Myths Inscribed Online Fantasy Magazine Sun, 09 Jul 2017 22:54:09 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Charlemagne and Florent Mon, 28 Apr 2014 02:33:25 +0000 by Ranylt Richildis

This is what happened to les deux bretons before I met them, back in the 70s when they were boys in Vannes. One was abandoned at nineteen months (no one knows why, or by whom), the other orphaned by a car wreck at age three. I should say he was orphaned in a car wreck, strapped to a safety seat in the car in question. The fact of the child safety seat indicates the degree of his late parents’ love for him; baby seats were indulgences in 1971. He was brought to the same agency as the foundling, where someone had the kindness to put them together in the same bassinet. Or—it might just as easily be said—someone made the mistake of placing them together.

The fair boy was registered under the unlikely name of Charlemagne Kermorgant, the dark one attached to the much less remarkable Florent Edig. Florent remembers the occasion of their meeting, just as he remembers the car wreck that erased his alternate life. He sees, when he tries, a characterless room, a lurking nurse, a dreary olive drape, and a toddler with matted white hair crawling up to peer at his eyes. A scent, one part applesauce, one part diaper. Children’s squeaks and squalls. A pain in his left leg and another on the right side of his head. A rather stunning absence, quickly filled.

Charlemagne was so named by at least one of his derelict parents. The name was inscribed on a note taped to his wrist. There was no family name, of course, so Kermorgant became his surname, as it became the surname of all the ciphers left on the steps of the eponymous hospice. An interim label, it stuck to him through to the age of majority and sticks to him still.

Being younger and very blond, and possessed of magnanimous blue eyes that flattered the standards of time and place, he might have found replacement parents soon enough. But les deux bretons were freakishly canny and made themselves loathsome during viewings with nose-picks and worse. Prospective adopters turned from him with regret and left him bent under Florent’s arm. Wards of the state, they forged a family from their separate parts. They were each other’s reassurance, even then.

They came of age together in their blue-and-white world in Vannes, sipped in sea air, and wet their heads each summer in theGulf of Morbihan. They wrote themselves a history of first shaves and first tattoos, of afterschool lessons in Breton and savate, of footsteps salting cobbled streets as the sea breeze salted roofs, of Florent’s vigilance, of Charlemagne’s restlessness that sent him bouncing off the world’s surfaces as they raced through streetlets that mapped their trail between school and foster home.

Yes, a foster home. Together. Well, eventually, once the state accepted that Charlemagne and Florent were easier to deal with as a set than as units. Such had been their design. On the surface, it was Charlemagne who seemed to be more wilful when separate routines or separate towns were proposed as options. His will was a symptom of his dynamism, staff believed, and the trouble he caused was manifest. It involved piercing sounds and cracked objects and a taut, troublesome body not easily restrained. Florent was thought to be the agreeable one. His will was latent, rarely tapped. It was dangerously undisclosed. Charlemagne’s will tested patience, it’s true, but Florent’s ended up shaping the world.


It did so three times, each time bureaucrats tried to separate them. The first severing occurred when Charlemagne was four and Florent five. You must understand that Charlemagne shimmered, his fair hair blossoming around his narrow face, while Florent’s dark hair draped across his narrow own and obscured his odd irises—one brown, one hazel—that disarmed strangers. So it was that Charlemagne, through contrast, drew the most attention, and the inevitable finally happened one summer. A local couple merely laughed, charmed, at the blond boy’s less than charming efforts to dissuade them. They signed several packs of paper and took him home.

They smoothed his hair and dressed him brightly, gave him a bedroom of his own and made him a nest of toys. They painted a romping zoo on the walls of his room and pointed out the smiling elephant, the jigging civet. There was an embryonic love for him in that house on Rue des Salines, and better meals, and bigger windows, and lusher hedges, and Epoisses, and the promise of classmates and cousins and, perhaps one day, a proper brother or sister.

Charlemagne saw his new walls through a sheen of tears. He coughed at the tender man and woman who tried to help him adapt. He slumped on the floor of his bedroom and did nothing but cry, said nothing but a name. “Flor!” he yelled at the nearest wall, unimpressed by the happy elephant. “Flor!” until his face was red. “Flor!” until he vomited—not much of a conqueror then. He snotted the hem of his shirt and let his stomach grow empty. He resisted all embraces, twisting like a screw whenever the woman drew him to her, and when the bedroom door was closed on him, he “Flor!”ed until he was hoarse. He “Flor!”ed in a northward direction even after his voice gave out, after his new parents began to reconsider their choice.

From the north Florent came. He disappeared from the agency seven hours after Charlemagne was removed and reappeared on Rue des Salines two days later. There were reports, after the fact, of a slight, odd-eyed child padding barefoot through the streets of Vannes, evading traffic and random malevolence as if girded by a sphere. He didn’t drown in the long neck of the oily La Marie, or lose composure in hectic, honking Place Gambetta as he wandered all the way up Rue Ferdinand le Dressay and all the way down Avenue du Maréchal de Lattre de Tassigny. He wasn’t tempted by Vannes’ quaint and sunny quays and their nodding yachts. He must be a very sensible child, authorities surmised, and he must have had a franc or two to buy a snack, a cup of juice. He must have found a nook to shelter in when night fell—he must be very quick to have evaded seeking, well-meaning hands.

But no one solved the question of how Florent knew where to find his anointed brother, how he entered the second-floor bedroom of a locked house in the dead of night, to be found tucked against the other’s side, his feet as clean as seashell. Kermorgant staff were shame-faced, police were relieved, and Charlemagne’s futile new parents were traumatized. They returned him to the agency along with the runaway, unwilling to take responsibility for a broken child and his formidable shadow.

Charlemagne was hardly broken. Reunited with Florent, his voice returned with his appetite, and his will abated. Florent grew agreeable again, the most helpful, pliable boy in the hospice. He was tacit, but since his grades were triumphantly average, adults let him be. They accepted his dial tone of a personality, and they checked Charlemagne’s energy more days than not, but neither boy earned a tick in their file as routine carried them forward. They were good. The one was simply too quiet, the other a bit kinetic.


It was commonplace for children to walk themselves to class in the 70s, particularly in seaside towns where orphanages weren’t more than five quiet turns of the street from primary schools. Les deux bretons were clannish, ignoring the other Kermorgant boys and girls without rudeness. They curled through the streets alone most days, the one indifferent to everything but his friend, the other beating with curiosity. Even then—even at six—Charlemagne tested every wall with hands, feet, and shoulders, sensing the latent physical intelligence he’d someday use to somersault off buildings with showy kips and flyaways.

But that was a year or two down the line. Now was the age of alphabet and arithmetic, of learning how to spell first and last names no matter how elaborate, of evading larger boys who taunted one with Charle-minime and the other with Fleur. If the bullies were persistent, the classroom dull, the institutional life they lived completely without character, the whole was preferable to the alternative, which arrived soon enough—inevitable.

Lesson learned after the Rue des Salines incident, the bureaucrats worked on their timing. They orchestrated a double-drop on the same day once every file was in order. Florent, age seven, was shipped to a foster home in Caen, while six-year-old Charlemagne was brought, indignant, to the tip of Quiberon. Each was instructed to adapt to new circles. Neither was told where the other could be found.

Charlemagne’s second home lacked the first one’s heart. The man and woman who sheltered him on Quiberon understood the arrangement to be temporary and offish. There were two other foster children under this roof—both girls, neither of whom had much to do with the newcomer. A clinical atmosphere was contained in that gabled house with turquoise shutters and trim—a house like any other off Avenue du Presqu’île, taking part in a peninsula-long repetition of whitewashed squares behind stony fences. Everything seemed to point south, towards colorful Port Maria, which was iced with winter’s frozen spray. Everything seemed to remark on the expansive seaside sky.

Charlemagne had nothing to say about any of it. He drew inward and sulked. His fosterers maintained routine. The husband left each morning to attend to his seafood restaurant, however void of tourists. The wife sorted the girls off to school. Charlemagne was left alone while he adjusted to the change—no chores, no school, no chaffing. He took advantage of his fosterers’ philosophy and spent his days ignoring platefuls of sardines and sweetened fromage blanc, whispering a syllable. He waited, confident, and studied the maritime tchotchkes his foster mother cluttered about the maritime-blue dining room.

This time it took a week and a day for Florent to materialize, so great the distance between them and so hard the weather. His feet tinged red, his toes puckered, he wandered naked into the house one morning, locked onto the dining room where Charlemagne practiced inertia, and closed the gap.

The wife rolled him in a blanket and called the husband back from the restaurant while Florent dozed in a corner with his friend. Only next gardening season would she discover an assortment of clothes bundled under the hedge that separated her gabled house from that of the neighbor: a dark green winter coat, a pair of black trousers, brown lace-up boots, gloves, a knitted cap, a scarf, and several layers of shirts. Everything was out of fashion and threadbare, as if rescued from a charity bin, and everything was fit for a grown man. There were two francs and twenty centimes in the pocket of the trousers, a clipped fingernail, and nothing else.

Authorities tried to trace the passage of an odd-eyed, determined child from Caen to Quiberon, but their efforts were in vain. They asked the wrong questions. Had they inquired about an odd-eyed adult roving across Brittany, they might have heard reports of such a man hiking southwards along a wintery causeway, hunched against the latest gale. Around him the swells tried to climb the seawall, made violent by the pressure of a heavy sunless sky that digested every shade of grey. The sea itself refused, momentarily, to mirror the happy blues of the province; it boiled with lurid turquoise, threw up its foam, sent wind shrieking into ears, and guttled the icy snow that lanced it.

The weather was remarkable that week, and so was the man who defied it, not just because he chose to walk the Quiberon peninsula in February. He’d been noticeably down on his luck, his clothes too large for his frame yet too short at the wrists and ankles. He’d been noticeably shivering, his coat and pants sopped by flying snow and foam. He’d been heterochromic like Edig, and narrow-built like Edig, and dark-locked like Edig, and heedless of the faces peering at him through car windows. He’d been tattered but tireless as he pushed southward against the wind.

In less than a day les deux bretons were back at the hospice, victorious. The boys attached themselves to old walls, old beds, old chores. Florent, after harrowing authorities from Caen to Quiberon for the span of a week and a day, resumed his role as Most Cooperative Boy. Charlemagne resumed his energetic thrumming. The one was boring, the other endearing despite it all. They were good again.


It was not commonplace for children in Vannes to enlist in martial arts classes, much less wards of the state who earned no more than the basics. It was, however, not unusual for business people to donate goods or services to l’Hospice Kermorgant. The Christmas after the Avenue du Presqu’île incident, when Charlemagne was seven and Florent eight, a local savate club offered free lessons to the lucky child (and a companion of his choice) who selected a certain gift under the institutional tree. Charlemagne, too small to grapple larger boxes out of the fray, clamped his hand on a book-sized present that revealed a manual of basic fighting techniques and a voucher.

Now was the age of fouettes and chasses bas, of learning to make weapons of hands, feet, and canes, of bullies growing reluctant to approach Charlemagne Kermorgant and Florent Edig. They were not yet known as les deux bretons, who in their teens and twenties would take several national titles between them in three different martial arts (one shod, two barefoot), but they were in development. Their instructor was so taken with nimble Char and Flor, so optimistic about their aptitude and form, that free lessons continued in exchange for helping out at the club.

One last time the state tried to accommodate these wards beyond the institution. There was a brief attempt to locate fosterers who would house both boys, but boys of an age were thought to be troublesome and there were no takers. A code of silence was put into place—a need-to-know venture whose details were kept in the heads of two bureaucrats, no more. Charlemagne was assigned a home in Brest, Florent in Rennes, and once again—after signatures were collected and relocation dates confirmed—les deux bretons were scattered. It took moments to collect them from their classrooms and wrangle them into separate vans. At just seven and eight years old, and just months into their savate training, they were hardly indomitable.

Charlemagne found himself lost in the largest town he’d ever seen, bolted to a naval couple who lived near the port. The husband was rarely out of uniform, and the wife—unable to have children of her own—was intrusive. Charlemagne was their first foster and their attention was a spotlight he couldn’t elude. He was their practice son while they waited for a baby to adopt, and practice they did: family meals and family games exhausted him and he acted out. He broke a cup for the sake of breaking it and sampled every hiding spot he could find in the couple’s button-tight home on Rue Bel air. He refused to speak and made a drama of baths and meals. He wanted his savate instructor nearly as much as he wanted Flor. He had never felt so robbed.

Florent, lost in a city even larger than Brest, was some time in finding his friend. Time enough for spring to show itself. Time enough for incessant rain to darken the already dark street and thicken its hedges and wash winter salt from the sides of its homes. Time enough for Charlemagne to lose pounds he couldn’t afford to lose, for the husband to lose patience and introduce boy to palm, for the wife to lose interest in the entire exercise. Time enough for Charlemagne, obsessed with all things east, to scent his way to the edge of land and call at the sea until he was dragged away.

No one saw Florent enter the house on Rue Bel air, though it happened in the middle of a Saturday, when husband and wife were home with their maddening charge. They were at lunch—and then they were asleep. They dreamt, in that sleep, of colossal iron walls and green-and-brown mountains, of planets that could crush a sun, of booms that strip reason from minds. They dreamt of particles too small to be measured—to be known—which combined into ribbons that were spotlessly bright yet crimson-dark in the very same moment in time. They dreamt of things indefinite, interactive, and unobservable. They dreamt of a dogged and ceaseless spinning, and woke unnerved.

