He sat on a flat rock and dipped his spoon in. Halfway into taking the first bite he paused, unable to remove his eyes from the broadsword with its pommel planted in the earth. It had to be more than a trick of the eye. Tyran looked sad.
Taphram put his bowl on the ground and leapt to his feet. He dug a second bowl from his pack and prepared another portion. "Here you go," he said, setting it before the sword and taking his seat again. "You wouldn't believe the variety of edible pant life this forest has. I must have found at least ten different herbs to mix in! I'll teach you sometime, how to measure them so it comes out just right."
Tyran seemed to relax at the offer. Taphram smiled. The curse may have given his brother a new body, but that was no reason to stop treating him like a person. Every little routine he could uphold would remind Tyran he wasn't forgotten.
"Know I am here? How?"
Taphram dropped his spoon. A glob of stew splattered against his cheek. He put the bowl aside and raced around the pot, kneeling before the sword. His eyes flickered between the blade and the hilt, uncertain as he was which part now counted as his brother's face. "Tyran!" he said, childish enthusiasm making his voice seem even younger than his appearance suggested. "I'm so glad to hear you again! Why do you sound so different?"
"Who is Tyran?" the voice said. It sounded much older than his brother should be even counting the years spent under the curse, and it was colored with a heavy accent Taphram could not place.
Disappointment brought a frown to Taphram's face, but it was gone the next instant. Even if the curse had not changed on its own to let his brother speak with him, the alternative still left him better off than before. He rose and scanned the forest. "Hi, I'm Taphram!" he said, smiling into the trees. "Who are you? Where are you?"
Taphram saw movement before he heard any sign of his new friend's whereabouts. A man unfolded himself from a clump of thorny bushes with the grace of a cat crawling out from under a bed. The man cocked his head, a bewildered look written on his face. He stayed rooted to the spot.
Taphram wondered how the stranger could have fit under there, or why he would want to, but decided it wasn't worth pursuing. He remembered all the times people had gotten irritated at the way he asked questions, though he could not recall if it was the number of questions or the type of questions that bothered them. Instead he waved at the man and said, "Welcome to my camp, friend! Help yourself to some stew."
In all his travels, Taphram had never met someone who looked like he needed a bowl of stew more. The man's dirty face was hollow, and everywhere a hole appeared in his ragged clothing pale skin stretched over bones showed through. He looked like he had been lost in the forest for weeks, hovering at the brink of death.
Hours seemed to pass before the man reacted to the invitation. He stepped from the bushes and inched forward on the balls of his feet, stopping a little distance from Tyran's rock. His eyes were fixed on the pot of boiling stew, but he would not come any closer. Shivers gripped his gaunt frame.
Taphram held out a third bowl of stew. "You look cold," he said. "Why don't you come sit by the fire?"
The man gave his head a few violent shakes. He stretched his long arms toward Taphram and cupped his hands together, palms up. "Give me food?"
Taphram stepped out of his camp, bowl in hand. The man shrank away a few steps, so he stopped. Their eyes met, and the nagging worry at the back of his mind grew. He had never seen such intense eyes. They were even lighter than his own, almost white. Between their wideness and the way the man shook he felt unpleasant memories stirring. He had seen that look before, on the faces of people who caught a glimpse of what the curse that transformed Tyran had done to him. He set the bowl on the ground and hurried back, before whatever power the man had that allowed him to see into his soul scared him off.
The man pounced, lifting the bowl and burying his face in it. Taphram could not help but giggle at the way he wolfed it down with loud smacking sounds, sending chunks flying. The man lifted his head after licking the bowl clean and appeared to have absorbed half of the stew in his scruffy beard. He crept to Tyran's rock, set the bowl down, and scurried back. He smiled and cupped his hands together again. "More!"
Taphram smiled and retrieved the bowl. His worries dissolved like the steam rising from the pot. Maybe the man didn't sense the corruption hanging over him. Few would dare stay in his presence if they did. He must be one of the forest recluses he had heard about- hermits, he thought they had been called. Years spent alone could do strange things to the mind. He just needed to give the man some space, and he would soon understand he was a friend.
"Say," he said, setting another full bowl outside the camp, "you never did tell me your name."
The man held the bowl and crouched, sitting on his heels. "I am Prankster."
He furrowed his brow and said the word with hesitation, as if he had heard it spoken but never tried to sound it out for himself.
Taphram tilted his head. "Prankster? That's a weird name!"
Prankster swallowed a mouthful of stew and shrugged. "Is a bad name. Did not choose it."
"Why go by a name you don't like?"
Another shrug. "Just how it is. My people are nameless. Have only insults." He waved his hand, as if indicating someone standing beside him. "This is Boring-One. That one is Always-Whines. That one Noseless-Idiot."
Taphram was fascinated. He planted his palms on either side of his seat and leaned forward. "You're lucky! If you don't have a real name, you could be anyone you want! If I were you I would be well, I don't know, but someone else. Maybe. I've never thought about it before. I mean, changing your name doesn't change who you are, but Have you ever thought about making up your own name?"
