Thursday, December 31, 2009

The Streets of Rejjvik

Nearly twenty years after the adventures of Tjesmond and Elspeth...

The skies of Rejjvik were grey and cold; the streets powdered with dirty snow. Crossbowwomen on the walls watched the clouds warily for signs of hail, or worse; guardsmen walked their beats warily, listening for the cries of a food-thief's victim, or a wider alarm. And on the Aristocrats' Street, where the lords kept their homes for visits to court - visits which had, over the last three years, become somewhat akin to a stay in prison.

 This metaphor is relevant. Lord Grenval found it thrust to the forefront of his mind as the King's house-carls broke down his front door and dragged him to his knees upon the snow-stained street outside.

 The King, there, looked down on him with an expression as cold as the weather. "You have the rest of your life to tell me what of our secrets you sold to the Crows, and what you know of their own plans."

 A sword at Lord Grenval's throat left no doubt as to King Hjessler's meaning.

 "I told them all that I knew, Your Highness," Lord Grenval said. He did his best not to tremble, without success. "Their emissary promised me safety, but only if I withheld nothing. There was something in his eyes - "

 "So, the placement of the guards, something of our contingency plans..."

 "And the hidden sally gate in the south wall," Lord Grenval confessed, nearly babbling.

 King Hjessler laughed, a short bitter laugh. "The least of your sins," he said. "Traitors less remarkable than you sold that secret to the Crows years ago. We had it walled off after their first attempt to use it."

 Lord Grenval considered laughing along. He decided that it was, under the circumstances, inadvisable.

 "What did they let slip to you?" King Hjessler asked. "Were you to expect them at a certain time?"

 "Yes," Lord Grenval said. "Tomorrow, a glass before noon."

 "Is that all?" King Hjessler asked.

 "I think they were going to mount an attack on the grainaries, under cover of a larger assault," Lord Grenval said. "But - " he gulped, the thought galling him even to consider - "it could be they expected me to be taken. That they hinted at the idea only to mislead and sow confusion, now - "

 "It could be," King Hjessler said. "But it matters little, now."

 "I've given no little thought to the fate of traitors," King Hjessler said. "There seem to be quite a few around - lured by the Crows' gold or, more likely, their promises of mercy. (Though they have shown, so far, very little - hope springs eternal, I suppose, especially in the face of desperation.) The commoners' betrayal I find much more forgivable - they are hungry, maybe starving, maybe freezing. But you - a man of noble birth, meant to protect the people under your class, instead selling them out for an unlikely promise of safety - "

 "Karl," this with a gesture to the house-carl currently holding a sword to Lord Grenval's neck, "nearly persuaded me that it would be only just - in the way of the poets - to give you to the people for whatever justice you saw fit. Had you not complied so thoroughly, I would have done so."

 "Thank you, Your Highness," Lord Grenval said.

 "Instead, we will have this over here and now," King Hjessler said. "Do you have any last words?"

 Lord Grenval gulped. "Let it be known I met my death with honor," he said.

 King Hjessler nodded once, firmly. A hand from behind pushed Lord Grenval's head down, leaving his nape exposed to the air - and to the quick stroke which ended his life.

 "Take it to the square," King Hjessler ordered. "Let it be mounted above the gates, with a placard beneath: 'He died with honor.'"

 King Hjessler and his guard left the street, a bloody body dragged behind them. The neighbors were already emerging from their houses, moving to see what had transpired; soon the whole city would know. The city guard walked their patrols; the crossbowwomen kept their eyes fixed to the skies. And on the distant cliffs, across the water, dark shapes moved and circled in the wind.

 Rejjvik had been under siege for the last three years; and both besieged and besiegers knew that they could not endure much longer.

 The Crows gathered.

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Tjesmond and Elspeth

When Elspeth discovered Tjesmond, the boy was curled in the center of a deer trail, shaking from the torments of some strange ague. His body was skeletal, completely devoid of fat; his clothes were worn to paper-thin rags. He would certainly die if Elspeth did nothing.

 Elspeth was raised as a devout follower of the One God; and, beyond that, she had learned some compassion in her nineteen years of living. She put aside her planned hunt, cradled Tjesmond (shivering and coughing) in her arms, and took him to her camp. There she nursed him back to health over the course of a trying fortnight, hand-feeding him thick bear-meat broths to build his strength, bundling him about with blankets and putting herself beside them for added warmth; and on the thirteenth night his fever broke, and he awoke lucid, though weak.

 "Where am I?" he asked, confused, disoriented. He saw Elspeth; drew back, afraid. "Who are you?"

 "I am Elspeth Hrotasdottir," Elspeth told Tjesmond in her accented Old Tongue. "A trapper in the service of the King. I saved your life; you're at my camp now. Who are you?"

 At this Tjesmond's mouth clamped shut. Avoiding the question, he tried to stand; his legs refused to support him. Elspeth moved to his side.

 "Careful now," she said, putting a supporting hand to his shoulderblades. (He flinched back, instinctually.) "Plenty of time for that later. For now - what do you think of bear meat for breakfast?"

 Tjesmond thought. He sniffed the air, once, twice. "It sounds delicious," he told her.

 There were many things he refused to tell her - where he came from; his name; why, when first he saw her, he seemed to fear her features so. Elspeth found some deep well of strength, drawing from deep inside her soul, and managed to live without the answers to the first and last of those questions; for the second, she took it on herself to make a name for the boy she had rescued - choosing 'Tjesm-ond', meaning (in the New Tongue) something along the lines of 'indomitable soul'.

 "Tkes-mooned?" Tjesmond asked. "What?"

 "Tyes-mund," Elspeth corrected gently.

 "T-hes-mund," Tjesmond attempted. "...what's that mean again?"

 Elspeth made it her project to teach Tjesmond the New Tongue (and the New Faith); in return, Tjesmond began to help with Elspeth's work, going out with the woods with her to hunt the animals by which she made her livelihood. He took to both New Tongue and Faith quickly, showing a quick wit and an eager will to embrace a faith other than that with which he was raised; and, fed on a steady diet of red meat, Tjesmond's strength returned quickly, his ribcage and spine receding from prominence. He healed.

 Despite the secrets he kept from her, a warmth grew between Tjesmond and Elspeth. The season turned; winter turned into spring, the snow melted, the days warmed. Tjesmond and Elspeth continued to sleep together, but, by the time the first leaves began to sprout on the treetops, in a different sense.

 The days passed quickly, and (perversely) lasted ever longer. The buried fur-cache grew full; and, not long after summer's beginning, Elspeth looked at the sun and pronounced it time for the yearly trip to Rejjvik.

 Tjesmond and Elspeth took turns; one would pull the car laden with furs, the other watch the countryside, wary for brigands or monsters. "It's gotten ugly in the last few years," Elspeth told Tjesmond. "Ever since King Hjording took the throne, there's been no sense of order or lawfulness to be found in the realm; not that his father was a Majesty worthy of the title, either."

 "Shouldn't the King's men do something?" Tjesmond asked. "If there are bandits terrorizing the land, and all."

 "The King's men!" Elspeth laughed. "No, no, sorry, you don't know. Look - there's two groups that you could call by that name. His house-carls - they stick close to him, never leave his side. And the tax-men, which roam the countryside, and, well..."

 "Dispense justice wherever they see evil?" Tjesmond asked.

 "Ha!" Elspeth laughed again. "Wherever they sense a penny's as not theirs or a harvest they've not taken in whole, more like. Nah, Tjesmond - the tax-men are as much the problem as the bandits and the monsters."

 "So, if I see a tax-man, should I shoot him?" Tjesmond asked earnestly.

 Elspeth paused. "Not unless he's really asking for it," she advised.

 By luck - or by virtue of a vigilant crossbow - the pair reached the city without incident. It protruded from the rocky hills like nothing Tjesmond had seen before - he had to ask Elspeth to confirm what he was seeing. "Rejjvik's behind that cliff?" he asked.

 Elspeth looked, blinked. "Cliff? - oh. Those are the city walls, Tjesmond. The Pilgrims built 'em. The city is inside those walls."

 There was nearly a scene at the city walls - the burghmester's men, watching traffic entering the city, stepped forward to surround the cart as Tjesmond and Elspeth approached. "Those furs are valuable goods, and as such subject to a fee by City Code," one of the guards said, a gleam of avarice visible in his eyes. "You can pay me with an ounce of gold, if you have that available, or I can seize a few of these quickly - "

 "Get your hands away from that," Elspeth said, stepping forward and slapping the guard's hand away roughly. "These furs are the King's property - I'm just delivering them to him. And let me tell you, he won't be happy if he hears that one of you scum thought you were fancy enough to need furs meant for a King - "

 "Shut up," the guard interrupted, rubbing his injured hand. "I don't need to hear any more of your cock-and-bull tale. You're a king's woman - where's the proof?"

