Rintha sighed. He tossed his sling stone up in the air, caught it and placed it back in his pocket. “My turn, I suppose,” he said.
In this life, I grew up in the Village of Flintshatter. Don’t bother searching for it; it doesn’t exist any more.
I can’t remember who I was in my last life (except sometimes in foggy dreams). According to village adults, my previous incarnation collapsed in the middle of their town square, bleeding out from a gash the shape of a scythe.
My body dissolved into clay, dirt and moss. The clay dirt, and moss then flowed back together into a smaller, compact shape. I reformed, reincarnated into a child’s body with a child’s mind.
My first clear memory is a view of a grey sky, rimmed with the faces of frowning chattering farmers and tradesfolk.
“A Clayborn babe,” Dilias the weaver said. “He looks so young.”
“But they’re tricky sorts, Clayborn,” Galse the blacksmith muttered. “They’re bad luck, some say.”
“Well,” Vyrin the Herder said with exasperation, “we can’t just leave the poor boy. Who’s going to take care of him?”
Cindra the Baker crouched down and examined me with a blank, emotionless face. “I’ll rear him,” he said in an mellow, dull tone. “Leastwise until he’s old enough to strike out for his own.”
Cindra raised me to bake both bread and pottery in his roaring ovens. He was quiet and cold, fulfilling all the duties of a father and not a jot more. I suppose I owe him for that.
Outside the bakery, few children would play with me willingly; not without being nudged into it by their guilty parents.. I spent my time alone, playing my own games, wandering my own way.
Then I made a friend, a chap named Creeble, tow-haired and wild as the wind. To be more precise, Creeble made me his friend.
“You!” he said to me one day, standing over me as I sat and played with dirt. “I want you to be my right hand man!”
“But you still have your right hand,” I pointed out.
I hadn’t figured out metaphors yet.
“That’s not what I mean,” Creeble said, displaying incredible patience for a kid. He met my eyes. “What I’m saying is, I want you to be my ally. Someone as important to me as my right hand.” He grinned. “Whaddya think?”
I sat and thought about it for five hours. Creeble waited without complaining. As the setting sun shinning red over the mud patch, I gave my answer.
“I think I would like that,” I replied.
Creeble extended his right hand, and I took it. “Together,” he said, showing his teeth in a bright grin, “we’re going turn the world upside-down!”
Cindra the baker fed and sheltered me, but it was Creeble who raised me. He showed me how to wear the right clothes, play hide and seek, catch frogs in the bogs, and knock leaves from trees with thrown pebbles.
By example, he showed me how to keep a promise, take risks to get what I wanted and how to stand by a friend. Perhaps these skills are mundane, but they’ve served me well throughout this life.
Creeble’s father was the High Scribe of Flintshatter, a rake-thin scholar with a sharp mind, a thirst for knowledge and a steady hand that would write complex glyphs and fashion astounding magic. Creeble’s father spent his days studying lore and raised his son with the same care Cindra the Baker invested in me.
Creeble didn’t seem to mind that, and talked about his father often “I’m gonna be the next High Scribe of Flintshatter, just like dad!” He would say with pride, hands resting on his hips, chest jutted out.
One day, he told me to go to the hill outsight of town after dinnertime. I reached the hill’s peak just as the sun dipped below the horizon. Creeble sat on a stump, a cloth bag in his hands, a wicked smile on his lips.
“What’s going on?” I asked Creeble.
“Tonight,” Creeble said, drawing out each word with glee, “we are going to make magic.”
He drew a spell tablet out from the bag, a slate of baked clay etched with jagged glyphs.
I knew Creeble’s moods well enough to realize what he planned. “This can’t be safe!” I protested. “What if that spell tablet’s faulty?”
Creeble sniffed. “My dad scribed this tablet himself!” He proclaimed. “It’ll work perfect, for sure!”
“But we don’t know what it does!” I said more weakly.
Creeble’s grin slipped a bit. “Exactly,” he said jaw clenched. “Dad won’t teach me any glyphs. I beg and beg him, but he just ignores me!”
His lips quivered. He grinned again. “But I’ve memorized the glyphs on this one!” He said, tapping the tablet. “What they look like, at least! After we set the tablet off, we’ll know what the glyphs do! Then we can make our own!”
Creeble draped an arm around my shoulder and pointed at the redden horizon. “Imagine what they’ll call us!” He whispered, his free hand sketching pictures across the night sky. “Child prodigies! Sorcerers supreme! Scribes from Baruck itself will come to offer us learning! Fame, wealth, and glory: it’ll all be ours!” He nudged me in the ribs. “Whaddya think, Rintha?”
I thought about it for a while. Creeble, ever patient, let me think in silence.
“I think that would be cool!” I said, grinning a grin to match my friend.
You can probably guess how this ended, can’t you?
Sometimes I wonder what would have happened if Creeble had stolen a fire-spell tablet from his careless father. Faces blackened from char, we would have gotten our ears yanked, our rears spanked, our minds scolded incessantly. We’d have sulked moodily as if the world had ended, then gone back to the joyful frolics of childhood.
