Posted by zero
“I’ve got a dark alley and a bad idea that says you should shut your mouth.”
2 Vermus, 1301
Hugh Caedmion crashed to the floor, stumbling over a chair when Elric pushed him. Snarling, the younger man regained his feet only to meet the point of his rival’s rapier. Somehow, Elric flashed a winning smile at Magdalena without ever taking his eyes off Hugh. “A duel, Master Caedmion?” asked the noble, his tone mocking. “A finer jest I could not imagine.”
“El, don’t!” pleaded Magdalena. Her entreaty was ignored.
The merchant’s son’s eyes blazed and his knuckles whitened as he gripped the hilt of his dagger. He was no match for a swordsman of Elric’s skill, and they both knew it. The noble was daring Hugh to provide an excuse to humiliate him further. Hugh barely swallowed his anger at the indignity he’d already suffered. He tried to catch Magdalena’s eye, but her troubled gaze rested squarely on the floor in front of her. Glowering, he spun on his heel and exited the tavern, the mocking laughter of Elric’s cronies following him out.
Fury drove him through the streets of Southport at a fast pace. He didn’t have any particular destination in mind, as his thoughts were focused on the injustice. And for what? He’d only offered Lena some wine and a bit of conversation. Then that cretin Elric had decided to make it his business. Growling, he whirled around a corner, only to find himself in an alley. It was then that he realized he had no idea where his angry walk had taken him.
Looking around the dim city corridor, he noticed the burning tip of a half-spent cigar glowing about eye level. Even squinting against the gloom, he couldn’t make out the face of the smoking figure. Then, from the shadows he heard a gravelly baritone voice. “Trouble, boy?”
“What’s it to you, beggar?” Hugh sniped, hand straying to the hilt of his knife.
“Heh,” replied the Stranger. He took another puff and the cinders of the tobacco flared briefly. “My guess – Girl problems.”
Frowning across the distance, the merchant’s son let his hand drop from his weapon. “It’s just so unfair. Elric has tons of girls all over him. All the time. I just wanted to talk to Magdalena.” He scrubbed a hand through his hair, tangled and sweat dampened after his exit from the tavern. “It’s not fair,” he repeated numbly.
After a pregnant pause, the Stranger responded. “Aye, you have the right of it, son. There never was a man born that failed to abuse the gift noble birth. Galling fact, but true even so.”
Hugh found himself nodding at the Stranger’s words. He leaned against the wall of an adjacent building and mumbled softly, “I just wish I could show him up…one time.” For several moments more, the young man had the distinct impression that he was being watched closely. His temper flaring once more, he whirled to face the Stranger and shouted, “What are you staring at, old man?”
So softly that his deep voice barely carried across the distance separating them, the Stranger said, “The gods are not the only ones with gifts to give, boy. If it is power you seek, I can give you more than enough.”
“What are you saying?” Hugh asked.
“Think of it,” continued the Stranger. “The strength to stop the humiliation. To end your suffering. To teach those sow-spawned nobles the meaning of the word Respect.”
“And you can grant all this?” Hugh said skeptically.
“I can…for a price.”
Sneering, Hugh said, “Take your con elsewhere, grifter. I haven’t the coin to make a good mark.”
“Heh. I had a different currency in mind,” the Stranger said mildly.
Curious, Hugh said, “What, then?”
“I’m not asking much. Just a token, really. A trifle. You’ll never even miss it. What I want from you is…your soul.”
Hugh scoffed. “What kind of backwater yokel do you take me for?”
“On the contrary, I have a keen interest in your plight and only wish to help a young man in need,” said the Stranger. “Perhaps a demonstration that I can do what I claim?”
Hugh was startled to discover that he and the Stranger now stood side-by-side leaning on the railing of a balcony overlooking the front door of the tavern he had fled almost an hour before. Even this close, he could not see the man’s face, which was now obscured by the smoke of his cigar. “What? How did we-?”
“A minor use of the power I control, boy. But that isn’t important right now.” Pointing at the tavern window he said, “That is.” Hugh could clearly see Magdalena seated beside Elric, looking unhappy to be there.
“She didn’t have to stay there,” he insisted. “If she had wanted to, she could have left.”
“Of course,” said the Stranger smoothly. “The young nobleman cannot possibly have forced her hand. Much like he did not force you to withdraw in your earlier confrontation.”
“He’s a bully!” spat Hugh.
“She does appear to be displeased, yes,” agreed the Stranger.
After a beat, Hugh said, “And you could give me the power to change that.”
“As I said.”
“I don’t know,” Hugh said. “It sounds good, but I-”
At that moment, he saw Elric strike Magdalena with the back of his hand. She crashed into a bar wench and they both fell to the floor amidst the broken crockery of a tray of full mugs of ale.
His fury rekindled, without another thought Hugh said, “I accept your deal, Stranger. Your power for my soul. I so swear.”
