A strange tugging sensation alerted Korvalas, Prince of Demons, that something was not as it should be. This sensation quickly became stronger, more persistent, until he was being ripped from his world into another.
Had he not been bored, he would have been angry. Instead he was amused.
Korvalas was impressed that a being powerful enough to summon him against his will existed. Caution seemed prudent, so he remained calm and reserved as his new surroundings gained clarity and substance.
It was not a comfortable place for Korvalas, but he was excited. Bright white light reflected glaringly off of fluted white columns. The air was quite chilly compared to where he had been seconds ago, but not unbearably so. And he was surrounded by puny beings, one of which was attempting to magically restrain him.
Focusing on the creature, a squishy thing not even to his knee, Korvalas scoured its thoughts. Something gold sat on the man's head, which was meant to represent that he was the Emperor. Sounds coming from this Emperor and its people soon became understood as speech to Korvalas, and he paused to listen.
“Yes! Korvalas! You will defeat the demon my challenger summons. There.” The Emperor pointed behind Korvalas.
“You fool!” shouted another of the creatures. “You can't hope to contain such a powerful demon!”
“Shall I have him eat you afterwards?”
Korvalas grimaced. He doubted their meat would satisfy him, though he admitted it would do in an emergency. He had just eaten. Sensing another demon, he turned to look down on his adversary. It was pathetically weak in comparison to himself, but clearly a challenge for many of those here. It was already grovelling, raising the ire of the Challenger.
Leaning, he reached down and plucked the unfortunate demon from the ground. The pitiful creature was easily dismembered by Korvalas, and within seconds he turned back to face the Emperor. The arrogant man was gloating, obviously pleased with himself.
Taking a deep breath, Korvalas caught a scent that promised a lifetime of pleasures: life and magic. It was so strong he found it intoxicating, and he could no longer contain his laughter.
“Very well done, Korvalas. I hope this is the beginning of a long partnership.”
Korvalas' booming laughter echoed throughout the buildings at the Emperor's words.
“You are to return to wherever it is you came from now.”
Snapping his arm down, Korvalas found the little man impaled on his forefinger. Lifting the dying creature to his mouth, he finally spoke. “I came to your summons out of amusement; you have no real power over me.” He watched as the shocked look faded to horror and then went slack. Only then did he flick his wrist to dislodge the corpse.
One by one the other creatures within sight disappeared in the blink of an eye.
Korvalas frowned. That would make his fun more difficult.
A challenge he was more than willing to undertake.
He was still chuckling when hundreds of creatures appeared around him. Standing straight and stretching his arms wide, Korvalas arched his back and howled into the sky before wading into the slaughter.
To his surprise, these men were encased in metal. They carried little blades that threatened to cause discomfort should they find a soft spot. Korvalas was so distracted dealing with those within reach he didn't immediately recognize the chanting for what it was.
Divine power slammed into him, knocking him to his knees.
They were trying to banish him! Clinging to this plane, Korvalas lashed out with magic of his own, washing all he could see in fire.
Korvalas could just leave, but he had only just arrived. He hadn't had his fun yet. Closing his eyes, he unfurled his senses, seeking the weak points in the fabric of the universe caused by the habit these creatures had of ripping through it to travel from place to place. He tried to smirk, but the pain from the spell being cast on him was making it difficult.
His skin was bubbling, breaking open in sores. Ichor leaked out, and instead of merely forming a crusty scab, it was turning to stone. Soon he would be unable to move. Korvalas hurried. He had endured far worse on his rise to power, and he would make these fools pay.
Within moments, all he was aware of was his spell. Even the pain retreated as he poured his being into that curse.
Heron opened her eyes. “Grandmother, I had that dream again.” There was no answer. Rolling out of her bedding, Heron poked her head out of the nest she had built herself in a corner of her grandmother's tent. She was alone.
Crawling out and standing up, stretching, Heron pulled back the flap to go find her grandmother.
The instant the sunlight hit her face, she had a vision of a young man of mixed race like herself. He was tall and his coppery skin was lightly scaled. Blinding white light radiated from him, and Heron was fairly certain she knew why she was seeing him.
