Best Laid Plans of Dragons and Men - by Oridian

  Best Laid Plans of Dragons and Men-byOridian

  Synopsis: A sorcerer hatches a clever scheme to make a little profit and bring some excitement to his life, but things don't go according to plan when a curious dragon interferes.

  ***

  Bending down, Mason made one last adjustment to the summoning circle. He flipped through his documents one last time, then he adjusted his sorcerer's robes and took a deep breath.

  "Kurzadakathan! Accursed Destroyer, Twisted Fiend, Being of Nightmare and Deceit! From the Otherworldly Plane, I thus invoke thee!"

  Called by Mason's words, something unnatural took form in the middle of his summoning circle. Strange many-sided geometric shapes appeared in the ground, and the distinct smell of lightning filled the air as a monstrous abomination burrowed out of the dirt, pulling itself up using eight long limbs with too many joints. Once fully summoned, Kurzadakathan resembled a horrible cross between spider and slimy octopus, with a huge gaping mouth right in the middle of its body, filled by countless worm-like tentacles that wiggled and squirmed.

  "WHO DARES SUMMON ME?! DIE!" Kurzadakathan leapt forward but was stopped by the invisible barrier at the edge of the summoning circle. It reached out its legs and pounded the circle in all directions, but it was confined entirely within the small dome of magic. Realizing that it could not escape, the demon screamed with rage and madness. "GRRAAAAAEEEEAAAAA!"

  The deafening sound would have driven a lesser man to soil his pants, but Mason had come prepared. The sorcerer had already placed down a nullifying spell to dampen noise and protect his ears. This spell would also keep the sound from travelling too far, not that there would even be many other people this far from the nearest town. They were in the middle of the forest, so none but wild beasts would be here.

  Kurzadakathan was still screaming—its jaws opened wider and wider as the sound got louder and louder. Eventually its maw was spread so wide that it had turned inside out and resembled a ball of wriggling pink tentacles pointing in all directions, but still it continued to scream. "AAAAAAAEAAAAAAAAAAEAA!"

  Mason walked back to his chair and sat down. He had set up a small folding table next to the summoning circle. "Are you done?"

  "AAAA—" The demon suddenly halted its scream. In an abrupt twist of motion, it reverted back to spider form and turned all eight eyes towards Mason. "Oh, it's you. You should have said something earlier." There was another twist of motion and then inside the circle there was a tall man with jet-black hair and a clipped goatee, dressed in a well-tailored suit. He would not have looked out of place in a gathering of human aristocrats and nobles.

  With one further twist of motion, Kurzadakathan created a chair (made from black wood) inside his circle and sat down on it. "Mason! You're the only master sorcerer who uses my full name—it's usually only the apprentices who bother. If I'd known it was you, I wouldn't have bothered with the smoke and the tentacles and all that. So...how have you been?"

  Mason didn't answer the demon's question. One of the most basic rules of sorcery was to never give anything for free—especially not the most valuable currency of all, information. It took a lot of strength for a demon to turn itself into something so closely resembling a human, and only the most powerful of demons could act with intelligence and rational thought. Kurzadakathan might have been acting friendly, but it would be a fatal mistake to treat a summoning as a casual event.

  However despite the dangers, Mason was a master sorcerer and this wasn't the first time he was treating with this particular demon. He slid the paper across the table, just far enough that the edge of the sheet extended into the summoning circle. "This is the contract."

  Kurzadakathan used the tips of his slim fingers to pull the paper closer. His eyes darted across the sheet quickly, then he flipped it over and read the other side. "My, my, my. What curious games are you playing, I wonder? Why do you want something like this?" he mused, stroking his goatee with his other hand.

  Mason stuck strictly to business. "I will charge the circle with four morts of energy, in exchange for you creating the exact item I have specified. That is the contract. Take it or leave it."

  Kurzadakathan chuckled softly; a hissing, almost sensual sound. "Hehe. No bargaining? But I so love bargaining. What about if we set the price at...say...three and a half morts of energy? Does that sound good to you? The only catch is you have to tell me what you want this artefact for. What a great deal. Hmm?"

