His sleep that night was fitful, filled with dreams of murder and vengeance. In his mind, all the servants rose up against their master. Armed with the power of their machines, the mob dragged the magician from his bed and slaughtered him like a pig, slicing open his throat to let him bleed out on the floor. Faylor turned to Wyke to share the moment of victory with his friend, but the look he saw in the old man’s face was not joy but terror. Patches of his skin turned purple and then black as he fell to the floor screaming in agony.
What had they missed? Was it a ward placed as a fail-safe, or were there other wizards about? Faylor could only watch helplessly as his friends dissolved into bones and then dust before his eyes. He felt his own skin start to burn and itch, and then he saw the same dark blotches forming on his own arms…
He woke in a sweat despite the cold draft that swept through the hut when the fire burned low. The familiar sounds of his sleeping companions reassured him that what he had seen was only a dream. Teemor would already be in the kitchen baking bread and cutting vegetables, but Wyke and the boy Chald were fast asleep in their beds. Faylor calmed himself with several deep breaths before rolling over on his side to try to go back to sleep. The memory of the nightmare stuck with him, however, and he found he could not get comfortable on the straw-filled mattress. He reached underneath the cot to touch the radio and make sure it was safe and still hidden. Everything was as he had left it hours before.
Faylor was just beginning to relax when he heard the faint shuffling noise in the darkness. He immediately recognized it and lay perfectly still, pretending to sleep. Through half-closed eyes he scanned the room looking for the small figure he knew would be there. When it passed by the fireplace and into the faint moonlight coming through the hut’s tiny window, he saw the huddled figure with its misshapen, bald head. He cursed his bad luck.
It was a homunculus, a wizard’s familiar and spy. Some magicians used animals or elementals as servants, but Baydown had always had an affinity for earth magics, so his conjurations were beasts of clay, molded into parodies of men. Faylor had seen the magician’s creations before, summoned to impress and entertain the few guests that visited the manor. They were unsettling to look at in the full light of a sitting room; in the dead of night, they were terrifying.
Faylor knew the true danger of the homunculus was its connection to its master. The spell created a puppet that allowed a magician to watch and listen at a distance, or to fetch small items. It was as if Baydown himself were in the room, looking through their meager belongings. With only a moon left before yearly review, the impish creature was searching the hut for contraband. The magician would do this several times a year, just to keep the servants on their toes. That it would come tonight of all nights seemed to Faylor to be too much of a coincidence. He gripped the dagger in his hand and prepared himself to strike.
The monster made a circuit around the room, looking in every crack and crevice for things that did not belong. It would only be a few minutes until the radio was discovered. A few minutes after that, he would be dead. Faylor decided not to wait. With his free hand he reached under his cot and pulled out the rucksack with the box inside. In the darkness, his fingers fumbled for the correct dial. As the harsh static filled the hut, the warm coals in the fireplace erupted into full flame, filling the room with light. The homunculus looked straight at him and hissed, baring its crooked, pointy teeth.
His heart sank. The radio should have broken the spell that bound the magician to the creature. Instead it had betrayed him and exposed his intentions to his enemy. Faylor was utterly without choice now. He leapt out of bed, brandishing the dagger. With one stroke he plunged the blade into the foul creature’s eye. It wailed and thrashed about the room, knocking over the small table they used for meals. After a moment the homunculus froze solid. Cracks appeared along its surface and it crumbled into a pile of dust and rubble. Faylor walked over and picked up the knife.
“What have you done?” The thin voice belonged to Chald, the youngest of their group at only fifteen. “He’ll kill us all!”
Wyke looked down at the pile of dirt. “You’ll have to run. It’s your only hope now.”
“Run to where, old friend?” he said. “What place in all the lands is not ruled over by the magicians?”
“The Congregation,” answered Wyke. “It’s your only hope.”
“You mean the same people who gave you that worthless toy?” asked Faylor, pointing to the still hissing box which sat on his bed.
“No, no,” Chald insisted. “He’s not going anywhere. If he leaves, the master will take out his anger on the rest of us.”
Wyke ignored the boy. “Go north to the river. Follow the current until you reach a small lake nestled in a forest. The water will shield you from the master’s earth magics. Go east, always east, until you reach the valley nestled between two cliffs.”
“No, I won’t let you leave!” Chald rushed at Faylor, trying to wrestle him to the ground. He didn’t see the dagger as it slid into his belly. The boy staggered back, clutching at the wound and trying to staunch the flow of blood. As he fell to his knees, he looked up at Faylor with fear and bewilderment. His mouth moved, but no sound came out except for a gurgling whimper.
Faylor looked at the blood on his own hands and roared in rage, “How many innocents must die to satisfy the magicians’ lust for blood?”
“There is no time!” shouted Wyke. “I will do what I can for the boy, but you must flee.”
“Come with me. You can show me the way.”
Wyke shook his head. “I am too old. I would only slow you down.” He picked up the radio and turned it off. The hiss of static stopped, making the hut eerily quiet. He quickly stuffed it back in the bag. “But here, take this.”
“Keep it,” said Faylor. “It’s useless.”
“Maybe, maybe not. But we can’t let it fall into the magicians’ hands. Take it and go.”
He embraced the old man, but Wyke pushed him away. They could feel the small tremors in the ground now. They were steadily growing stronger as if something large was coming toward the hut. Faylor knew what it would be. Golem warriors were Baydown’s weapon of choice, constructed of stone and clay like the homunculus, but more robust and capable of inflicting serious damage to men and property alike. They would not be felled by a simple thrust of a dagger.
Faylor nodded at Wyke and threw the bag over his shoulder before rushing out the door. He was certain he would never see his friend again, but he never looked back. Gripping the dagger tightly in his hand, he ran off into the night to find the Congregation. They had a lot to answer for.
TO BE CONTINUED…