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Chapter 11: Gray Wolf

The first time I met Gerald Wolf, I was still fairly new to being Paul Twister.  It had been almost a year since I first came up with the alias, and most of my time had been spent trying to avoid having to use it.  Thanks to my time as a farm laborer, I was in relatively good shape, but unfortunately that was about the only thing I had going for me, other than the Twist.

I had only a minimal knowledge of local geography, politics, and culture.  I didn’t have much in the way of money, I couldn’t read or write in the local language, and my only other marketable skills required the invention of the computer or the ballpark before they’d come in handy.  I was a decent actor, but without accreditation from the Bards’ College, that wouldn’t open too many doors for me, and I’d foolishly thrown that prospect out the window because I’d been a little bit in shock when the opportunity presents itself.  Seeing a person you know get killed right in front of you–especially for the first time–can really do a number on your emotional state.  (And when I eventually did come back and end up getting in a few years later, I never got too far, thanks to my incurable case of illiteracy.  Most subjects I can pick up well enough, but it’s basically impossible to learn a written language with zero knowledge of the structure of the spoken language it represents, and I’ve always heard everything as English since I arrived here.  Maybe a linguist could have done it, but not me.)

I had a car and a smartphone hidden away, a few amazing pieces of high technology that could have turned me into the wealthiest guy in the world if I had any way to actually produce more of them, but they were so high-tech that it would take hundreds of years to reach that point, making them effectively useless.  (A few years later, when the blue jeans I’d been wearing when I got brought here started wearing out, I realized I did have one piece of modern technology that was actually practical enough to be valuable: the zipper.  But it wasn’t until Stark Academy came around that I had the resources to get someone to reverse-engineer it.)

So, long story short, picking up some odd jobs as Paul Twister was about the only way I had to earn money, beyond arduous manual labor.  I’d catch wind of a job, contact the guy, hear his pitch, haggle strenuously over prices, and then go break some magic for them, usually so I could “extract” a coveted possession.  You know how it goes.  Gotta eat to live, gotta steal to eat, tell ya all about it when I got the time…

I didn’t much like it, though. I had to deal with a lot of really scuzzy types, sometimes as my victims, more often as my employers, and occasionally as both.  But it provided a much-needed source of income, and I got to travel and learn about the world around me.

Turns out people actually found me by my blue jeans.  Dark blue dye was very hard to come by, and the cut of the jeans was quite distinctive, so as my fame began to slowly spread, the “sapphire trousers” somehow became Paul Twister’s trademark.  Once I found out about that, it became a very useful thing to know; I could wear them to a tavern if I wanted to be recognized–to drum up some business, for example–or switch to more common peasant clothing to preserve my anonymity.  I also stopped wearing them on actual jobs, and worked to change the reputation a little.  It ended up getting around that the man in the sapphire trousers was Paul Twister’s agent, the person you would contact to set up a meeting!  And one day, a man approached me in a tavern, telling me that he was the agent of one Gerald Wolf, and he wished to arrange a meeting between his Master and mine.

I almost didn’t take the job.  I’d turned down jobs based on a bad gut feeling before, and the name just kind of creeped me out.  I was half expecting him to either be some sort of lycanthrope, or a vicious predator of the more human variety.  But business had been bad recently and I really needed the money.  I’m sure glad I did, looking back now!  So I arranged to have Paul Twister meet Mr. Wolf in an inn at the edge of town, and with some trepidation, I went to the meeting at the arranged day and time.

When I walked into the back room, there was a rather large man seated at the table.  Well, he certainly didn’t look the least bit lupine, or predatory at all, really. A lot of the wizards I’ve met didn’t look much like you’d expect a wizard should.  Gerald was one of the closest to the ideal, though, but… a lot heavier. Imagine if they’d cast Santa Claus in the role of Gandalf, and you’d have a good idea of his basic appearance.  He even wore a red robe, amusingly enough!

