A Night by the Fire

The boy stood alone on a clear winter morning, close behind a tree at the base of a ridge. The cold was brutal, but he paid it little mind. In the distance, a boy and a girl his own age were having a hard go of it. Yesterday’s snow had crusted during the night and each step held for just an instance before the boot punched through the crust and then a good foot or two into the snow underneath. It made travel difficult and was a good way to get snow in your boot.

Master,” the boy said inside his head, though there was no outward physical sign, “People will notice. They will become suspicious. I will be found out.

As always, the master’s voice came as the rushing of a wind from afar before coalescing into syllables. “There are many ways to avoid detection, human, and I will teach them to you.”

But Master,” he began to protest, but was cut off.

You made the pact, boy,” the voice sneered inside his head, “and you will either keep it voluntarily or you will be compelled. Either way is the same in my regard, but have you forgotten the pain of compulsion?

No master. You need not compel me. I am your willing vessel. I seek only to ensure my success.

Good, young human. Go forth now and start collecting.

The boy tracked the two throughout the day. He’d never been the best tracker, but the other children were leaving a trail a blind man could follow.  The trick was remaining undetected. That, he was good at. The master had taught him to fashion webbed shoes to help him stay atop the snow. The Dunmarians had a similar, but less efficient design. They struggled to supply them to the children, but it would takes weeks to create that many. Weeks he could put to good use.

Darkness was his friend. It obscured what light made plain and made the world a much smaller place. He waited until the pair made camp and then for the darkness to settle over them before approaching. He removed his snow shoes and left them leaning on a dead tree. He then slogged his way through the snow and up to the sheltered spot they’d chosen.

They were startled by his approach and quickly snatched up spears. Once they saw who he was, they seemed relieved and put down their weapons. If only they knew.

He was welcomed and took the time to warm his hands and feet at the fire. He’d never met the other boy, but the girl he had noticed in the dormitories. She was pretty.

A noise outside the camp caused them to turn and look. The boy quickly put a pinch of powder into their mugs. A moment later, the two were slumped over, eyes wide open.

“I am sorry for what I must do,” he said to them, genuine sympathy in his voice, “but it is necessary and serves the greater good.”

Carefully, respectfully, he removed their clothing, and then his own. He cut the scalp of each with his knife and began drawing symbols upon his chest with their blood. Then then cut his own hand and dripped the blood into their mouths. Their bodies had begun turning the slightest tint of blue from their exposure, but that abated. He knew they would continue to feel the cold, but be unharmed by it.

Then came the unpleasant part. Bit by bit, the boy peeled the skin from his victims, then placed that skin upon his own in the appropriate place. When he did so, the skin would writhe for a few minutes, as if inhabited by worms, then fade into his arm, or belly, whatever place he put it. He gently touched the parts of them he skinned and felt the warm glow of magic flow through his finger into the affronted flesh. He’d been told that this magic would keep them from dying from their wounds, but not relieve the pain. That was important. It would be an insult to anyone to deprive them of the sensation of their final experience.  Image the horror of being helpless and numb while someone took you apart, bit by bit, and not feeling anything.

Hours went by. It takes longer to skin a person than you’d think and two is an all-night job. The two had cried during the whole procedure, tears streaming down their face and snot leaking from their noses. The boy was disappointed. He believed he would behave with more dignity if it were him.

Finally, the skinning complete, he leaned over their red bodies and kissed them each upon the lips. Something passed between them in that moment, and a short time later, the two stood up and put their clothes on, not saying a word. They took their possessions and started walking to the southwest. They would never return to Dunmar of course. That wouldn’t do. Just as well, as the power that guided them now knew nothing of the people who’d once inhabited those bodies.

The boy felt strangely empowered. As he pulled his clothes back on, he marveled at the vitality of his own health. He slapped his bare skin, hard, and basked in the warmth it gave him.

Two down, ninety-eight to go and then his master would manifest, and the boy would be free of his pact. A hundred souls was a lot to harvest, but he had nothing but time and a near-endless supply of victims. It was mid-morning when he spotted another pair of hunters from Dunmar. He chuckled to himself. At this rate, he’d be done before he knew it.

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