Chapter 1

Altering

It was a rather pathetic little tower. The round structure rose about three stories off the ground-the bare minimum to really qualify as a wizard's tower-made of rough-hewn stone held together by some crude mortar. Said something about the inhabitant, I guess. The simple fact that Mr. de Long resided in a genuine wizard's tower at all said something about both the arcane power and the wealth at his disposal. But having such a small one, with such sloppy workmanship... this was not the mark of a man with a high degree of self-respect or moral fiber. Made him look like the sort of guy who wanted what he wanted now, who went and got himself a tower the moment he had the resources to be able to afford to raise one, instead of having the patience to wait until he could obtain a truly good one.

The sort of guy who would try to hire a guy like me, I thought as I strode through the smoking remains of what had once been his guards. Conjured creatures, elementals mostly. Not a soldier in sight. That, and the genuine wizard's tower made of cheap materials, made him look like he had more mojo than money. And yet he'd made it known that he desired my services, and I don't come cheap. And it goes without saying that I do not accept payment in magic of any kind. With one exception-there always is one, you know-but it was early on, and I'm not likely to ever need that again. At least I hope not.

Curiouser and curiouser. Whatever it was he had his sights set on, it must be a real prize.

I stepped up to the tower in the early morning light, and laid a hand against it, feeling the tingle of the wards and fundaments he'd worked into the stone. There was a wooden door nearby. I could have knocked, but that's really no way to make an entrance. In my line of work, it helps to be a bit flashy sometimes. So I reached into my pack and got a few pieces of kit out. A pouch full of steel spikes, with a drawstring that I tied to my belt. A climbing hammer with a laniard which I tied around my wrist. I hoped I wouldn't need them-it would make too much noise, and be too obvious. Better to have it and not need it, though... And the last thing I grabbed was some chalk dust. I hung that pouch around my neck, on a laniard long enough to reach my stomach, then got some all over both hands for traction.

Turned out I didn't need the pitons after all. The stone was rough and poorly cut, and there were plenty of places to find fingerholds. Free climbing's pretty scary stuff, but I'd done it before under worse conditions. Took me about half an hour to make my way up to the top of the tower. I pulled myself up and over one of the crenels running along the edge, being very careful not to touch anything made of metal or glass. The stone was safe, but up here at the focus of the tower was some serious magic that even I didn't want to screw around with.

There was a trapdoor near the edge, about a third of the way around from where I'd come up, with a metal bar coming out of the stone to either side and a crossbar between them. The end of a ladder, then. OK, time to make an entrance. First things first, though. I stowed the climbing gear back in my pack, then pulled out a specially-marked waterskin. A sharp smell, acidic but not unpleasant, wafted out as I uncorked it; I wasn't carrying water inside, but some pretty strong vinegar. I used it to wash the limestone powder off my hands, then shook them dry. You show up wearing chalk dust, someone might know you're a climber. You show up smelling like vinegar... they just get all confused and figure you must have Twisted your way up somehow. It's funny. Even where real magic exists, even among people that use it and know what it can and can't do, people still resort to superstition rather than rationality to explain things that don't make all that much sense at first glance.

Though, to be fair, the Twist was hardly a well-understood magical principle. It's difficult to study something, afterall, when the only known practitioner-if the word even applies-has both motive and means to avoid scrutiny whenever possible.

Anyway, away with the vinegar waterskin, and out with the probe and knife. There was a pretty simple lock on the trapdoor; it only took a minute or so to work my way around. Sure, it was overlaid with some heavy warding-remember the bit about more magic than money?-but, well... you know. And so I was in.

And so was the resident wizard. Robert de Long ran into the upper room right as I was climbing down the ladder. He didn't look much like what you'd expect of a wizard. You know, tall, slender, old, long white hair and beard, big flowy robes, floppy hat and magic staff, and an air of authority about him. But no, this guy was a bit on the shorter side of medium height and kinda stocky, looked to be in his early 30s, had dark brown hair with a sizeable bald spot encroaching on it, still in his pajamas, with an air of panic about him. He held out a hand towards me and shouted "ab duraznak!" and a big wind flared up in the crowded upper room.