When they woke, lifting heads from tabletop, their faces stained with cotriade, Charlemagne was camped under the highboy with a dark-haired child. The one was wary as he blinked at the adults at the table, the other nodding off. The one looked immensely satisfied, the other bedraggled, shoes disintegrating off trembling feet.

Authorities never minded the question of Charlemagne and Florent, at first. They had larger mysteries to solve. Ten days before, a sleeping sickness descended on Rennes. So chaotic the result, no one had time to follow up reports about an odd-eyed runaway who dodged his fosterers in a Picard Surgelés and wasn’t spotted again until he turned up in Brest. If anyone connected the bolting of Edig from the foodshop and the first mass case of sleeping sickness—which occurred in the shop in question—such a connection never made it to the papers. Journalists were too busy tracing the sickness westward, marvelling how it contained itself, threadlike, to less than a square kilometer radius, how it veered away from roads and towns. That was just as well, after the smashed glass and broken limbs that collected in Rennes as drivers, builders, cooks, and bathers dropped off in media res with sometimes dire results.

Events were much gentler beyond the capital. Victims tended to be innkeepers, hikers, dalliers. Rural families fell asleep without warning, at all hours, to wake on sofas or kitchen floors, food missing from fridges and pantries. A few outdoor cafés reported collective naps that overturned cups, tables, and chairs, but these were remote operations nestled in the Armorique Regional National Park. One lucky photographer benefitted from the phenomenon when she managed to wake before the others and snap a lucrative shot: patrons sagging on chairs, waiters supine on the ground, trays scattered, éclairs and kouigns transformed into pillows.

The naval man and his wife were the last of the sleepers; the sickness waned at Brest. Les deux bretons were returned to Vannes and given old spots and old roles at the hospice. They returned to school and savate lessons, and they agreed to sign up for instruction in Breton to earn more credit with the adults who ruled them. Charlemagne was once more amenable to food and baths. Florent made himself indispensable. They were so good—and so quick to win trophies for their local club—that their savate instructor and his wife opened their home to both boys less than a year later, and there they remained.

In time, they grew into lithe young men with charming faces that belied their love of the ring. In time, as they qualified for tournaments in Paris, Lyon, and Toulouse, they became known as les deux bretons, a label of respect, of expectation. It was expected that Kermorgant would disarm opponents with a joyous, bloody grin—he’d bite his tongue to dye his teeth when bouts were close. It was expected he would let his hair hang in his face while Edig pulled his into a ball so he might cut the air with his cheekbones and bore into opponents with his eerie two-tone gaze. It was expected they would eventually settle in Paris, a city of many bouts and clubs, where the one would make a modest living in restaurant kitchens (his kineticism served him well), the other as a martial arts instructor of equally modest means. It was expected that gaining the age of majority would liberate them, and it did, and they are together still, terrifying enemies with their less terrifying trick. If they miss the sea air, they’ve chosen not to tell me.

A Winter’s Challenge Sun, 27 Apr 2014 17:36:55 +0000 by Lorna Smithers

The mid-December wind
Tears down the last leaves
Blasted boughs circle the skies
Like wild weather vanes,
The ivy trembles.

Amidst the ramparts
Decks a forest miniature
Where the prickling holly
Shines aquifolium locks
On berries vermillion.

A wight watches
With eyes red as blood
Verdant beard and woody features,
Huge stature draped in an armature of evergreen,
The greenest man I’ve ever seen,
An interfuge of strife and trouble
Assimilating the quiet stillness
Of a dark silent chapel.
He plucks a sprig, a fractured microcosmic tree
And commands “do justice to my apparel.”

And where to hence?
To your wild home north of the Wirral
To a solitary cavern of abandonment
At the year’s turn to ride forth on a steed
Green maned and tangled
Bearing in one hand the holly sprig,
A dauntless axe in the other
To issue your winter’s challenge?

Who now would heft your axe,
Adhere to your severed speech
And proffer their head upon your block?
Will you ride to the Queen,
The lord knights of parliament,
The bankers and bureaucrats
Knowing chivalry and honour lie dead
Capsized beneath this world
Where Arthur slumbers, whilst above
The powers of darkness prosper?

Will your challenge be issued?
Will the dark of this winter’s night listen?
And who amongst us would pass your test?

Waiting for Yesterday Sun, 27 Apr 2014 17:36:01 +0000 by A. E. Lowan

The signs had all indicated he would come here, and so she waited. She haunted hospital nurseries and sun-dappled playgrounds, watched the children come and grow, the swaddled babies age and die. She searched their eyes, eyes in all the colors of humanity, but none were his. As the years passed a cloying fear coiled in her mind that somehow she had missed him, that he had been born and aged while she hunted in vain, and had died unknown. Or worse, that he was rotting and neglected in one of the warehouses for the aged of which mortals were so fond. Horror-filled, she searched oubliettes scented with decay and talcum powder, where men with eyes like children had long forgotten their own names.

Vampires did not forget.

Alone in shadow in the bright of the day, she dreamt of the taste of his skin, the heat of his flesh against her moon-cool body. His laugh, rumbling in his chest beneath her cheek, still echoed in dearly held memory.

It was the heat of his blood that had first drawn her to him. She had been young and ravening, and the smell of flesh and sex made her mouth water and her teeth ache with need. She remembered scrambling through the little brothel window, being too new for true grace or subtlety. She had her teeth buried in the hot meat of the whore’s slim throat, hands tight around the bony wrists before either the girl or her customer could react to her presence. Searing blood flooded her mouth and she swallowed compulsively, feeling it soak into her parched tissues. The girl struggled at first like a little bird, fluttering in her embrace, and then relaxed into thrall as the young vampire drank her life. So focused was she on feeding that she forgot the man until he moved beneath her. She realized the whore had been riding astride when she attacked, and the man tried to slip unnoticed from under their combined weight. She watched him with pleasure-darkened eyes, her mouth clamped tight to her prey’s throat, as he crept nude to the head of the bed. But he made no attempt to flee. Instead he watched, his eyes fixated on her face, her swollen lips pressed hard against the girl’s pale flesh, her eyes glittering in the dark.

For long moments the tableau remained still, man and vampire locked in their own curious thrall, the only sound her swallowing. She knew she had committed the last mistake a young vampire makes, forgetting the presence of an enemy in her bloodlust, and for the first time in her immortal life she tasted a little of her own fear. This man watched her with a warrior’s eyes. Only a trace of animal fear mingled with his spicy scent. Beneath her tongue the whore’s pulse had weakened to a whisper, and she let the feather-light body slip to the rumpled blankets, her eyes never leaving his.

“What are you?” His voice was so soft there was no resonance, merely breath forming words against teeth and tongue. His fair eyes, too, were dilated, though with pleasure or fear, or both, she was not sure. His hair was dark and rumpled, speckled with silvery flashes here and there at temples and forelock. His face was finely seamed by sun and wind, and the legs and arms supporting his crouch were both tight with muscle and scarred from conflict.

Her belly full, she could allow herself to admire him as a man, rather than a morsel. Her pink tongue flashed out to lick the girl’s blood from the corner of her mouth. “I think you know.” She kept her voice as low as his own, reluctant to shatter the stillness.

His eyes wandered to the still form of the whore, and then back to her face. “Are you going to kill me, too?” Tension increased through his body, like a bowstring pulled back. He could fight or flee with the slightest provocation.

She eased back from him, so slowly, and moved off the bed. Blood pumped hot through her body now, suffusing her with both the power and languidness of a heavy meal. “Not just now,” she replied, this time full volume. Both the richness of her voice shattering the tense silence and her not-so-gently-teasing tone seemed to startle him a little. She was no longer hungry, but he had brought her attention back to the body and she did not wish to remain here. The room seemed suddenly too small and close, and the open night beckoned from the window. Before he could reply she was gone.

But she did not go far. Those fair eyes of his haunted her and she found herself lingering in the dark near the brothel. She knew him for a lord when he left the dead woman behind without incident, and against her better instincts she followed him home. Perhaps it was because she was only recently made that mortal longings and loneliness remained within her, but she found the thought of letting him disappear back into the human herd to be unbearable. Nights of watching began, and she discovered to her irritation that he was a man not often left alone. He was a leader of men, his days spent among his people, settling disputes or riding out to eliminate the four-legged predators that picked off both animal and human strays. A predator herself, she forced herself to curb her youthful urges, taking only enough to slack her hunger. If the village youths were a little spent in the mornings, it could only be blamed on the vigorous nature of adolescent dreams, for her bite marks were nowhere open to public scrutiny.

She grew to love the way a stray breeze would toss his hair, how he laughed with his entire body, and how he rolled a coin across his knuckles when in deep thought. Soon, watching was no longer enough.

The room was lit only by the dim glow of the banked fire. A page dozed peacefully beside the hearth, and with a soft whisper against his ear fell into deep slumber. She padded barefoot across the woven rug, and brushed her fingers against the rich brocade bed-curtain.

If she had been mortal, the vice-like grip on her wrist would have been painful. The prick of the wicked dagger against her skin stung a little. Again she found herself face to face with the fair-eyed lord. He seemed just as surprised to see her as she was to be at knifepoint. Then his gaze moved to the limp form of his page, and his face clouded with anger.

“He is merely sleeping.”

His eyes were skeptical, but the anger began to seep away. “Forgive me, madam, if I hesitate to believe you.” He eased out of bed between her and the page, and crossed the room to check on him, never quite turning his back. When he assured himself the boy was slumbering peacefully and unpunctured he returned to her side, the dagger still held loosely in his hand.

A little nonplussed that this encounter was failing to go as she had envisioned, she scowled at the weapon. “Expecting someone?”

He wiggled the blade a little in his grip, but did not put it down. “Not you.” He sighed, the sound hollow and weary, and then fixed his eyes on her as if seeing her for the first time. “Madam, what are you doing here?”

Flustered was not an emotion she had experienced since she came to this life. Saying “I came to seduce you” seemed too obvious and just creeping away in embarrassment was too cowardly for her nature. He was dangerous, that much was quickly becoming clear. She reached out slowly, letting a smile play at the corners of her mouth, and traced her fingers down the chill steel blade of the dagger. “I’m not here to hurt you,” she murmured, stepping into the heat radiating from his still sleep-warmed body. He did not step away from her, but neither did he close the narrow gap between them. She could hear his pulse quicken, smell his scent intensify with arousal. What she did not smell was fear. She met his eyes, and saw wariness, the dilation of interest, but no fear. “But, you know that.” She heard the soft wonder in her own voice.

With his free hand he reached up and touched her for the first time, stroking her long hair with callused fingers. A shiver passed unbidden through her body. She had not realized how very much she had missed mortal affection. His eyes softened, and he finally laid the dagger on a small table near at hand.

A vampire does not forget, even if she wants to.

The nights clustered themselves into years as she insinuated herself into his life. She would absent herself from time to time, seeking prey away from home, but even knowing how dangerous it could be to stay so long in the mortal world her absences became shorter and shorter. She was young, and the dangers seemed less real when she had not experienced them herself. For her it was love and a taste of the mortality she had given up. Others of her kind may have kept him as a pet, and as she aged she would meet many who did just that with other men and women of power, but this man from the start was her lover and companion. When the time came, she could welcome him into her world with open arms, and he would be powerful indeed. But, always he hesitated, always had one more thing he wished to accomplish in this mortal life, and she loved him too much to force him.

One night she returned from hunting, still flushed and slightly giddy from a cheerfully drunk and obliging young shepherd. She opened the window to enter his chambers and the thick meat smell of hot blood struck her like a fist. He lay on the floor beneath the window, fair eyes wide, mouth open slightly as if ready to kiss her. His flesh was torn from a dozen blows, slashes and stabs over his arms and chest and sweet face, a dozen gaping mouths flashing dark meat and white bone. He lay at the head of a crimson river, the flow following the spaces between the floorboards to soak into the heavy woven rug. She inhaled again, not realizing she had been holding her breath, and the blood scent of other men invaded her nose and mouth. He had hurt them before he had been taken.

She released the breath in a scream of anguish and rage that shattered glass throughout the manor and sent every dog in the village howling in terror. Then she was gone into the night. His murderers had long since fled, but not far enough to escape her fury. She slaughtered them there on the road, leaving their remains along the cart-path all the way back to their master. And as for him, she often wished she had taken more time, inflicted more torment on him, but as it was generations would speak of his demise before dying fires and fear what the night held.

In the end, her vengeance was an empty thing. No amount of blood and pain could bring her lover back, and from the shadows of the trees she watched them bury him with a sick, aching emptiness that would not heal.

Generations passed, empires rose and decayed, and she watched the world change around her. She knew fleeting company, fed from both the willing and unwilling, but always she slept alone. She could enjoy exchanging carnal pleasures and a little conversation with others of her kind, but still she missed his humor and his tuneless whistles and the way his back would arch as he climaxed.

She sat on a crumbling marble park bench that had been new when she first came here and watched the little faces, searching their bright eyes for a glimmer of the familiar with neither passion nor hope. Patience had outlasted faith by many years, but now even that was looking torn and battered. Doubt was crowding out the certainty that had buoyed her until now. She had forgotten what hope felt like. She ran her fingers over the smooth-worn scrolling on the back of the bench, feeling its age. Feeling her age. The years alone opened before her, endless feeding and waiting.

He wasn’t coming.

“You ok?”

She remained still. Pain, new and remembered, filled her mind, her body, leaving no room for inquisitive mortals.

“Excuse me, um… ma’am? Miss? You ok?”

She could smell him on the bench beside her. Clean but musty, like a fresh shower and old books. Her lover had smelled of leather and sweat and wood smoke. There were none here who carried his scent.

“Is there anyone I can call?”

