MA02 Myth Conceptions, page 1
OF ALL THE various unpleasant ways to be aroused from a sound sleep, one of the worst is the noise of a dragon and a unicorn playing tag.
I pried one eye open and blearily tried to focus on the room. A chair toppled noisily to the floor, convincing me the blurred images my mind was receiving were due, at least in part, to the irregular vibrations coming from the floor and walls. One without my vast storehouse of knowledge—hard won and painfully endured—might be inclined to blame the pandemonium on an earthquake. I didn’t. The logic behind this conclusion was simple. Earthquakes were extremely uncommon in this area. A dragon and a unicorn playing tag weren’t.
It was starting out as an ordinary day ... that is, ordinary if you’re a junior magician apprenticed to a demon.
If I had been able to predict the future with any degree of accuracy and thus, foreseen the events to come, I probably would have stayed in bed. I mean, fighting has never been my forte, and the idea of taking on a whole army ... but I’m getting ahead of myself.
The thud that aroused me shook the building, accompanied by the crash of various dirty dishes shattering on the floor. The second was even more spectacular.
I considered doing something. I considered going back to sleep. Then I remembered my mentor’s condition when he had gone to bed the night before.
That woke me up fast. The only thing nastier than a demon from Perv is a demon from Perv with a hangover.
I was on my feet and headed for the door in a flash. (My agility was a tribute to my fear rather than any inborn talent.) Wrenching the door open, I thrust my head outside and surveyed the terrain. The grounds outside the inn seemed normal. The weeds were totally out of hand, more than chest-high in places. Something would have to be done about them someday, but my mentor didn’t seem to mind their riotous growth, and since I was the logical candidate to cut them if I raised the point, I decided once again to keep silent on the subject.
Instead, I studied the various flattened patches and newly torn paths in the overgrowth, trying to determine the location or at least the direction of my quarries’ movement. I had almost convinced myself that the silence was at least semi-permanent and it would be all right to go back to sleep, when the ground began to tremble again. I sighed and shakily drew myself up to my full height, what there was of it, and prepared to meet the onslaught.
The unicorn was the first into view, great clumps of dirt flying from beneath his hooves as he ducked around the corner of the inn on my right.
“Buttercup!” I shouted in my most authoritative tone.
A split second later I had to jump back into the shelter of the doorway to avoid being trampled by the speeding beast. Though a bit miffed at his disobedience, I didn’t really blame him. He had a dragon chasing him, and dragons are not notoriously agile when it comes to quick stops.
As if acting on a cue from my thoughts, the dragon burst into view. To be accurate, he didn’t really burst, he thudded, shaking the inn as he rebounded off the corner. As I said, dragons are not notoriously agile.
“Gleep!” I shouted. “Stop it this instant!”
He responded by taking an affectionate swipe at me with his tail as he bounded past. Fortunately for me, the gesture went wide of its mark, impacting the inn with another jarring thud instead.
So much for my best authoritative tone. If our two faithful charges were any more obedient, I’d be lucky to escape with my life. Still, I had to stop them. Whoever came: up with the Immortal quote about waking sleeping dragons had obviously never had to contend with a sleeping demon.
I studied the two of them chasing each other through the weeds for a few moments, and then decided to handle this the easy way. Closing my eyes, I envisioned both of them, the dragon and the unicorn. Then I superimposed the image of the dragon over that of the unicorn, fleshed it out with a few strokes of my mental paint brush, and then opened my eyes.
To my eyes, the scene was the same, a dragon and a unicorn confronting each other in a field of weeds. But, of course, I had cast the spell, so, naturally, I wouldn’t be taken in. Its true effect could be read in Gleep’s reaction.
He cocked his head and peered at Buttercup, first from this angle, then that, stretching his long, serpentine neck to its limits. Then he swiveled his head until he was looking backward and repeated the process, scanning the surrounding weeds. Then he looked at Buttercup again.
To his eyes, his playmate had suddenly disappeared, to be replaced by another dragon. It was all very confusing, and he wanted his playmate back.
In my pet’s defense, when I speak of his lack of agility, both physically and mentally, I don’t mean to imply he is either clumsy or stupid. He’s young, which also accounts for his mere ten-foot length and half-formed wings. I fully expect—when he matures, in another four or five hundred years—that he will be very deft and wise, which is more than I can say for myself. In the unlikely event I should live that long, all I’ll be is old.
The dragon was looking at me now. Having stretched his limited mental abilities to their utmost, he was turning to me to correct the situation or at least provide an explanation. As the perpetrator of the situation causing his distress, I felt horribly guilty. For a moment, I wavered on the brink of restoring Buttercup’s normal appearance.
“If you’re quite sure you’re making enough noise ...”
I winced at the deep, sarcastic tones booming close behind me. All my efforts were for naught. Aahz was awake.
I assumed my best hang-dog attitude and turned to face him. Needless to say, he looked terrible.
