* * *
Eron cursed under his breath as the fly buzzed round the brim of his hat, shooing it away with the swipe of a hand. It was too hot for this nonsense. Too dry. Downright scorching. Not a great place to wait, that was for damn sure. Most of Eron’s life was waiting, it seemed.
He pulled his brim down, settling into the chair outside the lone tavern. It was a small place… a mining town, folks had told him, back when there was ore to be mined. Now it was little more than an outpost, a dingy settlement up in the farthest corner of the Northern Reaches, half-baked in desert sun. Blasted place wasn’t even on half the maps he’d studied. Just a heap of sun-bleached timber someone decided to name.
His table looked out across the dusty square, in the center of which stood a once-great fountain, crafted in the likeness of some forgotten king. But the draughts had been rough this far north, and only a small trickle of muddy-brown drip, drip, dripped from the old boy’s rusted mouth.
Eron had been sitting outside the tavern since sunrise, baking in the unnatural heat. Near midday, however, something caught his eye. Something that led him to believe all this waiting wouldn’t be for naught.
It was an old man, shuffling across the far side of the square, his sandaled feet kicking up a trail of dust in his wake like a sandstorm. In his spider-veined hands he bore a folding table.
Eron took a swig of ale and leaned back, watching as the man came to a halt before the derelict fountain. With great care, he unfolded the legs of the table, skinny arms protruding from his robes, trembling as he set it right side up.
Eron scratched the wound on his arm that had suddenly sprung to life. Damn burn scars. He knew they never healed proper, but after ten years, he at least thought it’d stop itching. It always itched when his ire was up.
“Somethin’ ailin’ ya?”
Eron turned and found the barkeep’s head shoved through the window just opposite his chair. His hair was a tangled mess of mutt and matt, beard damp and stained with the juice from local chewing leaves.
“Nothing to worry over,” he muttered, trying to end the banter quickly.
The stranger across the way looked up with a curious frown.
“Somethin’ bite ya? Plenty ‘o snakes round these parts.”
“No, no snakes.” He rolled up his sleeve, exposing the shiny skin of his forearm. Ten years on, he had a difficult time looking at it, all hairless and rippled and smooth, the skin white as marble around the rest of his natural ebony.
“Hooo!” the barkeep cawed, “Now that is a scar! How’d ye get that’n? Soldiering? Workin’ in the sulfur pits? I knew a fella lost both ‘is legs in the mines.”
“No, nothing like that.”
Much worse. And if I told you true, you’d piss your sheets tonight.
“Well,” the barkeep said, “if ya need anything, don’t go hesitatin’. Sister in-law’s a sure talent with poultices and the like.”
Eron tapped the rim of the mug. “Just keep the ale coming.”
The barkeep hawked a healthy dollop of chewing leaf before disappearing inside.
The stranger had finally set up his wares. The table was littered with woodcarvings. Eron leaned forward, trying to get a better look through the harsh rays of the afternoon sun. They came in all shapes and sizes, some intricate, others no more than simple blocks of wood. He spotted a handful of knights, finely crafted, their wooden steeds alongside them. There were princesses and fairies, gnomes and giants. It looked as if he were about to put on a puppet show.
Eron could scarce believe his eyes. He’d searched for this old bastard ‘cross damn near the whole of the North, if indeed this was the old bastard, and for what? To watch him play a senile hand at puppetry?
Again, the itching swelled. He tried to fight it at first, scrunching up his face, whistling through gritted teeth, hoping, just hoping this one spate would pass. But it didn’t. Again, he rolled up his sleeve and clawed the scar with gritty fingernails, scratching away until the itch subsided to a raw numbness, and the bubbly white scarring flooded pink.
Another swig of ale.
A tune lilted across the square, soft and inviting. Eron watched the old man turn the crank of the music box, slow at first, then faster, until the music lifted and echoed through the whole village.
The barkeep thumped down a fresh, frothy mug as the first wave of children scampered over, seemingly from everywhere at once. They sprang from the alleys, from the back shops, from the desolate marketplace, from the houses and hovels lining the main road. A whole army, skipping and sprinting and laughing, tumbling into one another on their mad dash to the man with the wooden toys.
One more swig and Eron was a child again. The memory pounded like a horse hoof to the temple, sending him spiraling back to the time he’d spent his whole life trying to forget.
