Disclaimer: I don't own DGC. This disclaimer applies to the entire fic.
This little tale is dedicated to DGC fanfic authors past and present.
"Alfred?" No response. Haplo resumed knocking. "Alfred? Are you all right in there?"
Nothing. The Patryn frowned, pressed his ear to the door of his friend's room. The bedchamber was the only place in the large house that truly belonged to Alfred; the rest was crowded with enthusiastic 'grandchildren,' visiting Pryan dragons, and the home's other two adult residents. For someone who had been alone for decades, the companionship could become quite overwhelming at times. Alfred needed to retreat every once in a while, go someplace where he wouldn't be disturbed.
That, and he needed somewhere to store his immense collection of books. The Sartan had somehow magicked the contents of his people's library on Arianus into the Nexus, and he'd kept dozens of tomes for himself.
"We're getting worried about you," Haplo called. "You've been in there for five days straight. Some of the kids are starting to think that you're dead."
Of course they were worried about him. He'd cloistered himself in that room for five whole days. Earlier, when the house's other residents had been able to hear him clomping around (he was far more graceful than he had once been, but his feet were big enough to make a fair amount of noise whenever he walked), they hadn't been particularly concerned. Now, though, they couldn't hear a thing.
He had probably just fallen asleep after staying awake for who-knows-how-long. Probably. But weird things tended to happen around Alfred, and it was better to be safe than to be sorry.
Still no response from inside the room. Haplo, genuinely worried, added, "If you don't answer the door now, I'm coming in there."
Alfred didn't answer the door. Haplo tried to open it- only to discover that it was locked.
That was new. Alfred had lived with him and Marit for two years now, and he'd never before locked his door. Now Haplo was even more worried than before. He began to chant. The Sartan runes barring his entrance were tight and strong, but the Patryn's magic found a single tiny flaw, exploited it. The runes unwound, vanished.
Haplo glanced at his tattoos. They were dark. No danger, then. Still, he kept a hand on his dagger as he trotted into the room.
The chamber was warm and stuffy, and it smelled of old books and something else, something that the Patryn (or Sartan, or mensch) nose couldn't normally detect. It tickled memories of being a dog on Abarrach, following his friend and his love as they fled from Lord Xar. It was a smell the dog had associated with all Patryns and Sartan, especially Alfred.
The illumination runes shone bright and blue, illuminating the scene beneath them. Old books were piled precariously, strewn around the room. Scraps of paper littered the floor. And crouched among the mess was a tall, balding man, scribbling frantically on one of the scraps while muttering to himself in Sartan.
Oh, good. Obviously not dead, then.
Alfred didn't notice Haplo's approach, so absorbed was he in his work. It wasn't until the Patryn poked his friend's shoulders that the Sartan took note of his surroundings. He jumped nearly out of his skin, knocking over one of the piles of books.
"Haplo? What are you doing here?"
The Runner cast a critical eye over his friend's appearance. Alfred was a mess. His clothes were rumpled and dirty. He hadn't shaved, so the beginnings of a beard sprouted from his chin. His eyes were bloodshot, underlined by purple bags. His skin had grown pale from days spent away from the sun.
"I'm making sure you're not dead," the Patryn replied.
"Why would I be dead?" The Sartan was honestly confused. "I've only been in here- well- it can't have been more than a few hours."
"Five days," Haplo corrected.
Alfred blinked. One hand wandered upward, felt his chin. "Oh. I'm sorry."
For once, Haplo didn't chastise him for apologizing. "What the devil were you doing here?" He glanced at the obscenely complicated rune-diagram his friend had been toying with.
Alfred trotted over to his desk, shoved aside some rolls of parchment and, for some reason, a spare shoe, and trotted back with an even more obscenely complicated rune-diagram. "I'm looking for mistakes in this," he announced solemnly.
Haplo looked at the paper. It was written in Alfred's handwriting. The runes were tiny but incredibly detailed, and he had no idea what kind of spell they were meant to represent. "What's 'this,' and why is it important enough to make you abandon your family and health?"
As if on cue, the Sartan's stomach grumbled. Both men jumped. The elder's face reddened. "I- can I explain later? I'd like to know if this is actually feasible before I tell you."
"You just spent five days looking for flaws," Haplo pointed out. "Evidently without sleeping or eating. If the spell had flaws, you'd've found them by now."
