Old Wishtwister Shadibriri was having himself a truly lovely day.
The barren sky hung still, sullen and gray like a pool of seething lead, low and dark upon the horizon without a ghost of sunlight behind it. Stinging snow, much of it now clumped into hard, cruel shards of ice, sifted and spattered through the black and leafless trees, filling the forest path with a drifting, bony whiteness, which crunched delightfully underfoot.
A cry of killing wind cut, crackling, through the ice-coated branches, and a smile crept unto the lips of the Wishtwister.
Such good sport, he thought with a quiet laugh. And what a day.
It was a day that promised to be delightful, and productive, and most of all simply a well-fulfilling damned enterprise. After all, he thought: it’s Wishing Day!
Thirty miles south by south-east of Gralton, soiled jewel of the River Kingdoms, the whistling Wishtwister cut through the nameless woods to his destination: a blackened little circle of seven stumps ringing ’round a jut of bloodstained and rune-carved rock dating back to the time of the old Sarkoris Binding-Witches. The creeping grin which began, split the Wishgiver’s face at the thought of those old hags and what had become of them was colder than even the ice-choked wind.
His smile brightened, and his pace quickened. He was, of course, wearing a potent glamour, painted pleasant, bright and ruddy-cheeked as he always did when amongst humans, but the spring in his step was all real. It had simply been too long, by his delighted accounting, since Wishing Day had last come to Gralton.
Has it really been only a year?
Gralton had been a lucky find, all things considered during that winter of 4668 – the year all the wishing started. Once the old aristocracy of Galt had fled from the Red Revolution and settled into their rotting river estates just long enough to hate themselves for cowardice, it had been all too easy to put the right words in the right ears; on the 11th of Kuthona, when all the faithful of Cayden Cailean were gathered by a roaring hearth, spinning tall-tales and raising a tongue-tied toast to their hero’s bold ascension, the bitter and the vengeance-minded were to be found upon a very cold and lonely holiday indeed.
A dozen souls attended that first, inaugural Wishing Day.
This year, for his 42nd anniversary, Shadibriri expected a crowd of near fifty.
In truth, it should be said, there were more profitable opportunities than Gralton scattered around the great, wide world with all its mysteries: the early weeks of Gozran were always exciting, coming as they did in the very shadow of Taxfest. And the endless, aching middle of Calistril invariably saw the burning agony of some youth’s heart in the desperate need of an immediate fulfillment. Strangest of all, perhaps, the last gasps of Lamashan always seemed to writhe around an artist who had lost his muse or a soldier staggering home, sick to their stomach of war. Yes, all twelve months had very special and wonderful reasons to be in the right place at the right time, with sharp ears tuned to the right desires. And when there were no temptations to sow or bargains to make, no words to massage or dull-tongued desires to bring forth into hideous life, there was always killing to be done.
Yes, always killing, and blood and fear and the bursting of hot flesh in one’s sharp, slick hands. And the cries of accusations and sorcerer-burning. And the souls caught up in the shuffle, of course, and carried out into the Abyss. Delightful, all.
But for old Wishtwister Shadibriri, nothing was quite as sweet as today, perhaps because it was his – and his alone. No one else yet had a Wishing Day: ripe with those looks of pure, panicked, docile, tragic, terrified, wasted hope wreathed in angry, spiteful, blood-thrumming need. A crowd, squirming, willing to wrestle and claw and kill for the right to sell their soul short.
No wonder he loved Wishing Day.
A wandering, tuneless hum began to bounce right along with Shadibriri’s mirth, and the old demon turned his thoughts, quite idly, to how he might go about conducting this day’s most unique symphony of wants and promises and weeping betrayals. Would he make his supplicants fight for his favor? Fornicate, perhaps, in ugly couplings? Strip naked and race through the cold woods on frozen feet? Perhaps a wine-drinking competition, full to bursting and puking, or a teeth-pulling challenge, yanking gaping gums bare and bloody, or some other contest of trembling self-mutilation.
Each of those had always been joyous in the past.
And then the wish, of course, was the best part of all.
The old Wishtwister had never been one for plans. Ever the artist, never the engineer. An improviser: for him, a single second’s spark of spontaneity was worth well more than a dull decade’s dusty design; a moment of madness would always out-pace a century of contemplation.
But he did like to wonder.
And then, with a twinkle in his eye and a slick, savage parting of the strings of conjuration which bind the Astral spaces, the Wishtwister arrived at his destination.
There were four dozen there, all told, huddled against the cloying chill that strikes the River Kingdoms with a vengeful howl each winter and refuses to let go. Ice in their beards, hands fisted into numbs clumps at their sides, wet, crimson misery in their eyes; these abandoned and shifting souls were wrapped in finery and peasant’s rags alike. Some had surely rode six days out of Daggermark for this occasion, in sumptuous carriages crafted of darkwood and cold iron; others had no doubt begun the bleak march out of South Gralton’s gray farmland at nightfall wrapped in all they owned. And all were here, balancing dread against obsession.
