“Psst. Hey, over here.” A voice called in the darkness, and a man looked over. Among a cluster of barrels he spotted two tall ears sticking up. He approached slowly and saw a youth crouching, not well hidden in the bright moonlight that shone on the dock.
“Can I help you?” he asked.
“Not here, we need to go somewhere we can talk freely. Follow me.”
Shrugging, he followed the youth. They made an interesting pair as they moved, one hooded and slinking in the shadows, the other walking casually beside him, the pale light reflecting off his metal skin everywhere it wasn’t covered by his traveling cloak. The few sailors on the dock tending to their ships gave them inquiring looks as they passed, but said nothing. Eventually the duo reached the south end of the dock. Here the wooden path curved in a sharp angle, following along the face of a smooth cliff wall westward back toward Urbank. Instead of continuing to follow the path, the youth stepped off into the shallow water and walked around the tall rock wall, motioning for his companion to follow. After a few steps they reached a small cove beach littered with wooden crates and trash.
“This is my spot. We can talk here without worrying about anyone hearing,” the youth said. Clouds passed in front of the moon, causing the shadows to dance across the two figures in the scene. One stood tall, the other shorter, wearing a cloak covered in short brown fur that had a hood with two long velvety ears perched on top.
“Why are you wearing that stupid bunny suit?” the taller one asked.
“Why are you wearing that stupid metal man suit?” the other replied, jaw set in defiance.
“It’s not a suit,” the first responded, rolling up a sleeve and exposing an arm that shone with the rose-silver of pure Mithril.
The youth’s eyes lit up. “I’m Darko,” he said.
“My name is. . . Frank,” he replied, sharking Darko’s outstretched hand. Ugh, this name is the worst one I’ve picked yet. Another that doesn’t feel true at all, he thought._ I’ll just have to keep searching. . . to keep trying them on like clothing until I find one that fits._
“I need your help,” Darko blurted. “I mean, I don’t need it, but I saw you on the street yesterday and I thought you might be interested in an, uh, opportunity.” Frank shrugged. “Well you see,” Darko continued, “there’s this old man. I mean, not pathetic-old, more like wise-old. The kind of guy who’s always right. Well he’s an enchanter, and he possesses something incredible. They’re wands, you could say, a set of them, and they’re powerful. If you had them you’d be untouchable, able to do anything. And I know where he hides ‘em,” Darko said with a grin.
Frank raised an eyebrow. “So you want to steal them?”
“Just one! Or two!,” he added quickly. “And he has a bunch! He won’t even know they’re gone. It’ll be a snap.”
“If it’s going to be so easy, and these items are as powerful as you say, why hasn’t anyone else stolen them yet?”
“Because nobody else even knows they exist. I’m the only one who’s seen them. And I know what you’re going to ask next,” Darko continued, his eyes bright, “why do I need your help? Well, there’s only one obstacle standing between us and our destiny. . .” his voice dropped to a whisper, “the beast.”
“What?” Frank asked, also dropping his voice and leaning in closer.
“It’s deadly, fangs bigger than anything you’ve ever seen. Makes a worg look like a baby osquip. And it’s a fierce guardian, nobody gets past unless they’re invited. My brothers say that even in their bear forms they wouldn’t dream of trying to fight it. But,” he said, holding up a finger, “it’s blind and deaf. Has a good sense of smell, but I happen to know that it’s getting weaker. It doesn’t work so well against small animals. Maybe there just isn’t as much scent to something small, but I’ve seen rats and even squirrels walk right past without it noticing. And I’ve done tests, released mice right in front of its nose and it doesn’t flinch. But if I step foot anywhere near it in my human form he goes on full alert.”
Frank nodded. “I see. And you think that I, not being human, shouldn’t have much of a scent.” He cocked his head. “You mentioned your brothers. . . why don’t you try to sneak past in your bear form?”
Darko’s excited demeanor promptly cooled. He gave Frank a long stare and clenched his jaw. “Are you making fun of me?” he asked.