This was some pretty serious wind, really. Strong enough to blow a guy my size back up the ladder and off the roof.

I just stood there and let it swirl and eddy around me until it blew the trap door closed instead.

He scowled and called out "tura froyu!" next, holding out both hands.

"You really shouldn't d-" I tried to warn him, I really did! He didn't listen, though.

Poor guy. The bolt of lightning he called up slammed into me. It tickled. Made me shiver a little. He, on the other hand... well, on the bright side, that bald spot wasn't going to be a problem for him for some time to come. His hair went instantly white and started growing before my eyes. It eventually stopped, about two feet long, straight, and very thick, a perfect Merlin hairdo. All that was missing was the beard.

He didn't wait for it to stop growing, though. "What did you do to me?" he just about screamed in my face.

"I didn't do it, technically," I said. "And do you treat all your guests this way?"

"What do you m-" The wizard stopped, then stepped forward, conjuring up a ball of light to get a better look at me. He sniffed slightly as he started to notice the scent of vinegar on me, and gave me a quizzical look. "You can't be Paul Twister," he said slowly, hesitantly. I hadn't given my name, but who else would I be? "You're a child, not an archwizard!"

Well, one out of two isn't too bad, considering the circumstances. I'm not, and never will be, an archwizard.

"Paul Twister, at your service," I said as cheerily as I could. "And I'm nineteen years old. That's well past enough to be counted a man in this kingdom." Well, techinically I was closer to thirty, but try telling my body that. I haven't aged a day since I got here, near as I can tell. In fact, I shudder to think it but I might have even gotten a bit younger, physically.

"But..." I could see the wheels spinning in his head. The great Paul Twister's adventures were already legend. The bards first started singing about my wild exploits maybe five years back, and there'd had to have been some time before then to accomplish stuff worthy of bards singing about. Subtract X from Y, carry the 1, round off to two decimal places, take the square root and dip it in root beer, and the only conclusion to reach is that the numbers just didn't add up. I decided to take pity on the poor shlub before be gave himself an aneurysm.

"The Twist turns as it wills," I said, and he nodded, as if it made any sense at all. A line like that can get you out of all sorts of reasonable questions, if you know how to use it.

"Very well," he said. "I was expecting to meet with your herald, or perhaps even to have you come to my door, but... I suppose the Twist turns as it wills." He sighed, his shoulders slumping slightly.

"Even so," I added with my best sage nod. Wow. This guy thinks I have a herald? Half the time I can hardly even afford to hire a freaking pageboy! But whatever. "I understand you wished to engage my services? Something about a seal?"

He nodded, then brushed at his still-growing hair with irritation. "It's below. I've recently acquired an... item of great power, but it is locked away behind a magical seal." Wow again. He already had the thing, and it's right here with him? Easy money! Usually they send me in to retrieve the item myself, from behind whatever seal or ward its owner guarded it with. If only all my jobs were like this!

"And upon discovering that the seal was beyond your... not inconsiderable capacity, you decided to seek out a specialist." There's no harm in a bit of flattery every once in a while, especially if you've just humiliated someone by total accident. It can really help smooth ruffled feathers. "Very well, I'll have a look at it. There is, of course, the small matter of my fee."

The mage nodded. "Come with me."

De Long led me down to the second floor, to a small room with a stone table and a mirror on the wall. He had me wait a moment, then came back dressed in a proper wizard's robe. He carried a bulging coin pouch, which he tossed on the table in front of me. I dumped it out, finding it a rather heterogeneous mix of gold, silver, copper, and tiny gemstones. Enough to live comfortably on for a year, if I was a commoner, or a month or three if I was me. Unfortunately, I'm me.

I ran my fingers through the money avariciously, hoping that's what it would look like. A greedy mercenary caressing his newfound wealth. I felt a bit of a tingle for a brief moment when my fingers passed over a few of the precious stones. Clever. They were stones of lesser value, which I would be less likely to spend quickly than the coins, and less likely to trade in for money quickly than the more expensive gems in the lot. He's not the first to have tried to spy on me that way, though.

