When not plying his trade as a musician, Darin made a living as a trapper, and thus he was a more than competent woodsman. After his initial haste had put enough distance between himself and his enemy, he slowed to a more deliberate pace. He slipped in between the hulking trees as silently and stealthily as any predator on the hunt, leaving little evidence of his passing. He’d given Grastow an initial trail to follow; the Old Man would be well within Darin’s domain when that trail suddenly ended.
He swung to the east and down a sharp gulley, his heart beating in his throat as he tried to keep himself calm. The dry riverbed made travel easy, and the walls of the gulley would hide him from sight. He quickly reached the game path that would take him back around to the point he’d started hiding his tracks–and with any luck, directly behind Old Man Grastow. He paused at the start of the trail, knowing better than to rush things. He wanted to give his enemy ample time to reach the ambush point
“He’s going to get you, you know,” hissed a low, squeaky voice from behind Darin. “He’s a clever one.”
Darin whirled, wishing he’d thought to grab a weapon of some sort. A scrawny man half Darin’s height sat on the opposite bank, smiling down at him benevolently. The fine silver buttons of his expensive-looking vest and pants glittered in Diun’s waning light. Bright green eyes stared back at Darin from under a fine black hat trimmed with a long, green feather.
“What do you know of our business?” Darin whispered sharply.
“Of the specifics? Nothing,” the little man replied confidently. “But I’ve seen this plot play out before. The master gives his student a few tidbits of the power that could be his. Just a taste, mind you. The student takes advantage of what he’s been taught, building his own personal empire, however large or small. Then the master comes for his due, and the student refuses to pay up. The inevitable conflict ensues…”
“Enough!” Darin snarled in annoyance. The little man had hit too close to home. “What exactly do you want?”
“In such situations, I’ve yet to see said student get the better of said master. And because of that, certain economic opportunities present themselves…”
“No more deals!” Darin said a little louder than he’d intended. He turned and stalked up the game trail.
“As if you’ll have a choice,” the little man called after him. “Huffnaggle will be waiting for you! Just call my name!”
Darin traveled through the woods as quickly as he dared, wanting to put as much distance between himself and the strange little man as he could without alerting his quarry. The incident in the gully had left him unsettled. Something about Huffnagle just wasn’t right, and Darin did his best to try to forget the name.
The soft tones of a simple flute wove through the forest, setting Darin’s nerves further on edge. The trees around him seemed to move in time with the herky-jerky tune. He picked up his pace, hoping to catch Grastow before he could finish whatever musical incantation he was readying.
He soon came upon his chosen point of ambush, and he peered cautiously around a gently swaying oak. Old Man Grastow sat on the forest floor, his back to Darin, playing a slender flute that curled under his left arm and around his back. He gave no indication that he knew he was being watched.
Darin reached down and plucked a heavy rock from the forest floor. He hefted it a few times, testing its weight. Finally satisfied, he took a deep breath and sprung at the back of his enemy’s head.
A heavy tree limb caught him across the chest in mid-leap, knocking the wind out of Darin and sending him sprawling. Grastow played a quick scale on his flute, and four nearby trees bent their trunks at impossible angles to pin Darin to the ground with their massive girth. The young man struggled mightily against the weight, but he couldn’t free himself.
“Let me go, you crazy old bastard!” Darin shouted in panic.
“You’ll live,” Grastow said ominously. Darin couldn’t see him, but he could hear the old man rise and start toward him.
“I swear, I’ll track you down and kill you!”
Grastow leaned over Darin and cackled mightily. His breath was hot and rank. “Many have tried, my boy. Too many. Now–have you reconsidered your position, or do you still refuse to honor our bargain?”
“I’ll never work for a creature as foul as you!” Darin spat.
“If you only knew,” Grastow replied sadly.
He reached into his pocket and produced a small black box with a tiny key sticking from its side. Grastow gave the key a few cranks, then he opened the box’s lid with a quick flick of his wrist. Inside, a miniature ballerina spun slowly on a silver pedestal covered with unintelligible runes. It looked like a music box, but it didn’t make any sound.
The pain began in Darin’s chest, a slight burning sensation around his heart. It quickly spread to his lungs and his stomach, then outward and onward until it had enveloped his fingers and toes. Every nerve in Darin’s body cried out, and he bit back a groan of pain.
He watched in utter horror as a twinkling blue gas trickled from his mouth and nostrils, heading inexorably toward the little ballerina–where it disappeared.
He could feel the music being torn from him. Notes from songs he knew by heart were disappearing from his memory. He tried to flex his fingers into position around an imaginary violin, but he couldn’t find the right strings. Old Man Grastow was making good on his promise, and Darin had only one chance to escape.
“Huffnagle!” he screamed.
The strange little man strode out of the forest to his left, carrying a golden measure in his left hand. On one side of the scale, three eerie clefs danced around each other in midair. On the opposite side stood a ghostly miniature of Darin, violin in hand.
“Few appreciate fine music more than my master,” Huffnagle chirped. “For three years in his orchestra, I’ll spare you from this horrible fate.”
Grastow started at the sound of Huffnagle’s voice. “How did you…you…you’re one of the Fae!”
Darin didn’t know what the term “Fae” meant, but three years in an orchestra sounded extremely reasonable–and he was sure he could find his way out of the deal, if he really wanted to. “Your master’s got himself a new violinist!” he shouted.
“No, Darin!” Grastow shouted. “He’s the one responsible for–“
A flash of intense red light cut off Grastow’s warning, and Darin’s world went black.
When he came to, the first thing he noticed was the cold. It was sharp and piercing, and wet, and coming from all around. The ground beneath him was hard and unforgiving.
He opened his eyes and found himself in a dark cell built of dense black stone. The only light was a single beam piercing through a tiny window lined with iron bars. The beam of light fell upon the far corner, where a beautiful violin rested against a music stand supporting a heavy book.
Strange music echoed into his cell through the tiny spaces around a thick iron door. He could hear all manner of instruments and voices echoing through the hallway beyond, the various tones and pitches combining into an evil melody that sent a chill up Darin’s spine.
A small window in the door slid aside, revealing a frightening pair of crimson eyes. The terrible gaze lingered on Darin for a moment, and then the window was shut once more.
“How’d you get this one?” asked a deep voice from out in the hall.
“Just like the rest,” came Huffnagle’s familiar voice. “Couldn’t pay his debts.”