If, perchance, you think a demon covered with green scales already looks terrible, you’ve never encountered one with a hangover. The normal gold flecks in his yellow eyes were now copper, accented by a throbbing network of orange veins. His lips were drawn back in a painful grimace which exposed even more of his pointed teeth than his frightening, reassuring smile. Looming there, his fists clenched on his hips, he presented a picture terrifying enough to make a spider-bear faint.
I wasn’t frightened, however. I had been with Aahz for over a year now and knew his bark was worse than his bite. Then again, he had never bitten me.
“Gee, Aahz,” I said digging a small hole with my toe. “You’re always telling me if I can’t sleep through anything, I’m not really tired.”
He ignored the barb, as he so frequently does when I catch him with one of his own quotes. Instead, he squinted over my shoulder at the scene outside.
“Kid,” he said. “Tell me you’re practicing. Tell me you haven’t really scrounged up another stupid dragon to make our lives miserable.”
“I’m practicing!” I hastened to reassure him.
To prove the point, I quickly restored Buttercup’s normal appearance.
“Gleep!” said Gleep happily, and the two of them were off again.
“Really, Aahz,” I said innocently to head off his next caustic remark. “Where would I find another dragon in this dimension?”
“If there was one to be found here on Klah, you’d find it,” he snarled. “As I recall, you didn’t have that much trouble finding this one the first time I turned my back on you. Apprentices!”
He turned and retreated out of the sunlight into the dim interior of the inn.
“If I recall,” I commented, following him, “that was at the Bazaar on Deva. I couldn’t get another dragon there because you won’t teach me how to travel through the dimensions.”
“Get off my case, kid!” he moaned. “We’ve been over it a thousand times. Dimension traveling is dangerous. Look at me! Strande
“You lost your powers because Garkin laced his special-effects cauldron with that joke powder and then got killed before he could give you the antidote,” I pointed out.
“Watch out how you talk about your old teacher,” Aahz warned. “The old slime-monger was inclined to get carried away with practical jokes once in a while, true. But he was a master magician ... and a friend of mine. If he wasn’t, I wouldn’t have saddled myself with his mouthy apprentice,” he finished, giving me a meaningful look.
“I’m sorry, Aahz,” I apologized. “It’s just that I ...”
“Look, kid,” he interrupted wearily. “If I had my powers, which I don’t, and if you were ready to learn dimension-hopping, which you aren’t, we could give it a try. Then, if you miscalculated and dumped us into the wrong dimension, I could get our tails out before anything bad happened. As things stand, trying to teach you dimension-hopping would be more dangerous than playing Russian roulette.”
“What’s a Russian?” I asked.
The inn shook as Gleep missed the corner turn again.
“When are you going to teach your stupid dragon to play on the other side of the road?” Aahz snarled, craning his neck to glare out a window.
“I’m working on it, Aahz,” I insisted soothingly. “Remember, it took me almost a whole year to housebreak him.”
“Don’t remind me,” Aahz grumbled. “If I had my way, we’d ...”
He broke off suddenly and cocked his head to one side.
“You’d better disguise that dragon, kid,” he announced suddenly. “And get ready to do your ‘dubious character’ bit. We’re about to have a visitor.”
I didn’t contest the information. We had established long ago that Aahz’s hearing was much more acute than mine.
“Right, Aahz,” I acknowledged and hurried about my task.
The trouble with using an inn, however abandoned or weather-beaten it might be, as a base of operations was that occasionally people would stop here seeking food and lodging. Magik was still outlawed in these lands, and the last thing we wanted was witnesses.
AAHZ AND I had acquired the inn under rather dubious circumstances. Specifically, we claimed it as our rightful spoils of war after the two of us (with the assistance of a couple allies, now absent) had routed Isstvan, a maniac magician, and sent him packing into far dimensions along with all his surviving accomplices. The inn had been Isstvan’s base of operations. But now it was ours. Who Isstvan had gotten it from, and how, I didn’t want to know. Despite Aahz’s constant assurances, I lived in dread of encountering the inn’s rightful owner.
I couldn’t help remembering all this as I waited outside the inn for our visitor. As I said, Aahz has very good hearing. When he tells me he hears something “close by,” he frequently forgets to mention that “close by” may be over a mile away.
I have also noted, over the course of our friendship, that his hearing is curiously erratic. He can hear a lizard-bird scratching itself half a mile away, but occasionally seems unable to hear the politest of requests no matter how loudly I shout them at him.
There was still no sign of our rumored visitor. I considered moving back inside the inn, out of the late morning sun, but decided against it. I had carefully arranged the scene for our guest’s arrival, and I hated to disrupt it for such a minor thing as personal comfort.
I had used the disguise spell liberally on Buttercup, Gleep and myself. Gleep now looked like a unicorn, a change which did not seem to bother Buttercup in the slightest. Apparently unicorns are less discriminating about their playmates than are dragons. I had made them both considerably more disheveled and unkempt-looking than they actually were. This was necessary to maintain the image set forth by my own appearance.
Aahz and I had decided early in our stay that the best way to handle unwanted guests was not to threaten them or frighten them away, but rather to be so repulsive that they left of their own accord. To this end, I had slowly devised a disguise designed to convince strangers they did not want to be in the same inn with me, no matter how large the inn was or how many other people were there. In this disguise, I would greet wayward travelers as the proprietor of the inn.