Prankster left the empty bowl for him again. He sat and scratched his head. "How?"
Taphram scraped the last portion of stew from the pot. "Uh, just think of something you like. Or, or maybe, something that describes you!"
Prankster ate slower than before, and he was still thinking when he had finished licking the bowl. He scrunched his eyes until he looked like he was suffering severe bowel distress. Taphram was starting to wonder if something was wrong with him when they flew open and a smile crossed his face. "I could be Always-Hungry!"
As if to illustrate the point he left the bowl for another refill.
With nothing left to give him, Taphram sacrificed his and Tyran's portions. He took his seat with a smile of his own. "That's a great name! People won't forget a name like that. You should tell your people they can do stuff like that."
The newly christened Always-Hungry wiped his mouth with his wrist, and then licked the stew residue off it. "I will. Have to find, first."
He sighed, and then tackled the last bowl.
Taphram frowned. "Did they get lost?"
Always-Hungry made a strange sound, like the rumbling beginnings of a growl. He bared his teeth, as if grimacing in pain. "No. I did. Anwe took me. Stupid human."
Taphram opened his mouth to ask Always-Hungry if his teeth had always been that funny pointed shape, but a more distressing thought distracted him. "You were kidnapped? That's terrible!"
Always-Hungry's face drooped and he made another odd sound, this one more like a dog's whimper. "Yes," he said, clutching a hand to his chest. "He shot me. He cut me. Put me in cage!"
"How awful! How did you get out?"
"Nice man saw me. Had mind power. Let me go. Say goodbye to people. Come here. That is the story."
Taphram felt relieved, as if he himself had experienced the freedom at the end of this journey. He wanted to help his new friend find his way back home. "Say," he said, a new plan forming in his mind. "Why don't we travel together? I can help you look for your people, and maybe one of them will know how to help me fix my uh problem. Do your people have clerics?"
Always-Hungry cocked his head. "What is cleric?"
So much for that plan. Taphram shrugged his disappointment off with a smile. "Oh. Well, they're healers. I've seen so many already I can't even count them. Each one is different though, so there has to be at least one out there who can help with any problem you have."
Always-Hungry waved a bony hand at him. "Pah. We not need that. We heal ourselves."
Taphram's heart pounded. "Do you have magical skill?" he said, rising from his seat in his excitement. "Can you heal other people too?"
Always-Hungry gave the three empty bowls a long look. He met Taphram's eyes and clutched both hands to his stomach. "You have more food?"
"No, but I'm a good hunter. It won't take me long to get some more."
Always-Hungry dug his fingers into his greasy hair and ground his teeth. "Am hungry now!"
He paced in tight circles, chewing his nails and muttering to himself. Taphram strained his ears, but could not tell if he was saying real words or making more of those strange whining sounds. Always-Hungry stopped, took a deep breath, and spoke without looking at him. "Come here. I will heal you."
Taphram knelt to pick up Tyran. Always-Hungry's eyes widened and he opened his mouth with a growl. It was getting harder for Taphram to ignore his teeth, or the odd way he appeared to have chewed his long nails to points. He squeezed Tyran's handle to steady his nerves. "Please," he said. "My brother deserves this as much as I do."
Always-Hungry crouched and backed away. In desperation Taphram put Tyran down and ran after him. "Please don't leave! You have to help me!"
Always-Hungry stopped and stood straight again. Taphram reached him and tilted his head to look into his eyes. Unease crept from the back of his mind. He hadn't realized how tall the man was, especially when he stretched his feet out in that odd stance he used. "What do I have to do?" he asked.
Always-Hungry wiped a thread of drool from the corner of his mouth. He placed a filthy hand on Taphram's neck, and the boy shivered at the coldness of his fingers. "Just be still."
Five points of pressure dug into Taphram's flesh and blood trickled from them. His last coherent thought was, Oh no, not again, and then the curse sprang forth like a wolf set loose from a trap.
Taphram swung both fists into Always-Hungry's ribcage and felt them sink with a satisfying crunch. The man let go and leapt backward, a sputtering howl of pain spilling from his lips. He landed on all fours, looked up at Taphram, and hissed like a wildcat.
Taphram spoke in a voice that grew deeper with every word. "You shouldn't have done that. I'm going to kill you now."
He lifted his hands over his head and grinned. Purple flames erupted from his fingertips. Always-Hungry shrieked, scrambled to his feet, and ran away with unnatural speed.
Taphram whirled around to retrieve Tyran. As soon as he had the sword in his hand flames enveloped it. He raced after his quarry, laughing with every step at the thought of destroying the nuisance. Despite Always-Hungry's head start he soon caught up.
His prey darted into a thick cluster of trees. The man, or whatever he really was, leapt onto a low hanging branch. He looked down at Taphram and hissed. Taphram laughed and waved his sword. "How I will enjoy taking you apart!" he said, and swung the sword in an arc that released a blast of purple flame.