I bit a few of the coins for show, and pulled out a loupe from my pack to examine the gems, as if I had any clue what to look for. What I had was reputation, and that itself was enough to ensure he wouldn't cheat me. Robert de Long may be a cheap little toad of a man, but he was a toad, not a weasel.

"Very well," I said, scooping the payment back into the pouch. "This appears to be in order. If you could call for a witness?"

If I hadn't been looking for it, I would have missed it. His eyes widened just a little at that. He was nervous. Then he went all smooth and oily. "Oh, that should not be necessary, Great Twister. I'm certain you can appreciate the value of discretion at times?"

I inclined my head in a polite nod. "I certainly can. So if you could call for a witness... discreetly?"

He sighed when he got the point, then walked over to the mirror and cleared his throat. "O mirror, mirror, on my wall, to Brian Eckart I do call." I bit my lip to keep from snickering as the mirror clouded over, then shimmered into a reflection of a distant hearth after a few moments. Another wizard came into view. I turned my head so he wouldn't get a good view of my face.

"Robert! What's this all about, calling me so early in the morning?" He sounded more puzzled than annoyed.

"My apologies, Brian. I simply needed a Witnessing. With regards to the seal."

"Then that there..."

Robert nodded. "I do pledge this pouch, containing payment in the value of three hundred delin, to Paul Twister as payment for services rendered, namely the removal of one magical seal."

Not turning my head towards the mirror, I responded. "I do pledge the removal of the seal from the item in Robert de Long's possession, in return for this pouch and the valuables contained therein."

Brian's voice came from behind me. "I do so witness."

"Thank you, Brian," Robert said. And that was that. I had my etheric witness, about the only guarantee I could get against any number of things that could go wrong. Now I just had to take care of the seal.

He led me down the stairs to the base of the tower, then opened a rather heavy wooden door to a staircase descending further. A bit odd, but he wouldn't the first wizard to put a treasury in the basement of his tower. I knew that firsthand; I've extracted items from a few of them in my day. We came to another heavy door, and he opened it, but what met my eyes was no treasury!

It was a dungeon. Dank, smelly, with cells made of iron bars. Large enough that the dim magelight he carried didn't illuminate the whole place, but I could only see one prisoner. A woman, held against the wall by chains binding her wrists and ankles. A fifth chain connected the wall to a thick iron collar around her neck. Didn't look comfortable at all. As we drew closer, I felt anger bubble up within me. She looked like she might have once been pretty, and had she been in better shape, the whole "slave girl dressed in tattered rags that barely cover anything" look might have really done something for me. But when she looked like she hadn't bathed in weeks, her long hair all scraggly, her body covered in filth, sores, and half-healed cuts and bruises, the only passion looking at her aroused was wrath. I may be a scoundrel and a thief, but I'm no monster.

I clenched my teeth and counted slowly to five. "You said you had a thing with a seal on it. Not a person." I forced myself to be calm. A contract backed by etheric witness cuts both ways, afterall, and brings some complications with it that even I could not easily ignore.

"Well," he huffed a bit defensively, "I would think that three hundred delin would buy me the services of someone discreet enough to overlook such trivialities. The seal is on the back of her neck."

He walked over to the door to the woman's cell, and pulled out a heavy iron key. In the magelight, I could see that there was a very mystic-looking device, about seven feet tall, set up in the next cell over. Whatever power was sealed within her, he wanted it for himself, and that must be the way to extract it. Wouldn't do to get it too close to me, though, so he'd probably moved it.

The woman, who had appeared to be unconscious and barely breathing, suddenly opened her eyes and looked up at us. She snarled and shook the chains, and she had this intense look in her eyes. It was a bit scary, and very much out of place on someone who'd been chained up as long as she obviously had. "It will never be yours!" she said in a defiant sob that was more forlorn hope than true conviction.

Robert just laughed and stepped into the cell with the two of us. "We shall see," he said. Then, to me, "go ahead."

I wondered what her story was. Then again, I probably didn't want to know. It would most likely depress me. I started thinking fast. No way this was going to end well, but was there a way to pull off some good kind of bad ending?

