The Adventures of Qui'Zak the Undecided (Ep.1)
Qui'Zak had a rough adolescence. He was separated from family and community when humans attacked his small town. Trapped in the town square when the fight began, with giant enemies all around, Qui'Zak couldn't decide whether to fight or flee - so, he froze.
Paralyzed by indecision, Qui'Zak was easily captured by the humans. He was sold to the traveling merchant Enstah, who quickly realized that Qui'Zak was decently strong, fairly intelligent, rather nimble, likeable enough, and (aside from being painfully indecisive) tough to scare. Even more importantly - he could take a punch.
Enstah knew how to wring as much value out of his property as possible (whether the property liked it or not). So, he started using Qui'Zak as a ringer in local fights at taverns and brothels. Constantly bruised and battered (though usually victorious, once he'd taken a few blows deciding how to fight back), Qui'Zak prayed for someone - ANYONE - to rescue him from this madness.
The someone who answered... was the Hexblade.
Late one night, the Hexblade appeared beside Qui'Zak's cot and offered him a trade. In exchange for his eternal devotion, Qui'Zak would receive the ability to defend himself from those who would hurt him - and to make them pay for it.
It was the one time in his life that Qui'Zak probably should have taken MORE time to make a decision. He quickly agreed.
"Ssshow me your palm," the Hexblade hissed in a voice that was steel sharpening itself on steel.
Qui'Zak extended his sword hand. The Hexblade smiled darkness and daggers as it grasped it in its own. With a single razor-clawed finger, the Hexblade began tracing its mark into Qui'Zak's flesh, ripping through skin and muscle with each stroke. The pain was unlike anything Qui'Zak had ever experienced. Though it was just his hand, it felt like the Hexblade was cutting though his entire being. Qui'Zak tried to close his eyes to stop it, but The Hexblade was in there, too, carving its sigil into his mind, flaying his brain again and again.
"Behold! My gift... is now yours," whispered The Hexblade in his mind. "May all who see it tremble before you!"
Qui'Zak opened his eyes. It was morning. The Hexblade was gone. Gingerly, he looked down at his hand, expecting to see a mess of blood and bone. He was stunned. His hand was exactly as it had been before! Had he dreamed the whole thing? Had the beatings finally driven him mad?
He found out that night. Enstah had set up his cart next to the Flagon Slayer, a tavern known to attract the exact mix of brawn, bravado and booze that could be goaded into buying a few "potions of virility" - or into fighting a hafling for sport. Wherever there were drunks with too much coin in their pockets, an Enstah Cart run was almost an inevitability.
Qui'Zak was staring disbelievingly at his hand when a sharp jab of pain to the ribs snapped him back to the moment.
"Hey!" The merchant gave Qui'Zak's ribcage another prod with his cane.
"Yer up! Remember - ya don't get him to fight, ya don't get to eat! Ya want yer three dinners? Ya knock him out in three minutes!"
Qui'Zak followed the motion of the man's cane, and saw a teetering mountain careening out of the front door of the Flagon Slayer, loudly arguing with two smaller mountains trying to calm him down. It was another big drunk farmhand, flush with coin from the harvest. This one looked like he had been celebrating since before sundown.
"Well," thought Qui'Zak ruefully as he hopped off his stool and blended in with the patrons looking at the goods on the table, "at least this one won't hurt as bad as getting mindskewered by a demon."
The big drunk ones hurt bad enough when they connected, of course, but Qui'Zak had dealt with them enough to make sure that rarely happened. While Enstah got his mark's attention by pitching the men a tonic that would give them "the power of an ox where it REALLY counted," Qui'Zak snuck behind the swaying oak of a man, grabbed his shoelaces, and deftly tied them to each other. When Enstah invited the rubes over for a sample, the oak, predictably, crashed to the cobblestones.
"Watch it, you walking wine barrel!" cried Qui'Zak theatrically, receiving the laughter of the witnesses on the street for his efforts. "You could have crushed me!"
"You know," called Enstah soothingly, "it does wonders for headaches, too."
Even the oak's friends were stifling chuckles now. Those chuckles erupted into howls when their embarrassed and inebriated companion attempted to quickly return to his feet, only to just as quickly find his face back on the bricks.
"My - my - feet - tied?!" the man roared, grabbing a boot and ripping it off his foot. "YOU!"
"Oh, that?" chuckled Qui'Zak. "Well, I guess next time you'll watch your step, won't you? Or will I have to knock you down a third time?"
"Ooh - big mouth for a little guy," jeered the fallen oak's companion menacingly. "I think you'd better shut'im up!"
"Wait, wait, wait - this is madness!" interrupted Enstah on his cue. "This man is twice the size of this little fellow here."
"Thank you, sir," replied Qui'Zak dutifully. "I only wished to make him awa --"
"--we should at least make it a fair fight!"
Enstah held up a small blue vial. "With the magic power of Bull's Brawn in his belly, I wager that even this weak, deceitful, craven--"
Qui'Zak shot him a look.
"--half of a man could best this formidable fellow in a fair fight with no trouble at all!"
"What. Are. You. DOING??" hissed Qui'Zak through clenched teeth as Enstah leaned over and slipped the vial into his palm.