She just hoped she could convince her grandmother. Looking around the encampment, she strode off in the most likely direction.
“Micjimble! Wake up!”
The voice hit Micjimble like a sharp crack. Professor Kross sounded only inches away, and the hot and disgusting breath hitting Mick's face seemed to corroborate that as fact. Carefully opening his right eye, Mick visually confirmed the proximity of his irate professor. There hung the hideous face, with its upturned and flattened nose nearly touching his own. The professor's eyes bulged to the point Mick half-expected them to pop out, and a vein on the man's forehead pulsated with each beat of his heart.
Mick leaned back, away from the gaping mouth with its protruding tusks and the spit flying from lax lips with each heaving breath. “I wasn't sleeping, Professor. I had to check on my room as my wards detected an intruder. I insist you continue your instruction in overly elaborate defensive spells that are of no practical use to travellers.”
Okay, so that may not have been a very smart thing to say. Professor Kross was now vibrating, with his right eye twitching. “No use? I suppose you think you can already defend yourself more effectively than I could possibly teach you?”
“I am quite competent in the use of the techniques from Manchion's Treatise of Defence. Once cast, they are at least as effective, and when you take into consideration the relative lack of preparation required in comparison to the methods you are teaching, what I am capable of could easily considered far more effective.”
“Your techniques are appropriate for enchanting a fortified position, or, maybe, warding a campsite. For a Journeyman being ambushed on the move, however, it would be disastrous to rely on them.”
“Would you care to demonstrate?”
“Demonstrate what? How it works or that it is superior to what you are teaching?”
“Whether or not it is superior would be the purpose of the proposed demonstration, Apprentice.” Kross growled the last word. If it were not for the fact that Mick was confident in the effectiveness of his defences, he would have feared for his safety. The intense deranged look in the eyes of his professor still made Mick wince, however. Maybe he was a little anxious. Just a little, though.
Mick didn't dare to take his eyes off of the professor's face to survey the rest of the lecture hall. “Let me know when and where, Professor.”
“Sunrise in the Arena.” Mick blinked at the rapid response.
“Have you already consulted the schedule? Is the arena available at such short notice? Wouldn't you like more witnesses than will attend an event so early in the day?”
Kross twitched noticeably, opened his mouth, and paused. “You ... have a point. Give me a moment.”
It amused Mick to watch the professor force himself to calm enough to use the communication stone at his desk. He glanced from side to side as he waited; all his classmates looked terrified and were pointedly not looking at him.
A cough from above Mick's shoulder turned to see who it was.
Mick nodded at the man, whose robes identified him as one of the officials in charge of housing.
“During an unscheduled inspection of your residence, it was discovered that you are severely behind on housekeeping duties. You are to return to your rooms immediately after this class to remedy the situation.” The officer looked around the lecture hall, face lighting up when his eyes fell on someone he recognized. “Apprentice Kria! You will accompany him and ensure his efforts are satisfactory.”
Mick didn't know who this Kria was, so he followed the officer's gaze, but not quickly enough to pinpoint where the “yes, sir, of course, sir,” came from.
The bell signalling the end of class rang, and Professor Kross shouted “Noon tomorrow in the Arena! I had best see all of you in the stands for the presentation!”
Mick was already up and climbing the stairs out of the lecture hall. Expecting someone to try something, Mick summoned an invisible shield around himself.
A small ball of flame was lobbed at him, but when it struck his shield – only inches behind him – it fizzled out. Mick smirked at the “hmph” he heard above the clatter of students collecting their things, and looked out of the corner of his eye to find a girl hurrying to cut him off. Mick made an educated guess that this was Apprentice Kria, so he carefully studied her, slowing his stride without thinking.
Tall, though not as tall as himself, with long black hair and greenish skin. As she approached, Mick could see acne covering her face and that she kept her lips pressed tightly together as if to hide her teeth. Before he made contact with doe-brown eyes, he looked forward once more and resumed his usual pace.
Mick didn't dare look back at Professor Kross. He knew he had pushed his luck today.
Outside the building, Mick could hear Kria running to catch up to him. He maintained his long strides, trying not to laugh at the string of flame-balls that splattered his shield as a result of her frustration.
