The gruel was lukewarm and bland as it slid down his throat, the glue-like substance leaving a taste of old socks in his mouth that did not subside no matter how much water he washed down after it. He rested his spoon on the rim of the rough-cut bowl and shifted his eyes to his companion who sat on the small table beside him, smiling slightly as he watched the young gargoyle attempt to gnaw away at a chunk of bread so stale it may as well have been stone.
The soup kitchen was crowded tonight, mortals seeking shelter and what warmth they could as the temperature dropped steadily outside. Crowley let the quiet sounds of the people eating wash over him. Most didn’t bother to say a word as they sat, all too downtrodden by the harsh demands of society to take any pleasure in the small comfort that the kitchen offered them against the autumn chill. A few glanced his way, their eyes unseeing as they stared into the distance, not even realising that someone not of their world was sitting amongst them. He was reassured by their lack of reaction to anything at his table, as it meant that the gargoyle’s glamour was working. To the mortals, Rue appeared to be nothing more than a raven pecking at a lump of bread.
Crowley watched his companion, his eyes drinking in Rue’s lithe furred body and the large, floppy ears that the gargoyle often stepped on as it sniffed around with its squashed face. There was nothing remotely raven-like about the winged creature, except maybe for its love of mischief, and yet it was the glamour that the beast had chosen. It had always been so, ever since they had first met in Crowley’s homeland when he was a boy. His people had bonded with the gargoyles for many generations, each one living and working with one of the beasts for the entirety of their lives.
It was unthinkable for someone from the Hidden World to be in the sorry state that he currently found himself in. The magical world had always looked out and protected the people who belonged to it. He too, had once been given that privilege, if reluctantly, until his little brother had gotten greedy and decided to ignore the rules of their magic.
There had always been three simple rules that guided the magic of the Luck Castors. Simple, yet extremely important. Just not important enough to stop Thomas from breaking them and destroying everything.
Such thoughts sparked a sharp pain of protest in Crowley’s heart, the memories of his past still too raw to examine, and instead he turned reluctantly back to his meal. He and Rue were alone and cut off from the Hidden World, shunned by people who had once tolerated him. He was no better off than any of the sorry mortals that sat around him, and like them, he had done nothing to deserve such squalor.
Sensing his dark thoughts, Rue abandoned its attempted consumption of the bread and climbed onto Crowley’s shoulder, wrapping its scaly tail around his neck and leaning its warm side against his face. The gargoyle purred as he reached up to scratch behind its ears, and several mortals glanced over again at the sound, this time showing some hint of confusion or curiosity. Crowley met each gaze with empty eyes, and the men and women quickly looked away once more.
He finished his bowl of gruel and pushed it away from him, rubbing his eyes and blinking wearily at the fading light outside. He was so tired, but he knew that he wasn’t welcome to sleep at the soup kitchen. They would provide a free meal each day, but then you were expected to leave and find somewhere else to sleep. He reached into the pocket of his worn grey overcoat, his fingers brushing against the few measly coins he owned, thankful that they would at least be enough to pay for a room for the night. He would have to work hard again tomorrow to earn more so that he’d be able to keep away the cold for just one more day, the cycle repeating endlessly and likely to continue to do so until he drew his last breath, one way or another.
He pulled his hand back out of the pocket, and within it he gripped his three dice. Placing them on the table before him, he stared at their markings. Made from bone, two of the dice were black and the third one red. All were carefully carved and marked with iron numbers on their sides. The dice were the tools of his trade and the source of his peculiar magic. He was a Luck Castor, and the roll of the dice controlled the strength of his gamble; the cursed magic bound by three unforgettable rules. He muttered them again now, as if he would ever forget the words that bound him to his fate.
“One. For every three acts of bad luck you must perform an act of good luck. Two. For every act of good luck, you will take the equal bad luck counter upon yourself. Three. You must never manipulate luck for your own gain.”
