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Chapter 8: Twisted Plots

How did I ever get mixed up in all this? I asked myself as I fled into the forest. I was just your average geek in high school–well, as average as a geek can be, I suppose. You know what I mean. Then I graduated, got into college, and was on my way to a degree in Computer Science–fat lot of good that did me here!–with a minor in theatre. (That one’s actually come in handy quite a bit. I’ve lost track of how many times my theatrical training, particularly in improv, has gotten me out of a tight spot or even saved my life.) Magic, wizards and kingdoms and dragons and nymphs and whatnot were nothing but books I liked to read.

And then one day, I was just driving to the store, about two miles away, and suddenly I wasn’t anymore; I was in the middle of a forest. And I wasn’t even going 88 miles per hour! (Luckily, I was doing about 25 or so. Much faster and I’d have smacked into a tree before I could bring it to a stop!) I had no clue what had happened. Neither the GPS nor the radio could pick up anything, and my phone had no reception.

One thing I could tell for sure, once I got out of the forest, was that I was nowhere near Seattle anymore, past or present. You know those really steep hills sloping down to the waterfront that San Francisco is famous for? Seattle has them too. But wherever I was, it was clearly inland, not coastal. I burned a fair amount of my already-limited supply of gasoline heading towards the setting sun, trying to find the waterfront as a way to orient myself. I’m just glad I noticed I was approaching a peasant village before any of the peasants noticed me! I had to ditch the car somewhere no one would find it, and make my way into town on foot. By that point I really needed some food!

A real peasant village, like something you’d see in a movie, but not a camera crew in sight. That’s when I really knew I was not in Kansas anymore, so to speak. I introduced myself by the first name that came to mind: Marty McFly. No one knew what to make of my strange clothes; they couldn’t decide if I was a young noble who’d gotten lost, or a traveling performer of some kind. Whoever Marty McFly was, he was clearly down on his luck, wandering the roads with no supplies. So I decided to play that role, a minstrel who’d been through some rough times. An older couple had compassion on me, and took me in for a while, sharing their meager home and food in exchange for some rather arduous physical labor as a farmhand, and the occasional song to keep them in good cheer.

That arrangement lasted the better part of my first year here, and over time I got to be in a lot better shape than I’d started out. I didn’t learn too much; though. When something’s common knowledge, like local geography and political identity, you can’t afford to ask questions about it without people starting to have questions of their own about you!

That all changed the next spring, when an actual traveling minstrel from the Bards’ College came to town. Some well-intentioned townsfolk told him about me, and of course it didn’t take him long to peg me as a fake. But then something bizarre happened. He tried to cast a spell on me that would compel me to speak the truth. I felt something, sort of like an electrical shock, but then I felt something within me take hold of the force acting upon me and rip it apart.

He felt it too, and something went very wrong with his magic. With no warning, his right hand went completely numb and limp, useless. A tragedy, of course, to anyone whose livelihood involved playing instruments! “What is this?” he yelled at me, even more surprised than I was. “You… twisted my magic!” I could see it in his eyes, he was afraid of me.

The problem with fear is that it can make people do stupid things. And when a fearful person is more powerful than you, they can do stupid things that put you in all sorts of danger. So I had to think very fast, especially with a knife plainly visible at his belt. But he didn’t go for the knife; he held up his left hand and it started to glow. And that was all I needed. I didn’t know if it was a fluke, what had happened to his spell, but he didn’t either, and if I wanted to keep him from doing something stupid and dangerous by lashing out in his fear, I had to make him think I was more powerful than him, and fast.

What should I do? What would Paul Cameron, the best acting professor I’d studied under, do if he was in an improv scene like this? He’d follow the “yes-and” principle: agree with what the other person just suggested, and add something to it. And suddenly I had my new role.

“I wouldn’t do that,” I said, putting on a cocky grin and a laid-back slouch that let anyone watching know I was completely at ease, though there was no one else to witness my performance. My hosts were out in the fields at the moment. “I Twisted away your hand as a warning. The next attempt will cost you your voice.”

He backed away a couple steps, instantly dropping the spell he was preparing with a look of abject horror on his face. “Who are you?”

I just grinned at him some more. “I’m Paul Twister.” Time for some more quick thinking. Paul Twister broke magic. So why would he be here in some no-account farm village instead of out breaking magic? Obviously because he was in hiding and had gone to ground, and having someone find out would he was here not make him happy. “The real question is, what am I going to do, now that you’ve found me? I came out here to not be found. I really don’t want to have to Twist away your voice so you can’t tell anyone about me…”

For some reason, he seemed to calm down at this. He narrowed his eyes and looked at me very closely. “You were almost as surprised as I was when you twisted my magic. You hide it well, boy, but you’re making this up as you go along, aren’t you?”

Oh crap. I just tried to fight a guy on his own turf, didn’t I?

“Why would you be in hiding, a scant three days’ travel from the capital? Because you think it’s the last place anyone would look. They’d expect you to run to the outer provinces. Or… no. You came from far away, didn’t you? There’s an odd accent to your voice that I can’t quite place, and the villagers say you arrived wearing quite outlandish clothing. You fled, from far away, and you’re hiding here because it’s the first place you came to where people would take you in. Am I right?”

I just nodded silently, letting him make up my backstory as he went along. It saved me the work of having to do it myself!

“You didn’t know about what you could do, did you? And then… you hurt someone? Broke something important?”