The merchant’s son could hear the smile in the Stranger’s voice as he said, “And so the Pact is forged.” A gnarled hand reached out from the folds of the figure’s layered clothing and Hugh Caedmion reached out to clasp it in his.
A burning, freezing agony erupted in Hugh as their palms met, and he felt a sickness spreading through him like oil seeping into his veins. It lasted a miniature eternity, and then he blinked, finding himself standing just in front of the tavern door. He turned to look at the balcony upon which he had just stood, but of the Stranger, there was no sign. He looked down at his hand, expecting to see a blackened ruin, but it appeared much as it always had. The only difference was the certain knowledge that with an uttered curse, he could visit pain upon his enemies and his hands could shape that affliction. With a smile that did not touch his eyes, he pushed open the tavern door.
“Elric!” his voice boomed as he strode inside. “I’ve come back to settle this!” In his sight, the words took on substance and settled upon his target’s shoulders like a dark mantle.
The young nobleman sat at his table while the serving wenches helped Magdalena clean the ale from her dress. She looked up, startled by the outburst, but Hugh could not spare any attention for her beyond seeing that she was uninjured. Several of Elric’s attendants moved forward to intercept Hugh, but the warrior waved them off and stood to face the merchant’s son. “You were a fool to return, Caedmion. But do not worry. I shall see to it that it is your final foolish act.”
With this proclamation Elric drew his sword, but Hugh didn’t wait for the nobleman to get close enough to use it. Words of power came unbidden to his mind, and his fingers locked in a peculiar gesture as he lashed out with all his anger. The hex slammed into the swordsman, and thick spiked chains of dark ice wrapped around him. “Don’t move,” Hugh suggested viciously. He took a few arrogant steps toward the bar, and the shadows moved with him. The people near it cleared a path, terrified of the young man.
Elric flexed and the motion shattered the frozen chain, but it was clear that it had cost him in pain. He staggered a couple of steps closer toward his opponent before Hugh uttered his next spell. The nobleman felt his body scoured by a radiant beam so intense it nearly blinded him. “Stay,” Hugh said mockingly. For spite, he cast another spell – one that brought hellfire, and another hidden curse to bear against the nobleman. He lifted a mug of ale from the bar and moved to stand just outside of Elric’s reach, daring his foe to strike.
The nobleman snarled in pain as he took a step forward and the radiant curse burned him anew. He brought his sword up in a wicked arc, meant to decapitate. Between the shadows and the blinding pain, Elric’s strike lacked as much force as he’d intended, and Hugh pivoted away from the strike, suffering a slash across his cheek instead of losing his whole head. As his blood spilled out, the hellfire curse flared up, and Elric stumbled to his knees.
His eyes blazing – literally – Hugh felt righteous fury as he stood over his all but defeated nemesis. “How does it feel to be beaten?” he demanded.
Glaring up at the warlock, Elric managed to growl out, “I shall never…be beaten…by you!” He lunged at the place he though Hugh was standing, but the shadows tricked his senses and his sword struck only air. He fell to the ground, the sword clattering away from his hands.
In a cold voice, Hugh said, “I have beaten you. Stay down.” His new power surged wildly out of his control and the temperature in the entire tavern dropped several degrees as all of the heat was drawn from the surrounding area and into Elric. He burst into flames, and witnesses would later report that he appeared to have been held down by an uncountable number of tiny fire demons.
Hugh blinked, his fury spent. He blinked again as his mind registered the site of the blackened skeleton of what had once been Elric. Aghast at the sight, he stared down at his hands without recognition. His eyes lifted to take in the stunned faces of the people in the tavern and finally settled on the horrified face of Magdalena.
“What did you do?!” she wailed. “What are you?!”
“I-” he started to say, before the shock wore off and Elric’s friends began to shout. The last thing Hugh saw before fleeing the tavern was Magdalena’s terrified weeping over the corpse of his fallen foe.
. . .
He found the Stranger in the same alley in which he’d become lost earlier.
“Please! You must take it back. I didn’t- I never meant to kill anyone!” he said through angry, scared tears.
“I did not make you kill,” the Stranger said mildly.
“The power… It… You tricked me! You didn’t tell me it would surge out of control like that!” he screamed.
“I offered only the power. Yours was the will that drove it. If it was more than you could control, how am I to blame for that?”
“You must take it back,” Hugh pleaded.
“I must do nothing,” replied the Stranger.
Shouting his rage, the magic welled up in Hugh again and he lashed out at the Stranger with an eldritch blast. The energy passed through his target’s form harmlessly and slammed into the wall beyond. Hugh’s eyes grew wide as the Stranger’s body slowly faded into the shadows. “Come back!” he cried. “Help me…” he whimpered. The only response was a sound of deep chuckling coming from nowhere and everywhere.