“Are you insane?” burst out of her when she caught up, breathing not affected by her momentary exertion. Mick's step faltered, but only the one. He had never considered the possibility before, so he was caught off-guard by the question. “Professor Kross is not a tolerant man, and has a reputation for a short temper.”
“A well earned reputation, it would seem.”
“So why provoke him?”
“It was more interesting than his class,” Mick said, then decided to show some honesty. “Not that I set out to provoke him.”
“Why are you even taking his class, anyway? Here you are, walking away from me and not even looking, but none of my flame-balls can touch you.”
“Probably the same reason you are: it's required if you want to make Journeyman.”
“Oh. Well, yes, but ... I actually need to learn to defend myself.”
“As if that's what Kross is actually teaching.” Mick was surprised she didn't respond for the rest of the walk through the crowded stone buildings to his residence. Not that it was far.
“You're in Heart? I never would have guessed.”
“I hope that wasn't sarcasm. I don't really fit with the rest of the house.”
Mick managed to lead her through the ornate double doors of the large stone residence into the foyer and up two flights of the grand staircase before she gave up waiting for him to ask the standard question.
“I'm in Talon, if you were curious.”
“So that's why you're wearing that pendant” escaped Mick's lips before he even had time to think. Honestly, it had seemed obvious to him. He winced out of habit, as such responses usually got him in trouble. He could hear Kria sputtering behind him, making him laugh silently.
When Mick reached his floor – fifth, with only the sixth floor above him – he paused to make sure Kria was still behind him. He found himself hoping nobody noticed, as his housemates were prone to gossip and spreading rumours based on speculation. His room was halfway down the hall, and he resumed his quick stride to reach it as quickly as possible.
His door was a battered old wooden one, solid and having seen many years of abuse. The lock, on the other hand, was quite a bit newer. Sliding his key in, Mick felt the mechanism click and he pushed open the door as Kria caught up.
With a hand to the small of her back, Mick ushered her into his rooms just as he caught sight of the Headmage opening the door from the staircase. Stepping in behind her, Mick shut the door and hurried past the worn old padded wing-back arm chair and the desk piled high with forgotten works. Kria, he noticed, was gaping in something between awe and disgust at the clutter spilling from his three book-cases over his floors.
Turning to the rather plain looking door to his right, Mick turned the knob and was about to activate a spell when he paused. “Hold on to something, Kria.” He pulled the door wide, unleashing the spell.
It was as if he was in front of the mouth of some great beast taking a deep breath, as things flew through the air to disappear into the closet. After several seconds, the door slammed shut. Mick winced and hoped it wasn't audible in the hallway.
There was a knock at his door.
“Micjimble? I must have a word with you.”
Definitely the Headmage. “Come in.”
Opening the door, the Headmage strode in, casually glancing around. “I thought I saw a young woman with you.”
Mick looked around, not having noticed Kria was missing.
“I must say, this spotless room is rather suspicious.”
Mick tried not to let his leg shake or otherwise give away his nervousness.
The Headmage looked in the smaller bedchamber, got down on his hands and knees to look under the bed, then stood and looked around, face scrunched in thought. He knocked on the bathroom door. There was, of course, no answer. Opening it, the Headmage found the room unoccupied.
“So why are you standing at your closet door? Is that where she's hiding? This is a coed dormitory, and you are an adult. No need to hide.” The Headmage nudged Mick aside and grasped the knob.
“Headmage, maybe I should –”
He was too late. The Headmage had already opened the door.
Mick took a deep breath, knowing what was about to happen. As the closet spewed its contents over the room in a violent eruption, Mick found himself slammed into the corner and buried to his shoulders. He hadn't expected that. There must have been more in there than he remembered.
“I suspect you've done something with that,” the Headmage said with a chuckle.
Mick couldn't see him.
“What the hell were you thinking?” A dusty Kria rose from the debris pile, trying to brush the worst of it off. She was yelling.
Mick experienced a disorienting juxtaposition as he looked up at his shorter classmate, taking several seconds to deduce the reason the pile came to his shoulders was that he was, in fact, sitting down. He struggled to his feet as well.
