For Zhenya, one of the best people I’ve ever met in my life 🙂
I was sitting there looking at the best person I’ve ever met in my life.
Well, not exactly the best person, but it was the best person I could hope for right now. As I had the guards on my tail, and I had no way to get rid of the ruby necklace.
Harry looked down at the last line, mussed his already wild brown hair, and sighed. Setting his pen down, he took the piece of parchment and balled it up, tossing it over his shoulder in disgust.
This story is going nowhere, he thought miserably. How am I going to get my hero out of this one? He glanced around at the lumps of discarded paper littering his study. Preferably without spending a fortune I don’t have on reams of parchment.
He read back over the previous pages, pages he was tentatively considering not crumpling up and putting in the fire. Nathanial Dumond, the disgraced Duke of Northland, had gotten himself into a bit of a conundrum with a horde of goblins and some stolen goods in the third or fourth chapter of Harry’s latest attempt at a novel, and now Harry had no idea how to get Nathanial to the ship that was supposedly waiting for him at the port city of Albahedron, just over that mountain ridge with no name.
“If only there was some way…” Harry muttered to the empty room, rubbing his eyes. “Some way I could just make it all work out…”
“What if I told you there was?” a voice chirped right next to him.
Harry gave a startled yell and fell off his chair. Looking up from where he was now lying on the floor, he saw a small creature perched on the edge of his desk, feet dangling over the side. It was a muddy red color and had small, sharp horns, on which rested a glowing gold halo. Fluffy white wings protruded from its shoulders and it twirled something that looked like a trident in its hands. It smiled down at Harry, revealing sharp teeth.
“Sorry, I didn’t mean to scare you,” the thing told him.
Harry pushed himself off the floor and brushed the indignity from his clothes. “Yeah, that’s alright,” he said, trying to look anywhere else but at the creature. “What are you doing in my study?”
The creature gave a delighted beam. “Why, I heard your call for inspiration, and…” the creature spread its arms wide, “here I am!”
“What do you mean?” Harry asked, hoping he looked polite and not horrified.
The creature frowned and it became a lot less friendly. “What, you didn’t think inspiration just came from the gentle thought of a benevolent god, or the silver ringing of magic bells, did you? Or maybe a cup of particularly fine coffee, is that it?” it said with a faint sneer. “Well, it’s not that easy, I can tell you.”
“You’ve, um, had lots of experience with it then?” Harry replied, pulling his chair upright and sitting down.
He noticed the creature was sitting on one of the pages of his story.
“Lots?” the creature barked. “It’s all I do all day, cater to whingeing, whining, pathetic…” it stopped suddenly, collected itself, and forced a smile back onto its face. “But that’s really beside the point.”
“And what is the point?” Harry wasn’t sure of the wisdom of asking this question, but he couldn’t see anything else that he could do.
“The point is, you called for help, and I came,” the creature smiled. “Now let’s see, what are you writing here?”
It looked down, and pulled the disorganized sheaf of papers from under its bottom. It read for a bit, then turned the papers the right way up with an apologetic smile. “Styles differ, you know, and I thought perhaps it was a new way of expressing yourself, with no apparent grammatical structure. I’ve seen worse.”
“Oh, well, that’s good, I suppose,” Harry said, watching the little imp read the words he had attempted to wrench from his heart and soul, the intangible ideas he had tried to give corporeal form to with ink and paper. And blood and sweat and tears, lots of tears, Harry thought, his mind started to wander just a bit, as was not unusual. A sharp cough brought him back into the real world.
“It’s got potential,” the creature announced.
“Really? You think so?” Harry said, greatly cheered.
“No, that just what I have to tell you all, or I would be out of a job,” the creature sighed. “But it’s not horrible. I didn’t want to scratch my eyeballs out and set my head on fire when I was reading it.”
“Do you feel that way often?” Harry asked, trying to be sympathetic.
“Of course. Every time I set my head on fire after reading some particularly bad piece of…” the thing nodded and waved its hand inarticulately at the instruments of Harry’s work.
“Oh,” Harry nodded, and carefully extracted the complimentary aspects out of the creatures words, namely that its head was not on fire at the moment. “So, um, what are you here for exactly?”
The creature huffed impatiently. “I think that should be rather obvious, really. Intervention! Incentive! Inspiration!” It didn’t seem impressed with Harry’s blank look. “I’m here to help you finish your story!”
“Oh!” Harry’s expression morphed into something like hope. “Really?”
“No, I’m a figment of your imagination,” the imp said with a scowl. “Yes, really.”
“Excellent!” Harry said, and then thought of the million caveats that would most definitely come with something appearing on his desk with this offer. “What’s the catch?”
“You mean what is the price for the service?” the imp sniffed. “Well, we have several different options we are able to provide our clients…”
It whipped out a black ledger and shoved some brochures at Harry. Harry looked down at them, and saw pictures of people showing off stacks of books, people rolling in gold, people writing with beatific faces in exotic locations with cocktails and gorgeous sunsets. He looked at the prices and paled.