“No, what are you talking about?”
“I’m not exactly a werebear.”
“Not exactly? Then what are you?”
Darko considered his companion, and sighed. He cracked his knuckles then lurched forward and let out a growl. It was a guttural noise, ferocious, inhuman. Thick fur sprouted from his body and his eyes darkened and pulsed with an opaque blood red glow. His body warped and contorted, new cords of muscle forming underneath his skin. And as he changed he began to. . . shrink. Slowly at first, but soon he was a small lump buried underneath the cloak he’d been wearing.
After a moment Frank walked over and lifted it, and there sat a bunny with pink eyes and fur as white as new snow. It cocked its head and looked up expectantly. “A were-rabbit?” he asked, chuckling.
In a flash Darko was back in his human form. He stared coldly at Frank. “If you have any comments you can just keep them to yourself, I take enough flak from my brothers.”
“I’m sorry, I was just surprised,” Frank replied. “If you can do that, why don’t you just sneak past this beast?”
Darko’s face turned bright red. “You think I haven’t tried? It may not smell other small animals well, or maybe it just doesn’t care about them. . . but for some reason it seems to love rabbits. It’s chased me all around Urbank before. So are you going to help or what?”
Frank looked around. The night was completely still, he would have several hours to pass until morning with nothing else to occupy his time. He wasn’t sure what use he would have for such a powerful artifact, but he didn’t see any reason to at least follow the boy for a bit and see where this path led. “Okay,” he said.
The two walked together in silence and Frank experienced a side of Urbank he had never seen. Many of the taverns had common back alleys that would allow you to pass unseen from one to another. The entrances to the alleys were completely inaccessible unless you knew where to look for them, and Darko did. He opened innocuous doors that were seemingly locked tight, scrambled up ladders and catwalks, and even led them through an underground stone tunnel that was almost certainly a rudimentary sewer system. They navigated a twisting path through the maze-like tunnel and eventually reached a wall with a semicircular opening several feet above their heads. “Come on, there’s a ladder here,” Darko said, “even though it doesn’t look like it.” His hands seemed to melt into the smooth wall as he gripped and climbed upward. Frank followed, pulling himself up awkwardly but making it to the top.
They found themselves in a courtyard of soft green grass with walls of gray stone studded with windows rising into the sky all around them. “They’re so high,” Frank said, “you should be able to see them from anywhere in the city. Where are we?”
“They aren’t actually as high as they look. And wait until you get inside, the place looks even bigger from in there. Come on, this courtyard is the only way in. Master Mertle is a pretty private guy. We’re just lucky he’s not home right now.”
“Wait a minute,” Frank said. “How do you know he isn’t home? And how exactly do you know where he hides his artifacts and all that?”
“Well, he’s, uh, kind of my teacher.” Darko sighed. “He’s the only one that sees any value in my special abilities. Everyone else laughs at the rabbit except for him. He’s always mentioning my speed and agility, and he talks about my size as if it’s an advantage. He’s even taught me a few tricks. So I spend a lot of time here, way more than my brothers, and that’s how I know so much about this place.”
“But then why steal from him?”
“Because he’s always challenging me!” Darko said, his voice rising. “Always calling me dumb and lazy, saying that I’m not living up to my potential. Not cunning enough to justify calling myself a rabbit. Stuff like that. It makes me mad. I want to teach him a lesson for once.”
Frank shrugged. “Okay, whatever. What’s the plan?”
Darko smiled. “I know exactly what to do. We go in this window over here,” he said, pointing. “Then we follow the hallway with the red curtains, never green, that’s very important. Remember that. We need to keep heading down the hall and take every single right turn. It’ll feel like we’re going in circles but we won’t be. When you see the candleholders on the walls start to have two candles rather than three we need to start watching out for the beast.”
“We? I thought you couldn’t go near him.”
