You know what’s worse than waking up in the morning after only half a night’s sleep? Waking up in the morning after only half a night’s sleep and finding out you’re in trouble.
The sun was just beginning to rise when I heard something wrong and instinctively came awake and alert. Well, mostly alert. Last night’s flight had really taken a lot out of me. I stumbled out of bed and made my way to the window, looking outside. I could see at least three forms moving around. Big, burly men. Fighters of some sort. Guards, mercenaries, maybe even royal knights. Most likely to make sure no one could escape out the window. And that meant someone was about to come through the door.
I might only have moments to spare, and there was no good way to escape. That meant I’d have to talk my way out of it. I briefly thought of posing as Anthony Stark, who had been seen coming into Keliar just a few days before and could reasonably be believed to be here. But I rejected the idea; if there was any way they could positively identify me, my most important cover identity would be compromised, and that could affect the Academy as well as me! But the only other thing that came to mind was the old fallback: stop someone more powerful than you from doing something bad by making them think you’re more powerful than them.
I heard voices outside. I figured I had a few seconds before some knight, maybe even the guard captain who’d escorted me out last night, was at the door. I grabbed my pack and dug around in it, quickly grabbing what I needed, then retreated to the corner of the room opposite the door. It was also far enough away from the window that it would leave me in shadow, at least until the sun came up over the course of the next half hour or so. Then I tensed, waiting for the inevitable moment when the door would burst open.
It didn’t happen. Something worse happened instead: there was a click, and the lock turned, but I never heard the sound of a key being inserted from outside. And then the door swung open. A tall woman in a long, conservatively cut deep green robe took a step through. The light shone on her face, and I recognized Fiona Khal.
I raised my arm. “Stop right there. You know who I am, you know your magic can’t hurt me. And you know you can’t get across the room faster than I can loose this.” Two huge bluffs, and I could only hope she’d swallow both of them.
She looked over and saw what I was holding in my hand: a wicked-looking light crossbow. I owned two crossbows, but this was not one of them. It was a stage prop, but in the dim light, it definitely looked threatening. Hopefully that would be enough.
The archmagus frowned. “Spare me the theatrics, Paul Twister. There is no tension on that string, and no mechanism connected to the hand crank. And you know as well as I that there are limits to all magic, even your vaunted Twist.”
OK, time for plan B: tell the truth. “I don’t have what you’re looking for. The scale has already been returned to the dragon it was stolen from, and to be perfectly frank with you, you should be glad to hear that. It kept her from coming looking for it herself, which I don’t think anyone wants.”
Khal scowled, which really didn’t improve her already-plain face. She wasn’t ugly, really, just… not good looking. The expression she was wearing at the moment, though, definitely tipped the balance into the negative side. “You think,” she said slowly, in about the most condescending tone of all time, “that I purchased some… bauble, not knowing what it was. You think I could reach archmagus-level skill and knowledge in the arts and not recognize a cast-off piece of Ryell herself. Or perhaps you think that I simply did not think she would value it highly and want it back. And now, you think I have tracked you down to apprehend you and force you to give my pretty, shiny bauble back to me.”
She narrowed her eyes. “In any and all such thoughts, you are quite mistaken.”
Any and all such thoughts… so she’s not here to capture me? Or was I misunderstanding her words? “So then why are you here?”
She flashed me a truly nasty smirk. “To hire you to perform a task, of course. Is that not why people seek out the legendary Twister? Now, will you lower your… ahem, ‘weapon,’ and allow me in like a proper gentleman?”
O-kay, I didn’t see that one coming. “No one’s ever accused me of being a proper gentleman, Lady Khal,” I remarked. “But since you have me so thoroughly at your mercy… sure. Come in.” I set the fake crossbow down and stepped forward, standing at the foot of the bed.
“My,” she breathed as I stepped out of the shadowy corner, lowering her voice by perhaps half an octave. “They said you were surprisingly young, but they never said you were handsome!“
That’s probably because I’m not. I’m about as good-looking of a guy as she is of a woman, which is to say just basically average. I scowled. “Yeah, that’s another thing I’ve never been accused of. But really, base flattery? From you, in a situation like this? Did the guard even tell you of the circumstances of my visit?”
