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Irsquo;m going with the.., p.3
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       I’m Going With the Flames., p.3

           Tobias Gavran
 
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“People want to appear compassionate. When you put yourself in danger for your convictions, you’re brave. When you do something that endangers your loved ones, you’re selfish.”

  “Why the lesson in social behavior?” I frown.

  “What happens if people find out about you?”

  “What do you mean?”

  “You saw how I reacted, last night, when you told me you were a cook. This powerful mage curses the daughter of a cook, and she comes out unscathed?”

  I pause. He makes a fairly good point. “By your own logic, showing up at my parents’ place is the last thing I should do.”

  “You’re an unknown agent to him, now. You got rid of his curse, rid of his stalking. For all he knows, you could show up in the town square and start shouting he’s a fraud.”

  “How would killing my family prevent me from doing that? If anything, that’d give me a good reason.”

  The warrior shakes his head and he suddenly seems wary. “Pride make people do stupid things, especially when they’re cruel.”

  The man might not have any experience in arcane magic, or fighting beasts, but I now realize that doesn’t mean he lacks intelligence. I always thought the curse was my burden, one I had to get rid of in order to have a life. I never realized there would be consequences for other people. I surely never imagined the political ramification this would have for the mage who cursed me.

  “Why do you travel alone?” He surely doesn’t seem the quiet type, and especially not a loner.

  “I find solace in not knowing people too well, for too long. It avoids disappointment.”

  “My grandmother used to say that you can’t avoid disappointment without losing hope,” I say, although I might be talking to myself when I do so.

  “I suppose she was right.”

  We start eating in silence, aside from a quick compliment on my cooking skills, and I start thinking about it. I’m too far away from home to even consider getting there in time. Even if I did, I’d have no way of stopping the mage from hurting both my family and me. From what the warrior has told me, this is all about reputation. The mage cares about what the people think of him, he wants to be feared. It’s all about publicity.

  “I know,” I whisper to myself. A bad habit garnered from living alone for too long.

  “What’s that?” the warrior asks immediately, curious as ever.

  “I’ll tell him where I am.”

  The warrior doesn’t have to say a word, his face tells me it’s a bad idea. The worst idea, in fact.

  “If he kills my family, that’ll raise awareness. If I tell him where I am, he can dispose of me, personally, without leaving a trace.”

  “He might just send assassins, if your plan is to confront him.”

  I shake my head. “You said it. He’s proud. He wouldn’t want to risk the assassins talking to anyone, and he doesn’t want to feel defeated. If he kills me, then he regains the upper hand. He’ll feel better about himself and will be the only one to know, I ever recovered.”

  “Do you really think you could win this fight?”

  I smile. “If I have to guess, I’ll end up dead, but like you said. It’s what makes a difference between being selfish and being brave. I’d rather have a slight chance at killing him than having the certitude he’ll kill my family. Plus, if he wins, what reason would he have to kill them? His thirst for blood would be satiated, and once again, it’d make people wonder why he punished them twice.” I have to say, I’m proud about my little, suicidal plan.

  “What about the mental barriers? What about you just waking up? What if he kills them today?”

  I grab the bottle. “Everybody knows how to make mental barriers crumble. There are a few of these lying around.”

  “If you’re passed out, how are you going to fight?”

  “He lives at the other end of the realm. Unless he’s invented teleportation, I doubt he’ll make it here in less than two days.” And that’s if he rides the fastest courser of the court stables. “Just long enough for my headache to disappear, I guess.” I grin and start drinking.

  The warrior doesn’t seem too convinced, but he doesn’t argue. It’s my mistake to make. Mine to live – or die – with. He does join me in the drinking, and ends up teaching me the words to a few bawdy songs.

  I wake up feeling the warmth of the sun on my left cheek, and that of his torso on the other one. He apparently parted with his armor during our wild morning and lies on the floor beneath me. I don’t recall any kind of conversation in my sleep, but I am certain I told the mage where I am. I think that, somehow, I was also intoxicated in my dream. The headache I had anticipated isn’t there, though. Maybe my special meal did more than just give me protections against people creeping in my dream.

  I gently shake the warrior and he opens his eyes.

  “You need to go,” I tell him.