“Leave me.” Years had given her power, and she put it into her voice. A mortal Samaritan intruding on her pain was the last…

“I don’t think you should be alone.” It was a youth’s voice, rich with concern.

She felt her face nearly crumple into tears. She knew her lip was visibly trembling, and she turned to face him, to drive off this mortal who dared ignore her menace and disturb her grief. He was young, wearing a battered denim jacket with a university T-shirt beneath. A backpack lolled between his feet. His smile was gentle, and his eyes were dark beneath longish bangs. But behind those eyes… Her breath stopped, her heart stuttered a moment with the shock of recognition, the renewal of neglected hope. After so long, was she finally going mad? Did she need to see him so much she would begin to see him anywhere?

His dark brows knit elegantly together, and he leaned forward slightly to gaze more deeply into her eyes. “Do I know you?” he asked in a voice softened by wonder. So familiar…

Her eyes reddened and glittered, large tears breaking free to course down her cheeks. Madness be damned, she just wanted him back.

Alarm flushed his face. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to make you cry. Uh… you want me to get you a drink or something?”

She raised her proud head and brushed her face dry. “Yes,” she said, and barely held back a bark of hysterical laughter. “I would love a coffee.”

He stood and tossed his backpack over one shoulder, then held out his hand to help her up. “What happened?”

She took his hand, firmly, possessively. “Nothing important… any longer. I was just waiting.”

Pied Sun, 27 Apr 2014 17:24:18 +0000 by Randy Lindsay

Only a fool would agree to work for fairies. They are unpredictable, dangerous, and really, really annoying. Which meant that I felt like the king of fools.

Not that I volunteered to help one. The Royal Council made that decision for me. But that didn’t change the fact that I was expected to find some evidence to clear a fairy of the charge of treason.

I braced myself for the avalanche of laughter that was sure to come when I told people that someone named Nandi-Nandi-Boo-Boo would never dream of smacking the Grand Chancellor in the face with a pie. A cherry pie to be exact, with frothed sweet cream on top.

My first instinct had been to turn down the assignment and change vocations. The only problem with that scenario was that I loved my work. Snooping out the truth came naturally to me; almost magically. Besides, the Royal Council expected me to fulfill the assignment no matter what profession I currently claimed to pursue.

They had Nandi locked up in an oversized birdcage covered with anti-magic runes. Wearing a jester’s outfit of green and purple, he swung back and forth on the bird perch. The cage sat on top of a wooden table in a room that smelled of stale coffee.

“Oh goodie,” he said as I walked into the room. “Company.”

“Nandi, I  . . .”


“What?” I asked.

“Nandi-Nandi-Boo-Boo. That’s my name. Not Nandi.”

“Consider yourself lucky that I don’t call you Boob.”

Nandi hopped off the perch, placing his fists on his hips. “I can see that you don’t do very well with names. How would you like it if I called you . . . Biggs?”

I blew out my breath, trying to keep it together. “You can call me Biggs. I don’t care.”

Nandi reached through the cage and offered me his hand. “Glad to meet you, Biggs-I-Don’t-Care.”

“Now that we have that out of the way,” I said. “Maybe we can get down to business. Why’d you pie the Grand Chancellor?”

“He got pied.” Nandi’s tiny face brightened, eyes twinkling with excitement. “Did someone really pop old Pudding Face in the puss with a pie?”

“Someone did. They think it was you.”

“I wish I had.” Nandi folded his arms and sulked.

“Maybe you don’t understand the seriousness of the situation. An attack on the Grand Chancellor is considered treason.”

“That’s the problem with you humans. All you understand is serious. Whoever pulled this off will go down in the annals of the Fey as a hero. And it’s funny, too.”

“The penalty for treason is death.” I arched an eyebrow for emphasis.

“What do you know? It isn’t that funny after all.”

“Any idea who might have done it?”

“What kind of pie did they use?”

“Cherry. With cream on top. Does it matter?”

Nandi clutched his belly and fell on the floor of the cage, laughing, rolling around, and stomping his feet. He kept that up for almost five minutes.

I waited.

Finally, he stood and wiped a tear from his eye. “Your lack of education on both pies and fey is appalling. Of course it matters what kind of pie was used. That tells you everything you need to know about the brave soul who stood up to the corrupt and boring legal system.”

“Let’s start with why it couldn’t be you.”

“Are you kidding? Cherries are out of season. It would be unnatural to do anything with cherries this time of year. Not only that, but cherry pie is too red. You don’t want your victim looking like the target of some brutal mugging. Where’s the funny in that?”

“And it’s all about getting a laugh, isn’t it?” I asked.

“Laughter is good for you.” Nandi made a face by pulling on the sides of his mouth and sticking out his tongue. “Bananas are more my style. Or cow pies. Now, that’s funny.”

“I’ll keep that in mind for the next time I have the urge to pie someone. Until then, we’re looking for a person with a cruel sense of humor and no respect for nature. Is that right?”

“Sounds like a Red Cap,” said Nandi.

“In that case, I know just where to go.”

“Do hurry. I can imagine all the fun I’m missing while I’m stuck in here.”

“I’ll do my best.”

As I walked out of the room Nandi hopped back on the perch and started singing to the tune of Jimmy Crack Corn.  The made-up lyrics had do with me cracking the case, but frankly I didn’t care.

*          *          *

If anyone in the city knew about the Fey, it was Grumble-Tusk. The old troll had a fierce hatred of them and used his network of goblinoid thugs to keep a tab on them in the city. Although he had more than a few Red Caps working for him, it was out of necessity rather than mutual respect.

Grumble operated out of a secondhand shop and ran a money-lending operation in the back. Rumor had it that he had made a fortune selling human junk to goblins and snifflings, but kept the illicit back business going for a sense of criminal authenticity.

Bits, as the shop was known, smelled like a compost heap with a generous helping of troll stench thrown on top. Dull, rusty, partially broken junk littered the store in no apparent order. Merchandise was piled up along the walls and in tottering mounds in the middle of the floor. A counter ran along the entire length of the rear wall.

A pair of mountainous, unwashed humans leaned against the counter, while Grumble sat behind it, feet propped on the scuffed and scratched wooden surface.

“Here to do youse festival shopping early, Snoop?” Grumble sneered at me.

“I’m looking for someone.”

“Den youse outta luck, Bub. I ain’t in da information trade.”

“Too bad.” I positioned myself so I could keep the hired muscle in sight. “This is a chance to put one of those pesky Red Caps on the chopping block and make a little money while you’re at it. There’s a reward for whoever turns in the guy who pied the Chancellor.”

Grumble guffawed. “He deserved it. And whoever done it is okay in my book.”

I looked him in the eye so as to get his attention. “Even if he’s Fey?”

Grumble shifted in his chair, looking more than a little conflicted. The deep growl in his throat was a good indication that he didn’t like the direction his thoughts were going. His upper lip twitched. Then he dropped his feet off the counter and leaned in closer.

“A couple of dem Caps been complaining about da Chancellor’s plan for a reservation of some sort. Personally, I like da idea of putting all dose stinking fairies where dey can’t cause no more trouble. But I heard one of dem has organized a protest group. Seems to be dat his name is Dour-Razzle.”

“Any idea where this Dour-Razzle can be found?” I asked.

“Do I look like a charity? How bouts youse buy something?”

“Why don’t I just slip you a few coins and you can give me a location?”

“Like I told youse before. I ain’t in da information trade. Dey got a union.”

Glancing around the immediate area, I spotted an item that stood out amidst the rest of the junk. A large magnifying glass with a jade handle sat on a shelf, nestled between a milking bucket and a pair of tarnished brass candlestick holders. I had a glass like it up until two weeks ago when someone broke into my office and robbed it.

Mine had been a gift from an appreciative client and had been enchanted to detect magical print on documents. It lost its magic when a suspect I was chasing missed me with a curse and hit it instead. After that, I used it to read the fine print on contracts.

I picked it up and examined it. The handle had an inscription that read:  A magic eye for the sharpest private eye in the Five Realms.

“Hey, this is mine,” I shouted at Grumble.

“It will be once you pay for it.”

“No. I mean that someone stole this from me. I own it.”

“Den the boaf of you can enjoy a happy reunion. Once you pay for it.”

I fished a handful of coins out of my pocket and started plunking them down on the counter until Grumble gave me a nod.

“Atta boy.” Grumble swept the coins off the counter with a single swipe of his hand, disappearing to who knew where. “You can find Razzle in da fish district. Him and da rest of the Caps hang out at da Sweating Pig.”

Grabbing my property, I headed out the door.

“Come on back if youse lose your snoop glass again.”

Any day in which dealing with a troll is the easy part is a day I’d just as soon skip. The fish district ran along the docks. Violent crime ranked high on the activity list in the area and city guards stayed away if they could manage it. On top of that, Red Caps were small, mean, evil, and impossible to find if they didn’t want to be found.

As I walked, I checked my inventory of personal defense items. Billy club. Concealed wrist blade. Packets of flash powder distributed throughout several pieces of clothing. And a stun rod with ten charges still on it. The last item came in pretty handy for a non-magical human working in a magical world.


*          *          *

Everything seemed in order when I reached the Sweating Pig. The inn smelled every bit like name suggested. Flies, which were common all over the fish district, had been drawn to this location in even greater numbers.

I walked in and found a seat close to the entrance. Then I placed a stack of silver coins on the table. Enough of them to be noticed, not so many as to get me killed where I sat. I don’t know why, but I laid the magnifying glass next to it. I ordered an ale and waited.

A mixed-breed hooker was the first of the group to wander over and make an offer to liberate me of the coins. She stood near six foot, sported a pair of fangs, and looked as if she could bench-press me with ease.

I politely declined and mentioned that I was looking for information about Nandi-Nandi-Boo-Boo. The comment earned a round of laughter from the nearby tables, which meant that people were as nosy about me being here as I hoped they would be.

A gambler, an out-of-work merc, and a grungy gnome who claimed to be a powerful wizard all solicited me with their services. Each left the table with their eyes still on the coins.

Then I caught a blur of movement out of the corner of my eye. When I turned my head a Red Cap had positioned himself across the table from me. His hand moved towards the money, but stopped when he realized I noticed him.

His eyes barely reached the top of the table. Only the glistening red cap gave his position away. He glared at me for a moment and then climbed up on a chair and sat down.

“You looking to get killed?” His voice was husky, like an old man.

“I’m looking for information. The coins are for whoever gives it to me.”

“Information about what?”

“A fairy. I’m looking for a witness that saw him attack the Chancellor.”

“What’s the looking glass for?” he asked, warily eyeing it.

“To make sure my informant is telling the truth,” I said. “It’s enchanted.”

“Alright.” He held his small, wrinkled claw out across the table.  “Give me the money.”

“Not so fast. First, I need a name.”

“You already have one.”

“I need your name.”

He withdrew his hand and took a step back, moving surprisingly fast. His eyes remained fixed on the coins. A greedy glint filled them.

I reached towards the coins, moving slowly to avoid spooking the Cap and to add as much dramatic effect as possible. The scrape of the coins as they slid along the wood had the intended effect.

The Cap followed the retreating stack of sliver. His stare rapidly alternated between the pile of money and my face. His lips twitched as if warming up to talk.

“My name is Razzle.” The words seemed to shoot out of his mouth on their own volition.

“Just a minute.” I picked up the magnifying glass and held it up and looked at him through it. “Say it again. I have to see if you’re telling the truth.”

“Razzle.” His eyes shifted away from my gaze. “That’s my name.”

“Good.” I continued to watch him through the magnifying lens, hoping that he didn’t have a way to detect enchantments. “Do you know anything about a fairy by the name of Nandi?”

“Nandi? Or Nandi-Nandi-Boo-Boo?” Razzle asked.

I sighed. Even the evil fey had an annoying attraction for ridiculous names. “Take your pick. I don’t care about the name. Do you know who attacked the Chancellor?”

“Nandi-Nandi-Boo-Boo.” He said it quietly, as if testing the lie detecting property of the lens. When no objection came forth he continued. “It was the fairy that hit the Grand Chancellor with the pie.”

Razzle had answered, but a glimpse of a red glob had my attention. Nestled beneath the collar of his green felt shirt sat a lump with a different hue than the bloody drippings that dotted the rest of his shirt. This looked more like—cherry pie filling.

“Do I get the money?” Razzle nearly shouted.

The raised voice snapped my attention back to the discussion.

“Almost,” I said. “Tell me what you saw and then the money is yours.”

While Razzle talked I slid the stun rod out from the belt scabbard where I kept it. Then as soon as he finished I slid the money forward with one hand and leveled the wand at him, under the table, with the other. Just as his hands touched the coins, I triggered the wand.

Razzle stiffened. Then he toppled to the floor, still as rigid as a stone statue.

The noise in the room stopped. Everyone had their eyes focused on me.

I stood up and pulled out my Civil Enforcement medallion. It gave me the authority to arrest anyone I suspected of criminal activity. I held it up high and made sure to flash it around so everyone got a good look at it.

“Nothing to get excited about folks. Lord Marshall Hume asked me to escort Razzle here to his office for a little chat. Look.” I pointed to the coins that were still on the table. “He even offered to buy everyone a round of drinks.”

It worked; their attention was on the money.

Still holding the medallion in the air, I grabbed Razzle by the collar and dragged him out of the inn. Once outside I took the time to hoist the Cap over my shoulder and marched down the street as if nothing was amiss.

Behind me, the sounds of a scuffle tumbled out through the open doors of the inn. The patrons were no doubt deciding upon the distribution of drinks.

