Hill stayed the rest of the day, putting on a performance in the evening for the students and researchers. I still didn’t like the guy, but I had to admit he did a good job. He’s a heck of a musician, whatever else may be said about him. He decided to leave the next day, and I ran into him on his way out of the Academy. I’m not sure why I did it, but I told him to tell April one thing that would give her hope: “Live long and prosper.” It just felt right for some reason.
He seemed rather bemused by the statement, and asked me what that was a code for. I told him that it was nothing more than what it sounded like, a simple benediction, and that it was a line from a famous theatrical work, which anyone from Denver ought to recognize. For a brief moment I considered teaching him the associated hand gesture, but I thought better of it.
I was almost ready to leave too, so I retrieved the gemstones I’d received as part of my payment for the last job from the mages at the Magical Research department. I’d left them at the tower to have them infused with magical energy, a process that worked a lot better if it could be done slowly. Paul always demanded at least 50 delin out of the 300 be in the form of precious stones, because there were things I needed the little power-batteries for. I took two of the smaller stones and used some very delicate jewelers’ tools to set them in my ring–it needed a constant source of energy to replace the power lost to the Twist–and kept a few more in my pouch as replacements, then deposited the rest in the room in my special vault in the back of the stables. I’d had that room very heavily warded and protected by cunning traps, built “so even Paul Twister couldn’t get in,” and everyone at the academy knew better than to go in there. (The one student who had been dumb enough to try had scared the idea out of everyone else, hopefully forever, when he ended up turned into a horse. Took the mages three days to reverse the curse.)
I hung around a few more days, looking over a few projects, providing some minor insights, but mostly I stayed out of the researchers’ way. I know a few things about science, but I’m really not much of a scientist, or a creator at all. I may know intellectually that stainless steel is made of steel and chromium, but I don’t know the first thing about making steel, so instead I got a guy who knows how to make steel and said ‘try putting some chromium in there,” and let him take care of the parts he’s good at. So my job at Stark Academy mostly involves a lot of me staying out of people’s way, and that’s why I tend to be away from it for long periods.
So instead I spent most of my time at the Academy with the students, particularly in the physical disciplines. Being Paul Twister can be pretty demanding on the body, and the Twist means I can’t use magic to augment my abilities, so I have to be able to do all my own stunts, by myself. I’ve always been in decent shape, but no one ever mistook me for a big hulking football-player type back home, or for a sellsword or royal knight here. No, in high school I ran track and played baseball, the Sport of Nerds. Never made higher than JV on either team, but I did all right for myself. (Having strong, fast legs definitely comes in handy on some jobs, though I’ve never really had any need to swing a bat or catch a fly ball.) But anyway, while I was here at the academy, I practiced the martial arts.
The term might sound strange, considering that the magical world I’m stuck in–or at least this part of it–has a decidedly European/Western Fantasy flavor to it, but keep in mind that the name of the term comes from Mars, the Roman God of War, counterpart to the Greek Ares. It’s not just kung fu and karate. I sparred with the students in fencing and unarmed fighting, competed with them in races and obstacle courses, and managed to hold my own in archery. I just didn’t have the brute strength to draw a serious longbow, but I did well enough on smaller bows.
They didn’t let us train crossbowmanship, of course. That’s a freaking scary weapon that can punch a hole the size of my fist in a solid steel breastplate. Only soldiers are legally allowed to possess one.
Paul has two, carefully hidden in safe houses among other gear. I practice with them very privately, just in case. I’ve brought them along on jobs a grand total of three times. I haven’t had to fire them either time. I hope I never do. Ugh. Just the thought makes me queasy. Even a gun can be used to just disable someone, if you really know what you’re doing, but I don’t think it’s possible to put a crossbow bolt in someone and not end up with a huge, bloody mess.
Speaking of guns, that’s one thing Anthony Stark will never have one of his funny dreams about: mixing charcoal, brimstone and saltpeter and seeing what happens.
