For Brandon, this is the last one of a four-part series, and I hope you like what I did with it 🙂
The mug never empties; the thirst never ends.
The inscription under the name of the inn – The Magic Mug – was a bit creepy, but as another peal of thunder shook in his ribs, Gehlen realized no matter how bad it was inside, outside would soon be worse, so he pushed open the door and stepped inside. Besides, where else was he going to go?
After the mermaid had delivered her message, the sea had cooperated, speeding My Sweet Susanne to her destination. The land of the Half-men was called Urlin by men, and its inhabitants called dwarves. Harsh and rugged, only the hardiest adventurers and seekers of fortune braved the stone giants of Urlin. I’ll have to write a book about my travels one day, so the world knows the truth of what happened, Gehlen thought. Under the shadow of the Order, who knows what will change?
Gehlen shrugged his jacket farther up to shield his face, though what good that would do, he didn’t know. He was at least twice as tall as every other person and stood out like a sore thumb. Trying not to draw even more attention than he already was, he made his way to the bar.
“I’m looking for a man named Despin,” he said to the barman.
The short, bearded man gave him a surly glare from under heavy brows. “Do I look like an address book?”
Gehlen fumbled with his money sack and pulled out a gold piece. This far south, the Order was only a whisper of a shadow, and Gehlen could spend freely without fear that he would be traced. The downside to that was the dwarves’ avarice was not curbed, and Gehlen suspected his purse would be empty before too long.
The barman took the coin, and it softened the sullen fix of his face. “Despin hasn’t been by for a few weeks. Don’t know what happened to him.”
“Did he leave a message? Some way to get in contact with him?” Gehlen asked.
The barman barked a laugh. “You don’t know old Despin that well, do you? He wouldn’t want anyone to ‘get in contact with him,’ so no, he didn’t leave a message.”
“Oh. Thank you,” Gehlen nodded.
His mind was already making plans to overcome this dead end, figured the next logical step, and he wasn’t really paying attention as he made his way to the door. He ran into a figure in a dark cloak, and the two tangled and fell into a table. Gehlen crashed into a chair, bruising his leg and shoulder, and his elbow smashed into the hard ground, sending hot and cold spikes shooting up and down his arm.
The other person leaped up, apparently no worse for wear, and offered a pale, long-fingered hand to help Gehlen up. The wizard grasped the hand and felt himself lifted from the ground as if he weighed no more than a feather. He blinked when he saw the person stood head and shoulders above him.
Gehlen stared into dark eyes twinkling at him from under the large cowl. “Penny for your thoughts,” the stranger said in a gravely voice. “Hope they were worth the tumble.”
Then he moved on to the bar. The barman looked up and blinked in surprise. They spoke in voices too soft for Gehlen to hear, but the conversation was short, and as soon as it was finished, the tall stranger made his way back to where Gehlen was still standing.
“Mordu tells me you were looking for me,” the stranger said.
“You’re Despin?” Gehlen said.
The man gave a dramatic bow at the waist, his cloak billowing out. “I am he. What can I do for you?”
“I have something for you,” Gehlen said and brought out the small, pearlescent shell the mermaid had given him.
It swung on a fine gold chain, the motion mesmerizing. Despin snatched it out of Gehlen’s hand and stuffed it under his cloak.
“What are you doing, waving that about in here?” the tall man muttered with a glare.
“I’m sorry,” Gehlen said. “I didn’t know–”
“You didn’t know what?” Despin interuppted, his scowl deepening. “That this is a very old, very delicate, very powerful little trinket? That if it comes into contact with just a drop of water, or the merest puff of steam, it will go off and nothing will be left standing for league in every direction? That around these parts, something like this is worth more than your life?”
“No, I didn’t,” Gehlen said in a small voice, realizing that just as he thought he knew what he was doing and the scope of it, he would inevitably learn, as he had a dozen times before, that he was in a much bigger part of the world than he had ever been before, and what he thought he knew, perhaps he didn’t.
“You don’t know much, do you?” Despin said, his exasperation tempered by easy smile. “Well, come with me then, and we can discuss what you’re doing with this, and why you’re looking for me.”
The man took Gehlen to another tavern of sorts, but instead to taking a table in the common, he led Gehlen up seven sets of stairs to the top floor. Gehlen was sure the building looked shorter from the outside. The room was round and cluttered, giving it a homey feel with a flavor of eccentricity.
Despin indicated a chair with a wave of his hand and busied himself at the bench. When he turned around, he held a tray of mugs, steaming coffee in a kettle, and a plate piled so high with cakes it was in danger of toppling. After the hot drink was poured, Despin peered at Gehlen over the rim of his cup.
“Tell me everything.”
Gehlen did, starting with the discovery of the mirror in the abandoned underground keep of Stormgrim, the plan to take it to the Hinterlands, taking it through Merivia to the sea, stowing away on the boat, and his trek though Urlin. “And then I ended up in The Magic Mug.”
Despin nodded, as if Gehlen had made a particularly astute commentary about the weather, and finished his coffee in one sip. “Where is this Mirror?”
Gehlen pulled out the shrunken mirror, cradling it in the palm of his hand, and Despin gazed at it from the corner of his eye – now twin ruby lights peering from his face – as he spent several moments choosing between the chocolate creme, the strawberry custard, or the coconut puff. Without being told to, Gehlen called the Sight forth, and warmth bloomed in his fingers, allowing the mirror to grow to its proper size. When he glimpsed his reflection, his eyes stood out, also blood red and glowing.
“I see you have gained a measure of skill,” Despin told Gehlen with a nod of respect and finally settled on the chocolate creme.
“Yes, but it’s not enough,” Gehlen said, frustration creeping into his words. “I cannot truly control the mirror, or stop the Order, nor find this light the merqueen spoke of.”
“What you need is a Master of Mirrors.”
Gehlen’s skin tingled just hearing the words. “What is that?”
“What does it sound like?” Despin gave him one of his condescending yet strangely understanding looks. “A person who has mastered the true power of a magic mirror.”
Despin’s eyes glazed over when he gazed inwards, making them look more pink than true red. “Mirrors are funny things. They have no power on their own; they only reflect what they find. This makes them fickle, and the use of them is a fine art, something that must be learned but cannot be taught, that must be real, but cannot be touched.”
Gehlen leaned in closer, hanging on the silence, but the other man had nothing more to say. He finished his pastry and licked the crumbs from his fingers, brooding for a moment more before banishing the dark thoughts that haunted him. He prompted Gehlen with a smile. “Any other questions?”
“How can I find a Master of Mirrors?” Gehlen asked.
Despin’s smile widened, a sly twist making him older and a little more sinister, and his answer sent shivers running over Gehlen’s skin.
“You already have.”