Thirty minutes later, I turned Razzle over to the lead Inquisitor and collected my fee. It covered my expenses for the case—and then some. The lure of quick money nibbled at my thoughts once again and I decided to drown that inner voice in a bucket of my favorite ale.

I woke up in my office, slumped over my desk. My head pounded. Nandi sat on the desk in front of me.

“Good,” he said. “I’m glad you’re awake. Now I can thank you for saving me.”

“Just doing my job,” I mumbled.

“Don’t be modest; you’re the best.” A smile widened across Nandi’s face. Then he gestured with his hands and a pie appeared in the air. A flick of Nandi’s wrist sent the pie smacking into my face.

The filling dribbled down my face and into my gaping mouth.

Banana cream pie.

“Now, that’s funny.” Nandi giggled.

Glaring at Nandi, I wiped the pie from my face. “I hate bananas.”

The Ravenous Flock II Thu, 01 Aug 2013 18:02:24 +0000 by Adrian Diglio

Grindor awoke atop a bed within a wooden cabin that swayed back and forth. The smell of salty ocean air filled the room. Heads of beasts and serpents were mounted along the walls like trophies. He was no longer in his merchant linens, but was wearing a clean tunic and trousers. A splint was strapped to his leg and his kukri was missing. Crutches lay beside him. They were long sturdy sticks with a Y shape on one end. He grabbed them and hobbled across the wooden floor boards toward a mirror. His eyes looked as if they had seen one too many battles in their time. His black hair hung to his shoulders and no longer smelled of dust. His sunburns were gone. He raised his hands to his face; his skin felt cool and smooth. He turned to the cabin door and threw it open.

He expected to see open ocean; instead, all he saw were massive tree branches surrounding a small porch. He hopped onto the porch and found Ocamyr leaning against the railing. All around him were more trees like this, each with a wooden cabin nestled in their branches. The swaying was not from waves: the trees appeared to be… walking. He did not believe his eyes as he peered down below to see the great roots of his tree crawling atop the land.

Many questions raced through his mind, but the first words that escaped his lips were: “Why am I not dead?”

Ocamyr gave a slow exhale. “When you are ready, I want you to tell me how you came about that ring. You know which one I speak of.”

Grindor blinked in confusion and then studied the golden ring upon his right hand, staring at its insignia of three talons as if recalling the memory. “Where is your flock?”

“I sent them on ahead to sell their wares. I figure you will be more comfortable telling me the truth when the others aren’t around.”

Grindor gave a slight nod. “What is this place?” he asked as he held onto the railing to stay his balance.

“It is the home to a nomadic tribe of torgers.”

“Torgers? I thought you were taking me to my own. To a human city with apothecaries.”

“We were, until help came to us. We knew you would be in good hands when we saw these trees approach. Torgers are generous and most are worshippers of Syrepha. They applied herbal remedies to your burns and bruises, and stopped the swelling in your leg.”

Grindor cleared his throat. “Syrepha?”

“Oh, you must be a worshipper of the Old Gods, like your king. What’s his name? Tenoble XLIII? Anyway, you probably know her better as the Gaia Smith, wielder of the divine forging hammer that has control over trees and nature.”

“I swear fealty to no king,” muttered Grindor. “A true king should serve his people, not have his people serve him. For his sake, I hope he realizes this before his wars cause the people to rise up against him.”

“Then you are a vagabond like me, with no place to call home.”

Grindor thought about that for a while. His possessions and his riches were all gone. He looked at his broken leg and then watched from his perch in the swaying tree tops as the tangled roots continued to crawl over brush and dirt.

“Did you make this?” Grindor said as he held out his leg wrapped within the splint.

“I did. How does it feel?”

Grindor smiled at his attempt at kindness. “You must really want to know the story behind this ring.”

The magnificent avian gave a slight nod. “It was the Fates that crossed our paths. And I intend to find out why.” Ocamyr was primed for combat. Two sharpened sais were tucked into his belt. They were the length of long daggers and looked like the heads of tridents, the middle spike twice as long as the outer two.

“So, where are we headed, then? Nolta Tenoble? Dreskin Tenoble?”

“Wherever these land-sailors take us,” answered Ocamyr.

“We’re not headed to a human city at all?” cried Grindor. He took a moment to calm himself. “I guess it doesn’t matter. If I even attempt to tell the king, well, I’m a dead man either way.”

Ocamyr’s head cocked to the side. “Tell the king about what?”

Just then, a stout hominid approached from around the corner. He was thick and looked solid as iron. His skin was a dry black and he stood a head shorter than Grindor. His head was more animal than human, with beady eyes, small ears, an elongated forehead, and one horn that stuck out above wide-set nostrils, crowding his mouth. He carried a staff twice his height, thicker than a broomstick and capped with a metallic pinecone-shaped macehead.

Grindor and the torger stared at each other for a long while; it was the first time Grindor had seen one up close. The torger gave a grunt and tapped his staff at the floor by Grindor’s leg. Grindor was perplexed and looked back at Ocamyr for help.

“They don’t speak in the common tongue,” squawked Ocamyr. “He wants to know how your leg is.”

Grindor faced the torger and nodded, gave a thumbs-up, and said, “Yes. It’s much better. Thank you.”

After an awkward stare, Grindor continued, “Can you take me to one of the king’s cities?” He drew a half circle in the sky, signaling turning around.

The torger was motionless, so Grindor kept talking. “Do you have something to eat, then?” He followed his statement by pointing to his mouth.

The torger reached behind his back and offered forth Grindor’s kukri within its scabbard. Grindor was hesitant to retrieve his blade at this juncture in the conversation. Again, he looked back at Ocamyr, but this time Ocamyr was riddled with delight. Grindor took his weapon and unsheathed the curved blade to inspect its condition. The torger walked a few steps toward a rolled-up rope ladder and kicked it over the balcony so that it unfurled as it descended. Grindor hopped over to the railing to view where the ladder would take him, but it just dangled to the base of the tree. The torger turned to look at Grindor as he pointed at the rope ladder.

Grindor met his stare in utter disbelief. “Me?”

The torger first pointed at the kukri, then mimicked Grindor’s hand gesture by pointing to his mouth and then grunted as he pointed at the rope ladder again.

“You want me to hunt? You haven’t any food here?”

“Grindor the Ravenous. The name fits you still, though you wouldn’t be pleased by their cuisine. They only eat vegetation. Grass and twigs.”

“This is ridiculous. Forget it. I can wait.”

“It’s in the latter part of the day. Once night falls, it will be pitch black out here. You won’t have a chance to hunt until the morning. Are you sure you can wait?”

Grindor looked dumbfounded. “But I have a broken leg! How do they expect me to get down?”

Ocamyr guffawed in his eagle-voice, which startled several buzzards resting within the canopies of the walking trees. It was the first time Grindor noticed them and an unsettling feeling crawled over him. They all seemed to be watching him with an eerie fixed stare, eyes bright and dead as black pearls.

Grindor focused on the one nearest him in the shadows of the treetop, inspecting the tainted red skin that covered its head; its stare recalled that of the man that stood over him after the landslide. Then he heard the gruff voice. He couldn’t believe his ears—or eyes—as the voice emerged from the buzzard’s moving beak: “Tell the king what I have done.”

Hairs stood up on the back of his neck. Grindor swallowed hard and looked at Ocamyr. The avian was still beaming with joy and seemed oblivious to what Grindor had just witnessed. Grindor glanced back at the vulture in the shadows as if expecting more, but none came. He felt tension mount around his shoulders as he began to look at each of the carrion birds with paranoia. They sat motionless; their remorseless gazes seemed to burn holes into his flesh. Grindor’s mouth fell agape in dismay as he backed toward the ladder.

“Alright… I changed my mind. I’ll go down,” he said.

Grindor threw the crutches over the railing and sat down. He scooted in an awkward fashion to grip the edge of the balcony and then descended the ladder with just the use of his arms. He could tell Ocamyr was impressed as he maneuvered downward with newfound enthusiasm.

Grindor was short of breath as he touched solid ground. Wincing, he hobbled on his good leg to locate his crutches. The walking trees, slow as they were, made a sudden stop as their roots plowed into the earth like anchors. The heavy sway of their canopies jerked to a halt, causing a brief shower of leaves.

“This is insane. What am I doing? What did he expect me to hunt out here?” he asked aloud.

Grindor took note of the evening sun and how the temperature was beginning to cool. A nice coastal breeze came from the south, though no beach was in sight. Grindor rested against his crutches as he looked around at the dry brush and brambles surrounding him. Then his eyes went wide: a cobblestone road lay just in the distance down the hill. I’m near civilization, he thought.


Grindor whirled around to find his avian companion behind him. Ocamyr relaxed his wings and grinned. “What’s that look in your eye? You’re not thinking of making a run for it, are you? On that leg?”

“Make a run for it? Am I some sort of prisoner to you?”

“Quite the contrary. I saved your life.”

“Then you had one of your lackeys almost kill me.”

“Fair enough,” said Ocamyr. “I apologize for that. I guess he didn’t know his own strength, but I must know the truth about that ring.”

Grindor looked at him with a critical eye. “If I just give you the ring, will you go away?”

Grindor wiggled off the ring and held it out to Ocamyr. The feathers about his neck puffed in surprise. He gave his wings a single flap while he blinked his hawk eyes in contemplation. At last, Ocamyr withdrew a step, as if sensing some sort of trick. “If I do, where will you go?”

Grindor looked at the ring and shook his head. “To safety. When you’re in my line of work, you are a dead man walking. Staying alive is as much a skill as killing. So I figure, as much as I despise the king, I’ll be safest within the walls of one of his crowded cities.”

“Then why are you trying to get rid of me?”

“The sooner you return to your flock, the sooner I can go back about my business.”

“Your business of killing?”

Grindor paused and readjusted his crutches. “Who did this ring belong to? Your father? Brother? Friend?… Enemy?”

Ocamyr gave a long silent stare, so Grindor continued. “Trust me. It’s best you don’t know the story about this ring.”

Grindor slipped the ring back on. It fit snug over the pale band of skin that marked its place on his finger. Ocamyr drew in a long breath. “The insignia upon that ring was the family emblem of my old sword master, Vynex. His fame and fortune earned him many death threats. Though I can tell just by looking at you that you could not have bested him head on. Hell, I doubt you could even beat me… so how did you do it? Poison? Or was he asleep?”

Abruptly, the ground beneath Ocamyr’s talons began to tremble, then part. Ocamyr took to the air as an enormous claw breached the surface where he’d stood. Grindor backed as rapidly as his crutches allowed—to where, he had no idea—as sandy dirt sloughed away to reveal a carapace big as a carriage. Out of the corner of his eye he could see several torgers sliding down ropes from their tree-top village, staves at the ready, as the giant crustacean hefted itself from its burrow to tower above him.

“A krodder,” Grindor mumbled in horror.

Ocamyr drew the twin sais from his belt, soared atop the krodder and thrust both blades through its exoskeleton. The krodder crouched in pain from this unexpected attack, as it scuttled to the side on its many legs. One bone-crushing claw reached upward toward Ocamyr. He pulled his weapons out and rose in haste, dodging the jagged pincer. The torgers circled the creature and began battering its legs with ferocious swings of their bulbous staves.

Tiny arms surrounding the krodder’s mouth reached outward as it opened its jaws. In an instant, an elastic tongue shot forward, wrapping around the head of a torger. The tongue retracted, pulling the torger in; the feeding arms pushed his entire body into the behemoth’s gullet before he had a chance to react. Terrifying screams of pain emerged, then stilled, as the krodder’s mandibles ground down on its prey. The tribe froze in shocked dismay at the sudden loss… not long, but long enough. One oversize claw slashed forward and latched around the torso of a second victim, who gave his fellows one last look of horror before his ribs and spine splintered and his body fell limp within the grip.

The torgers backed away, grunting to each other, staves extended in a warding stance. The other claw reached, clipped one staff in half; then the tongue whipped forth again. The torger was drawn toward the mouth, but he turned his staff crosswise, bracing himself against the exterior of the maw. His sturdy limbs resisted the tongue’s pull; the feeding arms tried to buckle them. Another torger—the one deprived of his weapon—lowered his head and charged, the black horn jutting from his face piercing the shell near one of the leg joints.

Ocamyr closed his wings and dropped from the sky, driving a sai into the krodder’s shell right between its eyes. A reflexive swipe of a claw batted the avian off, leaving the sai embedded in its shell. Ocamyr slammed into one of the trees, the wind knocked from him.

The entrapped torger continued to wrestle for his life. His cries rose in pitch as the krodder brought both claws to bear against his forearms. Just as the bones broke between the bite of the claws, the rest of the tribe surged forward from all sides with fresh determination, delivering a brutal wave of repeated strikes to the joints of the monster’s legs. Two of these folded inward under the crushing force of the bulbous heads. The krodder released its maimed prey and hobbled away from their assault, using one pincer to support its vast bulk.

Grindor continued backing away from the creature. He glanced at the welcoming cobblestone road behind him, tempting him with the eventual safety of city walls. This is my chance, he thought. An avian shriek made him look back. He turned to see the elastic tongue wrapped around one of Ocamyr’s legs. The avian clung to the trunk of a tree with all of his strength, resisting the drag of the krodder’s tongue.

Grindor looked at his ring. It won’t happen again, he thought as he dropped one of his crutches and yanked his curved, machete-length blade from its scabbard. With a furious war cry as pain seared through his leg, he hurled the kukri at the krodder. It flew end over end until it buried itself in the back of the shell. The krodder shifted around to face him. Its tongue released Ocamyr and retracted, then immediately shot forth and wrapped itself around Grindor’s chest. In the split second before he was tugged off the ground, Grindor gripped his remaining thick crutch in both hands. He went flying through the air toward the beast. The jaws gaped open, feeding arms stretched outward in anticipation. Grindor could see mangled bits of the dead torger still clinging to the serrated grinding ridges within. Injured as he was, he knew he’d stand even less chance than the burly torger in resisting being drawn in and crushed by those mandibles. So he didn’t try.