  Mason shook his head firmly. "No. No bargaining. Take the deal or I will banish you and try another demon."

  "So direct! Haha... But I accept." Kurzadakathan snapped his fingers and a pen made from gold suddenly appeared in his hand. He turned the paper over to sign, but then he paused. "Oh, Mason! You were so thorough with your contract that you forgot the most important part—the end! There is no space for either of us to sign."

  For the first time, Mason smiled. To most normal people, his grin would have looked equally menacing as anything the demon had done so far. "Don't be ridiculous. That's not the contract, that's just the executive summary." Reaching down to the briefcase beside him, Mason took out a stack of papers that was as thick as three of his fingers put together. The whole table shuddered as he dropped the documentation on it. "This is the contract. I recommend you read through the terms and conditions to ensure you fully understand them before you sign. Failure to read documentation is not considered a valid excuse for errors in contract execution, and is considered an adequate reason for immediate termination of contract to your full disadvantage."

  Kurzadakathan took the thick stack of papers and hesitantly flipped through them. "Oh my gods, I've forgotten how good you were at this..."

  Working with demons was all about being detail orientated and focused on the tiny things. Rushed contracts and vague terminology were a quick trip towards having your soul stolen, or worse, releasing a demon into the natural world, so good sorcery required the ability to read dense and highly technical documents all day. Mason was one of the best for one simple reason—he loved technicalities and tedium.

  However, even though summoning was legal, what he planned to do next was not. But there was a plan, and it was full of detail.

  --

  Three hours later, Kurzadakathan was softly muttering to himself as he read through the contract. "Henceforth...shall be valid for a limited-time period as defined in section 7 subsection 9a, limitations of validity...notwithstanding Majestic Force limitations such as divine intervention by class 5 entities including but not limited to old gods... Failure to meet design specifications shall lead to immediate reversal of contract, unequivocally and absolutely resulting in..."

  Meanwhile, Mason was calmly working a different document, editing the contractual framework for another sorcerer who had paid him to help check his work. Most of Mason's work was helping out other sorcerers who weren't as good with avoiding loopholes or closing technicalities. But for the few demonic contracts which he was planning to personally sign—putting his own soul or worse, his professional standards at risk—Mason made sure he covered every single possibility. He had specified exactly what he was paying Kurzadakathan and exactly how the artefact he was receiving would work in every imaginable use case.

  Demons could not break contracts, but they could bend them if the terminology was ambiguous or the specifications were incomplete. Ask for a gold coin, for example, and you might get a gold coin the size of a single atom. Or if you said that you wanted a big gold coin, the demon might create a huge slab of gold which fell on your head and killed you. But if you asked for a gold coin that was the exact size, shape, and material composition of a standard unit of gold currency currently in use by the Imperial Treasury of the Marlander Empire which was indistinguishable from a genuine coin in any and all ways and which was to appear motionless on the ground in the summoning circle within no more than 5 seconds after the signing of the contract, then perhaps you might get what you wanted. Not that Mason was asking for anything so simple—the artefact he required would be powerful indeed.

  Finally Kurzadakathan sighed and slapped the thick sheaf of papers against his face. "Alright, I'm done. I'll sign it! Let's get this over with. The summoning circle is growing stuffy." The demon took his pen and scribbled Kurzadakathan on the last page of the contract. He slid the contract out of the summoning circle and onto the table, but Mason pushed it back in.

  "You also need to sign on pages 19, 37, 61, and 142."

  Kurzadakathan did as he was asked, but not without complaining. "Damn you to the accursed realm, Mason! Why did you have to be a sorcerer? You take the fun out of being summoned."

  When Kurzadakathan was done, Mason took the paperwork and checked that the demon had signed everything correctly. He flipped through the papers to check that nothing was missing or misplaced, and then finally he put his own signature on the paper.

  "It is done!" Kurzadakathan got to his feet and took a deep breath, raising his arms as he pulled energy from the summoning circle. His body glowed faintly as he absorbed the power, revealing lines and shadows under his skin with moved like snakes. "I received your payment, Mason Tolovius, and in return I grant you this artefact as specified! Our transaction is closed, master sorcerer."

