it never filled to overflowing.

The little gang fell apart when Edwin’s father was arrested. Edwin had been sound asleep in his bed when his father had wakened him. By candlelight his father had told him that something bad might happen the next day, and that Edwin would have to take care of himself for a while. Even the tutor would not be visiting. Edwin had not understood, but his father had shushed him and told him some secrets of the great cisterns under the city that only he, their designer, knew. Then he had tucked Edwin back into bed.

He was arrested the next day.

Three days later placards went up announcing the public execution of Searoar Hawkright the next morning.

Edwin arrived before dawn at the town square. He climbed onto ledge of a building across from the scaffold that had been erected in the center of the square the night before. An hour after dawn the square was full of people. Street vendors turned a good profit selling snacks and fruit.

At mid-morning, the crowd near the scaffold let out a cheer. The prisoner was being led forth. Edwin could not see anything until the executioner began to mount the scaffold. He was a large man, bare-chested except for a leather vest and a hood that covered his head. The hood was more traditional than effective. Everyone in the city knew the executioner was Evza Rizi, a chandler who had a shop against the south wall of city. He was reputed to be the strongest man in the Finger. He was certainly one of the largest. To see the massive man delicately form elaborate candles was a source of endless interest to the street urchins who congregated outside his shop, scrambling for wick ends.

After the executioner another figure mounted the scaffold. He was a thin, balding man with his arms bound behind him. At first Edwin did not recognize his own father. His beard had been shaved off.

The crowd let out an ungodly howl. Was it a sound of anger or outrage? Years later, when Baltrog reviewed the scene in his mind, he decided it was appetite. The crowd was braying with hunger, the hunger to see his father’s blood. It was the sound of anticipation, the sound a starving animal makes when it thinks it is about to be fed.

Behind his father there was a cleric of some kind. Edwin did not recognize the man or his temple of worship. His father had never had much time for the deities. He said a few prayers, gave alms to some beggars for luck, but that was it. Why this priest would be there on the scaffold was a mystery to Edwin.

Whoever the cleric was, he came to the front of the scaffold and held up his arms for silence. Slowly the mob grew quiet. Only when they were completely silent did the man speak.

“Citizens of Seatorn,” the cleric called in a booming voice. “Today we will see the punishment of the greatest criminal Seatorn has ever known.”

The crowed roared its approval.

Lies, thought Edwin. Filthy lies!

When the crowd calmed down the cleric continued. He stated his name, and began a list of the prisoner’s crimes. Edwin heard none of it. All he could do was focus on his father, willing him to look over at him. But his father kept his eyes fixed on the ground. All too soon the cleric finished speaking. The executioner led Edwin’s father to the block, and indicated that he should kneel. Edwin’s father did so without hesitation, putting his neck on the block as though it were a pillow.

The crowd fell silent.

The executioner took his position to the side of the block, hoisted his axe, and without a moment’s hesitation brought it down on the Edwin’s father’s neck. The head fell neatly into the basket provided, while blood gushed from the severed neck.

Edwin felt he would explode.

The executioner reached into the basket and drew the head out by the hair. As custom dictated, he held it out for the crowd to see.

Edwin felt something inside of him shift. The cup of anger in his chest seemed suddenly to overflow.

The head opened its eyes and screamed silently. The crowd gasped and surged away from the scaffold. The executioner, uncertain of why the crowd had reacted so strangely, looked at the face of the head. When he did, he shouted in fear and dropped the head, which fell to the scaffold floor, its mouth gaping and eyes rolling. The cleric picked up the executioner’s axe and advanced on the head. He lifted the axe and prepared to crush the thing, but then seemed to freeze for a second. When he brought the axe down he did not bring it down on the head. He brought it down on the shoulder of the executioner, inflicting a mortal blow

People started screaming. Some began running from the square, knocking over others in their fear. The crowd became an irrational mob.

The cleric continued to hack at the executioner with the axe. Guards pushed through the crowd to get to the scaffold to restrain the man. The city seemed to have gone mad.

Edwin left Seatorn that night. He walked through the darkness of the city, though the great gates, out into the surrounding fields, and headed east. He stayed on the main roads, trudging with his head down, refusing to take offered rides in carts or speak to passers-by. He came to the foothills of the mountains and continued walking. Sleeping in barns, eating almost nothing, he passed through the mountains towns and descended onto the great plains. And still he kept walking.