Rue chirped a question at him and he sighed. “I am the last of a cursed people, old friend. I have nothing of value save these dice, and all they are good for is causing harm to people who do not deserve their deception. It’s demon magic, that’s all. I would be better off having no part of it.”
He stared at them, considering for one long moment leaving them behind. He could be rid of them, denounce his magic and live truly as a mortal.
As if sensing his thoughts, Rue leapt lightly off his shoulder and onto the table, picking up the red die and offering it to him.
“You think we should keep fighting another day, huh?” he asked, and Rue chirped again.
Gently he took the red die from his friend and turned it over in his fingers. It was the most dangerous of the three dice, and not one that he used lightly. While it didn’t matter which black die he pulled singularly, the red die could not be rolled without the two black ones to accompany it. The magic simply would not work. The greater the number he rolled, the greater the strength of the luck he could manipulate, and the more things that could go horribly wrong for him and anyone associated.
He would roll only one black die for minor tricks, two if he was in a bit of a pinch or needed to have any real effect on his surroundings, and only ever all three dice if it was a life or death situation. Even then he would make sure there was no other option first. He had seen what the strength of luck could do when its Castor grew arrogant. He was determined that he would never make that same mistake. The people of the Hidden World hated him, but he had never killed anyone with his magic, and he wouldn’t start now.
Rue grew bored and began to chase its tail, rattling the uneven wooden table until its legs scraped against the dirt floor of the kitchen, and Crowley scooped the gargoyle up before it could fall off the edge and scatter the faded straw that littered the ground beneath his feet. He swept his dice back into his coat, nodded to the kitchen attendant and then headed out into the night, gritting his teeth against the harsh cold that found its way down his neck and caressed along his ribs. There was a hovel nearby that would take his coins, he knew. It was miserable and infested with lice but at least it would offer a roof over his head and a relatively mould-free straw mattress on which to lay.
Cursing at the night, he scuffed the toe of his leather boot into the hard-packed dirt road and set off, his collar turned up and shoulders hunched to try and keep warm. Rue squirmed and Crowley shoved the gargoyle inside his coat so that the beast would not freeze, calming somewhat as he felt his friend’s fast heartbeat against his chest. If there was one small mercy that he was grateful for, it was that he didn’t have to suffer through his miserable existence alone.
He’d walked three blocks when he first noticed the near-silent footsteps that trailed in his wake, accompanied by whispers so soft they were almost an absence of sound. No mortal could walk so quietly, nor would they have any reason to conceal their presence from him. He was just another nobody to them. But to the races of the Hidden World, he was a burden, a nuisance, and one they would be happy to be rid of. With a sinking feeling in his gut, Crowley slowed his pace, and then stopped walking altogether, waiting for whoever had been following him to make themselves known. He wasn’t being brave about it; there was simply no where safe for him to run to.
A group of five men stepped from the shadows and into the street, their light steps making quick work of the distance between them, until they had him surrounded. Not men, Crowley corrected himself mentally, staring at the magical objects each one bore. Wizards. A race that required a magically imbued wand or talisman to give them power. They were not much stronger than mortals, usually. The level of their power was sorely dependant on their wealth and ability to obtain a strong object. These five did not appear particularly rich, judging by the worn state of their clothes, but there were five of them and only one of him – he could not risk allowing Rue to fight, not when the area was so heavily populated by mortals. If he was to expose the existence of magic to them, he would pay with his life. The laws of the Hidden World would see to that. No, if this was to be a battle, it would be one that he had no hope of winning.
“Can I help you?” he asked. He shifted his feet apart and pulled Rue from his coat. “To the roof with you, friend. You cannot help me here.” He whispered, and threw the gargoyle into the air.
Rue squawked a protest and then flew the short distance to perch on the eave of the nearest house, turning to observe the exchange with narrowed eyes. Crowley watched until he was sure his friend was safely out of harm’s way and then turned back to the wizards who had confronted him.
“Luck Castor.” One of the wizards spat, staring at Crowley as if he were a piece of filth not worthy of breathing the same air. “You have some nerve showing your face in our town. No one wants you here.”