Alfred glanced away. "Not necessarily," he mumbled. "You see, I made this spell from scratch. The inspiration- it just came over me. Well, not quite like that, because I'd been thinking about this problem for a while now, but when the solution appeared in my head, it-" But at this point he found himself incapable of continuing. A gigantic yawn had forced its way through his throat.
Haplo shook his head, half-exasperated, half-amused. "Why don't you tell me once you've eaten and slept?"
"Good idea," the Sartan mumbled, stifling another yawn. "After I've finished triple-checking it, of course."
The Patryn half-dragged, half-carried his companion down to the kitchen. "You might not have noticed this, Coren, but you're a magical prodigy. You invented the entire branch of shape-shifting in three seconds flat, you killed dead people without realizing what you were doing, and you brought Hugh back with a spell that not even Balthazar the professional necromancer understands. If you made a spell and couldn't find a flaw in it after five days of constant searching, it doesn't have a flaw."
"No triple-checking. It doesn't need it. Besides, you'd probably lose track of time again and die of starvation."
Alfred's stomach gurgled in agreement.
"Oh," observed Marit as her husband helped their friend into his chair, "he's not dead. What happened?"
"He was working on a spell and lost track of time. For five days straight."
Marit simply nodded. Such an action, while not an everyday occurrence, certainly wasn't out of character for him. She grabbed a loaf of bread from the ceiling and tossed it at Alfred. "Must be some spell, then."
Alfred didn't answer. He was too busy devouring the bread.
"It looks like gibberish to me." Marit shrugged. "You know I'm not good with Sartan magic."
Haplo nodded. "Same here."
The polite thing to do would be to wait until Alfred woke up. Then they could ask him what was so important about a scrap of gibberish that he'd nearly killed himself trying to correct it. But the Sartan wouldn't be up for another two days or so.
So with that in mind, the two Patryns went to visit the second most-accomplished Sartan mage in the Nexus.
Lenore had been born and raised on Earth. At the age of thirty-one, she'd helped Sunder the old world into seven new realms before moving to Chelestra and submitting to the stasis sleep. She knew her magic, but Alfred's spell left her completely baffled.
"How does he do it?" she demanded. "Haplo, you said that he just popped this out, not in the five days he was missing, but in just a few minutes? And then he spent five days looking for flaws and couldn't find any?"
She shook her head in amazement. "What I'd give for that man's talent…. I can identify the individual runes, of course, but I have no idea how they all interact. Like here." She poked one. "The rune for 'redemption.' And here," she moved her thumb, "is the rune for 'fish.' They're both in extremely important positions- the keystones, if you will- but I have no idea what they could have in common."
"Neither do the rest of us," Marit grumbled. The only explanation she could think of involved redeeming fish, and she somehow doubted that was Alfred's goal.
"I could probably interpret it if you gave me a day or two," the Sartan woman continued.
Marit nodded, answering her unasked question. "Alfred won't be up for a long time yet. Just do us a favor and look for flaws, all right? He trusts you. If you tell him that there aren't any, he might actually believe it." Her tone was doubtful.
The trio separated. Marit and Haplo headed home, and Lenore wandered off to the library, doubtless to do more research.
Solemn-faced Patryn children greeted them. "Grandfather Alfred's door is open," one announced. His name was Enno, a small boy of six or seven gates. "We can hear him snoring, so he's not dead. What was he doing in there anyways?"
"He lost track of time," Haplo replied, rolling his eyes.
"I told you it was something stupid," another child muttered, elbowing Enno's side.
"I'm not so sure about that," her foster-father commented. "He was working on a spell."
The children perked up. "What kind of spell?" a ten-year-old demanded. Her eyes were bright with excitement. "Is it something really cool like the dragon?"
The children, as one might guess, were rather impressed with the green and golden dragon.
"He collapsed into an exhausted heap before your mother or I could ask," Haplo admitted. "But yes, I suspect that it's going to be impressive."
"Yes!" the ten-year-old exulted, pumping her fist in the air.
"Maybe it will make Zifnab sane again," Enno suggested.
"Who cares about Zifnab? I think that it'll make the earth swallow Ramu's bunch whole."
"Somehow," Marit said, "I can't see Alfred doing that."
"Oh. Good point. Well, maybe it'll kill all the dragon-snakes." Their foster-daughter seemed quite enamored by the idea. "A horrible plague or something."
The adult Patryns' eyes met. Think we should tell them it involves a fish?