  As Mason watched, the demon grew brighter and brighter until the entire summoning circle was a blazing sphere of light that was too brilliant to gaze at, and then there was an echoing thunderclap which brought darkness.

  When Mason opened his eyes again he was alone in the forest. Kurzadakathan had returned to the otherworldly plane, leaving the summoning circle empty and inert, but remaining in the middle of the circle was a large white crystal the size of Mason's palm.

  The sorcerer slowly stepped forward and picked up the crystal, then he allowed himself the luxury of a smile. The plan was well underway.

  --

  After tidying up his paperwork and otherwise preparing himself, Mason sat on his chair again and used a special triggering spell to activate the crystal. "Morphus!" Instantly he could feel arcane power begin to flow from the gemstone, making his hand clench down as his muscles tightened involuntarily. His body suddenly felt like it was burning, but not from the baking heat of a summer afternoon.

  All as planned, all as expected, all part of Mason's grand plan. The sorcerer showed no signs of surprise as his flesh started to distort, his bones and muscles stretching and altering. He had even specified how long this process would take, and added caveats regarding pain (specified using units of pain as defined in appendix 5).

  His arms shortened and pulled back towards his chest, while his fingers grew stubbier and less dextrous. His nails lengthened and extended into claws, while his hair melted into his head. Smooth plates exploded out all over his body, covering his skin with hard scales which felt surprisingly sensitive to the touch of air. His legs shortened but grew thicker, stretching out his clothing.

  Mason stumbled to his feet, falling out of his chair and collapsing onto the forest floor. This was one part he had forgotten to plan for. He hurriedly kicked off his boots and tugged off his pants and tunic, moving as fast as he could, but still there was a ripping sound from his undergarments as a long, slender tail grew from his rear. His neck lengthened, as did his face, extending forwards into a pointed snout. A pair of smooth horns shot up from his head pointing backwards. The transformation seemed to briefly pause here, but then the most important part occurred—there was an intense itching pressure on his back, and then Mason felt a new pair of limbs burst from his shoulder blades. He now had wings.

  As the transformation drew to a finish, the crystal tumbled from his paw (which had formally been a hand) and landed on the forest floor. Mason took deep breaths as he slowly got used to his new body. Everything felt different and unexpected, but it didn't take too much for him to get used to his new form. This was also another thing he had specified—the crystal was to transform him, but he needed to use his transformed body right away without having to spend days or weeks learning motor control.

  He had once been a human sorcerer, but Mason was now a dragon with scales of pale grey.

  "Wow, I'm a dragon. Whoa... Okay? Okay. I can still talk. Follow the plan. I just stick with the plan..." Surprisingly enough, Mason's voice sounded most the same as it had before, albeit with a subtle resonance that he could feel in his chest. Although his nose-to-tail length was much longer than his human height, and his wingspan was far greater than his arms could have reached, his dragon body was overall slightly thinner and far more slender than his human body had been.

  At first he awkwardly tried to walk on his two hindlegs, before quickly realizing that it was far easier if he used all four legs. The drake slowly trotted around the clearing, and then when he felt ready he spread his wings and leapt into the air to test out his new form.

  The sudden sensation was breathtaking. Mason was above the forest, flying low and fast and seeing everything. The air rushed past his scales and it was so easy to just flap his wings and fly. Mason wondered what he looked like from afar, and suddenly he felt naked and exposed without his clothes. But of course a real dragon would never wear clothes, and on such a warm summer's day there was no chance he'd feel even the slightest chill from his lack of clothing. Looking over to the west, Mason could see a distant mountain range which marked the border between the Marlander Empire and the neighbouring country of Akosta.

  Mason was a Marlander citizen, but he had never been particularly patriotic. In his educated opinion, the empire was a tyrannical regime seeking to conquer and subjugate nearby countries to grow its territory. The only consolation was that the emperor was openly transparent about his intentions to dominate the world and bring it all under his glorious heel, and the Marlander population seemed mostly content with this vicious expansionism as long as they remained prosperous and safe.