“I thought of that, I’ll be in my rabbit form wrapped up in my cloak. . . it’s made of werebear fur. You’ll carry me. So I hope you’re paying attention to my instructions because once we’re inside we won’t be able to talk. Just tap me when we’re safely past that monster.”
They walked together to the window Darko had indicated and slid it open silently. The house was still and quiet. Within moments Frank was walking down the dim halls, taking right turn after right turn with a small warm bundle cradled in his arms. Some of the hallways were long, some short, but with each turn a new one opened before him. He thought of Snorri’s advice and didn’t pause to over-analyze what he was doing, he just moved ahead, taking in the new experience.
He had taken so many turns that he had lost count when all of a sudden he saw it. It was at the end of the hall, and was enormous. It was at least three times larger than a worg and had a blunt snout and four thick legs that were curled underneath it. The beast looked fierce even in its slumber, but as Frank approached he could tell that it was old. It’s eyes had dark scum around them and didn’t look like they had been opened in years. Skin and fur hung loosely from the bulky frame in loose gray folds. As Frank crept closer it turned its head, sniffed, and twitched in its sleep but didn’t wake. With a few more quick steps he was past and continued on his journey. After he felt they were a safe distance away he tapped the bundle in his arms and set it on the floor.
Darko, once again human, looked around and nodded. “Good, good. You actually even walked past it a bit,” he said, retracing their steps back to a wooden door reinforced with iron straps. “Give me a hand, will you? This thing’s built for bears.”
Both pushed together and managed to heave the door open. The room didn’t look like a place that a great enchanter would hide an artifact of untold power. It looked more like. . . a closet. There were several wooden desks, many books, and several jars, a one of which looked like it contained something that was moving. Everything in the room was covered in a thick layer of dust, including a window on the far wall. Darko immediately moved toward the largest desk and opened the bottom drawer. He removed a sheaf of parchments, and Frank saw his eyes light up. Looking over Darko’s shoulder he saw the drawer contained several dozen small cylinders arranged in neat rows. The wands were about half an inch wide and six inches long, made out of light wood and each came to a point with a very sharp black tip.
“Is this what we came for?” Frank asked. Darko nodded.
“Watch.” He removed one of the objects carefully and walked over to a wall. His arm moved swiftly and after a few deft strokes Darko was written on the wall, bold with stylized letters and the letter “o” exhibiting a pair of rabbit ears. “These are amazing. They let you mark any surface. The potential is unlimited.” He turned back to the desk and tried to write. The object slipped over the glossy surface, leaving a thin gray line that was barely visible. “Well, almost any surface,” he said.
“Looks useful,” Frank said, nodding.
“And that’s not all they can do. I didn’t show you the best part yet.” Darko knelt down and removed a small white-gray cube from the drawer. Flexing it between his fingers a few times, he returned to the wall he had tagged. He rubbed the cube back and forth on the wall, and the mark vanished. “This is going to be perfect,” Darko said, making no effort to hide his glee. “I’ll never get caught making a mistake on my lessons ever again. With this I can remove any trace of a wrong answer. I almost feel bad for the old guy, he’s never going to know what hit him. I’ll show him cunning. And especially¬—” he said, then stopped. “Did you hear that?” he said, making an abrupt turn to face Frank.
“No, what. . .?” Frank said, straining but hearing nothing.
“Footsteps. Human ones. Split up!” Darko said in a frantic whisper.
Frank turned to the door. “Wait, but—” he started to say, but when he turned back he saw a white rabbit scurrying through a small rectangular hole in the wall that he hadn’t noticed before. He sighed, and as he was considering his options, he heard something out in the hall. He quickly slipped in between two bookcases that were standing close together in a dark corner of the room just as the door to the room opened.