* * *
The Goodwin Home was nothing special, but it served to keep the city’s urchins fed. To Eron, it was the greatest place in the world. He’d never known what it meant to have a mother. She took her last breath as he took his first. Never knew his father, either. His had gotten shipped away to the war with the king’s brother and returned home in a box.
Like most kids in the Capital, the ones who weren’t noble at least, Eron was on his own. That all changed when a kindly old woman led him to Goodwin’s soon after his tenth summer. There, he was given three hots a day, and his own blanket and pillow. They even mended his clothes when they needed mending, and always gave one bath a week to keep the bugs off. Eron didn’t fancy any other sort of life.
Until rumors of war began sprouting like mushrooms from the damp.
Eron laughed them off, at first. Rumors always burned bright and faded fast.
But this rumor didn’t. It festered and grew, and before long, an actual army had appeared at the city gates.
From the safety of his dorm, Eron watched as the streets erupted in chaos, merchants and soldiers and laborers all madly scurrying about, preparing for the worst.
Dagin, the Goodwin Housefather, tried his best to keep the children calm. Though he couldn’t say what or who was out there, he told them to stay indoors. None of the urchins had a problem with that. In Goodwin’s, they were safe and snug and well looked after. Eron was happy to spend his days fawning over Fiona, gossiping with Innesh and playing cards with Pag. So what if there was a war coming? He was fine where he was.
Until the old soldier came calling.
He remembered the name.
First General Balhorp.
He marched into Goodwin’s in a rush of polished plate and mail, gleaming in the dingy orphanage like a hero-knight from a bedtime story.
“Well, children,” he said, a big, toothy smile beneath his twirled mustache. “There is a war going on, if you couldn’t tell by those pesky ‘bangs’ in the distance. Who here wants to help end it, eh? Each lad and lady to join gets a pence a day. How’s that sound?”
How did it sound? Eron thought it sounded like heaven. So did all the other children, as a matter of fact. Within minutes, they were following Balhorp out the door and into the city streets.
Eron had his friends Pag and Innesh on either side of him, talking excitedly as they followed the long regiment of knights down the Capital streets.
“They’re gonna make us soldiers, just like them!”
“We’ll siege a castle, I bet. Get rich on the treasure inside.”
“Aye, might be we can find some women, too. That’s a part of soldiering, right? The women?”
“Aye,” a voice thundered over the din. “It most certainly is.”
He was a big man, seated atop an armored destrier.
“You’ll get all that and more.”
“And we still get the pence, right?” Pag asked.
The knight grinned. “When the job’s done, lad.”
Pag and Innesh rubbed their hands together, practically slathering over the thought that they’d soon have a copper of their own.
“And what’s the job?” Eron asked.
The knight jabbed his lance in the distance.
Eron turned and felt the cold creep up his spine. In the middle of the city, the Wizard’s Tower rose like a beacon amongst rubble. He watched as the base exploded in brilliant flashes of liquid flame, smoke and soot and ash tumbling through the surrounding streets and alleys like a poisonous cloud. He squinted and saw the wizards themselves moving frantically along the ramparts, stopping every now and then to force another blast of screeching flame into the crowds below. Eron’s heart leapt to his chest as he watched a full regiment of armored knights disappear in a shower of orange and red. He wanted to vomit as the smoke cleared, and all that remained were heaps of blackened skeletons, more ooze than bone.
“You want us to go near that?” he asked, voice barley a whisper.
Balhorp appeared from the ranks, materializing like a vision in a dream, “We need to take this city, children. Your king is a villainous traitor, and a threat to the whole realm. He must be deposed. Before we can get to him, the wizards must be stopped. We’ve tried to parlay with them, but the Great Wizard Mogreb heeds us not. Letters by pigeon. White flags of peace. Couriers. Emissaries. He’s spurned them all. He will not bend. The more men we send to the base of that Tower, the more we give to their fires.”
“So why would we go?” a voice called from the back. A loud chorus echoed in agreement.
“Because, children, you do not factor in to the qualms of wizards and kings. You must simply surround the Tower. Keep them occupied long enough for us to storm the Royal Apartments, and you will all be rewarded.” He paused, thoughtfully flicking that horrid mustache. “And I’m thinking a silver, instead. Eh? A silver for each of you!”
