But the kitten was his best disguise, since witches attracted cats. The interloper had just settled in the rundown cottage yesterday, and there were already a half dozen cats lounging about. He hoped she wouldn't notice one more. The old bat wasn't doing anything interesting, just puttering around in a patch of weeds that she seemed intent on making into an herb garden. Herbs were all that witches had. Herbs and intuition.
Turnsig sniffed in contempt. But he needed to know why she'd invaded his territory. She couldn't be causing the strange stirrings that he'd been feeling over the past few days, and she probably had no interest in the Caves of Auman, but it was best to not take chances.
He scampered under the rickety fence and ambled across the garden, trying to look inconspicuous.
The witch spotted him. "Hello there, kitty." She reached down and scratched him behind the ears. "Aren't you a cute little fellow." Her long hair was the gray of wet slate, and her skin was weathered and creased with wrinkles, but her eyes were clear, deep blue, and the teeth in her friendly smile were straight and surprisingly white.
She bopped him on the nose with a little white flower, and Turnsig felt a wave of euphoria sweep over him. Catnip! The treacherous old hag! He fought against the herb's effects, but he was powerless against the crazy joy pulsing through his kitten senses. Before he lost himself, he met the witch's eyes. They were full of warmth and mockery.
Turnsig came to cursing both herbs and intuition. Twilight had fallen, and he was inside the witch's house, curled up in her lap, purring his tiny head off. The witch was snoring softly.
Anger filled him the instant the drugged haze faded. His memories of the past hours were fuzzy, but mortifying.
He hated tuna and he was not a good kitty.
He stifled the impulse to scratch or bite the sleeping witch. It wouldn't be dignified. He jumped down and stalked out. He arrived at his tall stone tower and transformed back into himself, still shaking from rage.
The impertinence! The blatant disrespect and disregard for fair play! He no longer cared why she'd come. It didn't matter. All that mattered was driving her away. He grabbed his staff, lit the smoky gray gemstone on the end with a thought, and stormed up the twelve floors of steps to his workshop faster than he'd ascended them in over a decade.
The deep pool in the middle of the room, normally still and clear, was choppy and dark. He turned to his books and began to search for an appropriate curse.
He didn't have anything harsh enough. Damn his lenient nature! He'd have to borrow something from Whityon the Vengeful.
Would it be possible to ask to borrow one of Whityon's books without having to explain the whole embarrassing situation? Whityon's curiosity and tendency to gossip were legendary. Turnsig buried his face in his hands.
The sound of knocking woke him. His eyes were gummy, his beard stuck to his face, and his neck and back ached. He hadn't fallen asleep in the workshop for a long time.
Who in the world could be knocking? No one ever bothered him here. The village had been abandoned for generations. It might be the witch, come to gloat. Or it could be an urgent message from a fellow wizard. He opened the shutters and glanced out his window.
The witch stood on his doorstep, one hand raised to knock again and the other cradling a cloth-covered bundle.
Turnsig scowled in disgust as he leaned out the window. "What are you doing here?"
The old bat looked up at him. "Why were you spying on me?"
"I was doing no such thing!"
"You should know better than to lie to a witch, old man," she shouted. "Come down here. Looking up at you is hurting my neck."
"I have no interest in talking to you." Turnsig slammed the shutters closed.
"I baked you a pie!"
A pie? Turnsig sighed and descended from his workshop. He opened the door, and the witch held out her bundle. It smelled sweetly of cinnamon and apples.
No one had ever given him a pie before. He stared at the witch, then snatched the pie. It was still warm.
"Are you going to invite me in?" she asked.
"I wasn't planning on it," Turnsig said.
The witch glanced at the ground, up at him, then back at the ground. "The pie is a peace offering, and you accepted it."
Turnsig considered handing the pie back, but it smelled too good to relinquish. "Fine."
The witch grinned at him, and Turnsig found himself wanting to smile back. She was actually a bit pretty in the morning light.
He took a step back from the door. "Come in."
"My name is Rena," she said as she stepped inside and looked around.
"I am called Turnsig." He led her up the stairs to his modest kitchen. There was only one chair at his small table, so he cast a quick spell to call another one.
Rena took a step back when he started his incantation, and she blinked in surprise as the chair materialized next to her. She stared at the chair for a moment, then sat down in the other one.
As Turnsig sat down, the world twisted. The room went dark and cold, and icy fingers skittered across his skin. The pleasant smell of pie was replaced by dust and smoke, and harsh voices hissed at the edge of his hearing.
In an instant it was over. But Turnsig was more frightened than he could remember being. The episodes were getting stronger and more frequent.
