The sharp bite of the master mage’s alcohol assaults my nose from all the way across the room.
Chesa! I swear. It’s not yet noon and the old man is already on the sauce? His drink smells even more bitter than his sweat, like some form of distilled regret.
I’m going to regret this job, aren’t I?
Silently, I study the old human. Long greasy hair, grey. Wrinkled face, also grey. Unkempt long, grey beard reaching to middle of his caved chest. Wearing a shabby robe, grey now, though once it might have been blue. He’s really trying to play up the role of wizened wizard. All he’s missing is a pointy hat. The effect is kind of ruined without the hat.
The man sits, wrong way around, on a wooden chair near one end of the oblong, stone-walled room, both hands wrapped around a clay flask, from which he’s taken three swigs since I came in.
The rest of the room is empty, and I stand exactly where he pointed I should, in a patch of sunlight that streams through a small barred window. Motes of dust dance in the air around my whiskers.
No, old man, I’m not a demon, I think at him.
My spear – Fiora calls this one a halberd – is in my right hand, haft resting on the swept stone floor, flat blade angled so he can see the rune-work that’s intricately woven across the surface. On my other side, next to my foot, is a wooden pail, full of water, freshly pulled from the well.
I wait silently. I know to wait for the other guy to speak first. I force my ears to remain attentively forward.
He takes one more slow slug from his flask, eying me the whole time, like he’s deliberately testing my patience.
I take long, slow, breaths.
“Know much on demons?” he barks the question suddenly.
“Yes sir,” I answer, though I’m not going to volunteer details unless he presses.
Some duke was sponsoring a guild rally to fight a demon lord. I have a little experience with demons, enough to know normally that would be a dumb quest: large chance of dead for no meaningful pay. Normally I’d let the younger, dumber, wild guides do the rally, and I’d take the darkling hunts they aren’t doing. It would be a nice way to buffer a little extra coin before the winter sets in.
Or normally Fiora would find a way to drag me into it anyway, and we’d manage to do some good in the world.
But Fiora isn’t with me anymore. Even that thought is raw.
I’ve somehow got to force myself to do some good in the world without her.
Or maybe I’m just daring the world to take me out.
But since it seemed I’d be part of the rally one way or another, I’d been keeping my ears open for anything that might give me an edge. Hearing something was easy – every mage at the rally who was willing to make friendly chat was talking about this man.
Jarvis Demoncrush, they called him. The story was that he’d bested the very same demon lord once before. A lot of guides thought he was in town and meant to join our rally.
Finding him was the problem. Nobody actually seemed to know him enough to recognize him.
Then there appeared a tiny little notice on the corner of the job board in the guildhall.
Assembling a small team to tackle the current challenge.
It had an address and was signed with a sigil – that is, a neutralized demonic sigil. Unless you knew enough about demons and rune magic to recognize what had been drawn, you’d take it as just some mage’s personal mark.
I had followed the address to this back-street inn, then on a hunch asked for Master Jarvis. The innkeep had me wait “while the master readied,” he said.
When I got done gloating about being right, I realized this was going to be a practical interview. Ergo, I asked to borrow the bucket that’s now next to my foot. The innkeep made me put a mid-sized coin down as deposit, and I know he’s never going to give it back. I may now be the owner of the world’s most expensive bucket.
“Do you?” I challenge the master back, somewhat appalled at my own pertinence, but getting annoyed by his delay. If he’s just some kook leading me on, I’m starting to consider forcing the punchline.
“Ha!” the man’s eyes lighten. He doesn’t seem offended. But he doesn’t answer, either. He takes another swig from his flask.
Gripping the haft of my spear tighter, I try to keep any more words inside.
“Sigils!” he barks.
I turn the inside of my left forearm towards him. My fur is trimmed as short as velvet in a small patch, so the dark blue, figure-eight mark of elemental water can be seen clearly.
“Just one?” he asks. I hear disappointment, even dismissal.
I have my usual answer ready. “I’m a full-spectrum elementalist, sir. My sigil is water because that is my strongest. Last summer I was also qualified at light, by Magus Tarell. I just haven’t been back to University yet to test for the mark. I also draw all my own enchantments.” I angle my rune-covered spear towards him again, to distract from the issue. Then I mentally start kicking myself.
My canned answer is nice and fine when talking to some rich merchant hiring a guard, but this is a master mage. He might actually know Master Tarell, and that could get me in trouble. I’ve never really met the famous mage. Or even seen him.
But I put on my best stubborn look and think at this old man as hard as I can: There’s no sigiled light mage in the bleeding frontlands, and we both know that, you need me.
Suddenly the room plunges into blackness.
I feel the man’s will, unsure if I’m supposed to fight back or just stand and resist.
At my hesitation, the blackness solidifies into thick gelatin and begins constricting. There’s a small •pop• as one of the tiny stones on my pendant shatters, an automatic defense kicking in on my behalf.
Well, that answers that. I do like breathing.
