Imp Possible Situations

This story is an original work of fiction set in the Tunnels & Trolls universe. It was created for profit, under license and direction from Flying Buffalo Inc and the intellectual property holders of the universe. The story that appears here has been published in the anthology Of Dice and Pen (2008) and has been substantially revised from an earlier version published in the anthology Mage’s Blood and Old Bones (1992). The illustration appeared with the story at the time of the original publication.

Note: Server migration several years ago introduced formatting errors. These are now corrected (Jan 2016).

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I PLANTED MY KICK near the latch, because I figured otherwise I’d just put my foot through the middle of the door. The door broke in half and fell off its hinges.

Good enough.

I stepped over the sill, deliberately letting the muggy afternoon sunlight drip over my shoulders in the common room of the Iron Wyrm. A dark silhouette with a limp man-shaped lump across my shoulder, I wanted to make the right impression on the barkeep.

I did.

He squeaked as he pulled a bungstarter from beneath the oaken bartop and tried to look threatening. In the weak light he looked like an underfed rat-hunting dog that had lost its teeth but still bared its gums by reflex. I snorted and heaved the unconscious body of Two-Fingered Mungo off my shoulder and onto the filthy floor. A cockroach promptly scuttled up to check out the possibilities.

“I claim the reward, Farli.” The voice croaked a bit but basically still sounded like my own. “Mungo here, and the shivmaster called Spindleshanks outside. You post the bounty, so I’m coming to you. You can pay up.”

Farli’s head bobbed like a happy beggar’s, but his jaw opened and closed out of all syncopation, babbling. “For two, Jakrista? Word is the Windraider gang is five or maybe six, taking on the merchants sailing from the downdocks lately, and besides I’m just a poor taverner, you know that Jakrista, you know perfectly well I haven’t got the reward money this minute because it comes from the lords’ coffers once the bandits are in the stockades, and it’ll be less the cost of the hanging and you…”

“Spindleshanks won’t need the hangman.” I showed him my teeth in a grin few seem to find attractive. “I left him on the back of my horse. He’s going nowhere.”

I walked behind the bar and pulled a pewter tankard from a low shelf. It filled my hand nicely, a comfortable old friend. “I’ll take the reward in this,” I said. “Dry, red, and enough. When I point, you refill it. When I fall off the chair, you get me up to my room. That’s how you’ll know it’s enough. Clear?”

“You didn’t get the Raidmaster, did you?” He brimmed the tankard quickly with Karthaki red. “You didn’t, did you. For the third time you’ve gone out there. You swore this time, for sure, that you would stop them for good and all.”

Aye. And that’s why I wanted strong drink.

I made a face. “The Raidmaster remains a shadow. But now he has fewer rocks to hide beneath. Call a guard to haul away the garbage, Farli. Then leave me alone.”

I stalked to the far corner of the tavern, put my back against the wall, and rocked on the stool’s uneven leg. Farli checked the knots at Mungo’s hands and feet — not that I thought he could tell if they were secure — then sent his nitwit nephew off to fetch one of the bruisers who passed for a guardsman to collect the goods. He tacked up a blanket across the broken door, returning the bar to its customary gloom, and I thought even the knife-scarred tables sighed with relief to be out of the setting sun’s unmerciful scrutiny.

I looked around the common room for the first time. A serious oversight on my part, not to have looked things over sooner. Some days I just don’t care. As frustrated as I was by my inability to end the Windraider gang for good, I truly didn’t care just now — even if, in Knor, that’s courting a particularly pointless suicide. Still, though Farli has no love lost for me neither does he let trouble he recognizes into his tavern. I’m more trouble than he wants as it is, but he owes me. I’ve done more than my share of disposing of trouble that comes calling at the Iron Wyrm.

I didn’t think the mismatched pair sitting in the shadows by the kitchen looked like a lot of trouble. An odd set, perhaps, but nothing more than you might see day or night on the cobbled streets of the city. Well, nothing much more, anyway.

A old white-haired man in southerner’s robes nursed a mug, staring morosely and intensely into its depths. I suspect the mug held some of Farli’s bitter beer. I’d nurse that too, were I unfortunately enough to find it in front of me. I noticed the shiny black iridescence of a greater magestaff propped against a post beside him, close to hand. Impressive, that staff, its type reportedly indestructible. A Guildsman, then, though the oldster peering into his beer hardly looked to have that kind of experience or power.

On the other hand, his companion was an imp and they don’t usually hang around hedgewizards. Not a powerful imp, certainly no ridiculously-muscled greater demon. This creature was hardly bigger than a young child, in fact — his pug nose would barely reach my knee. Unmistakable, though: the long pointed ears rose up an inch above a thatch of dark reddish hair, matching the huge slanted elf-eyes with their yellow irises and snake-slit pupils. The imp grinned brightly, watching me watch him — that is, I assume it was a him. He looked remarkably childlike, freckles and all, except for the little pointed cat teeth winking in the half-light.

Farli interposed himself into my line of sight with a platter of meat that might have been deer or, just as easily, dog. “A bite to eat, Jakrista? M’lady has to keep up her strength to take on more bandits. They’ve been busy, have the Windraiders, the ones you didn’t find. Didn’t find yet, I mean.” He passed me a badly-written list of recent thefts from the merchant fleet and hovered with the plate.

My lip curled at his feeble compliment. I looked over the list, seeing his uncle’s ship at the top of the list. This was why Farli was always so encouraging. I shook my head over the long list of goods thieved away: a shipment of fine linen and silk; wood carvings from the scattered isles to the east; fine porcelain tableware of a sort I knew to be parchment thin and glazed green as the deepest ocean. A shipment of amber from the northern coasts and ivory from the distant south. They’d even hit the Koshti freighter carrying ingots of valuable metals from the dwarf-held mountains far inland to the west.

I tossed the paper aside and pointed into my half-empty tankard. Farli hurriedly deposited the platter and scurried away for more wine. Looking over the stringy meat and the boiled roots accompanying it, I decided it wasn’t yet time to eat. Maybe ever.

“Jakrista.” The old man’s sand-colored robes hadn’t even rustled as he approached. I did my best not to look startled to find him across the table from me, leaning on that glimmering black staff. “Jakrista of EliensTorm, hero-born of the Enchanted Gypsy?”

“EliensTorm fell long ago,” I answered guardedly. “Jackals feast in her halls and I have never yet found the road that leads back. What do you want, wizard?” The little imp eyed me slyly from behind the man’s robe.

“To tender my thanks.” His words were carefully enunciated, perfectly pronounced like it was his second language. He bowed his head gracefully and bushy white eyebrows shadowed the coolness of his black-eyed gaze. I saw it anyway, the reserve hiding in the shadows, but I smiled graciously as I were still chatelaine of EliensTorm. That earned me the flicker of an odd look, so I scowled again to accommodate his evident expectations.

He continued. “I cannot speak as anything more than any other citizen of Knor — not even that, in truth, for I am just a sometime-inhabitant. But that one woman would take on the dangerous Windraiders is a commendable quest. I heard from Master Farli that you have captured a number of the cutthroats. Although more surely remain available for them to recruit every day, for the time being it seems the city is safer for us all. So, it seems you deserve the thanks of us all.”

I shrugged, trying to plumb his deeper intentions. “Every visitor to Knor knows the city’s fundamental law. Those who can take of themselves are expected to do so; and to tender protection to those who cannot protect themselves.” I swirled the dregs of my wine irritably. “Not a very good law in practice but honorable in intent.”