“I have done nothing wrong-”
“Your very existence is unnatural,” said another. “Everyone knows your powers come with fraternizing with demons. Do you lay at them at night, as your whoring ancestors did?”
“Do you beg your hellish masters for another taste of cursed magic, like a well-trained dog?” chimed in a third.
Crowley gritted his teeth. “I have never met nor conversed with a demon. I have no control over what my ancestors may have done in the past, I can only choose how I use my power, and what lines I do not wish to cross.”
“Pretty words from a cur, but we won’t believe your lies. We’ve all heard the stories about you. You live only to deceive others, using your demon magic to harm any who come to sit at your table with good intentions.”
“Good intentions? If any were willing to meet with me in the name of good intentions, I might be able to earn an honest wage, rather than resorting to trickery-”
“Liar!” the first wizard shouted, and the others jeered, urging him on.
It was going to be like that, then. They didn’t care what he had to say, and wouldn’t listen to his attempts to defend himself. Crowley felt the anger stir inside of him. He acknowledged it, and then pushed it aside. Allowing his emotions to get the better of him would not help him here. He’d learned to control his anger as a boy, when he’d been told that strong emotions swayed his intentions. A Castor’s manipulation of magic was mostly guided by intentions, and letting anger direct how Bad Luck affected a situation was a recipe for disaster.
He took a deep breath and let his anger go, staring at the ground as he counted his breaths, in and out with the rising and falling of his chest. He slipped his hand into his coat pocket so that he might feel the cool bone of his dice and be comforted.
That last decision was a mistake.
“Don’t let him grab his tools – he’ll curse us all!” The leader shouted, and before Crowley could react, the wizards were on him.
The first punch took him straight across the chin, and the second one ploughed into his gut immediately after. He doubled over, the breath expelled from his lungs in a violent burst. He threw his own fists out, but he had never been one for fighting and his swings had little strength to them. Even the best fighter would struggle against such numbers, but without being able to use magic, he had no chance at all. He reached once more for his dice, thinking that if he could get just one, roll just one die, he could use just enough luck to trip them into each other and tangle them enough for him to get away. But then his hand hesitated. That would be using luck for his own gain. The rules didn’t allow that.
One of the wizards grabbed his hands and bound them behind his back with a length of silk. As the restraint tightened against his skin, Crowley felt the magic within the cloth and knew that it must be that particular wizard’s tool. He struggled, but it was to no avail. One wizard’s kick caught him in the side of his knee, and something popped, buckling his leg and sending him crashing to the dirt. He cried out in pain, and a foot came down on the side of his head, crushing his face into the ground until he struggled to breathe past the dirt.
An outraged shriek sounded and Rue launched itself at the wizards, its fingers extended into claws that raked across any exposed bit of skin they could find. The attackers retreated back a few paces, but only until one of them was able to grab hold of the gargoyle. He threw it roughly to the ground and delivered it a sharp kick. Rue curled up with a pained cry and Crowley struggled harder, trying to get to his friend to protect it. The attempt was unneeded, however, as the wizards had no care for the beast further than getting it to leave them alone, and they quickly turned their crazed attention back to him.
He lost count of the number of blows and kicks that they rained down upon him as he lay on the ground, aware only of the pain that spiked as each one connected, the feel of his skin splitting beneath the blows, and the blood that welled from his mouth to dribble down his chin. The beating felt as if it continued for an eternity, and yet he did not lose consciousness even for a moment. No, that would be too merciful. He kept his eyes on Rue, as if he could watch over the gargoyle and save it from any further torment. He refused to look away, because that focus was the only thing that stopped him giving in to the despair that threatened to claim him. The wizards were still shouting insults, loud enough to attract attention, but no one came to help. No one cared about a nobody like him. Not enough to risk their own safety getting between him and the ruffians. Accepting his fate, he curled up as tightly as he could and tried his best to endure.
Thank you for reading!