This article was originally published on Medium on Nov. 27, 2019.
Our tale begins with two friends sitting at an uncomfortably warm and poorly lit inn, sipping the watered-down ale that the bastard innkeeper is overcharging them for. They complain about the weather, their health, traders, and generally everything. You look at them once and nothing stands out. Like most people, you don’t give either a second glance. However, you notice some rather interesting details if you make it to the second glance.
While both seem animated at first, their arms are rather stiff for two conversationalists. Their hands hover around their belts. Their surprisingly hard-bitten eyes constantly search the room as they punctuate their conversations with uproarious laughter. If something gives them away, it is their eyes.
One lacks an arm.
Yes, it is strange to see a one-armed man seated at the inn buying cheap swill — the fringes of the Empire are not friendly to amputees.
The innkeeper lounges at the counter, continuously shooting dirty glances at the men — he knows they mean bad news. Further still, you see a man propped up on a corner seat, cursing incoherently and scratching his head as he holds a one-way conversation. The two friends take notice of him and, as they watch, he slowly turns to face them. Delight, indecision, and horror war on his face, and he stands up, seemingly unsure whether he wants to back out of the room or throw himself at the two men.
The inn is empty, setting the stage for the unfolding drama.
The innkeeper curses and starts as he prepares to intercept the madman, but a gesture from the amputee stops him in his tracks. The innkeeper’s face twists in an ugly grimace and he grudgingly spits in the amputee’s general direction — to be ordered by one who is not whole is degrading to him. He snarls and turns, leaving the madman to his fate.
The madman walks towards the two friends, his legs twitching and shaking as if he does not remember how to walk.
The air is humming with tension.
The man with both arms unsheathes his sword and places it on the table. The amputee cracks his neck and waits warily. Their conversation has died down — their target approaches them.
The madman continues gibbering but the anguish in his eyes belies the incoherency of his words. He knows something is happening to him. He knows he is not well. Tears well up in his eyes and he makes an attempt to regain control over his traitorous body. His lips trembling so hard he can barely be understood, he squeaks out a single word.
“Please,” he moans, before sinking to the floor in pain and weariness.
The amputee redundantly prompts his trainee to pay attention with a look. He squints and seems to move, although no motion is visible. The innkeeper cringes back, the trainee exhales as he sees the act, and the madman screams as the thing inside him comprehends the situation.
The trainee hovers over the madman as the thing inside him tries to struggle, but it is far too late. He sees that the amputee too strong for the demon. He sees his superior capture it, absorbing it into his phantom arm. This is the first time he is seeing the process. Fear and awe course through his system.
Their job is done.
The amputee gestures to his subordinate and both men walk out of the door, the amputee tossing a couple of coins into the inn with his nonexistent arm. The innkeeper realizes they are gold coins, enough to buy his inn a couple of times over.
The ex-madman remains on the floor, gasping for air and crying tears of joy. The innkeeper mutters darkly and slams the door shut, all the while directing even darker glances at the man writhing on the floor.
Deep inside, under the layer of superstition and conditioning, a deeper fear begins to take root. What has he seen? What could it mean?
He knows he will probably never know, and the dissatisfaction pulls at his heart as he locks up and kicks the man out. He wants nothing to do with the magic of the Empire.
“What could it all mean?” he ponders, late at night, as sleep eludes his weary grasp.
“What could it all mean?”
“What could it all mean?”