--Chapter Twenty-one: Battle and Attempts at Deception

In Aren country, there was no exact calendar. Days and fortnights and seasons and years passed by in succession, and nobody really questioned specific dates. The concept of a “birthday” was therefore rather abstract. Usually, there was one celebration in every town, and this happened four times a year. On these occasions, the people would recognize those who had been born in each season. For example, in Desdon on the spring equinox, an entire parade was held for the quarter of the citizens who were born in the spring.

In The Windmill Road, the celebrations were much simpler, and they only happened twice a year, since as fortune would have it, all of the village’s residents were born in either spring or autumn. Isa was among the spring birthdays. So regardless of her actual birthday, she officially “turned seventeen years old” on the equinox. The townspeople had a toast in honor of each of the birthdays this season, and once they drank their fill, that was more or less the end of the celebration. Nobody bothered with birthday presents, since gifts suggested formality of some sort, and this was definitely an informal event.

By this time, Asmir’s new house, placed on the far side of the hotel, was almost completely built. He and Dauvit had to travel north a few kilometers to find the nearest carpenter (Dauvit knew him from may years back), and work had been steady throughout the late winter.

As had happened last year, the tavern’s first guest of the new season was a dragon slayer. This, however, was not the ordinary go-it-alone type; this man came with two companions: a prophet and the mage Isa and her father had seen during the winter. When they arrived, Isa was in the kitchen and Jinn was at the bar. Jinn ran back into the kitchen and told Isa that three men had arrived, and they were looking specifically for a waitress whose description fit Isa very well. Isa took the pot she was working with off the stove and came out into the main room immediately. She nodded to the mage, who was the only one of the three she could remember seeing before. The mage smiled back. Isa did not know whether or not that was a good sign.

The dragon slayer introduced himself with all the normal gusto for his type: “I am Chaas, brother of Harkor, son of Tunisthius, son of Pelew, son of Varde. Last year, my brother set out after a dragon while the war still raged. Now that he has not returned, and a dragon has been blamed for eliminating so many of the Desdon army, I seek revenge. I wish to avenge my brother’s death as well as the deaths of all those thousands who perished by the dragon’s flame. And I will not be denied!”

While Chaas ranted, Jinn slipped out a back door in the kitchen and ran to tell the other townspeople what was happening.

“Do you recall my brother?” asked Chaas. “He was a noble young man—never could defeat me at anything, but his heart was in the right place. He may have stopped by here on his way to the mountains last year.”

“I see many people headed south in search of dragons,” she said cautiously. “It’s fairly common, even though none ever come back from a journey.”

“Really?” said Chaas. “That is most intriguing... Also, according to Sosstrikahs here, you’ve seen a dragon up close. Is that correct?”

“Yes,” said Isa. “I saw a dragon. There was a battle here last summer, and that was when he came.”

“And did he, as reports indicate, eliminate the Desdon army?”

“Actually, he eliminated both armies... I thought it was very even-handed of him.”

Chaas’s face barely kept itself from scowling. He said, “You say this almost as if you admire such a destructive creature.”

Isa nodded and said, “He stopped the war from spreading any farther west. In fact, word around here is that he put a stop to the entire war...”

“By murdering my fellow Desdon fighters—soldiers and lieutenants under my command! Well, I may not be able to reverse the outcome of the war now, but at least I will have my revenge!”

“You very well might,” said Isa. “May I ask, then: why did you need to hear from me on this matter?”

“Because I seek your help in locating this elusive dragon. I want to get to him, not scour the countryside until he finds me. If there is one thing that I learned while rising in the ranks to be a major in only one year (a record rate of personal achievement, I might add), it is that the element of surprise is crucial when engaging a foe. My one mistake in the war was to think that the forces of Incria were my only enemy. Clearly a greater power now exists, and if it is not stopped, it may soon wreak havoc on thousands of innocent civilians. When the day has come that the Great Dragon of recorded legend flies out of the mountains to attack humans, we must fight back.

“You must also understand, however, that this means even more to me than merely saving human lives; for me, this is personal. My army lost the war because of this dragon. I have been discredited as a leader and as a major for this simple fact. I must restore my honor.”

Naturally, thought Isa. To you, honor is always more important than human life... That’s why you’re a warrior and a dragon slayer.

“All I know,” said she, “is that he is somewhere in the southern mountains with all the other dragons.”

“‘Other dragons?’” Chaas’s eyes lit up. “You mean there are more of them?”

“Of course,” she answered. “Though I don’t know why you would want to attack the one who came here. Like I said, he was just as cruel to both armies. Yet he left the village intact and did not harm a single innocent civilian. He even promised me personally that he would not kill unless he were attacked first.” Isa knew she was making the dragon slayer angry. She did not care. “I think that’s pretty fair, don’t you?”

