We decided not to stay the night. It was still fairly early in the day, and Sarah waking up as something different the next day would have been difficult to explain. Sarah used her magic to break off a few dragon scales, which we traded to Donald in return for a pair of horses for me, some provisions for the journey, and some spare clothes. Luckily, he happened to have all of the above on hand.
His eyes widened at the sight when Sarah presented the scales. “Those can’t be what they look like…”
“But they arrre,” Sarah said. “Drrragon scales, worrrth morrre than gold.”
“And how did the bandits who robbed you not find them?”
Sarah gave him a feline grin, showing just a hint of fang. “I hid them somewherrre no bandit would look.”
Donald laughed just a little at her audacity and shook his head. “Not without causing yourself some very painful injuries. There is more to you than meets the eye, to both of you, I’d wager.”
I grinned over at him. “I can’t help but wonder. What happens if a person sleeps in the vicinity of the Treasury, receives some sort of bounty from the Fates, and then donates it right back to the Treasury?”
Donald cocked his head to the side slightly. “His luck improves even more. Why?”
I shrugged. “It just seems to me that a person who runs an inn here, who turns a consistent profit to have something to donate on a regular basis, who sleeps here every night… he just might end up being something more than he appears as well.” If my suspicion was correct, I was looking at a guy who’d found an exploit in the rules.
He just gave me a knowing smile. “Perhaps. This is the House of the Lucky Supplicant, after all. And isn’t it fortunate that I happen to have exactly what you need for your journey? Horses, with tack and food, food for yourself as well, clothing that doesn’t look like you had to borrow it from your sister,” I cringed a little at that–was it that obvious?–“and this.” He made a dramatic flourish, complete with waving a bright red handkerchief that hadn’t been in his hand a moment before, and suddenly he was holding a dagger.
He held it by the tip, extending the hilt towards me. I took it, and he waited until I acknowledged it with a brief nod and a “thank you” before releasing the blade. That told me he knew a few things about knives. I looked it over, and it fit my hand almost perfectly. It would make a great boot-dagger. “By chance,” he continued, “I received this from a trader two days ago, and now here is a fellow looking to trade, who has no protection against highwaymen. How fortuitous!”
“Amazing,” I said dryly. I was actually pretty impressed, but I didn’t want to look it. A guy like this could be very dangerous if he got it into his head to cause trouble.
We settled on values and made the trade, and Donald let us use some of his rooms to change in. I came out not looking like I was wearing clothes I had to borrow from Sarah, but instead I was wearing… merchandise. Complete with a big logo of the Treasury. Then I saddled up and we headed off. Donald looked a bit surprised that Sarah wasn’t mounted too, until she took to the air. Awesome look on his face when he saw her do that.
* * *
The first day went by calmly enough. We talked about stuff, magic, her family, local politics and history, and so on. She tried to work on my reading with me a little, but that didn’t work so well while we were both moving. And I told her about some of the stories from my home–books, movies, TV shows, even a few video games, RPGs and the like. I had to change a few concepts to make them understandable, but she seemed to find it fascinating
We stopped at a small-town inn for the evening. I didn’t have an instrument anymore, but Sarah had her flute and we could still both sing, and we did well enough to cover meals and rooms for the night.
The next morning, trouble started early: Sarah woke up in half-troll form. That was one of her scarier ones, possibly worse than the ogre form. The ogre form was big and bulky and muscly and had a temper, but trolls aren’t bulky; they’re tall. About 10 feet, lean and wiry, with tough, leathery green hide, and the speed to run down a deer. And trolls don’t really have a temper; they’re just sort of more angry or less angry depending on the circumstances.
Sarah came out of her room with the build of an 8-foot green athlete, and in a really grumpy mood. “Ugh, I hate being a troll.”
“You all right, Sarah?”
“No, I’m not all right. Nothing’s right in this form, and I just want to beat up everything that annoys me, and that’s… everything. And everyone.”
I blinked. “Even me?”
“Especially you! You’ve always got your eye on some silly woman who doesn’t care for you, and completely ignoring–” She broke off her rant suddenly and closed her eyes, taking several slow, deep breaths and muttering what sounded like a meditative chant or something. Then she opened her eyes after a while and sighed. “And now I’m mad at myself. Let’s just get going.”
Luckily nothing got broken and nobody got scared off this time. Sarah wore a long hooded cloak and slouched a fair bit as she walked, which wasn’t much as disguises go, but it got us some breakfast without trouble, and then we left.
Sarah didn’t feel like flying. Her current form didn’t really need to; she just jogged along, keeping pace with my horses, though she had to stay well behind them so they wouldn’t spook.
When it was getting on towards noon, I saw a broken-down cart a ways up the road. It was skewed at an angle, blocking most of the road, and one of the wheels had come off. There were a couple guys milling about. Sarah sighed when she saw it. “I suppose you want to stop and help them,” she grumped.
