Araner Mearn had to say he wasn't impressed with the town's welcome. Oh he knew he wasn't an amazingly handsome man, or even particularly well built, for that matter, but he'd still expected better than this. A few furtive glances were all he got from the half dozen young women out doing their shopping on the market lane, and every child in the vicinity scuttled fearfully out of sight. The men hanging about either glared at him or ignored him outright. He caught the eyes of one scruffy kid, and was rather fascinated to see the naked fear there. Was he really so scary looking?
He was fresh off the road, had been walking steadily for several days. He was tired, and increasingly cranky. His brown frock coat was ratty and dusty. None of the roads in this sorry excuse for a region were even cobbled. His short dark hair, though never truly tamed, probably looked like several small animals had been living in it. Scratchy stubble coated his chin, and every puff of dust that got on his custom made zorag skin boots made him scowl deeper. Perhaps the children were right to scurry out of his way. They were all just lucky he wasn't muttering curses under his breath. If the stupid little town wasn't home to the bone carver recommended by several knowledgeable people as the best crafter of magical implements, Araner wouldn't be there at all.
The bone carver's stall wasn't hard to find among the others that lined the market lane. Nobody else would hang animal skeletons from the awning as decoration and advertisement. Araner was, unsurprisingly, the only customer. What a master carver who could infuse magic into his wares was doing in a little nowhere town was beyond him. The townspeople would certainly have little demand for his products. Only wanderers like Araner would be interested in the goods such a man had to offer.
The carver was a large man, a combination of burly and just fat. He sat on a heavy stool and was whittling away at what looked like a femur as Araner approached. The stall was filled with both uncarved bone and finished pieces. They ranged from as sinister as bowls and cups made from skulls to as mundane as tiny crochet hooks and ivory combs. Perhaps this man did cater to the needs of the townsfolk after all. Still, Araner could not see the draw of living in a little town seemingly built on dust.
"We don't get many travelers." The carver said without pausing in his work. "All the real magic stuff is in the back if that's what you're here for."
"I'm Araner Mearn. I'm here to pick up my order."
At that the carver paused in his carving and looked up. "Oh, you. Sorry about that. I can't finish your request."
"What!?" Araner bit back an angry curse just in time. If he riddled the guy with disease he might never get what he came for and the whole trip would be a waste.
"I'm sorry, but the bone I prepared for it was stolen two days ago. I've got the rest of the materials, but without that there's no way to finish it. It took me a month to find a bone that perfect for the job and another three weeks to finish preparing it. If you want to wait that long I can try to make another for you. Otherwise, you're outta luck."
"I wrote to you three months ago with this request." Araner held his frustration in check, barely. "And you replied three weeks ago saying it was ready. How did they steal only a part of it if it was ready?"
"The bone was ready three weeks ago. But you asked for some very particular herbs to be infused into it. Did you want those fresh or three weeks old?"
"Alright, fine." Araner pinched the bridge of his nose and tried to keep calm. "Who stole it and where did they go?"
"Murkles. They like to gnaw on bone and are attracted to the taste of magic. This isn't the first time they've stolen from me. They have a nest in the swamp."
"I'll be back." Araner promised as he turned away from the carver's stall. " With my bone."
He knew where the swamp was. He'd seen it from the road into the town. He wasn't particularly looking forward to slogging through the muck after a band of smelly swamp rodents, but it was worth it. For a bone knife instilled with magic to keep it sharp and strong and infused with herbs that would strengthen the effects of his curses, he'd go trekking through a little mud. With that knife in hand, he'd be nigh unstoppable. Well, more so than he already was, of course. He did make one more stop before trudging off in pursuit of the murkles. He found the local cobbler's shop and bought a pair of rough leather boots that he wouldn't care about getting muddy. He left his own zorag skin boots with the cobbler and his apprentice with a stern reminder that his footwear was worth more than they.
Once outside the actual limits of the town, Araner did start muttering a curse under his breath. Several plants wilted as he passed, and a trail of ants curled up where they stood. He caught himself before he unleashed a blight on the nearby trees, and turned to more conventional swear words to vent his frustration. Setting the townspeople back another progressive leap by killing off the nearby flora wasn't going to help things either. Besides, he needed to save his strength for the murkles. He'd curse them all so strongly their yet to be born offspring would feel the effects of it if there was so much as one tooth mark on his bone. He'd paid half the fee for the knife in advance. No way was he going to just take a loss like that.