“Are you saying you trust a dragon not to attack? Even when he has done so much killing already?”

Isa could see where Chaas’s argument came from, but she did not agree with it. In all, the very end of the war was more than enough to justify the deaths, she now thought. Sure she would have liked it if things ended more peacefully, but now that the war was over, future generations in the East would not have to fight this way. No one would ever know for sure how many lives the dragon saved simply by ending the discord.

There was no telling Chaas this type of logic, though.

“Well, if you want to kill him,” she said, “I cannot blame you for wanting to avenge your brother’s death. However, I’m afraid I cannot give you more advice than to say that he is south of here, in the mountains, and that no human who has gone there has ever come back.”

Chaas turned to his prophet. “What say you to this lady’s claim?”

The prophet eyed her, at first curiously, and then accusingly. “She is not telling the whole truth,” he said. “She knows of a way to contact the dragon and bring him here if need be. Ask her to bring this dragon here for a challenge. If she does not wish to comply, then we must take more drastic measures to get information out of her.

How does he know I have a way to contact Crispo? she thought. Granted, technically I would not be the one to contact him; it would have to be the imps, by way of “secret.” Either way... I wonder what he means by “drastic measures.”

Sosstrikahs stood up just then and held his hands palms-up so as to hold a bowl or something within them. A small blue orb of light formed in the mage’s hands.

“You will contact this dragon at once, and you will tell him to come here. If you do not, Sosstrikahs will have to work some of his magic on you. And I can tell you, I’ve seen him in action before, and what he does is not very pretty...”

Just then, Harro, Roth, Asmir, and Jinn all entered the tavern. Chaas turned his head to look at them briefly, and then he motioned his hand to Sosstrikahs to proceed with whatever he was doing.

Sosstrikahs obeyed. Light flowed out of the orb until it surrounded Isa.

“What are you doing?” Harro demanded.

“Greetings,” said Chaas. “Frighten yourselves not, citizens. We are here on personal business, and so long as this local wench of yours cooperates, there will be nothing to worry about.”

Asmir whispered something to Harro and ran out of the tavern.

“Where is he going?” Chaas asked.

“He is getting reinforcements,” said the prophet.

Reinforcements? thought Isa. What reinforcements? Without the other stable hands here, these are the only men in the town... She would let the prophet think that if he wanted to, though. Right now, anyway, she was much more concerned with the blue glow around her body. She could not tell what it was, but so far as she could tell, it did no harm. She could still move, and whatever she did, it would still surround her. It caused no pain. Beyond the translucent field, she could see Sosstrikahs visibly amused at her attempts to examine the field. She could almost see the taunt in his expression, which dared her to figure out what the trick was here. She knew it had to be a magic trick, after all; real magic just did not exist.

“Let him go, then,” said Chaas. “No one may come near this girl anyway until we are done with her. If anyone moves, we will give her a bit of the old army interrogation treatment.”

A band of white that looked like lightning flashed across the surface of the blue light. Isa felt a tiny shock throughout her, but it was not nearly enough to hurt. It must have surprised her sufficiently that the others in the tavern may have believe she flinched in pain. Again, let them, she thought. But there is no way this is real.

She looked straight into the bright blue orb in Sosstrikahs’s hands, and then she saw it: in the middle of the light, two tiny flapping wings on a miniature body... It was all she could do not to yell the word “fairy” at the top of her lungs. So that was the trick: take a fairy’s light and use extra charge to create the effects of “black magic.” On the one hand, it was so cheap she wanted to slap Sosstrikahs simply for trying it. On the other hand, she wondered exactly how much charge that fairy had in it. If it had enough to hurt her, would it? Or would Sosstrikahs sooner resort to a dagger up the sleeve, as her father had suggested? There was no way to tell.

“Now summon the dragon!” Chaas said. “Whatever method you use... Use it now!”

By this time, Chaas had almost completely lost his sanity. Isa could imagine he was already tasting victory in his mind. Clearly he so anticipated the battle that he was forgetting the consequences of any of his actions.

“Alright,” said Isa calmly. She smiled, which confused both Chaas and the prophet considerably; Sosstrikahs still appeared smug. “I’ll get him. But we do not want battle in this town, so you will have to fight east of here.”

“...On the same battlegrounds where the dragon killed the armies earlier...” Chaas considered this for a minute. “Brilliant! That is the perfect spot to get my revenge. Do it! Now!”

Asmir reentered the room. This time, he had his battle sword with him.

“Stop this at once!” he yelled. “You. The scum from Desdon. How dare you hold a lady prisoner when a man challenges you?”

“Hmph. When I hear a man challenge me, then I’ll see the point of your—oh.” Chaas turned around again and saw Asmir’s sword. “Very well then,” said the Desdon major. “We shall take this outside.”