“Are you Gerald Wolf?” I asked.

He smiled, a very genuine, friendly smile, the sort of thing that makes a person seem all trustworthy.  The sort of thing that put me on my guard; I’d learned how cruelly deceptive appearances–especially pleasant ones–could be way back in middle school, and living here had only honed that instinct.  “I am,” he said.  “And you must be Paul Twister.”

“Must I?  There are days when I think I’d prefer to be someone else.”

The heavyset wizard laughed.  “As would I!  As would almost everyone, I’d wager, though few will admit to it so freely.”

I couldn’t help it; I laughed along with him.  “I suppose that’s true.”

He gestured to himself. “Take me, for example.  Right now, I’m a wizard doing some research.  I’d prefer to be a wizard with a completed theory.”

“Is that what you need my help with, Mr. Wolf?”

He nodded. “Have you ever heard of entropy?”

“The concept?” I asked.  Another nod, smaller this time.  That surprised me; that’s an unexpectedly scientific term, for a place like this.  “A formalization of the notion of disorder.  The force of decay, the inevitable byproduct of time as it acts upon all things?  That entropy?”  I had no idea what concept he had in mind, but if whatever it is that’s translating language for me spits out that word, I’m going to start with the definition I know.

“Well, I wouldn’t paint such a bleak picture as that, but that’s essentially correct.”

I bit my lip, judging that this was probably not the best time to get into a discussion of the Laws of Thermodynamics and how they do paint exactly such a bleak picture as that.  “Very well, Mr. Wolf.  What about it?”

“My theory,” he said.  “As you said, entropy is related to the passage of time, among other factors.  The magic of time is something of a specialty of mine, and I’ve been looking into the relationship between time and decay.  I am very close to a successful means of counteracting entropy entirely.”

That sent a chill down my spine.  I mean, I’m no physicist, but I picked up enough in Physics and Chemistry classes to know that entropy is a fundamental component of how natural processes work.  The possibility for unintended consequences if you shut down the Second Law were… I would say “disastrous” but that’s really not strong enough of a word.  This guy was poking around deep in “mad scientist” territory, and I was a bit nervous just being around him.

He was also a powerful wizard, and freaking out or doing something impulsive was likely to be hazardous to my health, so instead I just gave him the most level look I could and asked, “Are you sure that would be a good idea?”

That made him laugh again, a warm, infectious, mirthful sound from deep in his belly. “I see you’re a much more educated man than your reputation would suggest!  Most people would never consider the downside to tampering with such a fundamental force.  They would only see the obvious advantages.”

I shrugged a little.  “It’s not a reputation I’ve worked particularly hard to cultivate,” I said, lying through my teeth.  It’s always better to get people to underestimate you if you’re likely to be in any sort of adversarial relationship with them.  “People just tend to see what they want to see.  If you expect a mercenary who can break magic, that’s all you’re likely to notice, you know?  But you’re the first potential employer who’s ever spoken to me of high theoretical concepts.”

Gerald nodded.  “Well, what do you think, then?  What ill effects might come of working magic to counter the force of entropy?”

That put me on my guard.  Was he trying to feel me out?  “That depends,” I said cautiously.  “It’s a very broad subject.  What are you trying to do?”

“Nothing catastrophic,” he said.  “Or, nothing with effects that I can foresee as catastrophic, though I’ve learned that any man, no matter how wise or how foolish, can produce a plan so good that they can see no flaws in it!”  That made me laugh, which got him laughing as well.  “You know it’s true, don’t you?” he asked, his eyes twinkling with mirth.

I nodded.  Despite myself, I was actually starting to like the guy.  “I’ve seen many such plans. Some had no flaws, others… not so much.  So, what are you trying to do?”

“Preservation, mostly.  Imagine, if you will, a cabinet with an enchantment placed upon it, such that entropy does not operate within… that decay does not operate within.”

