“And the devil shall have his due.” These words comprise your earliest memory–that of a simple phrase, spoken from between smiling teeth. And with that sudden recollection, you abruptly return to consciousness.
The rhythmic jostling of your surroundings and the tell-tale clip-clop sounds outside betray your situation. You sit in a horse-drawn coach, packed between eight other travelers, some forced to sit on the floor. They too blink in simultaneous confusion, exchanging glances that proceed quickly from confusion to dawning comprehension.
The nine of you are finally done with your training at the Scholomance. You are the latest graduates. Yet not a single one of you now dare breach the unholy silence. For the shared realization had brought with it a chilling horror.
A full ten individuals had signed their name in their blood. A full ten humans had sworn their lives and their safety into the hands of one Archmagus Tanus. A tenth flesh-and-blood person had stood alongside you, that first fateful night, knowing that he or she too might be the one claimed in final payment. And not a detail of that missing comrade survived in your memory.
“And the devil shall have his due.” As he has always done.
It is raining when the coach finally arrives at your inn for the night. The driver gives a single gesture to the innkeeper, who nods grimly before turning pale. He gestures you to quickly enter, and the coach turns to depart. You remain outside just long enough to watch it disappear…making its long way back to a dark castle beside a darker lake, a place no mortal can find without assistance.
“Beds are upstairs, toilet’s out back, dinner’s been served but there are some cold leftovers I’ll grab for you,” the innkeeper states quickly and curtly. “We’ll have breakfast in the morning, then you can be off. There’s a caravan headed through the mountains that’ll take you where you need to go.”
“And…payment?” a quiet voice said. It was the first word you recall any of your companions uttering.
The innkeeper pursed his lips visibly. “You have nothing of value to me, not that I would accept it if you did. Just be on your way, and that’ll be good enough for me.”
It’s at this moment you realize that none of you have luggage, tools, or even any means to settle debts. Placing your hand inside your coat pocket, you discover your sole possession–a single clay pipe, and a pouch of tobacco.
That night, as your comrades snore loudly in their beds, you remain awake, seated in a wooden chair. Nearby, a single candle gives off the only ruddy light of the room. You tap your finger on the side of your pipe as you ponder the ceiling. Wisps of smoke idly billow and meander about the rafters, much like the lost thoughts in your vacant head.
Your training exacted a cost in more than sweat and toil; all that remains of your memory is a dull gray fog. How long does it represent? How many months–even years–of life experiences, of choices being made, of friends earned and lost, of relationships and even love? Those who slumber fitfully beside you–how long have you known them? What secrets had you shared? What promises kept, vendettas forged?
Though you are certain you possess no more than thirty years in age, gray hair already creeps along the sides of your temples, and your joints ache stiffly in the cold. Your training in the castle required only one night, but it must have been a night as endless as the grave.
The ten of you had shared a story at Lake Hermannstadt–a story stolen in payment by your mentor. Had it been a good story? And what tale would the nine of you now compose together? Could it hope to offset that heavy cost?
Your contemplations last long into the night, as you continue to tap on the side of your pipe. With each tap, the nearby candle’s flame briefly flares to vibrant life, dancing to the beat of an unseen drum.