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A Mortal's Touch

It was beyond doubt that Luccinario was the most powerful magician in the realm, in fact the old man never tired of spreading the fact far and wide, spouting endlessly through his wild, long, grey beard. He dressed as a magician is supposed to dress, in flowing robes; he acted like a magician is supposed to act; and, as any magician worth his salt lives in a castle, Luccinario lived in one, the largest in the land, of course.

Cartierri, on the other hand, was a magician of a much lover order; Luccinario never tired of telling him that too. Blighting crops, causing cows to dry up, Cartierri could do that all right: but for anything requiring more skill. . . well, you had to look elsewhere. A small character, resembling a humanoid rat, he stood with Luccinario in the latter's magical chamber.

''as I see it, Cartierri,'' said Luccinario, mixing together various ingredients - better left unmentioned - in a large bowl, ''you need a spell to make an enemy wither and die?''

''That is so,'' squaked Cartierri. ''My worst enemy. A man who would harm me without thought.''

''I can think of thousands.'' Luccinario's laughter boomed around the high, grey stone walls of the chamber.

''Be that as it may,'' grinned Cartierri, showing remarkably yellow, rodent-like teeth, ''it must be one hundred percent certain of working, otherwise all the Hell hounds of the nether regions will be howling at my heels.''

The grey beard quivered in sudden rage, the black eyes blazed with ill-concealed fury. ''What! You dare to suggest that a spell wrought by Luccinario would fail to work? Be careful, punny one.''

''I beg forgiveness, Lord Luccinario, I meant to cast no aspersions on your greatness.''

''I should think not, slimy, four-foot toad. . . ''

Luccinario carried on mixing the ingredients of the spell. Baffled as he was, a smile was upon his parchment-dry lips: he took a pride in his creations and worked with gusto. It was in some ways the same kind of pride a master chef would feel. The pale green brew in the earthenware bowl bubbled of its own accord.

The great magician drew himself to his full height, magnificent in his red robe.

''You see the strength of the brew, sly one? A heady mixture, equal to any wine pf the Witch Queen Anumi. A liquid that will serve your needs wll, fear not.''

'' I trust so,'' Cartierri plucked a thread that held a patch in his tattered clothes.

''You rat-faced son of a whore!'' roared Luccinario angrily. ''Cease to denigrate my work, or I will have your insides in a bottle before me!''

''Forgive me once again, great one,'' begged rat-face, ''it was spoken without thought,''

''As you possess no brain, that is quite understandable.''

The master magician began stirring the sickening mess, his anger melting away again. ''You realise my services will not be cheap, weakling. I shall require -silver. Perhaps as much as six hundred quandros.''

Cartierri smiled hurriedly - which was enough to turn the strongest of stomachs - so as not to insult Luccinario again. ''Fear not, 0 high one, I have been saving what coins I could. Why, only last week I robbed three corpses, stealing the silver that closed their eyes. One crone also wore a gold ring; I had to detach the finger with my dagger of course, but Delial the merchant gave me twelve quandros for it.''

''Huh! It was probably worth a hundred. Why do you wish harm upon your enemy, sever-rat? How has he belittled you? If indeed that is possible . . .''

Cartierri scowled and his rodent eyes twinkled for a second or two, then he said carefully: ''Many years ago I entagled a wench by magic, wishing to experience her charms at my leisure. She was fair, not more than eighteen years, and better for passing the time thn wine-drinking. But before I could take my pleasure, my enemy stole her from me.''

''Which shows just how weak your puny powers really are, filth of the night.''

''Indeed,great one.... your wisdom is ageless.''

''''Is that all he has done to you?''

''No, dark lord. That was only the beginning. He has victimised me time and time again.''

''Welli now, Luccinario grinned slowly, ''I will show you what the powers of a real magician can do to the enemy you think so strong.''

The great magician lifted up the bowl in his ancient, bejewelled hands, raising it to chest height. Cartierri saw the age-old runes carved around the bowl, whose meaning, as an initiate of the lower orders, he could only guess at. Luccinario muttered an incantation known only to himself and the Seven Lords of the Mist, and hurled the contents into the fire that burned in the centre of the chamber.

There was a shattering crash - like, yet unlike, thunder - far more terrible than any natural storm. Cartierri's features twisted into a mask of animal fear, then slowly relaxed into their usual ugliness.

Yellow smoke was rising from the fire and whirling into a cloud, like a twisting, formless animal.

''Now you shall see, ''Luccinario grinned broadlyi staring at the cloud, ''go on your way, spell of mine, attack the rat-one's worst enemy.''

The cloud whirled around and began moving. . . towards Luccinario.

Cartierri was smiling. ''Yes, indeed. My worst enemy. . .'' He turned his smug gaze on Luccinario. ''You will recall, great one, that it was you who stole the girl from me so long ago.'' He was growing in confidence by the second. ''You are my worst enemy, great magician.''

The yellow, writhing cloud was racing towards Luccinario, who to Cartierri's surprise still maintained his stance and still continued to smile.

''I think, puny, that you have been premature with your craftiness. It will be good to be free of you.''

He held one hand up, index finger pointing. The mist raced toward the magician's finger like filings drawn towards a magnet. Next Luccinario whirled his arm around his head, the yellow vapour following. . . then it began racing back towards the rat-faced one.

''You see, inmate of the sewers , I believe you are your worst enemy.'' Cartierri's smile faded and was quickly replaced by a look of horror - he had time for one scream before the mist engulfed him. Through the mist the laughing Luccinario could see the rodent features cracking and withering, falling away in rotting pieces; then the rat-one collapsed.

The great magician strode forward and snatched the purse from Cartierri's belt, undid the string and tilted it over his outstretched palm; a few silver coins fell out. The smile left his face as he snarled, ''The son of a twice-accursed whore!''

There were no more than six coins in his hand.

''Filth of the gutter! Slime of the sewer! Even in death he insults me. Even in the dark realms he cannot br trusted!''

Luccinario bellowed in anger, hurling the purse and its contents from him, the coins clattering against the farthest wall. The magician had abandoned himself to rage and was ruled now by his temper. Luccinario, greatest and most accomplished pf all the magicians, failed to see that he had wandered. . .into the yellow mist. . .

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