|...a cone of orange light issued from the gem. This must be the dragon magic|
Frederick had warned him about.
The land of Frogfellow used to lie in one of the outlying regions of the shadow realms. As we all know these places are rich in magic and, for this reason, they have a short life expectancy as kingdoms go.
Frogfellow was a classic example of a far shadow kingdom. It sprung up almost overnight, as if it had simply been dreamed into existence. This is, in all probability, too close to the truth of the matter to be quite comfortable for most of us. The kind and wise Lord Frogfellow ruled over his land. He was a man so generous and good-hearted that no one ever mentioned how closely he resembled the amphibian for which he was named.
A wide mouth, flat nose, big eyes and green pigmentation afflicted all the older Frogfellows. It stopped short of being too great of a burden upon his children. In fact the two princes and the three princesses that Lord Frogfellow called his children were bonnie and blithe. So much so that a churlish commentator may have called into question their parentage.
The thing about dreams, and the far shadows is that they are quite closely associated. The far shadows, the fringes of the weave, are reality's sketchpad. A kingdom of frog-people was the least of the wonders that could be observed there.
The delightful shadow kingdoms present attractive targets for conquest. Usually they catch the eye of some mean-spirited warlord or unpleasant sorcerer. This is because they esxist along seams of pure magical energy. They shape the mischief, solidifying it.
The more and more unstable reality becomes, the purer and more powerful the magic available to be harnessed. The down side of this is that in these places it is possible to have an unfortunate and fatal accident. At the edges the unwary are consumed by the crucible of all creation with worrying ease.
Most practitioners of magic like to settle in the middle shadows where magic is so controllable as to be almost boring. The edge places are for the wild, the dangerous, the insane and the foolhardy. Such an individual was Seditas Wolfjaw.
One could add to Wolfjaw's list of undesirable personal qualities selfishness, gluttony and sloth. A sorcerer of no little notoriety Wolfjaw was on a perpetual quest for the next big score. Like many sorcerers he had turned his eye to the Far Shadows. He sought out a relative island of peace in the chaos and his eye settled on Frogfellow. Filled with dire confidence he rolled in on the attack.
If truth be told Frogfellow did not put up much of a fight. It was a small kingdom. As such it had concentrated on mercantile prosperity as its priority. It was a leader in the manufacture of waterproof textiles and vegetarian foodstuffs. The palace had staff, including a guard, but no real army. A single wicked sorcerer with enough power to do real damage could stride in to little opposition. It was a minor working to turn the entire royal family into proper frogs.
Seditas Wolfjaw took control of Frogfellow. Its happy citizens were quickly chained up and put to work as slaves. The major industry of Frogfellow became the production of high price magical ingredients. The type used in powerful dark magic potions, tinctures and philtres. To this day genuine Frogfellow pickled amphibian eyes attract prices of 10,000 gold pieces a jar. This is nothing to be proud of but can still give a goblin merchant the vapours.
However, no amount of gold could justify the suffering of an entire kingdom. It was only a matter of time before the weave delivered a hero to liberate the good people of Frogfellow from the evil oppressor.
Such a hero came in the shape of Avan Weatherstrong. It is not clear whether he was travelling outward toward the edges or inward away from them. Whichever way he was going the brave and wise prince had travelled far and wide since leaving his family home. He had already dealt with a good deal of darkness along the way.
Hearing stories of Frogfellow's unfortunate fate Avan Weatherstrong determined to help if he could. He arrived in Frogfellow early one morning. The prince rode his horse through the empty streets of the capital city towards the royal palace.
He was disturbed to find that, although there were many frogs hopping about in the palace, there was no sign of Seditas Wolfjaw. Avan Weatherstrong had assumed the evil sorcerer would live in the royal chambers after his victory. Instead the palace was full of pond life but there was no sign of wicked magical practitioners.
Avan knew that if he did not locate Seditas Wolfjaw in daylight he would have to leave disappointed. At night an evil sorcerer's power grew to its zenith. Daylight weakens dark magic considerably.
The prince searched the palace for any sign or clue indicating where he could find Wolfjaw but none was in evidence. As the day grew towards noon Avan sat upon the edge of the fountain that formed the palace garden's centrepiece and sighed.
"I don't know Marvel," he said to his horse. "I thought that finding Seditas Wolfjaw would be the least difficult part of this quest. This is turning out to be trickier than I thought."
If Marvel had any thoughts on the matter then we shall never know them. As Avan Weatherstrong finished speaking, a young man and a gnome fell into the fountain behind him with a mighty splash. The pair were locked in hand to hand combat as they hit the surface of the pond.