Eron took one more look at the Tower, at the missiles of screaming flame pounding down again and again without mercy. He wanted to run. He wanted to go back to Goodwin’s and sit on his cot with his three hots and wait for this stupid war to be over. He didn’t care about the king. He didn’t care about wizards in towers. And he certainly didn’t give a monkey’s fart about Balhorp and his promises of silver.
He looked at the sigil affixed to the general’s breastplate. It wasn’t from any kingdom he knew. These were invaders. These were men coming to take his home. But he was an urchin, after all. Why should he care who ruled? One king for another, made no difference to him.
He sighed as he allowed himself to be herded in line with the rest, all chattering about their precious silver as they neared the Tower. He remembered looking over at Pag and Innesh. “Blast it,” he told them, falling in stride, trying to block out the sounds of fire and death as the Tower grew near.
Silver was silver, and he wasn’t like to get it any other time.
* * *
Eron shook the memory from his head as though waking from a nightmare, tiredly wiping his eyes, pressing the cool mug to his cheek.
He sat up and pretended to mend a tear in his straw hat, eyes fixed on the old man across the way.
By midday, an entire flock of younglings had gathered around his table, eagerly grasping for this toy or that. Eron watched the toymaker smile, his eyes warm, folded like two half-moons. He treated each child with a grandfatherly tenderness, helping them choose a toy from the selection.
“Easy, now,” Eron heard him say. “I’ve made enough for everyone.” Even at a distance, that docile voice carried.
He lifted a wooden princess, her crown painted an almost blinding shade of gold, her gown exquisite in its decoration, lavender and sea-green, studded with deep-set gems of sapphire hue. A small, dirty child reached up from the crowd, straining her little arm towards it. Laughing, the toymaker placed it in her hands, and she ran off squealing down the dusty road, the princess tightly clutched to her chest.
Eron scratched his scar as he watched this farce of charity play out. He wasn’t an idiot. His Order had beaten the idiocy out of him with rod and book alike, many years ago. He knew his purpose. He knew the man he hunted.
* * *
“I don’t think this a good idea,” Pag whispered.
They stood at the base of the Tower: a massive structure of obsidian and stone. Eron’s neck strained as he tried to spot where the parapets ended and the clouds began.
Ants, he thought as he joined the ranks of children forming the circle at its base.
We’re nothing but ants.
At the behest of General Balhorp, army of urchins formed three great rings around the Tower. All the while, Aerond held his breath, feeling his pulse pounding, pounding in his ears like war drums. He’d even pissed himself a bit, but luckily his trousers were so covered in soot that no one had noticed. For all he knew, everyone else had pissed themselves, too. What else were they supposed to do?
While the children took their positions, a smaller ring of knights formed around the outskirts. Eron could hear Balhorp’s voice crying out, straining to reach the wizards at the summit.
“Stand down!” he cried. “There need be no bloodshed. I entreat you! Behold the lambs before you. Surely their innocence is paramount to violence? Surely the savagery can cease?”
Eron squinted up at the top of the Tower. He could barely see the wizards gathered there. They were only shadows, dark and formless against an unforgiving sun. Shadows or crows, he could not tell.
No response came.
“You serve a despotic king!” Balhorp screeched. “Our quarrel is not with you. We ask only that you let us pass, and put the pretender to justice!”
Again, the general’s plea was greeted with silence.
“Don’t worry,” Balhorp said to the children, many of whom had linked arms at that point, trembling like a ring of saplings in a gust of wind. “Those are good men, up there. The wisest, most pow-“
A horrid clap of thunder rocked the street. Eron’s eardrums burst in unbearable pain. The air grew hot like a furnace, more scalding by the second. He touched a hand to his ear and found it bleeding, but he could still hear the terrible shouts and wails around him, children crying out for the knights, for their friends, for mothers and fathers they never knew. He even saw Torrand, the biggest brute in all of Goodwin’s, face scrunched up, tears welling as he called for his nan.
Eron managed to pull himself onto an upended merchant’s cart, searching for Pag and Innesh in the chaos. He saw Pag dive behind a felled horse. Innesh followed close behind, but slipped on the pile of spilled guts, smacking his head against the cobbles so hard Eron could hear the crack.
He looked up at the Tower, tears streaming down his eyes as the air itself seemed to catch fire. Then he saw the flame. It was small at first, so high up there, floating like a candle on a cloud. But the flame grew brighter. And bigger. Eron would never forget the sound it made as it screamed to the streets below, plunging into the sea of children like a rock into a still pond.
