"You've been putting this off long enough. I want to see the results of your work."

Zertul jerked awake and spun around. Behind him was the Grand Archmage of the Tarlshan university, who was floating a few feet in the air. Further on were his dozen guards, who were preoccupied with herding his colleagues out of the tiny room.

"Nothing much, nothing much. Honestly, there is no need to check up on me."

The Grand Archmage smiled. "I would, but your work is too interesting to leave notice. As I recall, you were working on, ah, a magical weapon designed to threaten and kill dragons. Given the recent plague of them, I want to know how far you are to completion."

Zertul leaned over and picked up a thin metal rod from his desk. "It sort of progressed past dragon killing. You point it at a something, drop in a special packet we created, and squeeze this end. There's a loud sound and the target dies. The only problem is-"

"Not much to look at, but I'll give you some leeway. How strong is this? I doubt you've tried it on anything bigger than rats."

Zertul put the weapon down. "I've run tests. It has no trouble killing wyrmlings at up to 300 yards. After that, it only has a little trouble. But-"

"It has power. But what about speed? Even our fastest energy bolts move too slowly to hit a quick target."

"You know those annual roc flights over the kingdom? The one where they all zoom across? We downed a few. However-"

"Power... Speed... what's wrong with it? I know, it can't be used very often! Just like high-energy staffs the Ancients created oh-so long ago."

"Wrong again. You can use it as often as you like, as long as you have the proper materials. This is because-"

"Truly incredible! We've finally created a weapon stronger than those of the Ancients. I must know how you've found loopholes in magic law to-"

"That's what I've been trying to tell you! It doesn't use magic!"

The grand archmage stopped dead on his tracks. He opened and closed his mouth a few times before finally stammering, "Destroy it. We can't have something... something like that to leak out." Once again regaining his air of authority, he stiffly spun around and floated out of the room. His guards followed. Zertul sighed. He had a job to do, and nobody dared defy the grand archmage.

He brought his hand down, then stopped. He just couldn't destroy such a thing. Without hesitating, looked over his shoulder, then picked up the bar. "The world may not be ready for firearms," he muttered to himself, "but now, they're here to stay."

With another sigh, he concealed it in his cloak and shuffled out of the room.

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