The impact, wave of water and frenetic energy of the fighters was enough to cause Avan to leap up in surprise. A tide of startled frogs exited the fountain and hopped off in every direction.
The soaking brought the fight to a stop before Avan had to wade in and pull the pair apart. The young man and the gnome sat breathless, water dripping from their noses and looked about them in amazement.
"Where are we?" the young man asked.
"I told you not to tweak my nose!" the gnome complained. "I'm not aligned yet, serious chaos magic. Mischief, I tell you, mischief."
"If you didn't want your nose tweaked," the young man complained, "then why did you sign up for cage fighting?"
"Are you saying that I can't partake in whatever activity I would choose to because of my inherited traits?" the gnome asked. "Because I think you'll find that's discrimination."
Avan Weatherstrong felt that the argument had the potential to continue indefinitely if he didn't weigh in. He cleared his throat. The boy and the gnome looked up at him, surprised expressions on their faces, as if they had not noticed the prince before.
"Oh," the young man said. "Hello."
"Yes," the gnome said. "Greetings. Apologies for the rude maner of our entrance but _somebody_ finds it hard to follow simple instructions." The gnome glared in the young man's direction.
"How was I supposed to know?" the young man complained. "If you had said something like: 'Please don't tweak my nose. It could result in sudden, inconvenient teleportation'. I might have listened more closely."
"_I_ didn't know what would happen, that's what chaos magic means," the gnome responded grumpily. "You are a very stupid boy."
"Knight!" the young man cried. "I am a knight. I have the scars to prove it."
"Would either of you like a hand out of the fountain?" Avan asked, loud and firm enough to cut through the disagreeable atmosphere a second time.
The young man gratefully accepted a hand up. The gnome showed a stubborn independence, wriggling his way out of the fountain by himself. Once the two of them were back on dry land they sat in the noon sun and tried to dry off.
"So, if you don't mind me asking," the young man said to Avan. "Where are we? And what's with all the frogs?"
"This is the kingdom of Frogfellow," Avan explained. "Unfortunately it is in the grip of a wicked sorcerer who has turned the royal family into frogs."
The young man knitted his brows, as if puzzled by something. He looked on the point of making a statement and then shook his head, changing his mind.
"Oh, okay," he said. "Something familiar about that but I can't quite remember it. I'm Frederick, uh, Sir Cobb, this here is, um, a gnome."
"Yes," the gnome said. "A gnome. I'm quite a new gnome, that's why I don't have a name yet."
"I am Avan" Avan said. "Pleased to meet you Sir Cobb and gnome. Could I ask how you ended up in the Frogfellow's fountain?"
"Well," the gnome said. "As I explained, I am quite a new gnome, not even three days old. As such I am quite brimful of chaos magic. My creator still hasn't reached the end of her wish, because she was fool enough to wish for 'an adventure'. If she'd wished for, I don't know, a palace full of frogs, for instance, we'd be done by now. I could have resolved myself into an elemental or something. As it is I have to remain dangerous and unstable until the wish has run its course."
"So you transported Sir Cobb and yourself here?" Avan asked.
"Not deliberately!" the gnome objected. "This idiot tweaked my nose, it's quite sensitive, my nose. I could tell that something would happen if he tweaked it. I told him not to."
"We were fighting in a cage match!" Sir Cobb objected. "Didn't you see the sign? 'No Holds Barred' that's not 'No Holds Barred Except For Nose Tweaking'."
"You were cage fighting?" Avan said hauling the conversation back on topic. "That, excuse me for saying, doesn't sound very knightly."
"Well, it's the world we live in," Sir Cobb shrugged. "I've rescued three maidens, killed a vampire and taken on a couple of lizard men. I also retrieved property from a bandit king but none of these jobs pay terrifically well. Being a knight these days isn't what you'd call a secure living. I have to supplement my income somehow, most major towns and cities have a cage arena. It's not my choice of activity but I won't be much use to anyone if I starve to death, will I?"
"I suppose not," Avan said. "I'm sorry to hear that you're having such a tough time of things, noble knight. I'm afraid that you may have found yourself in a little trouble. This kingdom is in thrall to an evil sorcerer. I had come here to face the villain but he is in hiding until nightfall. Unless I can find him I will have to retreat. You don't want to still be here after the sun goes down if I cannot defeat him."
For the second time Sir Cobb looked puzzled at Avan's words. He scratched his head, stood up and had a good look around.
"There's just something so... so... familiar about this," he said. "It's beginning to annoy me now."
"I'm afraid I cannot help you with that," Avan replied. "As I said, it would probably be best for you if you were just to leave. I must hunt for the sorcerer a little longer but I will have to abandon the search myself if I cannot find him."
