The front door to the pub swung wide open, slamming against the bell. A few nearby heads, and one behind the bar, turned to the door as a small group of off-duty Seraph strode into the dining hall, laughing loudly at something said just outside.
“Ho, Tanner!” cried the barkeep over the noise. “Be with you boys in just a minute.”
The evident leader of the party nodded, turned back, and continued laughing with his peers as they made their way to a table against the far wall.
What the busy barkeep didn’t notice was the next patron, right behind his regulars. There was no clang of the bell, no sound of chatter or laughter, and little more than a tuft of gray hair visible over the tables in the room. The barkeep, once again pouring drinks for a pair of traders at the bar, had absolutely no idea the young asura was there, making his way through the lowest altitudes of the crowd. Indeed, even most of the people he passed overlooked him. It was nothing he was unaccustomed to; he was quite tall for an asura, standing as high as the ribcage of an average human, but in the eyes of the other races, that still made him short enough to easily look past. That actually made navigating easier at times, allowing him quick passage through crowds in which he went all but unseen—as long as he could keep his oversized ears in check. He never really thought about it, though, and he certainly wasn’t thinking about it right then. At that particular moment, his nose was too full with the scents of meats and malts for much else to be on his mind, and as most things did, that made him smile.
Hronsson’s Horn and Hamhock was a particularly popular alehouse in the Western Commons, and they were packed that night. Passing through a veritable forest of legs and lower torsos, the asura was kicked, kneed, and delivered a face-full of human rump more than a few times, though no one recognized it but him. No one, that was, except the norn barmaid whose knee-length skirt he accidentally walked under while trying avoid the sharp end of a broadsword on someone’s back. Before he recognized his faux pas, the eight-foot female pulled him out by his head with a single hand. Dropping him back to the ground, she looked him in his mortified eyes and slapped him in pretty much his whole face before pressing on through the crowd, her tray still held overhead.
When he finally reached the counter, wide-eyed and still rubbing his aching face, the asura climbed up onto the only free barstool. That was when the barkeep, jamming a tap into a the new keg, looked over his shoulder and became the second person to notice him: just a big, round head and shoulders poking up over the edge of the bar. Downward-pointed ears out to his shoulders and a big puff of hair nearly the same color as his gray skin, he was a sight to see from that side of the bar.
“Welcome to Hronnson’s, friend,” the round, bearded, and unusually large norn called over the din of the room. He finished his task and leaned on his side of the bar. “What’ll you have?”
Minkus looked at him and smiled wide, instantly forgetting the pain in his face. “Your flagship ale, please, sir.”
“Right. One Bear’s Ass Brown coming right up,” said the barkeep, turning back to the keg rack behind him. “You’re in luck,” he said over his shoulder, “I just cracked this one.”
Across the room sat a pair of humans, a woman and a teenage boy. The former was in perhaps her late twenties, with raven-black hair, leaning on the table between them as she spoke. Ale in one hand, she gestured emphatically with the other, accidentally knocking one of her three empty flagons off the table. She paused, shrugged, and continued. “I’m telling you,” she said, remaining audible over the noise, “the asura gates are technology, not magic. Can’t say I know how they work, but that’s beside the point. They’re technologically based. Take one look at them and you can’t miss it!” She took a swig of her drink.
The boy sat in his chair, hunched just a little over the drink he held in both hands. Sandy-haired and noticeably lanky even in his oversized tunic, he looked rather uncomfortable, with the conversation, the pub, and perhaps even with his own skin. “Oh, I don’t know—” he said.
The woman leaned in again. “Speak up a little, Eddie. I can’t hear you in this place.”
The boy’s shoulders settled as he cleared his throat. “I— I just don’t know, Miss Penny. I mean, I know you know your stuff—everyone knows that—but I’ve always been told they’re magic. They use magical energy or something.” He shrugged.
“OK. Fine,” Penny said, putting her drink down and laying her hands palm-down on the table as she leaned in as far as she could go. “It appears we’re at a stalemate, so we’ll have to ask someone else.” She looked around the room. “Him!” She pointed to the bar. “That asura there: the big-headed guy with the pint. We’ll ask him. He’s sure to know. He’s an asura, right?”
“Yeah, I guess so.”
“Good. If he says they’re technological, I win. If he says they’re magic, you win. The loser buys the next round.” Then she added with a smirk, “Or, I should say, you’ll buy the next round.” At that, the woman pushed her chair back from the table, rose to her feet, and made her way toward the counter.
Eddie sighed and took a longer sip.
Crossing the pub was never easy-going, but she knew her way around. She ducked beneath the barmaid’s tray, sidestepped the wild gestures of a brawl waiting to happen, and grabbed the shoulders of a tottering drunk to move him gently out of the way. In a moment, she was standing beside the asura, leaning on the bar to bring herself closer to his level.
“Hey there, friend,” she said, brushing aside that lock of black hair that always fell in front of her face.
He paused mid-sip, lips still on the flagon, to turn and look.
