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Othar’s sense of smell returned first. He breathed in the stench of corpses. Then sight came to his open eyes, and he saw a black, starless sky. His flesh felt on fire. With pain came awareness. With awareness came rage. She did this to me! Othar recalled her name. Dar!
When his fury hardened to stony hate, the sorcerer considered what had happened. How could a branded woman become queen of the orcs? Othar pondered that question. She had a clan tattoo. She said she’d been reborn. He was unaware such things were possible. Othar wondered what had happened to the old orc queen. He knew she had died, for Dar had used her body in a ruse to get the orcs inside the city. Did Dar kill her? He suspected not.
But I killed Dar! Othar smiled despite his pain. I stabbed her with a poisoned blade. And she… Othar recalled Dar throwing his precious, magic bones into the fire, destroying them and unleashing their power. It had burned him. Othar wished with all his being that Dar had shared his torment. Yet she had stood in the king’s spilled blood, and it had protected her. Dar had watched while Othar suffered. He recalled seeing his flesh bubble and blacken as his finger bones fell joint by joint to the floor. Her death was too easy.
With painful effort, the former royal mage raised his head. He was in a pit surrounded by the decaying bodies of paupers and criminals. The smell was nearly unbearable. Lacking hands and feet, Othar wondered how he’d ever climb out. Then he heard voices.
“They dumped a new one this evenin’.”
“And ye say guardsmen did it?”
“Aye. Could be someone wearin’ more than rags.”
Othar saw a hand extend a lantern over the pit. It illuminated the coarse faces of two men. The instant the mage glimpsed their eyes, he knew their thoughts. These weren’t expressed in words, but he understood them nevertheless. The one with the lantern will tell the other to take my clothes. Othar was amazed, for he had never possessed this power before.
The mage sensed that his pain and rage had masked another sensation. It tingled in the way he imagined a lightning bolt would after it struck. But it was more than a feeling. It seemed like another self; one that was potent, restless, and ravenous.
A ladder was lowered into the pit. “Go down and get his robe,” said the man holding the lantern. “’Tis good as new.”
His companion hesitated. “That’s Blood Crow. I won’t touch him.”
“Then my foot will touch yer arse! Climb down or fall down, take yer pick.”
“I don’t like the looks of him, Tug. He’s all burnt, ’cept those eyes! By Karm, they give me shakes!”
“He’s dead, Nuggle. Beyond harmin’ anyone. Get to it! Quick done is quick over.”
Nuggle slowly descended the ladder, and Othar sensed his reluctance as if it were his own. As he probed Nuggle’s mind, Othar realized that he could ensnare it and bend it to his needs. “Help me,” said Othar in a hoarse whisper.
Nuggle halted, and the sorcerer felt his shock and terror. Othar gazed up at Tug. “Come here.”
Tug obeyed, and Othar spoke to both men. “Take me from here.”
The men wanted to resist, and Othar sensed their fear and revulsion. These emotions were extinguished as he wrested the men’s wills, pulling both to the edge of madness. Unable to do anything but obey, they meekly lifted the mage from the damp earth, dragged him up the ladder, and laid him on the ground. Othar’s skin cracked from being handled, and his agony was excruciating. When it subsided, he spoke to Nuggle. “Steal a handcart. Bring it here.” Nuggle hurried off.
Othar turned to Tug. “When he returns, take me to your home. I’m master now.”
“Tell me news of the palace,” said Othar.
“I only know what the criers say,” replied Tug, his voice flat and lifeless. “The king’s dead. Word is ye killed him and died yerself. Queen Girta rules in her son’s name.”
“And the one called the orc queen? The girl. What of her?”
“She went home to her piss eyes. Rode off last night with a guardsman.”
“Aye, that’s what the criers say.”
When Othar heard those words, his fury flared hot again and his thoughts focused on Dar’s destruction. He envisioned torments of excruciating cruelty and longed to inflict them. His universe became rage, and nothing else existed except the object of his hatred. When his passion was finally spent, Othar spied Tug sprawled on the ground. His nails and fingers were bloody. Chunks of his face and throat were strewn about. It appeared that he had acted out the mage’s fantasies by murdering himself using only his hands.
Nuggle had difficulty stealing a cart, and it was nearly morning when he returned to the pit. Othar’s grip on him was so complete that he was oblivious of Tug’s corpse. He lifted the mage into the cart, then waited for further commands. “Take me to Tug’s,” said Othar.
Nuggle headed to where Taiben’s poorest and most disreputable citizens lived, a squalid collection of makeshift buildings outside the city walls. As the cart’s wheels bumped over rutted, frozen mud, Othar reflected on his downfall. Two mornings ago, he had been the feared and respected royal mage—the real power behind the throne. Now I’m baggage in a stolen cart. Yet, despite his blasted body and ruined fortunes, Othar had gained as well as lost. By some means he didn’t understand, he had acquired the ability to read others’ minds and rule them. They’ll become my instruments.
Othar wondered what the full extent of his newfound powers was. Glancing about the dismal slum, he thought it the ideal place to find out. No one here will be missed. Nuggle halted the cart before a dilapidated shanty, interrupting Othar’s thoughts. “We’re here, Master.”
Before Othar could reply, a slatternly woman burst out the door. “Nuggle, ye dog’s waste, where’s Tug?” She glanced at the load in the cart. “Why ye bringin’ that shit here?” In the dim light, Othar’s scorched face blended with his black robes and the woman jumped back when she noticed his eyes staring at her. “Karm’s holy ass! What’s that?”
“Your master,” replied Othar in a low, raw voice. And with those words, it was true. “Tend me, Moli.”
The woman seemed unperturbed that the grotesque stranger knew her name. She simply helped Nuggle get the mage off the cart and into the shanty, where a meager fire produced more smoke than heat. They eased Othar onto a filthy mattress. Moli brought over a loaf of hard bread and was about to give it to him when she saw that his hands were missing. Her dull eyes showed no surprise or any other emotion. Moli merely rose and grabbed a pot of cold, thin soup. Then she broke a piece from the loaf, which she softened in the soup before pushing it into Othar’s mouth.
When Moli’s fingers touched Othar lips, a sudden craving seized him. Like his power over minds, it was new. “Cut yourself,” he whispered. “Bleed into the soup.”
Moli pulled a knife from a pocket in her ragged shift and drew it across her wrist. Othar watched hungrily as a red stream colored the soup pink. Soaked in the bloody liquid, the next bite of bread was more to his liking. He would have enjoyed watching Moli bleed to death, but he needed her. “Bind your wound,” he said, knowing that she lacked the will even to save her life.
Moli obeyed, then continued her ministrations. While she fed him, Othar leisurely probed her mind. A part was filled with terror and disgust, but that part was as helpless as someone bricked into a wall. Moli’s memories were intact, but her thoughts were reduced to those Othar had given her. He realized that Moli would serve him until her mind snapped from the strain. The mage already sensed tears in her sanity, and he was curious what would happen when it tore asunder. I’ll find out soon enough, he thought. She can’t last long.
Othar decided to have Moli lure her replacement to the shack at dawn, for he had already discovered that he required eye contact to seize a mind. The mage was still puzzling on how he acquired the power, and he speculated that it either came from the bones or the entity behind them. The latter seemed most likely. Othar had felt its presence whenever he had used the bones to foretell events. It was malicious and bloodthirsty; his ravaged body was proof of that. Then, why would it bestow this gift on me? An answer came quickly. So I can revenge myself on Dar!