"Well, I could help, it's kind of my sworn duty," Sir Cobb said. "Besides, I have nothing better to do for the time being. Perhaps, if we rescue this royal family they will hire me as a guard for my faithful service. That would certainly help with my reputation."
"It's your choice, good knight," Avan said. "But I will not lie to you this is a far shadow kingdom and magic here is powerful. I only consider myself worthy of the task laid before me because I know a little of the mystical path myself. You will have to follow my lead if you choose to stay."
Sir Cobb nodded.
"I understand," he said. "Then I shall do as you require, Sir Avan, and I will be pleased to fight at your side."
"Oh, terrific," the gnome said. "And what am I supposed to do? I have absolutely no desire to face off against an evil sorcerer. Between adventurous young ladies and nose-tweaking idiots, I almost wish chaos had never spit me out."
The gnome was so outraged he disappeared in a puff of light blue smoke. The vapour filled the air with the scent of cinammon.
"I didn't mean to tweak his nose," Sir Cobb said to Avan.
Avan just nodded.
"Come on then, Sir Cobb," the prince said, not wanting to risk those choppy conversational waters. "Let us be about our business."
"Oh, yes, of course," Sir Cobb agreed. "Where should we start? In the palace?"
"I have already searched the palace," said Avan, "there is no sign of the sorcerer in there."
"Oh, that's curious, isn't it?" Sir Cobb said. "You'd think he'd have got straight into the master bedroom with his feet up after he'd done his wicked work, wouldn't you?"
"Indeed I did," he replied. "Now I do not know where to go. The capital city here in Frogfellow is large, the alleys are numerous and narrow. Even with an extra pair of hands I cannot hope to cover the whole city in time."
"It is a pickle," Sir Cobb said. "What's the name of this fellow we're after anyway?"
"Seditas Wolfjaw," Avan told the young man.
Sir Cobb's mouth dropped open. He stared at Avan.
"Are you making some kind of a joke?" he asked.
"Why would I joke?"Avan asked, a little irritation slipping through in his tone.
"Because... well... " the young knight appeared to be lost for words. "What did you say your name was again?" he asked eventually.
"Avan," Avan replied. "Avan Weatherstrong." He paused, sighed and then said. "Prince Avan Weatherstrong, youngest son of the sixth Lord Weatherstrong."
Sir Cobb's eyes were like saucers, his jaw was slack. The news had been too much for the young man. He slumped, sitting on the edge of the fountain, looking at the floor.
"Tell me you're joking," he said eventually, not looking up from the floor. "Please tell me you are trying to make a fool of me."
"Why," Avan asked, running short of patience, "would I want to make a fool of you? I am Prince Avan Weatherstrong. What has that to do with you and whether or not you are a fool?"
"Because Avan Weatherstrong is in the old stories," Sir Cobb said hopelessly. "You're a legend. You're the main reason I ever wanted to become a knight in the first place."
Avan felt his own brow knitting. Thankfully, for both himself and Frederick, Prince Weatherstrong knew much of the world's strangeness. He knew of chaos magic, and gnomes. He was also wiser than to question the strangest stitches of the great weave, so he took this news in his stride.
"I am afraid that things are what they are, Sir Cobb," he said gently. "Sometimes the great weave winds threads into strange patterns."
"But... but..." Sir Cobb said, Avan could now see, with the lad close to tears, that Frederick was really little more than a boy. "I've not just travelled to a far away kingdom." The boy's voice was filled with despair. "I've fallen into the past. I've fallen into a story!"
"So it would appear," Avan said. "We had best make sure that the story has a happy ending."
"Oh," Frederick said, for a moment too surprised to be unhappy. "But it does! Well it did! I mean... I've ruined the story. I'm not in it, I mean, I wasn't in it. Although I am now."
"Tell me what happened," Avan said calmly. "In the story you heard."
"Well, it turns out that near to the capital city is a cave, an old dragon's lair, by a twisted tree. You find Seditas Wolfjaw has set up home there. He has trapped the dragon's soul within a jewel and a mighty battle ensues. You both unleash sorcerous power at one another in a mighty wizard's battle. You transform each other from form to form until you manage to transform Wolfjaw into a snake. You see, he has turned you into a mongoose, you snap his neck... At least, that's what the story said."
Avan smiled and sat down for a moment beside Frederick.
"I don't think that is what will happen today," Avan said. "I do not have the sorcery of transformation."
"Oh, sorry," Frederick said. "Have I messed everything up?"
