March 23, 1999
Chapter One: The flight of the overweight lizard.
I hated flying.
Actually, hated is a poor word to describe my feelings for flying. More accurately, it would be 'loathed with every fiber of my being'. I had my eyes tightly shut, and was hanging onto the saddle for dear life.
*What, you're afraid of a little bit of altitude, human?*
That would be the dragon I was currently riding. Smug bastard. It can't speak using its mouth; from what I understand, dragons don't have vocal cords. That means that they speak using their minds. And _that_ means that I now had a lizard idly thumbing through my thoughts.
*Get out of my head, you overstuffed lizard.*
Dragons were one reason that I hated flying: they were smug and arrogant, to a man…err…lizard. The other reason was height. Dragons usually flew at altitudes greater than 20,000 feet; however, humans don't breathe well at that kind of height. So passenger-carrying dragons rarely strayed above 10,000. However, ten thousand feet was still ten thousand feet, and when all you have between you and death-by-having-your-internal-organs-strewn-over-a-large-area-of-land is a bit of lizard, you tend to be a bit fearful for your life. Not to mention the fact that the winds at this height were threatening to knock me off the dragon, making me hold the light leather saddle I was sitting on with a death grip.
*Lizard? I'll have you know that I have less in common with a lizard than you do with an ape!*
My destination was about a hundred miles to the south: the city built by the Order of the Eternal Champions, Aeternitas. The dragon would get there pretty soon, but the sooner, the better. I _really_ dislike dragons. _Really_.
*Ook, ook. Shut up and fly. I am not paying you to insult my ancestry.*
The dragon seemed to mutter something under its breath (impossible, of course. Not only could it not mutter, but its "breath" could melt obsidian. One of the reasons dragons can't talk, probably.) and accelerated. Within the hour, we were landing in a spot near to the city.
Had I mentioned that dragons cannot land within populated areas while carrying passengers? They can land there with ease when they are replying to a summon, but stick a guy on their back and they make you slog a mile to the nearest inhabited area. Ask them about it and you'll get some vague nonsense about "Will of the gods" and all of that. It's not true, of course: dragons care even less about gods than most humans, and their equivalent of a prayer sounds more like a man asking for a return on his taxes. Dragons love gold, you see. They do anything for it. People think that dragons are fearful beasts of magic and mystery. They are not, as anyone who worked with them could attest. Dragons are all accountants at heart.
I got off the dragon and looked around. Yup. Just as I thought. A mile to walk before I could reach Aeternitas. I shot the dragon an acid look and got walking. A mental chuckle resounded in my head as I felt a gust of wind from behind me, and the air became filled with the sound of wingbeats. I looked on as the dragon took to the sky, circled my position two times, chuckled again into my head for good measure, and flew off to wherever it is dragons go to when they're not doing anything.
You can keep them.
Chapter Two: Dealings with Merchants.
Passing through the gate of Aeternitas, I was treated to the sight of two guardsmen stopping all travelers and searching them. They also were keeping anything they found for themselves, apparently. Now, there are corrupt guards everywhere, but here it is a bit unusual. The Sultan of Aeternitas has been known to get really _intense_ about corruption in the ranks, and several examples of this were hanging from the walls. He didn't want to get on the bad side of the Order, probably. Thing is, even though the Sultan rules Aeternitas, it is well known that the Order paid to build the whole thing, from scratch, and then installed the Sultan (then a minor sheik from the Great Desert) into his current position of power. The Order didn't like corruption either. Coincidence? Methinks not.
I quickly chanted my spell of invisibility (never leave home without it) and walked past the two guards, who were busy rifling the pockets of a long-suffering traveler. Walking along the main thoroughfare, I soon came to my destination: the Great Bazaar. While not the _biggest_ bazaar in the world (that honor belongs to the city of the Merchants Guild. Yep, that's right. Nearly every single square foot of the place is covered by merchants whose only goal in life is separating you from your money.) it was certainly one of the most impressive. In its center was the portal stone, which linked this city with all the other cities that were built by the various Orders, Clans, and Guilds throughout the world. I would've loved to have gotten here via the portal. Unfortunately, I arrived in this city from a trading post in Tar Valon, which had none. Which was why I had to freeze my rear end off at ten thousand feet, all the while being annoyed by a wiseguy dragon.
Heading towards the portal, I looked around for the particular merchant's stall that I wanted. It was not hard to find, even in the chaos of the bazaar - it had a 10-foot tall wooden cutout of the Sultan's favorite concubine mounted on top of it. The Sultan, surprisingly, didn’t mind: my suspicion was that he owed the merchant enough money to bankrupt himself and the city treasury, so he was keeping quiet so the merchant wouldn't remember to call in the debt. I grinned and walked swiftly towards it.