 "I am a servant of the King, not his mistress," Elspeth corrected angrily, "and for the proof, just look at your hand!"

 The guard, red-faced, stared at Elspeth for a moment; then he looked down at his hand. There, puffy and inflamed, was Elspeth's proof; the King's mark, left by the signet ring Elspeth wore.

 Mute, the guard waved Tjesmond and Elspeth through. Elspeth spat on the ground.

 "Time was, the King kept his servant's dogs in check," Elspeth said. "Now - "

 "So he's an evil man, the King?" Tjesmond asked.

 Elspeth frowned. "Um - King Hjording? No. He's not evil. He's a good person, in person. I don't just work for him because it's the job my mother had before me - I do it because I can be proud, serving the King of All Estelunde. It's just..." She waved her hand.

 Tjesmond thought. "It's that he's a good person, but not a very good King?"

 Elspeth nodded. "Yeah. That about sums it up."

 Tjesmond was silent for the rest of the trip to the castle, mulling this strange idea over.

 The Royal Palace was a squat stone building, two stories tall, surrounded by a fortified black stone wall. Two gates allowed entrance to the interior; Elspeth led the way to the smaller of them, the servants' entrance. Another pair of guards barred the way, these wearing light mail with the King's crest in the front. "What business have you here?" the guard on the right asked.

 "I come to bring my yearly tribute to the King," Elspeth began, then paused. She stared at the guard who offered her the challenge. "Hey, I know you. What's with all the formality, Jerna?"

 Jerna paused. "I'm sorry, but I've forgotten - oh, you're Elspeth! I'm so sorry, I didn't recognize you with the ponytail."

 "As opposed to keeping my hair in my face all the time," Elspeth said jokingly. "Yeah, I'm sure I wouldn't recognize me either. The housecarl's armor looks good on you, Jerna. I'd love to chat more, but I really need to get this done before audience hours are over - walk with me to the palace?"

 "If I want to keep this armor, I really should stick to my post - " Jerna said.

 "Ehh, your shift's nearly over anyway," her companion told her. "Go, walk with your friend. I'll cover for you."

 Jerna wavered. "Uh - should I leave my sword with you?" she asked her companion.

 "What - so if the howling hordes of the north descend upon us, led by the vengeful ghost of their Great Priest, I can hold them off like a hero from the tales, sword in each hand?" he replied. "Take it, you can return it to the armory yourself after you're done with these two."

 Elspeth, Tjesmond, and Jerna walked onward, through the yard outside the palace to the storage outbuildings at the palace's rear.

 "Just as well I kept the sword." Elspeth said. "It's been weird in the palace, lately - maybe it's the way the new wing's left the old west wing dark and half-empty, but there've been rumors of ghosts, monsters. Supposedly a couple of the servants have gone missing. But there's no monster that doesn't respect the taste of cold steel - "

 "Except the ones that can only be harmed by silver, or wood, or moonlight..." Elspeth listed off on her fingers.

 "Yeah, if you believe in that kind of thing," Jerna dismissed. "So who's strong but silent, anyway? Didn't think you had anyone warming your bed last time you were in the city."

 Elspeth and Tjesmond, simultaneously, flushed bright red. "It's more complicated than that - " Elspeth began.

 "Oh, Lights That Guide, you really are!" Jerna laughed. "I was joking! How'd you meet, found him caught in one of your bear traps?"

 Elspeth was saved from answering this question by arriving at her destination; the office of the King's merchantile factor, "to whom," Elspeth explained to Tjesmond, "I am obligated to deliver my furs for assessment and payment."

The party entered the antechamber; the factor's secretary went to inform him of Elspeth's arrival.

 "Another of the King's men?" Tjesmond asked.

 Jerna looked confused at the obvious question. Elspeth winced. "Probably, though I hope not. He was appointed by the King when he took the throne, and was out of the city last summer when I came to deliver my furs, so I've never met him, only his clerks; so I can't say for certain either way."

 "I see," Tjesmond said. He turned to Jerna. "In that case: may I borrow your sword, for protection?"

 "What in the Light's reach are you talking about?" Jerna asked.

 Again she was to get no answer; the factor's secretary re-emerged, gesturing towards the doorway through which he had come. "The Royal Factor will see you now," he said, and Elspeth and Tjesmond rose to follow his direction.

 "Wait for us?" Elspeth suggested to Jerna. "It shouldn't be long; he's only got to sign off on the documents and give me the voucher for payment."

 Jerna thought, her brow furrowing, then gave an eloquent shrug. "I can wait a quarter-turn to quench my curiosity," she said.

 Elspeth and Tjesmond proceeded through a short hallway into the Royal Factor's inner office. The air grew scented as they approached, touched by some unfamiliar perfume; Tjesmond sniffed several times at it, curious. Inside, gauze curtains hung layered across the room, allowing only the Royal Factor's silhouette to be seen. Iron braziers stood on either side of the doorway, smoking profusely.

 Tjesmond halted in his tracks, surprised by the room's contents; behind him, the factor's secretary entered and closed the door behind him.

 "I am very disappointed," the Factor said. His voice seemed to echo, as though coming from inside some deep cave. "I had heard such good things about you; your family had served the Royal Family nearly since the inception of this Kingdom, and you yourself have served since you came to adulthood. But it appears that you are... unready to live up to your family's legacy. Do not think me an ungenerous man - I am prepared to give you half your normal pay, in exchange for which you must promise to improve next year - "

 "What?" Elspeth said, interrupting. "Unready? What are you talking about? If you check the records, you'll see that I've brought you more furs than last year, even - "

 "Yes, about that," the Factor said, his voice filled with unconvincing regret. "I think if you check the records, you'll find nothing of the sort. In fact, you'll see that your yield has been dropping for the last several years - such a shame."

 Elspeth stood still. "You're cheating me," she said, her voice cold. "And what's worse, you're cheating the King- underreporting what you take in so you can steal the rest. What's to stop me from - "

 "Why - she's trying to kill me!" the Factor cried, his voice filled with mock shock. "Secretary - restrain this madwoman! Then - just for our own safety, after all - cut her tongue out!"

 The secretary was already moving, a dagger in his hand. He had Elspeth in a lock - but Tjesmond was to his other side, and pulled him off her, hurling him into a brazier. Coals spilled out onto the wood floor. "Come out, you scum," he said to the Factor, stalking forward through the curtains. "We'll give you to the King's justice - "

 A hand shot out, grasped Tjesmond's throat, and pulled him forward. "Little boy, little boy," the Factor's echoing voice said coldly. "Suffer your own justice!"

 Tjesmond now understood why the Factor had hidden himself behind curtains.

 The King's Factor was hideous. His body appeared to be in the midst of a transformation into solid gold - this being in itself somewhat notable - but his original flesh had taken poorly to the change, dying wherever it contacted the metal. So parts of him were metal, strangely glistening in the braziers' dancing light - but all around those parts were putrescent flesh, rotting and crawling with insects. Also, he was strangling Tjesmond.

 Tjesmond coughed. Tjesmond hacked. Tjesmond grasped desperately at the golden arm that was killing him.

 None of these actions were extremely effective. His vision began to darken.

 Then there was a noise - and Jerna was there, a sword in her hand. "Just like I told you!" she gloated to Elspeth, and in one stroke hacked off the hand that was crushing Tjesmond's windpipe. She drew back, calling, "Surrender, and we may spare you - "

 But the King's Factor was long past that point. He drew a jagged blade hidden under his robe and attacked, driving Jerna back in a series of swift blows. Elspeth cast a concerned look in that direction, then knelt to help Tjesmond, who was still prone on the floor with a gold hand around his throat. "Monsters in the King's court..." she muttered.

 With the hand carefully pried from Tjesmond's throat, he felt ready to give Elspeth a cautious smile as he got onto his hands and knees. "Looks like Jerna's having trouble," he said, looking in that direction. "Maybe we should - "

 A heavy weight fell on him. Tjesmond fell prone once again.

 Above him leered the face of the Royal Factor's secretary, who had just knocked Elspeth low by surprise; and, Tjesmond noted in his moment of helplessness, the secretary's eyes gleamed gold.

