Gerald Ilberd approached the edge of the swamp atop his steed, Heiko. The battle charger was well worn after a long day of marching, and was about to inform his master of this by dumping his armored frame on the ground, but instead stopped with a sigh as Gerald pulled on the reigns. The swamp ahead was a destitute place, filled with cracked and dead trees, drooping grasses, and an evil smell the two liked not one bit. Heiko had a sense of unease generated by the swamp itself, but for Gerald it was emanating from one point in particular.
The hut of the wizard he’d been charged to find lay ahead, and a more disturbing place Gerald had never seen in his life. It was a small hut, low to the ground on the last patch of dry land before the swamp proper. Made of mud and thatch, it rose above the grasses like a boil, and trees stuck out from the sides like spiderous legs. To Gerald’s eye, it looked ready to pick up and walk off any minute, and the gaping maw of the open doorway was not inviting in the least. He shivered, and brushed at his full mustache to calm his nerves.
As he dismounted, he spied movement in the cavernous darkness. A stooped man, wearing what seemed to be dirty robes, appeared in the opening. His cowl was up, and Gerald could not see his face. In his crooked, almost clawed hand, he held a staff, and there was a black gem atop it. A thin, reedy laughter came from the cowl, and Gerald shivered again.
He rested his hand on the pommel of his sword, feeling comfort in the old blade of his fathers, and strode across the small clearing. The old wizard leaned on his staff with both hands, watching him, inscrutable under his hood. Two meters from the decrepit mage, Gerald stopped and announced himself.
“I am Sir Gerald Ilberd, come from King Thainor. I have been charged with the rescue of the princess of Zaevaria. I am told you know where she may be found. Will you help me?”
The reedy laughter sounded again, and one of the warped old paws left the staff and waved at him. The wizard spoke, and his voice was high, sounding as if it had endured many years of smoke and chanting. “I know your name, boy, and I know your mission. Mayhap I know more of it than you do. Do you know why your king has sent you on this fool’s errand?”
Gerald blinked, confused, and said, “It is because he trusts in my skill and abilities, that I will…”
“It’s because you’re expendable, boy,” the wizard interrupted, and laughed again. “He doesn’t think you have a chance in the Five Hells of Xandradu of accomplishing this task, and if you die he will simply send another to bother me for the whereabouts of the Tower of Benshi. Your end is clouded in mystery, so there is a possibility you will succeed. I will help you, but do try not to die. I am tired of having my studies interrupted by gallant knights trying to rescue princesses.”
Gerald was taken aback by this. He had assumed that he’d served his Lord well, and had been given this mission because the King trusted him to complete it. The wizard laughed again, and turned away. Gerald straightened, finding his pride again, and made to follow.
“Do you know why,” the wizard asked, “your King has been trying to find a knight capable of rescuing this woman?”
“I am not in the habit of questioning my king, good wizard.”
“Of course you aren’t.” After a sigh, the old mage continued, “It is because war is coming, and he who has the aid of the King of Zaevaria is sure to survive, if not come out the victor. Are you familiar with Zaevaria, home of this princess you hope to free?”
“I cannot say I have heard much of it.”
The wizard shook his head, thinking that this was another lost cause, and that he would never see the inside of the tower himself. He wished that King Thainor would find more competent cannon fodder, but if they were competent he wouldn’t be throwing them against the Tower of Benshi with such wild abandon. “I thought as much. Well, come with me.”
He moved into the hut, and Gerald followed, his armor making a quiet clanking as he walked. Inside the hut Gerald was struck first by the smell of the place. It was thick with cloying incense smoke, and he coughed with the exotic odor. As his eyes adjusted to the darkness he saw shelves of books, a brazier in the center of the floor, and a table adorned with runes off to one side. Atop this table was a skull of strange origin, and Gerald couldn’t tell what sort of creature it once belonged to. The place was lit by candles of dark blue wax, and the flames glowed with a sickly, green light. He coughed, and stood near the door where the incense reek was not so strong.
The mage went to a shelf and pulled a scroll from a pile, he seemed to have prepared several of these items. As he turned and held it out to Gerald, the knight got the distinct feeling the ancient creature was grinning at him, but couldn’t tell for sure thanks to the darkness of his cowl. The old man laughed again, and told him, “Consider this a gift from Dyzohr to you, Sir Knight.”
Gerald reached out to take it, feeling his skin crawl as his mailed gauntlet touched the parchment. It was magical, and the aura around it made him feel queasy. “What manner of spell is this?”
“A map, boy. This will show you the way to the Tower, and from there it will show you the way to Zaevaria. Given my pact with the Lord of that land, I am forbidden from revealing anything but its location to you, and only that because you are attempting to rescue his daughter. But fear not the spell. It merely binds the map to you. Should you fail, the map will kindle itself and burn, so that others with less…pure motives may not learn of its secrets. The magic cannot harm you, I swear.”
Gerald looked skeptical, saying, “Meaning no offense, I have heard much about the promises of wizards.”
“And much of it is likely true, but this is simply to protect me in the event of your untimely demise. Now, one more thing. This,” the wizard produced from within his sleeve a small wooden object. As he turned it in his hand, Gerald saw that it was a whistle, like the toys he used to play with as a child.
“And is this whistle ensorcelled as well?”
“It is,” said the wizard, sounding indignant, “and if you do not desire my help then I will take my map back as well. Then you can wander the countryside searching for something you’ll never find.”
“I apologize, Wizard Dyzohr. I meant no disrespect. I have been warned against magic, and mistrust it mightily.”
“Not an unwise position to take.” Dyzohr held out the whistle again. “Once you have rescued the princess of Zaevaria, you are to blow upon this whistle. It will inform me of the success of your mission, so that I might send word to your King.”
Gerald reached out and took the whistle, placing it in a belt pouch. He suspected that there was another reason for this signal, but kept his peace. It was well known that it was not wise to agitate a wizard without cause. “Very well,” he said, “I shall sound it once I have found the princess. Thank you for your help, wise Dyzohr.”
“Yes, yes, of course. Now, do you have any further questions before you set out?”
“Just one. If you know the location of this Tower, and you have a pact with the King of Zaevaria, then why not rescue the princess yourself?”
“Ah, so you aren’t as thick as you look. Certainly not as thick as some of your predecessors.” The wizard laughed again. “This is the kind of quest that requires more physical exertion that I am able to muster. I’m an old man, and though powerful, I don’t take it into my head to run off to magical towers and fight dangerous monsters to rescue beautiful women. I leave that to the younger generations, and keep my involvement to aiding when and how I can. Now, off with you. The day grows long, and you have quite a ride ahead of you.”
And with that, Dyzohr waved Gerald out of his hut. As the young knight crossed the green to his horse, he wondered at the ominous meaning behind the wizard’s words. He felt the pouch with the whistle, and stared at the map in his hand, a sinking feeling growing in the pit of his stomach. He mounted Heiko, and as he galloped off away from the swamp, he heard the thin laughter of Dyzohr following across the plains.