But anyway, I practiced fighting mostly to keep my body in shape, not because I got in a lot of fights. I don’t, but the few times it has happened, I’ve sure been glad I knew what I was doing, so that’s sort of a side benefit. But I had somewhere I needed to be, so after a few days I told Evan the Academy was his (as if it wasn’t already, even while I was present, but it’s part of the “eccentric visionary” persona so I have to say it) and headed off late in the morning.
It was about a two days’ ride to the capital, and that’s if you’ve only got one horse. You have to take it easy with a horse. They get worn out carrying around 200 pounds of human-plus-whatever-else-you’re-hauling, just like you or I would. (Just not as quickly.) With two horses, you can spread the burden out. You still have to slow down when the first one gets worn out, but not nearly as much, and I figured I could get there by sundown the second day.
I kept to the cement-paved road alongside the river for the first day, then made camp. If I set out early the next morning, I ought to reach the King’s Highway before noon, and from there it would be just a few hours to Keliar. I thought about Hill and April as I lay there. They’d been on my mind the whole day. Something about his story just didn’t add up. He described her as being all old, that her health was failing in her advanced age. How had a guy in the prime of life fallen for a girl like that? Sure, some guys are into older women, and there’s nothing wrong with that, but there’s a point at which it gets ridiculous, and from his description their pairing is a bit on the far side of that point. Even if he was a good deal older than he looked–and I swear he must wear his hair like that just to frustrate people who want to get a good look at his ears–it didn’t quite feel right if she was long-lived too.
There was something else that felt wrong about his story, but I couldn’t quite put a finger on it, and it had been driving me up the wall ever since he talked to me. There was a missing piece, something I needed to know but didn’t know, and I didn’t even know what it was! As a guy whose only real advantage in life is information, (yeah, I’m serious; the Twist is a curse as far as I’m concerned, not an advantage,) having something important that I didn’t know hanging over me like that was driving me nuts.
But finally, sleep began to overtake me. And suddenly, in that muzzy state somewhere between lucidity and dreams, it hit me. “Magi have their own lines of communication.” That’s what Hill had told me. And if she could have heard of me all the way in Anduin… I tensed all the muscles in my arms and chest suddenly and forced some adrenaline into my system. I’m not sure exactly how it works; it’s a trick I’ve been able to do ever since I was a kid. But the end result was that I was wide awake. You get an insight like that at a time like that, you don’t want to let yourself fall asleep and forget about it. I quickly dug through my pack for my writing case and scrawled a note to myself: “Find out what local mages know about April.” I hoped it would be legible enough to remind me in the morning; it was too dark to write by and see what I was doing, and our electrical research at the academy wasn’t far enough along yet that I could get someone to invent the lightbulb.
Then I sighed and crawled into my bedroll again and tried to get back to sleep. It took a while, but eventually I did doze off.
I probably shouldn’t need to point this out, but I was all alone. Aside from the horses tied outside near the riverbank, I was the only living being around bigger than the insects I could hear buzzing and chirping their usual nighttime symphony out beyond the walls of my tent. Specifically, there wasn’t anyone in my tent with me. More specifically, there was not a pretty girl with me. But I probably shouldn’t need to point this out. And normally I wouldn’t. But the next morning wasn’t normal.
Guess what I woke up next to the next morning?
There was something soft and warm and snuggly pressed right up against me, and felt a lot like bare skin and soft hair. And it was moving very subtly back and forth, in a rhythm very similar to my own slow breathing. And then I realized that I could feel warm air moving gently against my cheek, again, just like breaths.
I was immediately freaked out. OK, no, I take that back. My first reaction was… well, you can probably guess. Stupid teenage body! Stupid raging hormones! But my second reaction, my first rational one, was fear. Either I was being set up to be robbed by a pack of bandits–setups like this have been known to happen in some parts of the kingdom–or a nymph had somehow found her way into my tent, and my bedroll, without even waking me up! And this close to the capital, I wouldn’t bet on it being highwaymen. Awww crap.