The first few steps into the swamp made Araner very glad he had had the foresight to change his shoes. Stagnant pools of water surrounded him, and even when he stepped on the grassy hillocks he sunk up to his ankles in the mud. He tried hopping on the scattered downed logs, but gave that up when he fell butt first into a rather cold and very stinky puddle. If he had any money left after this trip it was going to be spent on a new coat. After that he just walked straight through the mud and the water. But he did fling a curse at the log that had tripped him and was somewhat satisfied to see it decay into dirt even as he watched.
For all that he didn't know where to look for it, the murkles made their nest easy to find. He hadn't seen one up close ever, but he knew as soon as he saw it that it could be nothing else. The mound of mud spattered logs and branches was a big as a house and, just judging by the smell, several of the large rodent things lived there. Araner stomped his way to where he supposed was an entrance. His boots made ugly sucking noises every time he lifted his feet. He wasn't sure if he wanted the murkles to be cooperative so he could just get his bone and leave, or if he wanted them to resist so he could curse them all soundly, get his bone and leave.
"Alright all of you!! GET OUT HERE!" He bellowed at the twig mound and was satisfied to hear a few high pitched squeaks. After a few seconds four shaggy murkles appeared out of the entrance hole.
Murkles were technically rodents and had to gnaw things to keep their fangs from growing out of control, but really they looked more like little shaggy dwarfed men than rats. Oh, they had rodent looking faces and rodent-like paws, but they walked upright as easily as on all fours and they had no tail to speak of. The tallest of the four before him stood to about Araner's bellybutton. They were covered in coarse brown fur, which was in turn covered in mud and stray twigs from their abode. Araner hadn't ever interacted with any this close, but he knew that they understood the rudiments of human language.
"Ok, I'll keep this simple. Give me back my bone." He paused, none of the murkles so much as twitched. "You stole it two days ago. It should look like a knife."
At that the four rodents traded looks between them and seemingly conferred in their own squeaky way. Araner would have tapped his foot impatiently if it wasn't stuck in the mud. After their brief conference the murkles turned back to him, staring just as blankly as before.
"Alright, I'll make it easier for you. Give me back my bone and I won't curse you and your descendants with a plague that rots your flesh away."
There was another squeaky conference, quicker this time. Still, when the four turned back they showed no inclination of moving, much less fetching his bone.
"Guess I'll have to do it this way then." Araner said and shrugged, pointing both his eyes and right index finger at the tallest of the four rodents. He took a deep breath, then began to chant the words of a curse, a real one this time, not the half cocked ones he threw about when he was frustrated. "Hainen selle tata, hainen selle tata, hainen selle tata, hainen selle tata…"
He repeated the words over and over, steadily and calmly. With each repetition the spell grew stronger. The magic would only stop when he stopped chanting. That was the way curses worked. Some spells halted their effects as soon as the flow of words stopped, others had effects that lingered. At the first repeat of the words tufts of thick and muddy fur began to fall from the murkle's hide. With each further repeat more hair fell in larger chunks. Weighed down by the twigs and the mud, the hair fell away quickly, leaving only pale skin behind. Araner fell silent as the tallest murkle lost the last tuft of it's fur. By then the hairless rodent was cowering in a heap, shivering from embarrassment as much as the cold most likely. The other three squeaked shrilly and bolted off into the swamp as soon as Araner's eyes fell on them. The now bald one was quick to follow them, and Araner was then left with the empty murkle mound.
He sighed heavily, then decided he couldn't get any muddier than he already was and belly-crawled through the small opening into the mound. Inside was dark, as he fully expected, but his eyes adjusted after a moment. There was enough light trickling in from the entrance tunnel that he could see after a fashion. The whole thing was one big room and it stank of swamp and fermented animal. The ceiling was low and he had to stoop to not catch his head on the twigs above. There were four piles of dry-ish leaves that he supposed were beds for the rodents. To one side there was a small pile of hoarded nuts and bark along with a pair of dead squirrels who no doubt had objected to their stash being stolen. Araner quickly looked away in an effort to not be sick all over the murkles' pantry. On the other side of the nest was a smaller pile of bleached white bones. He almost smiled and quickly started rooting through the heap in search of his knife. He very quickly found himself very glad he was wearing gloves. Some of the bones on the bottom of the stack were slimy with mold and decaying plant matter. He sorted through the pile, looked at every bone, felt each for the hum of magic. There was no knife. He shifted the pile again, picked up each bone a second time. There was no knife. Only two of the bones had the feel of magic about them. One of those was a small animal skull and the other was clearly the remains of a human foot. There was no knife.