His yellow-white beard parted showing equally yellow-white teeth jumbled awry in his mouth. “Honorable indeed. I doubt we will meet again, Jakrista, but I wish you Rander’s Luck and fair sailing in your adventures.” He bowed again and headed out.

The imp lingered, bright eyes darting above the chair’s seat across from me. I could see some question about to pop off his pointed little tongue but the mage turned at the doorway, blanket bunched in his hand.

“Come!” he commanded the imp. A fire-flash leapt from the end of the black staff to singe the little creature’s heels. The long-eared imp yelped and dived for the doorway, knocking into a wobbly bench and tripping on the broken door. A jumble of arms and legs, he rolled to a stop on the boots of the city guardsman just entering.

The guard lifted the imp by the back of its neck, raising him up to stare briefly into the sorrowful yellow eyes. He looked at the white-haired wizard who smiled ingratiatingly. He looked at the smashed remains of the door pushed against the wall. He looked at Farli leaning on the bar and holding his head in his hands. He looked at me. I don’t think he missed the mail I wore nor the sword at my side.

“Busy night?”

The wizard gathered the imp under one arm, made a coin-smoothed apology to the guard that he might afford a fresh boot polishing, and disappeared into the twilight behind the blanket. Weary and disgusted with myself and the world in general, I drained my tankard. Farli refilled it when I pointed, again and again.

 

The Iron Wyrm never bustles cheerily like some inns I’ve known. Still, after the dinner hour the locals gather for serious drinking. The common room filled with all the usual: loud voices, too many dirty bodies — human and otherwise — and the underlying reek of hot candle wax that twined incestuously with enough gritty smoke to make your eyes water. The air clung close and warm and damp, and my leather armguards grew slimy with sweat.

Knor is no pleasant place in the rainy season and I wondered why I hadn’t stayed in Karthaki this summer. The highlands grew grapes in more clement lands, the source of the dry red wine I gulped from my tankard, hardly tasting it. I decided Knor’s grime and slime better suited my recent moods. Besides, somebody had to take on the bloody-handed Windraiders. The bedamned gypsy the old man referred to had convinced me years ago — somehow — this sort of thing was– somehow — my business, my responsibility.

When I tried to shake off those chains the gypsy forged, to turn my back on those memories, then I had learned that my soul withered, I slept badly, and every meal grew less satisfying. I learned that I am what I am, and that was all there was to it. I spat, which could only improve the condition of the floor at my feet, and determinedly ignored the memories. They were used to it, like they were used to me trying to wash them out with wine and stronger stuff. They would wait, ever faithful and patient.

The guard had removed Two-Fingered Mungo and, before the crowd gathered, Farli had hauled away the splintered mess I’d made of his door. I figured my reward would be reduced by the cost of a new one. Fair enough. A stranger from a nearby table picked over the funny-looking meat on my platter and I didn’t protest. His stomach would do that for him. In all, I just wanted to be left alone tonight.

It was, however, too much to ask.

I didn’t see him come back in. Too many bodies between me and the doorway. I first realized the imp had returned when he attached himself to my right leg.

I jumped from the stool with the little body wrapped around my calf, pulling me off balance. Well, perhaps the wine had something to do with my clumsiness too. I crashed into the wall and rebounded off some bony elf before rolling to the floor. Or ‘collapsing’ might be the better word. I made no effort to spare the imp from my hard hip hitting his fat little belly. He emitted a faint peep and squirreled out of my grasp. I collected nothing but a handful of floor.

The floor.

Other inns display terrazzo and tile, or polished inlaid woods of many colors. The Iron Wyrm’s floor sported its own colors. Last summer’s straw was a lovely grey-green, the street mud tracked in was a rich black-brown but a little runny. The rotting floorboards were a fuzzy beige where the maggots waged war with the termites to give a delicate detailing in pale ivory.

The stench was too much.

I added a personal dose of Karthaki red for contrast, then struggled to my knees. My right hand located my dagger on the second try but my eyes couldn’t track down the imp. It was hard enough just to find the edge of the table and get enough leverage to crawl back up onto the stool. I glared around the tavern, looking for the imp and challenging anyone to complain about my behavior. In fact, pretty much no one seemed to notice or care, although the elf gave me a disdainful look and shifted to a more distant table.

My stomach sourly protested my earlier refusal to eat and I grimaced down a gulp of wine to shut it up. I squinted blearily when a stoneware plate full of flat plann loaves scritched across the table toward me. I followed back its pathway to meet the imp’s apologetic amber eyes. He stood on the opposite chair.

“You little mongrel!” I lunged across the table but he ducked. My tankard turned over — nothing lost — and the plate of plann spun sideways, spilling several loaves to the floor. Something would eat them down there but I’d surely not retrieve them for myself. My head swirled and I sat back down heavily, looking around. No imp.

“Come back out, damn you.” I waited a minute, then slowly leaned over with great care to look underneath the table again. Nothing. I looked back across the top again.

He sat crosslegged in the middle of the table, holding out a rolled-up plann.

“How’d you do that?” I asked suspiciously.

“You fold them over like this.” He demonstrated slowly. “You should eat something, Jakrista. I can’t imagine you’ve never seen plann before.”

I started to shake my head, decided that was a bad idea and just closed my eyes. “I’ve never seen plann served in the Iron Wyrm before. Therefore, it’s something to do with your …wizard-master. Or whatever he is.” I pointed ignored the salty flatbread.

The imp winced. “It’s me. I need to talk to you, Jakrista. I need help.” He bit into the bread reflectively, tiny cat teeth tearing delicately.

I groaned. “Go away. I’ve done enough helping others to last me awhile. I deserve some time to myself now.”

The imp shifted uneasily, glancing over his shoulder toward the blanket-covered doorway. “Please, Lady. I can give value for value, help for help. I am an imp after all.”

“And therefore more than capable of taking care of yourself. Therefore further: I am under no obligation to lift a finger for you.” I smiled smugly, proud of my irrefutable logic. “Now go away.”

“Jakrista, let me explain.”

I ignored him. It was getting harder to tell the stricken little child’s face that I was’t interested. I righted my mug and waved it at Farli, demanding another refill. The barkeeper’s long dogface didn’t happen to turn my way as he imitated some multi-armed foreign dreamgod, the better to serve the thirsty locals. I stood up and roared for his attention.

A hoarse croak would better describe what noise came out as the smoke-filled room shifted out of focus, dipped and swayed. I grabbed for the tabletop, missed, and found my rump on the floor again.

“Damn.” I knew I’d been putting away more than usual, even for me, and obviously it was time to crawl off to bed. “Where’s Farli? I need to get to my room now. That was, that was the deal.”

The imp dropped lightly off the table, landing beside me like it wasn’t a jump even half his height. “I’ll help you if you’ll let me.”

I snorted, then laughed, then laughed even harder. I slapped my thigh and finally choked myself back to a simple wheeze. “You? Runt? Pipsqueak? You think you can carry me upstairs, huh?”

The imp leaned close. “My name is Inominadrieth,” he whispered with narrowed eyes, then stood up proudly, shoulders thrown back. “I am called Carodag’s Sparrow, but just Sparrow will do. Not runt. Not pipsqueak.

“You want to get to your room?” He scratched his thick red hair and grinned sharply. “Beast of burden isn’t my strong suit but I can see you get upstairs in one piece.” Eyes twinkling like topazes, Carodag’s Sparrow boosted me to my feet as if he had the strength of a full-grown man.