 The secretary kicked at Elspeth, sending her rolling off Tjesmond. "Let's have another round," he hissed to Tjesmond. "This time, I'll rip your throat out - "

 Tjesmond hooked a foot around his ankle and sent him crashing to the floor. A quick kick sent the secretary rolling in the direction of the (rather worryingly quickly) spreading flames from the overturned brazier - then Tjesmond came quickly to his feet and ran to Jerna's assistance.

 Jerna was, by this time, pinned in a corner, bleeding in several places where her armor had provided insufficient protection. "He's no swordsman, but he's strong!" she told Tjesmond as he approached. "I can't hold him off much longer - "

 The Royal Factor took opportunity of Jerna's distraction and knocked her blade out of her hand. Gloating on his face, he stabbed directly into her chest.

 "Oh," Jerna said, blood beginning to well from the wound.

 Then the Royal Factor's expression of triumph moved very quickly sideways.

 "Huh?" Jerna wondered.

 "Thank you for the loan of your sword," Tjesmond said, handing it to Jerna hilt-first. "As you said, it was very useful against this monster. To be of clarifying - it severed his neck with excellence. Now - are you all right?"

 Jerna considered.

 "Actually, I think I am," she said, pushing herself back to her feet. "He hit me right in the middle of my armor - it's probably going to need some time in the smithy, but I don't think he pierced anything vital, just gave me a very nasty cut. A scar to remember - "

 Her knees buckled.

 "Let's get you out of here," Elspeth said, carrying her by one arm. Tjesmond took the other. "Before the raging flames do what flames are known for."

 Slowly, together, they staggered out of the burning building. Guards surrounded them as soon as they emerged outside.

 "Sorry about all this," Elspeth said to Tjesmond and Jerna both. "I didn't..." Her sentence trailed off.

 And not only did both Elspeth and Jerna keep their jobs, but Tjesmond got one of his own!

 A funny business, monster-killing.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

The First Death Of Tjesmond

Tjesmond was born in Estlunde, and he was dead.

His family was poor, and used to hardship and suffering; his parents shed no more than a few tears over Tjesmond's unbreathing body before they took it to the river and threw it in. His mother, supported by her two oldest sons, watched the body float away until it passed around a curve and vanished from sight; then, slowly, she turned away, and put an end to the sad affair.

 But it did not end there.

 Not far down the river lived a village of Old Men who still followed the old religion. That day, the day of Tjesmond's stillbirth, was a fest-day for them, celebrating the deeds of a savior carried along a river's currents. Perhaps this savior was prophesied - or perhaps he lived long ago, his deeds ancient and shrouded in a mystery near so great as the future's. The libraries of the Old Men burned when the New Men came - the answer is known now to none. But - when Tjesmond's lifeless body tumbled down the river, and washed upon the shore of this river-festival - well, who could blame them for some excitement?

 And when they saw he was dead - well!

 Their first instinct was to treat it as a matter of omen. One priest cried out in dread - ah, a child on the river (as our savior was/will be!) - and it is dead, unbreathing! What horror, what a foul thing does this portend! Another cried out in delight - a dead child, yes, and of the race of the New Men! It is a sign that their day is done - that we shall rise again, and Estlunde once more be ours! And a third priest -

 Well, he doubled back quickly into the gathering crowd, and returned bringing wise-women and midwives. One finger pointing at Tjesmond, still lying on the river-bank, he cried, "Save this child's life!"

 So they did.

 With herbs and poultices they worked, massaging Tjesmond's tender tissues, feeding him strange and witchy brews. His heart began, slowly, to pump; his lungs began to breathe. He gasped - once - twice - and screamed -

 So was Tjesmond rescued from his first death.

 They raised him to be their savior. His name was not Tjesmond, then -  instead it was another word, in the local dialect used to mean 'savior'. He was given the best of everything, and lectured on his responsibilities from a young age, and despite all of that he grew courageous and strong. The people of the village gave him a cause, the reclamation of Estlunde from the Great Enemy, the New People; and Tjesmond dedicated himself to it mind, flesh, and soul.

 It was a butterfly, of all things, which changed Tjesmond's life. It alit upon the third priest's nose, as he shouted to the screaming crowd ("the annihilation of the Darkness comes ever closer!), and when Tjesmond looked at hit, he saw something wrong in the priest's eyes. Something missing; something hollow.

Quickly Tjesmond turned away, tried to set the vision aside; but it would not leave him. He looked elsewhere: the sky, the ground, the people - but in the people's eyes he saw the same emptiness, and his fear, inexpressible in words, grew worse.

At the ceremony's end, Tjesmond excused himself. He walked to the river and stood a while, working up the courage, the will. Then he looked in his own eyes -

 - and saw that same emptiness, growing there -

 A person is composed of three parts: mind, flesh, soul. The flesh provides the appearance of action; the mind provides the reasons for actions; and the soul makes the choice of actions. Each is physical; each relates with the other. So a flaw in one must, naturally, sooner or later, spread to the others - so that a person who grows weak of flesh will eventually grow weak of mind, and a person twisted in soul will eventually grow twisted of body.

 So - and Tjesmond knew this, more or less, by the teachings of the priests - to forget one's humanity is to lose it; and those who forget their humanity by rejecting the personhood of others are called monsters.

 Tjesmond brooded on the matter as noon turned into evening turned into night; then he returned to the village. "I am sorry, O Holy Father," he told the third priest, "but I think we have gone astray. Something - something at the heart of our Great Crusade - is twisted. Corrupt. And if we do not turn away, then - "

 The monster the people of that village had become was called the Silver Dawn. It had a hundred bodies and a hundred faces, but one mind; and that mind thought only of hate. Infuriated by Tjesmond's discovery, it hounded him through the woods, howling in its hundred voices for him to repent. Tjesmond fled from it, terrified, fleeing to the very edge of the river from which he had come. The monster charged him; Tjesmond sidestepped and lifted and sent it into the river, and there drowned it. He watched the bodies that floated down the river, blue and bloated; and then, half-insane with confusion and grief, he tried to join them.

 Tjesmond was eleven years of age at the time.

 After a time, Tjesmond discovered that he could not drown himself (tending to float to the surface and right himself whenever he lost consciousness); so he did his level best to starve instead. He went into the forest and waited; but he found that when he was hungry enough, he would pick berries and eat, stalk rabbits and strike, almost without his own volition. He had not the will to die.

 A year and a half later, Tjesmond still trying (and failing) to starve, a royal trapper by the name of Elspeth found him. She took him in - against his inarticulate protests - taught him the New Tongue, and nursed him back to health. In the winter they shared a bed for warmth, and, all involved being entirely comfortable with this arrangement, they continued it through spring and into summer.

In mid-summer, Elspeth returned to Rejjvik to sell her furs to the King, as was the condition of her being allowed to trap those forests. Tjesmond, naturally, accompanied her, seeking to continue their relationship -

 - but in the palace of King Hjormond he slew his second monster; and thereafter, Tjesmond and Elspeth parted ways.

Monday, December 28, 2009

Making a Stand

"On to the next order of business," Ühunt, court advisor and minutes-keeper for the meeting of the Lords Remaining, suggested. "The freewoman Carin, ranked second in the notable Tjesmond's Trusted Companions, has brought to this council's attention word of Crow scouts prowling the northern villages. She suggests a swift response - "

 Carin rose. "I suggest," she said, "That I should be freed to take the actions necessary to stop the Crows before it is too late. I know their plan; my men are ready. We can leave within the hour - if you give us the word. I am certain of victory, if there is no delay."

 The rash words were unlike her - but she had reason for them. As she stared down the council table, Carin glanced at each of the members of the council - the seven Lords Remaining, led by the iron-willed Éosei, once a claimant to the throne. (Her planned rebellion dying unborn when the Crows came.) They would all support the plan - Éosei supported it, and she had the rest scared into line. They weren't the problem - that was the eighth member of the council...

 "This is rash," said Tjesmond; once a monster-killer in the King's employ, now the leader of all Estelundian forces not trapped by the Crows' three-year siege. "The Crows are masters of deception; they feint and withdraw, mislead and misdirect. You think you have out-thought them? You think you will march directly to them, meet them in honest battle, save the day? You should know better by now. They will poison your water, strike from ambush, kill and torture without mercy; then they will strike here, at our weakened forces, and it is we who will be lost. Rethink this, Carin. The Crows are not a foe to be taken lightly."