"I did not have that power when I came here," Avan said. "I guess that by your time some... embellishments may have crept into the story. I do remember seeing a twisted tree as I approached the city, I guess that will help us find the sorcerer. If he has transformation sorcery then we shall have to be very careful in our approach."
And careful they were. With Frederick's help the two of them found the old dragon's lair and crept inside. The enormous cave system was dark and cold, not at all a welcoming home. Avan Weatherstong could sense the powerful magic that had infused the rock. He knew that Wolfjaw had made this his home for reasons other than comfort.
Deep within the twisted tunnels there was evidence of the sorcerer's presence. They found a smaller chamber that contained chairs and a table, along with other oddments. The bric-a-brac attempted to turn the damp cave into some sort of a home.
The cave was silent, there was no visible sign of the sorcerer. Avan could feel the presence of dark magic near at hand.
"It doesn't look like anyone's home," Sir Cobb said.
"Don't be so certain," Avan replied. "I can feel him, nearby, maybe even watching. Seditas Wolfjaw," Avan called out, "show yourself!"
"Two foolish knights," came the haughty tones of the sorcerer's voice. "I am honoured indeed to have such esteemed company in my humble abode on this day."
"He's wearing a cloak of invisibility," Avan told Frederick. "Pay close attention to anything. You can't see someone in one of those things but they still have an effect on the things around them."
"Usually true," Seditas Wolfjaw replied. His voice echoed around the cavern, appearing to surround them. "Except when the wearer can also fly!"
There was a swishing noise and something hard struck Avan in the chest. The force picked him off the floor and carried him backwards into a wall. He struck the wall hard and felt the wind leave his chest. He fell dazed to the floor wreathed in the sound of Seditas Wolfjaw's wicked laughter.
"Ah, knights, a diversion for a sorcerer such as I," Wolfjaw crowed. "You shall die today, but it is no shame to fall before one as mighty as Seditas Wolfjaw."
"Frederick!" Avan called out pulling a small glass ball from his pack. "Breath in deep and hold it, until you can see me again."
He threw the ball at the floor and it shattered, filling the room with a thick white smoke. Avan took his own advice inhaling before the ball landed. He hoped that Frederick was good at following orders. He thought it was only the sorcerer he could hear hacking and coughing his way through the billowing clouds.
As visibility was restored there were three figures revealed, all covered in a thin coating of white dust. Avan's smoke bomb had the side effect of covering things this way when deployed in close quarters. Avan drew his sword and ran at Seditas Wolfjaw.
"Do not presume!" Wolfjaw shouted. The sorcerer lifted his arm. Clutched in his right hand was an enormous cut gem. He pointed the gem in Avan's direction. A cone of orange light burst forth, forcing Avan to dodge at the last moment. This must be the dragon magic Frederick had warned him about.
The battle was still one-sided. Even though Wolfjaw was now visible the gem's transformation magic beam appeared to have no limit to its power. Wolfjaw just fired repeatedly not allowing Avan to find his feet. Eventually Avan realised he would tire, and then he would fall to the sorcerer's magic.
As he dodged and rolled, trying to prevent himself from ending up as a mouse or a housefly Avan saw Frederick. The boy snuck up behind the sorcerer clutching something in his hands. Wolfjaw appeared to have forgotten him.
Avan wanted to warn the young man back but that would be too dangerous. He just had to trust that the boy knew what he was doing. Maybe he could try to give him a hand.
"You will not defeat me, Seditas Wolfjaw!" Avan called. "It is only a matter of time before your fate is sealed."
The sorcerer appeared to be the type of egotistical buffoon who would have to respond to such taunts. Never was this more true than when he appeared to have total victory within his grasp.
"Bold words, coming from a man so close to exhaustion," the sorcerer said. "Let's see how bold your words come out when I have turned you into a lap cat!"
No one got to find out what kind of lap cat Avan Weatherstrong would have made. At that moment Frederick flipped the object in his hands over Seditas Wolfjaw's head. It was a flat gold disc, a frame around some sort of picture or...
Seditas Wolfjaw sensed movement above his head, he looked up and gasped in horror.
"My mirror!" he screamed out, it was the last thing he screamed before his body was consumed within the frame of a holding mirror. It landed, face down, on the floor of the cave, Seditas Wolfjaw trapped inside.
"I, uh, have seen that kind of mirror before," Sir Cobb said. "I thought it might help out."
Avan Weatherstrong, out of breath from jumping and rolling, gave Sir Cobb a sweaty grin.
"You, sir knight," he said to the young boy, "are far more than you appear to be. Come on Sir Frederick Cobb. You are adrift from your own days, you have saved my life and I should see you safely home."
And that Avan Weatherstrong did, after a few more adventures but these are stories for another day.