The dragonslayer peered around warily. He sat on rough stone, and his spear leaned near the entrance of the cavern, out of reach. He had come across dragons that did not take him seriously before, just to cut right through their contempt, but this one's entirely different tone had triggered instincts too deeply rooted to ignore.
"Don't be silly, boy. There will be no fighting here. Come have a cup of tea and a bit of a chat."
He just couldn't kill anything that sounded exactly like his grandmother, even when the cookies were nearly as hard as the furniture.
When Nancy and Tom divorced, the little cottage by the lakeside was the one thing they argued over. A compromise was found once they figured out he loved the house, while she loved the place. She kept the land. They could afford to convert the holiday home to a houseboat for him to take away.
Gabriel had had no luck tonight picking up someone for dinner, but since he wasn't particularly hungry yet, he just treated himself to a cappuchino to unwind. It would have been better without one of the few other guests wearing penetrant after shave, but you couldn't have everything.
What he could have, after all, was company. The young woman making a beeline to his table did not look familar, but the feel of her presence told him what she was, and a quirk of her smile tipped him off as to who she was. Not that he knew that many nymphs, anyway. Her current guise was new to him, petite, white-blonde, decidedly elfin.
"Ah, Gabriel. On the prowl, too?"
"Taking a break, actually."
"No luck, either, eh?" She leaned back and sighed.
Gabriel decided she'd laid on the self-depreciation in her tone thickly enough so he didn't have to take offense. Considering that she was probably the least idiotic person who knew him, she deserved a bit of help. "Do you follow the news? I didn't think so. Some guy getting locked up up for raping a 13yearold girl was all over the papers. I'd think the kind of people attracted by your looks are a bit... inhibited just now. Unless you start prowling schoolyards earlier in the day, that is."
After a thoughtful pause and look around, she whispered, "All right, then."
Her her body wavered like a mirage, and flowed into a somewhat bigger shape. Her hair grew from a pixie cut to well over shoulder length, and turned auburn, her clothes changing to match it. None of the other guests took notice. Gabriel envied the ease with which fae could mess with other people's minds, all without biting them first.
When she was finished, he would have estimated her age closer to thirty than thirteen.
"Much better." Particularly the curves.
"You sure it's not just your taste you're pushing here?" she teased. When he only shrugged, she suggested, "Well, if we find no-one else, the two of us could hook up."
Gabriel gave a sort of dismissive chuckle. "Neither of us would get anything out of it."
"Maybe you just don't value fun enough."
"Maybe some people don't have as much time as you do."
He found that he could waste a surprising amount of time on chatting.
He prided himself to be the toughest, most ruthless man in the world, shrugging off torture, ignoring such petty things as morals, and looking forward to breaking Death's neck. When he was brought to justice, with a record-breaking list of charges, and proud of it, finding a punishment that would faze him was problematic. Death was too easy.
The solution was easy, too, once someone thought of it. They chucked him through a one-way worldgate.
Once he realised the alway-cheerful cute animals made of marshmallow did not mind getting ripped to shreds, he knew he had lost.
Brass hid in corners of the workshop while thieves carted off the Master's tools and materials by the trunkload. In broad daylight. Brass had not much mind to do anything but follow instructions, but it thought it odd the Master would not prevent that. It also did not want to be stolen. Where was the Master?
This sorry state of affair continued for days, growing sorrier, since less things were left to hide behind or under. Brass snatched bits of conversation from the air, and eventually caught one that shook he world of the loyal little construct.
They weren't thieves, but heirs.
Brass worked through the implications one by one, because all together they were too big. It realised it would not beable to hide long enough to decide if it should do anything without its Master, so it worked out an idea how to gain time.
One box of metal scraps and half-finished works the heirs carried off held one piece that was more than finished, but still busy with thinking.
On the New Year's party, Marie received a lot of compliments, all including some form of, "you have lost weight!", and she smiled through all of them.