She laughed, a surprisingly mirthful sound that, for once, didn’t sound at all cold or mean. “Indeed he did. That was quite clever of you, I must confess.”
There was just something about her face. I looked at her more closely. She wasn’t just plain, not simply average… she looked downright boring. Exceptionally unexceptional, if that makes any sense. The kind of face you’d barely have reason to notice. Wait, I’d seen that in a book somewhere. And it made the little hairs on the back of my neck stand up.
“If I may speak frankly, I have also never heard anyone say you were lovely of face.” She looked a bit shocked by my brazenness in saying such a thing, but I continued before she could respond. “But they don’t actually know, do they?”
She laughed again. I’d say her laugh was her best feature, if it hadn’t been for what I was sure she was about to confirm. “No one said you could Twist my magic off from a distance,” she replied, raising an eyebrow curiously.
“Why hide behind such an unassuming face? I’ve heard tales of such people. Assassins, with special magic to slip about practically unnoticed. But certainly that’s not who you are…”
She shook her head, raising an eyebrow. “You certainly hear interesting tales! No, I’m afraid it is nothing so dramatic as that. I wear a plain face for a much simpler reason: I am a powerful woman.” I cocked my head to the side somewhat, not quite understanding. She saw the reaction and continued. “And specifically, a powerful woman trained in the arts of magic. If you see a powerful woman, and you know she is a woman of great power, and she bears a beautiful face, do you not react to that? Judge her by that? You say to yourself, behold, this beautiful woman must truly be great and magnificent! And you are on your guard.
“Or, say she wears a face that is ugly, and repulsive to look upon. Then, again, you see her and you think, this woman looks like an old witch from the tales I was told as a child. Truly her magic is a thing to fear. I should be on my guard around her! But, if she comes before you wearing this face…” she gestured to herself.
I nodded, getting it now. “The part of you that thinks such things, that makes quick judgments like that, dismisses her. She doesn’t look like much; she must not be a threat. Certainly such an ordinary woman could not be such a mighty archmagus as I have heard from the tales people tell of her. Tales grow in the telling, of course; surely what I have heard of her is exaggerated.” Then a little light bulb went on in my head, and I grinned at her. “Certainly the great Paul Twister could not be a child, just barely on the cusp of manhood! Perhaps he has done something of note, but much of it must just be a tale someone told. He is of no real threat to me; I need not fear him.”
This elicited another charming laugh, and I realized what it was I liked so much about her laughter: unlike her appearance, her laughter was completely genuine and unguarded. “You do understand!”
I did. And if I could get her to think that my youthful appearance was a deliberate trick, and not something I was stuck with, so much the better.
“I must ask,” she continued, abruptly changing the subject. “The dead fish you dropped to throw off the hounds tracking you… that was nothing strange. Expected and easily dealt with. But what were the herbs? You scattered something shredded into bits too small to recognize, that drove the poor beasts to distraction like I have never seen!”
Yeah, they were shredded into tiny bits, so that a human handler would never actually notice them. That right there earned her a lot of respect, and wariness. I was dealing with a powerful, intelligent woman who didn’t miss much. And if she had samples, I’m sure that with a bit of magic and research, she would be able to reverse-engineer what I had done, so there was no point lying or being evasive about it. So I just shrugged nonchalantly. “Catnip,” I said. “Alchemically modified to have a stronger scent, and attract dogs instead of cats.”
“Dog-nip!” She laughed and actually clapped her hands together from pure mirth. “That’s ingenious! Truly, you make a worthy adversary!” She didn’t have to say, an adversary that she had managed to catch anyway.
Something about this still felt wrong. The image of the self-described “powerful woman” who liked to get people to underestimate her just didn’t square well with the gleeful magi-otaku currently geeking out over shop talk with me. The laughter may be genuine, as in unforced, but it still wasn’t quite appropriate; this persona wasn’t as fake as the cheesy, vampy seductress act she’d opened with, but it still didn’t quite feel right. One way or another, she was out of character. “You missed your calling, Lady Khal,” I said wryly. “You really should have joined the Bards’ College.” I wondered whether or not she’d take that as a compliment.
