“My dad says you aren’t a real mage,” the little girl said. “He says you just got lucky and found some treasure and your stories aren’t true at all. He says you are just a big blowhard.”
The young man looked at the girl and smiled. “Your father is a cooper, Kenna, what does he know.” He shook his ornately carved staff. “See this? It’s a staff. Mages have staves. I have a staff. I am a mage. It’s as plain as the nose on your face, little girl. And I have studied at the academy. Your father hasn’t even left the village!” He looked around at the other children gathered around him. “Now, if anyone else thinks I am a liar, I can stop telling the story right now and go back inside. I am getting hungry, after all.”
“He says you can’t cast spells and you failed at the academy.”
Anders laughed and patted the girl on her head. “My child, of course I can cast spells. And I didn’t fail. No, no, no. I was forced out because the masters were jealous of my natural ability.”
Kenna pushed his hand away and scoffed. “Cast a spell then,” she said.
“Yes, a spell! Cast a spell!” the children cried.
“Even the most powerful of all mages don’t go around casting spells for a lark, dear girl. The use of the power drains on us. Even the simplest of spells can wear a mage down. No, I will save my magic for when it is most needed. You will thank me later.”
Kenna smirked at him. “I knew you couldn’t cast any spells. You are a fake, just like my dad says.”
“I’ll turn you into a frog,” snarled Anders.
“You couldn’t turn a tadpole into a frog if you had six weeks and a bucket of water!” Kenna and the other children started laughing.
“That’s it!” roared Anders. “Story time is ov…”
Before he could finish, a scroll fell into his lap. They all looked up to see a carrier pigeon flying away. The scroll had a wax seal on it. It looked very official.
“Aren’t you going to open it?” one of the children asked. Anders licked his lips and said, “Of course. I was just trying to discern the signet mark on the wax.” He broke the seal and started reading.
The children watched him as he read, no one daring to breathe. “Well, what does it say?” asked Kenna.
Anders looked startled. “Oh, um yes,” he stammered. “It reads ‘To the great mage in Hedgethorn. I am being held against my will in Brightfell Keep. Your brave deeds have reached my ears and I know you will save me. Come before the new moon. Signed, a Damsel In Distress.’” He stood, brushing off his immaculate golden robes. “Well, children, it looks like duty calls to me once again. I must be off to save this fair maiden. Who wants to pack my gear for me?”
“Oh, pack it yourself,” Kenna said.
“Why you ungrateful…Fine. I will pack and then be off. To glory!” he shouted. He went inside and gathered up what he thought he might need and headed out. The children were there to see him off, cheering him on. As he disappeared over the hill leading out of town, Kenna said “He is so dead.”
“How do you know?” one of the other children asked. “Because Brightfell Keep is in the other direction,” Kenna replied. Fifteen minutes later, a grumbling Anders came walking back into town. He looked down at Kenna and said, “Why didn’t you tell me I was going the wrong way?”
Kenna shrugged and smiled.
It was highsun when Anders met the old man. He was sitting in the shade of a large elm just off the road. He looked at Anders and waived him over. “Come young man. Sit a spell and share the bread of an old man.”
Anders, never one to pass up a free meal, obliged the old man. Setting down his pack (which was much smaller than when he left, as he had almost immediately started tossing things away to lighten it as he walked) he sat down next to the old man. He eagerly tore into the man’s small meal. The old man laughed. “Eat,” he said. “I don’t eat much anymore myself, and it what I don’t eat will go to waste.”
The old man leaned against a tree and lit his pipe. Rich, fragrant smoke filled the air. It reminded Anders of his grandfather. The old man looked at him and smiled, a knowing glint in his eye. “I am Kalandus, and you look like a man that is on a quest.”
“A pigeon brought me a message. A damsel in distress at Brightfell Keep. I am off to rescue her.”
Kalandus smiled and nodded. That knowing look appeared in his eye again. “She is a fair damsel yes? One that sets your heart a flutter?”
Anders nodded. “The fairest of all damsels. None can compare.”
“Well, then”, said Kalandus. “Tell me what this maiden fair looks like.”
“She has…and she is…To be honest, I have no idea. All I got was the message.”
Kalandus roared in laughter. “Well then, lad. You had best get moving. This damsel awaits. But, you must be forewarned. The path to Brightfell Keep is guarded by three demons. The first will want to play a game. You must defeat him in order to pass. The second will give you a choice of paths. Choose wisely or perish. The third and final will give you three riddles. Solve them and you will reach the keep. If you fail any of these, your soul will burn eternally in one thousand separate hells.”
Anders licked his lips nervously. “A…thousand hells?”
The old man nodded. Anders cleared his throat and said, “Be it a thousand hells or ten thousand, nothing will keep me from this rescue. It is what I am here for. Why, I have faced even greater perils and came out unscathed!” Anders Stood up and gathered his pack and staff. He looked at Kalandus. That knowing gleam had returned to his eye. Not for the first time, Anders wondered just what this man knew. “I have wasted too much time here, good sir. She awaits, and I must be away.” He turned abruptly and walked away.
