Sunday, 22 September 2013

In Which Avan and Saeed Encounter The Prince Lanchoni Problem

Saeed had reconciled in himself the knowledge that fighting alongside the most renowned warrior-mage in the history of Faerie would place him in some dangerous situations. Since they had first encountered one another they had fought orcs, lizard men and vampires, all in one evening. In addition they had uncovered the mechanisms of a conspiracy that may serve to plunge the Terra Draconis into some very deep trouble.

As Saeed knew that the time of the Vanishing was surely close at hand, the incident in which all traces of living dragons were removed from Faerie, possibly forever, the youthful thief had to wonder if this plan was the first echo of that momentous cataclysm. Saeed knew that time, chronology and history were somewhat malleable but riddled with what could best be understood as 'hard bits', bits you could not change, the structure of the world relied on certain events conforming to a certain shape. The Vanishing appeared to be one such event, so, really, if Miranda Felix and her employer were intent on unleashing such powerful magic upon the world then there was probably very little that Saeed could do about it.

Saeed enjoyed a self-image that included a healthy dose of humility. If he was facing the Vanishing then he was happy to admit that it would happen regardless of what he tried to do about it. He was, after all, a skilled thief who had begun his life as an Afsan street-urchin. How was he to save the world?

Prince Avan Weatherstrong, on the other hand, was the most heroic cultural hero in all the lands of Faerie. Of course, the Prince didn't know much about that, he was living his life, it was only those who came after him who would get the opportunity to turn him into a retrospective demi-god.

Prince Weatherstrong had a kind of humility himself. He was not particularly interested in being a celebrity. However, if you told him that a force of magic so powerful it could wipe an entire continent and species from the face of the world was about to be unleashed he would always attempt to put a stop to it. He would say that even if he couldn't succeed the knowledge he held meant he had to try. To Saeed that just sounded like a different way of believing that you could not fail.

But you could. Just because the consequences of failure would be dire did not make the prospect of success any more likely. Saeed had stayed alive for nearly a quarter of a century safe in that knowledge. Prince Weatherstrong had lived over ten times that his way, but then, well, when all was said and done he was Avan Weatherstrong with all the advantages that this identity implied.

In his life Avan Weatherstrong had fought wicked sorcerers, giant monsters and bloodthirsty warlords. Avan Weatherstrong was more than a man, he was a legend.

So when it came to the task of tracking and retrieving a small running animal it seemed obvious that of the two the humble thief should take the task. Running through the undergrowth outside the house on the edge of Dracopolis Saeed was aware that, although his life was not in danger, the prospect of losing his quarry was cutting cleanly into his sense of self-worth.

He was partnered up with a man who had bloodied the nose of tyrants and written the pages of history in his own hand, if Saeed could not fetch a small animal for this man what was it all for? They had gone to the house looking for one Prince Ystaban Lanchoni, a roguish ne'er do well who had been observed in a square adjacent to the Dracopolis jail house a couple of hours before an explosion opened a hole in the jail's western wall.

When they arrived at the house it had appeared abandoned and unoccupied until they had opened a door into a cellar room to find a small animal, probably a dog, as the sole occupant. The animal gave every indication that it had been waiting for someone to open the door, it dashed past the pair before they had much of an opportunity to see what was happening.

Saeed hadn't even bothered to say anything, he just took off in pursuit and hence the potentially embarrassing current situation. He had followed the bouncing white bundle of muscle and fur out into the forest and noted the disturbance of nesting birds and undergrowth. Saeed had attended closely to the almost indiscernable pounding of tiny paws along the forest floor.

Then it had all stopped. Saeed guessed that the little beast was somewhere close to Saeed's present location, hidden from view. Perhaps it was even waiting for Saeed to stop looking. That was strange behaviour for a small animal in panic. They didn't usually stop running until they knew they were safe. Saeed wasn't that slow.

A thin, depressed whine came from a bush to Saeed's left. Saeed went over to part the branches and observe the small, white dog doing one of the things well-trained small, white dogs do in bushes with a look of surprise, concern and indignation on its face.