Surprised, I fell over against the wall and grabbed a post to stay upright. “Forget it, Sparrow. Looks like I’m sleeping on the floor…” My stomach flip-flopped at the prospect and I reconsidered.

The imp wrapped his right arm around my left leg and that knee solidified into something more cooperative. Hastily I jerked away from him. â”I don’t wanna be sober! I worked very hard t’ get here, where I can sleep through the damn night. Get lost.”

Sparrow planted small hands on his hips, looking like a petulant child about to let loose with a scolding for a particularly recalcitrant doll. “My local effect, private spell. You think you’re the only drunk I’ve ever known? Your knees will hold you but you’ll feel just like you want. Lean on me and there’ll be no problem.”

I’m a tall woman. I had to lean over just a bit to place my hand on his head. We made it halfway up the stairs that way. After that, I only remember him grunting as he deposited me on the musty excuse for a bed in the room I blearily recognized as my own. There’s no way a creature that small could have picked me up and carried me. No way. Magic. Imps have lots of magic. Unc’nventional stuff. ‘S why Guild masters… why Guild masters… whatever.

“Lock th’ door. An’ geddout.” I disappeared into dreamless sleep for maybe three hours.

 

My brain still sloshed when I awoke. I needed two tries to unglue my tongue from the roof of my mouth. The imp sat on the chest at the foot of my bed, watching me in the darkness, his long-eared silhouette black against black. Amberine eyes gleamed with a dim cat-light of their own, the snake-slit irises broad as he watched me.

“What in the Abyss are you still doing here?” The warmth of the wine had worn off while I slept. Now its toxic leftovers shortened my temper without improving my judgment or good sense.

“There’s a waterskin on the ledge. It’s got some herbs that’ll help you wake up clearheaded.”

I needed the water. Feeling around on the ledge running along the wall overhead, I found the skin and drank. The cool water tasted of highland springs and lowland limes.

“I brought up the dagger you left downstairs too. You’ll find it hanging with your swordbelt.”

“Thank you.” I licked dry lips. “You’ve helped the helpless tonight, proving yourself a good citizen of Knor. Congratulations. Won’t get you a commission in the Rose Guard, though. Now why won’t you go away?”

“I need your help, Jakrista.” The twilight eyes blinked once, slowly. “The old man you saw me with, Shopeg the Outlander he is, a wizard…”

“Wizards!” I howled. “I hate wizards. I don’t want trouble with wizards. Wizards you don’t cross on a good day.” I surged off the bed, angry with myself for sleeping in my mail. Fumble-fingered, I tugged at the side buckles, then dragged it over my head in exasperation. It sank to the floor with a heavy rustle like a balrog sighing. I peeled off the slippery armguards then sat back down on the bed to tug at my boots. “Leave, imp. Or Sparrow. Or Immini-andi-or whatever. I can’t imagine why I’d want to help you deal with a wizard. I don’t want to help you.”

“Inominadrieth. Like this: In-oh-min-ahh-dree-eth.”

“Imminent disaster more like,” I muttered, tugging on the salt-stained boot that still stank of horse.

“Could be.” His tone in the darkness lingered just this side of a chuckle.”I’m not threatening you, Jakrista, but I have been away from Shopeg all evening. He’s starting to wonder. He hasn’t really tried looking for me yet.”

“Too bad he didn’t. I’d be rid of you.” The boot came loose and I wriggled my freed toes.

The black shadow shrugged at the corner of my eye. “Well, he Called. Not very seriously. About when I grabbed your leg, downstairs. You put out quite a bit of static in a magical aura, you know that?”

I growled. “Yes. It’s why no damned Guild will have me as a student. I’ve got the talent but it’s wild. And that’s none of your damned business.” I tossed the other boot at the little shadowy figure. He leaned sideways an inch and it missed him.

I stood up in my sweat-soaked shirt and trousers, no longer willing nor able to direct my temper toward my odorous clothing. “Imp, if the Outlander is your master and your master Calls, it’s your contract to respond. Not to waste time pestering me.”

I padded barefoot to where he sat watching me with mournful eyes. “I’m not getting between a Guildsman and his summoned minion. You’re leaving here and you’re leaving now.” I snatched for the little creature and he almost slipped aside. I caught the tip of his left ear — a swordbearer is dead if she hasn’t some quickness — and Sparrow yowled like an alleycat tormented with moonlust as I threw him out my door. He landed against the banister heavily and bounced sideways to the first couple steps leading downstairs.

I slammed the door and threw the lock. “Go back to your damned master!” I shouted through the wood panels. â”I don’t want anything more to do with you!”

To the seven hells with him. Maybe that’s where he came from. Hard to tell with these supernaturals. I stepped out of my clammy shirt and the rough trousers and sat on the edge of the bed to suck more springwater from the skin. I lay back in the dark, wishing for cool mountain nights, and closed my eyes.

The bed moved.

I sprang to my feet, rolling to a crouch in the middle of the room. The imp’s long-eared silhouette, black against grey, hunkered sloop-shouldered on the foot of the bed.

“How did you get back in here!”

“Locks aren’t hard,” he said with a little sniffle. “Usually. I took my time so I wouldn’t wake you again.”

“Wake me? I just this second lay back down!”

He shook his head and gestured toward the closed-up windows. Rimmed with tin-grey light, the shutters held back the first threat of a foggy predawn. I’d slept hours. I hate this time of day.

“Your head’s clear now, isn’t it?”

I considered. Damn him, he was right. More than right, in fact. My brain sparked, my eyes didn’t burn, and my muscles felt like I’d been sleeping and swimming on the beach at Kayala for a month. Considering that I’d spent the last month on horseback, living rough while hunting the Windraiders, that was saying quite a lot.

“Doesn’t matter.” I wake up lousy even when my head’s clear. “You’re still not welcome to be here.”

The little imp sighed dolorously. “Better put on your shirt, Jakrista. I’m not the only company you’ve got this morning.”

The latch on my door shuddered slightly. Someone in the hall, testing it cautiously. Had I still been asleep I might never have noticed. I wriggled into the shirt and grabbed my sword from its sheath. The silver dagger filled my other hand.

“Is that what this is about, imp? You brought the wizard to me, did you?” I glared at the little supernatural who drew away from me. Sensible. Cautious. Out of reach.

“Jakrista, I did nothing to bring them here. There’s three outside that door. In fact,” Sparrow said quietly, “I’ve given you more than a fair assistance by waking you before they arrived. I’m very helpful by nature, as you’d realize if you made the effort.”

He sounded exasperated. “You are in your own room behind a locked door — not sprawled unconscious under a bench in the common room with no one but Farli to keep an eye out for you. Not that he would, nor his nephew either. I gave you amyleias in the waterskin too, so you’re feeling yourself this morning. You wouldn’t have been feeling fine otherwise, and you know it.”

The latch rattled faintly then emitted a scitch…scrick…tic.

The imp hissed. “Kick the door open now! You’ll catch Nimblenob; knock him cold!” A heartbeat, then Sparrow’s shoulders fell. “Too late. Jakrista, act the moment I say and you’ll…”

His orders faltered under my glare. “Thank you, imp, but I can handle this.” Realization hit me. “Nimblenob? The Windraiders’ favorite thief?”

The latch produced another scritch and the lock turned. Now I kicked the door with the ball of my foot, bare toes pulled back so they didn’t break. The picklock thief rebounded from the wood panels of the door and Nimblenob backdived over the banister with a shriek. I wished him the best of the Iron Wyrm’s floor.