As I stepped forward, she looked at me, and it's like she knew. There was just something in those intense eyes. I had never seen this woman before in my life, but she understood the Twist. "Stay away from me!" she sobbed. "Please!" The defiance was gone, and in its place was real.. fear? No, not exactly. Worry.

Not like there's much she could do to me, though, all chained up like that. I moved in close, then reached out and turned her head. She fought me, and it killed me to do it, but not fulfilling that contract would be a Very Bad Thing. No matter what else happened, the seal had to go. I leaned in, ostensibly to examine the dimly-glowing yellow and blue swirly pattern on the back of her neck, barely poking out above the iron collar. Let de Long think I needed to study it. The less mages understood about the Twist, the better. But the real reason was not to get my eyes close to her, but my mouth.

"I'm a friend," I murmured quietly. "No harm will come to you at my hand." Then I placed two fingers against the seal, and let the Twist do its thing.

I felt the tingle of magic, fighting the Twist, trying to crawl up my fingers. Whatever this thing was, it's strong! No wonder de Long couldn't break it. But then the magic Twisted back upon itself. There was no heat, but after a few moments a burst of smoke abruptly rose from her neck, and the seal was gone. The prisoner arched and cried out, and suddenly I had to jump back as a pair of large, white, feathery wings erupted from her back!

Gods, spirits and demons! Had he been holding a freaking celestial captive? That's like trying to get yourself a pet dragon by putting a leash on one while it sleeps!

Well, at least the seal was broken. That meant the contract was fulfilled, and I had no further obligations to de Long, and thus no reason not to do what I did next. I turned, crouched, and sprang, my shoulder taking him in the gut and slamming him against the bars of the cell.

"Ooomf!" He gasped and wheezed. "What are you doing? This is treachery! We had a deal!"

I growled at him in my most menacing tone of voice. "I am altering our deal. Pray that she does not alter it any further." Yeah, I know. No one in this wretched kingdom is gonna get a reference like that. But it made me sound all badass, which is what I was going for.

The angelic woman was struggling against the chains. I looked around, and noticed something very interesting. The door to the next cell was open. Aha! I gave de Long a hard punch right in the gut, then stepped away, slipping through the cell door and slamming it. Then I hurried into the next cell over and laid both hands on the device. It didn't smoke or spark, or melt or anything interesting, but I felt the Twist, and then I heard the iron chains snapping as the celestial's strength returned to her. Suddenly the dungeon was flooded with a much brighter illumination. I looked over at her, and had to hold a hand up to shield my eyes; she was shining like a stadium light! A loose white robe covered her flawless skin, long, shimmering silver hair flowed down to the middle of her back... and as she held up both hands in front of her, a blade of pure light and fire coalesced into her grip.

Robert tried to frantically conjure up some sort of spell to defend himself. I turned and walked out the cell. "I'm gonna... just look around, OK?" I said to no one in particular, walking as quickly as I could to the far side of the dungeon. I didn't want to watch what came next.

There was a quite unmanly scream, which suddenly became a gurgle, and then a thud and the bright light illuminating the room got a whole lot less bright. I heard someone rattling around, picking up the metal key ring and unlocking the cell. Only then did I turn around to face the Celestial woman.

"You shouldn't have done that, Twister." she said rather sternly. "I placed the seal upon myself. I delivered myself into bondage, and when the time was right, when I knew the full extent of his meddling in dark forces, I would have released it."

Seriously? She's an undercover angel-cop and I just blew her investigation? Some sort of winged Bastila Shan? Figures. "My apologies, m'lady. I guess you know who I am already. I was bound to release the seal under an etheric contract, drawn before I knew that the seal lay upon a person and not an object of some sort."

She nodded. "I suppose I cannot blame you for that." She stepped forward, towards me. If that sword was still in her hands, I might have been good and worried. I wouldn't lay odds on the Twist's power to nullify it before it cut off something I wouldn't want to lose. Even so, I was a bit nervous.

"You know me, it seems. May I know your name, m'lady?"