Rena's face had lost its color, and she was shaking. Her hands were clutched over her ears and her eyes were squeezed closed. Tears clung to her eyelashes. He'd never seen someone look so afraid and fragile.
Turnsig felt something twist in his stomach. What did one do for a terrified woman? He reached out and touched her hand. Her skin was like ice. "Rena. It's over."
She opened her eyes slowly. "No, it's just started." Her voice shook.
"Do you know what happened?" Turnsig asked.
Rena nodded and twisted her fingers together in her lap. "Have you heard the story of the battle between the hero Ivor and the great dragon Karsis?"
Turnsig shook his head. "I've never been much for stories about heroes."
"Karsis had gathered enough strength to destroy the world, but Igor tricked him into falling asleep inside the Caves of Auman, then he sealed the entrance so the dragon could never escape. He passed the knowledge of where the entrance lies and how to open it to his descendents."
So she was interested in the Caves of Auman after all. One of his sacred tasks was to guard the entrance, but he'd had no idea what lay inside. He wondered if she was telling the truth. For a moment, he envied a witch's ability to recognize lies. "Why tell anyone? Why not take the secret to his grave?"
Rena shrugged. "You're a wizard. You know as well as anyone that such a secret cannot last. Someone must know. So he hoped that his bloodline would stay true, and entrusted them with the burden of knowing."
"Are you one of his descendents?"
"Yes. What we felt was the dragon stirring in his sleep. He dreams of his release." Rena shuddered. "He knows my name."
"You're not planning on letting him out."
"Of course not. But I have a nephew. A young wizard." Rena sighed. "I came here to try to stop him, but I don't know if I can."
Turnsig helped himself to a slice of pie. It was the most delicious thing he'd eaten in years. It helped to chase away the cold fear that had settled in his belly. "I have wards around the cave entrance. He won't be able to get in."
"Don't underestimate Bartholomew. He's young and untrained, but he's powerful and creative." Rena reached across the table and stole a bite of his pie. "And he's determined."
"Why does he want to wake the dragon?" Turnsig asked.
Rena rolled her eyes. "A girl jilted him, and he wants to prove that he's a force not to be dealt with lightly."
Turnsig had been jilted by a girl once, when he was young. She'd been beautiful and wild, dark skinned, with eyes the color of shadow at midnight. He tried to remember her face, but the image of Rena smiling at him was all that came to his mind. He shook his head. He was getting old, forgetting things.
"I'm so angry with him. I always stood up for him when his parents or brothers made fun of his dreams. I'm the one who found him a book about wizardry. I thought we understood each other. I'm the only other one with any magic in the family." She sighed. "But I'm just a witch, and my power doesn't compare to his. My only hope is to convince him to stop."
"I'm sure you'll be able to stop him. And if you can't, I will. Guarding that entrance is part of my wizardly duty. Plus, I don't relish the thought of being consumed by a dragon."
Rena started to sob.
Turnsig stared at her. What had he said wrong? Did she not want his help?
"Thank you," she choked between sobs.
Ah. She wasn't angry, then. Was she scared? Or relieved? Turnsig had never understood women and their emotions. They made him uncomfortable. He stood up and walked around the table to pat her back. "There, there. You're welcome."
Rena threw her arms around him and buried her face in his shoulder. Her words were muffled and choked. "I was afraid that you wouldn't help. I knew you were a wizard the instant you came into the garden, and I was sick of feeling so desperate and powerless, and I was so mad at Barty that I took it out on you because I could, and because you were a wizard, too."
She was crying on him. It was terrifying, but oddly nice. Her hair smelled like apple blossoms, and her body was warm and soft. He should say something. Something comforting. "No one's ever brought me pie before."
Rena laughed through her sobs. She leaned back and wiped her face. Turnsig's robes were wet from her tears. Her skin was puffy and her eyes were red.
Turnsig wanted to kiss her. He hadn't wanted to kiss anyone in a long time. It was a pleasant feeling.
Then reality twisted around them again. Rena's face melted, and everything else in the room dissolved. The hissing voices were screaming now, and he smelled smoke and brimstone on their breath. He felt his wards around the cave entrance break.
The world returned to normal.
"He broke through my wards!"
"We need to get to the entrance and stop him before he unseals the cave." Rena looked around the kitchen. "Do you have a weapon I could use?"
"I don't want to face a dragon empty handed!"
Turnsig summoned a sword from the top level of the tower. The hilt was encrusted with gemstones and covered with dust. "Will this do? It's the only sword I have. I won it in a dice game. It's magical."
Rena took it. "Thank you."
"You're welcome. Are you ready?"
