“So, Kallan, is the cask half-empty, or half-full, do you think?”
Kallan scowled at his partner. “What kind of question is that?”
“My grand-marm always used to say you could tell a person’s whole outlook on life by the way they answer that question,” Paxon replied, twiddling his fingers the way he always did when he got sentimental. “Y’see, if you’re an optimist, you’ll say the cask is half-full, but if you’re a pessimist…”
Kallan waved him off. “I get the idea. It makes no difference to me, either way.”
Paxon smiled and raised a chubby index finger triumphantly. “Ah, then you’re an agnostic!”
“Oh, give it a rest, Paxon.” Kallan continued pacing around the muddy oaken barrel they’d dragged up five flights of stairs, floated across a moat, rolled through two acres of corn, and pushed into the abandoned warehouse that their employer had designated as rendezvous. “What I care about is what that old greybeard is going to say when we deliver him a barrel of magical liquid that isn’t full to the brim. He’ll think we’ve been nipping into it.”
“Don’t be so gloomy. We fought our way through twelve guards, seven dogs, and one very determined rat to reach this barrel. I think that bite on my ankle is going to scar. He should be grateful.”
Kallan spat on the floor. “Wizards are never grateful. They’re either angry, in which case all manner of unpleasant things are likely to befall the poor soul who’s the object of their wrath, or they’re something less than angry, and you might escape with your skin and a modest reward.”
Paxon scratched his head. “You’re saying there’s no such thing as a happy wizard?”
“Not in my experience. He ought to be here by now. Let’s push it to the center. He may be so taken with the symmetry of the arrangement that he won’t think to check the contents until we’ve departed.”
“I don’t think that’s likely.”
“Me neither, but it bothers me, things not being all neat and tidy. Grab the other side.”
The two mercenaries wrestled the heavy barrel to the middle of the room, its contents sloshing noisily within. Paxon sneezed. The old warehouse was attached to an abandoned flour mill, and there was a prodigious amount of dust floating in the air. He rubbed his crooked nose. “You think we ought to take a peek inside, just to be sure it’s the right cask?”
“There was only one cask in that accursed dungeon.”
“That we know of.”
Kallan wavered, watching the cask out of the corner of his eye. “He’ll be angry… angrier… if he catches us popping the lid off.”
“He’ll be angrier… er… if it’s full of beer rather than magical liquid.”
“True.” Kallan’s scarred cheeks twitched upward. “Now that I think on it, if it does happen to be full of beer, we could have a quick draught before we hightail it away. I’ve a bit of a thirst after all that hacking and slashing.”
“And pushing and dragging and floating and rolling. My thoughts exactly.” Paxon inspected the cask, and he frowned. “How odd. There doesn’t seem to be a way to open it, short of breaking it.”
“There’s some lettering at the top, there.” Kallan bent closer and squinted. “It says, ‘Turn clockwise to open.’”
“Like a jar? How wonderful! What will they think of next?”
“The ways of wizards are dark and devious. Here, grab the other side and give ’er a twist with me.”
Kallan took hold, Paxon met his eyes and nodded, then they both tugged at the lid.
“Stuck tight,” Paxon huffed, wiping his hands on his trousers.
“Idiot. We were turning opposite directions. Pull with me this time, to the right. Ready?”
“Ready. One, two, three!”
The lid spun smoothly from the cask with a soft sucking sound. They peered inside.
“Half-full, do you reckon?” asked Paxon.
“Half-full indeed, and smells like a prize lager. Probably from the Baron’s private reserve. Look sharp now. You have a cup?”
Paxon rummaged around in his rucksack. “Two. My grand-marm used to say a gentleman must always be prepared to share a toast with a friend.”
“Fine woman, your grand-marm. Gimme one of those.”
“Here. Now, what would magical liquid smell like, do you suppose?”
“No idea, but I know what good beer smells like.” Kallan reached into the cask and dipped out a cupful, then took Paxon’s cup and did the same. “To what should we toast?”
Paxon grinned. “Good digestion!”
“Well, my grand-marm always used to say…”
“Oh, hang your grand-marm. To a clean getaway. Down the hatch!”
They drained their cups, smiling from ear to ear.
Kallan smacked his lips. “What do you think? A mite heavy on the hops, if you ask me. A bit astringent.”
“Makes me feel rumbly in the tummy,” Paxon replied. His eyes widened. “Oh, crumbs.”
With a poof of smoke, the two mercenaries vanished, and their clothes dropped into two little piles on either side of the cask.
A flash of light filled the warehouse, and Valpanor, Grand Wizard of the Blustery Northeast, appeared, coughing and sputtering and slapping wisps of smoke from his silver-spangled satin robes. “Blasted teleportation,” he muttered. “Takes a year off my life every time I indulge in it.”
He surveyed the room. The two lunkheads he’d hired to infiltrate the Baron’s keep and recover his cask of magical reducing fluid were nowhere to be seen. There was some commotion under the warehouse floorboards — the rats were probably busy chasing after some morsel or other. Valpanor picked up the cask’s discarded lid, peering inside the container as he put it back into place.
He clucked his tongue sorrowfully. “Tsk, tsk. Half-empty.”
Fred Warren writes science fiction and fantasy. His short fiction has appeared in a variety of print and online publications, and his first novel, The Muse, debuted in November 2009. Fred works as a government contractor in eastern Kansas, where he lives with his wife and three children. You can find links to his other stories in print and online at http://frederation.wordpress.com/publications.
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