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Norton threw down his knapsack and scooped up a double handful of water. He drank, delighting in the chill that struck his teeth and stiffened his palate. It was easy to forget that this was an artificial spring, magically cooled; it seemed natural.
He had hiked twenty miles through the cultivated wilderness of the city park and was ready to camp for the night. He had food for one more meal; in the morning he would have to restock. That could be awkward, for he was out of credit. Well, he would worry about that tomorrow.
He gathered dry sticks and leaves, careful not to disturb any living plants, and structured his collection for a small fire in a dirt hollow. He found some desiccated moss and set it within his pyramid. Then he muttered an incendiary-spell, and the flame burst into existence.
He fetched three rocks, set them against the expanding fire, and unfolded his little fry-pan. He unpacked his Spanish rice mix and poured it in the pan, shaking the mix to keep the rice turning as the heat increased. When it browned, he added handfuls of water, evoking a strenuous protest of steam, until satisfied. Then he rested the pan on the stones and left it to sizzle nicely alone.
“Can you spare a bite?”
Norton looked up, surprised. Ordinarily he was alert for other creatures, especially people, even when concentrating on his cooking, for he was attuned to the sounds of nature. But this one seemed to have appeared from nowhere. “This is what I have,” he replied. “I’ll share it.” Actually, that meant he would be hungry on a half-ration, but he never liked saying no.
“The man stepped closer, his feet making no noise. He was evidently in his mid-to-late twenties, about a decade younger than Norton, and in unusually fit condition. He was well dressed in upper-class city style, but had the calloused palms of a highly physical man. Wealthy, but no effete recluse. “You’re an independent sort,” he remarked.
It took one to know one! “Wanderlust, mostly,” Norton clarified. “Somehow I always want to see the other side of the mountain. Any mountain.”
“Even when you know the mountain is artificial?” The man’s eyes flicked meaningfully about the landscape.
Norton laughed easily. “I’m just that kind of a fool!”
The man pursed his lips. “Fool? I don’t think so.” He shrugged. “Ever think about settling down with a good woman?”
This fellow got right down to basics! “All the time. But seldom for more than a week or two.”
“Maybe you never encountered one who was good enough for a year or two.”
“Maybe,” Norton agreed without embarrassment. “I prefer to think of it as a distinction of philosophy. I am a traveling man; most women are stay-at-homes. If I ever found one who wanted to share my travels—” He paused, struck by a new thought. “In that sense, they are leaving me as much as I am leaving them. They prefer their location to my company, much as cats do. I move, they remain—but we know each other’s natures at the start. So no expectations are violated.”
“Man does, woman is,” the man agreed.
Norton sniffed his rice. “This is about done; it’s spelled for quick cooking. Have you a dish? I can make one of wood—” He touched his sturdy hunting knife.
“I won’t need one.” The man smiled as Norton glanced askance. “I don’t eat, actually. I was just verifying your hospitality. You were ready to go hungry to share.”
“No man can live long without eating, and I can see you’re no ascetic. I’ll carve you a dish—”
“My name is Gawain. I’m a ghost.”
“Norton, here,” Norton said, noticing how the man accented the first syllable: GOW-an. “I’m a jack of any trade, expert at none, except maybe taletelling.” Then he did a double take. “Pardon?”
“A ghost,” Gawain repeated. “Here, I’ll demonstrate.” He extended his strong hand.
Norton clasped it, expecting a crunching grip—and encountered air. He brought his hand back and touched Gawain’s arm. There was nothing; his hand passed through suit and arm without resistance, disappearing into the man’s body. “You certainly are!” he agreed ruefully. “No wonder I didn’t hear you approaching! You look so solid—”
“Do I?” Gawain asked, becoming translucent.
“I never met a real, live—uh—”
Gawain laughed. “Real, at any rate.” He firmed up to solid semblance again, having made his point. “Norton, I like you. You’re independent, self-sufficient, unconceited, generous, and open. I know I’d have enjoyed your company when I was alive. I think I have a favor to ask of you.”
“I’ll do any man a favor—any woman, too!—but I don’t think there’s very much I can do for a ghost. I presume you’re not much interested in physical things.”
“Interested, but not able,” the ghost said. “Sit down, eat your supper. And listen, if you will, to my story. Then the nature of the favor will be apparent.”
“Always glad for company, real or imaginary,” Norton said, sitting down on a conveniently placed rock.
“I’m no hallucination,” the ghost assured him. “I’m a genuine person who happens to be dead.”
And while Norton ate, the specter made his presentation. “I was born into a wealthy and noble family,” Gawain said. “I was named after Sir Gawain of the ancient Round Table of King Arthur’s Court; Sir Gawain is a distant ancestor, and great things were expected of me from the outset. Before I could walk I could handle a knife; I shredded my mattress and crawled out to stalk the household puk—”
“Puk—a small household dragon. Ours was only half a yard long. I gave it an awful scare; it had been napping in a sunbeam. My folks had to put me in a steel playpen after that. At age two I fashioned a rope out of my blanket and scaled the summit of the playpen wall and went after the cat. I vivisected her after she scratched me for cutting off her tail. So they brought in a werecat who changed into the most forbidding old shrew when I bothered her. She certainly had my number; when I toasted her feline tail with a hotfoot, she wered human and toasted my tail with a belt. I developed quite an aggravation for magical animals.”
“I can imagine,” Norton said politely. He himself was always kind to animals, especially wild ones, though he would defend himself if attacked. There were things about Gawain he was not fully comfortable with.
“I was sent to gladiator school,” the ghost continued. “I wanted to go, and for some reason my family preferred to have me out of the house. I graduated second in my class. I would have been first, but the leading student had enchanted armor, even at night, so I couldn’t dispatch him. Canny character! After that, I bought a fine outfit of my own, proof against any blade or bullet or magic bolt. Then I set out to make my fortune.
“There are not many dragons around, compared to mundane animals, and most of them are protected species. Actually, I respect dragons; they are a phenomenal challenge. It’s too bad that it took so long for man really to master magic; only in the last fifty years or so has it become a formidable force. I suppose it was suppressed by the Renaissance, when people felt there had to be rational explanations for everything. As a result of that ignorance, dragons and other fantastic creatures had a much harder time of it than they had during the medieval age in Europe. Some masqueraded as mundane animals—unicorns cutting off their horns to pass for horses, griffins shearing their wings and donning lion-head masks, that sort of thing—and some were kept hidden on private estates by conservationists who cared more for nature than for logic. A number developed protective illusion so they looked a good deal more mundane than they were, and Satan salvaged a few, though most of His creatures are demonic. But now at last the supernatural is back in fashion, and fantastic creatures are becoming unextinct.
But some creatures do get obstreperous. Most bleeding-heart liberal, modern governments have bent the other way so far they’ve gone off the deep end and outlawed poisoning or shooting or using magic to kill these monsters. So the bad dragons have to be dispatched the old-fashioned way, by sword.”
“Why not just move the bad ones to reservations?” Norton asked, appalled at the notion of slaying dragons. He was one of the bleeding hearts the ghost described; he knew dragons were ornery and dangerous, but so were alligators and tigers. All of them had their right to exist as species, and the loss of any species was an incalculable loss to the world. Many highly significant aspects of magic had been derived from once-suppressed creatures, such as potency-spells from unicorn horns and invulnerable scale armor from dragon hides. But he realized it would be pointless to argue such cases with this fortune-hunting warrior.