Modestly, I will admit the disguise was a screaming success. In fact, that was the specific reaction many visitors had to it. Some screamed, some looked ill; others sketched various religious symbols in the air between themselves and me. None of them elected to spend the night.
When I experimented with various physical defects, Aahz correctly pointed out that many people did not find any single defect revolting. In fact in a dimension such as Klah, most would consider it normal. To guarantee the desired effect, I adopted all of them.
When disguised, I walked with a painful limp, had a hunched back and a deformed hand which was noticeably diseased. What teeth remained were twisted and stained, and the focus of one of my eyes had a tendency to wander about independently of the other. My nose, in fact my entire face, was not symmetrical, and, in a master stroke of my disguise abilities, there appeared to be vicious looking bugs crawling about my mangy hair and tattered clothes.
The overall effect was horrifying. Even Aahz admitted he found it disquieting, which, realizing what things he’s seen in his travels through the dimensions was high praise indeed.
My thoughts were interrupted as our visitor came into view. He sat ramrod-straight astride a huge, flightless riding bird. He earned no visible weapons, and wore no uniform, but his bearing marked him as a soldier much more than any outer trappings could have. His eyes were wary, constantly darting suspiciously about as he walked his bird up to the inn in slow, deliberate steps. Surprisingly enough, his gaze passed over me several times without registering my presence. Perhaps he didn’t realize I was alive.
I didn’t like this. The man seemed more hunter than casual traveler. Still, he was here and had to be dealt with. I went into my act.
“Does the noble sahr require a room?”
As I spoke, I moved forward in my practical, rolling gait. In case the subtlety of my disguise escaped him, I allowed a large gob of spittle to escape from the corner of my mouth where it rolled unhindered down to my chin.
For a moment, the man’s attention was occupied controlling his mount. Flightless or not, the bird was trying to take to the air.
Apparently my disguise had touched a primal chord in the bird’s mind that went back prior to its flightless ancestry.
I waited, head cocked curiously, while the man fought the bird to a fidgety standstill. Finally, he turned his attention to me for a moment. Then he averted his eyes and stared carefully at the sky.
“I come seeking the one known as Skeeve the magician,” he told me.
Now it was my turn to jump. To the best of my knowledge, no one knew who and what I was, much less where I was, except for Aahz and me.
“That’s me!” I blurted out, forgetting myself and using my real voice.
The man turned horrified eyes on me, and I remembered my appearance.
“That’s me master!” I amended hastily. “You wait ... I fetch.”
I turned and scuttled hastily into the inn. Aahz was waiting inside.
“What is it?” he demanded.
“He’s ... he wants to talk to Skeeve ... to me!” I babbled nervously.
“So?” he asked pointedly. “What are you doing in here? Go outside and talk to the man.”
“Looking like this?”
Aahz rolled his eyes at the ceiling in exasperation.
“Who cares what you look like?” he barked. “C’mon, kid. The man’s a total stranger!”
“I care!” I declared drawing myself up haughtily. “The man asked for Skeeve the magician, and I think ...”
“He what?” Aahz interrupted.
“He asked for Skeeve the magician,” I repeated, covertly studying the figure waiting outside. “He looks like a soldier to me,” I supplied.
“He looks scared to me,” Aahz retorted. “Maybe you should tone down your disguise a bit next time.”
“Do you think he’s a demon hunter?” I asked nervously.
Instead of answering my questions Aahz turned abruptly from the window.
“If he wants a magician, we’ll give him a magician,” he murmured. “Quick, kid, slap the Garkin disguise on me.”
As I noted earlier, Garkin was my first magik instructor. An imposing figure with a salt-and-pepper beard, he was one of our favorite and most oft-used disguises. I could do Garkin in my sleep.
“Good enough, kid,” Aahz commented, surveying the results of my work. “Now follow close and let me do the talking.”
“Like this?” I exclaimed.
“Relax, kid,” he reassured me. “For this conversation I’m you. Understand?”
Aahz was already heading out through the door, without waiting for my reply, leaving me little other choice than to follow along behind him.
“Who seeks an audience with the great Skeeve?” Aahz bellowed in a resonant bass voice.
The man shot another nervous glance at me, and then drew himself up in stiff formality.
“I come as an emissary from his most noble Majesty, Rodrick the Fifth, King of Possiltum, who ...”
“What’s Possiltum?” Aahz interrupted.
“I beg your pardon?” the man blinked.
“Possiltum,” Aahz repeated. “Where is it?”
“Oh!” the man said with sudden understanding. “It’s the kingdom just east of here ... other side of the Ember River ... you can’t miss it.”
“Okay,” Aahz nodded. “Go on.”
The man took a deep breath, and then hesitated, frowning.
“… King of Possiltum ...”I prompted.
“Oh yes! Thanks,” the man shot a quick smile, then another quick stare, then continued, “…King of Possiltum, who sends his respects and greetings to the one known as Skeeve the magician ...”
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