Kalandus watched as Anders walked down the road. From the air behind him, a voice spoke up. “I give five to one odds he dies before the third challenge. Personally, I think he will trip over his staff and kill himself before he reaches the the next hill.” Kalandus laughed and said, “I’ll take that bet. I have faith in the lad. He will get past them all, I’ll wager.”
“Why?” said the voice. “What would even give you a sliver of hope for him?”
Kalandus shrugged. “Sometimes, you just got to believe in miracles, my friend.” The voice made a scoffing sound. “Miracles. I will believe in the almighty hog god if he pulls this one off.”
“Does he have to rescue the, uh, damsel?” Kalandus asked, laughing. The voice snickered.
“You know, now that I think of it, I hope he does succeed. Te look on his face will be more than worth it”, it said.
Several hours later, Anders crested a hill and came upon a small, bent over figure in the middle of the road. It raised his horned face to him and smiled. “Ahhh, yes. I know why you are here. Yes, yes I know why,” it croaked. The creature’s voice sounded to Anders like it was talking through a mouthful of broken bones. The thought gave him chills.
“Um...you do?” The demon nodded, his smile never changing. “You seek the Keep. You wish to pass. You must best me in a game of your choosing. Fail...and die” the demon said.
Anders coughed and cleared his throat. “Oh, um, yes. The game.” He thrust the bottom of his staff into the ground and assumed what he thought of as a heroic pose, and said in a louder voice, “I am here to defeat you, foul demon. No matter the game, you will fall to my…mighty gamerness…”
The demon’s grin grew wider. “Confidence. I like that. What shall we play?”
Anders looked at the demon. “I choose…Go Fish!” he said.
“Go…Fish?” the demon asked, confused. “The kids card game…that Go Fish?” The demon could not believe his ears. Anders stood up straight and said, “Yes, that Go Fish! What are you, afraid of a kid’s game? I thought there would be perils, but I come to find a scaredy demon. I knew this was below my bravery!”
The demon shook his head. “Whatever”, he sighed. “Just…let me get the cards.” He walked away, muttering under his breath, “Go Fish…some hero…can’t even chose checkers or…jacks even…”
Twenty minutes later, Anders was losing. He had a single set of matches, and the demon had the rest. Even worse, the demon had one card in his hand, the pond was empty, and Anders had the last card. And it was the demon’s turn.
“Do you have any…eights?” the demon asked, with a wicked grin. Anders scowled at the demon. “You know damn well I have an eight. What else would I have? A five?” He threw the last card down and said, “I demand a rematch! You cheated! It was a stacked deck!”
The demon stood up. “No, no rematch. You lost. It is time for you to die.” Anders tried to rise hastily. As he got to his feet, he lost his grip on his staff. It fell from his hands and struck the demon right between the eyes.
“Ah crap,” the demon said, and then exploded.
Gore, entrails and chunks of flesh splattered against Anders, soiling his perfect robes. He now regretted tossing out his spare robe along the trail. Sighing, continued onward.
Ten minutes later, he came upon the second demon. As soon as the demon spotted him, it ran right up to him and introduced himself. “Hello there, brave hero. I am Cratu, and boy, am I glad you came. So you’ve beaten Silas, hey?” the demon asked jovially.
Anders looked confused. “Silas?”
“The demon of games. Of course you beat him!” Cratu slapped him on his shoulder. “You wouldn’t be here if you didn’t, hey?”
“Yeah, um, you can say that…”
“My goodness man!” Cratu exclaimed. “You are a mess! All covered with ick and yuck and….HOLY HELL IS THAT SILAS’ EYE?! What did you do? You killed him!”
Anders held up his hands, trying to ward off the demon. “Whoa, whoa…I didn’t kill him, per se…”
The demon stepped forward. “Then what is his eye doing on your shoulder? Oh, this is not good. This is not good at all.”
Startled, Anders flung the eye off of his shoulder. He started to wipe his hand on his robe, but stopped before he could make his hands messier. “Okay, okay…what had happened was my staff fell. It hit him on his head.”
“Hit him on his head…and then his insides somehow got all over you? I don’t know…”
“Oh, yeah. Then he blew up.”
Cratu’s shoulders sagged. “Silas…he’s gone...” He shook his head to clear it. “No matter…here’s what you got to do. One of these paths will get you to safety and one will get you dead. I am tired and I want to go home. We can’t leave until a hero reaches the keep and rescues the captive. I can’t tell you which path it is, but I can't exactly tell you which one it is, but I can tell you left is not right. Get it?”
Anders looked at each choice thoughtfully. The one on the right looked peaceful, serene. The one on the left had a flock of vultures flying over it. Anders smiled and nodded. “You are trying to trick me, crafty demon. I chose the left path.”
“What? Why?” gasped Cratu. “I told you the left path is not right. Why in the hells would you pick that one?”
