A rambling, smoking, wheezing apparatus rolled out from ruin, as tall as Alfred with six spindly legs ending in wheels with a lattice work of supports and piping surrounding a central forge. Great gears and cogs spun, driving each wheel while steam erupted in sharp bursts from a valve of some sort near the rear of the contrivance. The total base was no longer than three strides across, giving the whole thing the sense that it could topple over at any moment. Somehow it did not, however. The magic involved in the sheer existence of this oddity cannot be understated.
Alfred guffawed as the anemic caricature of a siege tower came to a wobbly halt next to the bell, the top swaying precariously back and forth when it stopped. I was struck dumb. The sheer ridiculousness of the situation was further exacerbated by the creature that steered the craft. At the pinnacle, swinging a small wheel like those on a sailing ship, stood a creature to baffle the imagination. I had to study this being for a very long time to understand what I was seeing. Try as I might, I could not shake the image that this individual, who would come to my waist if standing beside me, was a gnome dressed in the skin of a chartreuse and magenta weasel.
“A jester,” Alfred bellowed. “She sends out a clown to address two such as us?”
I looked closer. Was that a gnome in a weasel costume?
The weasel gnome pulled a large funnel around to his face and spoke into it. A similar funnel appeared from one of the compartments nearest us. He cleared his throat and we heard it echoed in the lower funnel, a sort of amplification device, both ingenious and disturbing.
“I am no jester,” the weasel gnome bellowed into the funnel. “I am Rufus.” He squinted down at us, expecting some sort of response, apparently because finding none, he straightened his weasel suit and stood up straighter. “Bumpkins, then,” he said with an air of disgust. “Do you not know of me?”
I shook my head, and Alfred did the same. Then it dawned on me. Just Jacob and the brigands had mentioned a sage by the name of Rufus. Since they’ve worked for the dragon for a while now, I’m not surprised they have run into this odd individual. “Well,” I said after a half a second. “I heard that if we wanted to close the rift to the plane of ice that we should consult you.”
Rufus eyed us with a squint and harrumphed. “So you have heard of me,” he said, smugly.
“I’ve never heard of you,” Alfred said. “Are you sure you’re not a jester?”
I grimaced. If Rufus was a wizard, being called a jester a second time would not improve his mood. And angry wizards were not good company. I have experience here. I kicked Alfred on his big toe, and he looked at me with curiosity, a grin spreading across his face.
“Foolish, giant,” Rufus answered, anger lacing his shrill voice. “I am the great wizard Ruffalo Androgen — Thunder Caller, Maker of the Word, High Wizard of the Court of Antiquities, Grand Master of Imperforate, Order of Nightshade First Class, Fourth Ring of Corpuscles, Emerald Servant of Mists.”
For a moment I was back in a ruined keep with Liz, listening to Wizard Tim run down his list of fanciful titles. Were all wizards so insecure as to need all of that? Okay, fine. I did create my own list, but those were based on actual achievements. This list was almost a rebuttal to Tim’s list. Which as I think on it, may have been exactly what was going on. I bet Rufus and Tim were not strangers. Is that why Cassandra wanted me to bring her the head of Tim?
“Emerald servant of what?” Alfred asked, his face breaking into a huge smile. “High Wizard of Imperfect Corpses?” He wiped tears from his eyes, choking back laughter.
The wizard waved his hand, the magenta right arm of his weasel outfit flopping as he gesticulated. “I am Rufus, and Rufus is I,” the weasel gnome said. And that right there, Father Mulcahy is enough to explain how the rest of our conversation went.
Yes, Rufus was a gnome. A very old, eccentric gnome wizard of some strange school of magic. And yes, he was dressed in the skins of a long dead weasel that had been dyed chartreuse and magenta. I totally understand Alfred’s initial confusion at the sight of Rufus, but the similarities only went to the clothing and no further. Rufus was eccentric and spoke in riddles more often than naught. But he had a sharp mind and was no one’s fool.
Of course, asking him a direct question never once led to a direct answer. That I could eventually work around, I mean, I dealt with other children in the monastery and the temple virgins always said something different than what they intended. It only took patience to fully understand what they truly meant.
They were also much more comely than dear Rufus. And bathed more frequently if my memory serves. On the other hand, Rufus was a font of useless knowledge about the ancient kingdom that had once covered this land. He could prove to be a huge boon to my quest. But first we needed to parley with the dragon on behalf of the brigands, rescue Bob, and close the portal before winter killed everything in this region. Thinking back on the jumping, acid-spitting spiders, maybe I’d hold off on that request until last. The more things that froze here the better. As long as they weren’t my friends and followers, that is.
Rufus had us follow him back into the ruins. His great ridiculous contraption trundled along at its own pace, so we peppered him with questions, all of which he ignored.
That in and amongst itself would have been fine if not for what happened next. Did I mention I have a love/hate relationships with wizards?