“Perhaps,” she said, laughing again but not as strongly as before. “But would I have ever risen so high there as I have among the Magi?”
If I hadn’t had her being out of character on my mind already, I might have missed it, but there was just something in the way she said that… “You did study with the Bards, didn’t you? That’s another thing no one talks about…”
She shrugged a little, not exactly conceding the point, but not denying it. “I would imagine,” she replied, “no matter how hard I searched, I would not find the name ‘Paul Twister’ on the rolls of the Bards either.”
The implication was clear, so I just nodded. “You wouldn’t.” And she looked at me with new wariness in her expression. I’d just all but admitted to having studied with them, just as she (maybe) had. People with the sort of understanding of motivation, behavior, and the human heart that you could learn there tended to be formidable allies, and dangerous adversaries, especially if they were in any position of power.
“A worthy adversary indeed,” she grinned.
I just looked her straight in the eyes this time. “But you said you’re not here as an adversary. You want to hire me for a job, you said. I certainly hope you don’t want me to retrieve that dragon scale for you…”
She shook her head. “No, but it does touch on it. Tell me, how do you think I came to have a scale of a great golden dragon in my possession?”
I shrugged a little. “The person I spoke with simply said that the scale had been stolen by an adventurer, and that you would purchase it in the marketplace yesterday. Made it sound as if Ryell could foretell the future. Not sure how much I believe that, but I’ve seen stranger things…”
Another head-shake. “More likely, Ryell knew of the contract I had with the adventurers who retrieved the scale. If dragons could see into the future, mankind would never have achieved civilization, don’t you agree?”
I shrugged again, trying to be nonchalant about it. “Like I said, I’ve seen stranger things. I figure I’ll reserve judgment until I have more facts to work from.”
She nodded. “Very well. Believe it or do not. But ask yourself, why would I seek the scale of a dragon, knowing–and I did know–that such an act would provoke her to anger?”
I didn’t even need to think about it. “In the hopes of gaining something greater than you stood to lose.” Basic human motivation; I didn’t even need Bard training for that one.
“Or,” she replied, “to avert something even worse. A man may swallow a bitter potion so that a disease does not ravage his body, for instance.”
“That works too. So…” I didn’t know too much about magic, but I’d picked up a thing or two here and there. “…a material link? For behavioral insurance, or as a means to strike at her first?”
She nodded again. “The former. The last thing I would wish is to provoke a conflict with a great dragon, particularly as I would not emerge victorious. But we believe that she has set her sights on our kingdom, and the lands roundabout. Up until now, she was content to let us puny humans play our little games of Let’s Build Society on land she sees as her own, knowing that there was little we could do to resist her, that we were no threat to her. The relationship, such as it was, actually had some direct benefits to her as well. Domesticated sheep and cattle make very convenient meals, for example. But the rise of the Circle of Magi presents a true threat to her power. I believe that she is seeking to pull us down, to interfere with our work.”
“So you were looking for a countermeasure?” I asked. “An arms race of sorts?”
She bit her lip. “Arms… race. An interesting expression. I think of it more as a chess match. She threatens our pieces, we move to threaten hers in response, and balance is maintained.”
A little shiver went down my spine when she spoke those oh-so-casual words. “Yeah, right up until one side makes a mistake. Then lots of pieces start dying. on both sides. And now you want me to work for you, against her?” I asked, trying not to look too bemused. “It’s a strange game, where Black and White both move the same pawn!”
She gave another one of those sweet, musical laughs. “I’ve always lamented the lack of mercenaries on the chessboard. It would bring whole new levels of strategy to the game!”
“If you say so. Chess was never my game, in truth.”
“Oh? And what is ‘your game,’ Paul Twister?”