“Because” said Anders, waving his hand over the view. “The one on the left has carrion birds. That tells me something died there. By the amount of birds, I gather it was a large something, so it must be the carcass of a fallen hero felled by a diabolical trap. The right is clear, which tells me the trap down there is yet to be sprung. You can’t fool me, demon.” He tapped his head with his finger. “My mind is far more superior than yours.” Anders patted the demon on the shoulder. “Nice try though. A lesser man certainly would have fallen for your trap.” He set off to the left path.
Anders held up a hand to silence him. “No more, demon. I know my path is correct.”
Cratu sighed. “Superior mind, my toenail. I’m never gonna get home,” he said, and sat down on a stump.
The path was dark and strewn with fallen limbs and other debris. Anders tore his robe more than once as he climbed over the piles of branches. He bent down to pick up a goose egg sized rock and tossed it from hand to hand. “There’s nothing to be worried about,” he told himself. “Just the demon’s trickery making the path scarier than it really is. I’ve no reason to be scared.”
Just then, a loud noise came from the woods to Anders’ left. Screaming, he chucked the rock towards the noise and started to run. After several minutes he stopped, out of breath. The woods was quiet. Anders listened for a few more seconds. When it was obvious there was nothing there, he straightened up and said, “There are more magic rocks where that one came from, evil beings!” He looked down at his feet. Several skulls and bones littered the pathway.
“Hmmm…it looks like they reset the trap from time to time,” he said. “My path is still correct. I know. The tricky demon would have not tried to dissuade me from my path if this one was dangerous. No, he would have left me to my death.” He set off again. Deep in the woods, unheard by Anders, there was a low snoring growl.
The sun was falling by the time Anders reached a bridge. He looked for the third demon, the riddle demon, but he couldn’t see one.
“Hey!” a voice down the river yelled. Anders turned towards it. “What in the hells are you doing there? How did you get past the nullywug? Wait there, I am coming to you!”
It took the demon thirty minutes to climb down, walk the creek bed, and then climb back up. Before Anders could say anything, the demon held up his hand to silence him. “Let me catch my breath,” the demon said. “That wears a demon out.”
After five minutes, the demon stood up and brushed himself off. “I don’t know how you got past the nullywug, but here you are. You were supposed to choose the other path,” the demon said. “Well, I guess I better do my thing.” The demon cleared its throat. “I am Azail, and Azial I be, before you can pass you must answer these…”
“If you say “questions three”, I am punching you in the nose,” interrupted Anders.
“…three questions,” finished Azial. “Question the first…” Azial looked up to see Anders scowling at him. “Er, first question. What has legs but cannot walk, arms that cannot hold…”
“A grandfather. Next question.”
Azial smiled and continued. “I have a…”
“Soup. Next question,” Anders said.
“I didn’t even finish my question! How can you answer before you even know what I am going to say?” Azial asked.
“Because,” Anders said, and pushed Azial out of his way.
“Where do you think you are going?” yelled Azial. “I still have one more question!”
Anders shook his head. “No. You asked three. I answered three.”
“I did not! What was the third one?”
“You asked me how I could answer before I even knew what you were going to say. That was the third question.”
Azial shrieked. “But that wasn't the official question! Besides you got the other two wrong so...”
Anders kept walking. “It doesn’t matter. I fulfilled the terms of the challenge. You never said I had to answer them right, just answer them. I did, so now I get to go on. Seriously, I thought you demons would be smarter. Anyway, I have already passed the creek.”
Azial looked down. Both of Anders’ feet were on the dirt past the bridge. “Damn…they are gonna string me up on the rack for this one,” the demon said.
Before long, Anders reached the Brightfell Keep. He looked up at it. It rose well into the clouds. So many stairs, he thought. Why does there have to be so many stairs?
It took Anders most of the night to climb the stairs of the keep. Exhausted, he reached the door and rested against it. He didn’t remember closing his eyes, but when he awoke, the sun was shining. Standing up, he tried the door. It was unlocked, and opened freely. Bursting through the door, he exclaimed, “Fear not, fair maiden, for I, Anders the Brave, have come to…hey...who the hells are you?”
The middle aged man in the corner clapped his hands. “You have got my message, wondrous mage! You have come to rescue me!”
Anders looked startled. “You? I came to rescue the damsel who sent me the message, not some old man!”
“But it was I that sent you the message.” the man said.
Anders laughed. “No, no, no. You are confused. See, I have the message right here. See it says…DANIEL?”
“Yes, that is me. Daniel N. Destrasse. I have been here for over thirty years and now you have come to rescue me. Oh, joyous day!”
Anders shook his head. “You mean to tell me I came all this way and almost died to rescue an old man? I am going back home.”
Daniel looked distraught. “But…what about the rescue?” he asked.
“Stick it in your ear,” Anders said.
“But there is a reward!”
Anders stopped. “Reward?”
And so, for many, many years later, Anders sat on his front porch of his fine home, right across from the newly built Temple of the Almighty Hog God, entertaining many children with the tale of his daring rescue of the maiden, Danielle.