“I was thinking I would save us both some time. Why didn't you hold on?”
“To what? I grabbed this stupid stool!”
“Oh ... that's new. I must not have marked it yet. Sorry?” He hadn't meant the apology to sound more like a question, but even he heard the query in his voice.
“I trust you'll clean this place properly this time, Nephew? After all, it really isn’t' much we ask of you Apprentices.” The Headmage – Mick's uncle Rusty – held out a hand, eyes closed, and muttered something. Mick figured out what his uncle was doing too late, and despite knowing it was wrong voiced his objection.
“Uncle Rusty, please don't!”
“I'm afraid I have to, Micjimble.” The pile of junk parted before the Headmage as he strode to the door, laughing. When the door closed behind him with a thud, the part in the pile of debris collapsed ominously.
“Damn. That could have gone a lot better.”
“Better? You buried the Headmage in garbage and he left laughing!”
“Oh, well, we have a bit of history. He is my uncle, after all. Actually, he has been more of a father to me for most of my life.” Uncomfortable, Mick struggled over to his bookshelf and pulled off a heavy leather-bound volume. “Here, Manchion's Treatise of Defence. If you really want to learn to defend yourself, there is nothing better out there. It doesn't look too much a mess in my bed chamber; I recommend opening the window.” Handing the book to Kria, Mick held out his hand to assist Kria in reaching his bed, but she snorted and ignored him. “Oh I should probably clean the bedding while I'm at it. If you remove it for me, I'll get to it after I'm done with this.”
“That's all the help you're asking of me? Strip your bed and open a window?”
“My uncle has a point. It really isn't hard to keep such a small space clean.”
“Good, because I wasn't even planning to do that much for you, but as this place is an utter disaster now and you're finally being sensible, I'll do it.”
Shaking his head, Mick stretched. “Well, first things first, I guess.” Taking a deep breath, Mick started chanting and motioning with his hands, whole arms swinging. First the windows blew open, and then a breeze stirred up the dust. Under his control, the breezed didn't touch Kria where she sat cross-legged on his bed with the tome he had lent her, even though it grew in intensity until even heavy metal objects had lifted off the floor and were swirling around his room.
A steady stream of dirt, dust, and debris went flying out the window. Old potion ingredients, charred bits of ... something, the smelly remains of what he assumed had once been intended as a snack. Tattered rags he was still tempted to keep, several shattered stools, and unimpressive chunks of stone. Mick belatedly hoped no one was in the alley below.
The rest took significantly longer, sorting through things that at least appeared to actually be useful still. Instead of trying to properly identify his possessions and make final decisions while expending this much energy, he instead arranged them into piles for later examination.
Finished, Mick took a few wobbly steps to his arm chair and collapsed. He rummaged through the cushions for the bag of sweets he picked up earlier, hoping it was still stashed where he remembered. It was.
Kria's head poked around the corner. “Taking a break already?”
Mick ignored her, popping sugary creations into his mouth, hoping for a rush of energy. It wasn't as immediate as he would like, but a few minutes later he felt strong enough to stand again. Looking around, he noticed Kria had retreated to his bed to continue reading.
Picking the pile of things least expected in a young mage's study, Mick dug in. He wished he had a dummy form to hang the gambeson and helmet on. Trying on the other bits of armour that had somehow wound up in his possession, he found none of them fit or were no longer in any condition to be worn. Looking first, he dumped the pile out the window. Several weapons he had never actually learned to use were also in poor shape. He set aside the few that had sentimental value and piled the rest by the door. Folding his gambeson, he placed it on top of the pile of weaponry and the helmet atop that.
Next Mick turned to the least labour-intensive pile to sort. A pile of clothing he had forgotten he even owned. Actually, he had been wondering where some of the items had gone, so that wasn't quite true. Most of them now had holes or stains, and half of what didn't didn't fit him. So one pile was tossed with the bedding to be washed, while a significantly larger pile was bundled up and put with the random weapons.
Looking at the massive pile of books, scrolls, and loose paper that had buried his desk, Mick turned to the pile of odds and ends he had picked up because they looked neat. Actually, he had managed to drop more coins than he knew he possessed into this pile, along with jewelry and gems. He really should have left this pile for last, as he didn't have anywhere to put all of it, but he found a drawstring bag and dumped what actually had value into it for safekeeping.
