The last little bit was always the trickiest. Keeping his wrist loose, Iggy whipped his hand around in a rapid series of flourishes that left behind an artfully complex trail of black lines. He altered the flutter of his dragonfly wings to move back and get a good view of the final product.
“That’s me!” he mumbled.
No matter how many times he drew his personal sigil, he couldn’t help but feel a swell of pride in his tiny heart. Truly no one in this vast metropolis had nearly so fine a signature. One day, some adventurous soul would fly up to this random temple ledge, discover his graffito hidden here, and read his beautiful name.
“Igneous Mushroom?” a voice rasped behind him.
Iggy nearly dropped his stick of charcoal and whirled around. There was an imp slumped on the ledge behind him. Pathetic little bat wings stretched lazily from either side of its flabby body. Bulbous, cloudy eyes regarded Iggy blankly.
“What?” Iggy snapped. “No! Mushroom? What?”
The imp pointed a stubby claw at the sigil. “‘Igneous Mushroom.’ Who he?”
Iggy looked back at his perfect sigil. “How the hell did you get a mushroom from that? The letters of ‘Igneous’ are cunningly styled in the shape of a winged explosion. That’s me. Igneous Boomwing. Who the fuck are you?”
The imp bared its needle-sharp fangs in what might have been a smile. “Hider. Watcher. You say what you saw, and I promise to tell masters for you, brother.”
“I’m no brother of yours, you piece of summoner’s garbage,” Iggy snapped, his grey-skinned face turning as red as his hair. “I was hatched in Altamira. Raised myself among the ledges and rooftops. I may not be a big, clumsy ground-dweller, but I’m as much a citizen as anyone else. Now go back to whatever hedge wizard shat you out and stay off my ledge!”
The imp’s blank stare proved utterly impervious to threats. It licked its frog lips and continued staring at him. Iggy suddenly realized that, standing with his back to the wall of the spire, he was more or less cornered by the thing. But he was not yet afraid. In a city where people tended to view him as a pest at best, he’d learned to hone his innate magical abilities for the purposes of self-defense.
With a sigh, Iggy raised his hand in preparation to fire a warning shot across the nose of the uncouth creature when it suddenly snapped its head around and regarded the cityscape below. After a moment, it hopped up into an unsteady hover.
“See you again, Mushroom,” the imp croaked as it started to descend toward a point on the horizon. Its form shimmered like the distortion of heat over a flame and then simply vanished.
“What is this city coming to?” Iggy groused to no one in particular. Looking back at his perfect sigil, he realized his claim over this spot seemed tainted somehow. With the palm of his hand, he wiped away the perfect lines of charcoal, leaving nothing but an anonymous smear behind.
It was time for a drink, and if there was one thing that being a sprite was good for, it was cost-efficient drinking. Iggy floated down from the ledge until he reached roof-level and then cut through the temple district to quickly arrive at his favorite pub.
The Marching Man was an old hangout for retired soldiers, irritable guardsmen and failed adventurers who’d fought monsters on the other side of the world but still couldn’t afford a decent drink. Iggy buzzed over the swinging doors and alighted upon the corner of the bar.
“A thimble of your cheapest ale, if you please,” he piped and then stamped his foot on the counter, sending a slight tremor through the mugs there. The bar denizens responded with a wave of ill-tempered grumbles, though Iggy spotted a few familiar faces among the crowd.
“You know we only sell it by the mug, firefly,” the bloated barmaid said as she dropped a sour-smelling mug beside him. Iggy leveled a fierce glare at her, his orange eyes blazing. After a moment, she smirked and deposited a clay thimble alongside the mug. Iggy bowed gracefully and paid with a coin nearly the size of his head. He dunked the thimble into the mug, pulled it dripping from the ale, and took a long draft from it.
“You think she ever washes that thimble, firefly?” asked Declan, a crusty human campaigner who never seemed to leave the place.
Iggy leaned casually against the mug and took another sip, sloshing it around his mouth studiously before swallowing. “I certainly hope not. Without those familiar notes of sweaty finger, I might taste the ale.”
Declan laughed, which sent him into a fit of coughing, Iggy kept forgetting to put a leash on his prodigious wit around the old man for fear of his health, but there was just no taming such a beast.