Turnsig grabbed Rena with one hand, his staff with the other, and teleported them to the entrance of the caves.
The boy had Rena's eyes, and her infectious smile. Both looked too big on his thin face. He spun around when they appeared, holding is staff in front of him like a weapon.
He lowered it again and the triumphant grin slid off of his face. "Aunt Rena? What are you doing here?"
Turnsig unleashed a bolt of force into Barty's chest, then transformed himself into a python. He wrapped around the boy, but Barty transformed into a mouse and wriggled out of his coils. And instant later he'd transformed into a tiger, and he lunged forward. Turnsig became wind, and Barty caught him as a sail.
The boy was fast. He should have been exhausted after breaking through the wards, but he seemed completely fresh. Turnsig's reactions were slowing. As a desperate gambit, he transformed into fire, and Barty wrapped around him as water.
Turnsig's control faltered, and he slipped back into his own form. He fell to his knees.
The boy transformed back into himself. His face was dark with anger. A bolt of energy ripped from his fingertips and knocked Turnsig prone. Rena threw herself between them, "Barty, no!"
The boy froze. His eyes flickered to his aunt, but he kept his focus on Turnsig. "Why are you here?"
"I'm here to stop you," Rena said. "What the hell do you think you're doing? You can't release the dragon! You're a good boy, think this through! You don't want to destroy the world."
Barty finally looked away from Turnsig. He stared at Rena for a moment, then he slowly lowered his staff. "Of course I don't," he said. He furrowed his brow and scratched his head. "Why would I?"
Rena froze. "If you're not here to release the dragon, what are you doing?"
"I'm going to kill Karsis."
"You're mad," Rena whispered. "Ivor, our great ancestor, one of the mightiest heroes of all time, couldn't destroy Karsis."
Barty shrugged. "He was a hero, but he wasn't a wizard."
Rena threw up her hands and turned to Turnsig. "Can you talk some sense into him?"
Turnsig looked up at the boy. He couldn't be much more than sixteen. He was thin and too tall for his ragged robes, and his brown hair hung in his eyes. He didn't look like much. But Turnsig was a powerful wizard in his own right, and he was certain that the boy could have killed him if Rena hadn't stopped him. "What's your plan?" he asked.
The boy grinned and Rena made a noise like an angry cat.
"I'm going to stab him in the heart with this." Barty pulled a sharp black wooden stake from his belt.
"Do you really think you'll be able to stop a dragon with a stick?" Rena asked.
"It'll stop him when I grow it into a Dragonbane tree."
Rena glared at Turnsig. "Tell him that this is mad." But Turnsig was impressed. He knew of only two Dragonbane trees in the world, and both were heavily guarded. "I think his plan will work," he said.
"See, Aunt Rena? I'm not crazy. I can do this." Barty stepped forward and took Rena's hands between his. "And anyone who comes after us won't ever have to grow up being scared of the shadows. We'll take the weight off of our descendents' shoulders."
Rena stared at her nephew's face. She bit her lip. "And if you fail?"
"We won't fail," Turnsig said.
"We?" Rena asked.
"I'm not sending the boy in there alone."
Barty's face split into his aunt's infectious grin. "You've known me for five minutes, and you've already shown more faith in me than anyone in my family ever has."
"I have faith in you, Barty," Rena protested.
"Then act like it," Barty said.
Rena took a deep breath. "Fine. Let's do this."
Turnsig arched an eyebrow. "You're not coming."
"How do you plan on stopping me?" Rena snapped. "If you're going, I'm going."
Turnsig imagined Rena ripped in two by the dragon's jaws. "No. It's too dangerous."
"You're not a hero or a wizard. You can't defeat a dragon with catnip," Turnsig said.
"He's right, Aunt Rena. You should stay here. Protecting you will be too distracting."
Rena slumped. "Fine. I'll wait."
"Let's open it," Barty said. He marched over to the huge stone in front of the entrance.
Turnsig stood between Rena and Barty. Barty started to chant, and Rena whispered the words along with him. Turnsig didn't understand the language. He wondered if they knew what they were saying, or if they'd memorized the nonsense syllables as children.
The boulder in front of them started to quiver. Barty's chant grew louder and faster, and Rena's whisper grew to a shout. Turnsig felt the magical energy building.
The boulder cracked, then shattered. A wave of cold air blasted their faces.
Rena glared at them and muttered, "Good luck."
Turnsig and Barty lit their staffs, and they stepped into the cave. The darkness seemed to press in against their light, and there was no sound but the faint drip of water ahead of them.
Bones crunched beneath their feet. "These must be the heroes that the dragon killed before Ivor sealed it in," Barty whispered.