When she retreated to the balcony for a bit of solitude she found it occupied already. The date of someone else's acquaintance, practically a stranger. He also seemed to be quiet, so that was all good. She leaned on the banister, keeping her distance, and he watched her watch the street.
Eventually he asked, "So, how is your health?"
After the initial shock, Marie all but collapsed with relief that someone cared.
Magic, in principle, was easy. He concentrated on what it should do, and made the signs that his intuition told him epitomised the idea. In time he learned that some designs belonged to grand concepts - a circle was "protection", a rectangle "order", but a square "containment". That knowledge was useless when a concept central to a spell refused to connect to a shape he could draw or carve.
The scribbles for "to the other side" had been clear even in a panic, taking him far further than expected.
The problem now was that he did not know what "home" was.
The Badger's Den had had a strict "no fights" policy for longer than anybody could remember, not even the turtle who had never introduced itself, but dropped in on occasion in the summertime, watching generations of voles, foxes, and even badgers pass. The current owner and barkeeper, Bartholomew, had served a lot of different guests. Owls were not that common, but one of them stood out. He had come to the Den with the air of someone who wanted to get drunk. It took little prompting from Bartholomew for him to unload his troubles.
"See, there's this woman," - owl, naturally - "Ignatia." Judging from his sigh, even her name alone was better than a life supply of fresh mice, and Bartholomew suffered through some disjointed, lovestruck praise of her looks, prowess and character. "So, well, I had a chance with her, but of course what was needed was a nest. I'd found a nice hollow, and she was inside inspecting it, when a squirrel started throwing nuts at us. It was so quick I couldn't catch it, completely fearless, and it ruined everything."
"You can't have given up that soon, right?"
"Oh, that monster wasn't the only one. The first day at the second nest, a mouse showed up. It hooted and acted as if it was an owl and our child."
After a pause, Bartholomew asked, "Couldn't you have eaten it?"
"Are you crazy? It clearly was, and we didn't want to catch whatever made it so."
"That makes sense." What the badger did not say was that they sounded like a pair of complete pushovers.
"See. Well, anyway, now Ignatia is looking for someone who doesn't attract lunatics, and I'm all alone."
"Don't worry too much; I'm sure someone will fall for you." It's all part of the job.
There was a thump followed by shuffling noises at the entrance, as a bat awkwardly crawled in. "Yoo-Hoo, Orville," he called.
"Already has. That's the problem." Orville downed the rest of his drink in one go and tried to ignore the newcomer. The evening went downhill from there.
When they came in sight if the water, the sky turned black. There was light just as before on the ground, faint shadows falling behind them, but looking up, there was nothing but darkness beyond their beacon. The bicolour trail the bird had left glowed even brighter.
The shore was steep enough that they needed to walk sideways, but it turned into a softer slope forming a sort of beach. There was a smaller copy of this shape at the water's edge, not the continuing slope you'd find on a beach. There were no waves to form it; the surface of the water was perfectly still. The ground was covered in smooth, dark pebbles.
Sylvie crouched and bent her head until it nearly touched the ground to have a closer look.
"If it is this shallow all through, it should be no problem to cross," Daaren said.
"I don't trust it."
Neither did he, but what good would it do? "Looks like a long way to circle around, if it's possible at all. Any idea how to find out if the hunch has merit?"
Sylvie's sigh did not stir the surface. She took another deep breath, and blew. There was the slightest hint of movement. Sitting down cross-legged, a bit back from the edge, she said, "I wonder if it's water at all."
"It's not water. It's not ground. It's not air," Daaren pointed out. What it was was bloody unnerving.
He dipped the tip of a shoe (which was no shoe, either) into the liquid. It rippled, at first faster than water would. The pebbles below disappeared, leaving blackness that could be formless ground, or an infinite void. As the turbulences died down slowly, the pebbles reappeared.
After a rather too long silence, Sylvie said, "Circling around it is." Daaren did not argue.