With a ringing laugh, the Wishtwister leapt up upon the tallest stump of the clearing, and his warm voice carried against the wind: “Welcome, welcome, welcome all! And let our Wishing Day … commence!”
His sparkling smile washed over the crowd, and his gaze picked at their worried faces shining with unknown needs. He made a thousand, thousand guesses, and discarded all of them just as quickly.
Who, today, would leave with their heart’s desire?
He did not know, and the joy was in the learning of it. There was, for a moment, a heat within him so fierce that it was almost overwhelming; a wild mania, a rage to pick each and every one of the gathered throng apart with his bare hands and drink their piping blood down in gasping gulps.
“Hello, hello and hello! I am the old Shadibriri, friends, who hearkens close to those in greatest need, and by the ancient pacts of these old woods I come in this hour to hear your wants and whispers. I am no god, and I seek no prayers; I am no man, and I seek no gold; I am only a spirit of hoping and of wishing and of having, and I come expecting … gifts! Who, then, has brought me a treat, a taste, a tickle or a tithe?”
One woman, all-too-young, barefooted, dressed in rag and pushing forward through the crowd: “I … I bring you fresh milk.”
A grin: “Oh, and indeed I do treasure a drink of sweet milk! Is it warm, may I inquire?”
A look of terrified uncertainty: “I’m afraid … well, the … the cold … ”
“Huh. You did not think to clutch it next to your body, and to keep it warm?”
“I … I tucked it close as I could, against the wind, but … ”
“Oh, no. Then, perhaps next year you will remember to hide it beneath your cloak, against your bare and secret skin.”
The woman blushed, and stammered.
“… I …”
“No matter, young lady! ‘Tis but a bit of teasing from an old man, is all. You are bold, to speak first, and I do admire boldness. You may stay, for your milk is a fine gift. Pour it, now, on the ground, and abide awhile. If I may ask, then, little one, what will you wish for if the wishing be made yours this day?”
A soft gasp against the wind: “The … love of … ”
“Eh? What’s that, my little lamb, my little lark?”
“The love of a certain … certain person.”
“Hm. Oh, but I am afraid that I cannot give you the love of another.”
Red eyes startled, staring, disappointed.
A grin, as the ruined and muddy milk began to freeze upon the ground: “But I can give you this person, rest you assured. This person, their life, their body, their mind, their very heart, still hot, if you wish. All the things which make them, which is better than love. To thee, young lady, I wish the best of luck!”
Her eyes turned downward, humiliated and on the verge of tears.
“Now, who is next with gifts?”
A man stepped forward: “I bring you, master, a brick of solid silver.”
“Hm. And what need has a spirit for silver, lad?”
“… taken from my grandfather’s store without his knowledge.”
“Ah! Then you guess at my nature, boy!”
“I remember you of years past, my master.”
“Quite well, son! Well indeed, and I see your gift and am pleased, and beg of you to stay. If I may ask, my shivering and cunning friend, what shall you wish for today if the wish is made yours?”
“Oh, delightful! Come close, and drop your gift at my feet! Now, of these gathered lords and ladies, who else has a thing to offer me?”
A black-cloaked figure pushed forward: “I offer you only death, monster.”
The crowd drew back in time with the unsheathing of a blade.
A delighted gasp: “You offer me … death? So few have ever done so, and in truth I have never had it. And, then, what would your wish be, friend?”
With a scarred and battle-worn voice: “That you face me.”
Screams roiled through the crowd, as some few saw, for the briefest moment, the Old Wishtwister for what he truly was. A great and gnarled limb, like the claw of some misshapen crab vomited out of the Lake of Mists and Veils, snapped forward and severed the swordsman in twain. With a gush of steaming blood, his corpse twitched upon the scarlet snows and then lay still.
“There. A wish is granted.”
A murmur of panic roiled through the audience.
“Oh, fear not, friends! His request was a trifling thing, no great difficulty in granting. In truth, he deserved much more than that for which he asked; I could have given him strength beyond the mortal, or a blade more swift than blackness itself, or the insight to know his enemy’s heart and the vision to see foes all around him. A pity, then, that he chose so foolishly. Now, then … who else has brought me a gift?”
And there, as the supplication went on, and trophies piled before him, and the crowd began to turn spiteful and desperate, the Old Wishtwister decided upon the final task which would decide the victor of Wishing Day: the supplicant willing to devour, in gasps, the greatest portion of the fallen swordsman would be granted their dearest wish.
Oh yes, that would be fun. And then, and then, and THEN the very wish itself, and the new horrors dawned from it.
Ah, the joys of Wishing Day!