Christine stands outside the base of Gargamel’s tower.
She is staring at the door.
“He’s going to know,” she says.
Then she argues with herself: “But it’s for the best. Sophie sold him out to the shadow.”
She shakes her head slowly.
“He’s going to know.”
She scrubs her arms with her hands, though she is not cold. She is not at this time aware that Sophie has survived.
Finally, she sighs.
“He won’t hurt me,” Christine says. “I’m the only part of us left.”
Boldly, she opens the door. She walks into the room at the base of Gargamel’s tower. It is a room with many entrances. The entrance opposite her is also a door, and it opens. Manfred stands there, silhouetted against the light.
“Glurp,” says Christine. She blushes hotly with guilt and fear.
Manfred stares at her.
“What is it?” Christine demands. “It wasn’t my fault. She was evil. What are you doing here? Oh my God, your arms.”
Without thinking, she pushes back her right foot and sets herself in stance. There is a bit of fire rising around her and the air is thick with power.
Manfred’s face is now peculiarly forlorn.
There’s a pause.
“I should end this here,” Manfred rumbles, slowly. “But—”
Christine draws fiercely, in the air:
Manfred steps back. He closes the door. He is gone.
Christine waits for arcane fire to lash out through the door and devour the flesh from Manfred’s bones. But it doesn’t.
It takes her eighty-seven long seconds to realize that she’s accidentally written an obscenity instead of a spell.
An Unclean Legacy
The Nine-Fingered Man
Francescu’s a ragged nine-fingered man walking on the road, with his brother Tomas following far behind.
There’s a crunch under Francescu’s foot.
“You broke it,” says a pixie, crouched down on the ground.
“You broke my leaf. You’re going to have to give me seven years of service.”
Francescu looks under his foot. There is in fact a broken leaf.
So Francescu gets this odd kind of grin. He says, “That wasn’t there when I put my foot down. It must have followed my shadow to the sole.”
The pixie swells up blustrously. “The allegation is irrelevant to the facts at hand.”
And Francescu’s eyes, the pixie suddenly realizes, are the eyes of an alligator staring at its prey.
“Would you like me to put it back together for you?” Francescu asks.
Slowly, the pixie nods.
So Francescu exhales and the wind blows, and the leaf comes back together, all the little bits and pieces of it, even the tiny shard hidden in the sole of Francescu’s boot. Then the leaf drifts and lands in front of the pixie. The pixie looks a little ill.
“I disclaim any further obligation,” says Francescu. “And you will find yourself troubled should you pull such tricks again.”
The pixie curls in on itself. It sulks. Francescu walks away, whistling to himself.
There’s a horrible crunching sound.
And . . .
Once upon a time there was a deathless sorcerer who could have held the stars cupped in his hands. His name was Francescu Gargamel, and the world was his for the taking.
He had no use for it.
He turned his back on the Devil and on God. He turned his back on principle and on kin. He turned his back on the world.
He walked away.
But not even Francescu Gargamel could resist the chance to claim the little golden men.
There is a horrible crunching sound.
The pixie looks up.
Tomas is standing there. He’s dressed in a plain brown robe. He’s got straight black hair and wild green eyes.
He’s standing, very deliberately and crunchily, on the pixie’s leaf. He’s grinding it with his heel.
Francescu looks back.
“My leaf!” the pixie protests.
Tomas looks down. His expression is distant. “I have no love for the fairy folk,” he says. “Trouble me not.”
The pixie hesitates, torn between alternatives. Then it swells up in its anger and pokes Tomas’ leg.
“It’s not okay. It’s my leaf and you probably knew it was there and you stepped on it. You owe me.”
“Tomas,” says Francescu.
Tomas looks at Francescu. He frowns.
“You’re being unkind,” Francescu says.
“These things are unsainly,” Tomas says. “You should have killed it, or banished it to live inside a stump for seven years. Instead—”
Francescu’s shoulders slump. He sighs, a long exhalation.
“You’re right,” he says. “I should have killed it. But be kind, Tomas.”
He turns. He begins to walk down the road.
The pixie looks apoplectic. It hops up and down. “Don’t discuss abstract morality! Pay me for my leaf!”
There’s a click. There’s a hum. There’s a shifting in the world.
Tomas looks down.
“Such is my instinct,” he says, cruelly, “that you have attempted this trick before; sliding this leaf under the feet of good honest men like me, to entrap them into servitude. And it is my belief that at one such time you chose a great sorcerer as your victim, and so were cursed that should you ever attempt this again, your next victim would choose your punishment.”
Francescu closes his eyes.
“No doubt,” says Tomas, “this was many centuries ago, or even millennia, and that is why you have forgotten.”
The pixie’s glare has disappeared entirely. It is now looking rather glum.
“Not so long as that,” it says. It affects a cheerful, pacifying expression. “So, it’s to be that seven years in a stump thing?”
Francescu’s eyes are still closed, signaling and connoting his weariness with the world. He sighs as he walks.
Tomas ignores him.
“Let you be haled down into the darkest regions,” says Tomas, “there to be scourged undying by knife-edged flails until you repent and consign your soul over to the Lord.”
Francescu walks into a tree.
He falls down.
Francescu turns around as he lands. He’s a bit dazed. He opens his mouth. Perhaps he is going to note that the curse has its limits, and that, in exceeding them, Tomas has rendered his justice null and void.
“That,” says Tomas, as hard and inevitable as death, “or for the maximum duration within this curse’s power.”
The pixie is drawn into the darkness under the ground.
It is screaming, then it is not.
Francescu, making dizzy noises, gets back to his feet. He looks at Tomas.
After a moment, he protests, “I don’t know if pixies can consign themselves to the Lord.”
Tomas is brutal. “Let me be clear,” he says.
“That thing was a slave-taker of the elder races, forgotten of Heaven. It’s size is less than a child’s, but it has no innocence.”
Francescu snorts angrily. Then he turns. He begins walking back to the castle.
“As you like,” Francescu says.
They walk quietly for a time.
“The weak are cruel when they have power,” observes Francescu.
He closes his eyes and sighs, indicating with this that Tomas wearies him and that a great sorcerer need not mind the fate of pixies or of men.
“Did you know Violet gave me the bone that holds your life?” Tomas asks, conversationally.
Francescu opens his eyes just in time to walk into a tree.
But what kind of tree is it?
Is it a birch? An elm? An oak? What?
Oh, and is Tomas telling the truth?
And what bone is he talking about?
Don’t forget to read the previous seven installments of this story, and tune in tomorrow for the revolutionary Unclean Legacy flashback: “Deathless!”