The merchant's name was Abdul. Yes, the city is as far away from the desert as it could possibly be. Yes, Abdul is a desert name. Why is Abdul living in Aeternitas? Well, there's a story associated with that.
You see, when the city was built, the Order had everything here except for one important aspect: people. Since the Order needed citizens for its city, it looked around the world for some people to transplant here. When it was searching the Great Desert, it found a tribe of nomads who were renowned across the desert for their trading skills (Unlike most of the other tribes, whose main pastime was chopping travelers to bits - and then eating them.). Going to their sheik (Yep, the now-Sultan.), it made a deal: the Order would move the tribe to the city, give them housing and water for free, as well as a location at the intersection of several major trade routes, and in return, the tribe would pay the Order a yearly tax. The then-sheik agreed, and the Order had the entire tribe moved here. They quickly started doing what they did best, wheeling and dealing, and the money flowed into the Order's coffers. The tribe was happy, the Order was happy, the Sultan was happy - the only people who _weren't_ happy were the people that the merchants divested of their valuables.
The particular merchant I was going to see sold gems. I needed a few to enchant with a light spell - it nearly doubles their price, and I can make a tidy profit selling them someplace far away from here. Good thing Abdul doesn't know about this - if he finds out that I'm making such profit from his merchandise, he'll never sell any to me again.
Walking to Abdul's stall, I quickly noticed a certain curious thing. First of all, there was a severe lack of Abdul in the stall. Secondly, the gems were simply piled on the countertop. Thirdly, all the passers-by were giving the stall a wide berth. I looked closer, and noticed that lying unconscious next to the stall was a black-clad man, with a small Thieves' Guild tattoo on his cheek. Apparently, Abdul was testing a new security device.
I cautiously approached the counter, keeping myself well clear of any possible traps. I thought briefly about grabbing the gems, but Abdul is not stupid. Either he was hiding in the stall, in which case if I tried to grab the gems, I would likely lose a hand, or he was somewhere nearby, and the trap was magical, in which case I would be lucky to come back at all. Thankfully, I knew a bit of magic of my own, and quickly incanted _faerie fog_.
Purple fog billowed from my fingertips, covering everything within ten feet of me. While normal objects were obscured, ones that were hidden (or invisible!) became easy to see. Looking at the stall, I noticed several shimmering lines of force connecting the gems, the corners of the booth, the unlucky would-be thief (who seemed to be under a sleep spell), and Abdul, who seemed to be hiding in the shadows of the stall.
He looked at me, scowled, and began jabbering in some language which I didn't even try to decipher. Now, I know for a fact that Abdul knows at least six languages fluently, and can get along in another ten - a good skill for a merchant. However, when he gets incensed, he speaks in his first language - a weird dialect used in the desert near Thalos.
Knowing that Abdul would likely be going off in this vein for several minutes (right now, it seemed from his tone of voice that he was insulting my ancestry, my social habits, or my view of the gods - or all of the above.), I decided to make myself scarce. I pointed at the gems, threw a purse of gold coin on the counter (pre-counted, of course. Abdul can be a nice guy at times, but give him room to maneuver, and he'd sell you the time of day.) pointed at the gems, grabbed them, quickly bowed, and hurried to the portal.
I ran for the portal, the sun at my back, the wind in my face, and Abdul screaming imprecations behind me. He wouldn't mind me coming back later, as long as I had money, but if I turned to him now, he'd likely try to gouge my eyes out. That magical security net probably cost him a lot to install - and my spell disrupted it. No wonder he was angry.
Seeing the portal in front of me, I quickly formed my destination in mind - Medievia City - and jumped. For a moment, I feared the portal would remain closed, and I would smash into the stone. However, at the last instant, a…hole in space, for lack of a better term, yawned open in front of me. I brought my head down and dived through.
I found myself in a maze of multi-colored fog. I couldn't speak, I couldn't move, I couldn't breathe…yet, I didn't feel anything wrong. I knew that no danger could come to me here on the astral plane, so I relaxed (as much as I could) and enjoyed the ride.
Some few minutes later (time being nearly impossible to tell on the astral plane), reality seemed to shift around me and I found myself falling out into a dark city street. Despite all of my years of experience and training, I did a face-plant into the mud on the cobbles. At least…I hoped that was mud.
Getting up and brushing the…mud…off myself, I surveyed my surroundings. Directly in back of me was a pitch-black obelisk - the Medievia City Portal. To the right was a large square, with a set of steps leading up into the clouds, where a castle seemed to float in midair. In front of me, a garish sign reading "The New Adventurers Guild!" illuminated the night in spurts of poorly cast magical light. To the right, the street stretched off into the distance, where I could barely see a tall granite wall, part of the city fortifications. I generally suspected that the walls were put there for show only - not even Vecna, at his most powerful, dared to go anywhere near the city of Medievia, home to the gods of the world. The portal to the God Hall shimmered in the moonlight to my right…while totally accessible to everyone, it took someone with serious guts to walk through to the other side, where the gods dwelled. I swelled with a certain civic pride - where else could you say to people that a couple dozen gods lived a few city blocks away from you?