Turnsig heard footsteps behind them, and he turned around. Rena walked up to them, clutching her sword.
"What are you doing?" Barty asked.
"I'm coming." Rena said.
"You said you'd stay behind!" Barty said. "What if we can't stop it?"
Rena gripped her sword with white knuckles. "Better to die facing it than out there alone."
Turnsig sighed and rubbed the bridge of his nose. He should have seen that convincing her to stay behind had been too easy. She'd been planning this the whole time. "We don't have time to argue."
The tunnel widened into a cavern. Dark water stretched as far as they could see. "Where is he?" Turnsig asked.
Laughter echoed up from the depths. "After all his time, and these are the heroes who come to wake me? An old woman, an even older man, and a boy?" The voice slithered through Turnsig's mind. It made him feel unclean, and a deep despair started to spread through his body. Turnsig's mind turned to his worst memories. His mother's death, the day that Lydia left him, the moment he realized that the town around his wizard tower was long abandoned and his wizardly task was babysitting a boulder.
Barty raised his staff. "I am Bartholomew, of the line of Ivor, and I challenge you, Karsis!"
The voice snorted. "Wizardling, what makes you think you have the strength to face me? Don't you see that you are a weakling? A worm? Give up now. Save yourself the pain."
Barty trembled, and the light on his staff dimmed.
"Don't listen to him, Barty," Rena said.
"Be quiet, hag. Why should he listen to you? Does anyone care what you think?" A cold wind swirled around them, and Turnsig shivered. "Why fight me? Why not welcome me? Do any of you belong in your world? You, Bartholomew, are scorned as useless by your entire family.
"And you, Rena, have you ever loved someone who didn't betray you? If you survive today, what do you have to look forward to? Year upon empty year of loneliness and regret?
"And you--" the voice hesitated. "I do not know your name, but I can see into your past. You are even more alone than they are."
Despair crept into his heart, and Turnsig lowered his staff. The dragon was right. He was alone. None of the other wizards had contacted him for years. There wasn't a single person in the world who cared about him. He bit back a sob.
"You stand no chance against me," the dragon thundered.
"That's a lie!" Rena shouted. She slipped her hand into Turnsig's, and he felt the cold weight of despair lift off his chest. "We do have a chance. And we're not alone. We have each other."
Tears coursed down Barty's face. He glanced over at Rena. "You thought I was going to release him." His voice broke. "I thought you were the one person who trusted me."
"I was wrong to doubt you. You're a brilliant wizard, Barty. Karsis wouldn't be trying to talk you down if he wasn't afraid of you." Rena reached her other hand toward her nephew. "You mustn't falter."
Barty met his aunt's eyes and nodded. The light on his staff blazed as he stepped into the shallows. He screamed a challenge into the darkness and slammed the butt of his staff into the water.
The surface around him rippled, then exploded. A huge black tail whipped out of the pool, wrapped around Barty's body, and threw him far across the dark water. Turnsig heard a faint splash and the light from Barty's staff vanished.
Rena screamed Barty's name and ran forward, brandishing her sword. The blade started to glow, illuminating the dark cavern like a sun. "I am Rena, of the line of Ivor! Face me, Karsis!" Her eyes blazed in the golden light, and her hair whipped around her face. For an instant, Turnsig saw what she must have looked like when she was young.
He wished he could have known her then.
The dragon lunged out of the water. Its black scales drank in the light and its ebony horns nearly brushed the cave ceiling. It looked down at them and grinned with glistening teeth that were longer than Turnsig's legs.
Rena charged and swung the golden blade at the dragon's belly. It danced backward, moving with cat-like grace despite its size, but Rena's sword sliced deep into its foreleg. The acrid scent of dragon blood stung Turnsig's nose as he cast protective spells around Rena and focused his will against the dragon's.
It was too strong. Turnsig could feel its cold power battering against his defenses, and all of his strength didn't even slow it down.
They were going to die, and the world was going to be consumed.
The dragon battered Rena with its wings, and the sword tumbled from her fingers. She cried out in pain as its tail wrapped around her torso and began to crush her.
"Rena!" Turnsig ran toward her. The sword was still glowing beside them in the water. He dodged between the dragon's talons, grabbed the sword, and swung at the dragon's tail, trying to cut Rena free. Karsis's laugh echoed around the chamber as he kept Rena out of Turnsig's reach. "It's too late wizard," the dragon growled. "Your woman is dead."
Turnsig dropped all of his defenses and used every ounce of his power to attack. Fire exploded from his fingers and engulfed the dragon's face.
Karsis screamed in pain and dropped Rena's body.