It finished up and then looked up at Saeed, testing his pursuer for some hole in his resolve. Finding none the dog tried to dodge past Saeed but reckoned without Saeed's reflexes. The dog gave another, more panicked yelp as he was hauled into the air by the scruff of the neck. A short struggle followed but Saeed kept a tight hold on the little animal.

Before long the white dog was brought back into the presence of Prince Weatherstrong back at the house.

"I think your associate in the Eastgate Inn may have overstated their case," Saeed said holding up the yapping, grumpy beast for Avan's inspection.

The dog did its best to bark in a threatening manner at Avan, but the high pitched squeaks were more ridiculous than anything else. Seeming to be unhappy at the effect of barking the dog switched to a growl that sounded like the operation of a stable but broken clockwork motor.

"I'm going to have to guess that the Prince is not home," Avan said. "That's a setback I hadn't expected. I have to ask what the point of a safe house is if it isn't to keep someone safe after performing some heinous act of wrongdoing?"

"It is always a possibility that Miranda betrayed Prince Lanchoni the same way that she betrayed me," Saeed pointed out. "Without you to look out for him the prince may well be dead."

The dog craned its neck round to stare at Saeed. Saeed had never encountered a look from a dog that implied he was stupid before.

"I'm just talking about the possibility," Saeed said to the dog. "I'm sorry if it betrays your mental image of your master."

The dog just looked downcast, hanging limply over Saeed's right forearm.

"I don't think that's it," Avan said. "Please, could I?"

Avan held out his hand towards the dog. Saeed passed the miserable little beast over to his companion. Avan held the dog up to his face and looked into the dog's eyes.

"Mischief," Avan said. "a lot, hastily applied. The dog's soaked in it. He almost smells of mischief."

"So the dog is magic?" Saeed asked.

"No, I don't think so," Avan answered. "I think it's the result of magic, crudely applied, the kind of thing a wish fairy or similar might do."

"Someone made the dog out of magic?" Saeed asked. He still wasn't used to talking so much with an expert on magical things. Magic felt like its own world to Saeed, he always felt stupid for not understanding it right away.

"I think this animal isn't supposed to be this way," Avan said. "I think that this dog was something else and then the wish fairy, or other sprite, transformed it into a small dog."

"So..." Saeed looked at the dog's floppy ears and little paws. "You think this might be-?"

"If I were a sprite and a muscular royal wolf tried to threaten me," Avan said. "I think this might appear to be a suitable response, a reflexive defence, if you like."

"Oh, I see," Saeed said. "So, should we try to turn him back?"

"That's not the difficult part," Avan replied. "The difficult part is containing him when we do."

"Good point," Saeed agreed. "How do we do that?"

"I have just the thing in my saddlepack," Avan said. "Come on, let's get moving."

Avan took the dog and went outside to where they'd tethered their horses. Avan rummaged through the pack attached to the horse's saddle and pulled out a small metallic ball about the size of a fist. It appeared to have been made by tightly binding together twists of silver-black wire by twisting and looping. From the top of the ball emerged a thin strand of cord that Saeed recognised, spider silk.

Avan hung the ball off the stout branch of a nearby tree and fiddled with a catch in the ball's base. The ball suddenly sprang outward, twisting, unfolding and dropping until it was about nine feet long, no longer a tightly wound ball, now a long cigar-shaped mass of metallic twists reaching from the tree branch to the ground.

"That'll do," Avan said. He held the dog out towards the cage and the twists parted to allow the dog to be placed inside. When Avan withdrew his arm the dog skidded down inside the cage with a small yelp and the wire closed back over the gap. "Now, dispelling mischief, that's not a problem, I think I have a spray." He rummaged in a pocket in his belt and brought out a misting bottle. He sprayed a fine sparkling mist into the cage. A couple more squirts of the mister bulb and Avan took a step back.

Saeed had never seen mischief magic dispelled before, the experience was an unusual one that made him feel a little giddy. The dog in the cage didn't appear to expand or bulk out at all, rather it just seemed to shift around in the confines of the cage to find that there was simply more of it than could have been expected a few seconds before. This slow growth by discovery continued until the small dog was gone and in its place stood a wolf on it hind legs considerably bigger than the talking desert wolves Saeed had seen at home in Afsana.