“Ready to go?”
Mick turned to see Kria looking at him. “Go where?”
“To eat. It's nearly the end of dinner hour. You must be hungry; I know I am. I have to stay with you until you finish cleaning up this mess, so you have to come with me if I'm going to get something to eat.”
“Oh, yes. Sounds like a good idea.”
“I tried getting your attention earlier. Didn't you hear me?”
“I guess not.”
“You didn't even know I was speaking to you, but you still fizzled my flame-balls? How?”
“Manchion explains it well. I think, anyway. I have read other books on the topic. I'm not very good at explaining this sort of thing.” Mick felt a slight twinge of guilt, but he didn't feel like getting into the theories as to why he could do such things when he struggled with so many apparently simple tasks. “Do you know if anyone good is cooking today?”
“Aren't they the same cooks as did lunch?”
“Didn't you eat lunch?”
“No, I was studying. I had plenty of snacks around.”
“No wonder you had to stop for a break.”
“Let's go, then.”
There was an entire square filled with tables, and it was surrounded by kitchens where students were not only taught to cook for themselves, but for an army. Some of the food was actually good. Mick stopped following Kria when they arrived, following his nose to something that smelled delicious. He found it was best not to examine some of the fare offered as the square catered to a wide variety of tastes. Mick's nose led him to some sort of meat skewered on a spit and turned over an open fire. Between the cooking and the chunks already sliced off, it wasn't recognizable.
Mick still got a slice of it.
Picking a nearby seat at random, Mick sat down to start eating. Kria plopped down next to him, surprising him.
“Thanks for saving me a seat.”
Mick hadn't meant to. It wasn't that he had meant not to, it was that he hadn't even thought of it. A fact that must have shown on his face.
“You didn't think you were rid of me that easy, did you?”
“No, just so hungry I didn't think on it.” He shoved another slice of meat into his mouth. Definitely some sort of pork.
Both of them were too hungry to chat, ignoring the awkwardness of not knowing one another.
Before long they were back in his room.
“Is that a greatsword?”
Mick looked over to the pile of arms and armour he had decided to keep. “Yes.”
“Why would you have one?”
“Oh, my friend Bull gave it to me. He thought it was a good fit because of my height, I think. I can't even lift the thing. I'm thinking of getting some racks to display that stuff, while that stuff over there is going away when I get a chance.”
“This is going to take too long. Can I borrow that book if I help you?”
Kria set to work immediately, sorting through his books.
Mick sighed and sat at his desk to start going through years worth of writing to see what was worth keeping. When he finally looked up, it was because it was getting dark. Kria was sitting in his armchair watching him.
“Where you talking to me again?”
“No. Just wondering if you have ever actually cleaned this room.”
“It has been a while.”
“Well, I did your laundry. It's dried and folded, your bed made. I even scrubbed your ceiling, walls, and floors ... except around you and your desk. I declare these rooms clean.”
“I'm not really done yet.”
“That's just getting rid of things you don't need. That's not cleaning.”
“I guess so.”
“Your library is impressive.”
Mick laughed. “With two uncles in influential positions determined to see me educated, I have found myself in possession of many books, but I wouldn't call it a library.”
“Well, I'll return this book when I'm done with it, I promise.”
“Maybe I'll see you around again?”
Mick was about to go back to work, but he suddenly felt guilty because usually he spent his evenings telling bedtime stories at the orphanage. He followed Kria out.
Once outside, Mick actually ran to the orphanage. Not all the children living in the orphanage were actually orphans. Some had parents who were students at the Academy and visited at least once a day. Others had parents who were students at the Academy but gave them up and took no part in raising them. A large number of the students and staff of the Academy took a hand in caring for and educating the children in the orphanage, though, and Mick felt somewhat obligated to do so.
Arriving at the massive building – it was four large wings forming a square which was divided into nine smaller squares by smaller wings – Mick knocked on the door, hoping he wasn't too late. Bequie answered the door, smiling.
“Hello Micjimble. You're a little late tonight, but you'll find some of the older children in the northeast quad.”