Hearing that stopped me cold.  It almost sounded like he was inventing a magical refrigerator!  I’d always known, intellectually, that people here were just ordinary people, and weren’t stupid simply because they hadn’t managed to invent the standard of living I was used to, but this was the first time it really hit home that I was in a place where there were people capable of genuine progressive thought on the subject!  This moment was where the idea that eventually became Stark Academy was first planted in my mind.

I chewed on my lip, thinking it over.  “You’re either trying to build a better coffin,” I said slowly, “or a way to store fresh food, meats and fruits and the like, without needing to pack it in expensive preservatives such as ice, salt or honey.”

His eyes widened a little when I said that, then narrowed after a few moments.  “Have you been spying on me?” he asked slowly.  “No one reaches a conclusion like that, that quickly.”

Getting caught in a lie can be pretty bad.  Even worse is having someone think they’ve caught you in a lie when you never actually lied to them.  Of course, no actual lies (real or imagined) had been told here, but he definitely seemed to think I was deceiving him, pretending to be smart because I was acting on insider information, so the same basic idea applied.  And the problem is, when you’re caught in a real lie, you can always fall back on the truth.  When you’re caught in a truth, though, sometimes the only way out… is to tell a lie.

Or a half-truth, in this case.  “Not at all,” I said.  “I’m simply extrapolating from familiar concepts.  I grew up in the mountains, and there was a carpenter who built special ice-chests.  Place ice in the upper chamber, and allow air to circulate freely to the lower chamber, where you’d keep fresh food, not quite cold enough to freeze it but cold enough to stave off decay.  He would sell them cheaply to raise demand for ice, as he ran a business quarrying a glacier up the mountain.”

“That sounds messy,” Gerald observed.  “You’d end up with pools of meltwater in the bottom of the cabinet, and the ice would constantly need to be replaced.”

I nodded.  “But when it keeps meat fresh an extra week longer, people will tolerate the inconvenience.  You think you can do the same, then, without the ice?”

“In a word, yes.  So tell me, what are the dangerous flaws in my plan?  I would like to know if there is anything I haven’t thought of.”

I grinned at him. “Is that why you wished to hire me?  I’ve never been asked on as a consultant before…”

He shook his head. “No, but since you seem to be both educated and somewhat passionate on the subject… why not ask?”

“Very well.  My first concern is that many of the processes of decay are processes of life.  When a body dies, it is eaten by worms and maggots.  Meat can grow maggots or mold, and mold grows on bread as well.  These things are small, but they are indisputably alive.  There are enormous things that live in our world–the dragon, the elephant, the mighty ancient trees–things that are much larger than we are.  And then there are maggots and insects and mold, things much smaller than us.  Who is to say that the other, more subtle processes of decay are not also caused by forms of life that are smaller still?  Your anti-entropic cabinet could easily turn out to be a death chamber of sorts.”

He looked pensive.  “You are quite the natural philosopher, Paul.  That’s an idea I had never considered.  What would you do, to demonstrate a theory like that?”

That made me think a little.  “Well, a lot of the obvious answers are the stuff of cautionary tales,” I mused.  “I suppose what I would do, if I had a working cabinet, is place some food inside, and some water in a small, shallow dish, and lock a mouse in with it, and see how well it survived.”

He nodded approvingly.  “That’s a very good idea, though I’m not convinced by your radical theory that all decay is caused by living creatures.”

“Not all of it,” I said.  “But it would not surprise me if life were responsible for more than we think.  There is often much more to a situation than that which is readily visible, is there not?”

“Indeed there is,” he said, a wry grin tugging at his lips.

“So,” I said, trying to steer the conversation back on-topic, “if you weren’t looking to hire me for my knowledge of theoretic concepts that you did not know I was versed in, what did you have in mind?”

“Simply put, I am interested in your power, for its own sake.  From the tales people tell of you, I wonder if what you do might not be entropic in nature, disrupting magic by causing it to decay very rapidly.”