She disappeared beneath the water's black surface. Turnsig ran toward her through the water. He had to save her. She couldn't be dead.
Turnsig felt the dragon's cold breath against the back of his neck and slashed behind him with the sword as he dove forward into the water. Sharp teeth ripped his robes as the frigid water forced the breath from his lungs. He groped forward through the water until his fingers met cold flesh. He wrapped his arm around Rena and struggled to the surface, still brandishing the sword in his other hand.
"You won't be a filling first meal, wizard, but you are a worthy one," the dragon snarled. Its face was pitted and bleeding and its left eye had been burnt away. "If I knew your name I'd remember it."
The dragon lunged toward them, and Barty appeared out of the darkness, already chanting the words to a spell. His voice was hoarse, but clear. He threw the dragonsbane, and the sharpened stake sunk into Karsis's burned face.
Karsis's attention wavered. The dragon started to turn toward Barty, and Turnsig thrust the golden sword deep into the dragon's neck as Barty finished his incantation.
The dragon screamed as golden light began to pulse out of its wounds. Roots and branches sprouted around the sword and wrapped around Karsis's body. In moments, the dragon was encased in the trunk of a gigantic tree. The golden light swelled and deep purple flowers bloomed on the branches.
The dragon was gone. They'd won, but that hardly mattered to Turnsig.
He pulled Rena's limp body to the shore.
Turnsig fell at her side and pulled her into his arms. She was so cold. What was he going to do now? He couldn't get the image of her standing against the darkness out of his mind. She'd pulled him back from his despair. She'd promised that he wouldn't be alone. What was he going to do without her?
He was crying, and he had no idea when he'd started. He pressed his lips to hers, tried to force his breath into her still body. "Rena, you have to wake up," he whispered.
Barty stumbled out of the water, limping. His wet hair clung to his face, and his lip was bleeding. His face was blank and gray with exhaustion.
"Oh no," Barty said, "Aunt Rena."
Turnsig kissed her again. He felt her chest stir, then she started to cough foul water into his mouth. He nearly collapsed from relief. She was alive. He lifted Rena's limp body and cradled her to his chest. He could feel her soft breath against his cheek.
"Do you want me to take her?" Barty asked.
Turnsig shook his head and started trudging up the tunnel. Barty picked up the golden sword and followed him.
Turnsig laid Rena gently on his bed. Barty hovered in the doorway. "Do you think she'll be all right?"
Turnsig nodded. She couldn't not be. He needed her. "You did well back there."
"I almost got us all killed. And the world consumed by darkness." Barty scowled. "I would have given up if not for Aunt Rena. I was overconfident and stupid."
Turnsig shrugged. "You're young. And you've already defeated one of the greatest evils that the world has ever known." He turned to Barty and placed a hand on each of the young man's shoulders. "You've done a great thing."
Barty shook his head. "I couldn't have done it alone, though. I guess that's a good lesson."
Turnsig nodded. "What are you going to do now?"
"I don't know," Barty said. "I hadn't given it any thought."
"Would you like to stay here? As my apprentice? I'd be happy to teach you everything I know about wizardry. I've never met a more promising pupil."
A small smile broke through Barty's exhausted mask. "I think I'd like that. I'm honored."
"The honor is mine. Now, why don't you go and heat up some water for your aunt?"
Barty nodded and hurried down the stairs.
Turnsig took Rena's hand and gently kissed her palm. Her eyes flickered open. She moaned. "Did we win?"
"We did." He smiled at her. "Is there anything I can do for you?"
"I have some herbs in my garden that are good for internal injuries." Rena shifted her weight and winced.
"How do you feel? Do you think you're going pull through?"
"Of course. I'm a witch. We're tough." She tried to smile at him, but only managed to grimace.
"You're not just a witch. You're a hero, Rena. Only a hero could have had hope in that cave."
Rena squeezed his hand. "You're sweet, but you're wrong. The dragon was wearing me down, too, but then he lied to us. And a witch always knows when someone lies to her."
"Witch or hero, you were amazing."
"What will you do once you're better?" Turnsig asked. "Will you go back home to your family?"
"I don't know," Rena said. "It seems like a shame to leave that cottage after I put so much work into it."
Turnsig snorted. "No amount of work will make that shack livable."
"What do you suggest then?" Rena asked.
"You should come live with me."
"I don't know. There are so many steps. And you don't have a garden."
"I can plant you a garden."
Rena traced his cheekbone and smiled. "I think I'd like that."
© September, 2014 Jamie Lackey
Jamie Lackey's work has previously appeared in Daily Science Fiction, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, and Penumbra.