…Let them have their fun. Besides, I don't think they'd believe us.
Marit was forced to admit that her husband had a point.
Speculation as to what, exactly, Alfred had been up to continued throughout the remnant of the day and into the next. When the yawning, bleary-eyed Sartan finally emerged from his room, he was immediately swarmed by a horde of overenthusiastic grandchildren.
"How long will it take to kill the dragon-snakes?"
"What'll it do, Grandfather? Tell us!"
"Can I help?"
Alfred had not been expecting the miniature mob's assault. He shot a pleading look at Haplo, silently begging for rescue.
The Runner rolled his eyes. "Give him some space, kids. Your grandfather needs to breathe just like the rest of us."
Grumbling, the children moved away. They did not, however, stop asking questions about the spell.
"Later, later!" the Sartan cried. "Let me eat and drink first- I'm thirsty."
With several "aws," the children obeyed.
Haplo's new (and genuine, as in not a piece of his soul) dog Spear, though, had no such compunctions. Tongue lolling, dripping saliva onto the floor, he charged through the swarm of children and pounced onto Alfred. The Sartan shrieked. "Nice doggie, nice doggie- not my nose!"
"Bad dog," Haplo scolded, dragging it off his friend. Spear huffed. The Patryn chuckled. "Just like old times, right, my friend?"
"Very much like old times," he agreed, wiping away dog spit with his ever-present handkerchief.
By the time Alfred had finished his (rather large) breakfast, he had attracted quite an audience. A young audience, to be sure- most were under the age of fifteen- but still an impressive little horde. Word had spread that the most accomplished and skilled spell-weaver in the Nexus had created something, and quite a few children wanted to know what that something might be.
Perhaps, if he'd been less famous for coming up with ridiculously complex spells in the space of seconds, the youths would have been less enthusiastic. But famous he was, for better or for worse, and the children swarmed to him like moths to a flame.
It made enjoying breakfast rather difficult, actually. He'd never been very comfortable with attention, and this was entirely too much for him.
When he'd finished the last bite of food, he made the mistake of looking into the crowd. By this point, half the audience couldn't care less about what Alfred was up to- they had come simply because their peers were there.
"Well?" asked Haplo dryly. "Are you going to leave all our guests in suspense?"
"Let me get my notes," mumbled the flustered Sartan.
"Here they are." Lenore, one of only four adults in the building, shoved through the crowd (who by now were doubtless very bored) and deposited the sheet of paper in her fellow Sartan's hand.
Alfred stared at her in astonishment. "How did you get this?" he asked.
Lenore jutted a thumb at Haplo and Marit. "They wanted to know what kept you occupied for five days straight. By the way, you were wasting your time looking for flaws. It doesn't have any."
"Oh." Alfred accepted the paper, glanced awkwardly at the crowd. "Er… you're certain? Absolutely positive?"
She nodded. "I even talked with one of the Pryan dragons. She said that you have a frighteningly accurate idea of their species' birth and wants to know where you learned all that about them."
"Cyril told me. But you said you're absolutely-"
"If you won't tell them, I will," Lenore threatened. "And I'll make it sound as glorious and miraculous as possible."
Alfred's entire head, right up to the bald scalp and the tips of his ears, turned a brilliant red. "That- that won't be necessary, my dear." He cleared his throat, stood to his full height.
"I- you all know how the Labyrinth is sentient, of course. Most of you have experienced that firsthand, as have I." He glanced at Haplo. The Patryn nodded encouragingly. "And… I've been thinking a lot about what the sentience means, lately, because the Labyrinth's intelligence is probably the main threat to the Rescuers. Possibly even worse than Labyrinth dragons. And I realized that it's possible for intangible things to be embodied- look at the dragons of Pryan and the dragon-snakes. Even Haplo's first dog, for those of you who met it. So I asked myself, 'What if someone applied the same principle to the Labyrinth?' Well, not the exact same principle- the dog couldn't die, and the Pryan dragons and their cousins regenerate- but close enough." He swallowed, sat.
For a few moments, dead silence reigned. Then Haplo walked forward, grabbed the Sartan's chin. Their gazes met. "Are you saying," the Patryn asked in a low voice that no one had trouble hearing, "that you've invented a spell to kill the Labyrinth?"
Alfred tried and failed to nod- he'd already forgotten that Haplo was holding his chin hostage. "That's exactly what I'm saying."