I gave her my most lopsided, roguish grin. “Baseball.” She didn’t know what that was, of course. I wasn’t expecting her to. “It’s a game of strategy and athletic skill, where one man, potentially with help from as many as three others, must face off against an entire team of nine opponents and emerge victorious. Maybe someday I’ll teach you.”
“That certainly does sound interesting,” she remarked. “But not today. I have twelve guards with me, and you do not have three companions to assist you, nor even one.”
Twelve? For little old me? If she’d really wanted to flatter me, she could have just told me that from the beginning! I suppose it made sense, though; twelve warriors and one wizard, come to recruit a single thief to act against a dragon? The concept had an honorable pedigree! “Not today,” I agreed. “For now, it seems the order of the day is chess. And I am a gray pawn, neither black nor white, about to be moved yet again?” Keeping her on-topic was way too difficult!
She shook her head. “Not a pawn at all,” she said. “A knight, who moves erratically, in a way fundamentally different from any other piece. I think that suits you, Gray Knight.”
“Very well. What’s your move?”
“Ah, but you speak like the Rook, always moving in such a direct, straight line.” The corners of her mouth quirked upward in a teasing smile.
“Only when I feel I’m being led around in circles by a woman I never asked to dance with.” There was a bit of an edge to my voice now, my impatience starting to show.
She sighed. “Very well. You remember the angel with the regrettable timing, whose unwitting intervention allowed you to slip away from the manor?”
Hoo boy. It took all my skill to not react to that one. She didn’t know that Aylwyn had let me go, or that she knew me at all, I’d imagine. “I remember. What of her?”
“She is a Celestial Paladin, and a liason to the Circle of Magi. She helped come up with the plan for the scale, in fact.”
Curiouser and curiouser! She helped come up with the plan that she also deliberately helped thwart? There was something truly odd going on here. There’s no way she was working for the dragon… what then? Playing both sides off against each other somehow? “At the risk of repeating myself, what of her?”
“This latest setback to our plans requires a regrouping, of sorts. I have some important materials that must be retrieved, and then sent to Ken’tu Kel. I want you and the paladin, Aylwyn, to deliver them.”
Ken’tu Kel. Things just got incredibly serious. Fiona Khal was an archmage, but Ken’tu Kel was the Archmage, the founder and leader of the Circle, which made him just about the last person I wanted to be anywhere close to. If there’s anyone who would pose a real, existential threat to Paul Twister, it’s a man like him. Also… “That’s quite the trip, Lady Khal! I’ll admit, I don’t keep close tabs on the Magi, but he doesn’t even live within the kingdom, if what I have heard is true.”
She nodded. “His tower is some few miles outside of Declan.”
My eyes widened at that. “The capital of Anduin? Even with good horses, that’s easily a month’s journey and more! And we would need horses; without me, the angel could fly, but I couldn’t keep up.” I thought about it for a moment. “Why do you want me along anyway? You don’t think a Celestial Paladin can fend for herself on the roads?” Not that I would object in the slightest to taking an extended trip with the beautiful angel under different circumstances, but that was a long time to be away from my interests and obligations here, especially on short notice!
“Against ordinary brigands and highway rabble, certainly. Against agents of a dragon? There, I become less certain.” She gave me a frank look. “I see it as only fair. You and she together managed to ruin our plan for defense against the dragon. Unwittingly, to be sure, but you have done it. And now you and she will work to set it right. She has already accepted the burden to be borne; she calls it an act of repentance.”
“And you expect to make a penitent thief out of me, Lady Khal? I have other obligations that are not easily set aside at a moment’s notice. Plus, I only work alone. The last time I worked with a partner, he ended up dead, killed right before me. He thought I could protect him, just as you are thinking now. Instead, he died and I barely escaped with my own life.”
“…and a legend was born. I have heard the tale. That was years ago; you are stronger now, wiser, more experienced, and your partner this time will be much more capable. And you are at fault, and the obligation is on you to make it right.”
I sighed. “I don’t have any choice in the matter, do I?” I asked, shoulders slumping a little.