When he reached the far end of the plains some months later, Edwin turned south and continued his aimless trek. Six months after he had left Seatorn he arrived at a city on the edge of a desert. It was a sprawling collection of crumbling adobe buildings that shimmered in the heat: Arzandel, the self proclaimed gateway to the great sand desert. The locals called it the gateway to hell.

Years later Baltrog would realize that his decision to stop at Arzandel was based on the simple fact that he could imagine no place in the realms that was less like Seatorn. While his home city was at the end of a peninsula that thrust into a cool ocean, Arzandel lay on the edge of a vast desert. While Seatorn was a tall walled city crafted of stone and timber, Arzandel was a low, sprawling city of dried mud buildings. While Seatorn was a well-ordered city with a complex governing structure and civil service, Arzandel appeared to have no government at all. It was little better than a huge, wild trading post peopled with traders, merchants, and criminals.

It was the perfect place to start a new life.

Edwin began that life by following a noisy caravan through the main gates of the city. Once inside he was almost overwhelmed by the heat, dust, exotic smells, and noise. Street urchins darted beneath camels groaning with bags of spices. The camels would bang into stalls heaped with carpets and that would cause the stall-owners to throw arcane curses at the camel drivers who were too busy trying to find the merchants for whom they had transported the spices to care. Jugglers threw flaming hoops, street clerics declaimed strange gods, ragged pickpockets worked the crowd, and food vendors sold unrecognizable snacks from nooks in the narrow, winding streets. Every building seemed to have some sort of shop on the first floor and half-a-dozen families living on the second, most of whom threw their garbage out of the street onto the pedestrians below. All the races were to be found and every profession, though merchants and thieves seemed to predominate. Many people wore the veiled headdresses of the desert tribes, but just as many were dressed in the clothes of their homelands, wherever those may be. All the men, and most of the women, seemed to be carrying at least one weapon. The only old people were as tough and spry as the young, but with skin burned black by the desert sun and faces creased by sand-filled winds that seemed to blow continually through the crowded streets.

Edwin found a disreputable tavern and pushed his way into its dark interior. The room was filled with hard men hunched over their drinks or smoking something Edwin did not recognize from an enormous hookah in the middle of the floor. Edwin walked to the bar, ignoring the stares of clientele.

“Water,” he said to the barkeep, a small, wizened woman with a large scar that ran down the right side of her face and tugged the corner of her mouth into a permanent grimace.

“You have coin?” she asked in an unrecognizable accent.

Good question, thought Edwin. He reached into his jerkin and fumbled around. He had one coin left. He placed it on the bar.

The woman picked it up, examined it carefully, and dropped it behind the bar. She pulled out a large clay cup and filled it with water from a jug. He took a sip. It was warm and slightly salty, but he drained the cup anyway.

“I have a question,” he said. “Who is the most powerful sorcerer in the city?”

The barkeep eyed him suspiciously. “Why you want?” she asked.

Edwin considered his answer. “I am a student,” he said.

The woman gave him a strange look. “What is student?”

“Someone who learns,” said Edwin.

The concept seemed to confuse the woman. “Don’t know,” she said. “No like magic.”

“You want a sorcerer, do you?” came a voice from behind Edwin. He turned around to find himself staring at the bare, scarred chest of a huge man. When he raised his gaze, he was surprised to find two pairs of eyes staring back at them. One pair belonged to the huge man who glared down at him, the other to a crested lizard that sat on his shoulder and darted its tongue at him.

“Yes,” said Edwin. “Do you know one?”

“Do you want good magic or bad?” The giant asked.

“Bad,” said Edwin. “As bad as possible.”

The man considered this. He grinned. “I like that. Follow me.”

Edwin had to run to keep up with the giant man. They pushed out of the bar into the heat and confusion of the street. The big man did not try to slip through the crowds or excuse himself when he came to knot of people. He simply kept walking, knocking people out of his way as though they were so many distracting insects. Edwin fell in behind him, safe in the slip-stream that the giant created as he barreled through the packed streets.

They walked for half an hour, deeper and deeper into the center of the city, down streets so labyrinthine that Edwin knew he would never be able to find his way out again. The denizens of the streets became more furtive. Exotic faces peered through shuttered windows as they passed. Fewer and fewer shops seemed to be open and the ones that were offered goods that Edwin did not recognize – pieces of dried animals and plants, bowls of toxic-looking powders, elaborate amulets, heavy rings, alchemical apparatus, wands and rods, shimmering cloaks. One tiny stall was filled entirely with insects in small wooden cages while another seemed only to sell stoppered glass bottles filled with what appeared to be shifting mist. Several stores stocked only ancient scrolls.

