The whispers woke Mandrake, warning him that he was not alone. He opened his eyes a slit and peered out. By the light of the quarter moon, he saw a shadowy figure rifling through his backpack.
He knew the stretch of road through the forested hills surrounding Marghbarg was home to a band of robbers and thieves, but he had bedded down for the night unconcerned that he would draw their interest. He traveled simply, with only a few provisions on his back. What could they possibly steal from him?
Of course, there was his box.
How could any robber know about his box, as he always wore it slung over his back under his cloak? Unless he had been observed as he had taken his simple evening meal and bedded down for the night.
Mandrake maintained the pretense of sleep while secretly surveying the robber. He was sure the thief would discover there was nothing worth taking and slip back into the night. There was no need for an altercation.
Instead, Mandrake felt cold steal pressed against his neck and fetid breath full of the sweet scent of tooth decay wafted in his face.
“Get up,” the thief snarled. “Don’t try anything funny.”
Slowly, guided by the thief, Mandrake stood. Considerably taller than his attacker, he was forced to crouch so that the knife didn’t cut into the smooth alabaster skin of his throat.
“Where is it?”
Mandrake slowly opened his arms wide, indicating his pack and recently vacated sleeping roll. “I am a simple traveler, all that I have is plain to see before you.”
The thief yanked Mandrake’s long white hair, pulling his head back so that he could see part of his attacker’s face out of the corner of his eye. He looked older than Mandrake had assumed from his slim frame, with a gaunt face and stubble on his chin, bleached grey by the scant moonlight. Once more Mandrake got a nose full of rank breath.
“Where’s the chest? The ebony chest, bound with bands of gold and silver. I saw it when you made camp. What did you do with it?”
So, he had been observed. Mandrake should have known that the forest was full of eyes.
“I don’t know what…” Mandrake began.
The thief snorted and pushed Mandrake away, knocking him to the ground and kicking him in the kidneys. The pain was intense.
“No more lies, old man,” the thief said. “I saw you with it, and as you haven’t left this clearing since you bedded down, it must be here.”
Mandrake lay on the ground, inhaling the loamy scent of the soil. He heard the thief kicking his bed roll aside, and then a cry of triumph as the box, which had been functioning as his pillow, was discovered.
“Found it,” the thief said. “What’s a beggar like you doing with something as valuable as this? Taking the family jewels to Marghbarg for pawning, eh? Or did you steal this too?”
“I am many things, but I am not a thief,” Mandrake said.
The thief did not reply. Mandrake assumed, from the sounds of a knife blade knocking against metal, that the thief was too preoccupied trying to get the box open. Judging by the grunts of frustration, he was unsuccessful.
There was a knack to it.
“Hey, where’s the key?” the thief said.
The bare ground was cold, and damp had seeped into Mandrake’s shirt and trousers, chilling him further. He was grateful, therefore, when the thief grabbed him once more by the hair and pulled him into a kneeling position. He could have done without the kick to his side beforehand.
“How do you open it?”
The thief held Mandrake’s head tilted back painfully with one hand, his other hand holding the knife and waving towards the box, which rested where Mandrake had put it when he settled down to sleep.
“Bring it to me and I will show you,” Mandrake said.
The thief shuffled from one foot to the other. Kneeling so close to his body, Mandrake now discovered that the robber’s breath was not the only thing that smelled bad. His body odor was ripe, his dark clothes reeking of stale sweat and other body fluids.
Mandrake wondered how the man had fallen on such hard times.
“It’s too heavy,” the thief said. “You come over here. Easy now, stay on your knees.”
Half dragged, half crawling, Mandrake crossed the remains of his campfire to his sleeping site. When it was within reach, he leaned forward and grasped the box, lifting it off the ground effortlessly. He heard the thief gasp.
“How did you do that?”
“It is my box,” Mandrake said. “I don’t need permission to use it.”
He produced a tiny dull grey key that hung on a fine string around his neck. The lock clicked loudly, the lid swinging open slightly as if the treasures inside could barely be contained now that the lid was no longer locked shut. A foul reek of cabbage and rotten fruit slipped out and filled the clearing.
The thief knocked Mandrake on to his back. He fell onto one of the sharp rocks he had used to mark out his fire pit, bruising his kidneys once again.
By the light of the moon, he could see avarice shining in the robber’s eyes as he bent over the box and opened the lid wide. He shoved his hands into the box, his arms disappearing impossibly up to the shoulder.
Mandrake could hear the whispers again. They were hungry.
The thief cried out, the sound a mixture of pain and confusion. He struggled to pull his arms out of the box.
Mandrake stood up, wincing slightly. These wounds were mere bruises, and they hardly mattered compared to what he was used to.
“Foolish boy,” Mandrake said, standing over the thief. He looked down into the box. It was a pit of darkness, the depths so black that they appeared to be sucking the light from the forest and making the night darker. The thief’s arms disappeared into this nightmare.
Mandrake heard the whispers growing louder as something climbed up from the depths.
“What is this? Help me.” Tears ran down the thief’s cheeks as he looked up at Mandrake.
Mandrake saw recognition spark in the man’s eyes.
“You. The necromancer,” the thief said.
“It’s best not to take things from me,” Mandrake said softly.
“I’m sorry, please forgive me. I didn’t know. Times are tough, and I was desperate. Please, help me. I’ll do anything,” the thief said.
Mandrake crouched beside the pleading man. He took him by the shoulders and gently pulled him back from the box. The thief’s arms emerged from the darkness. His sleeves were torn and his arms bloody from numerous scratches.
“Thank you, thank you,” the thief said.
A terrible wail issued out of the box, full of hunger and hate.
The thief shuddered. “Shut the lid, quickly, before it gets out.”
Mandrake gripped the thief’s shoulders more firmly, glad that he no longer had to maintain the pretense of frailty. With his pale skin and long white hair, he was often mistaken for a man much older than his years. So few people really saw.
“The problem is,” Mandrake said, pitching his voice low in a conspiratorial whisper, “once my box is opened, it can’t be closed until it is fed. It’s nothing personal. It has to be either me or you, and it isn’t going to be me.”
Mandrake thrust his arms forward and pitched the thief headfirst into the box. Despite the dimensions of the box being so much narrower than the man’s shoulders, he slid into it without any difficulty and was swallowed whole by the darkness. The angry wails turned to cries of glee, and then the whispers ceased. The box lid swung down of its own accord, and the large silver lock clicked shut with a snap.
Mandrake stretched his back and worked out the kinks in his neck. Already the foul air was dissipating, and the fresh scent of pine saturated the clearing once again.
He picked up his cloak and wrapped it around him, then replaced the box where it had been and once more laid out his bed roll, folding a portion of it over the box to form a pillow.
Mandrake sighed contentedly and lay down, resting his head on the box. From deep inside, he could hear the crack of bones as the inhabitants feasted. Smiling, Mandrake drifted off into peaceful sleep.
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