All Eron saw were the ripples, wreathed in ash and flame.
* * *
“Need some help, there?”
The sound of the barkeep’s voice was grating Eron’s patience. He’d rather have a gnat stuck in his throat than listen to this leaf-chewer blather on another moment.
“Help with what?”
The barkeep gave a tooth-stained grin. “With yer hat, there. Looks like ya ballsed it all up.”
Eron looked down at the hat he was pretending to mend, only to find that in his daydreaming he’d sliced up half the brim with his knife, leaving a pile of mangled straw next to his ever-growing collection of empty mugs.
“I know a good seamstress,” he said, “can fix that right quick.”
“Well, you know just about everyone in this damned town, don’t you?”
The barkeep’s eyes drooped like a hound that’d been scolded.
“I’m fine,” Eron sighed. “Really.”
Across the way, the stranger was still handing out his wooden toys.
Eron took another swig of ale, watching closely as the man took a toy from a child’s hands. He placed it on the table, standing it up on its legs, silently beckoning the rest of the little ones to watch. Slowly, he raised his hands, working them through the air around the wooden knight. Eron nearly choked when he saw the two bracelets dangling on his wrists. The old man closed his eyes and silently chanted.
Eron leaned forward, desperate to hear.
A chorus of “Ooooohs” rang out as the children rushed to the edge of the table. Eron’s eyes widened as he watched the wooden knight begin to march, stiff legs stepping one after another, left, right, left, right, finally standing at attention when it reached the little boy waiting at the table’s edge. The toymaker smiled, muttered a few more words, and the knight reached down, grabbed its wooden sword from its wooden scabbard, and raised it high in the air. The boy screeched in delight as he snatched it up and hugged it close to his breast.
Eron’s heart raced in his chest. He didn’t even notice the itching scar anymore. All he could see were the bracelets on the toymaker’s wrists.
So this wasn’t a wild chase after all. After so many weeks on the mountain road, Eron feared his journey would never bear the fruit he sought.
Until he saw a wooden knight spring to life with the whisper of ancient words.
He took another swig but couldn’t taste it. His nerves were getting the better of him. He leaned back, watching the sun fade to red and begin its leisurely dip behind the mountains. It would be evening soon. He’d rather not spend any more time in this cursed village than need be.
He took another tasteless gulp and stood, feeling the Breaker at his back for the first time since he’d sat down.
He straightened himself up, preparing for the march across the square. Like a funeral procession, he thought. Like a Headsman to the scaffold.
The scar burned, now.
He’d seen such things before.
* * *
“Noblemen and noblewomen, high birth and common blood alike…before you stands the most foul beast to ever blight our lands. I give you Mogreb, Wizard of the Highest Order, Keeper of the Tower, Holder of the Mystery, Wielder of the Seeing Wind. Titles upon titles. Heh! Unfit be they all. Know him and see him now as Mogreb: Murderer of the Young, Defiler of the Innocent, Mogreb Knight Burner, Mogreb the King Killer. Mogreb the Monstrous!”
Eron and Pag stood cloistered in the royal plaza, desperately trying to see over the heads and shoulders of the jostling wave of humanity. Since the Tower had fallen, everyone was thirsty for wizards’ blood.
It’d been three weeks since the invading army pushed its way into the city. Three weeks that Eron and Pag had been lain up in a camp hospital, where their burns were treated as best the healers could. Three weeks since a new king was in place, and the wizards were arrested for high treason and wanton slaughter.
The Crier beckoned the Headsman forth, and Eron could just make out the tip of the wizard’s pointed hat as he shambled in chains to the scaffold.
“Where’s the others?” Pag asked, face still swathed in bandages.
Eron shrugged. “In the dungeons, I suppose. Awaiting trial.”
“You think they’ll all die?”
He looked at Pag’s scarred, warped face, a hideous thing no bandage would ever remedy, trying to find some semblance of the comely lad he once knew. They were the lucky ones. Some luck. When Eron woke in the camp, the surgeon told him that he was one of twenty survivors.
General Balhorp had led one thousand and sixty stray children to the Tower that day. One thousand sixty children burned like witches on a funeral pyre. One thousand sixty children, lost and wanting, engulfed in liquid wreaths of flame.