Instead, he extended his crutch along the retracting tongue’s line. The protection of its exoskeletal armor did not extend to the creature’s gullet. Adding at the last instant all the force his arms could muster, Grindor drove his improvised weapon like a lance into the back of the krodder’s mouth.

Then he was on the ground, released and shoved away as the surprised creature sought to expel it knew not what it had unwisely tried to swallow. He watched as it tried to backpedal, but its injured legs buckled on one side, and it collapsed nearly on top of him. Still not mortally wounded—or not realizing it was—it rose up on one side with its remaining legs, one claw snapping at assailants, the other shoving in futile attempt to steady itself, feeding arms probing its mouth to remove the offending splinter. Ocamyr’s sai was still embedded at the crest of its shell, within Grindor’s reach if only he could stand up. Somehow, he managed. He pulled the blade from the shell and plunged it back in, foining the sai through the krodder’s thick protection. Again. And again. And again.

Around him, the torgers continued their attack, each blow filled with vengeance. More legs broke beneath their strikes until the great bulk slumped to the ground. Pinecone-shaped tips hammered the krodder’s eyes. Eventually, Grindor’s efforts found their way into its brain. The claws fell limp, devoid of life, and the torgers shouted to the sky in victory.

Gasping for breath, Grindor dropped to the ground to reprieve his leg and crawled away from the corpse. Above him, the sky was filled with circling carrion birds. With the torgers still gathered around the kill, they descended with ambitious courage. They landed atop the ravaged shell and began pecking away at any exposed area. Grindor laid upon his back in the dirt as the torgers began to break off the claw for another trophy.

“You saved me,” said Ocamyr. “I thought that I was going to be krodder food. It seems the Fates did cross our paths for a reason… I owe you.” Ocamyr handed Grindor the remaining crutch and helped him to his feet, then exchanged the latter’s kukri for his sai.

“Seems like the Fates want you to keep me company for a little longer.”

Ocamyr’s facial feathers tightened back, the avian equivalent of a grin. Then he panned to the view of the carrion feast. “Quick, or you’re going to lose your meal,” he exclaimed.

“Bah. I never liked seafood anyway.” Grindor clapped him on the shoulder and added, “Bet you’re glad now that I never tried to best Vynex head on, huh?”

Ocamyr’s neck feathers ruffled at his words being returned in such an unexpected fashion. Just then, one vulture glared at Grindor with a stare that raised bumps along his flesh. As the sun was dipping in the sky, the vulture’s elongated shadow resembled that of a man. Then the brusque voice sounded once more. “Tell the king what I have done or we will feast on your flesh!”

“Did you hear that just now?” asked Grindor with utmost concern.

“Hear what?” Ocamyr was still distracted by his previous remark.

Fear snuck into Grindor’s eyes. He looked at Ocamyr with worry. “I need to get out of here now.”

“Grindor, you look like you’ve seen a ghost. Are you alright?”

“I’ll tell you how I got this ring if you hide me. Hide me… somewhere…” Grindor looked around at the dead krodder and then at the crater that it emerged from. “Somewhere underground!” he exclaimed.

Ocamyr spread his wings. “Does it look like I know of any underground hiding spots?”

“No, you’re right. That might be too difficult anyway. You said you owe me. Do this for me. Take me to a human city. One with walls. Just promise me.”

“And you’ll tell me the story of Vynex’s ring?”

Grindor nodded as they walked away from the carrion feast and the torger village. The greater the distance he put between himself and the vultures, the more at ease he felt. Finally, he said, “Vynex wasn’t dead the last time I saw him… though he probably is by now. Not all my jobs involve someone’s execution. I was hired to guard his daughter while he was away. Sophie. He didn’t say who he expected to come after her, but like you said, he had his share of enemies.

“There had already been one attack earlier that day, which I fended off, but they retreated too easily for my liking. I figured they’d be back. So I made the decision to move to a safe house in the dead of night. We traveled on foot so no one would notice—no one expects avians to walk anywhere—but they must have had eyes on us the whole time. We were almost there when they sprung the ambush. I fought with all of my skill, slaying five of them, but they still bested me; left me for dead, I thought. Next night, I learned I was wrong. A man approached me, gave me Sophie’s ring, and told me to take Vynex a message. From the king.

“I killed the man. But I took the message to Vynex anyway. I thought he’d have my head, but at that point I didn’t care. I’d failed, and failure in my line of work generally involves dying. And I didn’t want the memory to keep replaying night after night in my mind. The week it took to reach him was plenty.

“Imagine my surprise when Vynex told me Sophie was alive and well half a hundred leagues away, and I’d been protecting a decoy.

“Which left only the problem of my failure. He hadn’t set me up. Now there was a girl who was supposed to be his daughter being held by the king, and he had to react appropriately or give the ruse away. He had no intention of doing what the king wanted of him. But if it became known he’d left his daughter to the king’s mercy, he’d lose all respect, and his flock would desert him.”

Ocamyr nodded grimly at this summation of his people’s ways.

“So the only thing left was for him to die valiantly in a rescue attempt. Which is the last I ever heard of him. I wasn’t allowed to go along. There was too much chance I’d give the ploy away. I’ve never even tried to find out what happened. It’s too dangerous for me to ask.

“He told me to keep the ring. I’m still not sure why.”

“Why do you still have it?” asked Ocamyr. “Do dreams no longer trouble you?”

“Because I want to remember him. And what the king did. And because I never heard of Vynex again.”

“So you said. I don’t understand.”

“Someday, I’d like to put a name to the face I remember every night. The only one from all my jobs I don’t know is alive or dead.”

Ocamyr let the news sink in. “I’m sorry; I shouldn’t have misjudged you. I—”

“You needn’t apologize. I’m no knight, and you aren’t the first to make that mistake,” smiled Grindor.

Ocamyr smiled in return. “You wear an awful lot of rings. Are those all failures as well?”

“Are you kidding? I’d never have another job if that were the case,” laughed Grindor.

As their feet touched the road, he looked over his shoulder and saw the carrion flock still atop the krodder at the edge of the shadows of the setting sun. They were all immersed in devouring their dinner like it was their last meal, except for a lone vulture, perched atop the shell, watching Grindor and Ocamyr depart.

The Legend of Etana Thu, 01 Aug 2013 18:02:12 +0000 by Aaron Wyckoff

The Igigi, the gods of creation, created a city and laid its foundation, and called it Kish. But the people were without a king, so the gates were barred against the world. Then Ishtar searched the land for a king, and Inninna searched the land for a king, and Ellil searched the land for a king, and they found Etana, a shepherd, and led him into the city. They built his dais, and gave him his scepter, and made him king over all the land.

But Etana feared for his kingdom, for he had no son and heir. His wife Muanna, called Sherbi’anni, had an illness and could not carry a child to term. One day Muanna was visited with a powerful dream, and she spoke to Etana, saying unto him that only with the shammu sha aladi, the plant of birth that grows in the heavens, would she be able to bear him a son and heir.

For many months Etana scoured the land from one end to the other in search of the plant of birth, but he found it not. Then Etana returned to Kish and offered up many sacrifices to Shamash, and beseeched his aid, saying, “Mighty Shamash, god of the sun, god of justice, you have dined on the flesh of my fattest sheep and drunk the blood of my lambs, and inhaled the scent of my last fragment of incense. Deliver unto me the plant of birth, that my wife might bear a child!”

Shamash took pity on Etana, and said unto him, “Follow the road into the mountain region, and on the slopes there is a pit. Search therein, and you will find that which you require.”

Etana followed the long road until he reached the mountain region. Searching the slopes of the mountains he found a pit, and within the pit he found an eagle. The eagle called out to Etana, saying, “My prayers to Shamash have been answered! Free me from this pit, and we will be friends forever.”

Etana descended into the pit, and found the eagle’s wings were cut off, and its feathers all plucked forth, and it was dying of hunger and thirst. Etana brought water unto the eagle until its thirst was slaked, and he brought food unto the eagle until its hunger was sated. Then Etana saw that the eagle was recovered enough to cling to him, and Etana ascended the pit with the eagle on his back.

For seven months, Etana brought food and water to the eagle as it healed, and its wings grew, and it learned again how to fly. In the eighth month the eagle was fully healed, and it spoke to Etana, and asked of him, “How can I repay your kindness?”

Etana said unto the eagle, “I need the plant of birth that grows in the heavens, that my wife might give birth to our child.”

The eagle replied, “I have never flown so high, but lie on my back and grip my wings, and I will carry you there.”

Etana laid his body on the eagle’s back, and stretched his arms along its wings, and grasped its feathers. Then the eagle flew up into the sky. And when it had flown one league up into the sky the eagle spoke to Etana, saying, “Look down at the land below! How small it has become.” And Etana looked, and saw that all the land now looked no larger than a hill, and the broad rivers were narrow streams.

When the eagle had flown a second league up into the sky, it spoke to Etana, saying, “Look, look my friend! How small the land is now.” And Etana looked, and saw that all the land now looked no larger than a garden, and the broad rivers were tiny trickles.

When the eagle had flown a third league up into the sky, and they were at the very gates of heaven, it spoke once more to Etana, saying, “Now look, my dearest friend! See how tiny the land has become.” And Etana looked, and saw that the land was smaller than an anthill, and the broad rivers could not be seen. And he trembled in his fear, and his hands grew cold and lost their grip, and he fell.

One league Etana fell, and the eagle flew down and caught him, and stopped his fall, but a fierce wind struck them and forced them apart. A second league Etana fell, and the eagle caught him, and stopped his fall, but the swirling gusts blew them apart. The final league Etana fell, and the eagle caught him, and stopped his fall only a few cubits above the ground. Together they landed heavily into a thicket of poplar, and fell into darkness.

While they slept, terrible visions appeared to Etana, and he saw the people in pain and misery, and he saw the land stricken by drought and famine, and he was made to know that these things would come to pass because he had not sired an heir. And while they slept, a vision appeared to the eagle, of a woman of surpassing beauty seated upon a throne, and on both sides of her rested lions, and in her hand was the plant of birth.

When they awoke, Etana and the eagle shared their visions with one another, and they knew that the woman could only be Ishtar who lived in the heavens. So together they agreed that they must once more attempt to reach the heavens, and with profound resolution they set forth.

Once more the eagle flew one league into the air, and Etana looked down and saw that the land and rivers were greatly diminished. The eagle flew a second league into the air, and Etana looked down and saw that the land was very small and the rivers were tiny trickles. The eagle flew a third league into the air, and Etana looked down and could not see the land at all. He was sorely afraid, but still he clung tightly to the eagle until at last they arrived in the heavens.

Together they passed through the gates of Anu, Ellil, and Ea, and they made obeisance. Together they passed through the gates of Sin, Shamash, Adad, and Ishtar, and they made obeisance. They came to the throne of Ishtar, and she smiled upon them, and gave the plant of birth to Etana, and made known to him its use.

Etana and the eagle flew down from the heavens and returned to Kish, where Etana cultivated the plant in his garden. For nine months he gave the juice of the plant to Muanna, his wife, until she bore him a son who was named Balih.


• • •

The Legend of Etana: Context
[Editor’s Note: It has always been our intention to include material on real-world myths, legends, fairy tales and folklore, the vast panoply of storytelling which has inspired and informed fantasy fiction as we know it today. Nor did we have any intention of limiting these to the retelling of those stories themselves, but to include discussion, comparisons, background information, and so on. The first contribution to this area we received managed to exceed our expectations: not only did it include considerable background information, that background information was itself accompanied by citations and bibliography! After some discussion, we decided this excellent contribution contained a bit more than we wanted at present—in particular, we didn’t want to frighten away potential contributors by making them think we set the bar that high—so Your Editor ended up producing a condensed version of what Aaron sent us. (In the process, the citations got dropped. Sorry if I raised anybody’s hopes.) The foregoing retelling of the legend is his. Any violence done to the background portion is entirely my own fault.—DB]


The area known as Mesopotamia, which now forms part of present day Iraq, has been home to and controlled by several different peoples over the course of its history, most importantly the Sumerians, Akkadians, Assyrians, and Babylonians, in chronological order. The Sumerian culture was established as early as 4500 BCE, and was not displaced in importance by the Akkadians until around 2300 BCE.

The cuneiform text for the legend of Etana is preserved on dozens of fragments of clay tablets dating from Babylonian and Assyrian times. None of them is complete enough to give us the entire text; the story we have today is a result of painstaking reconstruction from multiple sources.

Etana appears on the Sumerian Kings List as the thirteenth king of the First Kish Dynasty, which was established following the great flood. None of the kings named before Etana appear in any other known source, and may be entirely mythical. In fact, there is no independent archaeological evidence for Etana, either. The first king with known archaeological evidence, En-me-barage-si, is the ninth following Etana, and ruled around 2600 BCE. If Etana was an actual historical figure, his reign would probably have been sometime between 2800-2700 BCE.

For many of the kings on the list, epithets are given. Etana is called “the shepherd, who ascended to heaven and consolidated all the foreign countries.” Clearly, by the time the list was compiled, the story of Etana’s flight already existed. This is further confirmed by images of Etana flying on an eagle’s back found on ancient cylinder seals dated to around 2300 BCE—older by some centuries than the earliest extant versions of the Sumerian Kings List, by several more than the text fragments from which the legend is known.