She smiled. When a pretty girl smiles, it's beautiful. But when a hot angel-girl radiating light in a dark room smiles at you... it'll just about blow your mind. I couldn't help it. I stared. I almost missed what she said. Almost, but not quite. "I am Aylwyn," she intoned, three of the loveliest words I've ever heard. "And... I thank you for rescuing me, my gallant hero." There was a bit of a mocking twist to her lips that just made her that much hotter as she stepped towards me again. And then she was leaning in and kissing my cheek, and the way it felt...

Wow! Where can I find myself another imprisoned celestial girl to rescue?

"I intend no offense, but I sincerely hope we never meet again, Paul Twister. Trouble follows in your wake." And then the light around her grew brighter, and brigher, until I was forced to look away... and then the light was gone, and so was she.

Bah. Girl who willingly does stuff like this, and she wants to stay out of the trouble I bring? I've never been mixed up in anything half so ugly as what de Long had done to her. She seriously needs to reexamine her priorities!

I turned and headed out of the dungeon, then back to the second floor. I'd had jobs go bad on me before, but never like this! This was a real mess, and I didn't know what all I could do to clean it up. But there was one thing I would need to do right away.

"O Mirror, mirror, on the wall, to the local Archmagus I do call." Thankfully, the Twist didn't operate by voice. As long as I stood back, it should work fine. I turned my back before the connection could solidify.

"Robert?" a man's voice asked. It sounded vaguely familiar, but the last thing I wanted to do was get into a discussion with some high-ranking wizard, especially one who knew me! "You are not Robert. Who is this?"

"My apologies, Sir Archmagus. I am Paul Twister, and Robert engaged my assistance on a... sensitive matter."

The voice sounded a bit taken aback. "And where is Robert? Why are you speaking to me over his mirror, Paul?"

"Well, I'm sure if Mr. de Long could speak to you right about now, he would, but that's difficult to do when you're laying face down on the floor with a smoking hole in your chest. He was involved in stuff he really shouldn't be. I'm no mage, but... well, you know that I know some things about the workings of magic." The archmagus remained silent, and I continued, choosing my words carefully. "He hired me under etheric contract to break a seal, witnessed by one Brian Eckart. I was led to believe it was a seal protecting a magical artifact of some sort. It was actually upon a woman, who he was holding captive in a dungeon beneath his tower, under deplorable conditions." That right there would have gotten him in big trouble with the Circle, had he still been alive. The magi were supposed to be a force for civilization in the world, a light in the darkness. Slavery was a huge no-no. "Under the terms of my contract, I released the seal. I'm not sure if he knew what he had there, though, but it proved too dangerous for him. The seal was hiding the woman's true form; she was a being of great power, such as I have never seen before. I would not care to speculate as to her nature-that would be more the province of mages than of any training I have had." All technically true, of course, as I've had no training. You have to be careful on a conversation like this. They have spells that can detect lies, but I didn't want them to know everything. Knowledge is power, and, aside from a few ridiculously specific applications of the Twist, it was about the only power I had in this world.

"She said her name was... something odd to my ears, something that sounded like 'Leilwen,'" (again, technically true, and it's been a while but I think that name actually comes out of a fantasy story, so it should be right at home in a place like this,) "and then she thanked me for freeing her, and disappeared. I'll be taking the payment owed me for breaking the seal, but beyond that I am leaving with nothing that was the rightful property of Robert de Long while he lived. You'll probably want to send someone over to... do whatever it is you do to take care of abandoned wizards' towers."

The archmagus tried to respond. "Paul, this is a most-" but I was already out the door. I didn't come up there to have a conversation with him. And if he was going to send someone, or drop by in person, I didn't want to be around to answer questions. So I made my way down to the ground floor and slipped out the door, then off into the woods, with one more pouch in my pack than I'd had before. Despite the ugliness, things had actually gone a fair bit better than my usual jobs. Well, better for me, at least. If only all jobs were this easy! And if only all jobs got me a kiss from a pretty girl at the end!

And somehow, I couldn't help but think I'd see Aylwyn again.

Why else would she have told me her name?