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But Ears Are Important

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I knew from the start that it was not going to be a walk in the park. Pilfering treasure from evil, powerful master mages was generally considered to be a bad idea, and there were definite rumours going on that Alton was not even particularly human, possibly more of a demonic being. But I had a foolproof plan, and was confident in my abilities.

It was not just any old treasure I was going after, either. This little adventure was the end of all adventures. I could easily retire after this, but most importantly, it would prove to any doubters that there was no quest I couldn't handle. After that it would be clear to all that if I said I would do it and put my mind to it, it was as good as done.

It was a bit of a shame that I didn't have my own mage with me for the trip, though. I did have one in reserve; we had adventured quite a bit together, but this time I had been forced to leave him behind.

Well, forced might be a strong word in this case. The arrogant bastard had thoroughly pissed me off, and the best way to get back to him would be to go and wave Alton's treasure under his delicate elvish nose. Which was also why he couldn't come help.

I savoured the thought of out-performing my pointy-eared friend for a moment. Rubbing in humiliations was an old sport between us, and we had developed it into fine art. It pushed us both to try to defeat ourselves. Sometimes the rubbing just went too far, and then there had to be retribution. Like this time. Luckily, it turned out I had just the thing in store for him. A nice artefact he'd not get a dime for when I'd sell it to my fence.

Back at Alton's lair, I had already avoided an endless stream of traps and guards, and was closing in on the chamber that hosted the treasure. Many well-paid informants had all pointed me in this direction. The timing was meticulously planned for Alton itself to not be around to witness the theft. I stopped on the doorstep for a moment, and stepped in.

I searched the room for more traps, and found a few that were simple enough to avoid. When I got to the right bookshelf, my hands were almost shaking. It was so close, I could reach out and touch it!

The only reason I didn't was that I found I couldn't move my arms.

I heard steps behind me and turned to look. My eyes went wide; the resident of the lair walked into the room. But... he was supposed to be out tonight; this must have been some kind of illusion.

The illusion begged to differ with my deduction. I was not even served additional time for recovery by an almost required, lengthy explanation of how Alton had used his evil mastermind to find me or lure me here, and what his plans were after making sure I lay in a crumpled heap. Instead, with a single wicked cackle, the mage made a mystical gesture and a very disillusioning rain of cutting blades fell upon me.

I managed to duck and roll to avoid some of them, but the ones that hit stung in a nasty way that had me quite convinced of the metal being poisoned. I had not come unprepared, however; I had an antidote with me. Now that my hands appeared to be functional again as well, I reached for a small vial that cost as much as a decent sword.

I was fast, but Alton was faster. As his next show of general unfairness and lack of sportsmanship, he let out a horrifying magic-enhanced shriek that made my vial - and any other helpful potions in my backpack - explode. While my ears were still ringing, I had to dodge a fireball that hit another bookshelf right behind me.

I found myself appalled at Alton's fiery treatment of the very treasures he so jealously guarded. I'm sure I would have come up with something witty to throw at him on the subject, but unfortunately I was kept busy with various different flavours of hurt that I wanted to avoid sampling too extensively.

When I happened to glance at the bookshelf, I noticed it was not even darkened where the fireball had hit it. I began to have a strong suspicion that this treasure chamber was actually a real live illusion-laced trap. The eventuality made me want to curse long and hard and colourfully.

After a while, Alton apparently decided he had been throwing around enough spells, and he shifted his grip on his staff. I lifted my blade against it, and parried the first hit. After that, however, it seemed that the mage was everywhere at once; blows rained down on me, and all I could see was a faint after-image of glimmer left behind by the staff each time it hit home with bone-crushing strength.

I tried to dash for the door, but my way was blocked. I tried to parry, but as the poison worked its way into my system, my arms moved more and more slowly. At some point I even coughed up some blood. I have to admit I was mildly surprised to see it was not green, corrosive or on fire, what with the tumult that was going on in my body.

Alton seemed to grow bored of the bashing too after a while. He took a few steps back when I staggered and hit a wall. The master mage started to weave some kind of complicated spell that I expected would not stop at being unpleasant. Unfortunately, my legs refused to move to step away from its path; I could only watch the extraordinary series of gestures that made it clear he was going to cast something particularly interesting at me.

I almost wished my arrogant elf friend were here to see this; he was always fascinated by new spells. I also gathered that even he would probably not be quite so fascinated to see this one from the target point of view. Would wipe that smirk off his face, with any luck. The thought was comforting.

Then all of a sudden, something materialized from thin air between me and Alton. The complicated spell was never released. I heard a vaguely familiar voice, but wrote it off as my imagination. A smell of garlic and acid filled the air, and I heard Alton hissing in fury. Apparently the master mage retreated to adjust to the new situation.

My knight in shining armour turned and held out a hand, which I took without hesitation. It was only when his suggestion to get us out of here finally registered in my head that I realized that my mind apparently wasn't playing tricks on me after all. It was the elf mage I had left behind today.

"YOU. I was just thinking about you!"

"How sweet. Was it happy thoughts?"

"Of course." Ah, no need to mention it involved amusement at his violent demise. He would know, anyway.

The elf promptly conjured up a magical doorway, pulled me through it and made it vanish as we got to the other side. We were in a comfortable, single-room hunting cabin. A few sets of deer horns on the wall made me suspicious, since I knew it was not an elvish custom to boast with body parts of dead animals. Following my confused stare, he clarified that the cabin was not his, he just had leave to use it as a getaway for the time being.

When the disorientation from a sudden relocation had settled, my iron will and a full dose of terror were no longer enough to keep me on my feet. My legs turned to jelly, and I only barely noticed being caught in mid-fall and promptly hauled to a bed. I was just about to formulate something clever about my disbelief that a skinny mage like him could even lift me off the floor. As another sign of life's unfairness, my barb was cruelly interrupted by pain shooting up from my cut and torn muscles. Fatigue drew dark borders on the edges of my vision.

I may have blacked out for the briefest of moments, since mysteriously enough my armour had vanished somewhere, my wounds were cleaned and long, nimble fingers were presently wrapping me in bandages. I disconnectedly looked at my battered body being tended, thinking that since he had now caught me without my armour, there would be no end to lecherous jokes to bait me with. The bitter smell of medicinal herbs filled the air, and I decided to sleep on it all.