Well, that’s certainly not what I was expecting!  “You want to try to study my power?” I asked.  “Somehow reverse-engineer the Twist?  I can think of two obvious things to do with such knowledge: finding a way to duplicate it, or finding a way to ward against it.  Neither one would be in my best interests.”

He responded to that quickly enough that he must have already thought of it and been prepared for me to make that argument.  “Would it be in your best interests if I found a way to ward you against it?  Surely it’s not always convenient for you to break any magic you touch, and it is likely to become even less so in the years to come. There are several wizards putting forth an idea that is beginning to gain ground among us, that we should build enchantments that would help ordinary people, and try to make them common.  My food-preserving cabinet is such an idea, or I would like for it to be at least.  But should the ideas of these mages prove successful, day-to-day life will grow increasingly inconvenient for you without some form of protection.  I believe I could devise such a thing, if I were able to study your power.  If there truly are days when you would prefer not to be Paul Twister… this would help, would it not?”

He made a pretty good point.  It had already inconvenienced me a few times.  And I’ve always been well-aware of the value of knowledge, so I cautiously agreed to work with him.  “All right,” I said slowly.  “Then that will be my price.  You devise something to counter the Twist–something I can carry with me, that will not require you to cast it on me in order for it to work.  And any new enchantment, device, or other useful magic that you come up with with my assistance, I may demand one copy of it as payment.  Plus, for as long as I work for you, you will cover the cost of food, rooming, and other basic living expenses, and three delin per week.”

I figured that would make him back off; that’s a pretty steep rate for what was essentially a job as a test subject.  But he turned out to be quite serious about the whole thing.  “Done,” he said.  Then he looked me up and down with a critical eye.  “So long as you swear to me to be fair in your consumption of such basic living expenses.  There is a certain leanness about you, one that does not come from not eating much.  Would I be wrong to guess that you could hold your own, even against a man as large as me, in an eating contest?”

I couldn’t help but laugh at that, because it was very true!  “My childhood friends chided me about that,” I admitted.  “They said I have a hollow leg.”

He frowned slightly, thinking over the unfamiliar idiom. “A hollow… leg?  As if you were storing food there, instead of just in your stomach?  That is an odd joke to make.”

“I suppose. But the point is, you’re right.  I enjoy food, but my tastes are not extravagant, and you don’t need to worry that I will eat you out of house and home.  You have my word.”

“Very well,” he replied.  “Normally, I would not trust the word of a thief, but you make me think that there is more to you than simply what the rumors tell.”

That made me curious.  “What would you have done, had our interview not convinced you of that?”

He shrugged. “I’d have given you a silver piece for your time and sent you away.  But I had a feeling that there would be.  There usually is, in my experience.”

That right there, I think, gives a perfect summary of who Gerald is and what he’s like.  He’s one of those rare people who is genuinely interested in looking for the good in others and helping them to develop it, and also has the resources at his disposal to actually do so effectively.  I didn’t really believe it at first, but as we worked together over the next few months, I caught a few glimpses into his personal life and the other things he spent his time and effort on, and I came to realize that beneath the warm, friendly exterior was a genuinely warm and friendly person.

Which isn’t to say that everything was happy or easy. This was back when the Circle of Magi was more of a concept in a few wizards’ minds than an actual organization, and back before Gerald rose to any sort of prominence. He lived in a simple house at the edge of a small riverside town, and he was mostly known as a kindly healer.  He produced some minor enchantments for various nobles that brought in a decent income stream, but most of his work was devoted to scholarship and helping out in the community. He arranged for me to room with an old widow whose son had gone off to seek his fortune and just never returned, and we carried out our experiments in a rented warehouse.