Everyone except Sosstrikahs and Isa left the tavern. Harro, Dauvit, and Roth stepped to the far side of the road, while Chaas’s prophet stayed by the tavern. In the middle, Asmir raised his sword and beckoned Chaas to strike. Within seconds, their weapons clashed.

This fight went on for a long time, primarily because both combatants had particularly good defensive skills and endurance. Chaas possessed chain mail, which Asmir did not wear. This worked somewhat in the former’s favor, because he could attack for the most part with more impunity than could Asmir. For his part, though, Asmir could move more quickly on his feet.

Three minutes in, their swords locked. Then Chaas started with the taunts.

“So how did you get that pretty wound? Forget to guard your face?”

“I was on the front lines,” Asmir answered, clenching his teeth. “And I fought in the middle of a fray. Bad things happen in frays.”

Asmir pushed Chaas’s sword off and struck the chain mail at Chaas’s midsection. Chaas fell back but got up again immediately.

“You win the first round,” said Chaas. “But if I do that same thing to you, you’ll die.”

“Guess I’ll just have to make sure that doesn’t happen.”

This time, Asmir attacked first. Chaas moved to one side, but not quickly. Asmir adjusted in time, and blade met blade again. It immediately became apparent that Chaas had not been using all of his skill up to this point. For the next two minutes—which, in the heat of the fight, seemed like hours—Asmir only defended, and somewhat desperately, at that. The two were evenly matched for physical strength and stature, and neither showed any signs of wearing down, though their blows became increasingly wild.

Chaas got his first hit in on Asmir’s left arm. It was only a scratch, but it stung badly. Chaas backed off for a moment and sized Asmir up before attacking again: the man seemed to have a weakness in going across the face to the body. If this could only be exploited once for a more solid blow...

Chaas charged. Asmir, sweat pouring down his face, set himself up to make a final stand. Chaas tried to make two strikes when he reached Asmir: one fake blow to the face, and one fatal blow to the other side of his body. Asmir, however, only swung his sword once: a last attempt, a manic, sweeping blow aimed in the general direction of Chaas’s face...

Inside the tavern, Isa tried to drown out the sounds of the fight. She sat on the bar and took long but silent breaths. She tried also not to show any fear in her expression. Sosstrikahs had given up on the fairy for now and was letting the creature rest to regain its strength in one of the inner pockets of the mage’s long overcoat. The mage, meanwhile, kept his smirk and leaned an elbow against the table where he now sat.

“Neat trick,” said Isa. “Does the fairy work for you, or do you hold it prisoner?”

“He works for me.”

“Ah.” She sighed. “And yet you call it magic?”

“Oh, anything can be magic if you look at it a certain way. I take it you’re not one to believe in the power of this art?”

“I’m not.”

“That’s a shame, it really is... You know, you would make such a fine mage... Maybe a healing type.”

“Sorry, I could never see myself being that much of a fraud.”

“Ouch. Angry, are we? It’s not nearly as fake as you think it is, I assure you.”

“What do you mean by that?”

“Well, I surround you in a blue glow, and you say it’s not magic; it’s just a ‘trick.’ And you’re right, to a point. But you forget that I really did have you surrounded in a very real electric glow. Does it matter whether magic or a fairy is to blame?”

He stood up and held his right arm out to his side so as to point his hand in the direction of the fireplace. Then he opened his hand, and a flame shot out of it and lighted the wood in the fireplace.

“See that?” he said. “Care to guess how I did it?”

Isa stared at the flames for a few seconds and tried to convince herself that her eyes were playing tricks—but they were not. “Do fairies contain fire?” she asked. “Or do you have a dragon up your sleeve?”

Sosstrikahs laughed. “You’re close,” he said. Then he reached with his left hand into his overcoat and pulled out a small metal tank with what looked to be a hose made out of rubber—a rare material, but not unheard of. “This is an invention I obtained while in the South. The dragons have quite the civilization there, you know. Yes, I’ve been down the ‘Road of No Return,’ and lo and behold, I’ve come back alive and unharmed. No self-righteous dragon would ever be caught hurting an unarmed man, and so far as I would let them know, I always went into the South unarmed. But I digress. The dragons have a substance they call propane, and when it is shot out of a nozzle like this one here and then exposed to a flame, it can shoot that flame anywhere you aim it, over a certain range.

“So you see, it really is not magic; it’s only technology. But look at the fire over there. Is that not a very real fire? And if I were to use that against an enemy, would it not really set that person or beast on fire? Isn’t there a grim reality that this ‘magic’ does indeed work... albeit not by magic at all?”

“I see your point,” said Isa.