“Oh, I’m sorry,” she said. “I didn’t mean to catch you midway through your—” She leaned in to sniff. “Bear’s Ass? Yeah. Good choice.”
The asura wiped the foam from his mouth. “Yes, it is. It’s very good, one of the best I’ve had in Divinity’s Reach. Oh, but where are my manners?” He shook the condensation off his hand and stuck it out. Penny took it firmly and shook. “What can I do for you?” he asked.
“Well, you see,” she started, nodding toward the boy, “My assistant and I are having a bit of a disagreement that I think you can resolve.”
The asura tilted his head, with a confused look spread across his face. “Me?”
“Yeah. I’ve tried to convince him that the asura gates are technological, but he won’t have it. Not to be racist or anything, but since you’re an asura, if you told him, he’d have to believe it.”
He looked at her for a moment, increasingly perplexed. “He— he doesn’t believe the gates are—”
Before he could finish, she grabbed his hand. “Don’t worry. It’ll all make sense. We’ll just be a minute.”
Penny pulled him off his stool and into the crowd. He had only enough time to get his legs moving to keep from falling over when he hit the ground. The two passed through the middle of a norn drinking game; they slid back around the brawl now in progress; Penny once again moved the same drunk, who was doing wobbly laps around the pub to make new friends; and as they approached the table, the asura received a sharp slap in the butt from the norn barmaid. Shocked, he turned around to see her wink at him, laugh, and carry on with her work. He was still wrapping his head around it when he found himself at the table with Penny and the boy.
“So, here’s our expert,” the woman said to her friend. “Eddie, meet—” She turned to the stranger. “I didn’t get your name.”
“Minkus,” he said. “Minkus the Large.”
It was the first time she’d slowed the pace of the conversation. “The Large?” She asked skeptically, eyeing him from head to toe. “You’re what, four feet tall?”
“Four and a half, actually,” he said with a shrug, “which is quite tall for an asura.”
“Right, whatever,” Penny replied. “Eddie, Large. Large, Eddie,” she introduced, gesturing to each of them. Both nodded, but before either could greet the other, Penny crossed her arms and continued, looking at Minkus. “Go ahead, tell him the asura gates are technological.”
Minkus looked up at her. Then at him. “Well, yes. I’m not a gate technician, so I’m not especially knowledgeable, but they are asura technology.”
“See?” She said to Eddie, spreading her arms. “I told you. Technology. You, young sir, owe me a drink.”
He looked at her, unsure how to respond. “I guess. I just— I always thought they looked magical.”
Minkus looked at Penny, then back at the boy. This exchange made less and less sense to him. “Well, yes. They are magical.”
Penny’s exuberance turned to incredulity as she turned back to the asura, arms crossed again. “Magic? You didn’t say anything about magic. You said the gates were technology. You changing your tune there, Monkus?”
“No, no,” he said, raising his hands. “Not changing my tune; I— I think I misunderstood your debate. May I?” He gestured to the empty seat at the table. Penny nodded but continued standing.
He pulled the chair a few inches from the table and hopped up into it. “You’re right,” he said to Penny. “But then, so are you,” he said, turning to the boy. “The gates are technology, but they’re also magic. Almost everything we make is technology and magic.”
“They’re both technology and magic?” Penny asked, eyeing the asura with distrust.
“Yes, sort of,” Minkus replied, staring off in search of a thought. Something came to him, and he turned back to Penny. “Except, technology and magic aren’t separate—or that’s how it was explained to me. In the colleges, we learn they’re really just two parts of the same stuff. In fact, everything is just different parts of the same stuff, the one stuff that all of everything is made of. That’s the Eternal Alchemy—at least as far as I understand it.”
Penny stared at Minkus for a moment, lacking words. Then she looked at Eddie, who was also watching the asura with questioning eyes. The two exchanged a glance.
Penny, sitting back down in her seat and slouching deep into the backrest, finally acknowledged Minkus’ comments. “Eternal Alchemy, huh?”
Minkus nodded, though he was a little less sure of himself as he gauged her response.
“Sure,” Penny continued. “Why not? Technology is magic, magic is technology, and asura gates are made of both. Interesting theory of everything, I guess. But,” she paused, leaning forward to the table, “if no one wins this bet, then we haven’t really resolved our problem.”
She let silence hang over the table for a few moments, as the other two watched her closely. Her presence had grown heavy, as though something was out of sorts.
“We still need drinks, and now no one is responsible for buying them.”
Penny’s seriousness dissipated into a grin. Eddie rolled his eyes and leaned back in his chair. Minkus matched Penny’s grin with his own. “Allow me,” he said. “It’s only fair, since I spoiled your contest.”
He hopped off his chair and marched off into the crowd. Before long he returned, dragging a bar stool and followed by the norn barmaid, who carried a tray of three drinks. They were promptly put on the table before their respective drinkers, and Minkus climbed atop his stool, still grinning, to reach eye-level with his new acquaintances.