It is tempting to question whether Etana did actually rise to power, moving from shepherd to king, or if he had a more noble birth. Two factors argue against a noble birth. First, prior to Etana there is limited indication of hereditary kingship. It has even been argued that the entire legend could have been made up to support the concept. Second, many of the other kings on the list have similar occupations listed, such as fuller, fisherman, boatman, leatherworker, and smith. Kug-Bao, who ruled as king during the 25th century BCE and the only king known to have been female, was a tavern-keeper.

The story of Etana is particularly important because of its age, as well as the fact that so much cultural heritage was exported from the region over the centuries. Because of this, we are able to detect many story elements finding their way into later myths and legends. The motif of a man flying to heaven on the back of an eagle can be found, for example, in the Greek myth of Ganymede, as well as in the story of Alexander the Great being carried to heaven by eagles. The name Etana itself continues to be common in modern society, although it is normally found using the Semitic spelling, Ethan.

Finally, it is interesting to note that the Late Babylonian (700 BCE) version diverges from earlier versions in one important aspect. In cuneiform writing, there are two symbols used as prefixes to the names, one denoting a mortal and the other denoting a deity. In earlier versions of the Etana legend, Etana is named as a mortal. However, in the late version, Etana is given the prefix denoting a deity, indicating that over centuries of retelling he was gradually elevated to demigod status.

Paying the Troll Thu, 01 Aug 2013 18:02:01 +0000 by Karen Leigh Baxter

Sir Stafford kept his mount to a slow walk as he approached the bridge over the Kevel River. He lacked two months until his twentieth birthday. His knighthood was so freshly minted the gilt had yet to begin wearing off his spurs.

Steeped from birth in chivalric virtues, Sir Stafford had long since settled upon his first quest. He had heard for years of this particular bridge. As was common, this bridge was held against those who would cross it. As was less common, this one was not held by some knight who challenged only worthy peers to jousts. It was held by a troll, who exacted a fee from all who would pass, regardless of station.

Sir Stafford had never seen a troll before. Rumor made them out to be formidable foes, of hideous mien, tall as houses, tough as trees, wielding vast clubs capable of shattering shields at a single blow. He figured it would be simple enough to recognize one.

Not that it mattered to him. If anything, or anyone, was extorting money from common folk, it was his knightly duty to remove the oppressor.

The bridge was of unmortared stone, a single low span arching across the water, wide enough for a wagon to pass between its low side walls, if little wider. It had stood so long its construction had passed from history into legend. There were few other good crossings over the Kevel River, none of them within a day’s ride of the bridge. Marshy banks along much of the river’s length prevented fording even where it ran shallow.

Sure enough, when Sir Stafford reached a point he could see beneath the bridge, there was the troll. It was every bit as ugly as purported, though it was hard to tell if it was as large, since it was lounging in a hammock beneath the span. One of its huge paws held a pole, whence a slack line dangled into the water. From a bent nail driven between stones dangled a large drinking skin.

Lounging or not, the troll was alert enough to notice Sir Stafford’s approach. Before the knight could issue his challenge, the troll called out: “You want a fish?”

This was not how Sir Stafford had imagined the encounter would begin. Taken aback, he hesitated before replying: “No. I wish to cross the bridge.”

“Oh, that’s fine. Long as you don’t want to fish off it. Fish are all mine.” The troll shrugged up to a sitting position in the hammock. “Got to pay the toll, of course.”

“You imagine a knight of the realm would pay a toll to the likes of you? I’ve come to rid this place of your vile imposition! I challenge you to single combat!”

“Oh. One of those. Well, have it your way. Give me a minute.” The troll lazily took down the drinking skin, drew a long swallow, returned it to the hook. Then he reached up with one great arm, clutched a handhold in the stone, and heaved himself onto the span. His other hand still held the fishing pole. He stretched to his full height—which was indeed as legend held it, half again that of a grown man—and yawned.

Then did nothing.

After a bit, the troll said: “Whenever you’re ready. Got fishing to do if you aren’t going to fight.”

“Are you not going to arm yourself?” queried Sir Stafford.

“Naw. I’m good.”

“I would not have it said I rode down an unarmed opponent.”

The troll made a great show of looking about, then snorted. “Who’s to know?”

Sir Stafford shifted his shield and couched his lance. “Very well then, as you would. Have at thee!” With this, the knight set spurs to his horse and charged the bridge.

As the knight reached the edge of the bridge, the troll flicked his pole. The line whipped out, sending the hook into the horse’s hindquarters. Startled by the sting, the horse bucked. Sir Stafford was a fair horseman, but, anticipating the shock of his lance striking home, or at least a heavy blow to his shield, he already had his weight forward. The sudden lift from behind overset him. Even so, he nearly remained in his saddle, but in his efforts to do so, he slid to one side rather than falling directly forward.

Sir Stafford felt a brief chill run up his spine upon finding himself airborne, a more general and substantial one as he plunged into the water beneath the bridge. Fortunately, the fall was not great. Also fortunately, the water was not deep. He got his feet under him and stood with the river gently lapping his pauldrons. His lance drifted downstream, already yards away, beyond recovery. Looking up, he saw his horse on the sward before the bridge, pacing in riderless puzzlement, and saw the troll peering over the low rail.

“You okay?” the troll asked.

“Varlet! Such a foul tactic might only come from an opponent of your ilk! Cannot you triumph in fair combat?”

“Guess that means you’re okay,” the troll said. “Though you could have plunked down up here. Now you’ve gone and scared all the fish away. And what are you grousing about? You’re the one who said ‘single combat.’ Why’d you try to bring your buddy along?”

Sir Stafford stopped in the middle of wading up the bank. He stared at the troll in utter disbelief. “A knight’s mount is an essential part of his equipage. It is not a ‘buddy’!”

“I pity the horse, then. Anyway, it don’t matter to me. I see two of you. So make up your mind. I can fight you, or I can fight the horse. I figure it ought to be you, since the horse wasn’t the one looking to pick a fight.”

Sir Stafford trudged up to the bridge once more, water squishing in his boots, chafing in the padding beneath his mail. Absent his lance, he decided being mounted would confer no advantage, only hinder his mobility. He drew his sword. “Then you shall have your single combat after all. I do not fear to face you on foot.” Had his visor been open, his expression might have given this statement the lie. He peered uncertainly at his towering opponent, still standing casually at the center of the span.

“Your single combat, you mean. I didn’t call you out.”

Sir Stafford chose to ignore that. He advanced a few cautious steps, guard at the ready. It was not possible to work his way inside the troll’s reach gradually, however. So he raised his sword over his head and charged.

This time, when the troll flicked his pole, the knight was ready. Anticipating an attempt to entangle his leg and trip him, Sir Stafford slashed his sword downward in a plane crossing his entire body, the tip barely clearing the ground as it passed before his feet.

The blade encountered nothing. The troll had not completed the motion, had not cast the line.

What the troll did instead was take a step forward, abruptly closing the remaining distance to the oncoming knight. Then he lashed out with a massive fist at the right side of the knight’s helmet, now unprotected by the sword. Sir Stafford saw the blow coming, tried to twist, to bring his shield in line, but was far too late.

No training mace ever rang his bell as that fist did. All but insensate, he sagged first to his knees, then to a sitting position. Somewhere above him, he heard a voice thundering about bruised knuckles.

Then there was silence for a couple minutes. Eventually, Sir Stafford’s head cleared to where his eyes could focus once more. The first thing they registered was a pair of tremendous kneecaps. He craned his neck back, looked up at his looming opponent.

“We done now?” the troll inquired.

Sir Stafford was still rather dazed. “Why did you not strike and finish me?”

“Huh? What’s the point in that? That’s not what I’m about. I’m just here to collect the toll. And fish.” The troll looked forlornly at the water the knight had inconsiderately disturbed. He reached down, hooked the knight under the shoulder, heaved him upright, steadied him until he stopped wobbling.

Sir Stafford began: “I am—excuse me.” He dropped his sword and shield, yanked off his helmet, leaned on the rail, and vomited over the side of the bridge. He remained in that position some minutes. Behind him, he heard the troll moving about, but could spare him no attention.

When it seemed safe to do so, Sir Stafford stood and turned, to find the troll had ducked beneath the bridge long enough to retrieve his drinking skin and a crude wicker basket. “Here.” The troll handed the knight the skin. It proved to contain a strong dark ale. Not what Sir Stafford wished to partake of at that point, but adequate for washing the taste from his mouth.

He handed the skin back, then started over. “I am defeated. I yield.” Helmet off, his youth and despondency were both evident.

The troll shrugged. “Ah, don’t take it too hard. It’s not like you lost a tourney. Or a limb. Just have to pay the toll.”

“My purse is in my saddle bag.” He gestured in the direction of his grazing mount.

“That’s fine. You can go get it. Or get on your horse and ride back the way you came, for all of me. You’ll still be on that side of the bridge, and wouldn’t owe me.”

Sir Stafford started to shake his head in bewilderment, but cut the motion short when the world began to spin. The troll didn’t even care if he profited nothing from his triumph? It hurt too much to think through at the moment. Instead, Sir Stafford collected his arms, staggered back to dig out his coin, and returned, leading his mount. Humiliating as it might be to pay the toll, turning back, acknowledging he had been unable to win his way across the bridge, was unthinkable.

“How much?”

The troll shrugged. “Eh. Tuppence. Seeing as there are two of you.”

The chagrined knight handed the troll his minuscule fee. It did not seem worth the bother to argue further whether his horse should be counted.

“Thank you. And here’s your fish.” The troll reached into his basket and proffered a fine three-foot-long trout.

“I did not want a fish,” the knight fumed.

“Hey, compliments of the service. You pay the toll, you get a free fish.”

“What should I do with a fish?”

“Most people eat them. If you don’t feel like fixing it yourself, there’s a good inn a couple miles up the road which will do the job for you a right treat. Innkeeper’s constantly sending one of his boys down here to pay the toll. Busy days, sometimes he sends the boy with a basket and has him cross back and forth a few times. Though that’s only if he’s getting custom from the other direction. Anyone coming up this way already has a fish when he gets to the inn.” The troll grinned broadly, as though this were the height of humor. “About once a week, the innkeeper sends a cask of ale along with the boy.”

“Which you take in lieu of the toll, I suppose?” He tried to glower, but it hurt to furrow his brow, so he gave it up.

His words, however, elicited surprise from the troll, who said: “No, of course not. I pay for it. Shoot, what else do I have to do with the toll I collect? Got everything else I need right here.”

Sir Stafford blinked in amazement. It was too much to digest at that moment. Perhaps after some rest. He gingerly remounted, the troll providing a steadying hand. He accepted the fish, puzzled over where to put it, decided it would fit into the rest which normally supported his lost lance. Then he rode across to the far side of the bridge and on up the road.

The following day, one of the innkeeper’s boys arrived at the bridge, pushing the barrow used whenever he was transporting an ale cask. The troll climbed up to meet him, said: “Bit early, isn’t it? Still working on the one from four days ago.”

The boy assumed a pose resembling military attention—placing his eyes level with the troll’s navel—and recited carefully: “By the authority vested in His Majesty’s peerage, all tolls on this route are to be remitted for the following week. Services rendered to His Majesty’s subjects on this route shall continue as per usual.” The boy stopped, resumed his normal slouch, added: “Think I got all that right.” He looked up at the troll, hoping everything was still okay.

The troll guffawed. “Now there’s a man who don’t like losing.” Shaking his head, he turned back toward his lair. “Hang on. I’ll go fetch you a fish.”

Painted Truths Thu, 01 Aug 2013 18:01:31 +0000 by Martin Spernau

I can still remember him there, before the fresco of his glory. The hero who single-handedly took the city and brought freedom to our people. The painting depicting him as the energetic youth of legend, while in flesh he was bent and frail, leaning on his staff.

Hidden in the shadows, I stood for long moments, simply studying the two contrasting versions. The fresco, familiar to everyone alive today, loomed high, the painted hero maybe three times life-size. Rumor had it that the staff he now leaned on was the banner pole he was ramming into the bloody soil of Victory Hill in the painting.

Observing the wear of the years on both versions of man and pole, my confidence and conviction soared. I could afford the luxury of contemplation: I was sure to succeed, where so many before me had failed.

Maybe the old man nodded slightly, I’m not sure if I actually saw that, or if my mind reconstructed that from what I learned later. I admit that I was startled when he suddenly spoke:

“They sent a girl this time.”

He hadn’t turned and there was no way he could have seen me in the shadows behind him.

“Have your achievements finally earned you the honor of this mission, Sarah?” He remained facing the fresco, as if admiring his own heroic image. “Come, stand with me, young assassin. We both know why you are here, what you have come to do, and that you, too, will fail. We both have our script set out for us in this repetitive drama, so why not relax the pretense for a moment of peace, shared in talk?”

Maybe my name was an educated guess on his part. The old man was shrewd, everyone knew that. How else had he survived six hits by the best of my Guild? I left the shadows and stood beside him. It was likely a deadly trap, but it brought me much closer to my mark.

So close to a target, I could think of thirty-two ways to kill without even changing posture, not counting the five I had successfully used on other marks. Content with my situation, I indulged the old man’s wish. We shared some moments of silent contemplation, just standing there. I couldn’t detect any weapons on him, apart from the staff, which seemed far too heavy for him to wield.

Finally, he turned from the fresco and looked up at me. There were tears in his eyes. “Tell me, Sarah,” he pointed a claw-like hand at the image, “what do you see?”

