Brenda’s hand barely shook as she poured the tea for the stranger at the head of her table. She gave him a nervous smile, which he returned in kind, taking the tea and sipping. “Delightful. Thank you.”
Brenda glanced around. One of the other black-cloaked men was busily dragging the bodies out of the front door; another was replacing the bricks in her wall one-by-one without actually touching them, simply moving his hands through the air. As she watched, her eyes widening, mortar sprouted into being from nothing and filled in the cracks, leaving no indication whatsoever that anything had ever been amiss. Still another was sitting by the fire, tickling and petting the cooing, purring purple dragon.
It had been an interesting night, she reflected. “You’re welcome.”
“So.” The man sitting at the table was the only one who had removed his hat and coat; the others were still shrouded. “I expect you’re wondering who we are and why we’re here.”
“You could say that.” Ioan’s eyes shifted nervously between the stranger at the head of the table and the man sitting at the fireplace. “Also, who those men were and why they were after my dragon.”
The stranger’s mouth twitched at Ioan’s comment, but he said nothing. A thick hand rubbed over his smooth, bald head and flicked one of his silver earrings before he finally spoke. “Well, to start off with, my name. I am Sir Iain Gimms, at your service.”
Ioan peered intently into Iain’s eyes. “No, you’re not.”
Iain looked properly shocked. “Why, whatsoever do you mean?”
“That’s not your real name. An alias, perhaps.”
Iain’s mouth twitched again, this time curving into a slow smile. “Very good.” He stroked his beard. “Yes, very good. I like you, you have potential.”
Ioan huffed, still watching the man by the fireplace nervously. “Are you going to tell us your real name?”
“Alright.” Iain took another sip of his tea. He was the only one who had drank any yet. “My name is Taeligan Moriarti. At least, that’s the closest approximation that your vocal apparatus can produce.”
“What do you mean?” Ishlin asked sharply from his end of the table, arms crossed.
“I mean you can’t pronounce my name as it’s actually said. And that’s just my first name, not any of those that came after.”
“I don’t like the sound of that,” Ishlin replied, straightening. “It sounds like a lot of lies and deceit in your life.”
“When necessary.” Taeligan finished his tea. “I don’t like to lie, but there are times when it’s for the greater good. There are also times when it’s necessary for one’s safety, or the safety of one’s family.”
Ishlin scoffed. “Right. You talk about safety? You just beat a houseful of burglars without even trying. From where I sit, you easily look like the most dangerous man in the room, more powerful than anything I’ve seen. You don’t need lies to be safe.”
“Not anymore, perhaps.” Taeligan shifted his posture. “But I’m not the most powerful being in this world, at least not by some definitions of ‘power.’ In fact, you’ve met stronger things than me. We’re powerful, no doubt, but we’re not invulnerable, even now. It’s only recently that I’ve felt comfortable really ‘stretching my legs,’ as it were, and even that minor display I just put on is probably going to attract some attention.”
“What kind of attention?” Brenda asked, at the same time Ioan asked, “You? Don’t you mean you all?”
Taeligan said nothing, watching as the man repairing the wall finished his task and walked out the front door. Ishlin followed his gaze. “Where is he going?”
Taeligan’s eyes danced. “I’m going out into the alleyway to make sure all the damage is repaired.”
“What do you mean…” Ioan looked back and forth between the door, the man by the fireplace and Taeligan helplessly.
Taeligan chuckled, and held up his hands. “I’m sorry, I’m not exactly being fair. Look, watch this.”
The man by the fireplace stood up, carrying the little dragon over to the table. He set Perenastrasz down on the table and then straightened, removing his hat.
Everyone at the table drew back in unison. The visage under the hat was identical to Taeligan!
The two Taeligans pursed their lips in unison. “Alright,” said the first one. “Let me uncomplicate things a bit.” With that, the second Taeligan disappeared with a soft “pop.”
Brenda twitched. “I…think maybe…I should have some tea.” She lifted the cup to her lips, hands shaking.
“How many of you are there?” Ishlin demanded, eyes narrowing.