Always-Hungry sprang from his perch before the flames demolished the branch and sailed over Taphram's head. He ricocheted off another tree and landed on his back before he could turn, pinning him to the ground.
Fangs sank into Taphram's neck and he snarled with outrage. He summoned a burst of strength to tear loose and throw off his enemy. Always-Hungry reached for him with a clawed hand and he swung Tyran, laughing with glee when the blade connected at the wrist and lopped off the appendage. Always-Hungry wailed with such ferocity that even Taphram's cursed self found the noise painful, and then he vanished.
Taphram rose on shaky legs and studied the ground. Liberal splashes of blood marked the enemy's trail. He grinned. He would not be satisfied until the offender was hacked to unrecognizable pieces. Taphram took a step forward, wobbled, and collapsed.
The light that hit Taphram's eyes burned. He squeezed them shut and groaned. A man's voice drifted to him and he snatched at it, using it as an anchor to regain his senses.
"-mauled by a wild animal, but you're gonna be just fine. How's your head?"
"They eat people."
Noises sloshed together. Footsteps. Distant talking. Camp sounds. It was hard to isolate the speaker's voice. "I'm sorry, what?"
Taphram tried to sit. He moaned and clutched the bandages wrapped around his neck. "The people in this forest. They eat people."
He forced his eyes open and saw a man he assumed was the speaker. He was dressed in cleric's robes. The man confirmed this when he looked over his shoulder and barked at another who was passing by. "Kellier! Hey Kellier, come hear this!"
Kellier and most of the men moving past the cleric's tent were dressed in fine robes. Taphram guessed they must be a band of traveling merchants. That made him feel better. No self-respecting group of merchants would travel without guards. Kellier knelt beside the cleric and said, "What do you need me for, Birk? I have my own job to look after; I don't have time to help you do yours!"
Birk glared at Kellier. Between the rich array of jewelry he wore and the detached expression he cast at the cleric, Taphram thought he might be the group's leader. Birk waved a hand at his patient. "I knew this was a bad route. Tell him!"
Taphram steadied himself and addressed Kellier, trying not to let lightheadedness muddle his words. "He looked like a man. I think I think he wanted to eat me. With his teeth, like a wolf does a rabbit. Does that always happen here?"
Birk jabbed a finger at Kellier's chest. "See! It's that wendigo beast that sideshow lost! I told you people bin sein' it around this stretch of woods, but nooo, we just had to cut through it! Now we're all gonna die!"
Kellier swatted Birk's hand away, but his face was a shade paler. "Nonsense. How could a mere child fight off a monster like that?"
Birk picked something off the ground beside Taphram's sleeping roll. Taphram gasped. It was Tyran. "This is no ordinary sword," he said, holding it out for Kellier to inspect. "And he is no ordinary child. I sense something very dark in him. No doubt that dumb beast got the shock of its life when it made a go at him."
Taphram bared his teeth and lunged for the sword. "Don't touch him!"
Birk dropped it and both men stumbled back out of the entrance of the cleric's tent. Kellier turned to Birk and spoke in a hushed tone. "This whole accursed forest teams with demons! Send word to break camp. We'll leave the little one behind. If the big one comes sniffing along our trail he'll be a good distraction."
Birk frowned. "The boy's not a-"
The leader thwacked him over the head. "Snap to it! Load the horses! It could be watching us even now!"
Kellier hurried away, yelling orders at anyone who crossed his path. Birk sighed. He crouched in the tent flap and threw some pouches at Taphram's feet. "Water, food, potions. Dunno what your chances are, but here's hopin', eh kid?"
Taphram nodded and secured Tyran in his sheath. "Thanks."
They packed in record time. Taphram sat in the tent, watching them while he regained his strength. He didn't know what a wendigo was, but based on the hits it managed to score on his cursed self they were right to be worried.
Taphram gave the merchants a head start, and then fell in place behind them. He was tired of the forest. It didn't matter what city they were headed to, anything was better than here. He slept in the open, away from trees, surrounded by a ring of campfires.
Pale-eyed, starved things stalked his dreams. One night his dream serenaded him with a symphony of horror; roars that shook the trees, men's screams cut short with wet gurgles, the shrill squeals of horses. His mind's eye focused on the action, hovering over it as the eyes of dreamers often do, trying to identify the attackers. Always-Hungry and Cursed Self darted to and fro, laughing together, dividing the game so each could make an equal number of kills. He awoke covered in sweat, just in time to hear the last of the chaos die down. He threw more sticks on each fire.
The next morning he forced himself to continue along the same path. He located the remains of the camp and picked through them. Jewels, clothing, cleric's potions; he took everything he could carry that was usable now or could be bartered for food later. He stayed alert, but the forest remained peaceful and quiet.
Taphram adjusted Tyran's sheath and sighed. "Come on brother," he said, stepping forward, "let's see what the next town has to offer."