 "This is the same tale you have been peddling since the war began," Carin said, angry. "The same story, of fear and despair, again and again. But do you know what? I think it's all in your head. The Crows have no diabolical wit. Their plans are simple - raid where they see food, feint where they see uncertainty, strike where they see weakness. They are predictable - and I know what they will do next - "

 Carin paused, suddenly - looked around the table. The Lords Remaining were with her, convinced - this was something they had been whispering in quiet for some time, behind closed doors. Éosei in particular was glowing, triumphant - this conversation was one she had been urging Carin towards for some time. But Tjesmond -

 Tjesmond's face was stoic, but in his eyes Carin could see hurt, betrayal. How could you do this? his eyes seemed to ask Carin. I gave you all you have, your training, your position, even the sword still at your belt; I made you who you are today. Now you tear me down at the behest of that harpy Éosei, begging at her feet for scraps?

  Carin turned away. She would find another way.

 "I have taken no part of this business lightly," she said instead, starting again. "From the first report I had of the Crows' movements, I kept the utmost secrecy in the operation, not even telling my other scouts what the first had seen; I have not even told you worthies what I know of the matter, besides the barest necessary, for fear of eavesdroppers. I am well aware of their treacherous ways, and the treachery they inspire in the fearful common-folk; but I have their measure today. By the skills you taught me and with the men you gave me, I think I can deliver them a thrashing they shall not soon regret - "

 Tjesmond shook his head, suddenly weary. "Very well then. You are my trusted second; I will give you my faith in the matter. If there are no objections?"

 There were none.

 "Then we can proceed to the next matter," Tjesmond said, excusing Carin with a nod. "Seneschal?"

 "On the matter of the eastern provinces' crop yields..." Ühunt began.

 As Carin left the room, she glanced back, and noticed to her own surprise that Éosei was smiling widely, seemingly quite pleased. But then - Carin realized - why shouldn't she be? For all she had drawn back at the end, this was by far the closest Carin had come to siding with Éosei against Tjesmond's leadership - something Éosei had wanted for some time.

 But to betray Tjesmond - even if it meant the difference between victory or defeat, in the war -

 She would talk with Éosei when she returned, Carin decided. But first - she had a battle to win.

 (She won.)

Friday, December 25, 2009


Jason's floorboards were bothering him.

It was not that they were too rough, he thought, padding the halls barefoot. Not that they were too smooth, either; he found his footing easy to keep. Their hue seemed acceptable enough, a sort of soft warm brown; their whorls and knots contained nothing that Jason could fairly censure. No, he thought, it was something else...

 Two days later he stood up from his work with a start. "Ah!" he said, slapping his forehead. "They're too quiet!"

They didn't creak at all - not even a little bit!

 Jason felt momentary relief at finding the answer to his question, but within moments his brow was furrowed once more. Why were they so quiet! It didn't seem natural.

 He went to the Osh after work.

 "Pardon me, madam," he said, attempting to attract the attention of a nearby saleswoman. "I have a question I was wondering if you could help me with?"

 "Yes?" the woman asked. Her nametag identified her as Mel: How can I help you today?

 "I noticed the other day that my floorboards are very quiet," Jason explained. "I mean, abnormally so. It's kinda creepy. Is there something specific that would cause that?"

Mel looked at Jason. She thought for a moment; and then her expression became very serious.

 "I'm afraid I can't help you here," she said. "The only thing I know that could cause floorboards to be as quiet as the ones you've described is supernatural forces; creatures and works beyond man's ken. This is an area in which Osh salespersons are not traditionally trained."

 "I see," Jason said, nodding seriously. "You say you cannot help, but that is a very important clue you have given me. Is there anyone you can direct me to who would know more?"

 "Seek a sorcerer," Mel suggested. "An ancient Power risen from the ranks of men but since become something more; a creature expert in arts light and dark both. This is the best way I can think of to help you fix your floorboards. Besides a few minutes of light carpentry, of course."

 "All right," Jason said, committing Mel's words to memory. "Sorcerer, ancient power, expert in dark arts. Thank you!"

 Mel went to help the next customer. Jason, feeling faintly guilty, purchased a pack of light-bulbs. He'd run out of spares after the bathroom bulb burned out the other month, so there was some justification.

 Once he'd gotten home, Jason returned to his computer. He perused his contacts list. "I don't think any of my friends know anything about sorcery or supernatural forces," he said. "So where should I look?"

 Then Jason laughed! Ha-ha! Like there was any question!

 "sorcerer how to find," Jason inquired of the Internet's all-seeing, all-knowing oracle. He examined the results; the query gained a "-potter -apprentice". He clicked on the first link.

 "Wikipedia, of course," Jason noted. "This article is marked: not written in an encyclopedic style, possible NPOV violations." Jason shrugged. "Eh."
First, be thou warned: stay thee far from the sources of knowledge which thine parents might have advised. The Yellow Pages, the Classified Advertisements; they are foul cesspits, filled with lies and flim-flammery. Seekest thou within their darkened crevices, and all thou shalt find are rats, swindlers who would take thy monies for parlour tricks alone. Hie thee far from such!"
 "This is even less encyclopedic than I'd expected," Jason admitted.
Second, be thou warned: the sorcerers are a strange and capricious brood, and will so readily transform thee to a newt as thine foe, should thou approach them with so ill-considered an' vain a request. Speak ever with respect to them, and be solemn in both goals and mannerisms in treating with them, should thou be of a mind to deal with sorcerers; never betray them, in manner overt or covert. To do otherwise is to court swift and certain destruction.
 "Appropriate, though," Jason added.
Thirdly, the greatest of the sorcerers is the Ancient Master Sagustus; contact him and find more information about him through [his website].

 "Okay, yeah, that's a little NPOV," Jason said. "Wonder if he's got an email address thing or a contact form - oh, hey, that's a really nice website!"

 It was!

(Also, it was a contact form.)

 As Jason's finger hovered over his mouse button, re-reading his message for errors before he dispatched it, a great noise resounded through the room. Jason rolled backwards at high speed; his screen went black, and then flashed three times. A streamer of smoke whipped about the bookshelves in a tangle of intertwined colours; another loud crash sounded. The Ancient Master Sagustus appeared.

 "Wow, you got my message before I sent it?" Jason asked. "That must really have been the use of supernatural forces!"

 "Those are my specialty," the Ancient Master Sagustus boomed.

 "Alternately, it could've been a bit of Ajax," Jason reconsidered.

 The Ancient Master Sagustus dismissed the question with a wave of his hand. "I left the implementation details to the web designer - but I'm not here to talk about that. We have much more important things to cover."

 "Yes, of course, sorry," Jason said, rising from his chair. "My floorboards. They're very quiet."

 "That sounds pretty stupid," the Ancient Master Sagustus said.

 "No, look!" Jason said. He walked down the hall leading from his office, and then back again. The floorboards didn't make any noise at all!

 The Ancient Master Sagustus frowned. "Let me have a look at that."

 He had a look.

 When he stood, his back creaking, his expression was somber. "It's a ward of protection," the Ancient Master said. "Probably placed when the building was built. So long as the inhabitants live, no thing may fell this place; neither fire nor flood, neither earthquake nor tornado."

 "Tornado?" Jason asked.

 "Probably not a major issue here anyway," Sagustus admitted. "Feel free to replace that one with 'lightning'. But - there's a catch."

 "...lightning overlaps with fire?" Jason suggested. "But that doesn't sound like a catch, just poor phrasing."

 "That's because it is not the catch," the Ancient Master Sagustus said. "The protection ward is powered by the life of the occupants. Each year you spend in this place ages you two years."

 "...huh," Jason said. "I guess I should probably see about moving."

 "If you value your life," the Ancient Master Sagustus said.

 Ho ho ho!

 How they laughed!

 "That'll be $79.99," the Ancient Master said once he'd finished laughing. "I take all major credit cards and Paypal."

 (Jason ended up paying with Paypal!)

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Tjesmond in the Forest

Tjesmond marched through the dense forest, his blade at his hip; and behind him and before him marched his Trusted Companions, a hundred strong, proud and disciplined and clad in leather and mail. They moved in file, each stepping in the footsteps of the one before to ease their passage and disguise their number; all were veterans of the wilderness, and few in Estlunde could be said to match them for martial valour or skill -

 - but there was something amiss, for their march seemed to have become something more of a skulk, and each snapping branch and rustling leaf sent a fearful shiver through the ranks. They moved as quickly as they dared, and cast glances behind them often - and their flagbearer bore no flag, and from the distance, behind them, screams could be heard.