I looked, then shook my head, turning in the saddle to face her. “No, actually I think we ought to beat them up,” I said in a low voice, just loud enough to carry as far as where she was standing. “Look at those horses.”
Sarah looked surprised at that. “Umm… they look like horses.”
“Yeah, like the kind I ride… complete with saddles. While hitched to a cart.” I gave her a level look. “It could be nothing, but I think this is an ambush and those horses only look like they’re pulling the cart; their real purpose is to run down travelers like us if we try to flee. Just… be on your guard.”
My luck must be getting better: that’s the sort of detail I might easily have overlooked until we were in a lot closer but now I was alert as I rode up, and Sarah increased her pace a little until she was walking by my side. She still wore the hooded cloak, and she had adopted a slouched posture that took her from “hugely tall” to simply “really tall”. The horses got a bit nervous, but she used some sort of spell to calm them.
“Why didn’t you do that before?” I asked quietly.
“Magic’s harder in this form, and that spell won’t last long anyway.”
I looked up at the two men. “You run into some trouble?” I asked amicably. Well, either they had, or they were about to. As I got close enough I saw that whatever was in the cart was covered by a heavy canvas tarp. Probably ill-gotten gains from their plunderings. I dismounted, holding the reins to both horses as I smiled at the men.
I was expecting them to draw knives or clubs and demand our money. I was even half-expecting them to be in an actual emergency of some sort. I certainly wasn’t expecting them to break into a run, in two different directions, flanking us from about 20 feet while we were still confused.
Then they both pulled out slings, already loaded, and began to twirl them menacingly. That’s when things got real serious. I’ve never really had the time to learn to sling–it takes years of dedication and practice–but I’ve seen a few demonstrations, and that’s one scary weapon in the hands of a skilled user. It puts the ancient tale of David and Goliath in a whole new perspective: it’s actually not at all surprising that David won! The only surprise is that the big, slow-moving guy in the heavy armor never seemed to realize just how screwed he was until it was too late! He had about as much chance of winning that fight as that poor fool who pulled a sword on Indiana Jones, and for the same basic reason.
But if the threats were off to the left and the right, where was the demand… oh. Of course. I turned, and with perfect dramatic timing, the tarp in the wagon was thrown back and a man stood up. He was tall, with short black hair, black trousers, a black shirt, and a rather dashing black cape. (A cape? Seriously?) But the first thing that caught the eye was his eyes, or rather lack thereof. He had tied a blindfold (black, of course) around his head, covering everything from the nose to a little above his eyebrows.
That looked familiar for some reason, giving me a strange sense of deja vu. I couldn’t quite tell why, though, and then he spoke. “I have no desire to harm you, travelers. You are within a few hours’ distance of a town, by foot, and if you surrender your belongings to me, you have my word that you will be free to leave, unharmed. But if you do not…” He held up one hand, and it began to glow ominously.
So this was the Blind Bandit? I really didn’t have time for this. I glanced at Sarah, and she nodded slightly, murmuring very softly under her breath, “I’ve got those two.”
I looked up at him. “I have no desire to harm you,” I said as insolently as I could. “So please don’t make me angry. You wouldn’t like me when I’m angry.”
He laughed scornfully. “I already don’t like you,” he said. “You’re not doing as you were told. I will give you one last chance.”
I looked over at Sarah. “Take my hand.”
The hood on her cloak was deep enough to keep her face in shadow–on purpose, of course–but I could almost feel the grin emanating from it as she reached over and clasped my hand in her rough, green one.
The bandit scoffed. “Do you think your pet troll will protect you?”
I did try to warn him. He really should have listened.
The Twist pressed against the Void magic within Sarah and got turned back on itself, and the transformation came over me very quickly this time. It seemed to be getting faster the more I did it. Thankfully, I didn’t shred any clothes this time; I grew up, but not out very much, which left me wearing the world’s most severe highwaters, but at least they weren’t ruined.
Strength filled me, and the world seemed to slow down subtly. Plus… rage. Wow, I was angry. How dare this ridiculous bandit waste my time and force me to transform like this again! I snarled at him, and then everything happened at once.
Both thugs loosed their slingstones at the same time, but Sarah was fast in this form. She stomped her foot, and ten-foot walls of earth erupted up on all sides of the one, boxing him in and catching the stone harmlessly. At the same time, she swung her hands around in a wide, sweeping circular motion, and a sudden, fierce gust of wind blew the other stone off-course. It thunked loudly into the side of the cart and fell to the ground.
Wow! She must have been paying attention to my stories yesterday. Pulling off magic like that was easy enough for her–apparently even in a form where magic is harder–but doing it like that was pure showing off. And I’d probably be totally geeking out over it right about now, except… angry troll.