Taken aback by the question, I said: “I see… I see the glorious hour of the Revolution. I see your finest victory, Sir.”

“Yes, you would be too young to say anything else. Look closer. What else do you see?”

“I see the burning city. The torn fields of war. I see the banner of the Revolution as you drive its pole home.”

He turned back to the fresco, looking at it as if seeing it for the first time, or if trying to see it as I saw it. Then he nodded. “You see all that. You see what the artist was told to paint. He was a master artist, who could paint what would take many thousands of words to tell. But he wasn’t there when it happened.”

“Are you saying that this fresco is not showing the truth? Isn’t any hero image an artistic exaggeration?”

“Oh, everything shown here is quite literally the truth, all as it really was.” He turned to me again. After a thoughtful pause he said: “Maybe you can tell me what you do not see, what is missing.”

He had me intrigued then, and so I turned my full attention to the fresco. “I do not see the brave men of the Revolution, nor do I see the army of the tyrant.” I paused, turning my attention back to him. “But that is exactly as the legends tell it. You, Sir, were the last man standing on either side.”

He nodded, approving of my observation. “Have you ever wondered about that? Why there is never talk of the Heroes of the Revolution, of all those brave men and women who fought and died for the cause?”

“The Revolution and the Tyrant’s army ground each other up in the Decades of Strife. It was your final act of defiance that broke the tyranny, Sir. There was no one with you on that hill on that day. None of the original revolutionaries survived, and the fresco reflects that.” They taught us the history of our land from early age, and I had learned my legends well. Legends… myths. With a frown I added: “That is how the Legend of the Hero of the People goes. This fresco… is the embodiment of your legend, Sir.”

“Yes, it shows more than words ever could. It depicts the truth and the glory of that day,” he shook his head with a sad smile. “And yet it omits something crucial.”

“What is that, Sir?”

“Why was it I, up on Victory Hill? Why was only I left?”

“Because you were a formidable warrior without equal.” Why else would I have taken the contract on you, I thought.

He turned to me sharply, narrowing his eyes, then smiled. “I see… that is how the world works for you, isn’t it? The last man standing is the best man? Must be. I became the Hero of the People because I was the most worthy of my peers. Because I was the strongest, quickest or most skilled, or a combination of those.”

“Or… the slyest,” I allowed, “which amounts to the same for me.”

“What if I tell you I was none of those? And today, I am not strong or quick, yet I still live. Despite numerous attempts by your predecessors, each of whom was a master or mistress of the trade.”

“The best we had. Their failures prove that you must still be formidable, Sir. None could have bested them. None but me. Yet you did, despite your elderly state. Which proves your.…”

“Superior intellect, you mean? You flatter me, young assassin. But no: I have never been very sharp or quick of mind. My ill-fated reign should attest to that. Isn’t that why your Guild first got the contract on my head? Because I am unfit to be a leader and have proven so many times?”

I nodded. After freeing our people from oppression, the Hero’s leadership had been a series of bloody disasters. He had to die to make room for a more suited leader; only he had proven to be invulnerable to any kind of attack. Somehow, he always managed to dodge out of harm’s way.

My thoughts must have been easy to read, as he gave me a knowing smile and said: “You will learn the secret of my invulnerability today. And like all those before, you too, won’t believe it. Not until you see it in action.”

“Why would I not?”

“Your whole value system centers on competition, man against man. A test of personal skill and worth, with personal superiority being proven by victory. That is why you are here, Sarah. Killing me, the unkillable Hero, will be your highest achievement.” He gestured at the fresco before us, then to himself. “Only I am… worthless. Nothing I ever did earned me the right to carry my title or position.”

I almost laughed at the absurdity of the idea. “That, Sir, I refuse to believe. Your bloody ascension and reign tell a very different story.”

“And yet it is true. I am not the worthy opponent you think. Killing me will not be the crowning achievement of your career.”

I didn’t like where this was going. The Guild knew of some heretical rumors, faceless whispers in the dark: The Hero had help. And as he had never had any known allies, this help could only be of the vile sorcerous kind.

I was prepared for that, too.

“Are you telling me you are bewitched?” I sneered at him. “That you have a vile spell of unnatural protection on your life?” I raised my hands accusingly. “In that case, you will be no challenge at all.” I clapped my hands together with a sharp snap, a cloud of enchanted silver dust puffing out.

In the distraction of the powder attack I shifted my position and flung a knife. There was no sizzle of discharging magic, no shrieking howl of a spirit banished. He coughed and sneezed, clutching his staff for support. When he recovered, he laughed.

“Ah, yes. You are sharp. None of your peers ever tried that. Sorcery would explain it, and it’s close to the truth.”

My throwing knife was embedded in the fresco. I doubt he even noticed my attack until he followed my gaze to the painted hero’s torso, where my blade oozed deadly poison.

He turned back to me, raising an eyebrow. “Now how could I have avoided that…?” He nodded then, eyes fixed on a spot behind and slightly above my right shoulder.

I didn’t wait to drive home my next attack. The long blade shot out from under my wrist and I drove it hard towards his chest. There was a clang of metal against hard wood and I found myself hurling past him. My arm with the slung blade was trapped against his staff, spinning me out of balance.

With a nod, he shifted the grip on his staff, releasing my blade.

I let my momentum carry me on, feigning a few stumbling steps to draw my sword. I kept my center low and lunged right back at him, relying on the sword’s extended reach.

The tip of his staff caught my ankle, and my sword found only air. Then my face kissed the tiles of Hero’s Hall.

I lay there for a moment, expecting the bite of his staff in the back of my neck. However he did it, he was my better. I was ready to yield to superior skill.

“Get… up. Please.” He was breathing hard.

I got to my feet and retrieved my fallen sword, turning to face him. He hadn’t moved, leaning on his staff and still facing away from me. As I plunged my sword towards his exposed back, I saw him nod again. He turned to one side, my blade slashing past his shoulder harmlessly.

“I may be a bit old for it, but this game can go on for a long while. You cannot harm me, Sarah.”

I let my blade sink. The old man’s hand on the staff was not trembling and his breathing had calmed already.

“How?” It was all I could manage.

He turned and smiled, but his gaze was fixed on a spot behind and slightly above my head.

“She tells me exactly where I need to be to avoid any danger.” Sensing my confusion, he added: “Well, actually, she shows me where not to be.”

“Who?” I fixed him with my eyes, not daring to turn away from him.

“My… Guardian Angel.” He gestured with his free hand to a spot beside us, as if indicating a third person. “You wouldn’t be able to see her. No one ever has.”

I thought I heard the rustle of silk on silk. Every muscle in my body was drawn tight, ready to snap.

His focus was now to his side, slightly up, as if facing a tall person. “She has been with me for all these years, protecting me with her hints. I always knew exactly where not to be.” A dreamy smile was on his face. Then he shook his head ever so slightly and closed his eyes.

The tip of my sword hit his chest with far more force than required, enough to drive the blade through his frail body and out between the shoulder blades. He sank into my arms, letting go of the staff with a sigh. As it hit the tile floor with a loud clatter, my knees buckled. We sank to the floor in unexpected embrace of murderer and victim.

“Why?” I asked into his ear. “Why now?”

“You… what I never.…” I had to bend down very close to his lips to hear; life was fast draining from him.

“Me? What do I have that you never did?”

“No. You… earned everything. What you are. What you achieved. I… just had help.”

He died there, in my arms, and I wept. Even though I had set out to kill him, I was utterly unprepared for the outcome. Here I was, cradling the bleeding shell of the greatest hero of our times, dead by my blade. This should have been the greatest achievement of my career, yet I felt cheated.

Maybe it was my confused state or maybe I really saw it happen. When I finally looked up from his smiling face, I saw a figure standing over us, looking down. I remember feeling the touch of a soft, warm hand on my bruised cheek, and then the rustle of great wings.

I am sure I left my blade embedded in his corpse as I fled the Citadel, my clothes covered in the blood of the Hero of the People.

Yet there it was this morning, on the bed beside me, wrapped in silk, a large white feather tied in the twine that held the bundle together.

Now I sit here, writing with that feather, and I wonder. What makes a hero? What if he hadn’t known he had a Guardian Angel? Had I been in his place all those years ago, who would I be now?

The Ravenous Flock Fri, 01 Mar 2013 09:55:02 +0000 by Adrian Diglio


Tons of rock bounded down the mountain face, sliding and plunging at increasing speed. Plumes of dust billowed into the air. Broad trees splintered like twigs. Boulders crashed and tumbled as they raced each other to the bottom.

At the foot of the mountain, the town of Sira Tenoble got one last look at the sun before its chalk and flint structures buckled under the crushing force. In a flash of darkness, life was engulfed in stone.

He could hear the dust settle on the bed of rock upon him.






One man walked overhead.

“Help,” gasped Grindor. His voice was dry and empty and did nothing to stay the footsteps. He tried to muster a fuller breath, but a heavy weight lay upon him. It was cold. A single ray of light filtered through the rocks above him; dust swirled in weightless bliss.

The footsteps turned. Grindor could feel them reverberating in the earth beneath the mammoth crags that surrounded him, growing louder, nearer, right above him.

Grindor watched a spike-toed steel sabaton cross the cleft of sunlight overhead. A shadow descended over him. It was a man, staring down at him. Grindor blinked with disbelief. Shadows enveloped the man’s body like a colorless flame. The man’s ominous stare peered above a steel gorget that covered his mouth; his eyes were black as the blood of undeath, but he was no liche. He held a curious hammer, its shaft solid onyx and the head an ebonized chunk of raw crystal.

Black diamond? thought Grindor. He looked up to meet the man’s hollow gaze. A sudden panic sped his heart, clutched his already air-starved lungs. Without knowing why, he thought: this is no rescue.

The man spoke in a language that Grindor had never heard in all his travels, and a dark light kindled within the large, rough diamond. Grindor’s eyes were drawn to its glow as the man raised the hammer into the sky. When he spoke his last word, the mountainous stones that surrounded Grindor began to vibrate. Dirt and dust fell upon Grindor’s face as the stones levitated, hovering just the slightest. Grindor hacked and coughed between sporadic breaths. His mouth tasted of dust and blood.

“No. Please,” he muttered through his cracked lips.

A dangerous voice spoke to him, weighted in a thick accent. “You will tell your king what I have done here this day, or I will come to reclaim your life.”

Grindor’s breaths escalated to hyperventilation.

The ubiquitous stones that loomed over him parted. A flood of light streamed through. His lungs scrambled for another breath.





Grindor awoke to a searing sun, his face red and raw. Carrion crows cawed in frustration, bickering in their horrible song. His head throbbed.


Sounds of people rummaging through the rubble above.

“I got a live one!” squawked a bird-like voice above him.

Did… a vulture just speak? Am I going crazy? thought Grindor.

He strained to open his eyes, but they were swollen and tender. All he could make out was a figure standing above him atop a boulder, extending a hand down to him, but Grindor hadn’t the strength to grasp it.

“Ocamyr, he looks in bad shape. Go down there and get him.”

Grindor was cradled by a pair of feathered arms and felt a sense of weightlessness as he was lifted from his premature grave. Circling above were the buzzards, their featherless heads as red as Grindor’s blistered skin.

“Give him some water,” called Ocamyr.

Warm water poured over his cracked lips. As the water trickled down his throat, it was as if the rest of his body came to life. Grindor took hold of the hollow yak horn and guzzled it dry.. Ocamyr set him down in the shade, and his tormented eyes could finally get a look at his saviors.

Standing before him was a flock of avians, man-sized birds each resembling a hawk, with pointed, down-turned beaks. They wore studded leathers that covered their torsos. Their arms and hands, covered with white and brown feathers, were their only human trait. The talons on their yellow feet scratched the surface of the rocks upon which they stood.

Great, saved by society’s scavengers, thought Grindor.

“Where are you hurt?” one of them squawked.

Grindor pointed to his side. Then to his leg.

“Raise your shirt, let’s have a look.”

An avian wearing a silver coif inspected him. “His ribs look tender, but just bruising. Nothing’s broken.”

“You’re one lucky son of a bitch! Can you stand?” said the first.

Grindor shook his head.

“There’s dry blood on his pant leg. Broken, most likely.”

A feathered hand rested upon his forehead. “The sun has made his skin hot; I cannot tell if he has contracted a fever.”

A new voice cut in. “Here. Eat this. . . Can you tell us where we are? Have we made it within His Majesty’s lands?”

Grindor ate the food offered to him and nodded as he finished chewing. When he spoke, his voice was as dry as dust. “This is… was… Sira Tenoble.”

“Then we aren’t far from help. Save your energy, friend. We’re taking you to your own.”

Grindor strained as he rolled over to his side. “What was that you fed me?”

“The melon of the Leudinar tree. Did you not like it?”

“No. I loved it! Have you any more?”

The avian produced a knapsack and unfolded its edges to reveal more of the honey-glazed succulent fruit. Grindor, keeping his leg still, grabbed the entire knapsack and laid it upon the ground. He took the cut pieces of melon and devoured them hand over fist.

He looked up at his saviors with his blistered face. “More?”

The avians guffawed in their eagle-voice, which startled the carrion crows into scattering. The buzzards cawed and bickered nervously, then followed with complaint. The discordant cries sent Grindor’s pounding head into a migraine.

“Have you a name?”

“Grindor,” he said, wincing.

“Grindor the Ravenous, more like it. Go ahead. Give him another. I’m Ocamyr, and this is my flock. We arrived here from the east.”

Grindor was preoccupied gobbling Leudinar fruit, so Ocamyr continued, “I noticed the curved blade in that scabbard of yours. No merchant is trained in the use of a kukri, yet you wear their clothes. Even more peculiar are the rings of nobility that are on every one of your fingers. So, who are you really?”

