Dirk had never seen a man this odd...and he definitely never had this much excitement!
|He was an odd looking man. He squinted too much and his beard seemed to curve unnaturally halfway into its length. He flared his nostrils often and his shoulders were held at two different heights. Even his feet seemed strangely positioned. He wore what would have been a pointy hat, if the seams had not torn all the way down to the base, leaving him with two ridiculous looking flaps that fell to the sides of his head, exposing his scalp to the sun. Why he continued to wear it Dirk could not for the life of him discern. Yet Dirk also couldn’t tell why the man wore a heavy, multi-colored robe and a cloak on a hot summer day in Kilistar. Or why his arms were covered in bells that jingled periodically and greatly annoyed Dirk. The man was the oddest that had passed along this road since Dirk had taken up his business.
Perhaps the oddest thing about the man, however, was that in contrast to all the aforementioned features, his teeth were perfect. They shone pure white in the afternoon sun as he smiled a gleeful smile. To be honest, it frightened Dirk a bit, the way the man’s features contrasted so oddly. In a strange way, it made him want to turn around and run. But he didn’t. Instead, he smiled back and held out his hand to collect his toll. The odd man dug around in his pockets for a moment before holding out two golden Turquis, still smiling. His teeth shone more brightly than the coins.
Dirk took the money, put it in his pocket and moved out of the way to let the odd man pass. He didn’t budge. Rather, he stood there, in the middle of the road, leaning on his staff in the manner that a guard would lean on a sword. Dirk was silent for a while as he stood watching the man, annoyed and confused at such behavior.
“Well?” he asked finally.
“Well what?” the man replied, still smiling. His voice was odd, too. Instead of the raspy, old, difficult to understand voice that Dirk had been expecting, the sound that left the man’s lips was deep and resounding, and clear as a bell. Dirk shivered. Who was this man? Nay, what was this man? Dirk studied his features yet again. He was a magic-user. That was obvious enough to Dirk, due to the emblem he bore upon the breast of his colorful robe. It pictured three hands holding three wands, all pointing towards a small statue that seemed to be of a squirrel, though it was difficult to tell from the faded fabric. The man’s staff was not a normal walking stick, either. The wood shone almost as radiantly as the man’s teeth and showed no signs of decay when it obviously should have, judging by the amount of withered bark that barely clung to it. It was thin as well, and should not have been able to hold the weight of the man. But there were no signs of it being strained; no bending or creaking and no breaking.
It was obvious that this man used magic, and yet he was nothing like any of the wizards, sorceresses or monks that Dirk had ever laid eyes on. Stern, strict and focused they usually were, while this man was jovial and vague.
Dirk opened his mouth to ask where the man had come from, but he decided against it at the last minute.
“Well, are you going to pass?” he said instead.”
“Are you going to make up your mind?” Dirk was beginning to get exasperated, and it sent shivers down his spine every time he heard that voice, though he was careful not to show it.
The man shook his head at Dirk and squinted while smiling, a very strange combination that made him look as if he had just sucked the juice out of a lemon.
“Not now, boy. Soon, I hope, though I can’t say for sure. You see, I’m waiting for something to happen, or for someone to come. Which it will be I don’t know, and I don’t know when it will occur. But I know it will sometime! So for now, my good thief, I will not pass. But you hold that money for me and when I am ready, you let me pass. Agreed?”
The man’s words bewildered Dirk, and he couldn’t think of anything else to do but to reluctantly agree with the man’s proposal.
“I suppose so,” he sighed. The man’s smile widened and he sat down on a rock beside the road. There he began rummaging through the many pouches that he kept at his belt and separating out all kinds of colorful rocks, flowers, leaves, and vials full of liquids and powders. Dirk eyed him nervously. “What are you doing?” he asked.
“Never mind, never mind,” the man dismissed Dirk’s question. “Why don’t you go lie in your hammock over there and wait for the next unsuspecting traveler, eh?” Dirk looked nervously at his hammock. He was afraid to draw his daggers, in case the odd looking man had some spell tucked up his sleeve that he would unleash, and he was afraid to call for help for the same reason. Dirk thought of running, but he was almost as scared of what Kriko’s reaction would be if he left his toll as he was of the magic-user. In the end, Dirk followed the man’s instructions and lay down in his hammock, but he kept a careful watch on the man.
