--Chapter Sixteen: Imps
After a large meal of ham and eggs, Asmir took his leave to go to the hotel and rest for the remainder of the day. Isa went home briefly to grab a book she could read while tending the tavern into the evening hours. She picked one called, Halmut and the Witch’s Prophecy (and had to resist rolling her eyes at the title), and when she returned to the tavern and lit the torches on the wall for light after sunset—she would not bother with the fireplace unless it got too cold—she sat down at a table, opened the book to where a handkerchief acted the part of bookmark, and picked up where she had last left off:
“The witch cackled and said, ‘If you want your question answered, first you must pass the Test of Fate...’”
And then Isa saw it: from the corner of her eye, she noticed something scurrying across the floor to the far corner of the room. Whatever it was, it hid itself quickly by sliding between the fireplace hearth and the wall—about ten centimeters separated these, and that tiny area within the gap lay entirely untouched by any light in the room.
The tavern had seen its share of mice in the past, and Isa knew it was long since time for her family to get a new cat to alleviate the problem. She continued reading for now and made a mental note to tell her parents about this later. She resumed her reading.
“Then Halmut boldly walked up to the witch and said, ‘Give me the Test of Fate, for I am not afraid!’
“This made the witch frown, for fear, which she usually instilled in her adversaries, had long been her greatest advantage...”
And then it happened again. Something ran swiftly past Isa’s table and went in the direction of the fireplace. She saw the creature more clearly this time, though, and to her amazement, it had only two feet! It took Isa the better part of a minute to realize what it actually was, and by the time it hit her, the thing had escaped to exactly the same place as had the one before it: between the fireplace hearth and the wall.
“Imps,” said Isa, putting her book down after replacing the handkerchief. She could not recall ever seeing an imp up close before, but, as with most things in Aren Country, she had heard many stories about the tiny beings. Some people in the East called them “half-gnomes,” and that perfectly described them perfectly... at least so far as physical elements were concerned. Imp personality, though was a whole different matter. Isa had heard everything from “hyperactive” to “dimwitted” to “evil,” and she had a hard time creating a picture in her mind from these very different adjectives.
Isa stood up and walked toward the fireplace. Her eyes intently watched for any movement or activity coming from the dark space in the corner.
“Hello?” she said. “Is anyone there? Imps?”
A small figure hopped out of the shadow. “You called?” Its voice had an incredibly high pitch, and Isa got the feeling that if it were to yell, it would be exceedingly annoying.
Isa cocked her head to one side and looked the imp over. She decided that “half-gnome” was grossly inaccurate; “eighth-gnome” would have been much more fitting. It could not have been more than four centimeters tall. The clothes, at least, were similar to what a gnome would wear, but it was hard to make out any details on them without a magnifying glass.
“Why are you running around and hiding?” Isa asked.
“Oh, we just get some food. Plenty of crumbs on the floor, all good.”
The imp nodded. “My buddy and me, we eat pretty good here. You mom and dad good cooks.”
“Thanks... Do you... live here?”
“We do until Crispo sends us home.”
“Crispo? You mean you work for the dragon?”
“Most imps do work for dragons, yes. Mostly spy, see if any dragon killer coming.”
Isa smiled and put her hands on her hips. “And how do you get back to Crispo to tell him someone’s coming?”
“That’s a secret!” a second voice screamed from the crevice. The imp in hiding, the “buddy,” had an even screechier voice than his friend.
“Yes,” agreed the imp standing in front of Isa. “We cannot tell human all our ways.”
“Imp spies doing undercover dragon work... Well now I’ve heard everything!” Isa said, genuinely amused.
“No,” the imp retorted. “That’s our job.”
“Crispo say he like you, though. You turn away dragon killers, help him many times. He say thank you.”
“He’s very welcome... I think.” She paused for a second and then asked, “Is it really true that the war is over?”
“Yep!” The imp bounced with enthusiasm. “Big human fight over. North city wins.”
Isa sat down on the hearth and said, “That’s what I heard from Asmir today... Did you hear it from somewhere else?”
“From Crispo himself,” the imp assured her. “By method of secret.”
“So what is it that makes imps work for dragons? I’d think it were a pretty odd match...”
“Nod odd at all. Imps go and help protect dragons from dragon killers, and dragons give good (but very secret) ‘technology’ things to help protect imps from get stepped on or eaten by big animals.”
“Sounds pretty secretive.” Isa almost laughed, but she could tell the imp was trying to be serious, so she would try, too.
“Oh it is,” said the imp, as gravely as a squeal could manage to sound. “But don’t worry. We also keep you safe. We watch over place, make sure no one come and burn down village.”
“Buuuuuuuuurn!” said the voice from the shadows.
“No, no,” the imp called back to his friend. “No burn things now. Stop things from burning.” He turned to Isa and said, “My buddy had problems with fire pills years ago. Bad addiction. He still recover.”
“Natural flame enhancement drug. Made for dragon, not imp. Crispo never use. Say they not natural at all. Make dragon flame big, because some female dragon think size of flame matter. Don’t do much good for imp except make really, really stoned.”
“I understand...” No, she did not. She wanted to sound sympathetic, though.
“They starting campaign to keep kids off fire pills. Most think good idea. It very bad for imp get hooked on fire. Many stories about that. One kid, he good kid, get good scores on espionage training, he try fire pills... Next day, he wake up and all he can say is ‘Buuuuuuuuurn!’ and start set things on fire. He escape from home, run away and get more fire pills, eventually get match, burn himself. Not pretty.
“Some imp, like my buddy, they find out early and save life. Now buddy don’t burn things anymore. He still working on vocabulary.”
“I am on road to recovery!” boasted the shadow.
“Good for you,” said Isa. She hoped her tone did not sound ingenuous. “May I ask what your names are? I’m Isa.”
“We know,” the voices said in unison.
The imp in the light said, “No imp have name except ‘imp.’ Never understood need for name. You want speak with someone, you point at them and say, ‘Hey you, I want speak with you.’ You want talk about someone when they not there, you don’t say specific who is, because it not polite talk about someone behind back.”
“We think so.”
“Do you really live in that little space between the hearth and the wall? And how long have you been there?”
“We find mouse hole back there. No mouse, though. So we live in mouse hole. Little space between outside siding and inside wall. Plenty for imps.”
“Mouse hole... That reminds me,” said Isa. “My family might be getting a cat in the near future to make sure we don’t get mice. Is that okay with you, or would a cat eat you or something?”
“Aw, you get kitty? Kitties so cute. Get it quick! I wanna pet it and ride it!”
“I wanna burn it!”
“Sorry... Sorry...” If a shadowy space in the corner of a tavern could look remorseful, this one would have then. “It was moment of weakness. I am ashamed.”
Isa heard a horse trotting outside. “I have to see who this is,” she said. “It’s been nice talking with you, though. I hope we get to do this again...” Then she added, to the shadow, “And I wish you a speedy recovery. Bye, now.”
“Bye,” said the imp in the light.
“Burrrrrr—bye... bye...” said the shadow, straining.
“Excellent self control, buddy. You be fine in no time.”