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Chapter Three (continued)
The nearest village was half a day’s walk, but it had no witches to speak of, just a half-witted apothecary. He’d also already tried to recruit new followers there, so they all knew him. The last time he’d been there, they’d thrown stones at him until he left. They knew better than to listen to the ramblings of a crazy old gnome. If he was going to find any kind of mage or followers, he would have to look somewhere else. The nearest city was three days away, but it was his best bet.
He set the bowl outside to let the rain wash it clean as he gathered the rest of his meagre belongings into a bundle. He would have preferred to wait until morning, but once he was done he immediately set off into the night. Magical curses didn’t take things like cold or rain into consideration, so he was forced to endure the full force of the storm.
He spent the long hours secretly hoping that he would wander into a bog and drown, or that he would be set upon by bandits who would kill him just for the sport of it. Despite being nearly blind from the darkness and the water in his eyes, however, he somehow managed to stay on the road until the storm eased off shortly after sunrise. He never stopped, not even to eat, nibbling on his dwindling stores of wild berries and dried fish as he walked instead.
Cluck was utterly exhausted and ready to collapse when he arrived at the Rotham city gates that evening, but he couldn’t stop until he’d completed his task. He asked everyone he saw if there were any mages about. People brushed him off as a dirty beggar, but eventually one woman pointed him toward a small house in the better part of town. He went straight there and knocked on the door.
The smell of fresh bread and cooked meat made Cluck’s stomach growl and his mouth salivate as a tall man with short, black hair opened the door to greet him. “Forgive the intrusion, m’lord. Are you Ballikanisan? Might I have a word with you on a matter of mutual interest.”
Ballikanisan was a young mage, no doubt barely out of his studies at the Magic Academy. He had exactly the right blend of knowledge and inexperience to be the perfect mark for Cluck’s plan. “I gave at the temple,” he huffed. “Go and see them if you’re hungry.”
He tried to closed the door, but Cluck stuck his arm in to block it. In his hand he waggled the scrap of vellum from the altar lockbox. “If you’ll permit me,” said Cluck, gritting his teeth against the pain, “I think you might want to see this.”
Cluck felt the vellum being pulled from his hand. Silently, he counted to three. The pressure on his arm eased and then the door was flung wide. “Where did you get this?” demanded Ballikanisan.
Rubbing his sore limb, Cluck said, “If I might come inside, we can discuss it in private.”
The man leaned over Cluck and peered up and down the street to see if anyone was watching. “Come in,” he whispered. “Quickly.” Ballikanisan tugged Cluck into his house by his ragged robe, nearly tearing his shirtsleeve off in in the process, and slammed the door behind them. He marched over to a table of beakers and vials full of strange and noxious liquids and spread the vellum out to better read it.
“I’ve been told you are a man of learning and magical talents,” said Cluck, “so I’m sure you recognize the markings. I believe you’ll find it’s exactly what it appears to be – a map to the Tomb of K’lu Satal and all of its riches.”
“I certainly looks like Second Empire. The style of lettering and design seem authentic. I’d have to run a few tests on the ink to be sure. I don’t suppose you’d be willing to lend me this for a few days, merely for academic research purposes, of course.” Ballikanisan pulled a magnifying glass from the clutter on the table to examine the map closer. His voice trailed off as though he was lost in thought.
Cluck strode over to the table and slammed the jeweled dagger on top of the map. “I believe this will help to overcome your doubt.”
Ballikanisan gasped and gingerly picked up the knife with both hands, cradling it in his fingers like it was glass and not solid steel. “I saw a drawing of one of these once in the restricted section of the College Archives. I thought they were all lost or destroyed two centuries ago. Tell me where you found it. Tell me!”
“I found them in a ruined fortress not far from here. From what I could gather, it was the last shrine of the Great Deceiver. It appeared to have been abandoned only quite recently.” Technically this wasn’t a lie, even if it wasn’t the whole truth.
“This is quite remarkable and most unexpected…” Ballikanisan leaned closer, holding the knife up to his face. “Oh, there’s still some blood on the blade.”
“Oops, sorry,” said Cluck as he fished around in his bundle. “Clumsy me. It’s sharper than it looks.”
The mage gently set knife back down on the table. Although Ballikanisan seemed a little less enthusiastic, Cluck still had one more trick up his sleeve to seal the deal. “There’s more. I found this bowl as well.”
Ballikanisan’s eyes went wide and his jaw went slack. He grasped the bowl in his hands like it was a newborn baby that he wanted to kiss. “The knife and the bowl. Not even the Arcane Museum in Tremall has both. With these and the map to guide me I could…” His brow suddenly furrowed as he remembered the gnome was still there. “You. If you know what these things are, why did you not seek K’lu Satal’s staff for yourself? Surely you know it would be worth a thousand times what these trinkets would fetch you.”
“I am but a feeble old man, good sir mage,” said Cluck. “A mere shadow of my former self. I would never survive a trip to the Southern Reaches, but a young man like yourself with his whole life ahead of him, he might achieve what others had only dreamed of. Besides it would take a skilled wizard to master the power of the staff, something that is far beyond my humble talents. That is why I sought you out.”
“Hmm, that makes sense,” said Ballikanisan. “I think I have a tome on Second Empire staff making around here somewhere, if I could only remember where I put it…”
Cluck cleared his throat loudly to regain the mage’s attention. “Forgive me, kind sir, but it’s getting late and I’ve traveled far. It seems I have something you want, so all that remains is to haggle a price.”
“What, oh yes, of course,” said Ballikanisan. “Whatever you think is reasonable.”
“Well, there’s the intrinsic worth of the gold and jewels, plus the obvious historical and arcane nature of the artifacts. I couldn’t let them go for less than a hundred Westwood ducats.”
“Certainly,” said the mage. “I can get that for you now. Just give me a moment.”
Cluck frowned as he waited for the mage to come back from the other room. He should have asked for more, but he hadn’t had to deal with money for a very long time and wasn’t sure what the market would bear. He consoled himself by remembering that it didn’t matter. The trap was set. If all went according to plan, Ballikanisan would soon be dead, and Cluck would get all the temple’s artifacts back.
The mage dropped a pouch in Cluck’s outstretched hand. Its weight was comforting. He’d not had such a heavy purse in decades. “Thank you.”
“I believe that concludes our business. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have much to do.” Ballikanisan seemed to have already forgotten that Cluck existed as he returned to studying the map. The gnome left him to his work, eager to finish his own.
It only took a few minutes to find a respectable inn. Cluck strode through the door and plopped himself on a stool at the bar. “I don’t suppose you’d want to join a long dead cult that worships an evil demi-goddess, would you?
“Pfft, no,” snapped the innkeeper.
“Then can I get a pint of ale, a hot supper, a bath, and a bed,” said Cluck. “Preferably in that order.”
The innkeeper regarded Cluck sitting there in his rags with disapproval. “For you, two gold. In advance.”
“A fair bargain,” said Cluck and dropped two coins on the bar.
That was the thing about magical curses – you always have to be precise in the wording. K’lu Satal had asked him to start recruiting, not to actually find any recruits. Now that he had asked someone, he could get some rest. He’d have to dredge up a few lost souls eventually or she’d have his hide, but that could wait until tomorrow. Come what may, tonight he would live like a king.
To be continued…
If you like this story, consider getting a copy for your self. The Problem with Prophesy is currently selling pre-orders at Inkshares until March 3rd, 2015. I’m publishing the first few chapters here as a teaser. If the book reaches 750 pre-orders before March 3, 2016, it will receive professional editing, design, distribution, and marketing. For more information visit Inkshares.com.