Turns out he wanted me less as a test subject and more as a piece of lab equipment–a powerful entropy generator.  The more he worked with me, the more evidence we found that his theory was correct.  He had some way of measuring the effects of the Twist, and he calculated that I could apply approximately a week’s worth of entropy to most forms of magic over one second of physical contact.  Since most magic wasn’t designed to last for several days, this caused spell effects to collapse, and even more permanent enchantments could be dispelled by wearing away at one specific part of them.  He also came up with the first good theory of the strange, chaotic side-effects that the Twist seemed to occasionally generate at random.

Imagine a house that stands strong because it’s well-built, but then someone starts tearing down one of its walls.  At some point, the house is going to collapse, but depending on how things fall, it’s possible that what you’ll end up with isn’t a flattened pile of rubble, but something at least somewhat useful as a sheltering structure, though of course not nearly as useful as an actual house.  Apparently magic has a definite structure like that, and when the Twist destabilized it, it could occasionally collapse into something else, with a different, unexpected magical effect.

I tried to pick up some magical theory, which Gerald was more than happy to attempt to teach me, but it never really went anywhere because I couldn’t read.  He always found it a bit odd that someone as obviously educated as myself could be illiterate, but I never actually explained it, of course, and I made sure not to write anything in English when he was around.  That would raise more questions than I’d be comfortable with.  But he appreciated the utility of my mind for discussing ideas with, which made our time together a lot more bearable for me.

With my help, he did eventually develop his anti-entropic fridge, but unfortunately it turned out not to be useful.  Turns out my “novel theory” about the biological basis for the decay of food was correct enough that the principles involved were hostile to life itself, and they could cause some bizarre changes in food kept within that could make it harmful over a prolonged period of time.  We did find, though, that iron kept within the box could be preserved without rusting, and without any noticeable damage or alteration.  Some good did come of all that, though; our discoveries on life and decay eventually led him to the principle of omne vivum ex vivo (with a bit of prodding from me) and some very useful advances in the arts of healing.

When we heard of a woman near where he lived dying from an infection shortly after giving birth, I told him that just as no one should take bad food into their body through their mouth, it would probably be a good idea to ensure that unsanitary things are kept out of the birth canal.  He started spreading around the notion that midwives should cleanse their hands thoroughly with alcohol, hot water and strong lye soap before attending to a woman in labor, and postpartum mortality dropped off sharply over the next few years as people put his theory to the test and found out it gave good results.  That felt good, even though I never actually met any of the mothers that this idea ended up helping.

Gerald made good on his promise to find a way to counteract the Twist, of course.  Once he had learned enough, he enchanted a simple silver ring with settings in it for three small gemstones, which he used to power the enchantment that would contain and neutralize the entropic forces.  The gems had to be charged with magical energy frequently, because fighting the Twist used a lot of energy and it could “run down the batteries” pretty quickly, but as long as I fed it a steady stream of infused stones, it seemed to work well.  The trick, of course, was coming up with a steady stream of infused gemstones.  That was just as difficult to do as it sounds, so I ended up using the ring sparingly.

I stayed with him for about seven months.  He’d have kept me longer, but I was getting a little bit restless.  I was still a geek at heart, and working on all this theoretical stuff that was 100% useless to me was like being trapped in a cage while I was hungry, and just outside was a guy grilling hamburgers.  I could smell it, almost taste it, but never actually take a satisfying bite of anything yummy.  He understood, and we parted on good terms.  I didn’t end up taking any prototypes of our research with me, though I did come back several years later, once the Stark Academy project was really getting underway, to claim an anti-entropic generator to protect the secure vault I maintained in the stables.  He was a bit concerned when I asked for one with the power to fill a moderate-sized room, but I assured him that I would never use it to store or harm any living being.  It took a bit of persuasion, but he did eventually honor our agreement and prepare one for me.

So I ended up leaving Gerald’s employment to go seek learning and knowledge at the Bards’ College.  And aside from the one brief visit to acquire some magic for my vault, I never saw him again until the day Aylwyn and I rode up to his tower.

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