The air in the tavern was smoky. I could actually see wisps of smoke trailing from the pipes of other customers, and from the fireplace. I would almost have called it stuffy in here and made my way outside, if it weren't so cold out there.
Maybe that was why I couldn't make out my companion's features. Their hood was drawn well over their face, but somehow it was more than that -- it was like they simply didn't want to be known, so they wouldn't be known. There was the curve of a cheek, the glint off an eye. A human was in there, somewhere, I thought.
But what they were saying to me was... well, disturbing, to say the least.
"You've seen signs of unrest, yes?" They sounded tired, as if this was something they were sadly very familiar with. "You know there is a plot to assassinate the High Kings."
I nodded slowly. As a member of the Thieves' Company, of course I'd heard of it: an enormous bounty for killing the King. But this mysterious person was telling me that similar plots were taking place all over the world.
"Once they are dead, things will be set in motion. Things that will be... hard to stop."
There was something in their voice that told me that the "things" would be... better avoided. I suddenly felt very nervous, as if someone were watching me. A patron across the room laughed cruelly; a glance in that direction told me they were laughing at someone at their table, but the timing had made it feel as if someone were laughing at me, or at some cruel joke implied in what my companion had said.
They went on: "So, it is important for me to know how soon you think an assassin might succeed."
I racked my brain for a moment. Did I trust this person? Did I even know the answer to their question? The contract to assassinate the King was so far beyond my skill that I hadn't paid much attention to it. And I had almost laughed it off, too... who would actually try to fulfill a contract like that? These things happened all the time, people would ask us to kill someone who no one could effectively touch, and those contracts just went unfulfilled, and eventually expired without comment.
But... "That contract's been out for a month or two. If you hadn't told me..." I swallowed hard, "What you've just told me, I would have assumed no one would act on it. But now that you're asking me..." I thought for a few more minutes. Would Eldran and his people be desperate enough? Gold had been thin in the city, lately, with the taxes higher and enforcement defending caravans more tightly...
I sighed. "It's possible someone might try it. And, if that's the case, they might succeed in a month or two. A hit like that... it would require a lot of resources and planning. But I'd wager it's not impossible, with a bounty that large riding on it."
My companion nodded slowly. They said, "Thank you. And... I wish you all the best, in the coming days." The last part was said with a terrible kind of gravity that took my breath away. Then they stood, bowed ever so slightly, and left.
I sat for a while, mulling over what I'd just heard. If there was a plot to assassinate *all* the High Kings, and not just ours... that implied some kind of coordination. Some kind of... global organization? And other than the obvious unrest that would ensue, my strange companion had implied that there was some even worse consequence. I might be a Thief by training, but... even I knew that a certain amount of stability was needed in society. On top of that, I had a strange, deep sense of foreboding about these consequences they had hinted at. And I had learned, in my line of work, to take that kind of gut instinct seriously.
At length, I decided I needed to know more about the source, if I was to believe what they were telling me. I stood, went to the innkeep, settled up for the evening, and ventured out into the winter night to trail my evening companion.
The snow was bright with moonlight, and there were deep shadows cast across the road. Just the same, it had been snowing earlier in the evening, so the snow showed footprints very clearly. Especially for someone of my skill.
The footprints were easy enough to identify; my mysterious companion had worn strange heavy boots, not of a material I could easily place, at least not from the quick look I'd had as they stood next to the table when they'd arrived and left.
They left light footprints, though. I thought to myself that they must be fairly stealthy, themselves. Careless, then, to have left footprints at all? Did they want me to follow them? They hadn't given me that impression when we'd been talking. I took the utmost caution, but my quarry was clearly fleet of foot, and I had taken my time in deciding to follow them. It became clear as I went that they had gotten quite far ahead of me.
But eventually I followed their trail up a ways into the mountains, around a bend, where they would be out of sight of any human eyes likely to be out and about at this hour in this season. And finally, I caught up with them.