That did it, the murkles were as good as dead. Araner scrambled out of their smelly hole and readied himself to fling a much nastier curse than baldness at the first of the rodents that he happened upon. They'd eaten his knife. They'd eaten the knife he had shelled out half a small fortune for and had waited three months already to get. No way were they getting off with just a little missing hair. By the time he'd gotten himself extricated from their twiggy nest, the murkles had returned from their earlier flight. Even the bald one was back, huddled against the wall of the mound. Just as he drew breath for a truly sinister curse, the three murkles who still had their fur started hissing. Araner assumed it was at him, but then saw quite possibly the tallest man he had ever seen standing just beyond the three rodents.
Araner didn't consider himself short by any means, but this man was easily a head taller than him. He was lean, but obviously strong, just judging by the casual way he held a polearm that Araner would likely find difficult to lift. He was also younger than Araner by at least a few years. Twenty-something perhaps. Short black hair, dark eyes, impassive face, and covered in mud from his chest down. Araner didn't know who the guy was, and frankly didn't care either so long as he stayed out of the way. He had murkles to curse. He was about to start chanting when one of the three furred murkles brandished a small bone weapon at him. It was a knife. Araner knew instantly it was his, it was carved exactly as he had wanted. It had a slender, straight blade the length of his hand. The handle was lightly carved to provide a sure grip. Without holding it himself he couldn't tell if it was augmented by magic, but it had to be. It was his knife. The murkles hadn't gnawed it away after all! The whole trip to the little nowhere-burg town and through the stench of the swamp was not a waste!
Araner reached out for the knife, thinking the murkles had finally responded to his threat and decided to hand it over. He was wrong, very wrong. He realized it as soon as the murkle's eyes narrowed and it pulled the knife in close to it's chest. Ripples of power wavered in the air around the knife. It was most certainly augmented by magic, and the murkle was most certainly drawing on that magic. Araner didn't know the rodents could do that. He wondered briefly what form the murkle's magic working would take, then he just wondered if he could dodge it. He didn't get the answer to either question. The murkle froze and the ripples of magic disappeared the instant the blade of the strange man's polearm came to rest against the rodent's neck. The man held the weapon almost casually with one arm. His face was remained stoic. Every inch of him oozed calm, unflappable confidence. The murkle was quivering. Finally it gave another low hiss, dropped the knife, and tore off into the swamp again. The stranger let his arm and his weapon fall slowly to his side. The other two furred murkles bolted after their comrade. The bald one ducked into their nest with a squeak.
Araner cared not one whit for the rodents any longer. He'd even let them go uncursed this time. He took a quick couple of steps towards the knife laying on the muddy grass, but stopped immediately when the blade on the stranger's polearm was raised to within a handspan of his throat. There was warning clearly writ in the man's dark eyes.
"Look, I don't know why you're here, but I'm here for that." Araner struggled to hold on to what little patience he had left as he pointed to the knife. "It's mine, I paid for it, it's why I tramped through this odorous muck. Now let me get it, and I'll pretend you never threatened me."
The stranger didn't move, the arm holding the weapon didn't twitch, and the warning look didn't leave his eyes.
"Are you stupid as well as silent? I don't want to hurt you, but I will if you don't move and quick."
For answer the stranger simply raised his left arm and grasped the haft of his weapon with both hands.
"Oh, you're asking for it now. Al cumil la diney mostra punam, al cumil la diney mostra punam, al cumil la diney mostra punam, al cumil…la… wait, why is nothing happening?"
The stranger was still standing there completely unfazed. There was even the hint of a smile on his impassive face. Araner was totally flummoxed. That was one of his strongest curses. It was supposed to instantly lay a pall of weariness over the victim, leaving them too weak and tired to hold themselves up, much less a large and heavy weapon. He had brought down champion wrestlers with that chant, how was this guy standing there unaffected? Araner took a step back to reassess. Was this guy immune to all curses, or just that one? Should he risk draining his magic more by trying another? He was already getting tired, a chant that powerful took a bit out of him. How was it even possible to be immune to curses?
He didn't get an answer. In the instant he stepped back the stranger swept up his weapon for a powerful downward strike. Araner thought for a moment that a very painful death was imminent, but then the stranger turned slightly. The polearm chopped downwards with a whoosh, not towards Araner. The stranger was aiming at the knife laying on the ground.