So much would have been different and better. If Creeble hadn’t stolen that tablet. If his father hadn’t been delving into forbidden glyphs. If my former self hadn’t died in the town of Flittershatter, reborn as friend Creeble wanted to impress
“What if it’s an exploding spell, though?” I asked Creeble.
Creeble picked a rock from the ground. “How about this?” he said. “I’ll split the tablet with this rock. Then we run down the hill as fast as we can!”
I nodded sagely. “It’s best to be careful, after all!” I said.
The red sky dimmed to twilight. Shadows gathered around the hillside and the nearby trees. Flames flickered to life among the windows of the houses to the west, a village settling in for the night.
Creeble set the tablet on the stump at the top of the hill. Licking his lips, he raised the rock over his head. “Ready?” He asked. I nodded, breathless. “On the count of three!” He said. “One, two three–!”
He brought the rock down. The spell tablet split. Light ruptured the air. I staggered back, blinded. The air I breathed tasted of flame.
The brightness ebbed to darkness. I saw Creeble arch his head back pain and fall to his knees. Blood-dark glyphs crept up and down his skin like spiders. He shuddered like a person in the middle of a stroke.
“Creeble!” I called out. “Creeble!” I rushed to his side and grabbed his bicep. “Creeble!”
Creeble turned his eyes to me–and this is what I remember most keenly–he turned his eyes towards me, and they were still the eyes of my friend; clear, brown, and wide with terror.
Creeble convulsed, clutching his mouth. He bent over and vomited a stream of glowing purple mana onto the old tree stump. The puddle of mana soaked into the dead wood. The tree burst into violet flames.
I dragged Creeble away from the fire, feeling my clay-like skin flake and dry. “Creeble!” I shouted. “We need to go!” My thoughts raced. “Your dad!” I shouted to Creeble. “Your dad will know what to do!”
Creeble stared at the flames, entranced by their flickering fury.
“Creeble!” I shouted at him. “What’s wrong?”
Creeble started and looked at me. “I…” He said.
Mana escaped from his mouth in a fine violet mist, vanishing into smoke. Eyes sprouted into being along his forehead, cheek and hands. Eyelids split apart from his skin to reveal brown pupils that contracted in terror.
“Oh my hidden gods…!” I gasped.
Creeble trembled and lifted his hands. He gazed at the eyes that had sprouted in his palms. The eyes in his palms gazed back at him. “No,” he breathed. “No, no, no–! Go away, Go Away!”
More mana hissed from his lips. A gust of wind and smoked billowed out from him and struck me. I was blasted back, tumbling through the air like a leaf.
My fall was broken by a grove of nettled bushes, just outside of Flintshatter. Thorns pierced my skin every which way. My thick Clayborn skin kept me from bleeding. I staggered out of the bush, clothes torn to rags. I glanced at the far hillside where Creeble was and saw it go up in flames.
“No…” I breathed, like some pathetic songbird that can only sing the same notes over and over.
North of me, the Town of Flintshatter disintegrated in an orgy of destruction. House after house exploded from the inside, some with gouts of flame, others with howling vortexes of wind, still others crumbling into giant cracks that had opened in the earth.
Human shapes wreathed in flames staggered out of the ruined houses, some tall, some short. I heard them cry out in pain and fear, speaking desperate prayers and agonized curses. Each sound, each word created a surge of mana and magic that ripped through the night.
Cindra the Baker’s bakery was still intact, lying on the outskirts of town. I ran towards the bakery, yearning to save at least one person from this madness.
Cindra the Maker staggered out the door. He fell down on hands and knees that had turned to stone, and vomited a stream of violet, glowing mana onto the ground
He looked up and met my eyes. His face stern and emotionless as ever. Without speaking, without conveying language, he raised his petrified hand and shooed me away.
For the last time, I obeyed my foster parent. I turned and ran. I ran until I could run no more. I dropped and slept where I lay.
Morning rose. I got up and quietly traced my steps back to the town of Flintshatter.
My hometown had been reduced to a blackened crater, trees and tall grass burned to ash all around. I walked around the town’s borders, searching for survivors.
I found one. It was the size of a child. Its skin was burned black and red. With every strained breath, a mist of violet mana spewed from his mouth like steam from a bull’s nostrils.
To this day, I know not who this burned, magic-stained husk of a child was. It could have been Creeble. It could have been one of the other children of Flintshatter, or even one of the adults, their size altered by a magical surge before getting set aflame.
All I knew was that this person was a danger to everyone. That this person was in pain.
I picked a rock up from the ground. I aimed carefully. I threw the rock at the burned one’s skull with all my strength and precision.
That was the first Roarer I killed.
Afterwards, I discovered tracks leading away from the town. Some tracks came from villagers who had been transformed into Roarers, driven mad and feral from the forces flowing through their bodies. Other tracks came from…things, creatures summoned into existence by the chaotic magic unleashed.
To undo the harm I helped cause, for the sake of kind-hearted children, I swore to hunt down all those creatures, and all like them. To track and stalk Roarers. To end their suffering.