 The Trusted Companions saw movement through the trees; they tensed, and some drew bows from their backs. The motion accelerated, and the Companions braced, pulling back - gained sight of the intruder as it shot through - a deer!

 Samhŏl, an Old Man with the Companions for two years, was the only one to fire; his shaft went wide, and the others tormented it for it. "Samhŏl Swiftshot," one suggested mockingly; another, "Samhŏl Silvereye." (The latter to imply blindness on poor Samhŏl's part.) His luck took a turn for the better half a turn of the glass later, though, when his travel through the bush startled a game bird and sent it scurrying beneath him; Samhŏl's reflexes served him better this time, and his companions praised Samhŏl as he slung the choice prize over his shoulder.

 Carin, Tjesmond's second-in-command and (at present) path-breaker, looked back at Tjesmond questioningly: an unspoken question lingered in the air between them. Tjesmond shook his head. "It is worth it for them to distract themselves from our present straits," his gesture conveyed to Carin, "even for a small risk that by their careless speech the Crows may find us."

 Carin shrugged, and turned back to the path; not long after, she stumbled into the body.

 Carin was experienced at woodcraft, and a veteran of combat. She had singlehandedly slain the Exaltation of Consumption with the family wood-cutting axe - this being the act which allowed her entry into the Companions - and since participated in (or led) half a dozen other monster-slaying hunts. She was by no means weak of stomach - so when she, having (after a moment's incomprehension) realized exactly what her boot had plunged into knee-deep, turned from the path and was noisily sick, it should by no means be taken as a condemnation of her character.

 Tjesmond, directly behind her, pushed forward to look at the remains. His face, previously dark with worry and guilt, now turned somewhat pale. He stopped the column.

 "They must have dropped the poor bastard from a height," Carin said, now largely recovered. "Probably had already eaten their fill - and then when they were done - "

 "We leave no-one behind," Tjesmond ordered. "Not ours, not Jerna's recruits, not even any of the Rebel's men, should they somehow have stumbled into this catastrophe. Better to cut their throats ourselves than to leave them for the Crows."

 Not a single voice was raised in objection.

 Carin set about blazing a new path; safely away from the body.

 It was another turn of the glass before Carin called a halt to the column. Tjesmond dropped into a ready crouch, drawing his sword from its scabbard; Carin motioned for him to stop. "Quiet," she hissed. Tjesmond, trusting her, sheathed his blade and relayed the command; the order trickled down the column. The Trusted Companions fell silent...

 And in the silence, the sound of voices could be heard.

 Slowly, quietly, the Trusted Companions moved closer; and then the voices fell quiet.

 Tjesmond again drew his sword; this time Carin followed suit, and the rest of the Trusted Companions with them. The column separated, turning into several loose clumps, each creeping closer to the last place the voices were heard. They expected the worst.

 To find several dozen women, ranging from bloodied and scratched to mortally wounded, hostile and armed with crossbows - under the circumstances, it was almost uplifting!

 "Don't come any closer, you filthy backstabbing cowards!" one of the women, wearing a stained red livery which might once have been that of the King, shouted Carin's way. "We'll fill you with feathers if you come any closer, just like we promised you we would, you - "

 She paused.

 "We're Tjesmond's men," Carin said. "Not your wayward companions."

 "They left us to die," the woman, whose name was Laerke, explained. "Everyone too wounded to walk, and the few of us with the decency to care for them. Left us for the crows."

 Carin winced. She looked to Tjesmond; but he was already moving, looking at the wounded crossbowwomen. "No," he said, his face grim. "We'll not allow that."

 "You won't be able to move at once," Laerke said. "The worst of us are in too bad a condition to be moved - we'll need water, bandages - "

 Tjesmond shook his head. "The Crows are too close behind," he said. "I want to be out of the wood by nightfall and in the King's palace in three days."

 "Then - ?" Laerke asked, confused. Carin winced again.

 "Those of you as can move, we will take with us," Tjesmond said; "and for the rest, the knife."

 Laerke took it well, all things considered.

 "If you're going to take anyone who can walk," she said once she had calmed down, "then there's someone you're missing. Our commander - back along our trail, a quarter-glass's walk."

 "Why is she not with you?" Tjesmond asked sharply.

 "She was trying to look at a map; walked into a clearing, just for a moment, for light," Laerke said. "Her staff died quickly, but they kept her around; seemed to be keeping her as a toy, darting in whenever she got near the edge of the meadow. If they haven't killed her yet - "

 "Yes," Tjesmond said, turning away. "Carin, you'll stay here and finish the cleanup. Eshud, Roth, and Vhin's squads are with you."

 "How long should I wait?" Carin asked.

 Tjesmond froze. A long silence passed; and then he answered. "One glass. No more."

 Carin nodded.

As he hurried back along the regulars' trail, his Companions jogging behind and alongside, one word circled in Tjesmond's mind:


 The clearing was wide, inviting. The clouds from earlier in the day had cleared up nicely; the sun shone down. Blood and body parts were scattered on the grass and flowers; in the center lay a lone woman, her uniform rent and torn. She seemed to have collapsed from blood loss. From the edge of the meadow, it was impossible to see if she was still breathing.

 "I'll take two squads," Tjesmond said. "Swords and shields ready, forming a wall around me. The rest of you form a ring around the meadow, bows ready, teams of two. We go in, we go out..."

 "...and maybe the Crows have already forgotten about her," Tjesmond said, the corner of his mouth quirking. "Worth hoping, eh?"

 The skies were bright and clear.

 It seemed astonishing how the black-winged Crow-Men could move, swooping on Tjesmond's party as though from thin air.

 The scene was pure chaos. Men swung and screamed, raked by grime-stained claws; the Crows called out in their own guttural tongue. There was a taste of bile in Tjesmond's throat as he shouted for his men to hold in their formation; it felt as though the catastrophic battle he was still fleeing from was about to repeat -

 -but then arrows from the archers Tjesmond had stationed around the clearing filled the air; the Crows vanished as quickly as they came, leaving only a pair of hacked and arrow-feathered bodies to mark their passing - aside from the wounds among Tjesmond's men.

 By luck or by grace, none of Tjesmond's Companions had fallen in the attack; and Laerke's commander was still breathing.

 "How much longer do we march?" Carin asked, once the Trusted Companions (injured soldiers in tow) had reunited. "Even those of them that can walk are walking wounded, and with the ones we can carry - I'm worried about our stamina."

 Tjesmond looked to the sky, faintly visible through the thick canopy overhead.

 "We march until nightfall," he said. "By then, hopefully, we'll be safe - but no sooner."

 Overhead, cheerily, the early afternoon sun shone.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

The Shortcomings Of Plasma Cannons

"Why are we fighting?" Sara asked, nimbly rolling to avoid a white-hot plasma blast.

 "Why are we fighting?" Evryn parroted, her voice incredulous. "You've forgotten already?" She fired another plasma blast, melting a large crater into the face of the derelict starship Sara had taken cover behind.

 "All the plasma fire is pretty distracting," Sara said. "Easy to forget things when you're concentrating on not being turned into a loose cloud of rapidly dispersing atoms."

 Evryn fired another plasma blast; Sara peeked over the edge of the derelict ship, winced, and began looking around for another ship to take cover behind.

 "You're pathetic," Evryn spat, ejecting the spent power-cell from her plasma cannon with the ease of long practice and clicking a fresh one into place. "You come here, probably trekking across half a continent filled with biomechanical monsters that have forgotten every word but 'kill' - and maybe 'eat' - to the only starport on this godforsaken world - and you forget what you came for as soon as you got here?"

 Sara, who'd taken the opportunity provided by Evryn's rant to scurry across the tarmac to a more durable, less-melted-looking starship, breathed a sigh of relief. "Oh yeah!" she said. "I was going to grab a starship and burn my way off this dirtball!"

 "NO!" Evryn screeched, firing a quick pair of shots from her cannon. Some long-disused energy tank buried inside the derelict starship ruptured, sending a rumble through the ground; Sara winced again. "I fought my way here, too!" Evryn screamed, watching for any sign of motion as she let the plasma cannon's red-hot barrel cool. "I suffered and bled and starved, and I got here, and I found the one spaceworthy ship still on this dump, and I pulled together the parts and made the repairs and nearly got it ready for launch, fighting off every single biomech that tried to eat me while I worked, and you are not taking my ship now!" She fired another blast, burning a hole through the already-scarred hull but just missing Sara, and immediately began changing out her cannon's power cell.