The door gently closed, and there was no noise for a few moments. But then the silence was broken by a voice, not speaking loudly but it was deep and rich. “I know you’re here, you can come on out, I won’t hurt you,” it said. Frank sighed again and gathered his focus, feeling the energy course through his body as he readied himself for a fight. Stepping out from behind the bookcase, he found himself looking across the room at a man. He wore black opaque glasses and had short gray hair with flecks of black that was close cropped to his head. His skin was dark, the color of rain-soaked tree bark. He stood at ease. “So you and my friend with the ears were the ones making all that racket, eh?” he said. His voice, low and sonorous, exuded calmness and power. “What was he after?” Without taking his eyes off the man, Frank pointed to the bottom desk drawer. The man walked over and peered in, then laughed. It was booming and reverberated in the small room. “Well I certainly can’t fault him for that, and I will say I’m impressed,” he said with a toothy grin. “It’s the first time that anybody ever got the best of old Hercules. Although he hasn’t been tested in quite some time. Name’s Mertle, by the way.”
“I’m. . . Frank.” He considered trying on a different name, but didn’t want to seem suspicious if Darko was interrogated. “You aren’t bothered by us breaking in here?” he asked.
“Nah, there was never any danger of you causing any real trouble. Was this your plan, or his?” Frank explained his small role in the endeavor. “Good, good, glad to hear he put his mind to something and thought outside the box. Smart idea to hire a construct. It’s about time he learned that he can’t do everything on his own, that sometimes he needs to surround himself with people that compliment his unique set of skills. The exit strategy of this plan needs work, though, to say the least. Look, there’s our friend now,” Mertle said, moving past Frank to the window. He wiped off some of the dust and watched the small rabbit scurry across the grass in the courtyard.
“I’ll have to have a talk to him about running away and leaving you behind like that the next time I see him. ,” Mertle said. He sighed. “He really is a good boy, though. Works hard at his studies. If most students these days cared even half as much as he did I might still be teaching at the academy. No point in teaching kids who don’t want to learn.” He motioned to the bottom drawer. “These are left over from those days, actually. I made ‘em out of Ashplant Trees. If you core the tree right you can just keep using these to write and sharpen them with your knife if the tip ever dulls. Used to pass them out but I kept finding them discarded and broken, so I stopped bothering. Never dreamed that someday they’d be so coveted.” He laughed again, and Frank smiled. “Tell you what, you any kind of a student?”
“So far every second I’ve been alive has been a lesson. I’ve never been given any formal instruction, but the world is so fresh to me that experiences like this,” he Frank said, motioning to Mertle and the room around him, “are how I learn.”
Mertle nodded. “I like that,” he said. “A student of the world, learning from the book of life itself. Going out and having experiences isn’t anything special, but most folks don’t bother to think about they’re doing while they’re doing it. Yeah, I like that. Here you go, take these,” he said, removing a wand and one of the soft white-gray cubes from the drawer.
“Are you sure?”
“On the condition that you use them to keep a journal. Actually, I think you may be in luck.” Mertle opened the top drawer of the desk and rifled through it. He removed a small book, bound in black leather. He flipped through it and Frank saw that although some of the pages had markings, most of them were blank. “Take this too. No point in taking lessons if you don’t write anything down. It’s the best way to keep track of what’s important, whether you’re in the classroom or out in the world, like you said. And you come by and talk with me about what you’ve learned sometime, we’ll call it an even trade.”
“Agreed. Thank you. Meeting you has been a privilege, and meeting Darko as well.”
Mertle nodded. “Sure, sure. I’m going to turn in, don’t have as much vigor as I used to. To get out of here you just have to leave this room and turn left at the end of the hall. You’ll find yourself right back in the courtyard and I think you can take it from there. Oh, and by the way,” he said, “if you plan to continue hanging around Urbank, watch out for the kid, okay? He needs all the help he can get.”
Frank shook Mertle’s hand and then left. Just before sunrise he found himself back at the dock. But unlike most mornings, he wasn’t watching the ships come in. He sat, his head down, writing furiously. He recorded his life so far as best he could. Facts, opinions, people, stories. They came to life in his notebook. As he wrote he felt transcendent. His soul was alive with the power and possibility of the blank page.