“Say, Declan,” Iggy began, thinking quickly for some subject to put the man’s mind off of jokes. “What do you know of imps?”
“Imps?” Declan gasped as he regained control of himself. “Bad business.” He downed a shot of murky liquor to steady himself and hacked a gobbet of phlegm onto the bench beside him. “Why do you ask?”
“I saw one a few minutes ago, lurking around the Temple District. It was hiding or snooping or something.”
Declan’s caterpillar eyebrows flexed and bobbed as he struggled to think through a fog of alcohol. Finally, he said, “Yes, imps were used as reconnaissance back in the campaign. Damn demonspawn. Always invisible. We tried netting them, sometimes.” He waved his hands around in the air, apparently trying to mime the netting of an invisible imp.
Iggy took another thoughtful sip. “This one was visible, at least until it vanished. It must have thought I was an ally. It called me its brother.”
Declan gave him a long and surprisingly level gaze. “Well, aren’t you?”
Iggy threw his tiny cup at Declan’s face. Too late did he realize that, in his sudden rage, he’d called upon his magic to coat the thimble in arcane fire. The flaming projectile singed Declan’s swollen nose, bounced off it and landed in the considerable collection of booze arrayed before him.
The explosion was as sudden as it was unexpected, blowing Declan off the bench with a strangled cry of shock. The whole bar erupted into chaos as a roomful of grizzled veterans either jumped unsteadily to their feet or dove beneath the tables.
Only the barmaid seemed to keep her head as she stormed out from behind the bar screaming, “What did you tell you about flinging your magical shit around this place?” She seized a pewter stein large enough for Iggy to be buried in and brandished it above his head. “No more warnings! Flap your wings out of here and never come back!”
Only Iggy’s natural aerial agility saved him from the hail of refuse that followed him out the door. As he ascended high into the air, Iggy wondered what all the fuss had been about. It was only a small chemical fire.
The air above the rooftops was refreshingly peaceful. Altamira, his home, always looked more beautiful and inviting the farther one was from it. The towering spires of the temples called for him to explore their hidden niches and mark them as his own. White smoke plumed from the artisans’ districts as master craftsmen built the commodities that powered the city’s industry. Smartly uniformed guardsman tromped in and out of their fortified barracks.
Something nagged at the back of Iggy’s mind as he looked at the barracks. There was something about the skyline in that direction. Something recent.
That was where the imp was flying before it disappeared, Iggy suddenly recalled. It’d been angling right for the guardsmen’s barracks. Declan had said that imps served as advance reconnaissance during his time campaigning. If Altamira were being scouted for an invasion, the barracks would certainly be a main point of interest.
Iggy redoubled his speed and descended toward the barracks. If there were any truth to his suspicions, then somebody must be warned. He wasn’t looking forward to going back to there, though. Not after last time.
He flew directly into the organized chaos perpetually surrounding the fort. Humans, elves and dwarves hustled in every direction to arm themselves, disarm themselves, embark on patrol, report from patrol, and covertly dawdle as only professional guards can do.
“Hey, it’s the firebug!” some of them called. “Look out, it’s that firebug!” a few exclaimed.
Iggy tried to ignore them as he fluttered inside.
“Hello, firebug,” said Lieutenant Sturgis dryly. The veteran officer stood in the center of the main hall, surrounded by guardsmen vying for his attention. “Come to finish what you started?”
“How many times do I have to explain myself about that?” Iggy said irritably. “She snuck up on me!”
“How is that an excuse for nearly burning down the barracks?”
“It didn’t nearly burn down,” Iggy insisted. “Kicking me out of the city guard was a complete overreaction.”
Sturgis shoved aside a guardsman waving a scroll in his face and stepped forward. “I would say that hurling fire at a scullery maid was the overreaction. And you were never a member of the guard in the first place, just a cadet on a trial basis. I should have trusted my instincts against taking a chance on someone of your…” his eyes ran up and down all 13 inches of Iggy’s frame, “…character.”
Iggy held his ground, or at least his air. He met the human officer’s gaze at head height, but he had nothing to say.
“Sir,” the shoved guardsman broke in, still clamoring for Strugis’s attention. “I think you should read this report from the city walls!”
“You’re not welcome in these barracks anymore, firebug,” Sturgis said, heedless of all distractions. “I suggest you leave before someone pins you to a board.”