 " this one of those one-person ships?" Sara asked. "Because if not, couldn't we just share it? I could do the grunt-work, finish up the repairs, do the dishes, whatever. You know, to even things out."

 "No!" Evryn wailed, slotting the fresh power cell into her gun. "It's big enough for ten people, and it's MINE and you CAN'T HAVE IT because I HATE YOU!"

 "I think you're a little unhinged!" Sara called out, running towards the ship she'd identified as most likely to be the one Evryn had repaired. (Among other things, it was the only one still standing upright.) She didn't feel like wasting more time with cat-and-mouse games; that last shot had come rather too close, and she could hear the sound of biomechs in the distance, attracted by the noise.

 "I HATE YOUUUUU!" Evryn wailed. A trio of shots arced out from her cannon, neatly bracketing Sara. One came close enough to set her jacket on fire, provoking another drop-and-roll. Sara, extinguishing the small fire, looked up at the tower from which Evryn was delivering her fire, swore, and prepared herself for death.

 But -

 "She's not firing?" Sara wondered.

 The biomechs' cries grew louder; rose to a triumphant pitch. A tiny speck fell from the tower, tumbling slowly, end-over-end.

 "Oh," Sara said.

 "She probably should've saved some ammo for the biomechs."

 Later, it turned out Evryn hadn't done a very good job repairing the ship at all!

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

The Sludge-Beasts

The Sludge-Beast walked step-by step out of its dolorous shack. It blinked at the daylight. It oozed, perhaps a little sadly.

These were all things that Sludge-Beasts commonly did - when there were Sludge-Beasts, that is.

They thrived in meadows and hills! They swam in the oceans, they galumphed across the plains! Some - a very lucky few - even soared across the sky by means of swift-spinning sludge-propellers, leaving vast trails of sludge behind them wherever they went!

 Those were the days of the Sludge-Beasts.

But then a Sludge-Beast made a discovery. It reached deep into its black, suppurating chest cavity - feeling around for the sludge-morsel it had stashed there earlier in the day. But it pulled out something altogether different! Something furry - warm - adorable! Not sludgy at all!

 The Sludge-Beast stared at the creature in its sludge-tentacle. "So beautiful!" it thought. "To think that such a thing could come from an unworthy creature like me!"

 Then it died, and melted into the earth!

 (Not because it had gotten depressed. Because the creature, prior to being pulled out, was functioning as the Sludge-Beast's beating heart. This is one of many reasons it is unwise to store objects in a suppurating chest cavity if you intend to retrieve them later - you might pull out your heart instead!)

 It might have ended there, had two other Sludge-Beasts not been nearby. But they were, and they saw, and they thought. "How beautiful a creature our brother-sister pulled from itself!" the two Sludge-Beasts thought, more-or-less together. "That we, crude and malformed creatures that we are, might harbor such within ourselves, contained only by necessity of powering our own lives? How can we justify our own existences?"

 One of the Sludge-Beasts thought about this. It stared at itself. "Enough!" it wailed, a hideous screeching cry, and tore from itself its heart. Then it was no more.

 But the other Sludge-Beast justified itself. "I am unworthy to live," it reasoned, "except by this: that by my existence, I will go forth to all my brother-sisters; I will tell them what lurks within their heart. Then - only then - will I end myself!"

 Matters proceeded.

 And so this Sludge-Beast, emerging from its ichorous hut, found itself entirely alone in the world.

 It was not surprised by this, really. It had sensed its brother-sisters snuffing themselves out for some time. That the last one had done so - well, it seemed inevitable!

 But now the Sludge-Beast needed to justify itself.

 "Why should I live?" it thought. "What value is there in me, even as the last of my kind, when something so much more beautiful lies waiting inside my heart?"

 It stood there for some time.

 Sludge leaked onto the ground. A black pool formed. A bird landed; pecked at the pool; recoiled and quickly flew away.

 Then the Sludge-Beast reached a conclusion. (It hadn't noticed the bird. That was a detail added to create the impression of time's passage, not a major part of the narrative.)

 "Why should I live, when my death would so improve the world?" the last Sludge-Beast rephrased.

 It shrugged, a long, rolling shrug, sending waves of goo out to spatter on nearby trees.

 "Eh," it thought. "What did the world ever do for me?"

Monday, December 21, 2009

Exotic Ecoystems

Starbirds make stars!

They're born in large creches, deep within the hollow earth. They grow, they're nutured - fed by the Deep Things that lurk within the strange crevices of the Earth - and then, when they're old enough, they're set free. "Fly!" the Deep Things urge, hissing in tongues alien to the races of man. "Fly, upwards, into the sky! Fufill your purpose!"

 Some of the starbirds never fly. They wander away, hiding from their destiny. Slowly, the luster of their feathers fade. The gleam in their eyes vanishes. They forget what they were made for, and become simply - ordinary, earthbound creatures. In the old days, starbirds that did this would become dinosaurs. These days, they just turn into reptiles! Many people are very disappointed by the change. But time's arrow points only one way!

 Other starbirds seek the stars, but get lost. They fly around in circles, in the deep places of the earth; when they finally emerge, they've become so disoriented that they don't know which way's up, and which way is down! The glorious nimbus of stellar potential fades. They become ordinary birds! That's what most ordinary birds come from, you know, originally. The species. Their first members were starbirds! Think about that the next time you see a pigeon.

 A third group of starbirds are eaten by predators! It's a tempting meal - the starbirds glitter like jelly-beans, and taste like pure sugar! But it doesn't end there for the predators. The stellar nimbus progresses through their digestive system. It spreads - infecting their internal organs. Eventually, it reaches the skin - and whatever animal ate a starbird, for a brief moment, shines as though it was a star itself!

 Then it explodes.

 If you were considering trying to catch a starbird, to eat it as a delicacy - we don't recommend it, for this reason!

 But there are some starbirds that make it. They fly far and fast, they fill their lungs with oxygen before they leave atmosphere - until they don't need the oxygen any-more! They've become stars - twinkling dots of light, distant in the sky!

 You'd think that there'd be more stars in the sky, were that the case - I mean, there are plenty, but if starbirds just kept fluttering up, year after year, the night sky'd be brighter than daylight! And that'd be the case, absolutely, if it weren't for the moons.

 The moons eat stars, you see. They sweep across the sky, and any star they touch - poof! Devoured!

 And now you might think there'd be _fewer_ stars than there are - what with them being gobbled up all the time, by those voracious moons - but for the sun, which scares the moons right out of their (metaphorical) pants, and makes them spit most of the stars they've just eaten back up again. (That's where meteor showers come from - sometimes the moons spit-up towards us!)

 Ecosystems can be complicated! So many interrelating components. Good thing the Deep Ones are taking care of ours! Remember: they have only our best interests in mind.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

The Boy Carried the Lantern

The boy carried the lantern into the cellar, sloshing oil onto the steps as he walked down. He paused for a moment, anxious, at the bottom; then he drew from his right pocket a match, and lit the lantern.

Its light was dim and flickering, and gave everything a sickly sort of glow; but it was enough to see by. The boy walked to the cellar's far wall, worked for a moment, seemed to activate some kind of mechanism - for a section of wall swung aside, revealing a dark earth-walled tunnel beyond.

 The boy took a deep breath, and walked in.

 He walked for some time - proceeding ever straight in his course, taking none of the side-passage openings that would occasionally appear in the tunnel walls - until at length he arrived at a dead-end. The boy glanced down at the lantern for a moment, and then slowly turned, facing the way he came.

 Now it was a great cavern, with a pile of gold and silver and jewels heaped in the center carelessly, gleaming in the lantern-light. The boy seemed unsurprised.

 "You must want to kill me," he said to the lantern. "This is the third time you've led me here in the last month."

 The lantern sloshed.

 Then there arose a trembling in the earth; the boy stepped back, drawing a bow from his back and plucking an arrow from his quiver. The trembling intensified; and then a great wyrm burst from the center of the treasure-pile, sending a spray of goblets and gemstones in all directions.

 "Is this some kind of moral lesson?" the boy asked. "Seeking wealth will consume you? I thought you were an adventure-seeking lantern, not an English Lit lantern. Will this turn into a bildungsroman next?"

 The wyrm seemed offended. It reared back, and struck!

 Unfortunately it was vulnerable to flaming arrows applied to the back of the throat. So that really was the end of that.