Finally they came to a space between two mud buildings. In it was a staircase that led up the outside of one building to its second floor.

“Up there,” said Edwin’s guide.

“Who’s up there?” asked Edwin.

“You’ll see,” said the giant man. He smiled unpleasantly. His lizard darted its tongue. The man turned and disappeared around a corner of the narrow winding street.

Alone, penniless, lost in the middle of a complex, dangerous city, Edwin assessed his options. Better to climb the stairs than wander the streets, he decided.

The flight of stairs led to a wooden door set in the mud wall of the second floor. He knocked. There was no answer. He knocked again. Still no answer. He tried the door and found that it was unlocked. He pushed it open a crack.

“Hello?” He called into the darkness beyond the door. “Is anyone home?”

A female voice answered from somewhere in the room. “Who brought you?”

“A large man with a lizard on his shoulder,” said Edwin.

There was a moment of silence, then the voice said, “Come in, and shut the door behind you.”

Edwin stepped into the room and shut the door. The windows were shuttered. No candles or lamps were burning so the room was very dark. Edwin could make out shadowy forms of furniture and drapes, but he could not see the person who was speaking.

“I like your hair,” said the voice. Edwin’s hair had turned pure white the day of his father’s execution. During his travels it had grown down past his shoulders. “Why are you here?”

“I can do magic,” said Edwin. “I want to learn more.”

“I have no interest in what you want,” said the voice. There was a long pause. “What’s your name?”

Edwin thought. He had sworn that he would no longer be Edwin Hawkright, that he would be someone, some thing new, but what that thing was did not yet have a name. He decided to be honest. “I don’t know. I’m between names.”

“Well, no-name, what are you going to do with this magic you seek?”

Again Edwin thought before replying. He could lie. He could tell the speaker in the darkness that he wanted to make money, or summon dragons, or speak to the dead. But he sensed that if he lied this unseen person would know, so he spoke the truth.

“I want enough power to destroy a city,” he said. “To wipe it from the land.”

There was a very long pause. Edwin began to think that the person in the darkness had left or, perhaps, fallen asleep. But he decided to remain silent. Finally a light began to glow in the middle of the room near the ceiling. It was a magic light source, a much more powerful version of the trick that Tinder used to perform, and soon it bathed the room in a shimmering blue light. Edwin could finally see his questioner. It was an ancient woman, or rather a female elf. No, Edwin realized, it was a drow. He had never seen one before. She had the distinctive bone structure of the elf and the pointed ears, but her skin was black, her eyes red, and her hair, like Edwin’s, pure white. She sat in a divan under folds of exotic brocaded fashion as though she were cold in the stuffy heat of the room. She looked at him with those unnatural eyes and lifted one delicately arched eyebrow.

“Now that’s interesting,” she said.

So began Edwin’s apprenticeship with Quiz, a sorcerer who was five hundred years old, an age unprecedented for drow who were usually sacrificed to their spider god, Lolth, a century younger. Quiz had fled her subterranean drow conclave because her fellow high priestesses had turned on her and put her forward for sacrifice during a bout of vicious political infighting. For over a hundred years she had resided in Arzandel, running an elaborate crime network. She controlled the drug trade, prostitution, and assassination. She ran a circle of thieves who specialized in stealing magical items. She supplied victims for dark religious rites. She kidnapped, she put curses on people, she concocted sadistic poisons. Yet she rarely left her home any more, preferring to send her minions off to do her bidding while weaving her spells in privacy.

Over the years that Edwin worked for her, first as an errant boy, then as a thief, then as an assassin, and finally as a fellow magic-user, he came to discover that her increasing reclusiveness was born of guilt. She regretted not having gone to her sacrifice with dignity. She had run from her conclave rather than embrace the pains of Lolth. As her life wound down, she increasingly fell captive to self-loathing about her failure to end her life with a drow’s usual flare. Out of nostalgia for her conclave she encouraged spiders to nest in her home, treating them as pets.