“My name is Igneous Boomwing,” Iggy shouted as the lieutenant turned away. “You’ll see that I have as much to offer this city as anyone!”
But no one was paying attention anymore. The messenger was yammering to Sturgis about reports outside the city, and the rest of the barracks continued to bustle about in their daily activities around him.
Iggy gave up. He had started to make his way out the door when he remembered the whole reason he was here. The imp! Altamira might be filled with racist, pyrophobic assholes like Sturgis, but it deserved to know about a possible invasion.
Iggy turned and stuck his finger in the air for one last defiant warning when he noticed a strange shimmering in the air above the heads of Sturgis and his staff. Almost imperceptible, it looked a little like heat distortion, which drew Iggy’s attention instinctively.
That’s what the imp looked like when it disappeared, Iggy realized. But before he could say anything or warn anyone about the distortion, he’d already thrown a bolt of fire at it. The blazing orb of magic struck the distortion, washed over it and painted the wall behind it with a ring of flame. Guardsmen cried out in shock and alarm, ducking their heads and cowering behind their shields.
“What the hell are you doing?” Sturgis shouted, clawing at the scabbard at his hip.
As Iggy scanned around the vaulted ceiling of the hall, looking for some sign that his fire had had any effect, he moved to hover in the center of the open door to block it as best he could and prevent the thing from escaping.
A rasping chuckle came from somewhere on Iggy’s left. “No work, Mushroom!”
Iggy nearly slapped his forehead. Of course, demons like imps are immune to fire! But it clearly didn’t realize that Iggy was proficient in all manner of arcane evocations. He snarled out a different incantation and hurled another spell at the point where the laugh had come from. This time, an orb of electricity shot from his tiny, outstretched hand.
The outline of a small creature became brilliantly visible in the air as arcs of lighting shot through it. But the orb wasn’t finished. It bounced off the wall behind the creature and ricocheted throughout the hall, which was already swiftly catching fire.
Cowering guardsmen yelped and dove to the ground as their hair stood on end. All of them but one. Iggy looked up to see Sturgis standing over him, shining sword held aloft for a downward chop. There was really nothing Iggy could do but wait for the sword to fall and split him in two.
Then something landed beside them with a meaty plop. Slowly shimmering into view, it was the blackened corpse of an imp, cooked to the bone by magical electricity. Iggy pointed to it and Sturgis stared dumbfounded, sword still hovering over Iggy’s head.
“That’s the imp I came here to warn you about!” Iggy screeched. “They’re scouts for sieges. The city might be in danger!”
Sturgis seemed to consider it silently. While he was doing that, Iggy surreptitiously floated to the side until he was out from underneath the lieutenant’s sword. After a moment, Sturgis glanced back at a guardsman just now rising to his feet, the interrupting messenger from earlier.
“Imps in the barracks. Movement in the forest,” Sturgis said to himself. “Maybe there is cause for concern.” He slowly lowered his sword and returned it to its scabbard.
“You’re going to need good men if the city is attacked,” Iggy said. “Men who can take care of problems that go beyond hacking and slashing.”
“First thing’s first. Someone throw some water on that fire before the barracks burn down a second time.”
Iggy scowled. “You’re never going to look past the incidental collateral damage to give me the slightest bit of credit, are you? Think about what that imp could have told the enemy if it had escaped! I might have saved Altamira just now!”
Sturgis shook his head. “We don’t even know if there is an ‘enemy’ at this point. And if there is, you’d be the last person I’d want inside the walls protecting the city.”
Iggy started to protest, but Sturgis raised his hands placatingly and kept talking.
“However, I think I do know of a place where a… sprite… of your… talents… might actually be able to do some good.”
The next day, Iggy fluttered into the small military camp outside the city walls. All around him, soldiers were arming themselves, drilling formations, building fortifications and milling around as only professional mercenaries can do. A corporal walked over to meet him.
“You must be the new recruit I heard about,” he said, looking up and down all 13 inches of Iggy’s frame. “Heavy artillery, I’m told. That’ll sure come in handy on the open field.”
Iggy smiled. “There’s not a palisade I can’t burn nor a battle line I can’t break.”
“What’s the name, then?” the mercenary asked, opening his ledger.
“Igneous Boomwing. Here, let me sign it. There’s a particular way it’s written.”