 "Oh, thank you, brave adventurer!" a Princess said, emerging from the worm's gullet. "You've saved me from a grisly fate! How can I thank you?"

 "Eh, don't bother," the boy said grumpily. "Nothing in here is ever nice. You're probably just some succubus or harpy or something, and if I let you get near me, you'll try to kill and eat me. Just... go about your business, please."

 "But you saved me!" the Princess said. "Perhaps you aren't in the mood to be thanked with a... kiss, but - you must be here for some reason. I can help with whatever that is!"

 "I'm just here to rescue my dad," the boy said. "Because once I become a True Hero, I'll find him and save the day. But you're not my dad, so you can shove it."

 "Your dad? I might have heard of him," the Princess said. "Here, I have a map to the Great Prison of Sarkad, where he's probably being held. But it's small - you'd have to get close to read it, and you don't want to do that..."

 The boy thought, watching the Princess's face in the lantern's dancing light. "Drop it on the ground," he said, "and I'll come over and look at it. Then, if you really do just want to help me, everything will be fine. Okay?"

 The Princess shrugged a very refined shrug. "All right," she said, dropping the map face-side down onto the ground. She backed away. The boy stepped forward.

 Then, when he bent down to flip it over, she extended her claws and attacked!

 "If you're a moral-lesson teaching lantern, you're a really bad one!" the boy complained to the lantern.

 But it didn't even respond!

Saturday, December 19, 2009


The King summoned his court.

 Word spread quickly throughout the castle; by messengers sent to important courtiers' doors, and from there swiftly by grapevine to the rest. All the important figures of the kingdom appeared before the court room's doors, to wait and speculate amongst themselves as to the purpose of the King's summons. The Nobles were all there, dress swords at their sides; the Generals, too, bearing rather sharper cutlery. The Priests, the Hero, the Diplomats, all the other individuals essential or ancillary to the court's functioning, stood and waited until the court room's doors were opened at last; then in a mob they spilled in, squabbling to establish precedence.

 The Herald blew his trumpet at them until they stopped.

 "The King will now speak," the Herald declared, and the Guards thumped their ceremonial (but still quite effective) halberds on the floor for emphasis. The court settled.

 "My scouts have given me grave news this morning," the King declared. "A Dragon has made roost in a cave some hours' travel to the south-east. En route, it put several farms to the torch, and consumed a 'prize' cow whole. There is no telling what damage it may due if it is allowed to continue its rampage. It must be slain."

 The court shifted in unease.

 The Generals, feeling compelled by the demands of warrior-bravery, were the first to speak. "Your Majesty, this task cannot be ours," they said. "When the howling barbarians of the west invaded, we sallied forth without hesitation, and beat them back into the woods from which they came. When the hideous catoblepas terrorized the countryside, we sent our best men out to defeat it at great risks to themselves. But a dragon? What can any ordinary man do against such a thing as that? To send our soldiers against such a creature would be to condemn them to purposeless death. We ask that you look to another of your humble servants."

 The Priests, feeling the King's eye linger on the uncomfortably long, spoke second. "Your Majesty, this task cannot be ours," they said. "When Your Majesty's glorious conquests extended the realm to the west, we happily went forth to convert the heathens, even at dreadful risk of violence from their shaman-chiefs; it is by this fact that they remain today fully within the fold. When the tarasque bedeviled the villages, we ourselves went forth to it, taming it with hymns and prayers and so allowing it to be transformed into that handsome cloak which you even now wear. But what could we do to a dragon? The sounds of its roaring would drown out the Word; we would simply be cooked and eaten! We ask that you look to another of your humble servants."

The Hero, leaning insouciantly in a corner, met the King's eyes. He smirked.

The King grimaced. He turned his gaze pointedly away, hunting for another candidate. And there, near the back of the court-room, his gaze caught on a face he hadn't spoken to in some time...

 The Sub-Minister of Agricultural Dispute Mediation, taking the opportunity to engage in a little entertaining banter with the Royal Alchemist - not bothering to pay attention to the affairs of Court, for what could dragon-slaying possibly have to do with him? - felt a pair of eyes of on his back. He shifted. He turned. He saw the King looking his way.

 Out of the corner of his eye, the Sub-Minister saw the Royal Alchemist shuffling to the right, in the hopes that the King was looking at the Sub-Minister. The Sub-Minister, reciprocating these hopes, surreptitiously shifted left.

 The King's eyes tracked the Royal Alchemist.

 The Sub-Minister breathed a sigh of relief.

 The Royal Alchemist, meanwhile, began to perspire. He coughed, once. "Ah - Your Majesty? Is there something you require of me?" he asked.

 "I have been giving you gold and supplies for the last eight years so that you can distill a Potion of Immortality, yes?" the King inquired.

 "A serum of immortality, please, your Majesty," the Alchemist replied, "and that is only one of the several things I've been doing to benefit the Realm, as I mentioned during my last request for funding - "

"Enough." the King said. "There is a dragon attacking the realm. You will waste no more of my time: kill the dragon within the next two weeks, or lose both your funding and your head. This court is concluded."

The Alchemist, stunned and slack-jawed, fended off attempts at communication from various court syncophants as he wandered back to his tower, locking the door behind himself. Once he confirmed it was firmly shut, he began to rend at his hair and clothes. (As men in great distress may sometimes do.)

 "What am I going to do?" the Alchemist wailed. "I can't finish the elixir of life in two weeks! Scores of great men have worked on the problem for generations! Either I'll be eaten by a dragon, or beheaded by the King's guards! Aaaagh!"

 "Sounds like you really have been wasting the King's gold, then," the Hero remarked.

The Alchemist started. "What? No! How did you get in here?"

"I wanted to talk to you, so I decided to wait in your lab," the Hero told him, a smirk playing over his lips. "You're a pretty slow walker."

The Alchemist sighed. He straightened. "Look here, whoever you are - I have in no way wasted the King's gold. Yes, yes, I have not synthesized the Philosopher's Stone in my eight years here. But that is like saying that you, in your stay at the court, have not slain God!"

"Is God a monster, then?" the Hero inquired

"To face me with this conundrum!" the Alchemist said, walking to his shelves. "I have slaved over my work tirelessly, producing all that you see: here, a more potent oil of vitriol! Here, a cheaply-made black-powder! Here, a newly purified compound, which I have named after myself - "

"And what use are any of these, aside from assuaging your own vanity?"

"You presume too much! All these are of the greatest importance. My improvements to the oil of vitriol allows the easier dissolution of base metals into an aqueous solution, though greater care is necessarily required to prevent accidental dissolution of one's own flesh while handling it; of course, an expert such as myself may dismiss such a minor concern. The black powder is useful for the blast-powderization of ores and elemental stones, allowing their essences to be more easily obtained. I have not as yet found any use for that new compound which I mentioned, but there are many more things I might mention... what is that look in your eyes? What are you doing?"

 These remarks were undertaken in response to the Hero's sudden motion, seizing a jar of oil of vitriol in one hand and a sack of black powder in the other. He laughed aloud

 "Saving some time - oh, and your head, Alchemist. Come along."

 The Alchemist hurried behind the Hero's purposeful strides, staring with worried eyes at the jar of oil of vitriol, which bobbed alarmingly in the Hero's careless grip. They reached the stables luckily without incident; the Hero swiftly found his horse and prepared it for travel, saddling it and loading on the saddlebags, as the Alchemist looked on.

 "Ah," the Alchemist said, watching the Hero carelessly dump the oil of vitriol jar into one of the saddlebags - "you must be more careful with the oil of vitriol! Surround it with padding, or it will certainly rupture!"

 The Hero pulled an armful of dirty straw from the floor and dumped it into the saddlebags. The Alchemist winced, but said nothing. The Hero dropped the sack of black powder into the other saddlebag, and then turned to the Alchemist.

 "I'm afraid that I was never taught to ride a horse - " the Alchemist began.

 "You can ride behind me. Here - "

 The Hero lifted the Alchemist onto the back of the horse, then gracefully swung himself up into the saddle. "Giddyup!" he cried, and with a flick of the reins sent the horse galloping away.

 "Ow!" the Alchemist exclaims.

 The ride was bumpy. The Alchemist walked with a sway when at last he was allowed to dismount, before a gaping cave mouth. The sunset cast an orange glow over everything - not unlike, the Alchemist considered, fire.

 "Will you kill the dragon, now?" he asked.