I walked along Main Street for a while, until I hit Guild Row. Most of the official Guilds have their main offices here - the unofficial ones, those that are not recognized by the gods, such as the Assassins, meet in the sewers beneath the city. Walking into the Mages Guild, I spied my worktable - a large, expensive, and most of all massive slab of ironwood and adamantite, the privacy well sheathed with lead. Certain other mages who had enough money might have gotten expensive tables made of glowwood or crystal, but I knew better. My fellow mages (or at least the apprentices) knew one thing more than any other in the world - how to blow things up. They did so constantly. For example, the practice room of the Guild was one of the most well-shielded chambers in the world, surpassed only by the Great Conjury in Tar Valon. This was necessary - considering that at least fifty mages practiced their spells in the room during the day, and many could cast the spell of _shockwave_, the room had to be able to withstand the blasts. The same could be said of the working hall - mages seemed not to get along very well with each other, and instead of scuffling, we used spells. That's what the table was for - not to be used as a workspace (although it accomplished that very nicely), but as shielding for the many impromptu magical duels that break out among the staff here.
Ducking an errant fireball - another duel was breaking out - I jogged over to my worktable. Placing the gems on it, I sat down and began incanting _continual light_ spells, and binding them to the gems. How I did it is my own little secret - it took me a great deal of time to figure it out - but suffice it to say, it paid my bills. I managed to enchant seven gems before a serious duel began in earnest.
This was bad. The Master of Thaumaturgy (specializing in _shockwaves_) and the Master of Conjuration (specializing in elementals) were going all out, each seemingly trying to turn his opponent into a greasy smear on the floor. The two Masters never disguised their hatred of each other - apparently, one of them didn't pay for the other's drink twenty years ago, and it escalated from there.
Seeing the Earth Elemental that the Master of Conjuration summoned rip apart an apprentice that was in the way, who was simultaneously being burst into pieces by _shockwaves_ that the Master of Thaumaturgy was casting (thinking that the apprentice was an ally of his opponent), I decided that discretion was the better part of valor. I grabbed the gems, and ducked down into the privacy well of my worktable. Pressing a hidden switch, I grinned as a massive lead panel ground itself into position, blocking all access to me. I liked my worktable - the it was the safest part of the building!
The duel took approximately two hours, in which time I managed to enchant all of the gems I had with me (the privacy well of the worktable had ample room for the gestures required for the spells). When the explosions and the rumbling quieted down, I pressed the hidden switch again, and the protective panel slid back into the worktable, exposing my exit.
Climbing out from under the table, I noticed the utter destruction that was visited on the working hall. Desks were overturned, journeymen and apprentices were huddling near the walls, the few masters (not to be confused with Masters. Regular masters are simply those mages who completed their training and also did some original research into the field of magic. The other Masters (of Thaumaturgy, Conjuration, Protection, etc) were the heads of the teaching departments in the Guild, overseeing the instruction of the students in their respective areas of study.) warily lowering their protective shields. I grinned from ear to ear. While I was indeed a master-level mage (twenty years behind the staff, thankyouverymuch), I did not bother with the massive amounts of protective spells other mages used. Even though they considered me unhinged because of it, I thought that the best way to win is not get into combat at all - ergo, my worktable, which could probably withstand the end of the world.
Putting the gems in my pocket, I left the building, whistling idly as I went. I wondered where to sell the gems - perhaps in Trellor? Or maybe in the Village of Gdangus - it must be _years_ since the last gem merchant passed by there.
Deciding on Gdangus, I quickly thought about how to get there. The overland route was immediately discarded - that would take me _months_ and I had absolutely no wish to meet up with some of the nasties that lived near Gdangus. The sea route was likewise dismissed - the few ships that could be built to withstand the raging open ocean were nearly all pirate ships, which capitalized on their mobility to raid settlements on the shore. There was no Portal in Gdangus - it was too small to have one, and no Order or Clan built it, so none was put in. That left one way - the air route.
Wincing inwardly at the expense, I concentrated and sent my thoughts up into the air, seeking something that was receptive to my offer of gold. After a minute or so, the air rippled as a dragon alighted on massive wings in the middle of the street. I quickly jumped on its back, and the creature took off, circling the city.
*So…where're you going, ape?*
Oh no. Not _him_ again.
Not the lizard.
There is not justice in the world.