No one really knew where nymphs came from. They’re incarnate nature spirits, bound to natural features–bodies of water, forests, mountains, stuff like that–in some sort of symbiotic relationship. They take the form of amazingly beautiful women, they never wear anything to cover themselves with, and they tend to be very sweet and affectionate towards visitors to their domain, particularly visitors of the male variety. Very affectionate. It’s not a coincidence that the term “nymphomaniac” is based on them.
Problem is, as much as they may look like a beautiful girl, they’re not human. They’re a thing of nature, and they lack a real understanding of human priorities. What they do to men who end up in their domain is completely natural and innocent… and has been known to leave them dead from exhaustion because the poor nymph doesn’t know when to quit. There are worse ways to go, I suppose, but I’ve still got a bunch of living left to do, thank you very much!
It could be even worse. I opened my eyes and looked over, trying to get a good look at my unexpected companion in the dim light. If she had crimson skin and black hair, I was going to have to grab her and–hey, get your mind out of the gutter! Half-nymphs do exist, and if the other parent was a demon, what you get is a succubus. They’re a lot like nymphs, only minus the whole “innocent” part. And the only thing that would protect me if I’d somehow attracted a succubus’s attention–and I wouldn’t put it past a few wizards I’ve had dealings with in the past to sic one on me as an assassination attempt–would be to try to consciously invoke the Twist and hope it did something that disabled her long enough for me to get away. And it worked by physical contact.
But no, the girl laying next to me had skin-colored skin (the light was still too dim to really tell how light or dark, but it definitely wasn’t a deep red,) and light blue hair. And a bunch of very inviting curves that I forced myself not to look at for too long, lest it weaken my resolve. Blue hair. River spirit, most likely.
What in the world had caused a naiad to wander into my tent at night, snuggle up with me like this, and then just… fall asleep? I was still in my nightclothes, and I certainly didn’t feel like I’d been molested in my sleep. And from everything I heard, that’s not how an encounter with a nymph was supposed to happen! Not that I was complaining, of course. (Or, well, not the rational part of me, at least. Stupid teenage body!)
She must have felt me moving, because she stirred slightly, snuggled against me more closely, and gave a happy little sigh right in my ear. Then her eyes opened, and she gave a soft, pleasant little giggle. “Hello!” she said, as if this wasn’t anything out of the ordinary. (And maybe for her it wasn’t?)
I wasn’t about to wait around for her to try and seduce me. Being rational is awesome and all that, but I’m rational enough to know my limits, and I knew if I didn’t get her away quickly, this would end in a whole lot of fun that abruptly ended in a whole lot of not-fun, and as fun as that might be at first, it’s not worth the tradeoff. So I needed to be grumpy and hostile. “Who are you, and what are you doing in my tent?” I asked, grabbing her wrist firmly to ensure she wouldn’t be able to use any magic to get to me.
She giggled again, as if she found the situation amusing. “I’m Alira,” she replied, her voice light and girlish and innocent. “I’m the spirit of this riverbank. Why are you making camp in my home and then acting surprised when I accept the invitation?”
This riverbank? the intellectual part of me asked. That’s a pretty vague term, and I couldn’t help but wonder exactly how far her domain extended.
Another part of me was wondering about much less decent subject matter. I told it to shut up and leave me alone.
“I must apologize, Alira,” I said, going all formal-like. Wild spirits in general tend to have a lot of appreciation for respect. “I was not aware that this riverbank had its own nymph, or I would not have entered your domain unbidden.”
Her face clouded at my words. “Why… what did you do to me?” she asked, looking slightly worried.
“What do you mean? I didn’t do anything to you; I’ve been asleep all night.” What did I do to her?! I should be the one asking that question!
“Who are you, visitor?” Uh oh. I didn’t like where this is headed.