“Oh, there is always a choice. You could choose to turn down my offer. This would result in you being taken into custody by the guards, and made to stand trial for your various crimes over the years. But it is your choice to make.” The matter-of-fact way she said that creeped me out.
“I see. I suppose I must choose to accept, then. There is the matter of expenses, of course.”
She smiled. “People say that you charge the exorbitant fee of three hundred delin for a typical job. Realizing that this is not at all typical, I offer five hundred, of which two hundred delin worth shall be in precious stones. Plus half of any contingencies you may come across on the course of the assignment.”
That meant loot. She was offering five hundred delin, plus loot? Plus an extended journey with a beautiful woman. Argh! Stop thinking like that! Stupid teenage body! Stupid raging hormones! Wait… what loot? “Contingencies, Lady Khal?” I had the sudden, horrible feeling that the other shoe was about to drop.
She nodded. “As I said, what I require must be retrieved.”
“So you want me to steal something afterall.” That’s getting back into my comfort zone.
She shook her head. “It is only stealing when the owner is alive.” Whoosh, thud. Goodbye comfort zone, hello other shoe. This was now officially getting very creepy very quickly. “I know the location of the lair of a dragon that died of disease. It was many years ago, and there is no risk of contagion to you or to Aylwyn, but the important part is, this dragon was not slain, not by man nor by another dragon. It is likely that the corruptible parts of the body have rotted away by now, but of course not all parts are corruptible. What Ken’tu Kel will need is the dragon’s skull.” Then she smiled at me, a grim little smile. “And whatever else of value can be retrieved from the lair, of course. Your half will be yours to do with as you please; Aylwyn’s half will be shared with the Magi, as she is acting as an agent of the Circle. We would place great value on draconic bones and scales, but of course we also hold more traditional valuables in high regard.”
An abandoned dragon’s lair? Awesome! But it sounds too good to be true… “If this dragon has been dead for several years, why hasn’t the lair already been looted?”
She smiled. “As I said, there is no risk of contagion to you nor to Aylwyn. The same is not true of other dragons; they keep away out of regard for their own lives. But more mortal adventurers would find it very difficult to claim the treasure, as the dragon’s lair was in a cave high up the side of a mountain, with no passable trails leading up to it. It is almost entirely inaccessible, except from the air.”
I nodded. “But if I had a Celestial with me, and she had some rope…”
“It would become much more possible.”
“And once we reach the lair? The big guy’s gone, but what other threats would be there to deal with?”
She shrugged dismissively. “Wards and traps, mostly of a magical nature. Nothing that an experienced thief of your skill level would not be able to deal with. Perhaps some wild beasts. It’s highly doubtful you’d run into another dragon, due to the disease.”
“Very well. And where is the lair located?”
“Along the way from here to Declan, actually. It will take you perhaps two days out of your way.”
I thought back to some maps I had seen. “The Ele mountains, then?”
She nodded. “Aylwyn knows where to find it.”
I sighed. “Your protestations notwithstanding, it seems I have no choice. When can I expect to receive the payment, and where will I meet your paladin to begin the journey?”
Fiona reached into a pocket of her robe and pulled out a handful of shiny gold coins, handing them to me. Five three-delin marks. “This is to cover supplies; it should be more than adequate. The balance will be paid to you by Ken’tu Kel or an agent of his, upon delivery of the dragon skull to his tower.”
I narrowed my eyes at her. “You know that’s not how I work.” She certainly had done enough research on me to know I always took payment up-front.
“I also know that, as you say, you have no choice. Giving you five hundred delin before any work has been done would give you a choice, and a most unfortunate one at that. Best to avoid such strong temptations, wouldn’t you agree?”
I wouldn’t, of course, but telling her that wouldn’t do any good. “I want your terms under etheric contract, then.”
She smiled, recognizing that I was finally going along willingly–for sufficiently low values of “willing,” at least. “Done.” She retrieved something from another pocket. It looked like a jewelry box, a large one. When she opened it, I saw there was a mirror inside. She set the opened box on a small table in the middle of the room, with the mirror angled upwards, then addressed it. “Mirror, mirror, on this table, Ken’tu Kel, if he is able.”