Sarah leapt forward, charging the thug while he tried to reload his sling. But I had a thug of my own to worry about, the one in the wagon. He threw a bolt of power at Sarah, but I jumped in front of it and let it splatter harmlessly against my chest. It tickled.
Then I placed my hands on the edge of the cart and pushed off, vaulting up into the bed. He backpedaled nervously, but I roared and sprang forward, grabbing him by his shoulders and shaking him like the proverbial rag doll.
The bandit screamed like a little girl, and reached up to clutch at his face. I tossed him ungently out of the cart, then jumped out after him. He cowered on the ground as I loomed over him.
“I’m blind!” he whimpered up at me.
“Isn’t that what they call you?” I growled at him.
“What did you do to me? Who are you?”
Seriously? It had taken Ashley all of half a second to figure that one out. Typical bully, strong but dumb, only understanding force and intimidation. Well, I’d already used force. Time for the other half.
“What kind of fool does not know his own king?” I roared at him. “I am Paul Twister, lord of outlaws, and these highways are mine!” And you know, seeing as how I was responsible for the fine paving that made them so much more useful, that was kind of almost true, from a certain point of view. “Your sight is mine. Your treasure is mine, and your life is mine.”
Yeah, I know, that’s laying it on a little thick. But it worked. He whispered up at me plaintively, “please forgive me, my king.”
That’s better. I glanced over at Sarah, and she had the sling-wielding minion down on the ground, writhing in pain. He seemed to have spontaneously grown a second joint about halfway up his left forearm. On one hand… ouch. But on the other hand, he did attack us first, with a lethal weapon. If Sarah was feeling what I was, the fact that she only went that far indicates a remarkable deal of self-restraint.
“Sarah, take his weapons. Then bring that wall of earth down.” I raised my voice, projecting a little. “I sure hope the man inside there understands that his boss has surrendered and his comrade has a broken arm, because if I see either of his hands doing anything except holding themselves high over his head, empty and open, I will break all four fingers and tear the thumb off!”
I’m really not a violent or aggressive person. Heck, one of the things I take very seriously is suppressing research that could lead to new weapons technology. I figure, live and let live, but I take the two halves of that as inseparable parts of a whole; violating someone else’s right to life automatically involves forfeiting your own right. And these two had come about as close as you can possibly get to that line without technically stepping over it. And as a wise man once said, that which does not kill me has made a tactical error.
Sarah ambled over and used her magic to make the earthen walls crumble. The thug inside was trembling, hands over his head, as Sarah relieved him of his sling and stone pouch and then shoved him down on the ground. Then she looked over at me, a bit uncertainly. “…what do we do now?”
What indeed? I’d never captured a band of outlaws before. Well, the simplest, most expedient solution–that did not involve killing them in cold blood at least–had already been presented. “Get up,” I called to the one with the broken arm. “Come over here.”
He did, slowly, using his good arm to push himself up to his knees and then get his feet under him. As he came over, I saw the terror and pain on his face, and it was hard not to feel sorry for him. He was just a kid, probably a farmboy, not even 20 yet judging by his face. How had he ended up here? I looked over at the other one, and he looked just as young and terrified. So… time to administer a bit of tough love to these poor kids.
“You two make pathetic outlaws,” I said. “You didn’t even recognize when a potential target was too tough for you, and if you got that wrong, there are a hundred other little details you’ll never get right, and any one of them could land you in prison, or dead.
“Therefore, I, Paul Twister, King of Outlaws, exile you. I cast you out of the world of shadows, and back into the light. The nearest town is within a day’s walk, and I will not harm you if you leave in peace. So go home, find a normal life. If you really want to make a living with your slings, try the Royal Knights, or the Ranger Corps. But youir life of crime ends today.
“Remember this: I am Paul Twister. Today I am a troll. Yesterday I was human, and the day before that, I soared through the skies on the wings of a dragon! I can take any form, go anywhere, break any magic, open any lock, and learn any secret. If you fall back to banditry, I will hear of it, and I will not be so merciful the second time. Now go, get out of my sight!”
They ran. Well, one of them ran. The other sort of limped off as fast as he could. I wonder if Sarah messed up his leg as well as his arm?
“Not you,” I said to the Blind Bandit as he tried to rise. “You’re mine now. Now we have a wagon, four horses, and three people. How about you help me get this wheel back on, and I just might Untwist your magic so you can see again?” He got up and groped his way to the side of the cart, then felt for the corner. He and Sarah heaved the corner of the cart up, and I manhandled (troll-handled?) the wheel into place. It wasn’t broken at all; it had simply been removed.
We got things fixed up, and it wasn’t long before he was able to restore his magic sight. We had him hitch my horses up in addition to the team already there, and Sarah and I climbed in the back.
“Where are y–we bound?” he asked, taking the reins.
“Keliar,” I said. But his first question was the right one. Sarah and I were headed to Keliar, but I had a plan for Kyle Rogers…