The crash of nearby thunder woke the tired old gnome from his uneasy slumber. He’d hoped that the storm was going to pass him by this time. His luck being what it was, however, he should have known better. His rickety lean-to of dead branches and dirty straw wouldn’t be enough to keep out the heavy rain, and that meant he’d have to take refuge in the temple.
He hated that place, preferring to face the cold nights bundled in rags and dead leaves rather than be near that evil altar. The shrine was what kept him bound to this ruined fortress and this miserable life. Countless generations ago, one of his ancestors had insulted K’lu Satal, a demi-goddess and powerful mage. She had bound his blood and forced him to serve as her priest in retaliation, a curse passed down through the family line to this day. He took some comfort that the suffering of a thousand years would end with him – he had no children to pass on his tainted legacy to – but the shrine was, as his old bones constantly reminded him, the only building in the fortress left with an intact roof.
He gathered the hot embers from what remained of his fire just as the clouds burst, and ran as fast as his frail legs would carry him into the temple. He took one last breath of fresh air before forcing the door closed to block out the wind.
The dim red glow was the first indication that something had changed. It was hard to see inside even at midday without the braziers being lit, and the money for candles had run out a decades ago. The chamber should have been pitch black.
On a dais opposite the doors, a ten foot tall statue of his mistress stood with arms outstretched toward the empty room. The pews and other furniture had been sold off or burned for warmth by his predecessors long ago, but no one had ever wanted the hideous lump of carved granite with the skeletal face. Not that the curse would have permitted him to get rid of it, but he always imagined it would make a most effective scarecrow. Especially now when it was glowing ominously with magical energy.
“No, no, no, no, no, no,” he chanted, but he couldn’t deny what he saw. After all these long years of silence, K’lu Satal was finally waking. “Damn it! A few more years and I would have been dead, and you could have gone to rot with Sharton and the other dead gods. Why did you have to come back now?”
Despite all his protests, he knew what he had to do. He could already feel the geas compelling him to action. Taking the embers from his campfire, he fired up the pile of wood on one of the large braziers that flanked the statue so he would have some heat and light. Once that was going, he tossed a burning log onto into the other to let it catch on its own.
From a hidden compartment beneath the altar, the gnome pulled out the reliquary which held the last treasures of a once proud religion and opened it. Putting aside a folded piece of vellum and a half empty bottle of wine turned to vinegar, he drew out the last remaining candles, a small jeweled dagger, and a solid gold bowl inlaid with black pearls. He looked inside the box and frowned. All that remained inside was a moldy bit of cheese, an assortment of buttons, and some thread which he used to patch his ragged clothes. He slammed the lid shut and put it aside.
After lighting and placing the candles around the bowl, he picked up the dagger and held it to his wrist. K’lu Satal demanded a blood sacrifice to appear, but there was no one else around to offer up but himself. The gnome held his breath in anticipation. The curse fought against itself as it demanded that he should both live to perform the ritual and die as a sacrifice. Then, as if in a compromise, it settled on slicing a vein instead of an artery.
Disappointed, he let his breath out in a sigh. He’d thought that might have been it for him, but it looked like he was going to survive the day after all. He let the blood run down his fingers into the bowl until it was half-full and then bandaged the cut as best he could with a dirty rag. He smiled at the thought of a lethal infection, which was almost certain considering the squalor he lived in. Despite all that the curse had done to him, he remained an optimist. He would have his death one way or another.
He raised his arms over the bowl and began to chant in a long forgotten tongue. The statue began to tremble as the ancient evil gathered its strength. The blood boiled and the flames of the candles and braziers turned a brilliant blue. A woman’s voice shook the temple as it boomed out from the statue.
“Who summons the great K’lu Satal. Speak and be rewarded.”
“I am just a lowly maggot, mistress,” said the gnome. “Not worthy of a name.”
“That may be true, worm,” said the voice, “but I must call you something. Give me a name.”
“The villagers call me Cluck,” said the gnome. “The crazy old man who lives in a chicken coop. Cluck, cluck, cluck.”
The statue stopped shaking for a moment, and seemed to dim slightly. The voiced boomed again, “Is there anyone else there I can talk to? Anyone at all?”
“No, there is only me, poor old Cluck. The rest are gone. Dead or fled. I am the last.”
“Maybe I’ll try one of my other temples,” moaned K’lu Satal.
“Ruins all, save this one,” said Cluck. “Smashed and burned. Looted and forgotten. Only Cluck remembers now.”
“How is this possible?” boomed K’lu Satal. “I once had worshippers from the Sea of Tears to the Moon Mountains. Where did they all go?”
“It turns out that when you don’t answer your follower’s prayers, they stop asking,” said Cluck. “That plus the flagellation. Not too many were keen on the daily whippings. Even I tried praying to other gods, but none of them would have me. Stupid curse.”
“You’re absolutely sure there’s no one else there?” she asked.
“I am your last priest and worshipper. How may I serve you, mistress?”
“I suppose you’ll have to do,” said K’lu Satal. The voice grew strong and commanding once more. “As was foretold, one of the Hands of Fate has been revealed in a dragon’s horde in the wastelands near the western woods. It is only a matter of time now before the others are discovered. This is what I have been waiting for for all these long years. With their combined power, I’ll be able to overthrow the gods themselves and rule all of…Cluck! Wake up!”
The gnome had slumped unconscious on the floor. He woke with a sudden start at K’lu Satal’s order. “Sorry, mistress. There wasn’t anyone else to give the blood sacrifice. I may have overdone it a bit.”
The room began to shake more violently than before. Cluck curled into a ball on the floor, afraid the ceiling was finally going to collapse. Two green beams of light erupted from the hands of the statue concentrating magical energy on the shrivelled old man. When they finally stopped, Cluck pulled away the bandage from his arm and his heart sank. The cut had been sealed leaving only an ugly red welt that ran up his arm. He wouldn’t die today after all. With thinly veiled disdain, he grumbled, “Thank you, mistress.”
“Well, I can’t have you dying on me just yet,” she said. “I have two tasks for you to perform. First, I need you to find me a new vessel. The body should be strong and the mind well-versed in the magic arts. It needs to be delivered alive to my tomb as soon as possible.”
“Forgive me, mistress,” said Cluck, “but this frail body of mine would never survive a trip to the Southern Reaches.”
“That’s not my problem,” said K’lu Satal. “Figure something out. Just get it done.”
“I also need you to start recruiting some new followers. If I’m going to rule the universe, I’m going to need to someone to take care of all the little things I can’t be bothered with. One pathetic priest does not make a religion. Honestly, the current state of affairs is embarrassing.”
“I’ll see what I can do,” said Cluck.
“Oh, and one more thing…”
“Give yourself an extra whipping tomorrow.”
The temple was suddenly still as the spirit of K’lu Satal left the statue. Cluck let his eyes adjust as the flames returned to a more normal orange and yellow, and he pondered his next move. He couldn’t refuse a direct command from K’lu Satal herself, so he knew he would be forced to abandon the fortress. The only question that remained was where he should go.
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 College. 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 of 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.