  The Hero looks back, surprised. He laughed, a short sharp bark. "Me? No. The King didn't ask me, remember? No, I'm just here to help! You're giving the orders and taking the actions, friend."

"...and what orders should I be giving?" the Alchemist asked.

 "Right now, you should be ordering me to use your carefully-selected components to set a trap for the dragon," the Hero suggested.

 The Alchemist looked at the saddlebags. His eyes widened.

 "I understand."

  "So you pour the black powder on the ground - "

 The Hero complied
 "Place the oil of vitriol in it - "

 The hero dropped the jar into the powder; it hisses, and the Alchemist blanched.

 "And then, then - " the Alchemist said, putting some distance between himself and the cave mouth, " - you summon the dragon - "

 The Hero shouted: "Yoo-hoo!"

 Long minutes passed.

 Then a shadow appeared within the cave; which, after a moment, resolved itself into a red-scaled, golden-eyed Dragon, five times the height of a man. (Specifically, the Hero, which it rather dwarfed.) Its footsteps shook the earth.

 It looked all about, as if confused, or perhaps just sleepy. The sun's last rays played about its scales.

 "Hey!" the Hero shouted. "Down here!"

 The Dragon looked down. Its pupils narrowed. Its nostrils widened. It burst into flame. (For this was not, exactly, a fire-breathing sort of Dragon.)

 The Hero grinned broadly. He drew his sword from the sheath at his side, saluted the Dragon with it, and took a long step back.

 Meanwhile, at the Dragon's feet, the pile of black powder had begun to smolder. A thin streamer of smoke rose. Then it exploded.

 The Dragon did not expect this.

 The spray of glass and concentrated acid blasted the Dragon's chest, sending it reeling back. It screamed its agony to the sky as its belly steamed and sizzled. The Hero waited  as the Dragon writhed, posing himself carefully; then, when he judged the moment right, he took ten long steps forward and stabbed through the dragon's weakened chest-armor. He twisted his sword once and leapt backward, the Dragon's crumpling form falling just short of his heel.

 The Alchemist, watching, felt there was an important question that needed answering.

 "Why didn't the King just send you?" he asked.

 The Hero looked at him.

 "You really are a shut-in, aren't you?" he asked.

 "Hey - " the Alchemist began to interject.

 The Hero cut him off with a raised hand.

 "Since I'm kind," he said, "I'll explain."

 "My Father, the rightful king, ruled this kingdom twenty years ago. He was killed by the Usurper - his drink poisoned - and his throne was taken. Most of his children were killed, but I survived, smuggled out of the country by a family retainer. There it might have ended - but for a prophecy."

 "I think I know where this is going," the Alchemist said.

 "Do you?" the Hero asked, his eyebrow cocked. "Do tell."

 "The prophecy - " the Alchemist said, ordering his thoughts. "That the old King's son will return, when he is of age - that he will be sent by the new king to slay a monster - that, acclaimed as a Hero, he will seize the throne - ?"

 "That's the one," the Alchemist said. "A funny kind of thing, really. Seems that until the Usurper sends me to kill a monster, more will keep coming. And that no monster will be susceptible to attack from any who have been sent to kill a monster before..."

 "So you helped me to kill the monster to speed things up - so that a new one would appear sooner?" the Alchemist asked, his mind boggling somewhat at the thought.

 "Sure," the Hero grinned lazily. "But, now that I'm thinking about, there was one more bit to the prophecy."

 "What?" the Alchemist asked.

 "When I dethrone the Usurper, I will kill him," the Hero said. "I will disembowel him, letting him die a long, slow death, and behead him when he has the perfect expression of agony on his face. Then I'll order his head stuffed and mounted above my throne, with a plaque labeled, 'the Perils of Ambition'."

 "... that wasn't in any of the versions of the prophecy I heard," the Alchemist said.

 "No?" the Hero asked. "Funny, that. Perhaps I added it. It fits so well, though, you'd hardly notice - don't you think?"

 The ride back was quiet.

 At the celebration banquet, the Alchemist was lauded. The Noblemen cheered him when he described his sudden realization that the black-powder and oil-of-vitriol could be combined for a trap; the Generals applauded when he described how, never having used a sword before, he put all his strength into the stab that ended the Dragon. The King announced that his annual funding was doubled, in return for which the Alchemist was expected to work exclusively on weaponization of his various chemicals; the Alchemist was not particularly pleased with this, preferring to focus on the pure natural philosophies, but thought it best under the circumstances not to object. All and sundry made merry, feasting on fine wine and fresh-cooked dragonmeat steaks, and the King's heart was glad - except whenever his eyes traveled the hall and met with those of the Hero.

 The Hero just watched the King. Simply watched.

 A smile on his face.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Abigail and Samantha

Two girls walked along a road, their features shadowy in the evening darkness. One was somewhat taller than the other. It is entirely possible that they were going to get pizza.

They encountered a young man, walking along the same road in the opposite direction. He looked at the taller girl, his gaze holding peculiarly long; then he turned away abruptly. The tall girl's curiosity was piqued.

"Hey, you!" she shouted to the young man. "Did you want to say something to me?"

 "Uh, no, sorry," he replied. "You just looked familiar, for a moment."

 The tall girl peered at the young man. She cocked her head. "Wait - looked familiar?"


 "It's you! You should know me - I was your first girlfriend in school!"

"What? No!"


"My first girlfriend was Abigail! You're putting me on!"

"I'm Abigail!"

"But - Abigail was short, maybe five foot two!"

"I grew!"

"Abigail was - uh, you know - kinda chubby!"

"I joined the gymnastics team!"

"Abigail was shy!"

"Normally I am, but not when my first boyfriend walks by and pretends he never knew me!"

There was a lull in conversation.

"...whoa, crazy. You really ARE Abigail."

"Damn straight!"

"Wow. Hey, we should exchange numbers, so we can get in contact with each-other."

"Yeah, um, maybe - "

"Here, mine's five-five-five six-oh-eight nine two one four. You got that?"

[She doesn't write it down.]

"Yeah, absolutely. My cell's five-five-five seven oh four nine one one six."

"Same area code!"

"Yeah, I told you we went to the same school!"

"Well... see you around, eh? Don't be a stranger!"

"YOU'RE one to say that!" [Smiling.]

The girls and the young man part ways.

After the young man has passed out of sight, the short girl finally speaks: " you know that guy, Samantha?"

Samantha shakes her head.

"I've never seen him before in my life."

Friday, December 4, 2009

What is A Quality Of Aspiration?

Might be a bit past time to explain this, no?

The first question is the simplest:

 What is A Quality of Aspiration?

Well, it's a place where I write fiction. Sometimes it's stuff about space aliens and ray-guns. Sometimes it's stuff about monsters and dudes with swords. Sometimes it's stuff about, well, ordinary people.

 This, I think, covers the gamut.

 Another question:

 Why do you write A Quality of Aspiration?

 Because I enjoy writing - most of the time, at least - and I enjoy entertaining other people. Which segues neatly into:

 Why should I read A Quality of Aspiration?

 To be entertained! Intrigued! Inspired! Or: to mock me for my amateur writing and excoriate me for spelling and grammar errors! I'd prefer the former, but the latter works too. I'm flexible.

 Minor, bonus questions:

 What is your posting schedule?

 I'm trying for five posts a week, one per weekday. May shift down to a lower rate later, and/or add a few things on weekends.

 What are your inspirations?

 Hitherby Dragons, primarily. (It's far better than this.) Secondarily, Anacrusis, Othar Trygvasson (Gentleman Adventurer!), and any and all books I read.

In the latter category, I'm a big fan of Ian McDonald, Ian M. Banks, Vernor Vinge, Charles Stross, among others... I don't think it really shows, though.

 What should I do if I like a post?

 Excellent question! Option one is to comment. (There's a little link at the bottom of each post.) This option is highly recommended! Further options may be added later.

 Have you written anything else?

 Roughly a thousand posts, at the old Unterseeblag! A quick warning - there were multiple authors at the Unterseeblag, primarily myself - 'Cavalcadeofcats' - and a long-time friend, the inimitable Mr. Zhang, writing as 'Calvacadeofcats'. (Specifically to confuse and bewilder.) The Unterseeblag lasted two and a half years, beginning as something quite different from what it later become. I have many fond memories of it - and there's a lot of good stuff there, probably - but its purpose was - confused. Unclear. That's why I started A Quality of Aspiration!

 (To summarize that last paragraph: if you go to the old blag, keep in mind that "Calvacadeofcats" is not me. That was the essence.)