Edwin also came to realize that her interest in him was born of her sense of failure. She planned to turn him into a human monster that would destroy a city and inflict suffering on tens of thousands of people. By doing so, she could reassert her identity as a drow. Her dearest hope was that this deed would some day be recorded by a drow bard into a traditional murder ballad. Se wanted a song about the suffering she had unleashed through the creation of the perfect weapon: Edwin.

But he was no longer to be called Edwin. On the day she announced that he could begin studying magic, she renamed him Baltrog. She also reworked his appearance. She told him to cut his hair unfashionably short and to wear better clothes. She refined his tastes. “If you are to have exquisite taste in cruelty, you should have exquisite tastes in all things,” she said, and introduced him to fine foods and wines, beautiful art, and the glories of drow literature. She told him to give himself a title. He chose “lord” because it sounded impressive but was conveniently vague. And she set about to make him a sorcerer of fantastic power and evil. She taught him that his main power was necromancy, but that he had psionic abilities that could be focused through the use of various magic devices, especially tattoos, although some races and individuals would be harder to influence than others. She taught him the use of spells to supplement his innate magic abilities. But most of all she taught him the importance of hatred.

“Savor your hatred,” she told him. “Let it consume you so that nothing else matters. Everything you do, no matter how inconsequential, must be in service of your hatred. Never be compassionate, never pity. Those are emotions of weakness. Hatred is strength. Hatred is the mighty arm that swings the hammer of cruelty.”

An eager student, Baltrog learned her lessons well. So well that after three years of service he realized that the next step in his self fashioning would be to take over Quiz’s crime empire for himself. And that meant killing Quiz.

The day Baltrog entered her home to murder her, Quiz was ready.

“My dear Baltrog,” she said from her favorite chair. “I’ve been expecting you.”

Baltrog, his white hair cut close to his skull, his skin darkened by the desert sun, stood in the middle of the room he had entered three years early as the lost, impoverished Edwin. “Do you know why I’ve come?” he asked.

“Of course,” said Quiz. “You’ve come to kill me.”

“Are you going to prevent me?” asked Baltrog.

“Well,” said the ancient drow. “I am going to fight back.”

A fireball flew out from under her robe straight at Baltrog’s chest.

He brushed it aside with a wave of his hand before it could hit him. It crashed into a bookshelf. Books exploded, filling the dim room with swirling pieces of flaming paper.

Baltrog took a step closer to Quiz. She did something with her right hand and a geyser of blue liquid sprayed from the arm of her chair onto Baltrog’s legs and the floor. The liquid immediately hardened into ice. Baltrog was frozen in place.

He smiled.

Quiz did something with her other hand. A massive phantom hand appeared in the space between the two antagonists. It silently opened its fingers to grasp and crush Baltrog. Just as it was about to clench shut, Baltrog flicked his fingers at it. The hand stopped, reversed, and moved towards Quiz. She began to scream as it closed around her, but it did not crush her, just held her tight in its ghostly embrace.

Baltrog muttered an incantation. The ice around his legs shattered. He moved towards Quiz.

Still struggling in the grip of the phantom hand, Quiz summoned a psionic attack. She tried to blast Baltrog’s mind, to knock him down with a blow to his mind that would kill the average human. When she released the blast, Baltrog stopped in his tracks. The phantom hand released its grip and faded into nothingness. Quiz smiled. Baltrog looked as though he would tumble to the floor.

But he didn’t. Instead he entered her mind and what she felt took her breath away. Baltrog was an infinitely more powerful sorcerer than her. He had been hiding the extent of his powers for five years so that she would not think him a threat. And his hatred was pure, more pure than she had ever imagined.

By the time Quiz had processed this information, Baltrog’s hands were around her throat.

“Surprised?” he asked.

As he crushed her throat, Quiz had time for two last thoughts. Baltrog is a monster. I have succeeded.

She went to her death happy.

After Baltrog killed Quiz, he looked around the room she had so rarely left. Burning pieces of papers were still floating down to the melting pool of ice. The room was filled with treasures, both riches and magical items. Baltrog could keep them, remain in Arzandel, run her criminal empire, and lead a prosperous life until some younger man killed him. Or he could take as much of Quiz’s wealth as he could carry and set out on the road. Or he could simply leave Arzandel behind him and start again.

He chose the latter.

He walked out of Quiz’s home, through the labyrinthine streets of the city, out of its gates, and headed north, towards the great plains and the mountains beyond.

Towards the Finger of Torn.

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