With a grimace and a tug of my will I harvest a tiny kernel of energy from each of the beads on the failing pendant. The lux spins towards light in my mind, and with a quick weave I slide that light deep into the dark mass that surrounds me, link it into a runic web for illumination, and shatter the whole damned blob.
The dark globe I’d been inside falls in a thousand fragments, hissing into smoke as they hit the floor. My runes remain blazing in the air for a moment before the energy dissipates.
The old man and I stare at each other. He slowly corks his flask and tucks it into a pocket on his robe.
Then he opens his hands and his will strikes again. This time he’s serious.
A column of fire rips across the room between us. I set myself into a ward stance, pull lux, and draw all the water from my bucket, super happy now that I brought it with me. With one wave, the water forms a shield in front of me. Then as the fire hits, I can’t help but show off a little, and I separate elemental heat from elemental water. I shunt the heat into the walls of the room, and the shell of water freezes into solid ice, despite the old man’s flames splashing harmlessly against it.
Suddenly my feet go out from under me. What the hey?
That bastard liquified the pavers I was standing on! This damn fool is a fellow elementalist, isn’t he?
I snarl, tossing my spear as I fall so I can catch myself. The weapon, enchanted or not, is not going to do a thing in this fight. My will freezes the rock solid the instant it connects with my knees and hands. I’m going to have bruises from this one. Reminding elemental earth that it’s not actually a liquid is a whole lot easier – and faster – than convincing it that it should be.
The master mage’s fire still rages from the front, and my ice shield is weakening. All the rock around me gives me a good place to shunt heat, but the distraction cost me, and a lot of my water has sublimated away. I try to pull it back with my will and… the water is gone.
Ignoring my mage-sense I look above me at where the steam should be. A solid globe of water is collecting, right over my head.
I hiss. I can’t help it. Enough is enough. Water is my element, damnit. The old bastard wants to play? Let’s play.
I glare at the descending canon-ball of water, draw more lux from the stones in my pocket, and punch my will upward in direct contest against the old man’s.
His will was barely holding the globe together, it vanishes at the slightest touch of mine. The melon-shaped ball of water, which probably wouldn’t do more than slightly make me wet, is hit with the full impact of my power, and is obliterated. A billion drops of water fly in every direction.
But recognition of my mistake brushes past me, distantly. I’ve rocked back onto my heals and have gone into a seated variation of a sun-priest meditation form. My will spreads through the room as each moment begins to draw longer than the last.
The old man has given up his fire attack and begins to weaponize my mistake against me. Out of nowhere, he conjures a windstorm to whip those billion water drops into a stinging hurricane. In half a moment he’ll have the water moving sharply enough to cut, or even kill.
But that’s a half moment he doesn’t have. My will is still on the water. I sink my toes into the stone of the floor again – it half remembers being liquid. Touching actual water and rooted in earth that isn’t sure whether it’s water or not, I form a bridge of intent with my will and fill it with lux.
Every bit of free-flying water in the room suddenly locks into position, stubbornly held in place by the full-on weight of mama earth herself.
The old man’s windstorm rips itself apart on the unmoving drops and disintegrates in a heartbeat.
Even breathing is hard, my chest held in place by the unmoving wetness in my vest and fur.
I exhale gently, and with it begin to relax my will. Freed from my hold, and with no more wind to push them, all the water drops suspended in the air fall straight downward as a widening circle of rain from my position outward.
When I loose the old mage, he coughs and waves at me to show he yields. I pick up my spear and return to stand where I had been in the little patch of window light, angling the rune-work so he can see it again. My bucket got kicked across the room, it’ll have to stay where it is.
I wait patiently as the man gets his breath back. The room smells like freshly turned earth. The scent of my own damp fur is rising to mingle with it.
The mage coughs for a while. Then he finds his flask, uncorks it, and takes a big draw. Then he coughs again.
“You’re hired,” he finally says with a disgruntled snort.
He hires six of us total, though by the time the rally got to where it was going, four of the others had given up and dropped out already. Traveling with the old man was an absolute ordeal.
Even beyond his moods, which could go from half-drunk sulking to full-drunk can’t-keep-his-hands-to-himself at any hour of the day, the old mage also drilled us incessantly. He singled me out in particular, sometimes waking me in the middle of the night to make me weave light for hours.
After all that, the rally turned out entirely anticlimactic. But then, I guess that’s the best kind? Everyone gears up, you go raid the castle, and the enemy just runs away in front of you. Nobody is hurt and everyone gets paid.
The reason for this, of course, was because Jarvis Demoncrush was with us. The crotchety old mage knew the truename of that demon lord, and with that the fight was won before it began.
As we were all dispersing and I was ready to tell the old man off for the torment of the last two weeks, he forestalled my whole rant by shoving a parchment into my hands. It was a very simple note, sealed with a tamper-proof sigil.
Tuan Suntiger has demonstrated Qualifying Talent in the crafting of elemental Light.
Jarvis Tarell, Master Mage
The old man said not a word, just flipped me a rude gesture and stalked off down the street, already working on his flask.
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