  “Why?”

  “I sent my message. I hope he’s coming.”

  “Do you care if I die?”

  I pause. What a harsh question to ask.

  He turns and rests his chin on his palm, looking at me, waiting for an answer.

  “I don’t know you,” I say. “You can’t expect me to… What? What do you want me to say, exactly?”

  He smiles. “Tell me what you think, you seem to be good at speaking your mind.”

  “I care if you die because of me. I don’t want anyone to die because of me…” I shake my head. “Unless I have a good reason to wish them dead in the first place, of course.”

  “Have you killed a mage, before?”

  “I haven’t killed anyone, before.”

  He sits up and puts on his shirt. “I have.” Then, his plastron. “That’s my skill.”

  “You want to help? Why?”

  “What exactly do you think I do for a living?”

  “Mercenary,” I reply without hesitation. That’s what I figured from the get-go.

  “Oh… Yes and no,” he smiles. “I’m a bounty hunter.”

  There was a time where I’d have judged such a profession, but I must have grown, because I can see myself asking for his services, now. “You can tell I don’t have the money to pay you.”

  “And you can tell I don’t have it either. Let’s just say that I’m new to the business, and I could use some publicity.” He scratches his beardless jaw. “Can you imagine if I bring you back to your parents with the mage’s head in a bag?”

  “I think the court might be angry.”

  He frowns. “Is the mage a noble?”

  “I don’t think so.”

  The warrior shrugs. “Then, they probably won’t care, and if they do, I can get back on the road, the word will travel faster than I.”

  I clench my teeth to forbid my mouth from opening again. I want to argue, but I shouldn’t. He’s right, I’ve never killed anyone, and I’m pretty sure that bloody mage can’t be reasoned with. If the man wants to help me, then so be it. If I’m killed, I won’t have to live with the guilt of his death anyway. I highly doubt that I’ll survive the confrontation if he doesn’t.

  “Any hints on how to kill a mage?” I ask.

  “Mages are as versatile as fighters, there’s no one way to deal with them. It’d be best if one of us could fight his magic, but I doubt that we will. I know a few enchantments.”

  “I know some wards, but I’m pretty poor at it.” I hesitate. “I’ve got my shadows.”

  He doesn’t get it and I don’t really want to go into details as to what I had to do to get rid of the curse.

  “I wanted them to see in the dark and not be bothered by the cold, when I travelled up north, but they’re nasty things when it comes to other people. If I touch someone at night and release them, they’ll feed off of them.”

  “I thought you never killed anyone.”

  “They don’t die.” I didn’t know I could sound sinister enough for him to not even ask for details, but apparently I do. I can even see in his face that he suddenly realizes how the events
of last night could have gone, if I had wanted to hurt him. He’d thought himself out of trouble pretty early on, and he now realized that he wasn’t.

  “We can’t be sure he’ll come at night.”

  “Well, it’s really about light. They don’t like it.”

  “I’m pretty sure the mage wouldn’t have a problem casting a fire spell or something of the sort. That’s worth keeping in mind, but I don’t think we’ll get him that way. Does he know I’m here?”

  “I don’t quite remember the conversation. Dreams, you know?” Alcohol, too.

  The warrior nods. “I could try taking him by surprise.”

  “Well, there’s isn’t much point talking about tactics when we know so little. What can we actually do to prepare? Can we set traps, maybe? I could cook us something special. What about luring in some predator?” Every idea that crosses my mind is spoken, and he goes through it with me. He doesn’t have much advice to give, but still, two heads are better than one.

  We eventually set up some defenses. Thanks to a barrel of cooking oil, we transform the tavern into a death trap ready to be lit with a flaming bottle of brandy. The warrior sharpened a few sticks to make himself some javelins, and he also enchanted my tunic. It turns out the town is entirely deserted, though we find some corpses. We assume it’s a combination of the sneerer’s work and perhaps a roaming bandit army. We don’t settle on any explication, and neither of us really want to bother. The thought of a vengeful mage is enough of a threat to fear, we don’t need more worries.

  Rather than just a tunic, I’m fitted with a blacksmith leather apron which he enchants. I try to ward myself as well, but I’ve got hope that this
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