The wooden lottery wheel clunked dully as the small chips inside churned against each other. A stillness gripped the group of men who stared mesmerized as the wheel stopped and was opened by an older gentleman.
"Ten. Mr. Than." With those three words spoken by that wizened voice, the group heaved a collective sigh. No one had dared breathe until it was over.
"It can't be me!" yelled a short, rather greasy-looking man.
"Mr. Than, we all agreed that this is was how we would determine who would go-"
"But I'm the only Theama left in the region! I have no family to inherit the Gift. Surely you cannot send me!"
The elder man narrowed his gaze. "Then tell us, Mr. Than, do you see Death on anyone's face right now? No? So no one will die in the next 24 hours, so I suggest you go in haste. It is only a day's travel to the city and they must have the antidote immediately. If you hurry back, we will only have to deal without your services for a single day."
Mr. Than shook his head. "But it isn't just too dangerous to collect the venom without me. You know that I'm also the only one who can tell when one of the Vorpal Beasts is going to die. And collecting from a weak Vorpal gives us the most venom with the least risk. You'll have to stop the entire collection process if I'm not here, and we can't afford to stop making the antidote, not even for a single day."
One of the other men walked up to Mr. Than, putting his face inches from the smaller man's. "Listen, you little worm. My daughter has been struggling with Ghost Pox for a month, and this stuff is the only way to cure her. I'm not about to let your-"
"John, give him some space," said a heavy-set woman. She walked between them and pushed the pair apart. Mr. Than stumbled back against the far wall of the compound. As he pushed away from the wall, he noticed that his arms appeared pale and withered. No one else seemed to notice, but the sight struck him to his heart.
"Please, I can't go. I need to stay here, to continue the work. I'm sure someone else can make it faster than I could, anyway," he pleaded.
The woman rolled her eyes. "Fine. I'll go. Than, you can stay here. But when I get back, we are going to have a talk."
Mr. Than looked up at her. Suddenly, the pallor of death left his body and appeared on hers. He shook his head, but no one was paying attention to him any longer. "Sam, you can't…" he said, but she was already walking out of the door to load the cart.
Guilt wracked Mr. Than for the first time in his life. Never had he seen the results of his actions spelled out so clearly before. For the next hour he watched his friend load the cart with boxes of precious vials, completely unaware that she was about to face her own mortality. Sam just finished hooking a horse up to the cart when Than snuck to the stables. A minute later, the sound of pounding dirt and excited horses caught everyone's attention, even Sam's. Nine people scrambled to corral the horses. One snuck away unseen, taking the cart and vials with him.
As soon as the frantic sound of horses and men faded into the background din of the woods, Than let out a nervous laugh. He thought that the adrenaline would have died away by that point, but instead he remained wired and tense. Once more, his arms were pale and rotting. Now he rode off to meet his death, but hoped he could at least deliver the vials safely before his untimely demise. There was no fear any longer. He knew he was going to die and he faced it head-on like a soldier marching straight into the enemy ranks.
Hours passed. The constant adrenaline made Than grow weary and fatigued. Although his skin appeared more rotten with each moment, he had no idea when his final act would begin. He had not driven the road in over a year and was surprised at how overgrown the road had become. His horse continually tried to move off the path, but Than wouldn't let it. For nearly an hour he struggled to keep on the right course. Suddenly the horse froze and a shiver ran through its flank.
"Come on, I want to deliver these vials BEFORE I die," he said as he jumped down from the cart and walked up to he head of the horse. He grabbed the reigns, but the horse pulled away violently. Suddenly, it jolted forward and snapped the leather that kept it bound to the cart. Than fell back as the horse ran off into the thick brush.
"Dammit, horse! Get back here!" he shouted, sitting up. As soon as he stood, however, Than himself froze. Behind him he heard the distinct hiss of a Vorpal Beast. Fear returned in full-force as he spun and found himself staring at the ethereal creature. It resembled a massive white snake with the face of a dog and a single pair of limbs, each ending in a sickle-like claw. Than backed up against the cart. "C-come on.. you don't have to kill me yet. Just let me get past. Just let me pass…" he repeated over and over as the beast approached.
Suddenly the sound of hoof-beats grew loud. The Vorpal coiled some as a horse came into view. Than ran around the side of the cart and sighed. "Thank goodness, you damn horse. I didn't think… Sam?!"
Riding atop of the horse was his friend. "Than, there you are! I was worried!"
Than's eyes grew wider. Her skin was rotten and peeling. "Sam… no…"