Grindor finished the honeyed fruit and laid back down flat in the shade, massaging his temples. “I’m a hired sword. A nobody.”

Ocamyr squinted at one of his rings in disbelief. His neck feathers puffed in anger. “Were you ever hired to kill an avian?”

Silence fell. The avians stared at Grindor like he was prey. Even the carrion birds ceased their squabbling. Grindor made an effort to look Ocamyr in the eye as he shook his head.

The avians looked at each other with a skeptical eye and Ocamyr gave them a nod. “Liar!” squawked one, sending the vultures into a cawing frenzy, as if cheering. He grabbed Grindor by his buttoned tunic and almost pulled him to his feet as another smashed his fist across Grindor’s face.


The Diablarist Fri, 01 Mar 2013 09:54:52 +0000 by Anita Howitt

When I entered Humboldt Tower, I knew the rocky garrison would be the site of one of my truest tests. A remnant of the days when Greely was torn by war, the old fort had been refitted with enough iron to make a ship gunner weep. What little life made its home within the shadowy crevices of the courtyard only served to bear witness to the deaths of hundreds of prisoners that perished there every year.

Patches of brittle brown grass cushioned my footfalls as I strode under trees withering in the desolate wasteland on the western edge of civilization.

I unbuttoned my coat’s capelet, loosening my cravat, the smell of death and decay assaulting my nostrils. I’m not the executioner, but the man they call when there’s something to uncover, a secret too far within the twisted mind of a deranged criminal for conventional interrogation. When torture fails, I’m the one who breaks the locks no others can and gets the tight-lipped to spill their guts like a Sunday afternoon confessor. Once, I even had a name. Now all I have is a reputation: a reputation for getting results.

“You’re the Diablarist?” A middle-aged man in a dented steel breastplate eyed me with suspicion as I ascended the steps to the former keep. Rust stains marred his shirt around the collar and worn leather gloves gripped a poleaxe with a nicked head.

“I was sent by the Mage General,” I said, fishing in my waistcoat for my papers. I held them out to the balding man, who looked none too pleased to see me. “I’m here to speak to one of your prisoners.”

After glancing at my papers, the man laughed. “Good luck interrogating that one. He’s as tight-lipped as I’ve seen and doesn’t seem the least bit bothered by pain. You have your work cut out for you with that piece of dog shit.”

“I’m not here to torture your prisoner,” I said, taking back my credentials. “I have my own methods. Will you show me to his cell?”

The guard set his jaw and cast me a dark glare, perhaps intimidated by my insinuation I could get results where others failed, but I was used to dealing with his ilk. I stood straighter and straightened my wrist ruffles while he tapped his foot. When he whirled to stomp up the steps, I followed.

I met Hugh Montgomery in a stone cell that reeked of excrement. After my eyes stopped watering from the odor and adjusted to the light, I caught a glimpse of him, huddled in the corner. His pale, almost colorless, eyes shone in the darkness, hiding within their depths great wisdom. I’d seen the look before, on Jeremiah Fisher, the terror of Greenvale. A rapist and murderer of women, Fisher racked up fifty-four bodies during his decade-long rampage and the task had fallen to me to help locate them all.

Hugh glared at me from where he knelt like a frightened rat, shivering in the darkness.  Whimpering as I approached, he pressed back further but had nowhere to go. I waited for the guard, keeping my eyes on the prisoner.

“Hello, Hugh,” I said, standing some distance away. I wasn’t about to get too close without him securely bound.

The guardsman brought forth wrist and ankle irons and, with the help of an enormous assistant, clapped shut the shackles. They dragged Hugh from his cell, kicking and spitting all the way.

“I need a calm place to work,” I said, wondering whether such a place existed in Humboldt Tower, the most notorious prison in the western province. “Perhaps a room with a window?”

The guard grunted, his lips not budging from their set frown. Guards all over Greely and the surrounding areas tended to react similarly when I showed up. I don’t know whether it’s that I give off an air of superiority, or simply their disdain for government officials, but I’ve rarely been welcomed with open arms. I honestly don’t care.

After I was shown to a comfortable seat in the officers’ quarters, Hugh was shackled to a small bed there, I got to work. I opened my leather bag and took out a dozen glass bottles.

“What’re those?” the guard asked, looking down his nose at my finest assortment of chemicals. They cost more than his yearly salary but I didn’t think pointing that out would give him any more respect for my trade.

“Herbs, mushrooms, toxins, poisons…” I rattled off the list, unconcerned with explaining my every step. “I’m going to put your prisoner to sleep.”

“I thought you wanted to talk to him.”

“I do,” I said, stirring my concoction with a silver spoon. “But I need him unconscious and these will weaken his resolve. In a few minutes, I’ll be able to demand answers from him as easily as a general does his soldiers.”

The guard said no more and I was glad at least for that. I hate explaining myself to those too ignorant to understand how my powers work. “Hold his eyes open.”

With Hugh putting up a mighty fight, I finally succeeded in getting several drops into his eyes. “That should take effect in about ten minutes,” I told the guard, more for his benefit than mine. “I need to do three more, if you could hold him still.”

I mixed the next, a combination of hallucinogenic mushrooms and snake venom. Coating a needle with the clear liquid, I jabbed it into Hugh’s thigh. He didn’t flinch as the toxins entered his bloodstream.

When all four mixtures began to take effect, Hugh’s head lolled to one side and saliva leaked from the corner of his mouth. “You may go now, if you wish,” I told the guard.

“I’d prefer to stay. He’s a handful. Killed the woman they sent before you.”

I shrugged, not caring whether he remained to watch and said, “As you wish, but, please be silent. I’m performing difficult magic and need to concentrate. Distractions can be dangerous.” It wasn’t exactly true, but I abhor observers asking incessant questions and the threat of danger is usually enough to silence even the loneliest prison guards. I couldn’t be sure what happened when Gertrude Wallace came to question Hugh but was fairly certain she either underestimated the prisoner’s mental faculties or overestimated her abilities to control him without proper subdual. She wasn’t the adept with toxins I was. Probably her undoing.

I took a deep breath and let it out, closing my eyes.

It took me longer than I expected to break through Hugh’s defenses and, I had to admit, it was impressive. Drugged with enough chemicals to subdue a team of oxen, Hugh’s mind should have been soft as a rotten plum. When I entered the depths of the deranged subconscious, I found myself not in a cave, or on a mountain, like most megalomaniacs, who see themselves as truly magnificent, but in a quiet meadow full of wildflowers, as plain and unmemorable a place as any. That should have been my first clue that something was very wrong in Hugh’s mind.

A young girl caught my eye as she stood from a crouch, a basket of picked flowers clutched in her small hands. She wore a dirty pink dress and her blonde hair, tangled and limp, swayed in a pleasant afternoon breeze. “Hello,” I muttered, not familiar with speaking to children.

“You should leave,” the girl said, her voice eerily forceful for one so young. Her eyes held me in place and I soon realized the girl with whom I spoke wasn’t a figure from Hugh’s memories or even a figment of his imagination, but Hugh himself, personified by his subconscious.

An interesting indication of his state, I thought. Either I’d miscalculated the snake venom or Hugh figured I’d go easy on a child. I proceeded cautiously, keeping the innocent-looking figure within my sight. “Hugh, I’m not here to hurt you. I’m here to ask you a few questions.”

The waif narrowed her big blue eyes. “You’ll dance on my grave with all the others.  They aim to hang me. Why should I help you?”

Why indeed, I asked myself. The truth of it was, Hugh was a brilliant telepath. For a man who graduated top of his class from Rosenbaum University and went on to write several books about his illustrious career, Hugh had fallen hard. They say he dug too deep, lost his mind and turned to the more sinister side of our magic, mind control. Eventually, his delusional path led him to grave robbing on his quest to communicate with the minds of the dead.

I, personally, didn’t see the harm in his course of study, but as grave-robbing was illegal in Greely, Hugh Montgomery, once a man of impeccable reputation, was imprisoned by the Mage General like a common criminal and tortured for his secrets. Only no one was any closer to discovering whether he’d accomplished his goals. The dead weren’t talking, and neither was Hugh.

I wondered whether Hugh’s crimes were enough to rightly earn him a death sentence, but I wasn’t the man who made those calls. I only brought back information before executions. It just so happened, the Mage General wanted to know whether Hugh succeeded in contacting the dead, and I had jumped at the chance to find out for myself.

“I will mourn your passing,” I said gravely. “I once held you in high regard, Hugh. You were a man all students in my graduating class endeavored to emulate, myself included.”

The little girl smiled, showing two teeth missing from the bottom front of her mouth. “What do you want to know, Diablarist?”

Flattered as I was that he was coherent enough to recognize me, I became worried at that point. Something about his willingness to part with his secrets made my blood run cold and my heart beat just a bit quicker. While the drugs I’d administered made cracking into the minds of men easier, it had no effect on their overall cooperative spirit. If Hugh was offering information, it was for his own reasons.

My own job was hardly more legitimate than Hugh’s research, I thought. Wasn’t I tapping into a man’s mind while his body drooled and slept a fitful sleep? Only the Mage General’s blessing separated me from men like Hugh, caught on the wrong side of the law for his success.

Distracted by my own foolish contemplation, I was unprepared for Hugh’s next move. The little girl’s face screwed up into a grimace and I felt it, a knife sliding behind my eyes, a great torque in my own head, and I realized I was outmatched.

Back through my own memories Hugh dragged me, sifting through them like a pile of rubbish, casting images aside until he found what he was looking for. Into a distant past, he directed me, one I didn’t want to remember. The night I questioned Fisher. I too had dug deep once.

Images invaded my conscious mind. Broken bodies twisted and desecrated. Screams of dying women echoed and sadistic glee surged through me as I watched them twitch in their death throes. Fluttering eyes, wild with fear, tender flesh yielding beneath me, and blood warm on my hands. No, not my hands, Fisher’s hands. But that night, he’d pulled me into his mind. I became him for a moment, felt the ecstasy of a deranged man who rapes and kills for thrill and power. I tried to turn away from the memories, Fisher’s… my memories.

“This is your biggest fear?” the little girl’s voice asked, twisting a corkscrew between my ears.

I fought to answer, but couldn’t. Hugh’s mind was too strong and it took every ounce of my concentration just to hold him at bay. What would I have said, anyway? That as hard as I’d worked to become the best in my field, I feared where it had taken me?

“You wanted the secrets of my powers and now I will show you, Diablarist.”

I tried to pull out, but we were in my mind then, not Hugh’s. While I’d been concerned with breaking into his defenses, he’d scaled mine with apparent ease and I could only fight to kick him back out. I tried to remember anything, the day I graduated, my promotion to the elite ranks under the Mage General, my mansion in Treeno, far away from Greely and the decaying prison. But all I could see were the images I’d pulled from Fisher’s mind, countless pictures of defiled, tormented women and their bloody deaths.

I felt my resolve weakening. With the threat of breaking my own mind looming like a tidal wave waiting to crash onto Greely’s rocky shore, I called out to my body with all I had and woke as it fell from the chair crashing to the floor of the officers’ quarters.

Scrambling like a bobcat in a trap, I grasped for my bag and pulled some vials free. As I groped to pop the cork on the first, Hugh’s eyes flew open on the bed and my hands froze in place. “Hugh,” I yelled at the guardsman, who hurried to my side. But before I could instruct him, my voice shut off. I looked like a bumbling idiot, opening and closing my mouth like a gasping fish. Hugh lay unmoving, working like a puppeteer from his bed.

My hands smashed the vials on the stone floor and upturned the leather bag. I struggled to regain control of my body, but had little experience with true mind control. I’d never met anyone who exceeded my own strength.

My commandeered hand slid over the scattered objects and halted, hovering above a syringe in a glass tube. I tried to empty my mind, but my heart pounded, giving away my fear. I tried to look up at the guard, signal for assistance, but I was helpless to alert him to my plight.

Hugh pulled the lethal syringe, a last resort I’d always carried but never before needed, from its protection and jammed it into the muscle of my forearm. My heart dropped as my traitorous thumb depressed the plunger and a moment later, Hugh pulled me back into my mind as my unconscious body fell to the floor.

The little girl sat upon the wooden porch swing of my childhood home, her dingy locks drab even in the summer sun. “You wanted to know my secrets, Diablarist, and now I’ll share them with you. Anyone can break into a weak mind. It’s no great feat to pick through memories. If you seek to control the minds of others, the only place to break their defenses down far enough is in their weakest moments.”

With minutes left, I considered the implications of his words, the insinuation I might have indeed controlled the minds of several of my subjects, unwittingly.

Fisher… the name hung echoing in my consciousness. Before I could say anything, a dimness surrounded me and the world grew darker, like the sun had set on my parents’ home.  “Why am I still here?” I asked Hugh.

The little girl smiled. “Don’t worry, I won’t leave you alone. I’ll be happy to share my secrets with you forever.”




Donovan Horace pulled his handkerchief from his pocket and pressed it against his nose as he neared Humboldt Tower. When the guardsman met him outside, Donovan produced a set of papers, bearing the insignia of the Mage General. “I’m here to speak with Hugh Montgomery,” he muttered through his handkerchief.

The guard smiled. “You’ll have your hands full with that one,” he said. “He’s killed two of you mind-wizards already. How many more is your employer willing to lose before he lets me stretch this animal’s neck?”

“I thank you for your warning, good sir,” Donovan replied, “but, I’m well-trained in the art of breaking into men’s minds. Hugh will not be able to shut me out. Show me to his cell.”