His two companions recovered swiftly. A short Khamadi I’d never seen before slashed his gleaming tulwar through the doorway. Moments later, the half-orc accompanying him leaped in to bowl me over. My dagger only scored his leather cuirass but ripped into one thigh as he passed over where I crouched. Though he roared with fury, I doubt it damaged him much. I kicked myself off to the left, rolling out of the doorway and seeking a wall to set my back against. Having one opponent outside and one in, with me between? No.

“Com’on Scrawjaws,” I taunted the half-orc, remembering he always fought weaponless, relying on formidable claws. I didn’t plan to give him a chance to fight dirty which is usually how he managed to make up the difference.

The half-orc picked himself off my bed where he’d landed, snarling wordlessly and flashing his fangs threateningly. I was’t impressed. When something looks like an enemy rearranged its face with a heavy mace, I expect it to have fangs and a bad attitude. My sword dipped for his throat, holding him back, as I glanced over my shoulder for the southerner. No sign of him. I beat my heel on the floorboards to distract and throw off Scrawjaw’s timing, then swiftly lunged with a swordthrust arrowing for his bull neck.

For a half-orc he was fast. Not nearly fast enough to grab my extended arm, though he tried. One crooked claw tore my forearm a shallow furrow but nothing to match the furrow I left in his throat. The brute sank to his knees, breath hissing and bubbling as he tried to speak, his black-pupilled eyes glaring. Carodag’s Sparrow popped abruptly from beneath the bed, three-fingered hands thrusting at the air.

“Jakrista, roll!”

I obeyed. I heard the swish of robes, a sliding step in soft leathers, and the bloodchilling slice of honed steel through air but I saw nothing. I rolled to my feet and waved the sword and dagger before me, eyes straining in the morning half-light to see what could not be seen. A spell-skilled rogue, the Khamadi could fight invisibly by dint of his own minor wizardries. I could counter his magic, had I the time. He would give me no such gift. No matter. His harsh breath, ripe with the stink of feen, gave me a target once I knew what I was dealing with. In the small room, I could fight better with my slim sword than he with his long slashing blade.

I feinted, my weapon a serpent’s strike, and his odious breath hissed between his teeth. I twisted and lunged with my dagger for what I imagined to be a foot below that sound.

I caught robes and he caught ribs. In my mail, the light blow he delivered would not have mattered. Through a cambric shirt, it mattered. I swiveled, ducking back, only to find the wall behind me when, this time, I wanted room to dodge. I slid my blade high guard and low, dagger circling offside as I strained to hear the too-hasty footstep, the carelessly in-drawn breath. The Khamadi learned fast. I only heard the thunder of my heart.

A susurrus whisper by the bed nearly drew my dagger’s thrust: Inominadrieth, chanting sibilantly from beside the half-orc’s corpse. Without further warning, the Khamadi rogue stood limned in a spectral purple glow six feet away, his free hand poised to cast some death-dealing magery upon my head. My wrist snapped and my silver dagger sank into his throat, cutting off his words with the spell incomplete. He crumpled, his long curved tulwar clattered to the floorboards.

“Your countermagic” I said to the imp, “could have come sooner.” I probed gingerly at the slice in my shirt and the matching slice in my side. Not deep, but it hurt.

“If that’s supposed to be ‘thank you,’ Jakrista, it falls a bit short.” The imp’s eyes glittered like topaz ice, the unnerving snake-slit pupils narrowing.

I sucked the inside of my cheek then nodded reflectively. “You’re right, Sparrow. Few people deserve good manners from the likes of me, and fewer expect them. Thank you.” I sat down on the edge of the bed and prodded some more at the cut, wiping the blood that oozed.

I jumped when the imp laid his small three-fingered hand warmly on the itchy-feeling orc-scratch on my forearm. I didn’t expect an imp’s flesh to be warm, somehow, and really hadn’t noticed when we were down in the common room. When he drew back his hand, the scratch was closed, a ruddy streak and nothing more.

“What do you think you’re doing?” I asked, a bit irritated. “I could’ve have done that had it needed doing. Which it didn’t. Little scratch.”

The imp shrugged, smiling shyly. “Easier for me than you, I think. And you couldn’t tell but the half-orc had poisoned his claws. I took care of that too. Now do you want your ribs done or not?”

I raised an eyebrow then nodded. “Guess this means I’ve got to help you in return, huh?”

His lips worked, soundless words, and Carodag’s Sparrow rubbed the air above my sliced ribs. “No.” He pressed firmly on the shallow cut and a prickling tingle washed over me, raising gooseflesh on my arms. “You can, if you will. That’s all.” He drew back and regarded me calmly, a child-sized bundle of trouble in a buff jerkin if ever I saw one.

I sighed. “All right. What do you want?”

The imp shrieked gleefully and leaped into my face, wrapping his arms around my head and his legs around my waist. I grabbed his muscular little chest and pried him off, holding him firmly at arm’s length. “What the seven hells do you think you’re doing!”

The obliquely slanted eyes rounded in hurt surprise. The little mouth fell open. “I’m happy! You said you’d help me and I’m happy. Now I’ll never have to go back where I came from and I can stay with you forever!”

“My left arm you will!” I snapped, setting the imp down on the bed roughly. “You’ve got a master, a Guildsman powerful enough to control an imp — and by Ryat, I sure can’t control you! I suppose you want me to kill your wizard and free you from his slavery, right?”

Carodag’s Sparrow shook his head gravely, tugging at one pointed ear. “No, Jakrista. I want you to summon me.”

I blinked. “You’re already here, Sparrow.” I blinked again, considering. “Aren’t you?” Sometimes one has to doublecheck these things.

“Yes, Jakrista. That should be obvious.” I shrugged and he continued. “Shopeg is going to send me home,” said the imp, tears welling in his huge amberine eyes. “I don’t want to go.”

I considered saying the world would be quite difficult enough without monsterkin in it, even the lesser sorts, but my ribs felt pretty good. I had to concede his sort weren’t all bad, at least not this one. “Don’t you want to go home? Most folk, whatever their race or kin, have good associations with whatever they call home.” I wasn’t going to get into how I felt about lost EliensTorm.

The imp snorted, went to the Khamadi’s body and retrieved my dagger. “Where I come from, I’m a little fellow. Worse than here. Lots of … well, some of your folks call them evil spirits or demons or balrogs, I suppose. They’ve got no sense of humor, they don’t.” He handed me my cleaned dagger, handle first. “The big folks beat up on the little ones like me just because they can.”

My mouth twisted, recalling earlier travels. “I understand, Sparrow. Your kin lack a certain…”

“Not my kin!” he spat. “Not at all! We imps were the old folk there, the native people. They moved in from someplace else. Took over. The place has been, well, hellish ever since.”

“Where did you say this was?” I asked cautiously.

The little imp paced away from me, his bare feet almost silent on the wood floor. “When most wizards summon folk from our domain, they don’t specify a known, named individual. Usually it is just luck of the draw.”

So. Evidently he wouldn’t answer a direct question.

“Now my contract is almost up and, odds are, I won’t be brought back to this world for no telling how long. Not unless someone summons me by name.”

“Shopeg didn’t summon you by name?”

The imp’s eyes crinkled as he grinned. “He was experimenting and had, hmm, an accident. He was trying to specify a certain powerful demon whom he only knew dwelt either in the vale of Ahm or in Adree Est. You see? In Ahm, in Adree Est. He mumbled as a youth and wound up with me: Inominadrieth. The Outlander fears the ridicule of the Guild Wizards if they knew he ever lisped. My name is all the clue a highly-educated, well-read wizard would need to uncover Shopeg’s most embarrassing weakness. Personally, I think he makes too much of it, but I’m just a little imp. What do I know.”