"NO! I need that!" Araner cried and flung himself towards the stranger and his arcing weapon. After all he'd gone through for it, he was not about to let some silent giant break it. He was too late, the blade of the polearm hit the knife straight on with a resounding crack. Araner just barely kept himself from tripping over his own feet as he lurched to a stop. He started to reach for the steel knife he carried under his coat. If he couldn't curse the stranger for his meddling, he'd just gut him without the benefit of magic. All that money, all those weeks of waiting, all the stomping through the murky swamp, and all for nothing. All gone to waste because of some dumb lummox who just had to be immune to curses.
Even as Araner was thinking murderous thoughts, the stranger straightened and pulled the blade of his weapon free from where it had sunk into the mud. Araner couldn't help but look at the remains of his knife. He nearly fell over himself in surprise. The knife was whole. It didn't even bear a scratch from where the polearm blade had hit it. The deep cut in the mud from the weapon's blade lay just to the side of the little bone knife. The stranger's weapon had simply bounced off. Araner didn't waste another second and quickly scooped up his knife before the stranger could try again. That little bone knife was worth every single coin he had sent to the carver with his request. It was worth every slogging step he had taken in that swamp. He hugged the bone knife close to his chest and grinned.
"Well then, I guess that settles that. It's time I was on my way." Araner said lightly, then sidestepped casually around the stranger. He was stopped by a heavy hand on his shoulder. When he turned the stranger was staring at the knife. His eyes no longer held warning, simply calm and dogged determination.
"Oh don't start this again." Araner had had just about enough of this guy for one day. "I don't think you can break it, if that weapon of yours didn't even leave a scratch after that hit. Why in hells do you want to anyway?"
The stranger drew back his hand. He seemed to be considering that for a moment. "The murkles were causing trouble." He said finally in a deep and resonant voice.
"Well that wasn't so hard, now was it? Trouble? You mean that magic?"
The stranger nodded.
"Oh, well don't worry on that score. I use magic much more responsibly than they."
One dark eyebrow raised, and his eyes held clear skepticism. Silently the man nodded at the murkles' nest where the bald rodent had fled.
"Oh, that. Well, uh…it might grow back." Araner didn't like the intensity in the stranger's eyes. Why did he feel so compelled to explain himself to this man? "It's not like I killed it. Besides, no use grousing about it now. It's not like I can undo it."
The second eyebrow rose to join the first.
"I curse things, I don't un-curse them. Even counter curses won't work after the fact."
The man considered that for a moment, then nodded. Araner took that to mean his knife was now safe from this giant and turned again to leave. It was long past time to get the hells out of that swamp. The stranger followed him as far as the edge of the town, then without a word he disappeared down some street when Araner wasn't looking. Neither of them had spoken since leaving the murkle nest. Araner had found the man's silence strangely contagious and hadn't even tossed any curses at irritating wildlife. Then again, that also might have been due to his rather drained magic reserves. He couldn't afford to casually fling magic about until he'd had a good meal and a full night's sleep. First though, he had to give his bone back to the carver. That little baby was going to make him unbeatable.
"This isn't your knife." The carver had actually put down the bone he was working on to come and take the knife. His voice was without inflection, but it nearly earned him a rotting flesh disease, drained magic or no.
"What do you mean, it isn't my knife?" Araner kept his voice low by sheer willpower alone.
"This isn't the one I made for you. Hells, it isn't even my work." The carver kept turning the knife over in his hands, seeming to grow more excited the more he looked at it.
"I searched that nest top to bottom. I picked up every disgusting scrap of bone in that place. That was the only knife there!"
"Then they must have taken it to another nest, or eaten it." He turned the knife to examine it from another angle. "It's just like you ordered though, and the magic in it is about the same. I can fill your request with this."
"You can turn that into what I want?"
"Even better. My magic is no where near as precise as what was used to make this. Besides this has a few spells you didn't ask for."
"Better?" Araner was quick to sense a potential profit. "Better how?"
"The spells for durability and strength are basically the same as what I use, but much more intricate and powerful. There's also another for prevention of decay over time. I mean look at this thing, it's yellow with age. With that spell it could easily be a couple hundred years old. And it'll easily last another couple hundred." There was more than a little awe in the carver's voice. "I wonder who made this."
Araner didn't much care who made the knife, only that it did what he wanted it to. "Neat. So you can add the other things I requested?"
"Absolutely. It'll be done the day after tomorrow."