“The reason we mages tend to be so secretive about our methods is so to protect our line of work. Could you imagine if everyone in the East knew how to perform these acts? Think of what the war would have been like!

“Besides,” he said, “I currently get paid an annual salary of thirty alligons for my work, plus a full alligon for every successful kill that I’m assigned to do. And it doesn’t matter how I do them... although, I have to admit, flashier jobs tend to build my employer’s confidence in me, so I usually have fun with it and put on a show whenever he’s there to watch.”

He grinned as a predator would after having eaten a defenseless baby animal. So that’s how you see me, Isa thought. I’m prey. I’m just another alligon waiting to happen... I always wondered what the price of life was to people like you. Now I know.

“Why are you telling me all this?” she asked. “If you’re so secretive about it, why share your secrets?”

“Good question,” said Sosstrikahs, his smile constant and by now more than just a little annoying to Isa. “Like I said, you’d make a good mage. And as I’ve always been a betting man, I’d bet anything that you get sick of staying in this tavern all the time. Sure you have your family here, but haven’t you deep down always wondered what the rest of the world was like?”

Isa wanted to respond to this, but she was too angry to find the right words.

“From the way that one man is fighting to defend you, I would guess he’s your significant other... for now. But what happens when he ends up outmatched by one of the best swordsmen in the entire Aren Country? What happens when he dies in what could only be a matter of minutes now? Then your entire life will change! Will you still have every reason to stay here, or will you want to see the rest of the country and all that life as a mage has to offer?”

As civilly as she could manage it, she asked, “Would I have a choice?”

Sosstrikahs looked at his fire and said, “Not really. If Chaas is still in a mood to see this dragon, not much of anything will stop him from commanding me to interrogate and torture you, even to the point of death. And I’ll be the richer for it, too. But it does not have to be that way... I can let you live if you agree to come with us as a mage in training.”

“And what happens if Chaas gets killed right now?”

“Then I guess I’d have to search for a new employer, now, wouldn’t I? Ah, but Chaas will not lose. It is true that one prophet once told him he would be an utter failure, but this curse broke when he faced the Incria army at the Fethel Plains and singlehandedly changed the tide of the battle to win. Now the prophets have agreed with each other that a man who has this type over power to overcome fate surely can never be defeated. That is now the prophecy.”

Isa smiled. If she had any doubt Asmir would win the fight before now, she laid it to one side and said, “You don’t seriously believe in prophecies, do you? You’re smart enough to know that magic is not real... So why would fate be so much better?”

“How else do you explain the world?” he asked as he sat back down. “There has to be a higher power manipulating everything.”

“Higher power, maybe. But fate? Fate’s just an excuse for not paying attention to the real cause of things.”

Sosstrikahs breathed hard and said, “Ten prophets all agreed that Chaas cannot be defeated in battle. How can that many all be wrong?”

At that moment, Harro ran into the tavern and said, “Isa! Asmir won! Chaas is dead! Quick! Get some water and bandages and—hey, what happened to the blue thing around you?”

Isa gave Sosstrikahs a taste of his own smirk and said, “Nevermind that, Dad. I’ll get the water and some cloth for bandages. Meanwhile, I think our mage friend was just about to leave for another part of the world, where he will seek adventure while contemplating thoroughly the meaning of life and what determines the way things are. He was also planning, I think, to thank me for agreeing to keep his secrets safe so long as he gets out of here now and never comes back.”

Sosstrikahs was not one to be threatened without having a chance to give a threat of his own. “I was,” he said as he stood again. “But I also wanted to thank our lovely waitress here for keeping in mind what trouble can—ahem—ignite from breaking one’s promises.”

He looked back at the fireplace once, then stormed past Harro and left the building.

Once they had placed Chaas’s body on his horse and tied it there so the horse could be led out of town, Sosstrikahs and the prophet peacefully left on their own horses and went east. The prophet held the reigns for Chaas’s horse as they walked slowly along the Windmill Road.

When they were a long ways off, out of both sight and hearing range of the village, Sosstrikahs broke the silence and said, “As soon as we find a place to bury this man or a river to dump him in, we part ways and never speak of this again.”

“Indeed,” said the prophet. “I foresee that this will be a new beginning for us, and—”

Sosstrikahs surrounded the prophet in a blue field and gave him a few electric shocks just for fun. “Don’t talk to me about prophecies right now,” he said.

The prophet sighed. “Look, I don’t question your line of work, mage. Don’t you question mine.”

“Or what?” said Sosstrikahs. “If I question your line of work, the worst you can do is get angry and tell me I’ll meet some horrible end you just made up. But if you question my line of work, I’ll kill you.”

A brief pause passed between them.

“So do yourself a huge favor and shut up.”

“Fair enough,” said the prophet.