As always when someone invoked a magic mirror, I had to stop myself from snickering. I don’t know if the invocations formed silly rhyming couplets in the original language, but the versions I heard always sounded that way.
The reflective surface turned cloudy for several long moments, then resolved into a reflection of a man, looking to be in his late 30s or so. He wore blue wizards’ robes, and was a bit on the short side. He was bald, with no beard, but a rather impressive black mustache adorned his upper lip. “Fiona,” he greeted her. “What news?” He had a deep, rich voice. Not too low, but smooth and very manly-sounding, in a rather abrupt contrast with his physical appearance. The sort of voice you’d expect to come from the mouth of Prince Charming.
“I have met with Paul Twister, and he has agreed to the terms we discussed, on the condition that the deal be sealed by an etheric contract.”
“Very well,” the archmagus said. “Step forward, that I may see you.” The mirror was at an angle where I could see him probably better than he could see me.
I moved to stand beside Fiona Khal, and looked his reflection in the eyes. “Here I am.”
He smiled. “I do pledge payment in the amount of five hundred delin, of which two hundred is to be in the form of precious stones, to Paul Twister as payment for services rendered, namely the retrieval, and delivery to my tower, of the skull of a dead dragon from its abandoned lair in the Ele mountains.” He paused a moment, then added, “Less any advance he may be paid by Fiona Khal.”
I nodded. “I do pledge the retrieval and delivery of the dragon skull to the tower of Ken’tu Kel in return for the aforementioned payment, on the condition that the information I have been and will be given regarding the skull is sufficiently accurate to enable it to be retrieved.” It’s always important to leave yourself some wiggle room like that in an etheric contract; otherwise, you could end up magically bound to do something that’s not possible.
Fiona nodded slowly. “I do so witness.” She brushed her fingers over the mirror, and the reflection of Ken’tu Kel dissolved, returning to a natural reflection of her and me. “Very well. Are you satisfied now?”
“I suppose I’m about as satisfied as I’ll get. So when and where is this journey to begin?”
Fiona smiled at me as she began to pack her mirror up again. “Purchase your supplies and make your preparations. Aylwyn will be here tomorrow at first light.” She flashed me a playful grin, and actually licked her lips subtly. “It was a pleasure doing business with you, Paul Twister. You are a worthy adversary indeed, or if not, then perhaps a worthy ally.”
I rolled my eyes. “Again with the flattery. You’ll forgive me if I don’t find it particularly flattering.”
She just laughed. “A shame. But I suppose I am not exactly… to your tastes?” Then she flashed me a positively wicked grin. “No doubt you would prefer the company of someone taller, lovelier and younger of face, with soft wings to cradle you in an extra-tender embrace?” I could feel heat in my cheeks at the suggestion, especially because it hit way too close to home. She saw, and smiled knowingly. “Were I in your place, I would be most wary of any decision to act on such a preference.”
I just shrugged, trying to play it cool. “Of course,” I said, as nonchalantly as I could.
She turned to leave, then paused in the doorway, looking over her shoulder at me. “One last piece of advice. Certainly Ryell is not finished with you. I would be most wary of her as well. I have heard that ridiculous song the bards sing of you, Paul Twister. Many of the things they tell never happened, not to you nor anyone else, but the part at the end, where our roguish hero is finally outwitted by a dragon? There is more truth to that than you know. Be on your guard.” And then she left, before I could say anything else.
Wow. When she showed up, I thought I’d just gone out of the frying pan and into the fire. Now I was out of the fire and… I don’t even know what I was into now, but this was going to seriously suck.
But at least I was signed up for an extended adventure with a beautiful woman who’d kissed me the first time she met me. Fiona’s warning notwithstanding, it couldn’t be all that bad, now could it?
And besides, I had business to take care of in Anduin as well. These were definitely not the circumstances I’d imagined I’d end up meeting April O’Neil under, but as long as I was going to be in the neighborhood, I may as well pay her a visit…