I could hear them speaking, that same soft, heavy tone that was full of weariness, full of some kind of dull pain... full of... time, somehow. As if they'd seen everything. They hadn't sounded... old, exactly, and they clearly didn't move like an elderly person, the way they'd fled up here ahead of me...
I crept closer, slowly, wanting to know as much as I could about this situation.
"...Of course, I know you expected this. You were always more pessimistic than I was."
And then I heard another voice. I couldn't make sense of this one at all. It sounded tired, too, but also a little brighter, more friendly... almost charismatic? But also... mechanical?
The other voice said, "And who is the Emissary among us."
My evening companion laughed bitterly. "I don't think that matters, so much, here. They haven't spoken to me, not yet."
"Thank the wise hermit for that," the mechanical-charismatic voice said.
My evening companion murmured assent, and then said, "Varek, I'm running out of ideas."
The mechanical voice sighed, and said, "I know. But we learn more, every time, don't we?"
"Yes." And then silence for a long time. I almost thought of stepping out, trying to find out more by directly asking these people what was going on.
But as I wavered, I heard my evening companion say, "I do tire of being a fleshless eye, as Gajus put it. And he had the opportunity to let us in on the whole story, and chose not to. So, I think it's time to invite our visitor to come find out more, don't you think?"
Varek, the mechanical voice, didn't respond, but I realized with a chill that had nothing to do with the cold that they meant me. I panicked slightly -- I had been as quiet as I knew how! -- but before I could do or say anything, my companion called out more loudly, "So? Will you join us? To learn more, at least?"
I nervously stepped around the corner, and there was my evening companion, looking just as they had in the tavern, cloak and strange boots... and next to them was something totally unbelievable.
I wasn't sure I even had the words to describe it. It was huge; made of metal, and as I watched it shift position to track me when I stepped forward, I saw that it moved gracefully despite its size and construction. Or maybe... because of that? And it seemed... alive, somehow. It looked like the mythological pictures of dragons, or like an enormous bird, and it gleamed a brassy gold in the moonlight. My evening companion was standing with their hand on one of the creature's limbs, and I almost thought I could read tenderness in the gesture.
I stammered a greeting to them, and the creature ducked its head ever so briefly to me in acknowledgment. I suddenly felt as if I were in the company of things more ancient than I could comprehend; things that might better be called legends. And who was I? A middling-level member of the Thieves' Company.
"So? Do you want to know more? There will be no going back." I tore my gaze from the mechanical creature and tried to think about what the cloaked, hooded figure was asking me.
If anything, seeing this... creature, and hearing the way the two of them had been talking to each other, I was even more convinced that something was going on that was far beyond anything I could have imagined. And if half of what they'd implied about some unknown doom hovering over the horizon was true...
I stepped forward as resolutely as I could manage, and said, "Yes, I want to know more." I saw a hooded face turn to a mechanical one, and the great golden head nod slightly.
"Well, then it's best just to show you. If you'd join us?" my companion said, and then climbed up the creature to a kind of saddle between its shoulders. I blanched for a moment, and tried to step forward without showing my fear.
I heard the mechanical voice purr a short chuckle. "Come now, I won't bite. Unless you want me to," the brass dragon said to me.
I flushed, not sure how a mechanical creature could flirt with me enough to set me off guard, but I saw where it had bent a leg to make it easy to climb up to the seat behind the cloaked figure, and I focused on getting into the seat without utterly embarrassing myself.
"Ready?" Varek said to my mysterious companion. They rapped softly on the panel in front of them in answer, and Varek made that purring chuckling sound again.
Then the cloaked shape shifted as they leaned back to say to me, "You *will* want to hold on." There was a touch of humor in it -- the first I'd heard of any such emotion in that voice. I said, "All right," and did my best to find the spots that were clearly meant to be handholds, took a deep breath, let it out slowly, and said, "I'm ready."
And with that, we took off into the cold night sky, and amidst the overwhelming thrill of the feeling of flight, the only coherent thought I had was that my life would never be the same again.