I drew on the rest of the clothes I’d discarded the night before, only briefly surprised to find them clean and mended.”Why won’t Shopeg just summon you back?”

“You’d have to ask him.” The imp’s eyelids flickered and, for the first time, his gaze made me uneasy as if the strange being I called the Weird stirred from where it had been laid  to sleep deep in my heart, long years ago. “And he’s refusing to let my name be known.”

I strapped my belt on tightly and adjusted the dagger so the hilt protruded near my left hip. “You told me. Tell someone else. Tell the whole world.”

“I can’t, or he’d know. You’ve got that …interference.”

I raised an eyebrow. “The interference, as you call it, is why I am what I am, half-trained by hedgewizards and cronesages, rebuffed by the Guild, refused access to any real knowledge of magics. I can’t summon an imp like you — that’s an incredibly powerful spell. Yes, I’ve picked up a few tricks, nothing fancy, but that kind of magery is held in close reserve by the magicians and wizards of the Guild. It’s well beyond anything I can do, or ever will.”

The imp drew close, tugging at the loose knee of my trouser leg. I sank down on my haunches to meet him eye to eye. “There’s a secret, Jakrista.” He leaned closer, voice falling to a hush as if revealing the location of Daegel Seareaver’s treasure isle. “All that power? Is because none of the folk want to come here. No one in all the time of our world ever has, except me. Even I didn’t, at first.

“But now? If I’m looking for the summons, waiting for it, expecting it, wanting it?  That’s different. ‘Specially since I trust you, Jakrista. That’s unheard of.”

I sighed and stood up, one ankle creaking. “Well, once Shopeg sends you back, I suppose I can do that for you, if I can learn the spell. No Guildhall will teach me. Can you?”

He shook his strange little hand vigorously.”No, no, no. I said it before — Shopeg was experimenting. That is, I’m not…” His mouth twitched. “The spell was a variation, not the usual spell. You’ll have to use what he used and that means you need his spellbook. It’s enclosed in an enchanted ruby disk. He won’t let anyone touch it, of course, but you? You can.”

“Oh really? Interference or not, if he catches me fooling around with his private manuscripts?” I shook my head in disgust. “I have a better idea: I take you back to the Great and Powerful Shopeg and deposit you firmly on his doorstep. I say ‘I’m real sorry to have troubled you, good sir. Here’s your imp back. I won’t bother you again.’ What you’re suggesting will only get me dead.” I swept up the small pack of my belongings and headed for the door.

The imp reached the door before me. “Jakrista.” Water gleamed in his eyes, trembling, ready to cascade down his freckled cheeks. “You promised.”

“Did I? Tough. I’d be committing suicide to mess with a Guildwizard’s grimoire. Might as well try stealing his staff.”

“No.” He shook his head emphatically. “I can make it safe for you. I can show you right where to find the ruby disk, I can tell you the safest way to fetch it, and I’ll get you a look at that spellbook! Untrained as you are, Jakrista, it can teach you all the spells you can ever handle. It’s not like he’ll notice they’re missing!”

“I’m not interested in the magic.” Untrue, but potent spells could leave me weak as eel broth. I used them gingerly, judiciously, when I used magic at all.

The imp’s right cheek grew wet as the tears finally overflowed. “Jakrista, please. You are truly my only hope.”

I closed my eyes. After several breaths, I gracelessly admitted I’d lost. Opening my eyes again, I nodded reluctantly. “Don’t jump on me,” I warned him. “Just live up to your promises. When do we go in?”

Carodag’s Sparrow trembled, visibly restraining himself. “The sooner the better. Every morning the wizard attends his distant estates by spiritwalking across the world. He’ll have no attention for the tower precincts until noon, relying on conventional guards and wards that I can take us past.”

I crossed back into the room, unlatched the shutters and threw them open. Midmorning sunlight made me squint as I looked over the black- and red-tiled roofs of the nearest houses, across the crowded buildings of Knor. I sighed. “Then let’s go now.”

 

Cobblestones pave the wider streets of Knor, but few streets in that city may rightfully be called ‘wide’ by any definition. When they admit it, the local aristocracy mostly traces its bloodlines back to a crew of pirates who found conquest of a delta fishing village preferably to the dubious delights of camping on the beach of a distant island’s hidden cove. City planning and massive civic projects never came naturally to the pirate-kings of Knor. Only the doomed king Yastrekan the Third ever rallied Knor’s populace enough to build the massive outer wall — and even that, only in the face of the bloody madness sweeping the lands when the old Khazani empire self-destructed. Over many hundred years, the fishing village expanded, oozing between and beyond the Greatwall into a hodgepodge of streets, alleys, dead ends, and byways that only a native could truly appreciate.

I had never appreciated it but, with the imp as my guide, I didn’t have to. I did take the time to appreciate the endless variety of faces and places the city offered, which always had been its greatest attraction to me. A pair of Gull dandies strode down the street, their black brocade trousers pleasingly tight and tucked into buckled suede boots the color of burnished mahogany. I had learned never to trust Phoroni folk, though. They’re grasping merchantmen or cold-hearted thieves, with little difference between the two. Actually, once upon a time I had thought a thief of Phoron was the more likeable sort until he showed his true colors and stole from me what could never be replaced.

A bit further on, a horned ogre in a half-tunic of battered leather and rusting rings gave me the gimlet eye as the imp and I passed by. A circle of townsfolk listened desultorily to his hobb companion telling stories with broad gestures and grand embellishments, tales of the ogre’s fantastic journeys through the Known and Unknown Lands. The hobb’s voice thrummed resonantly, expounding on strange dark secrets regarding the ragged scars exploding across the ogre’s chest. The ugly creature tactfully pulled the tunic aside for the onlookers to glimpse the ropy tangle that evidenced some not-recent injury. The hobb’s cap hit the cobbles, extorting coins from the marks who threw in copper bits and silver rins. I suspected the strange pair made a good living telling and retelling their story in every town and tavern up and down the river between here and Khosht.

The crowd thickened as we passed the fringes of Knor’s open market. Merchants’ bales emitted wafting smells of patchouli and pepper, and a vendor offered some fire-blackened meat in folded-over rounds of plann. Continuing toward the rivergate, the more pleasant smells traded space in my nostrils with the greenwater reek of the wetlands across the river, where the marsh dwellers sculled their flatboats silently among the rushes.

“We’re almost there, Jakrista” said Sparrow. “That tower there, beyond the Bridgegate.” We walked beside the inner face of Knor’s massive greatwall until we skirted the edges of the wealthy nobles’ district. The building the imp indicated rose forty feet overhead, its base completely surrounded by a fitted stone fence topped with ornate and arcane wrought-iron sigils. A small courtyard lay barren beyond the single iron gate, itself equally filigreed with mystic symbols.

“I don’t need to be a Guildsman to know I’d find it unhealthy to pass that gate or wall without an invitation.” I looked pointedly at the imp. “Do we get an invitation?”

The little creature chuckled coldly.”I am Shopeg’s thing, his thrall. I come and go as needed. You now, you would need an invite before you could actually pass through the gate or, Rander forfend, try to climb the wall. I don’t think even your peculiar effect on magic could protect you from that.”

I bared my teeth, glaring at the imp’s humorless grin.”So then?”

A flash of warmth crossed his face.”I had to get close enough. Now we’re close enough.”