He thought of Innish, head dashed on a cobbled street. He thought of Fiona, the girl whose bed sat not ten feet from his own So pretty, Fiona was. So gentle, forever weaving on her loom. He was going to ask for her hand, one day. His thoughts drifted to Torrend, even if he was a right bastard. Eron always thought he’d get the chance to knock Torrend’s teeth out. He’d dreamed of it, even. What the wizards did to him…Eron wouldn’t have wished that on anyone, no matter how much of a bastard they were.
“Yes,” he found himself saying, clenching his fist so hard his knuckles ached. “I think they’ll all die.”
The wizard was led to the block. The Crier tore the pointed hat from his head, casting it out into the surging mob. The Headsman shoved him forward, tripping him on the hem of his robe. It was a curious sight, Eron recalled, to see the great Mogreb stumble and trip like a drunkard.
He remembered the silence of the crowd as Mogreb knelt before the block. The Headsman shouldering the axe. The Crier asking the wizard to speak some last words, should he have any.
He did not. Mogreb simply bowed his head and craned his neck, waiting for the steel to bite.
That’s what struck Eron the most: the silence of it all. No long-winded speeches. No blustery words of defiance or penance. No curses or hexes. Only silence. Only those few still moments before the axe fell, and the thunk of metal on flesh and bone.
Eron paused before the table. The children were still rummaging around, grabbing for this toy and that, tumbling around in the dust by his boots. The old man smiled sadly. His eyes were a cold blue, set deep into his face like shards of mountain crystal.
Neither man spoke for a long while. Just watched the children play. Eron closed his eyes and listened to their excited chatter, to their bright bursts of laughter. It calmed his frayed nerves a bit before he opened his eyes and fixed them on the toymaker.
“I believe its time for their supper.” It was not a suggestion, really. Nor was it an order.
The old man simply nodded, then gathered what toys remained on the table.
“Come, children! Come and pick! Last of the batch, I’m afraid!”
Eron watched little hands swarm the table, madly grasping for whatever they could.
A girl clutching a wooden pony called out, “You’ll be back tomorrow?”
The toymaker chuckled, never taking his eyes off Eron.
“Oh, most likely, my dear. Most likely. Just follow the music. Follow the music and I’ll be there.” He tapped on the music box before carefully stowing it away in the knapsack.
Eron watched the last of the children gather their things and run off to their homes as a red twilight sun shimmered overhead.
The old man lowered himself into his chair. Eron could hear the popping of his spine as he painfully settled himself in. All the while, he had his hand rested on the hilt of the Breaker at the small of his back.
The toymaker let out a deep sigh, crossing his hands over his belly.
“Let’s save the pleasantries, and assume I know your purpose here, mh?”
Eron found himself nodding.
“The others?” he asked, voice calm as still water.
Eron reached inside his cloak and produced the folded, road-worn parchment. The toymaker remained poised as he unfurled the sheet and flattened it out on the table, pointing down at the rows of portraits.
“My unit was assigned to track down the second group of escapees,” Eron began. “The ones too cowardly to break from the dungeons after Mogreb got the chop.” His finger moved along the top row. He paused at each to tap and recite the name. “Falrop, second of the Order. Killed before he passed the city gates. Crossbow bolt to the neck, if I recall.” He lifted his eyes to gauge the man’s expression, but realized he’d be better off trying to read the face of a stone.
He continued on. “Ulthar fled across the sea, it was found. Made off to Relland on a trading cog. The chase wasn’t a long one, I’m afraid. His was a quick death.” Eron continued along the list of fugitives, every last wizard who’d been atop the Tower that day.
The toymaker scoffed. “Crossbow. A coward’s weapon. Its uncouth, to kill a man in so lazy a way.” His eyes bored into Eron’s. “And what of you? Still young, by the look of it. Curious, to choose the life of a Hunter.”
“True,” Eron said, pausing to roll his sleeve, exposing the scar running from wrist to elbow. “I have my reasons.”
The old man furrowed his brow as he gazed upon the scar marks, jaw subtly clenching. He sighed. “Long journey you’ve undertaken, for a single man.”
“I’ve had worse.” Eron smacked a wooden tower off the table, watching it tumble onto the dirt. “You should be ashamed,” he said. “Beyond ashamed, watching those children smile. Though I don’t suppose you told them what you are. What you were.”