I nodded again. If he wanted to show me how smart he was, how well he could cold-read me, I could play along. Yes-and. If I broke magic without realizing it, I had a perfect backstory to draw upon. Something I saw in a movie once; I just had to adapt things a bit.

“I never meant to hurt nobody,” I said, talking a little faster than normal, letting it all come tumbling out. “Marie was the prettiest girl in the village. Miller’s daughter. And one day, she bats her eyes at me and beckons to me, leads me out behind Old Man Xavier’s barn. Pulled me in for a kiss. She was pretty enough, I’da kissed her anyway, but I think she musta learned some trick and tried to ensorcell me into kissing her or something, because when she kissed me, alla sudden she starts trembling and shaking, and then she falls to the ground, like a dead woman.” I closed my eyes, taking a few deep breaths. “And… her hair.” I looked into the minstrel’s eyes for a moment, then closed my eyes and took a deep breath. “She had the loveliest brown hair you ever saw, flowing all the way down her back. But after she kissed me, it grew this white streak down the middle, like a skunk! Just… out of nowhere, in an instant! I never meant to hurt anyone, but her father, he’s wealthy ’nuff, powerful ’nuff, he’da had me killed for sure, or locked up so long it’d make no difference. So I ran. Don’t even know if she’s alive or dead.”

I looked down at my feet. “I never meant to hurt nobody. I swear to you.” Not my best performance, a bit on the cheesy side, but if you tell someone what they want to hear, they tend to believe you.

I certainly wasn’t prepared for what came next, though. He started wiggling his fingers. “Whatever your magic did, boy, it feels like it’s dying down. I’ve a feeling your pretty Marie is just fine.” Then he chuckled wryly. “‘Paul Twister’ eh? You just come up with that on the spur of the moment, because I said you’d twisted my magic?”

I nodded a little. “Name’s Paul Cameron, or used t’be. I’d prefer if you didn’t spread that around. I still worry about Mr. Logan coming after me for hurting his daughter.”

“I’ll tell you what,” he said, looking at me with an odd gleam in his eye. “You’re a smart lad, and you think fast. Your talents are wasted here. You belong in the Bards’ College. You’re a natural-born performer. I’ll sponsor your admission, if you can do a little favor for me.”

I raised an eyebrow, cocking my head to the side. “What kind of favor?”

“If you can twist magic around and break it just by touching it…” he paused, as if thinking out loud. “A friend of mine, a fellow bard, recently had a very old, very valuable lute stolen from him. It’s in the possession of a rather disreputable wizard, a few weeks’ ride from here. I only know a few bits of magic, not nearly enough to stand a chance at getting the lute back, but you… you would be invincible. With ‘Paul Twister’ at my side, I’d have no trouble retrieving it!”

I scowled at him. “You want to turn me into some sort of rogue? To use my power to steal something?”

“To steal something back,” he said. “To return a fellow bard’s rightful property. Between that and my endorsement, no one would deny you entrance to the Bards’ College. And certainly you’d rather be there than… here. You have gifts, boy. You were meant for greater things than to waste your life as a farmhand.”

Yeah, I have a gift for bending computers to my will, and I was meant for a 21st century lifestyle. That’s all I ever wanted. But as a bard back home once said, you can’t always get what you want. But sometimes… did his offer constitute me getting what I needed? He was right; living here kinda sucked. And after 8 months of this, I was good and ready to go back to college. And if the price of admission was one adventure, questing against an evil wizard, so be it. I thought about it for a few minutes, then took him up on his offer.

To make a long story short, he was wrong about me. Dead wrong, in the grimmest and most literal sense possible. Turns out the Twist doesn’t make me invincible, and more to the point, having me around didn’t make him invincible. I got away with the lute, and with my life, just barely. He ended up with neither, poor guy.

I made my way to the Bards’ College and turned the stolen lute in, and was rewarded with a small purse of silver for my trouble. I told the secretary a short version of what had happened, but somehow, after having traveled with a bard and then seen him die horribly, struck down by lightning out of a clear sky, I just didn’t feel like trying to become one myself. Not right then, at least. (I eventually joined up, under the name of Peter Parker, but that’s a different story.) So I just told the secretary that my name was Paul Twister, and I left.

I probably should have known better than to tell a tale like that to a representative of a group of professional, itinerant tale-tellers. People have been looking for me ever since, trying to get me to steal something from some wizard for them. Sometimes it’s their rightful property. Other times it’s not. More often than not these days, it isn’t. The Circle of Magi is a relatively new thing, springing up in just the last six or seven years, but it’s helped to civilize magic in the kingdom remarkably quickly. But most of the time, I can’t afford to be too picky about details like that. I really had no desire to go back to living as a peasant, but getting ahead in the world costs money, and before you know it, you’re running through the woods at random. You’re laying false trails, climbing trees when they’re close enough together to move between them, and wading in icy cold streams, all in the hopes of throwing the hounds you can hear baying a ways back off your scent. And all with an insanely huge gemstone hidden in your pocket and a dragon off somewhere playing with your life. You ever think your life sucks? It’s got nothing on mine.

Eventually I made it out of the woods and to a road. I was exhausted and it was late, but I had to keep moving. I made my way to the King’s Highway, and from there to the outskirts of Keliar, where I became just another anonymous face. I found an inn and got a room for what was left of the night, and fell asleep right away, glad I had shaken the pursuit. Safe at last.

Boy, was I wrong. I really gotta stop tempting Murphy like that…

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