“Only the one,” Taeligan replied, his voice even. “When you get to a certain stage, you’re not so constrained by temporality. It becomes possible to view a single event from more than one frame of reference.”
“Meaning…” Ioan said slowly.
“Meaning all four of the people we saw…were you?” Kyton finished.
“More or less.” Taeligan tickled the little dragon under his chin ruff.
Caeric leaned forward. “Really? I thought they were apprentices…”
“As a rule, I don’t bring students along in first-contact situations. We don’t like to risk exposure when we’re not sure how you’ll react.”
“But you’re exposing yourself,” Ioan pointed out.
“A risk,” Taeligan admitted, “but in general I can take care of myself.”
Ishlin eyed him. “Not afraid of us country folk, of course.”
Taeligan pinned him with a look, saying nothing. Ishlin met his gaze for a moment, trying again to sense his intentions and finding nothing more than a void. Finally, he pursed his lips. “S’pose I wouldn’t be either, in your position.”
“Right.” Taeligan straightened. “Now that’s out of the way, perhaps I should get to just why I’m here?”
“Perhaps.” Ioan leaned forward, rubbing Perenastrasz’s neck behind his tiny horns.
“I’m here about the dragon, of course.”
“Why?” Ioan unconsciously drew the little purple creature closer to him.
“Because his mother was an ally of ours.” Taeligan stood up, and began to pace back and forth along the length of the table. “You must have noticed her…unusual coloring.”
“Well.” Taeligan clasped his hands behind his back. “First, I suppose I should say that we’re…not from around here. By that, I mean that Rodorsceaft is not our home.”
The house was silent for a moment, save for the crackle of the fire and the dragon’s soft purring. Finally, Brenda leaned forward. “Then where are you from?”
Taeligan smiled slightly. “There are things I will explain, and things I will not. That is one of the things that I will not explain. Suffice it to say, we — my companions and I — are from beyond the stars.”
“You mean another plane?” Brenda’s eyes cut into Taeligan keenly.
“But that’s not possible,” Brenda continued, accusation in her voice. “The Dance of the Fading Spiral has cut this world off from all others. How could you be from a different plane?”
Taeligan met her eyes for a moment while everyone else present gaped at her. Finally, with an impish grin, he replied, “DM fiat. Now. The important-”
Brenda threw up her arms, her pink pigtails thrashing wildly. “That’s all you’re going to give me?”
“For now, yes. Now,” Taeligan continued, “the important fact is that your little dragon’s mother was an ally of ours. She was a part of our vanguard, sent to make contact with others of her kind. That was forty or so of your years ago.”
“So you’ve been here for some time, then,” Ioan said.
“Vanguard?” Ishlin fingered his bow. “Are you some kind of invader, then?”
“Some might see it that way,” Taeligan admitted. “We are House Paendrag, and we wander the worlds to fight tyranny and injustice. Some short while ago, we became aware of your world and its…unusual attributes, and my brother decided to investigate.”
“Your brother?” Dohbanel repeated. “You have a brother?”
“He is the part of us who makes the decisions,” Taeligan replied. “My younger brother. But I digress, if only slightly. We decided to investigate, and…well, set up shop, as it were.”
“And why are you here, again?” Ishlin asked, still tense.
“As I said,” Taeligan answered, meeting Ishlin’s gaze unflinchingly. “The Paendrags stand against tyranny, injustice and the abuses that inevitably come with unchecked power. From world to world we go, spreading our message and training those who would stand against evil to root it out, to fight it and to carry forth our ideals.”
“And those are?”
Taeligan smiled. “That nobody, no matter what, should ever be allowed to have too much power. Nobody, no matter how righteous, no matter how noble, or no matter how black and tyrannical, if you prefer such things, should ever be allowed to have too much power. Power corrupts, power abuses, and it grows without limit.”
