“Did we kill him?” said Kaldor, through bloodied teeth.
Ihsan glanced at Torpek. One blow from Kaldor’s broadsword had severed the head from his body.
“Yes, he’s finished. We did it. The realm is safe. The prophecy has been fulfilled, blah blah blah.” She continued fumbling in her pack for the healing potion. Why did she bring so much useless junk? Her fingers brushed against a wad of herbs known to cure heartburn. She shook her head and kept looking.
Kaldor stared at her like a dog pleading for a biscuit. “Torkep is a powerful wizard, a master of deception and illusion. You must ensure he won’t return.”
“Once I’ve healed you, sure, we can spend all day prodding his corpse, if that’s your thing.” Ihsan scrunched her nose as she lifted a mouldy sandwich from the recesses of her bag. “This isn’t even my job. I’m a thief, not a healer. We could have hired a cleric back in town if you weren’t such a cheapskate.”
“You won’t find the potion. I have already drunk its sweet nectar.”
“And why the hell would you do that?”
“Because it tastes like strawberries,” said Kaldor. “And don’t glare at me, you were the one who ate a whole cake the first night we camped.”
Ihsan glared harder. “Fantastic. You’re going to die in the most decrepit dungeon I’ve ever laid eyes on. I’ll have to travel back to the citadel alone, battling all manner of dark and evil forces, to tell the Council what, exactly? The great Kaldor was defeated by his own sweet tooth?”
Kaldor frowned. “It’s not like I chose this life. I wanted to be a farmer, but that damn prophecy said I had to become a hero and rid the world of Torkep’s corruption.”
“I know, I know. You’ve told me a thousand times.” Ihsan rolled her eyes, then whispered to herself, “at least when you’re a corpse I won’t hear you go on about it.”
A voice like gravel drifted from across the room. “Would you two kindly shut up? I’m trying to die with some dignity.”
Ihsan drew her knife. She scanned the room for a hidden assailant but found no-one lurking in the dingy corridors, underneath the jewelled throne, or behind the stained glass windows.
“Down here, you idiot,” said the voice.
Ihsan peered down at Torpek’s head.
The wizard smiled back with yellow teeth.
“And what do you want?” said Ihsan.
“Just a little peace and quiet, and I’d rather not spend an eternity lying next to that buffoon.”
“Is that Torkep?” Kaldor tried to lift his shoulders but only managed to injure himself further. He wailed in anguish.
“See what I mean?” said Torkep, “he’s a dolt.”
“You want Kaldor out of this castle?” Ihsan stroked her chin. “Easy, just help me heal him.”
Torkep snorted. “You do realise I’m an evil wizard? Healing spells aren’t my style. It would be terrible for my reputation.”
“Shame,” said Ihsan, “if you knew a bit of the ole healing, you could get out the predicament you’re in, being a severed head and all.”
Torkep fell silent.
“Ha! She really got you there,” said Kaldor, spitting out a mouthful of blood.
“Does anyone else have any requests they’d like me fulfil while they bleed out?” said Ihsan, sheathing her blade. “Because I’m one step away from forgetting about this whole thing and just looting the place.”
Kaldor lifted a trembling hand. “Take my broadsword. It is blessed by the holy monks of Apernia. Use it to spear the brain of Torkep. It will save the land, and destroy his devilish magics.”
Ihsan flinched. “That sword is thicker than my waist. I couldn’t lift it without doing serious damage to my back. You think I want to spend the best years of my life as a crone?”
“Forget about that simpleton,” said Torkep, “I can give you power beyond mortal comprehension. All you have to do is aid me.”
“What sort of power, exactly?” said Ihsan.
“Vast abilities the like you have never seen. You could stand next to a mountain and chop it down with the edge of your hand. You could make an island out of those pieces, and live on it, your own little island with no-one to bother you.”
“I have no idea what you’re talking about.”
“Power! You’ll have great power, okay? It’s getting hard to concentrate without my body attached. Just give me the talisman from the pocket of my robes, and unfathomable power will be yours.”
Ihsan inspected Torkep’s body. Slime bubbled from the gaping wound in his neck. “It looks kind of icky.”
“Don’t be fooled by that monster’s cunning,” said Kaldor, “do the just thing and one day you will become a true adventurer. If you slay Torpek, the realm will forgive your lack of talent, your failure to protect me during the final duel, and your inability to heal me afterwards.”
Ihsan stamped her foot. “Damnit Kaldor, you bumptious fool! I only agreed to this ridiculous quest because I felt sorry for you. And I needed the money, but you only paid me half, saying the council would give me the rest when Torpek was dead. You are such a cheap amateur, the prophecy you showed me even had spelling mistakes, for crying out loud!” She rifled through Torkep’s pockets. The gore almost made her gag.
“What are you doing?” said Kaldor.
“I didn’t plan to help this nasty wizard, but you’ve changed my mind. After journeying with you for weeks, and listening to you boast about your great destiny only to whine about it with your next breath, I can think of nothing more satisfying than making sure you fail.” She clasped her hand around the talisman and whirled towards Torpek. “What now?”
The head grinned. “Put it in my mouth, thief, and the rejuvenation will be complete. Then you shall claim your prize.”
Ihsan dangled the talisman in front of Torpek’s gaping maw, but snatched it away at the last second. She hopped over to Kaldor and knelt beside him.
“Come back here, you fool!” said Torpek.
“I may despise Kaldor,” said Ihsan, “but not enough to watch him bleed out. Besides, you’re a lying snake, and would probably have killed me the moment you reattached to your body.”
Torpek cursed like a toad dipped in hot milk.
“My hero...” said Kaldor.
“Just shut up,” said Ihsan. “Put this in your mouth. You can pretend it tastes like strawberries, or something.” She watched as Kaldor clenched the talisman between his teeth.
“Do you feel better?”
And then the skin melted from Kaldor’s face.
Ihsan screamed. The stench of bacon filled the air as her companion’s flesh, muscle, and bone puddled by her feet. She jumped back to avoid his ooze splashing on her boots.
“You tricked me!” said Ihsan.
“It’s what I do,” replied Torpek. “I may not survive this encounter, but at least I lived to see Kaldor dead. Your idiocy has served me well, thief.”
Ihsan’s mind snapped like a fiddle string. She ran towards the wizard, punting him with all her strength. His head crashed through a window, disappearing into the swampland beyond.
“That’ll teach him.” Ihsan whooped in celebration. She had finished the quest without meeting a gruesome end.
Seconds later, she yelped in dismay. The Council would only give her the reward if Torpek was dead, and she had no idea if a dip in murky waters would be enough to finish the job.
Kaldor’s broadsword wouldn’t budge. She tried hauling it from all angles, her spine creaking in protest until she collapsed in a sweaty heap. The reward hardly seemed worth the effort.
She decided to rob the place instead.
The talisman caught her attention. An unholy artifact would be worth a bundle, especially one that turned heroes into mush. She might even be able to bring Kaldor back to life with it, somehow, and then she could berate him for all the grief he put her through.
She upended her pack to make room and a vial fell out, shattering on the ground.
That’s when Ihsan remembered she had packed two healing potions.
©December 2017 Thomas Grayfson
Thomas Grayfson is a fantasy writer, gamer, and beer enthusiast. He lives with his partner and two children in Perth, the most isolated city in the world. You can find him lurking on Twitter @thomasgrayfson. This is his first published work.