  Until just recently, the much smaller neighbouring state of Akosta had chosen to ignore Marlander conquests and their campaigns of dominion. The two countries had strong trade and similar cultures, so there was little to argue about.

  But then suddenly, just a few weeks ago, Akostan leadership had announced that their spies had discovered messages from the Marlander high emperor to his counsellors, discussing preparations for an eventual invasion of Akosta to add it to the lands of the empire. Whether these accusations were true or not (and the educated guess was that they obviously were), the emperor had pointed out that this announcement proved that Akosta had spies within the Marlander Empire, which therefore necessitated aggressive countermeasures. An embargo had been declared on many goods, cutting off trade between both nations.

  This was when Mason had come up with his plan—he would smuggle contraband across the border using a technique no one would suspect, one which would allow him to bypass border security and all their checkpoints. Embargoes hurt the populations on both sides, but they were very profitable for smugglers.

  His plan would go something like this:

  Step one—summon a demon and obtain a transformation crystal.

  Step two—transform into a dragon.

  Step three—fly across the border and deliver Marlander goods as to the embargoed Akostans, for which they would pay good coin.

  Step four—fly back to the Marlander Empire, bringing back Akostan luxuries which were also in high demand due to the embargo.

  Step five—transform back into a human and sell all the smuggled goods, making lots of money.

  Plan complete!

  Dragons were intelligent beasts, but they were rare and cared little for the affairs of humans. No one would be suspicious of a drake who just happened to cross between the borders, because no one would suspect that this dragon had the mind and cunning of a human.

  Mason flapped his wings as he came in for landing back at the forest clearing. In his normal human body he was a master sorcerer, but he doubted this draconic form was so skilled with magic. So as part of his contract with Kurzadakathan, Mason had specified that the crystal could be used twice—the first use would turn him into a dragon, and once he touched it the second time it would automatically turn him back into his previous human form.

  Mason carefully walked over to the equipment he had left in the forest clearing. He took a small leather pouch and used it to pick up the crystal, then he left this pouch below his folding table. Part of him felt uneasy at the idea of leaving this crucial artefact behind, but he really had no choice. The embargo was enforced by more than words and threats; it was defended by an immensely powerful area spell which detected all enchanted artefacts passing out of the Marlander Empire and into Akosta. His smuggling itinerary specifically avoided enchanted objects which could trigger this spell, but this also meant he had to leave behind the transformation crystal—that special artefact which would return his humanity.

  To mitigate this risk, Mason had already placed down a repulsive spell in the clearing to dissuade anyone from investigating his belongings while he was away. Furthermore, he was already so far into the wilderness that there would almost certainly be no one here besides him.

  Mason put this worry out of his mind so he could continue with his plan. He walked over to where he had stashed a large backpack filled with various items, including refined telanium ingots, Greengrass salt, and other valuable but lightweight things which the Marlander Empire now denied to Akosta. Though his backpack had been made for a human to use, not a dragon, he had no problems with wearing the pouch in front of his chest. Dragons weren't really very big creatures, all things considered.

  Mason nodded, pleased with himself, and then he leapt into the air and flew for the border. It was a lovely summer afternoon, and his plan was going precisely as expected.

  --

  The dragon soared through the open air on wings spread wide. The late afternoon sun was warming the mountains she was flying lazily over, creating strong thermals which pushed her up into the sky with nary a wing beat.

  Izagor was her name, and her flight had neither destination nor aim. As she flew, she simply rode the wind to see where it would take her. It was a good day to fly, and the simple pleasure of air sweeping under her wings was sufficient justification for her to take to the skies.

  The summer sun caused rushing winds to blow from high in the mountains down towards the forested plains of the valleys below. Izagor was vaguely aware that the mountainous terrain was the territory of a human nation, while the forested plains were the territory of another different nation, but she cared little for the arbitrary borders drawn by the humans. She knew these facts in the same manner she knew that plants were green so they could absorb sunlight, or there were deep sea creatures under the ocean, or there were stars in space—she had the information, but it didn't affect her at all. There was nothing stopping her from flying wherever she wanted, whenever she wanted. She was above it all.

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