Taeligan turned and faced the fire. “A long time ago, House Paendrag stood on our home world as a bastion of goodness and service to the Light. Our ancestor, Naormain Paendrag, was a paladin, like you, and he gave his life defending the world against tyranny. He was regarded as one of the greatest heroes that our world had ever known. But House Paendrag fell, cut down from within and without, and a dark force seized power. It grew, and grew, until it ruled the entire world. And then, the dead rose, the land split and the seas turned to poison under the weight of the corruption and their rampant oppression.” Taeligan tightened his hand into a fist. “Never again. Not while we stand, not while we breathe.”
Everyone stared at him, saying nothing. He stared into the fire a moment longer, and then relaxed. “But again, I digress. Peren’s mother was an ally of ours. She had been in this world for some time, long enough to take at least several mates…” Taeligan’s gaze drifted over Caeric. “We knew she had lay a clutch of eggs. Not sure who the father was, she might have eaten him.”
Taeligan wandered over to one of the remaining corpses, right at the edge of the fire’s light. “When she was slain, we went to investigate. We found her den looted and her eggs shattered…and then we found her body, and a corpse nearby bearing a strange tattoo.” Taeligan knelt and brushed aside the dead man’s hair, revealing the double-headed trident.
“Do you know who they are?” Ishlin asked.
Taeligan nodded. “They’re locals. Hunters. They track down and kill magical beasts and creatures of legend, and then…harvest the parts that they think are of some value.” Taeligan spat. “Vultures.”
“Oi.” Dohbanel’s voice was sharp.
Taeligan flashed her a look. “Apologies. You are correct. Far worse than vultures. These…men…murder creatures of grace, beauty and power for profit. It disgusts me.”
Taeligan walked back over to the table and sat down, slowly and deliberately. “We became aware that one of the eggs had survived. We knew, also, that this band of murderers was aware of the same fact. We tracked them as they tracked you, waiting for the moment when they would gather to take what they believed to be theirs.”
Ioan drew Peren into a protective embrace. “What would they have done?”
“Killed him, perhaps.” Taeligan stroked his beard. “Or sold him into bondage. Such a rare and unusual creature? I wouldn’t even begin to speculate how much money they would have tried to make from him.”
“So you used us as bait,” Kyton said slowly.
“That’s right.” Taeligan reached out and scratched Peren between his wings. “We kept watch, I assure you. At no point were you in any significant danger.”
Brenda sputtered. “I…you…you bastard! These men came into my house, they attacked me-”
Taeligan raised his hands as the tiny woman advanced on him. “Please, young miss, please! We had to wait until they were gathered in their strength to attack you! Had we acted sooner, we couldn’t have made enough of an example to give them pause. Moreover, you could not have made such an example. It wasn’t just the egg they were after, mind you; you stole a significant portion of Zephadoranth’s hoard. They wanted to exact their revenge for that as well.”
Brenda clenched her jaw, but said nothing.
“Please believe me,” Taeligan continued. “What we did here was the best we could have done. You are safe, for a time anyway, and so is the wyrmling.”
Another Taeligan poked his head in the front door. “Constables coming.”
“Ah.” Taeligan stood up, donning his hat. “That’s our cue to leave, then.” He pulled a sack of coin from nowhere and dropped it on the table. “You have our apologies for putting you in danger, minor though it was, and our gratitude for caring for young Peren during his egg time.” He looked around the table, meeting their eyes. “You are good people. If the time should come that you wish to know more about us…look for us, and you will find us.”
Everyone stood as Taeligan approached Ioan, who held Peren like a cat. “The dragon must come with us.”
“No.” Ioan held Peren closer.
Taeligan’s face became strained. “I’m sorry, but I really must insist-”
“No,” Peren gurgled, turning his head and staring Taeligan in the eye.
The two of them stared at each other for a long, tense moment. Finally, Taeligan nodded. “So be it, then. Perenastrasz has chosen to remain with you.” His eyes found Ioan’s, and pinned him in place. “Take very good care of our friend.”
Ioan paled. “Yes, sir.”
Tael flashed another impish smile, tipped his hat, and vanished with a soft “pop.” Immediately afterwards, there came a loud knock on the door…