I still looked questioningly at him, my temper rising.

He sighed. “You aren’t going in through the gate or over the wall.” He held out his hand to me and, with a considerable burden of doubt, I drew my slim sword and then placed my other hand in his. His face scrunched up in a fierce frown, the skin around his tight-squeezed eyes crinkling with effort and concentration.

The rush of displaced air obscured his words in the momentary disorientation of teleportation. My feet bore my weight again, this time in darkness that smelled of faint perfumes overlaying must and age. My skin prickled as the imp summoned a faintly glowing globe of golden light. “The mage’s repository” said Carodag’s Sparrow breathlessly.”All he values and loves the most.”

My own breath caught. I’ve seen well-stocked treasure rooms — indeed, EliensTorm’s own were once better furnished than this — but the variety of goods stuffed in this low-beamed room surprised me. The golden ghostlight bounced from the low beamed ceiling, reflecting from crates of shimmering green glaze on whisper-thin porcelain. One table bowed under bolts of liquescent silk and heavily embroidered cambric, elfwork to judge by its fine stitchery. Glinting hides of tin and silver lay racked against one wall, clearly hallmarked from the northern dwarfholts. A polychrome pot held unworked amber, rainbow-hued chips of wood hard as stone and, oddly, common tradebeads made for merchants braving the ivory road to the Southern Continent. A collection of macabre masks decorated with horsehair, string, and feathers shared space with fine, handsome statues on a narrow shelf near the door. Carved of some fine-grained oily wood I couldn’t identify, they all seemed to watch me disapprovingly, both the fair and the foul, with their tar-set eyes of cowrie shell or obsidian, of copper or with a chilling, blank emptiness where nothing at all was laid. Something niggled at my memory, an unborn thought kicking in the womb of my mind. Something about these things.

“Psst!”Sparrow drew me over to a small casket chased with tarnishing silver. “The catch can be trapped but Shopeg rarely sets it. He expects no one to penetrate so deeply behind his defenses.”

“I’ll bear it in mind,” I said drily, “but I won’t count on it.”

The imp nodded. “Wise. It’s a needle trap, set off from this catch here. The poison is pujifu. Not widely known, but a nasty black poison from a deepwater sea creature. Rare. Paralyses instantly, slowly lowering you into a sleep from which there is no awakening.”

I laughed caustically. “Shall I count on you to reverse those effects, perhaps? If I should make a mistake?”

He grinned agreeably. “Indeed I can do that, Jakrista. Easily. I keep telling you what a helpful friend I can be. You’re all set now. The disk lies within the box, and his grimoire notes are embedded inside that. Read what you will, but swiftly. We must not dawdle here.”

I looked the casket over carefully. “Why not just take it and leave the way we came?” I poked gingerly at one raised design then tapped gently along the length of one tendril-like protuberance. “I see he did not set the catch after all.”

“Information carried in your head he cannot detect.” The imp glanced over his shoulder nervously, ears pricked. “The things in this room? He’d know if you took the least item from here, even if his attention were on the distant ruins by the Blackwater Tarn.”

I’d never hard of the Blackwater Tarn and didn’t care for the way it sounded. Then I thought no more of it, for I’d raised the lid to reveal a rubine disk as broad as my palm. I laid my hand on it and it throbbed, warm as blood. Lifting it from the cushioned box, its ruddy light nearly outshone the imp’s wan ghostlight. Staring into its heart, my consciousness hesitated only briefly, then dived deep into the gem’s matrix.

Swiftly I slid past facets like pigeonholes, every one filled with this bit of manuscript and that jotted note, a passage from a scroll here and interlineated commentaries there. All the shreds and fragments of a widely-read wizard’s century or more of learning. Fast as thought, I skimmed through the strange red world of the disk, forcing myself to slow down, to peer into the tiny rooms long enough to know if I had found what I sought. The words of the manuscripts cascaded across me like live things and my soul ached to take the time to read it all, esoteric and fragmentary as it was. Perhaps it could even provide the clue to what road would return me to my homeland. Though my heart ached to learn and understand, I dared not take the time.

Abruptly I skidded to a halt in a faceted room fountaining with specific spells and magery, what I came to find. I reached out my hands and the letters perched on my fingers, light as butterflies, melting like snowflakes. Fascinated, I laughed aloud. Dancing, I swept my hands through the cloud of letters, understanding nothing but delighted with the variety…

…and shouted as pain exploded in my wrist. My mind was snatched unprepared from the dream-depths of the red disk.

I opened my eyes to see Shopeg’s treasure room lit with the harsh bright light from beyond the open door, limning the robed Outlander wizard. The red disk lay where it had rolled, just teetering to a stop. My wrist blazed with pain and Shopeg impatiently tapped the metal-wrapped tip of his black magestaff against the stone floor. Such a staff could uphold uncounted tons of trapped stone designed to fall down on an unsuspecting wizard. Substituting as a quarterstaff presented no difficult alternative for the half-sentient thing borne by only the most capable Guilded wizards. That my wrist remained unbroken lay entirely in the purview of the perverse gods of luck and circumstance.

“You have served me ill, imp,” said Shopeg, white eyebrows bristling at Sparrow standing cautiously behind a treasure-laden table. He gestured at the crimson disk-gem, lifting it magically back to its cushioned silver box. “You were to bring her here just one mark before noon.”

“No.” Sparrow’s stout declaration surprised me. “You told me she should be here by then. I chose to bring her early and give her the means to help me. Yet I obeyed you to the letter. She is here when you instructed me to have her here.”

Turning to me, the wizard laughed. The aching pain in my useless right arm was nothing to the aching heartvoid Shopeg exposed in that laugh. “The little imp betrays us both, Jakrista. Or he seeks to. Yet he has brought only you to grief, not me. As for your pitiful treachery, imp…” He snapped his fingers and Carodag’s Sparrow vanished, his shriek cut off barely emerging from his throat.

Muddled in confusion, my mind twisted in its abrupt exit from the confines of the red disk like a badger dragged fighting from its burrow. I glared through my eyebrows at the white-bearded wizard who mocked me with his grin.

“Do you want to attack me, Jakrista?” His amused tone bespoke his opinion of the futility of such a decision.

Unfortunately, I agreed with that view. Any wizardry I could cast, he could counter. Although my better hand still held my weapon, I could not expect to complete some daring and lightning-swift display of sword skill. Only an idiot wields just a sword to fight a mage. Different tactics were needed.

“Caught with my hand in the sweets jar.” I hung my head, trying to look contrite while glancing around the room for inspiration. Inspiration didn’t arrive, but memory did. The ingots of silver and tin, the silk and the cambric linen, the repulsive wooden masks and sinuous statues… this was the Windraiders’ loot. The Raidmaster, the unknown leader of the blood-hungry Windraiders: was Shopeg the Outlander, he who thanked me in the Iron Wyrm for my efforts on the part of the civic good, for tracking and dispensing with those most inept members of the hell-bound Windraider gang.

I must have spoken aloud, for the wizard marked the change instantly. “Am I the intelligence behind the Windraiders, Jakrista? Indeed. With my ability to flit across the face of the world, I can peer into a merchantman’s hold or a prince’s treasure barge with equal ease, choosing those exquisite items that most appeal to me and selling off the dross. I need only find the men and illkin to obey me, who fear me enough not to doublecross me. You’ve made that more difficult in recent months, with your relentless hunting and your prying. In time, you might have found me.”

“Like a slug under a rock, Shopeg.”