For a while they sat like that, Dirk watching as the man nonchalantly finished organizing his things. Once everything was in place, he began popping open vials and sniffing them. After a number if sniffs, he seemed to find what he wanted and placed six vials in front of him, along with a shell the likes of which Dirk had never seen before. It was a brownish color overall, but it had spots that to Dirk resembled the spotting of a sun leopard. Curiosity got the better of him.
“What is that?” he asked, pointing to the shell.
“The shell of a leopard tortoise,” the man replied without stopping what he was doing. He picked up each vial and carefully emptied the contents into the shell, sprinkling in a few powders from the pouches that still hung around his waist. The mixture bubbled and made strange crackling noises every now and then. Dirk was taken by surprise. He had been a fool to let this madman order him around, like a child on a string. Suddenly he felt a rush of adrenaline as all his fear seeped out of him. He leaped up from his hammock and within an instant, he had drawn two daggers and ran to the man’s side, placing the two points in the direction of his throat.
“What do you think you are doing, fool of a man?” Dirk spat, “showing up on my road with your ridiculous clothes and thinking you can fool me into letting you get away with some evil magic, so that you may conjure it upon me? I’m not such a fool as you!” Dirk threw back his head and laughed, showing merriment himself for once. Now that his fear was gone, he was prepared to turn the situation into a profitable one, and have a little fun in the process. But his merriment turned to a tight-lipped scowl when he saw the expression on the man’s face unchanged. He was still showing those dreadfully white teeth in a haunting smile. “I will give you two choices,” Dirk said. “The first choice is to pay me two more turquis and I will let you pass. The second is to go back the way you came, leaving the two coins you already gave me behind. The only other choice is death, which I don’t consider to be much of a choice at all. I assume you agree?” Dirk’s words were filled with sudden contempt. The man turned, then, and looked Dirk eye to eye.
“You are a bit of a stupid thief, did you know? But then again, I guess all thieves are stupid, if you look at their line of work.” Dirk shrugged, and his grin returned. “Arrogant too, I see. Well then, stupid thief. Remember what I am about to tell you, for it may keep you alive in days yet to come, or at least keep you in good fortune. There is always another choice, no matter what the circumstances. In this particular situation, the other choice is this.” The man struck Dirk under the chin hard and before he could react, the man had grabbed his staff, leaped from his rock, and stood a short distance away. Dirk was stunned. It had all happened so fast. Now he lay sprawled across the ground, rubbing his chin, his daggers lying to each side. The man closed his eyes and muttered something. All of a sudden, Dirk felt himself being lifted. Great gusts of wind were blowing around him, lifting leaves, dirt and him from the ground. He screamed. He was afraid of magic. The man looked serious for the first time since he had appeared. “You see, this is magic. Well, it is not evil magic, as you say, yet I assume that something of this sort is what you feared. I’m teaching you a lesson, thief. Remember it. This is only the smallest fraction of what I am capable of. Do not test my patience.” The wind stopped blowing and Dirk fell to the ground not too gently. The man’s smile returned. He produced a wooden spoon out of his robe and went back to the still bubbling mixture, reclaiming his seat upon the rock. Ladling some of it into his mouth, he put on a thoughtful look. “You see? Nothing more than a simple piece of alchemy, meant to ease the pain of bruises or cuts. Here, you may want to take some.” All Dirk could think about was how such a ratty looking old man could hold such power in his fist. His eyes were watering from the pain. He did not resist as the man poured some of the brew down his throat. Instantly the pain was gone. Dirk blinked away his tears, the shock clear on his face.
“Who are you?” was all Dirk could force out of his lungs.
“A fair question. My name is Morro, an alchemist by profession, a wizard by reputation.”
The pain began to subside and Dirk was finally able to gather his thoughts. What had he gotten himself into, he wondered? He knew more about Morro now, and the numbness in his chin firmly reminded him that this man was far more dangerous than he looked. He scolded himself for not being more careful. Now he had gotten himself into a tight situation. He couldn't turn and run anymore. If he did, Kriko would label him a coward and ban him from the guild. His only choice was to stay here with an angry wizard who was ready to cast a spell on him the second he made a wrong move. His daggers were of no use, or so it seemed. If he tried to use them, Morro would simply lift him above ground again and DIrk would be helpless. He knew his mind would have to be his weapon. It had served him before, and he would make it serve him again. He gathered himself, sorting the thoughts racing through his head.