Prince Lanchoni was similar in stature to the wolves of Sorrowblade, he guessed that they must share a common ancestor at least. This wolf was, if anything, even bigger than that. Its hateful eyes glittered dangerously in the low light of the forest. It regarded both Saeed and Avan with naked contempt.

"Let me out," Prince Lanchoni demanded. "You have no right to keep me here."

"I don't think you're particularly in a position to be making demands," Avan told the captive. "You cooperate and we might think about releasing you."

"What do you want?" Lanchoni growled, staring into Avan's eyes with an expression on his face that Saeed could read easily. If the wolf got out of the cage it would mean trouble for everybody, not least of all Avan.

"You were supposed to meet with Miranda Felix," Avan said. "Then, somehow, you appear to have become sidetracked."

The wolf snorted.

"I made the meeting," Lanchoni said. "Turns out I shouldn't have trusted Felix, she sent lizard men to kill me. She should have sent more."

"You set off the explosion that broke open the Dracopolis Jailhouse," Avan said not waiting for any denials, Lanchoni didn't bother objecting, he just shrugged. "So, what was in it for you? What did Felix promise you?"

"The Sword of Zanczasza," the wolf said. "She promised me she would take it from the Amethyst Treasure House and deliver it to me at the Castle in Serpenside in return for my assistance."

"What did you want that for?" Avan asked. "You realise the blade is cursed?"

"It shortens the life of the one who weilds it, yes," Lanchoni said. "In return it would have given me the power to take Onapica away from my brother."

"A magical coup," Avan nodded. "Not the world's noblest cause."

"What do I care what you think?" Lanchoni said. "My business is mine alone."

"What can you tell me about the lizard men who attacked you?" Avan asked. "Were they alone?"

"No," Lanchoni said. "They were being controlled by a draco, stocky dragon, one eye missing, covered with a patch. He was using some kind of crystal orb that made the lizard men obey his commands."

"A coldblood orb," Avan said. "Not common but available on the black market for a price. Well, thank you very much for your help, Prince Lanchoni, it will aid us in our efforts to track down Felix. I'll be sure to send her your regards."

"If you find her before I do," Lanchoni snarled. "Let me out of here."

"Oh, you'll be released," Avan said to the wolf. "When you're safe in a cell in the Dracopolis jailhouse."

"You said you would release me!" the wolf complained straining to break free of the wire metal prison.

"To be fair I said I'd think about it," Avan replied. "I have and I've come to the conclusion that it would be best to free you only once you're incarcerated for the crime that you have committed."

"So you're just going to leave me here?" Lanchoni complained. "If I get out of here before you arrive with help to get me to the prison I'll make sure you regret it."

"Who said we needed help?" Avan asked. "You might want to brace yourself this next bit can pinch a little."

As soon as those words left Avan's mouth he jumped up to grab a hold of the branch from which the cage-pod was suspended. He swung himself towards the top of the pod and wrapped his hand round the blunt cylinder attached to all of the pod's wires. Avan shifted his fingers across some sort of button or catch and the pod shrunk upwards swiftly.

Lanchoni cried out but as the wires spiralled in tight the cry was cut off. Avan picked the wire ball back off the tree. It was a little larger than it had been when it was empty but otherwise there were no signs that it contained a large, angry wolf.

Avan dropped down from the tree and hung the cage-ball from his belt.

"Is this how you deal with everyone who gets on the wrong side of you?" Saeed asked.

"No," Avan replied. "You I teamed up with, Felix.... well, I don't really know what I'm going to do with Felix when we catch her."

"I thought you intended to kill her," Saeed said.

"Is that what you would do?" Avan asked.

"I... am not sure," Saeed said, although he was sure that when he was a boy he would have revolted at the notion of murder. Somewhere along the line he had come to think of killing someone bad as an unpleasant necessity. Now, strangely, he found himself uncertain again.

"Then we shall both discover what we should do, when we get where we're going," Avan said.

"And where is that?" Saeed asked.

"First," Avan replied. "We are going to find Vasky Jantnor."

"Who's that?" Saeed asked.

"A Draco mercenary, last time we met I took one of his eyes."

And that is where they went, but what happened when they met him is a story for another day.

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