“My name is Anthony Stark,” I said. I hadn’t shaved yet, so for the moment at least that’s still who I was.
She shook her head. “No it isn’t.” How in the world did she know that?
“It’s the name I’ll give you. Is your True Name really Alira?” Of course not; that would just be stupid on her part. Nymphs may tend to lack the same sense of perspective as humans, but they’re as intelligent as any sentient race. Heck, I’ve even heard that there was a dryad enrolled at the Royal Academy!
“That’s still not your name,” she insisted. “Something’s wrong inside of me. My desire… isn’t there!” She looked confused and worried.
Woah. So that’s why she just snuggled up and drifted off with me! I must have Twisted her in my sleep, when she first touched me. (I always slept with the ring off, just in case I ended up needing to defend myself against magic in the middle of the night. It’s happened before.) I was relieved, bordering on ecstatic. Never in my life had I been so happy to hear a beautiful girl tell me she did not desire me!
She looked at me with wide, fearful eyes. Holy crap! She must be just as scared of me, of what I could do to her, as I was of her! “Are you the one they call the Warper?”
No, I’m the one they call the Twister. Close enough, though. I’ve made up enough names for myself; it’s not beyond possibility that some people I’ve never met have come up with a few of their own. I brushed two fingers across her cheek gently, trying to comfort her. The one thing I really did not want to see was this beautiful creature crying. No way that would have ended well, no matter how I responded. “I haven’t heard that name before,” I admitted, “but yeah, I… think that might be me.” OK, now that that’s out in the open, best to resolve things quickly. “It’s not permanent; you’ll get your desire back. You should go take a swim in your river. The warping won’t last too long.”
She sniffled slightly and looked up at me. I was grateful that it wasn’t very light yet, or I might have seen the tears that were almost certainly there in her eyes. “You promise?” she asked, in a almost-afraid-to-be-hopeful tone.
I nodded. “I promise, Alira. You’ll be back to normal before sundown.” And with no me around to take care of her “desire” once she got it back. I turned and reached for my pack. “Here,” I said, pulling out the pouch where I kept the infused gemstones. “To show there are no hard feelings.” I poured the tiny stones-about half a dozen of them-out into my palm, and then picked out one. An aquamarine. The magic didn’t actually make them glow, but it did make them a lot more shiny and sparkly, making it easy to tell them apart in the dim light. Luckily, for reasons I hadn’t figured out yet, they were safe for me to touch without my Ring. It seemed that the Twist did not disrupt or discharge stored magical energy; it only Twisted actual active magical effects. “This will go well with your hair,” I said, pressing it into her palm.
Spirits were well-known to appreciate things of magic crafted by mortals as gifts, and, stereotypical or not, giving jewelry to a pretty girl just felt right, even if it was as a sort of weird token of non-affection.
Alira gave me a slightly shy smile as she closed her hand around it. “Thank you,” she whispered. Then she closed her eyes and leaned in before I could react, brushing her lips gently against mine. It wasn’t a very hard or aggressive kiss, but she let it linger for a few seconds, and… wow, it felt nice. A little bit too nice, in fact. A little bit too lingering. And then, just as I was right at the point of surrendering, tangling my fingers in her hair with one hand and using the other to pull off my nightclothes and let nature take its course–missing nymphly libido or no, I really doubt she’d have had any problem with reciprocating my desire if I’d tried for her–she suddenly pulled away. While I was left panting and slightly disoriented from that kiss, she quickly scampered out of my tent, leaving me with a very memorable image of her from the rear.
Stupid teenage hormones! I took a deep breath and counted to ten. Then I carefully counted to ten minutes, before finally getting out of the tent myself and starting to break camp. Alira was nowhere to be seen, but just to be safe, I made sure I was a good two miles away before going down into the river to wash myself that morning.
It was a good thing I’d written down my insight of the night before, because the morning encounter had driven it completely out of my mind, and I didn’t remember about it until after I arrived in Keliar.