“No,” the toymaker agreed. “I didn’t. And I’ve lived with the guilt of the past for quite some time.” His eyes seemed to soften, as did the lines etched in his weathered face. “Though I see now just how far the Crown will go to see my order etched from the face of the earth.” He waved an arm towards the shacks in the distance. “Not the most hospitable climate to foster my supposed rebellion, hm? Tell me, where is my stout keep? Where is my laboratory, where I’m concocting my weapons of war against the king himself? My legions of fanatical bannermen?”
“It is not for fear of retaliation that I treat with you.”
The toymaker scoffed, taking another silent measure of Eron through cold eyes. “Tell me, which of my brothers have you slain yourself?”
Eron pointed to the third row at the bottom of the scroll.
“I found Gamzon, first. Head Alchemist. Seems he fell ill trying to take the mountain pass to the Eastern kingdoms. Caught up to him under a small cliff side shelter, feet black from the frost.”
“And did you show him mercy? An old man in his last moments?”
Eron reached into a pocket and threw down a pair of gilded, ivory bracelets. They clamored on the table, wobbling to a stop just out of the man’s reach. Strange lights danced off the engraved etchings, casting an eerie glow through the square.
“I took the hands that housed these foul artifacts.”
The toymaker was incensed. “A dying man…and you cut off his source to the Mystery…”
Eron grinned. “More concerned for a pair of wrists than a thousand dead children. Curious.”
“Gamzon,“ the toymaker sighed. “I was there the day he took the name of an angel. I watched as the blood-“
“Shut up,” Eron snapped, voice hard as oak.
“Your friend Ethred met no noble end, either. Cast himself from atop Mount Karaad. I’m sure in all his vanity, it wasn’t the death he’d hoped for. I would have liked to duel him, had the opportunity presented itself. That would have been a fight for the ages.”
“Ethred was one hundred and seventy nine years old.”
“And dangerous,” Eron shot back. “Dangerous as a fucking snake, as are you.”
The toymaker fidgeted. Eron grinned to himself, watching the anger rise.
“You find this honorable, do you? Hunting down tired old men? Where is the honor in that, eh? Where is the glory in putting a wizard in his grave?”
“Glory? Oh, no. That’s not why I hunt old men. That’s not why I rouse them from their holes like the vermin they are. That’s not why I hang their bodies from pillar and post so everyone can see the true cost of the Mystery. You are an order built on greed and the bones of children.”
Eron unclasped the Breaker from the loop on his belt and held it aloft. It wasn’t an elegant weapon. Didn’t carry the same flash as a wizard’s bracelet, or the occasional saber they used when they felt particularly warlike. It was a simple thing: a hunk of black metal with a long, slender handle, like a small butcher’s block of steel.
“You know what they call this?”
“Aye. The Breaker.”
“And do you know why?”
“Because if one tries to use the bracelets, it’ll break the hands clean off.”
“Crush every bone from the wrist down, faster than you can blink.”
The toymaker leaned forward, brow furrowed in curiosity.
“Funny,” Eron said, casting a quick glance to the parchment, “You don’t match any of the names on our list.” He thought back to the display with the wooden knight. The man had used the Mystery. Of that, there was no question. A rumor had sent him here, after all. And Eron knew the power of rumors.
“Why, I’m just a tired old man, out selling his wares,” he mused, gazing down at Eron’s arm. “You were there that day, weren’t you…the day of the execution? I can tell by the scars, you must have been. What were you, ten? Eleven?”
“You watched as they led the Great Wizard out, had him kneel before court and commons alike.”
“And you didn’t find it strange, that his face was never shown?”
Eron’s heart leapt up into his throat as the memory pounded through his head. He could remember the tip of the hat, those stupid pointed things they all wore. He’d been too short to see over the crowd. All he’d seen was the axe raising and falling.
“No,” Eron fumbled, backing away slightly.
“Yes,” the toymaker’s eyes narrowed, yellow and filled with fury. They looked to Eron like the eyes of a demon, all malice and hate.
He leaned in closer, breath reeking of old onions and sulfur. “What we did that day was honorable. So a few children had to perish. That invading army was nothing more than a rabble of rapists and thieves. And rapists and thieves is what those filthy younglings would’ve become, had they grown. Consider it a blessing, if it makes you feel any better. A premature punishment for the inevitable.”
Eron watched as the wizard’s bracelets began to glow. He was gathering the power, some terrible wrath building and building, the very air around the table growing thick as he tapped into the Mystery.