"Improvising, m'boy - we'll make a killing!" whispered Enstah through his own greedy smile. "Now, DRINK IT and trounce this moron!"
Wheeling around on a heel, Enstah
pointed at the shoeless hulk as he got to his feet.
"What say you, sir? Dare you stand against the Bull?"
The oak grunted that he dared. Several members of the now-assembled crowd also wanted in on the action. As coin changed hands, Qui'Zak popped the cork on the foul-smelling vial and held it aloft, silently cursed Enstah for the millionth time as he gagged it down. He was going to have gut rot for a month for this. There was no telling what rancid garbage Enstah filled his vials with these days ("the worse it tastes, the better it sells!", he'd say).
The big man lunged at him with a big clenched fist before he had time to worry about the aftertaste. It would have cought Qui'Zak off guard, but between the roar of rage and the wild haymaker wind-up, there was more than enough time for the halfling to catch both his bearings and the big man's knee with a well-timed shoulder charge.
It really was like slamming into an oak.
But, it had the desired effect. The man's bare foot slid out from under him and he was airborne once again, sailing over Qui'Zak on his way to the ground for the third time.
Qui'Zak tumbled through the counter and rolled to his feet, to the delight of those in the astonished crowd who HADN'T bet against him.
"He charged him like a bull!" cried a man in the crowd.
"Which he would have seen," answered Qui'Zak, "if he had watched his--"
The sound of steel on leather stopped Qui'Zak mid sentence. He whirled around and saw the big oak back on his feet; a sickle in his hand. His two friends also had their weapons drawn, and a nauseating feeling that had nothing to do with the blue bile Enstah had just made him drink washed over him.
These WEREN'T farmhands. Enstah had misread his mark. Now, his pet hafling had just thrice shown up the leader of a band of local brigands.
"Whoa, fellows --" Qui'Zak chuckled nervously, raising his palms in a placating gesture.
The men stopped. A woman screamed.
Qui'Zak looked at his hand and saw it... glowing.
From the base of his wrist to the tip of his index finger, a bright mauve tear had rended his flesh, twirling it in some ancient calligraphy. But where there should have been blood and muscle underneath, instead there was only an eerie, unnatural light emanating from within him. The hand moved under its own power; the index finger tracing the same symbol in the air in front of him, where it visibly remained the way a candle's flame remained in his vision when closing his eyes after seeing it.
"D-DEVIL!" the big man shouted, and hurled his sickle directly at Qui'Zak's head.
Qui'Zak froze. His hand - the Hexblade's hand - did not.
The hand caught the sickle by the blade. Qui'Zak watched with detached curiosity as it embedded into the glowing flesh. It should have hurt. It should have lopped Qui'Zak's fingers clean off.
Instead, Qui'Zak found himself wrenching the sickle back and forth with his free hand to dislodge it, and then offering it back to the Hexblade when it beckoned for it back. The hand took the blade, and Qui'Zak felt complete for the first time in his life.
The Hand grasped the sickle and pointed a finger at the now-terrified man standing before Qui'Zak. The man who had just tried to kill him. The same type of man that stole from people smaller than him. The same type of man that stole Qui'Zak from his family. The brigand. Rage gripped him, and he felt his body tremble with a power that he knew was not his alone.
"You - are - CURSED!" hissed the voice that came out of Qui'Zak's mouth like a blade slicing through the air.
Qui'Zak's mouth opened again, only this time, what came out sounded more like the roar of the ocean or a swarm of bees or the howling wind than any language understood by most mortals. But Qui'Zak understood.
It was saying "now, BURN!"
The primordial howl crescendoed. Typhoons of fire erupted under the man's bare feet, engulfing him as he screamed in horror and agony. Then, Qui'Zak was upon him, a whirlwind of fire and fury and blood, hacking at his chest and face as the heat melted his flesh, the sickle rising and falling and rising and falling and rising and falling as flames licked the blood off the steel.
And then, as fast as it had begun, it was over. Qui'Zak stood, bloodsplattered and singed, the sickle still locked in his Hand. Then, the glowing faded and the hand unclenched, and Qui'Zak realized that all his wounds had healed. He looked down at the smoldering, mangled remains of the hapless brigand who had attacked him, and then into the wide eyes of the other two men. As their eyes locked, a voice echoed in the distance:
"Behold! My gift... is now yours! May all who see it tremble before you."
The two men dropped their weapons and fled. Some of the onlookers did, too. But most, like Qui'Zak, remained rooted where they stood, paralyzed with fear.
"What have I done?" he gasped in horror. "What have I DONE?"
Then he turned and fled, sickle still clutched in his hand. He ran away from the square, from Enstah and his slavery, from the carnage and the flame. No one tried to stop him. This time, no one dared.
Enstah was so stunned by the cataclysmic turn of events that had just climaxed in his prize fighter turning into a murderous hellspawn before his eyes that he didn't notice the tugging at his cloak at first. He looked down and saw an older, ruddy-faced dwarf, a bulging coin purse earnestly clutched in his gnarled hands.
"Bull's Brawn." the dwarf said matter-of-factly, extending the bag. "Ah'll take the lot of it."