“Do you have anything, um, cheaper?” he asked.
“Why?” the creature demanded.
“Well, these are a bit out of my budget,” Harry explained.
The imp peered at him with unveiled contempt, then snatched back the promotion. “Well, we have our starter package, but I can tell you, everyone who has tried it would recommend going for the higher-end options.”
“I think I’ll start with the starter,” Harry said. “What’s the price on that?”
“One hundred gold pieces,” the imp answered promptly.
“One hundred!” Harry gasped.
“Or,” it continued as if Harry had not spoken, “your soul for two years.”
Harry blinked. “That’s a bit…”
“A bit what?”
“Steep,” Harry said softly. “I sort of…need my…soul.”
“It’s just a lease,” the creature said. “We give it back when the contract is up. Besides, how do you know you need your soul? How do you know life isn’t better without it?”
“I’m pretty sure that’s fairly common knowledge,” Harry said, but the creature just stared at him, unimpressed.
Harry vacillated, acutely aware of the imp squinting at him with beady eyes. Harry looked down at the papers filled with his frantic handwriting now scattered even more haphazardly across his desk, and recalled the happy writer in the picture, showing off the dozen books with his name on them. He looked around his dingy, messy office, and thought of the serene writer on the beach with the brightly colored cocktail in hand. Then he thought of the writer lying on the mountain of gold.
“You know, I rather think my soul is worth more than fifty gold pieces a year,” he found himself saying.
“That’s what they all think,” the imp rolled its eyes. “Inflation and all that. Fine. I can cut you a deal. One year.”
“A month,” Harry said. “My soul is in mint condition.”
“Six months, final offer,” the creature countered.
“Okay,” Harry nodded.
“Sign here please.”
“Can I read it first?”
The creature stared at him in shock, then handed over the contract. Harry read it through carefully, his finger following the line of tiny legalese. It looked straightforward enough, one measure of inspiration to finish the novel, in exchange for one soul for the time of sixth months, at which point it would be returned, in a condition not unlike it had been deposited, etc., etc.
“Satisfied?” the creature gazed at him over crossed arms.
“What’s your refund policy?” Harry inquired.
The creature gave him an impatient look, which made Harry wilt. He took the pen it handed him and signed his name in shining red ink on the bottom of the contract. The creature snatched it back, rolled it up, and stuck it in the black ledger. Then it stood up, making ready to leave.
“Wait! What about the…” Harry indicated the papers splayed out on his desk.
“Right.” The creature looked at its trident with shining eyes, then leaped at Harry and stabbed him with it.
“Ow!” Harry shrieked, the sight of blood on his arm worse than the slight sting of pain. “What was tha…”
His vision was going blurry, and his body felt heavy.
“Sweet dreams,” he heard someone say from a long way off.
Then all was black.
When Harry opened his eyes again, he did not know where he was. It looked like he was in the mountains, but the nearest mountains from where he lived was two weeks’ travel north. In fact, Harry had never seen a mountain in his whole life. They were nothing like he imagined, much harder and stonier.
He groaned as he sat up and realized he was not alone. He also realized his hands were tied. Someone was watching him, hunched close to the ground, a sword lying across his knees. The person looked familiar, the piecing blue eyes and the dark hair, fine features, and the scar that ran down his cheek.
Nathanial Dumond, the disgraced Duke of Northland!
The person started. “How do you know my name?”
Harry didn’t realize he had spoken aloud. He opened his mouth to answer, then thought better of it.
“Where am I?” he asked instead, struggling against his bonds.
“More importantly, how did you get here?” the Duke asked.
“I don’t know,” Harry admitted, giving up on the rope. “One moment I was in my study, the next, I woke up here.”
The Duke studied him for a long moment, then nodded. With a brisk motion, Nathanial stood and advanced on Harry, sword out. Harry closed his eyes, heart beating frantically, but the blade only cut through the bindings on his wrists. Harry sighed and opened his eyes. A horn blew, somewhere in the trees, and the Duke looked up that way, his face tense.
“Those would be the goblins,” Harry moaned to himself. Why oh why did I think stacking the odds so badly against him was a good idea?
“Those would be the goblins,” the Duke agreed. “And this is where we part ways.” He hefted a sack, which Harry knew contained some very old and powerful objects – objects which, Harry realized, the Duke had no idea what they were capable of – and began to make his way down the mountain. He rounded a boulder and disappeared from view, leaving Harry by himself on the mountainside.
This can’t be happening, Harry tried to convince himself. I must be dreaming.
Sweet dreams, the echo of an impish voice told him. Harry pinched his arm, hard enough to bruise, and gave a wounded yelp, though he had no one else to blame but himself for the pain. He definitely wasn’t dreaming. This was happening.
“How is this supposed to be inspirational?” he yelled at the sky. “I’m not going to be able to finish my novel if I die out here!”
The horn sounded, louder and closer this time. All of the sudden, Harry was rather less worried about Nathanial Dumond, the disgraced Duke of Northland, and more interested in how he was going to get himself out of this mess.