He smiled, yellow teeth a barricade behind a stained moustache. “I uncovered you first. And I am not above taking revenge for the problems you have caused.” He waved his free hand negligently through the air as if brushing aside an annoying fly.

I felt the familiar wash of teleportation magic unbalance me like the unsteadiness of a hangover, and a ghostly image of a dungeon cell, complete with shackled bones and scurrying rats, briefly surrounded me. But I remained in the mage’s repository.

The Outlander’s utter shock that I did not disappear when his spell struck left him slackjawed, paralyzed, and I thanked the fate that twists magics around me. I also took my best shot: an eruption of fire leaped from my aching hand, pumping toward the wizard but slightly to one side. The tarry eyes, the dangling hair, the oily wood of the masks and statues exploded into flames that leaped ravenously for the low beams of the ceiling.

Fury suffused the wizard’s seamed face. “Nooooo!” Torn between destroying me and risking his treasure room and the tower to the swift-spreading flames, he turned his magery on the fire. A virtual wall of water descended on the incipient inferno, scattering the burning masks and overturning the flaming statues.

I snatched up the silver casket and its precious store of knowledge, and fled out the open door.

The moment I passed the lintel, a keening filled the air and utter darkness descended. I felt a suffocating sense of enclosure, as if throughout the tower windows and doors slammed shut and sealed. An unexplained but overwhelming despair extracted all the strength from my limbs. I moaned as if I were helpless to flee a nightmarish threat bounding up the corridor after me. Distantly I heard Shopeg’s soulless laughter and realized that in the crushing dismay lay Shopeg’s defense of his treasure. What thief could make good an escape when utter futility discouraged every action to the point of disconsolate suicide? Only my strange effect on magic alleviated the deadly ensorcellment. Biting my lip in determined anger, I empowered my own small globe of witchlight and forged down a corridor I hoped would take me out.

It wasn’t that easy.

The passages twisted, mazy interlocking loops bypassing side routes and shadowed stairwells. Outside, the tower appeared no more than twenty paces broad, yet I lurched down windowless corridors and doorless halls three times that long. The sense of enclosure, at least, seemed to be real.

Wizards. I told the imp I wanted nothing to do with wizards, right from the start. With good reason.

Aching weariness dragged on my joints and my eyes burned, the unwavering magic of debilitating hopelessness. Drawing another breath seemed worthless. My brain felt thick and clogged, befuddled from exposure to the contents of the mage’s odd grimoire. I pummeled my mind, searching for evidence I now knew more of magical skills than before my tumble through the strange red world, but I found only confusion and a ghastly lassitude.

I groaned, telling myself it wasn’t magical despair that led me to drop my rump to the stone floor, my back to one blank wall. I opened the silver box, fighting for focus, then removing the precious rubine disk, stroking it, coaxing out the spell I needed. It came bubbling to the surface of the disk even as its understanding finally surfaced in my mind. I had learned it without even realizing it.

I was reluctant to summon the imp. He’d proved treacherous, not only to me but also to his master. Now I had to Call him; I needed help only he could give. If he couldn’t help, well, at least I could strangle his skinny neck. Unfortunately, I didn’t know if Shopeg had simply banished the imp from his immediate presence, or all the way back to that dreaded otherwhere. As I understood the spell, I could kill myself expending the energy to summon the little monster if he had been shipped back to that distant place where he was just a minor demon.

My growing annoyance with the unremitting despondency fueled my anger. I used it to distance myself from the crushing defeatism, clearing my thoughts for the summoning. I rubbed my hands, flexing my fingers like a virtuoso lute player in the court of the Prince of Gull. I wiped the dust from a section of floor, licked my finger, and smeared an unsteady circle in the grime. I concentrated, furiously struggling to align my mind and my will with my purpose. I chewed on my lip again, seeking the skeleton of a familiar rhyme on which to hang the image of the spell, to focus my straining effort.

I ran out of time.

“I know not where EliensTorm lies, but may your damned kind remain forever distant.” Shopeg appeared, tiny, at the end of the long hall, his monstrous black shadow looming behind him. The great black magestaff winked in the wan ghostlight that still glimmered above my shoulder. “You distort the very loom of magic, did you know that?” He stopped, still small and distant, his voice sounding hollowly in the length of the corridor.

I licked dry lips. “So I understand. So forget about detaining me, wizard. Your spells fail, even as when you tried to imprison me.” I closed the lid over the ruby disk, throwing the catch with great care and deliberation.

He laughed, raising icy prickles on my scalp as the sound echoed up the corridor and down again. “A blatant lie. I think you aren’t immune to magic, you just deflect it slightly. A minor spell like that? Pfft. Yet even that, you can resist only when you are aware of the casting and would avoid its effect.” His long fingers gestured gracefully before his chest as if playing with the end of his beard.

“I’m not going to play along with you, Outlander, if that’s what you’re asking.” I rose to my feet, gripping my sword in one hand and the silver casket in the other.

He waved his hand negligently. “I hardly expected you would, Jakrista. And you should know: this is no minor spell.” He whipped the magestaff overhead with both hands and I choked, my limbs suddenly seemed steel-bound, my consciousness severed from any ability to control my body, a prisoner in my own skin. Shopeg gestured again and I staggered, ill-balanced, a puppet mishandled in the grip of an overpowering geas.

“I will cut your throat!” Shouting, I fed my fury with my fear, surprised even to find I could still speak.

“I own you, Jakrista.” His voice grated, a harsh snarl. “I control your will and it is the master who orders the slave: bring me the Eye of Wisdom.”

The ruby disk. One knee buckled and my boot scuffed awkwardly toward him, a stagger-step jerking me forward. My weight swayed onto that leg, then my trailing foot swung ahead, grating on the stone to catch my next lurching step. I could do nothing, yet I could see the white strain in his face even at the distance. Controlled I might be, but at considerable effort.

I ordered my arm to lift my sword, my feet to stop. Nothing. Step by inexorable step I approached the wizard. He continued gesturing me ever closer, fist clenching, then opening to reel in my unwilling form.

If I could not break free, at least I could try for an avenger. The pallid glowglobe still rode just behind my shoulder, bobbing, casting my face in shadow. I used the concealment to shape the spell, wrapping it in words as I could not mold it with my hands.

“Hither hie; come, Sparrow! Imp!

“Hither hie with speed!”

My hips ached, my body rolling awkwardly to and fro with each jolting step.

“Fill the circle scribed and waiting,

“Fill the place that waits for thee.”

“Mumbling curses, Jakrista?” The wizard chuckled with genuine amusement. “Too late for that.”

Awful rhyme. One of the shortcomings of never having studied poetry in the Wizards Guild, I imagine. Sweat broke out across my face and, with clenched teeth, I grasped the stuff of magics with what heart and will I retained, even as my feet shuffled through one reluctant step after another.

“Give me vengeance, mischief-maker!

“As I, wizard-bound and bound for death,

“Summon, even as I name thee…

I no longer attempted to conceal my words.

“Hai, Inominadrieth!”

I expected, no, hoped for a washing loss of strength upon completion of the spell, signalling success. Though a tingle of magic sparkled through my gut, I felt little but the maw of induced despair still devouring my soul. Having finally brought me face to face with the Outlander, my traitorous feet stopped.

Shopeg’s bushy eyebrows puckered down, shadowing an angry scowl burning in eyes black and sharp as splintered obsidian. “You taunt me, woman? The imp’s final betrayal of me, to pass on his name? No matter: you are mine. Give me the box.” He thrust out his hand and I took furious pleasure to see it trembling ever so slightly.