Araner didn't waste any more time on pointless chatter and simply went to find a boarding house that would offer a bath and a room for a few nights. First, though, he made sure to reclaim his zorag skin boots from the cobbler. Only after he was certain they were just as he had left them did he go in search of a bath, a meal, and bed. After he had finally cleaned the stench of the swamp out of his hair, he sipped a cup of strong herbal tea, ate as large of a dinner as his budget would allow, and went to sleep.
Two days later he was on the road and heading out of the little backwater town. His new bone knife was tucked beside it's mundane steel counterpart under his coat. He was just itching to test it on something or somebody. First he needed to find a good high paying job. Maybe somebody in some town along the dusty road would have a problem that needed solving by a man handy with knives and well versed in curse chants. Araner sure hoped so anyways. His wardrobe was in desperate need of repair.
Just at the edge of town he caught sight of a very tall and very familiar figure on the road ahead of him. The man was walking away from the town, and had a large polearm slung across his back. His clothes were plain, just a casual shirt and trousers, and now free of mud. Ignoring the dust on his custom made boots, Araner trotted to catch up to the stranger he'd met in the swamp.
"Hey. So we meet again."
The stranger looked down at him and nodded. He didn't seem to be surprised.
"Where you headed?" They kept walking as they talked. Or, as Araner talked and the stranger gave non verbal responses. To that question the taller man simply nodded towards where the road disappeared on the horizon. "Just down the road, huh? Me too, I guess. I'm going to be looking for a good job. I need some money so I can get a new coat. This thing is a total loss." He picked fastidiously at a few stray threads fraying at the hem of his frock coat. The stranger cracked a smile at that. "My name's Araner Mearn. What's yours?"
"Mori, you say. Nice name. Short and to the point. I like it." One dark eyebrow arched at the shortening of his name, but the smile didn't fade. "So Mori, where you from? What's your story? Why're you here in this forsaken corner of the world?"
"What about you?"
"Oh no." Araner wasn't about to let Mori get away with diverting his questions that easily. "I asked first."
"Will you answer once I have?" The smile was gone. Though Mori's face was still stoic, his eyes held a faint glint of warning as if he was trying to say Araner was about to step too far.
"No." Curious he might be, but Araner had no intention of telling his own tale to any stranger. That was the quickest way he knew to end a budding friendship.
"Then don't ask." The warning was gone, Mori fell back into amiable indifference. For a long time they walked in silence. Then Araner realized there was one question he really needed to know the answer to.
"So, how is it you're immune to curses?"
Mori stopped walking so suddenly that Araner took a few steps ahead before he realized the taller man was no longer following. For a moment Araner thought he'd made Mori angry, but soon saw his mistake. Mori's eyes weren't filled with anger, but rather a resigned sadness. With a slow hesitance completely at odds with the cool confidence he'd been displaying since they met, Mori slid aside the leather straps holding his polearm on his back and drew open his shirt. Araner wasn't sure what he was expecting to be revealed by the motion, but the distinct hum of magic was not it. On Mori's left breast, right above his heart, a symbol of protection the size of Araner's palm was tattooed over the tanned skin and taut muscle. It was an intricate symbol, one that Araner could only recognize as powerful, and with many strong and complex spells woven into the ink.
"What in the…?" Araner knew he was gaping. Even once Mori had once again covered the tattoo and the hum of magic was obscured until he could no longer feel it, Araner couldn't help but stare. Mori just shook his head and resumed his steady walk down the road. Araner caught his meaning clearly. This was another thing his companion was not willing to talk about. He accepted that for now and hurried to catch up with the other man's longer strides. "Well, at least know that whoever wanted you protected, they did a thorough job of it. Nothing I can cast will go past that charm. It would take an extremely powerful spell to even get through it, much less harm you. Any lesser spell will simply dissolve on contact. No wonder you stood up to even one of my strongest curses."
Mori said nothing, but his face did ease into a small smile. Araner found himself smiling back. There was something about his companion that just made him relax, as if his cool attitude was leaking over to him. As if his quiet calm was contagious. So long as they stayed away from discussions of their history, they'd get along fine. No questions asked, no unwilling answers revealed. They ended up traveling together through quite a few small towns. They caught a few bounties, subdued some violent wildlife, and even killed off some choking weeds from a few farmers' fields with well placed curses. Araner found that he was actually enjoying not traveling alone anymore, and Mori seemed content to simply follow him from job to job and town to town. It wasn't until a woman quite literally crashed into their lives that things began to change again.