"Well, you seem to be the best alchemist I've ever met, not to mention wizard," Dirk lied. "All the pain is gone. I'm sorry I jumped to conclusions, I was just startled by the way that potion bubbles. It looks very menacing."
"Looks aren't everything, thief."
"I see that." Morro shot Dirk a fiery glare that chilled him to the bone. He was afraid he had just signed his death warrant. But it turned out not so. Morro's lips curled back into a smile and he burst out laughing, slapping his knee in his merriment. Dirk let out a sigh of relief and picked himself up off the ground. Brushing himself off, he sheathed his daggers. Morro was still laughing. Dirk had not thought it to be this funny, but he wasn't one to complain.
Finally Morro gained control of himself and looked at Dirk through tear-stained eyes.
"What do you think of the hat? Nice touch, eh?" He giggled as he took the hat and tossed it aside. "And the bells? What an annoying sound!" The tears flowed freely down his face now as the bells followed the same fate as the hat. "What about this cloak and robe? See the emblem?" Morro could barely get the words out as he pointed to the squirrel statue. He undid his belt and removed his robe and cloak, revealing a completely normal looking tunic with a red cape that gave the same effect as the cloak. He wore a pair of travelers breeches.
After stifling his laughter once again, he spit on his hands and stroked his beard until it straightened out and nearly doubled it's length. He stood up, and the hunch in his shoulders was gone. His feet were aligned and his muscles seemed to swell. Dirk rubbed his chin, finally understanding why the punch had hurt so much.
It occured to Dirk that Morro hadn't squinted for minutes, and he hadn't flared his nostrils either. The forehead lines had dissapeared, revealing Morro to be a handsome man who was not far past his prime. He had the same grin, though; the same white teeth. It was the only resemblance Dirk could find to the man that had stood before him only moments before.
Dirk was speechless, riveted to the spot where he stood. He still couldn't comprehend what had just happened. Morro looked at his face and burst into laughter for a third time.
The two of them stood there for a while, Dirk staring blankly at Morro who was holding his sides because of the pain of laughing so hard. Dirk's mind, which had lost all of the sharpness it had gained in it's moment of recognizing danger, was still processing information. Morro calmed himself yet again and looked at Dirk.
"Good joke, eh?"
Finally, the shock wore off, and Dirk followed Morro's example, laughing out loud, senting Morro into his fourth fit of crazed laughter in the last two minutes.
When at last it all died down, and the two of them wiped the tears from their eyes, Dirk looked at Morro.
"So everything you told me was a lie?" he asked.
"Not everything," Morro replied, rolling himself into a sitting position. "My name is Morro, and I am waiting for something."
"And you are a wizard, I know that from experience." Dirk's eyes moved to Morro's discarded disguise. Peeking out from underneath the ridiculous robe was a sword hilt. Morro must have been carrying it srapped to the inside. Dirk wondered how he had kept it from sticking out. "A warrior, too?"
"A warrior wizard, that's what I am," Morro said as he put his belt back on, now completely void of the pouches that were scattered about Morro's feet.
Dirk looked the man up and down, and when his fell upon Morro's crazy grin for what seemed like the thousandth time that day, he knew he would be able to recognize it anywhere.
"Well, you might look different, but I still think you're crazy," Morro almost laughed again, but he finally was able to restrain himself.
"Only when I want to be. Your wit amuses me, thief." Dirk smiled and shrugged. "I told you my name, will you not return the favor?"
"Dirk Silverlace. I'm a watchdog by proffesion, a thief by reputation." Morro extended his hand and they shook.
"You know, many people despise rogues like yourself, but I find you to be the most amusing people. After all, us rich folk can afford to lose a coin or two for those less fortunate than us."
Just then, a dust cloud rose in the distance and the two men could hear voices shouting something. They couldn't tell what from this distance, but Morro smiled. He looked at Dirk.
"Something's happening and someone's coming," he said, and he dove off to the side of the road to await the arrival of the dust cloud.