My mechanical arm lifted the silver casket to him, even as I implored and threatened the bruised muscles to act as I willed and not as he ordered.

A reflected glow of green light suddenly blossomed in the obsidian eyes. Shopeg’s attention faltered as he looked behind me, a stunned stare lifting slowly until he peered into the high vault of the ceiling beyond me, viridian light pouring across his face. His iron grip on my will evaporated and my hand spasmed, flicking the catch with its deadly trap engaged.

Dozens of tiny poisoned needles arrowed out in the six directions, striking his hand and chest. Burrowing into my neck and cheek.

The pujifu poison exploded through my nerves as fast as thought and, as I fell bonelessly, I saw Shopeg’s twisted face, a shrill squall struggling to escape his tight-stretched lips. He too collapsed before a word could be spoken, his black magestaff rolling uselessly from nerveless, twitching fingers.

My sight blurred and, unable even to feel the cold stone beneath me, I cannot be sure what my deteriorating senses reported. A smeared figure of green light strode over my limp body, a figure so huge its shoulders hulked under the confines of the high ceiling vault. A ghostly roaring as of distant blizzards filled my ears. Whether my hearing failed or the voice of the monster crowed, I can only guess.

The shimmering black magestaff rose into the air, straight into the creature’s hands that coruscated amber and scarlet as they grasped either end. The staff shuddered, twitched, and shrilled piercingly, a live thing being crushed in the squeezing, twisting grip of the beast’s vast claws. An acrid stink like a storm ’round an iron tower assaulted my nose, though it seemed distant, unimportant, until sparks began erupting from the body of the staff. Lightning lashed between the staff and the monstrous figure, with sparking balls racing along spiderwebs of light rippling up the creature’s arms. The green-lit shoulders bunched and thickened, and the roaring increased while the penetrating shriek of the staff took on a desperate note… and the staff bowed.

The magestaff exploded, the lightning of its destruction instantly joined by smashing thunder, showering the hall with flaming rain. My head fell sideways and I looked at Shopeg. His eyes rolled up, all white, as he was lifted bodily out of my range of dimming vision. I heard distant cracks and thuds like fading thunder, then a different rain showered the length of the corridor, red drops falling to the stone before my nose.

My consciousness sank, my senses reporting only the cessation of response. Even vision faded to a pinpoint glow, with my last sight an amber eye with a snake-slit pupil.

 

Farli handed me a long loaf of dark bread, half-stale already, and I added it to the other four already at the bottom of my saddlebags. “I heard today that Mungo and Nimblenob will go before Judge Endi Hamhanger.”

I grunted, laying a small box of hard salt in against the bread. “Meaning they’ll be free men an hour later if they can scrape up the grease. Hamhanger does love the courtly lifestyle and the boodle she gets from the accused will buy a lot of it. Not that one Knorrish judge is better than any other.” I raised my shoulder to wipe the sweat off my jaw, then shrugged. “At least they’ll have to find a new employer.”

Farli looked at me quizzically. “Oh? You found the Raidmaster after all?”

I nodded, rearranging the other pouch, stuffing in a long hoop of spicy hard sausage under the oranges. “He died in his sleep. Did your nephew finish saddling my horse? I want to get upriver before the week is out, get out of the damned heat and the marshflies.”

Farli squinted down his nose. “What aren’t you telling me, Jakrista?”

I looked at him squarely. “Nothing you want to hear about, Farli. See you when the snow starts falling in the mountains.” I threw the saddlebags over my shoulder and walked out the new door fronting the Iron Wyrm, around the side, and into the stable.

Langleg’s stall stood empty. Cursing Farli’s lame-brained kin, I stormed out the stable door and practically ran down the imp leading my horse by the reins. Langlegs shied, throwing her head and stepping sideways, pulling the imp staggering half off his feet. My heart thudded and I ground my teeth that he could so easily startle me.

“She needed watering,” explained the long-eared imp, looking at me bashfully from under the unruly shock of hair falling into his amber eyes.”The water tasted better up the street.”

I lifted one eyebrow in disbelief. “You tasted it?”

“No. But Langlegs knows the difference.”

Calming the horse, I took the braided reins from the imp’s small hand. Stepping to her side, I slapped the bags over the mare’s rump, lashing them down. I checked the girth strap, found it slack, and leaned down to tighten it.

“Jakrista.” I glanced up, startled, to find Sparrow seated sideways on my saddle, on my horse, looking at me eye to eye. An unspoken question hung plaintively in his gaze.

“I didn’t summon you back.” I choked on the memory of the mage’s tower. “Or if what I saw was you, I’m not sure I want anything to do with you, ‘Sparrow.’ You saved my life, I think, but…”

“As I agreed to, when you first picked up the box with Wisdom’s Eye. The pujifu is deadly against anyone who has no friends close at hand. You had a friend waiting, a good friend able to neutralize that poison.” He smiled brightly, showing white cat fangs. “Me.”

“A fiend, you mean. Thirty feet tall and all green fire. Strong enough to break an unbreakable magestaff.”

He shook his head disapprovingly, with his eartips waving comically, but I smothered any impulse to chuckle. “I explained, Jakrista. The creature you describe — clearly you were suffering from the poison. I venture to say whatever it really was, it wasn’t what you think you saw. An old wizard like Shopeg? Probably has lots of enemies, just waiting for him to lower his guard. Hit with that particular poison, he couldn’t maintain his defenses. Why, I’d say there’s no telling what it was finally got through.”

The little imp blinked owlishly, then shrugged with child-like innocence. “As for me, your summoning worked just as we discussed. I waited, alert for it, and came as fast as I could get there.”

I bored my gaze into his but couldn’t pierce his ingenuous mien. “I didn’t put any strength into it, imp.”

He laughed, tossing back his head. “I imagine you did, but under the circumstances just didn’t notice. A variant spell like that, with my eagerness to return here and be with you? A little spark was enough to do the trick.”

“Well, I don’t believe you.”

“I can’t help that, Jakrista. Now, when do we leave for Karthaki?”

I looked at the handful of citizens across the way, down into the street, then up to the near horizon of houses backed into the greatwall of Knor. “I’m going alone.” Damned if my voice didn’t croak. I avoided meeting the imp’s gaze.

“Jakrista.” I had to look back. “Take me with you.”

I knew that was coming. “Sparrow, I travel light. I come, I go, I don’t settle down, and I don’t want to.”

He nodded vigorously. “Exactly. That’s what makes the idea so appealing. I want to travel with a hero like you.”

Elaborately overdoing it, I squinted my eyes to peer at him, nose to pug nose. “Are you talking about me?”

He blinked once, then nodded hopefully.

“I’m no more than a sellsword, little imp. Or whatever you really are. You need some powerful wizard to join on strange quests to supramundane realms. A mighty princeling in search of a kingdom to conquer at the head of a band of stalwart knights. Another time, another place, perhaps I’d’ve been more than I am, but I’m not. Besides — you make me nervous.”

“You have no reason to be nervous of me, Jakrista, now or ever. I’m just an imp. As for the rest?” That grin again. “It sounds to me like you could use all the help you can get. Am I right?”

I thought hard, then grinned back mischievously. “Fine. I knew you were crazy.” Without warning, I poked my finger in his chest, shoving him off-balance. Arms pinwheeling, he tumbled backwards out of the saddle.

He looked at me from the ground between Langleg’s shifting hooves with a guarded mixture of astonishment and delight. “Really?”

I nodded. “Just get your own damned horse.”