“The king you serve is an abomination. A fool who heeds the council of fools. To outlaw the Mystery is a decree I cannot abide. We shouldn’t have stopped with the children. No, no. We should’ve descended the Tower, marched right into that camp…”
The bracelets glowed a deep red, hotter than open flame.
Eron’s hands were puddles of sweat as he gripped the Breaker’s hilt.
“I’ve heard tell it’s customary to offer the condemned some last words,” the wizard said. “And though you offered my brethren no such courtesy, I suppose I can offer you yours. Speak them, Hunter.”
“Pag!” Eron shouted. “Pag!”
The wizard cocked his head, glancing out across the deserted square.
“Pag? What is that, some street-urchin war cry?”
Eron breathed a sigh of relief as the shadowy figure materialized from behind the fountain, creeping silent and slow up behind.
He smiled. “This is Pag.”
The wizard let out a frightened hiss as Pag’s blade tipped the base of his skull.
“The thing about urchin war-cries,” Eron mused, “is they work.”
“Turn around, filth,” Pag whispered.
The wizard’s mouth hung agape as he looked at Pag’s ruined face, skin half melted off the skull, skin like sallow wax paper, the folds hanging dead like the drippings of a candle.
“Look upon my face,” Pag commanded. “Look upon the glory of your Mystery.”
The wizard did so, his skin paling a ghastly white.
“Look long and hard,” Pag said, spittle flying from the corners of his mouth. “And if you so much as blink…”
Eron kicked the table aside.
“Our Order beseeches us to ask one simple question,” he said. “The answer to which shall determine your fate.”
The wizard remained frozen, trapped like a rabbit in a hunter’s snare.
“Have you, in secret or public, before nameless gods or noted masters, taken the name of an angel?”
A long silence passed as Pag and Eron waited. They could hear the chirp of crickets, the cackling of crows, the drip, drip, drip from the rusted fountain. Eron’s scar flared up again, itching as though a thousand ants had descended upon his arm.
“I have,” the wizard said. “I HAVE!” he screamed, louder and louder. “And damn you! Damn you to the Pits, you Hunter scum!”
He thrashed about wildly, trying to free himself from Pag’s iron grip.
“Mogreb!” he wailed, “Mogreb is the name I took, the name I’ll bear long after you’re dust!”
He went to scream again, but was silenced as Breaker and sword met to deliver the killing blow.
* * *
When it was done, Eron collected the bracelets off the Great Wizard’s wrists. He’d bashed them too hard, he realized, separating the hands completely. It made no matter. He gathered them up and dumped them into the fountain. Better than tossing a coin, he thought. Perhaps wizard’s hands were lucky.
Pag went to move the body, which by then lay seeped in a pool of dark and syrupy blood.
“Don’t,” Eron said, watching as the dirt quickly drank it up. “Leave him be.”
Pag gave him a curious look, then simply shrugged his shoulders and followed his partner to the constable’s hut at the other end of the village.
It was nearing midnight. Eron pounded hard on the door, watching as a single candle illuminated the darkness inside.
The constable opened the door, a jowly man, face puffy from sleep.
“Good news,” Eron said, holding up the bloody bracelets. “You had a fugitive hiding in this lovely village. You’ll be pleased to know that he has been dealt with in a swift and efficient manner, in accordance with His Majesty’s law.”
The dazed constable coughed up a bit of phlegm as he rubbed the sleep from his eyes.
“A fugitive, you say? How awful. Nice work, lads. Absolutely capital. If there was a reward posted, I’d be happy to call it in-“
“Oh, no need for that,” Eron said. “Job’s been paid for by the Crown.”
The constable’s eyes widened. “Uh, well yes, of course. Capital,” he coughed again. “Just capital.”
“Oh, and constable?” Eron called over his shoulder.
“Burn the body. The man was a wizard.”
The constable scoffed, jowls shaking. “B-Burn? Surely there’s no need for-“
“We’ve done you the honor of removing the head. By decree, it’s to be posted at the gate. Burn the rest. A forge will do, if you have one.” He looked around at the abandoned shacks. “If not, a pyre will suffice. So long as it burns for a day and a night.”
Pag gave him a mischievous wink, flipping a silver coin through the air, watching as it plopped in the dust by the constable’s foot.
“Fire for fire.”
“Fire for fire,” the man repeated, voice cracking.
Eron and Pag turned and made their way home, leaving the frazzled constable shaking and pale in the moonlight, scouring for the silver in the dirt.