“Thank you, Bequie,” Mick said with a quick and shallow bow. He hurried, but not so much so that his footsteps were likely to wake any sleeping children. He arrived at the quad he had been directed to and was greeted by excited children.
“Mick! What story are you going to tell us tonight?”
“His name is Micjimble.”
“I hope it's a scary one!”
“Please don't do any tricks this time!”
Laughing, he found somewhere to sit and they all sat around him. “Is there anything in particular you guys would like me to tell you?”
“I want to know more about Dick's Shenanigans!”
“We've been over this. You aren't old enough to know more!”
“I like hearing it the way you tell it.”
“Yeah, Dick's Shenanigans!”
Mick waved for them to quiet down again. “Fine, Dick's Shenanigans it is.” He paused, looking at them sternly to make sure they were actually ready. “So you remember that in the beginning, there were Gods. We don't know how many there were. Some say they created the world, others say they found it, while others claim they were part of the world when it came into being. Ultimately, it doesn't matter. They have been a part of our world for far longer than we have. For many years they played with the life around them, treating living creatures like playthings. Eventually, however, they grew bored with beings that weren't even capable of speech. They longed for other peoples, who were capable of wisdom and intelligence.
“First the Gods created Dragons from some of their favourite creatures. While Dragons were very smart, they had no real desire to create. They fought over safe caves and sunny rocks, digging shiny stones out of the mountains to hoard for themselves. After they ate, they slept for long periods of time. The Gods grew bored once more.
“Our Gods were not discouraged by their first attempt, and this time they got a little competitive, forming teams to create the first of the Parent Races. This is when the Giants, Trolls, and Ogres were created. While these races did create things, building homes and making clothes, they also made weapons and fought one another. None of the three races were very bright, either, so the Gods were disappointed once more.
“Forming smaller teams, the Gods worked hard to create better races. It was in this time that Dwarves, Elves, Gnomes, Goblins, Sprites, and Pixies were created.”
“Sprites and Pixies are the same race!”
Mick smiled at the interruption. “Very good, but interrupting is rude.”
“Sorry Mister Micjimble.”
Mick winced at being called 'Mister'. “While much smaller than the first races the Gods created, these races lived much more peacefully. They created all manner of beautiful things, and made music. Yet when they came into contact with members of another race, they became violent. At this point, many of the Gods grew to sad to continue paying attention to their creations and turned their attention elsewhere. There was, however, one God who kept a close eye on them, and he was especially annoyed by one behaviour in particular.
“Sometimes, when, say, an Elf man didn't try to kill a Goblin woman and instead they thought themselves in love, a child was born that was neither Elf or Goblin. This child wasn't any of the other Parent Races, either, but a mixture of the two. Because these poor children often looked strange or deformed, many were taken into the woods and left there to die. Dick the Father did not like that one bit, so he spent a long time going around and rescuing them.
“A Goddess saw what Dick was doing, and decided to help him. As good as Dick the Father's intentions were, he was not very good at actually raising the children. This is the Goddess we call the Mother. Dick the Father then started making everyone fall in love with one another wherever he went. Elves loved the deer they were hunting, Dwarves the sheep they were herding, and Gnomes loved the Ogres they were hiding from. Eagles even fell in love with lions!
“It was a very confusing time, and Dick the Father was greatly amused by it. However, every single time he made two creatures who wouldn't usually love each other do so, another weird creature was born. Many of these creatures were no more than animals and were left to let nature take its course. So many mixed race children were being born that the Mother gave all those of mixed race from then on a gift to help them survive until they could be rescued.
“Those rescued by the Mother and Father became known as Dick's Children, and founded the Empire. That is the story of Dick's Shenanigans.”
“Thank you, Micjimble!”
Mick received a few hugs before leaving, smiling. There was a lot more to that story, of course. Nothing to go telling children, though, let alone as a bedtime story. For instance, Dick didn't make creatures fall in love, just experience an overwhelming mutual lust that they remembered after the fact. Or the fact that Dick's Shenanigans really ended with the fall of the Empire, not it's rise.
Mick said goodnight to Bequie on his way out, tired already.